Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Lib Dems should not be threatening constitutional trickery to stop Scottish independence

A very good post from Dan Falchikov on Lib Dem Scottish secretary Michael Moore's comments on Scottish independence. Dan writes:

By saying that a second referendum is needed (no doubt to be followed in quick succession by Labour and Tories) Michael Moore again allows the party to be seen to be on the wrong side of the debate and trying to illiberally block the expression of the will of the Scottish people.

There is a danger that the Lib Dems north of the border have become part of the establishment - a sort of rural and suburban version of the Labour party, and arch defenders of the union. It was certainly not always so. Liberal support for Scottish home rule has long historical roots, and before the SNP won seats in the Commons, the Liberals were the only party in parliament supporting devolution.

There is surely a great deal of political territory between supporting independence and using questionable constitutional procedures to prevent it happening. The result of the recent Scottish election shows that voters are at the very least willing to support a referendum, whatever they decide when it happens. Lib Dems ought to respect that wish, welcome the fact that voters can have their say, participate enthusiastically in the debate, make the case for maximum autonomy within the United Kingdom and be willing to accept the outcome whatever people decide.

In saying this I'm letting my head rule my heart. I don't want Scotland to become independent, because I value the union. Indeed I'm a product of it - having a Scottish father and an English mother, supporting Scotland in sports internationals, living in England, but having spent formative years residing north of the border. I would like Scotland to remain part of Britain. (I agree with David Mitchell's recent Observer article on this theme.)

It's not for me to decide, though, but rather for those who live and vote in Scotland. Wistful sentiments from Anglo-Scots will doubtless be counterproductive in protecting the union, but more so will British ministers trying to think of artificial obstacles to thwart Alex Salmond. A revival north of the border, and a successful defence of the union, will require Scottish Lib Dems to show that their hearts (and heads) are in the highlands (and lowlands) of Scotland not in Whitehall and Westminster.

Why are there no Lib Dem media pundits or public intellectuals?

In her excellent New Statesman blog, Olly Grender asked last week why there are no Lib Dem columnists in the mainstream media. She wrote

Right now, I can think of five journalists, all working in print media, all of whom at some point have been part of the Liberal Democrat party, but who would run a million miles before declaring themselves long-term supporters.

For me, the problem goes wider than this and applies equally to the lack of public intellectuals - academics who write for a general audience, serious journalists and commentators - who identify with the party. I suspect that this is partly because the academic world, just like the media, tends to operate on a left-right axis and it's hard for a distinctively Lib Dem worldview to fight its way into public discourse. It is also the case that the Lib Dems themselves have not always made the best fist of articulating our philosophy and how that guides our policies. (I think this is what people mean when they talk of our 'narrative').

So when Vince Cable was being lionised in the media as the person who foresaw the economic crisis, there was no real sense of this reflecting well on the party, that his insight reflected a distinctively Liberal economic approach. Although he was Lib Dem shadow chancellor, he was presented in the media more as a Frank Field-style maverick than a representative of the Lib Dems. Although it's not hard to find people with strong academic credentials within the party, we have no equivalent of Philip Blond or Anthony Giddens publishing work for a general readership from a Liberal Democrat viewpoint.

The other side of the coin is that even on an issue that we ought to own, such as localism, the two public intellectuals most commonly associated with this cause, writer and pundit Simon Jenkins, and historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt, are both avowed enemies of the Lib Dems. (See here and here).

I suspect also that pundits, public intellectuals and so forth, however much they would claim to be guided by intellectual rigour alone, like to be where the action is and there's no mileage in supporting a minor party in seemingly perpetual opposition. For most of the last fifty years backing the Lib Dems (or predecessor parties) would have been a cop out from the key question of whether Labour or Conservative values should prevail.

Sadly, Lib Dems themselves can't entirely overcome this left versus right discourse. For all its faults in content and timing, the Orange Book seemed to me a genuine attempt to interpret Liberal ideas and apply them to current policy questions. Yet it was interpreted by the media as an attempt to move the party to the right, and was then condemned as such by many Lib Dems who hadn't taken the trouble to read it. And perhaps part of our problem is that there is in some parts of the party a kind of intellectual cringe towards Labour that means that conforming to conventional ideas of being on the left is more important than being Liberal.

Paradoxically, being in coalition may change this and give the party more intellectual ballast. By definition we have to articulate where we disagree with Labour and to maintain our independence we have to highlight our disagreements with the Conservatives. We have a chance to show that there is a distinctive Lib Dem approach to government and gain more ideological support on the back of this.

