Saturday, 26 November 2016

Castro, Trump, Brexit and Liberalism

The original version of this post can be found on my Facebook Page. This version has been expanded to incorporate my response to a comment on the post, and one or two musings elsewhere.

Much has been written about the rise of the populist right lately. With the advent of Brexit, and the election of Trump, the left is being challenged in ways it hasn't been for decades, and certainly not in the era of post-war politics.

For some, the answer is to retreat further to the left: the left of class war, the left of opposition-ism, the left of intellectual purity. So we have the spectacle of a Leader of the Opposition paying tribute to a dictator who ruled for 40 years.

I've jokingly said on the past that the reason that Corbyn's opposition is so lackadaisical is because in the societies he admires dissent isn't allowed. It's not, however, a laughing matter to have a Leader of the Opposition that lauds a leader of a state where no opposition is allowed, and not acknowledge the fact that he's speaking from a position of political luxury that Castro never extended to his critics.

Or we see people comparing the stability of Cuba with a cycle of crises attributed to capitalism. "Look at their health service!" is something I've seen a few times in relation to Castro. But this isn't about the relative merits of capitalism and communism/marxism - it's about the tendency of extreme left and right to totalitarianism, and - in the UK - of parts of the left and right to authoritarianism. Capitalism has its flaws - as do democratic systems - and Cuba and North Korea are, largely stable on a civic level. But if the price of stability in a society is to be supportive of the repression of dissent, then count me out.

For others the response to the right is to talk of a "progressive" alliance: although to me this falls down on a) differing definitions of "progressive" and b) practicalities. (I wouldn't rule out a joint-ticket committing to a short parliament to implement electoral reform - but that is complicated by Labour's approach to Brexit, and their innate tribalism*.)

Today's news on the death of Fidel Castro reinforces where, for me, the fault-line of politics really lies: between liberalism and authoritarianism, open societies and closed ones, internationalism vs isolationism and freedom of speech vs the routine imprisonment of dissenters. It matters not if threats to liberal ideals come from the right or the left.

If, a fortnight ago, you were spitting feathers at the Daily Mail's "Enemies of the People" headline, or suggestions from prominent UKIP members that the government should have more control of the judiciary, and you are now acting as an apologist Castro and Cuba, then you need to take a long hard look at yourself - and the Amnesty International summary of the situation in Cuba. (Click here for the full report.)

I know the world is complex, and Cuba may be far from the worst offender. But an offender it is. I'm happy to criticise America's record on human rights: both within CIA rendition programmes and it's use of the death penalty amongst many other things. There are also many things I am concerned about here in the UK - not least the recent passing of the Investigatory Powers Bill, with the acquiescence of Labour.

In addition, it's notable that in the Amnesty report both the UK and US have longer entries than that for Cuba. But that, of course, is not least because much of the information that Amnesty report on is freely available in those countries... whereas Cuba hasn't allowed AI access in over two and a half decades.

The job of Liberals is to shine a light on authoritarianism in whatever manifestation it presents itself. And to remind people that the answers to our problems have never been met by those at the extremes where left and right meet totalitarianism.

Where that aligns with others on the left - and right - we should work together for a better future. Where it doesn't, we must take a stand.

Ultimately, though, my point is that Human Rights abuses of the left are no different from those of the right. If you're on the receiving end of state-sponsored torture or human rights abuses, or your freedoms are restricted in some other way, I doubt you care much for the ideological purity of the perpetrator, whether fascist of communist. So I will call out those who have a tendency of some to turn a blind eye to atrocities committed in the name of their favoured ideology. The right did it with Pinochet, the left now with Castro.

* Labour's tribalism is alive and well in Richmond Park where their candidate seems to have forgotten that the defending MP - the so-called "Independent" Zac Goldsmith - is the primary opposition.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

What I think Lib Dem MPs should do on invoking Article 50.

Over recent years, my blogging has become quite limited. Parallel to this, my political thoughts have been increasing expressed on Facebook - either through status updates shared with friends, or in discussions on various pages, profiles and groups.

A couple of months ago, I set up my own *public* Facebook Page as an halfway house between full-on blogging and those ad-hoc debate contributions. You can find that page here, and the latest entry below.

To my mind there are two main aspects to the decision:

The "Respecting the Will of the People" argument.

Whether we like it or not, the nuance* of the fact that the referendum was advisory, or that MPs are representatives not delegates, is lost on people. Further, one** of the reasons many people voted "Leave" was to kick out against a system that they perceive doesn't represent them whether in Europe, Westminster or their local Town Hall.

