Wednesday, 27 July 2016

A Pacific perspective.



Fr Jim Nolan is a Roan Catholic priest who has sever most of his ministry in the Solomon Islands. I first met him when we were both teachers in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s.  Jim, then plain Mr Nolan, taught  natural sciences - our curriculum didn't allow for separate specialist teachers of physics, chemistry and biology, though I think his speciality was physics.    He is originally from the Republic of Ireland.  We have remained in "Christmas card-plus the occasional letter" contact ever since, and yestereday  I received this letter from him. I fail to understand why it should take four moths for aan airmail letter from the Pacific  to reach the UK -it used to take about a week in PNG days.

I find what Jim writes  a beacon of hope in our miserably selfish world
.


24th March, 2016-07-27

Dear Peter,

Easter Greetings.



You frequently come to mind  when I hear bits and pieces of the British debate on the BBC World Service.



UK out of EU?  Donald Trump President of the US?  What more could one ask to set the nerves tingling?  And each time I hear of bona fide migrants risking everything on a dilapidated boat from Libya  or in an overcrowded dinghy from Turkey I recall the Irish  who left for the US, England, Australia ,New Zealand  - anywhere they could manage – in the 19th and 20th centuries. I’d thought that migration on that scale was over



Now I’m not very proud of the EU response.  Only Angela Merkel  seemed to rise above the politicking at first,  remembering the humanitarian need first.  Of course she too has had to backtrack a little.  In 1989, with the fall of the Iron Curtain, did I ever think I’d see more iron curtains in Europe, this time to keep people out?  Truly we have a long way to go in solidarity.  These destroyers in Paris and Brussels and elsewhere destroy even the good will  towards the genuine ones.  God help all honest-to- God Muslims in the western world these days.  God help the genuine refugees from wars and conflicts our policies have often played a part in causing.    Surely there are many books to be written in future researching the correlation between the Iraqi and Afghan wars  and western policy  before and after 9/11 and the rise of al the extreme Islamist groups.  (Did you ever read William Dalrymple’s “Return of the King” about Afghanistan in c1930-40?)



And in the midst of all this  like an ever running sore is Israel and Palestine, neither side served well by their leadership, but who could endure the daily life of a Gaza resident or a Palestinian West Bank resident?  How far back must you go to address the roots of this issue?  Surely at least 1948.  The Catholic landowners evicted from their lands in the Ulster Plantation after 1690 never ceased to look for their lands back and this was one of the main factors in all the troubles there right up to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – and beyond:  “They haven’t gone away, you know”, to quote one of the most sinister references to the IRA.



And there’s probably an orgy of bloody remembrance going on in Dublin this weekend, although some have begun to realise that the 20 000 Irish dead in WW1 Were fighting for what they believed in too.    Maybe there’ll be more political correctness about these commemorations.  There was none in 1966.



What is it about us human beings that we’re so tribal and bloody-minded no matter what peaceful and  peacemaking religion we belong to?  We proclaim the universal dignity of the human being and then do all we can to exclude anybody different from ourselves.  The best bit of advice I was given as a deacon was from an extraordinary English  parish priest in East Acton in 1979:  “Always accept people as you find them, never as you’d like them to be.”  Wouldn’t the world be a different place if we could live by that?



The same priest (….) had another remarkable quality.  St Aidan’s East Acton  was rebuilt after WWII in 1950 and he insisted  on the very best  original art and was rightly proud  that the Daily Telegraph art correspondent  c1979 had written that  one of the finest works of modern religious art in Europe  was Graham Sutherland’s Crucifixion in St Aiden’s East Acton .  Like the priest who set up the crypt in St Martin-i-the- Fields for the homeless he believed that only the best was good enough for the poorest.  (Have you been to St Martin’s?  A very good friend Fr (……) , former Melanesian Brother, is there.



Happy Easter!



God bless.



Jim

Monday, 25 July 2016

Which "Leader of the (Labour) pack?"