Of course, there is an argument that none of this matters. The future of the Lib Dems as a parliamentary force dependents on winning at constituency level and for that the publications that matter are Focus leaflets and the like, not heavyweight tomes on Liberal philosophy or op. ed. pieces in serious newspapers and periodicals. But, even so, the wider philosophical and cultural environment can make a difference too, and it would not be a bad thing for the Lib Dems to have some heavyweight intellecutal support in academe and the media.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

In defence of conference security arrangements

I don't like to think of myself as an uncritical supporter of the Lib Dem establishment, but over the furore about registration arrangements for party conference, I'm inclined to agree with Federal Conference Committee that the security precauations that are troubling some members are in fact reasonable and proportionate.

Partly this is because Federal Conference Committee itself contains good Liberals, who I am confident will have been sensitive to the views of party members when dealing with the police over security arrangements.

Secondly, I don't really think it unduly onerous that people attending conference should be able to show that they are who they say they are. Nor that people who are likely to be a serious security risk should be excluded.

But also, in general I agree with late Conor Cruise O'Brien's arguments down the years that liberals can fail to take the terrorist threat seriously and be a bit cavalier about security issues. At the same time I suspect that if there were to be a serious incident at conference leading to loss of life, there would be few people lining up to defend FCC and the police, and many people asking how they allowed this to happen.

After the Brighton bombing at the Conservative party conference in 1984, and Mrs Thatcher's narrow escape, the Provisional IRA said:

Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.

It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that as part of a government taking difficult and controversial decisions at home and abroad, the Liberal Democrats might find their conference being targeted and should take suitable steps to protect those attending.

It's perhaps worth adding that in the heyday of Liberalism in Victorian and Edwardian times, much effort was expended by all political parties to stop opponents disrupting their meetings.

Friday, June 03, 2011

This idea of needing expertise in the Lords is a myth

One of the most common objections made to an elected House of Lords (here and here for example) is that it will exclude those with specialist knowledge or experience (including former government ministers and the like) who may not wish to stand for election but whose insight is invaluable to the workings of parliament.

It's an argument that is not often directly challenged. Yet I have never been convinced by this myth of independent expertise. Success in one walk of life is rarely a guarantee of effectiveness in another. One doesn't need to think too hard to cite examples of people who have been brought into government from outside politics and proved a failure: Frank Cousins in Harold Wilson's first administration; Lord Young of Graffham under Margaret Thatcher, the majority of the so-called 'talents' under Gordon Brown.

One problem is that these outside experts may find the political world an alien culture that they struggle to adapt to. Another is that they are no more than apologists for whatever professional discipline they were engaged in before entering public life. Within our own party's recent history both Evan Harris and Phil Willis were much talked up because of their previous lives as a GP and headteacher respectively. But, though they are both good eggs, when the former was health spokesperson and the latter education spokesperson, I had the uncomfortable feeling that Lib Dem policy on health was being dicatated by the BMA and on education by the NUT.

Such views are reinforced by my experience in local government - both within my own authority and my observations of other councils. Sometimes it can be great to have a professional accountant leading on finance, a teacher on education etc. They know the tricks of the trade and have the insight and understanding to hold officers to account more effectively than a lay person could do. But equally they can see themselves as an extra officer, always backing the professionals rather than providing the necessary challenge and scrutiny that goes with the role of representing the public.

Of course, when we think of expert opinion in the House of Lords, it's only ever a small fraction of top scientists, brain surgeons or whatever who actually get there, presumably the ones whose gifts for self-promotion have been enough to draw themselves to the attention of the powers that be. And someone's possession of experience or expertise doesn't make their views right or even respected. So, for example, while I am a great admirer of Shirely Williams, there are those on the political right who will never forgive her role in the destruction of grammar schools. For them, presumably, her experience as secretary of state for education makes her views less rather than more valid.

Which brings me to another criticism made of an elected Lords - that those who have done their bit fighting elections and have achieved eminent government posts won't take to the hustings again to get elected to a chamber with less power. Yet, I am sure that if Shirley Williams let her name go forward in an internal Lib Dem selection in the East of England region she would be chosen as a candidate by party members. And in a regional STV election where a known name will carry weight she would have a pretty good chance of being elected even if she didn't personally deliver many Focus leaflets.

All in all the dangers of a loss of expertise arising from an elected second chamber are greatly exaggerated.