Set against this, is the fact that all Lib Dem MPs were elected on a manifesto that proclaimed our commitment to the EU, and that we were active campaigners for "Remain" in both our own right and as part of Stronger IN***.

If a Commons vote were *just* on Article 50, then I would be comfortable with MPs splitting between abstaining and voting against, depending on their own view of the weight to be given to the referendum result, either nationally or in their own constituency.

But the vote will not be context-less. Whether or not it any motion put to MPs expressly refers to the terms of negotiation, there are likely to be indications from government as to what outcome they are seeking. Which brings us to...

The "what type of Brexit is it to be" argument.

The referendum result was only clear in delivering a "Leave" result but this was as a result of a coalition of people voting Leave for many different reasons - "Hard Brexit" would have been unlikely to command the same majority. It is this that makes this second argument over how to proceed so key.

Post referendum, the party laid out a list of "key issues for negotiation" as part of a post-referendum policy which also called for parliament to have a vote on Article 50.****

I took this - and still do - to be a list of our red-lines***** in consenting to any negotiation. As a result, I would expect us to vote against triggering Article 50 if these points have not been positively addressed: something which seems unlikely at present.

I started this piece expecting it to be more ambivalent than it turns out. As things stand, though, I can't see how our MPs can't vote against given that the government seems bent on hard Brexit.

But there is a balance to this that, to me, transcends a simple cry of "we must represent the 48% unequivocally" and which makes our position difficult to "sell" in the meantime. To be honest, I'm not sure how we square the circle without being left open to misrepresentation by the right wing press on the one hand, and the harder fringes of the 48 on the other.

I suppose the position above could be outlined as: "We respect the result of the referendum although we continue to believe that leaving the EU would be bad for Britain. Should the government pursue an agenda of hard Brexit, we will vote against this. If it brings forward proposals that satisfy our red lines, we will give them the benefit of the doubt subject to any agreement being put to the people in a referendum including an option to stay in the EU. In any such referendum we will campaign for staying in."

It's not the catchiest soundbite ever...

P.S. If Article 50 is blocked by Parliament (or, at least, the House of Lords) and a snap election results, then I believe we should fight the election on an express commitment to vote against Article 50 in the new Parliament, regardless of the negotiation terms proposed.

*I appreciate this is cold hard legal fact but to many it's incidental to "we had a vote on this"
** There were, of course, many reasons people voted "Leave" including those who just genuinely took a different view of things.
*** Of which the least said, the better, for now...
***** I hope we stick to this list better than we did over our demands on the vote on airstrikes on ISIS in Syria...

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Open. Tolerant. United: Tim Farron's speech to #ldconf

I know that my blogging here has become quite infrequent - but I do still intend to make the occasional post. Like this one. As is my wont, I live-tweeted from the leader's speech at Lib Dem Conference, and have collected these tweets in a Storify for your enjoyment.

For those who want more, and more regularly, you can find additional writings on my public Facebook page, including my "quick takes" following the speech.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Why I voted to remain in the EU and other stories...

This was to have been a Facebook post until the length of it mitigated against that.

With only a week to go until polling, I've finally got round to outlining some of the reasons that I've voted to REMAIN in the EU - and why I hope you, and the country, will too.

Before I do, though, I'm going to share a few words on the campaign itself and my feelings as the ballot - and the result - approaches. (Note, this turns out to be more than a few words - so please feel free to jump to the second section below.)

Neither side has covered themselves in glory. It strikes me that there has been a great deal of negative campaigning on both sides - although sadly, such tactics have been proven to be successful in the past.

I had hoped that lessons would be learnt from the Scottish Referendum - and in particular the way the "Yes" camp energised and enthused large swathes of the electorate there, particularly the young.

Sadly, that was not to be.

Instead, this has, in some respects, been a retread of the AV debate - with the Leave side repeating some of the anti-AV arguments ("we could spend this money on the NHS") and the Remain side being poorly organised and co-ordinated with Labour not pulling their weight.

Of course, for the AV referendum they had some excuses: that was on the same day as local elections (which isn't a recipe for cross-party working) and they weren't inclined to give succour to Lib Dems in coalition with the Tories despite AV having been in their own 2010 manifesto.

This time a heavyweight blue on blue battle has meant the media has had an irresistable narrative, which coupled with a Labour leader whose support can charitably be described as half-hearted and who won't share a platform with the Tories has created a perfect storm. (I also fear that too many sat back and enjoyed the Tory fight with scant attention to the impact on traditional Labour voters, the body politic or, indeed, the prospects for the government after the poll, whatever way it goes.)

