Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why Cameron should be insisting that Brown DOESN'T need to apologise

As I listened to the media coverage of the Damian McBride/Derek Draper affair this morning, I knew for certain what David Cameron's reaction would be.

We could confidently expect a terse statement along the following lines:

As Mr McBride no longer works for the government, the Conservative Party fully accepts that Gordon Brown and the Labour party can't reasonably be expected to comment and as far as we are concerned that's the end of the matter.

How could I be so sure? Well, when former Conservative candidate for Watford Ian Oakley was convicted for spreading anonymous smears against political opponents (of a rather worse nature than those in the McBride-Draper email), and mounting a sustained campaign of harrassment and criminal damage against them, the Conservatives were reported as saying the following:

A spokesman for the Conservatives said they could not comment on the issue as Oakley was no longer a member of the party.

It is rather odd, therefore, that the BBC website reports Cameron as being 'furious' and calling on Gordon Brown to 'give a guarantee that such messages will not be sent again'. Meanwhile William Hague has 'demanded an apology from the prime minister'. It seems that the official Conservative view about smearing political opponents has temporarily slipped their memories and perhaps the Conservative Central Office aparatchik who released the statement on Oakley should remind them.

By any standards, however repellent McBride's behaviour may be, it pales into insignificance when compared to Oakley's. Unlike Oakley, McBride did not personally make his poisonous material public, he has offered some kind of public statement of regret, and a Labour cabinet minister has repudiated his behaviour (albeit with in my view quite a bit of dissembling).

In contrast, none of Oakley's erstwhile colleages in Watford Conservatives have expressed regret for his behaviour. Cameron now has apologised, but not until seven months after the conviction, and even then only after being directly asked by a member of the public in a way that meant he could hardly avoid doing so. And he certainly didn't offer a guarantee that it wouldn't happen again along the lines that he now demands of Gordon Brown.

Of course the BBC news report cited above probably doesn't quote the whole of the Conservative party's statement on this matter. Perhaps in full it reads:

The Conservative party are furious and believe that Gordon Brown should apologise for Mr McBride's behaviour, but we accept that first of all he should pretend it's nothing to do with him, that any apology should only be made after several months have gone by and even then issued only if the prime minister is put in a position by a member of the public where it would seem churlish and mean-spirited not to express regret.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why we should welcome the launch of the Social Liberal Forum

Along with many others, I have generally rejected the all-too-easy attempts to categorise Lib Dems as either social or economic liberals (although this was clearly a bit of an aberration.) As I have said before, the Orange Book in fact lacked ideological coherence and really was just a collection of essays by individual authors, hardly suggestive of a right-wing or any other kind of project. In addition, the supposed social liberal riposte, Reinventing the state, had many contributors in common with its supposed adversary.

I suspect that virtually all Lib Dems would sign up to the appellation ‘social liberal’, but would differ as to the extent to which they might use, variously, the free market, individual choice, decentralisation and variations in taxation as mechanisms to achieve a fairer and better society. One can certainly see differences of emphasis between the editors of the Orange book, David Laws and Paul Marshall, and those of Reinventing the state, Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth on these issues. But all have clearly been arguing within a Liberal framework. For myself, I tend to agree with any one or group of the above depending on the issue under discussion. For example, I find Laws’ begrudging attitude to local democracy and Reinventing the state’s lack of attention to wealth creation, as opposed to distribution, equally frustrating.

My real problem has been with Paul Holmes/Tim Farron/Evan Harris and the Beveridge Group, who seem stuck in a rut of defending public sector professionals, higher taxation and greater state intervention in all things, regardless of context, to the exclusion of actually finding liberal solutions to social or economic problems. To them, more or less any fresh thinking appears to be a sign of a right-wing conspiracy and if they don’t exactly stifle debate, they sour the atmosphere in which it is conducted.

I have long lamented the lack of an authentically Liberal forum what for the sake of brevity we will call the left of the party, and I give a cautious but nonetheless warm welcome to the Social Liberal Forum. I certainly think that Charlotte Gore and Alix Mortimer who seem keen to damn it from the start ought at least to give it a chance. If in a year’s time SLF turns out to be a mere vehicle for calling David Laws and Lib Dems who agree with him crypto-Tories then such criticism might be warranted. But let’s wait and see.

There are various reasons why my welcome is both warm and cautious. In the first place, when I notice the presence of Tim Farron and Paul Holmes, contributors of embarrassingly bad chapters to Reinventing the state, on its advisory board, my heart sinks. But the majority of those associated with SLF are not by any means of that stamp. They represent a diverse range of Lib Dem opinion and at least one leading light, James Graham, is more than aware of the shortcomings of the collectivist left of the party.

Likewise I wince a little when I read Richard Grayson’s reference to ‘two approaches’ to Lib Dem policy, ‘Orange Book' and ‘social liberal’. This makes me feel more uncomfortable as I, and no doubt many other Lib Dems, don’t fall neatly into either camp, and don’t find them mutually exclusive. It smacks of a ‘them and us’ attitude to internal debate. But I am sure that is not Richard’s intention and this is confirmed by the reprinting on the SLF website of David Howarth’s generous and inclusive chapter from Reinventing the state.

Both Richard and David appear to place great importance on the rise of so-called New Liberalism a century or so ago as a vital point of departure for social liberalism. If anything, recent historians have called this into question, suggesting that Victorian Liberals may have been rather less and Edwardian Liberals a little more sceptical of state intervention than is often imagined. My hope is that SLF might draw emphasise the democratic element of Liberal social policy, looking to traditions of citizenship, individualism, participation and decentralisation rather than simply advocating collectivism and greater state intervention.

Last but not least, I fear there is a tendency among those who stress ‘social liberalism’ to ignore economics altogether, to consider only how to spend taxes and not how to generate wealth. I always want to ask those who noisily proclaim that they are social not economic liberals: ‘So how would you describe your economic views then – illiberal/social democratic/conservative/Stalinist?’ In current economic circumstances, liberals of all stripes need to think about reinventing rather more than just the state.

SLF has the opportunity to engage in new thinking about liberalism and Lib Dem policy, stimulate genuine debate with a different perspective from, but without hostility towards sister/rival bodies such as Centre Forum. I look forward to seeing how this new initiative develops.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

A man's a man for a' that

The 250th anniversary of Robert Burns' birth provides me with an excuse to revive this blog, but sadly it has been neglected elsewhere - at least if the publications I read are anything to go by. History Today, the New Statesman, Guardian and Observer have all arrived with little or no comment on the anniversary, a poor recognition of someone who is not only only Scotland's national poet, but also one with a worldwide reputation and who speaks powerfully of the human condition.

How to explain such neglect. Perhaps it is that with Burns celebrations on 25 January every year, the novelty of a big anniversary doesn't seem that great. I suspect that the London media are tempted to leave Burns to their Scottish counterparts. Secondly, there is a tendency, connived at by at least some Scots, to coat Burns in an aura of tartan tweeness, along with sporrans, Baxter's soup, shortbread and oatcakes.

Whichever way, few enough of us were around for the 200th anniversary or will be for the 300th. This is an opportuninity to celebrate a great lyric poet and a political radical whose writings should be an inspiration to Liberals and everyone with progressive values.

The BBC, under fire from so many quarters just now, has taken the Burns anniversary seriously, so you can watch or listen to any of the programmes listed here. Strangely not listed are is today's edition of Poetry Please on Radio 4, which you can listen to here.

And perhaps also take a little time to read at least one Burns poem, possibly even this one:

Is there for honest Poverty

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a cuif for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's aboon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.