Monday, March 10, 2008

Gladstone's birthplace

We stayed on for another day in Liverpool to see at least some of the sights of the European Capital of Culture.

Liverpool has an air of grandeur, as befits what was a major city of empire. As is well-known, much of the city's economic power was built on the slave trade. Among those who profited from slavery was John Gladstone, father of Liberal prime minister William Gladstone. Gladstone pere was Liverpool merchant, who owned slaves on his plantations in the West Indies. Perhaps as a result of this, Gladstone always had something of a blind-spot about slavery, being less whole-hearted than one might expect in his condemnation of it.

William Gladstone was born at 62 Rodney Street, Liverpool, which consists of very grand Georgian terraces. The street was also the birthplace of the poet Arthur Hugh Clough and I see that there is a campaign under way to restore it to its former glory.

This year's conferences take us to places that mark both ends of Gladstone's life. At Bournemouth in September, those want to take a little time off from debates can visit the splendid St Peter's church where Gladstone took his last communion - there is a plaque in the church to mark this although no reference it would seem on the website.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

'No' to Lisbon referendum is a missed opportunity

To throw in my twopence-worth, I can't help thinking the Lib Dems have not only made a tactical mistake tonight, but also lost a strategic opportunity.

For many years Britain's political class has been considerably more Europhile than the electorate appear to be, at least judging by opinion polls.

Yet on the one occasion the electorate were called upon to vote about Europe they delivered an unexpectedly large pro-EEC (as it was then) majority. In recent times various referendum pledges have taken the sting out of the European issue at election time.

But the gap between politicians and public on the issue remains, and it is unhealthy for our political system, creating the impression that Europe is a kind of organised conspiracy against the public.

If the Lisbon treaty really is less of a big deal than the abortive constitution, a tidying up exercise more than anything, then surely this was the best opportunity for pro-Europeans to win a referendum. With no great principle at stake, a Yes campaign could explain the practicalities and hope for victory. This would quieten the Eurosceptics at least for a while.

By contast if the pro-Europeans lost the vote then that would put some responsibility on Eurosceptics actually to find a way forward rather than just opposing. I suspect that had the Conservatives been in power they would have ended up agreeing to something very similar to Lisbon.

The point is that at some point pro-Europeans will have to stand and fight, and this was probably the best chance to do that, so it's an opportunity missed.

Amid all this the policy we actually have for an in or out referendum on the EU makes very little sense at all. It would solve nothing, since even the Conservatives support EU membership, none but a small number of obsessives at either end of the political spectrum actually want us out of the EU.

From the evidence of Alastair Carmichael's interview, the parliamentary appear to be avoiding bitterness and recriminations. And Nick Clegg has made just about the best possible fist of defending a weak policy. But much as it pains me to say it, the rebels were right.