Not only has a Labour narrative been missing, but the Remain campaign - at the political level at least - has lacked real authoritative voices. This is, I fear, a sad reflection on the current state of the Labour party - and, indeed, the dire straits of my own party.

Sadly, the Lib Dems are considered an irrelevance as far as the media is concerned. Our 8 MPs could strip naked and run across Westminster Bridge and it would merit barely a mention in the news. Our apparent (though not actual) silence is ironic, given that we united on our EU membership in a way that the big two parties aren't and that we have one of the biggest beasts in the debate: Paddy Ashdown.

I've seen Paddy on the stump a couple of times in this campaign. He is head and shoulders above most people in modern politics. I can think of no-one else who brings his wealth of experience - military, political and diplomatic - to the table. In different times, he would be reaching millions on the telly, rather than dozens and hundreds at rallies across the country.

Whilst on the subject of heavyweights, I must make mention of Charles Kennedy who is still hugely missed - and whose contribution would have been invaluable to the debate. Here's a flavour of what he may have said.

Which, tenuously, brings us back to Scotland... rather than learning the lessons of the Yes campaign, Stronger IN seems destined to ape Better Together: right down to similar arguments re pensions and prices, and late contributions from Gordon Brown (whose political capital is worth less in Bank of England notes than those of the Scottish banks).

In the weeks leading up to the Scottish vote, people remarked on how keyed-up I was. I simultaneously felt helpless, wishing I was part of the campaign, and thankful I wasn't involved in the whole sorry mess. In the latter weeks, I was genuinely worried: I want a Federal UK - and, to my mind, independence isn't a route to that.

This time, I have been involved. Not, granted, as much as I would like. Whilst the timing is better than with the AV referendum, I and many others were engaged in election campaigns - and the natural inclination after the 5th of May was to, well, relax and attempt and get their lives back (or to adapt to their new roles, for those who were successful).

The bulk of the work, in those places which had May elections, was picked up by non party political people, which is great. Despite popular perceptions about "political elites", in my experience political people genuinely welcome the involvement of others; many hands make lighter work and/or get more done. What this has meant, however, is that the integration of activists into the campaign has been difficult and the co-ordination and co-operation hasn't quite been as slick as it could have been.

Am I as worried as I was in 2014? I'm not sure, although the chances of a remain vote look more doubtful now than they have done at any point in the campaign. I fear I am resigned to an outcome that means that, whatever happens, Britain is in for a long period of political uncertainty: to the detriment of us all.

So, why have I voted for Remain? After all, that's what this piece is supposed to be about.

Mainly, it's because I'm an internationalist. I believe that, as human beings, we can achieve more together than apart. Quite aside from the benefits to trade of being part of a single market, the economies of scale achieved when competing on the world stage and the greater bargaining power when negotiating treaties with other countries and blocs, there are a number of challenges and issues we face that transcend borders and are better tackled together.

From combating organised crime (including terrorist activity), to managing migrations from war-zones and other troubled areas around the world, to tackling climate change: coordination across borders is required, and better achieved within the existing structure we have - as a bloc - than in more discrete units.

Is the EU perfect at dealing with these issues? Of course not. In particular, its management of the current Syrian refugee crisis is failing - and potentially storing up greater problems for the future. But the current administration in Britain hasn't covered itself in glory on that issue either - and you know what they say about glass houses and stones...

Does the EU involve compromise? Yes, of course. The c-word is verboten in politics, although its about the only walk of life in which it is. In our personal and working lives, the ability to compromise is a positive, not a negative. Negotiating solutions to problems so as to achieve outcomes acceptable to all parties involved is part and parcel of our everyday lives. Heaven forfend, though, that anyone should seek to apply this in the absolutest world of politics.

(As a Lib Dem, it is impossible to write the above paragraph without alluding to our experience in coalition. Not only did we face constant criticism from many on the "progressive" left who nominally belief in pluralist politics, as believers in PR must, but we got crucified at the polls by our coalition "allies" with whom we had made many compromises. Such, of course, is politics.

It's all too obvious now, though, as the Tories roll back on Lib Dem achievements and roll out the things we blocked (such as the Snoopers' Charter, aided and abetted by Labour) that we did make a difference in the last Government. It begs the question: what lies in store if Leave prevails and Boris, Gove and Grayling ascend to the great offices of state?)

The standard argument against this concept of a club of nations co-operating is that it involves giving up sovereignty. But that is the case with all relationships. When someone sets up home with someone, they give up some personal autonomy. Why? Because they get benefits from doing so.

When we co-operate with our allies in Europe, we get benefits too. We gain from investment in our poorest regions not just here, but abroad. We gain from security that is greater as a result of the easier sharing of information - not weaker as a result of free movement. We gain from the elimination of tariffs within the single market. We gain from the peace that the EU has cemented in the north and west of the continent, and nurtured in the south east. And we've gained from the fostering of democracies in the south, and more recently in the east.

Viewers of Dragons Den will be familiar with the part of the negotiations between the eponymous dragons (most of whom, incidentally, back staying in the EU) seek to maximise their equity share of a potential investment. They drive a hard bargain, as well they might, and you will often hear one of them say something like "Would you rather have 60% of £1m or 80% of nothing?"

So it is with sovereignty. By surrendering some of our sovereignty we make an investment in the creation of a better world for ourselves. In times past, we invested this sovereignty by seeking to dominate the world. The sun never set on our empire and you could traverse Africa from north to south without leaving British soil.

Leaving aside the lasting implications of the colonial approach - which we live with to this day - this view that being sovereign means being a behemoth straddling the world stage is outmoded. In the modern world sovereignty is best exercised not by imposition of will but by judicial use of influence.

There are those who would argue that this isn't true of all countries. And it's not - but the only countries with the scale that gives them the ability to over-ride this principle are China, Russia and America.

Has Britain maximised what it can get out of the EU? Have we driven a bargain as hard as Deborah Meaden or Theo Paphetus might have? Are we making the best use of the influence we could exert? No. Is that an argument for withdrawing - or is it an argument for getting stuck and making things work better for us - and for people throughout the continent? In my book it's the latter.

There are, of course, lots of other reasons: the EU has daily impacts on our lives, has established common standards for goods, services and employment conditions. It has sought to end restrictive and anti-competitive practices. It has brought us an influx of new Britons to fill jobs in our service industries and enrich the cultural mix of our country.

When I first envisaged this piece, I suppose I imagined I would write a list - probably including some of the points in that last paragraph. It took a different tack but it sums up the key reasons why I'm a believer in the EU as an institution, warts and all.

I'll leave the other arguments in favour for others to make - as well as those counter-arguments to those made by the Leave campaign. Instead, I'll finish this piece with a couple of extracts from the Preamble to the Constitution of the Liberal Democrats. As always, it reaffirms that I am in the right party, fighting for what I believe - whatever the ups and downs, and whatever transpires next:
"Recognising that the quest for freedom and justice can never end, we promote human rights and open government, a sustainable economy which serves genuine need, public services of the highest quality, international action based on a recognition of the interdependence of all the world’s peoples and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources.
"Our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur and to promote the free movement of ideas, people, goods and services. Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles."

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Orlando: The Rush to Blame

This is another of my "from Facebook" posts... a brief response to the horrific events in Orlando.
This is horrendous, and as always on such occasions I struggle with how best to react.

I'm sure I'm not alone: many people say their "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims and their families: and I'm sure they genuinely are. Others that they're "sending their love".

As an atheist my prayers are obviously with no-one, and although my thoughts are with those bereaved, this seems as futile as "sending love", whatever that means.

The next step for many is to try and work out "why?" and this is where we should exercise caution especially when you transition from what is known to what is pure speculation.

First, whatever else this is, it's a crime against humanity. As John Donne said: "Any man's death diminishes me"

Next: it does seem to have been a hate crime against LGBT folk and is a sharp reminder that the battle for equality has some way to go.

This seems to be all that is known for sure.

The perpetrator is said to potentially have had IS sympathies but from what I've read that is by no means certain.

There is often a rush in these scenarios to blame something "other": if there's a "them" to blame, then "we" can feel better. And we can justify any actions against "them" that "we" may see fit.

But the truth is hate can grow and fester amongst "us". With the current wave of support for Trump, and rise of nationalism and patriotism on the right, then this type of action could just as likely have been carried out by someone believing they were doing the Christian God's will as Allah's, or targeted at migrant communities, say.

And "them-and-us-ism" isn't the sole preserve of the right: the political left engages in it too, with corporates, bankers and fat-cats the target, although this less often leads to violence.

I suppose my appeal here has two contradictory sentiments.

One: not to rush headlong into speculation.

Two: when speculating (as is human nature even without 24/7 news channels to fill) to consider all the ways in which society can give rise to this sort of scenario: and resolve to work against such factors, whatever they be.