Members of Parliament naturally think they are very important and deserving people.  They have worked hard to gain their parties' selection for one of the 80% of seats that are "safe", or to win and retain one of the marginals.  Until recently both Labour and Conservative MPs had the exclusive right to determine who would be their Leader - who would, if and when the party gained a majority,  become prime minister and dole out the plum jobs of government.

MPs feel themselves at the very centre of  the political maelstrom.  They make and listen to speeches in the Commons Chamber,  they get invited, presumably for a fee, to appear in or write for the media; and serve on committees which can grill government departments on their activities.  They vote to make or change our laws, though on the whole according to the strict instructions of their party managers.

It is an accepted part of our unwritten and sometimes vague constitution that the Queen must choose as her prime minister the person who can command a majority in the House of Commons.  In the bad old days when the choice of this person was solely a matter for the MPs there was little prospect of dissent about who should be called.  There might have been in the Tory party because their leader "emerged" as a result of  result of "soundings" by senior party figures rather than a vote of MPs, but Tories have a thirst for power and know to do as they're told rather than rock the boat.

The Labour Party's current problem arises because the choice of leader is now open to the party membership rather than just the MPs, and 80% of the MPs have, in my view shamefully, voted to say they have no confidence in the Jeremy Corbyn, the leader the members have chosen (overwhelmingly, by just short of 60% of the vote - the nearest challenger, Andy Burnham, received only 19% of the vote.)

Frankly, if I were a Labour Party member I would rejoice  to have a leader who can not only command such support from existing party members, but can also inspire people to come forward in droves to join the party and participate in the political process.

Labour's MPs appear to have two criticisms of Corbyn: that he is a poor organiser and is unelectable.

Being a poor organiser, if true, should be no problem -just appoint a competent chief of staff.  There should be plenty around.

I fail to understand why they think he is unelectable, though it is true that even the sympathetic media go along with this.  Yet the facts suggest quite the opposite.

No one in on the British political scene, not Theresa May, not David Cameron, not Boris Johnson, not  Nick Clegg, (though we did have a brief period of Cleggmania)and certainly not David Miliband, has persuaded hundreds of thousands to flock to join a political party.  And, if you prefer to count hard votes, Labour has won every parliamentary by-election, mostly with increased majorities, along with the London mayoralty, since Corbyn became leader. And the predicted meltdown in this year's s local government elections, which followed a previous exceptionally good year, simply did not happen.

In short, the party under his leadership is a winner.

Let us consider for a moment the alternative possibility - that Labour's membership is persuaded to choose another leader.

 The present contender, Owen Smith, is relatively unknown.  Maybe he will prove to have Corbyn-like charisma.  But the omens are not good.  His "hinterland" is typical of of the career politicians whose limited experience is coming so  much into question: producer in the media, special adviser (Spad) for a Labour government minister, lobbyist for one drug company, in charge for "corporate affairs" for another with a tarnished reputation for "pursuing profits at the risk of patient safely."

I strongly suspect that, if he wins, although Labour's parliamentary party may be cheered up and continue busily to "hold the government to account,"  the Labour Party outside parliament will  flat-line while the Tories, buoyed up by their media mates, continue with what they see as  their God-given right to rule for another couple of decades.

 It is absolutely extraordinary that, after a self-engineered calamity which has been compared to the worst political debacle since Lord North lost the American colonies over a row about the tax on tea, the Tories should have successfully regrouped whilst the leading members of largest opposition party fight each other like rats in a sack.
 
Mr Corbyn is the breath of fresh-air that could change things.  Our hope for the immediate future is that, after his re-election his MPs will recognise the need to work with him and he and they will recognise the need to work with other progressive parties (Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and, yes, the SNP and perhaps the other nationalists) to create the rainbow coalition necessary to begin the repair of our battered society


Sunday, 17 July 2016

To Trident, or not to Trident?


Tomorrow the House of Commons is to vote on whether or not we should replace Trident with another nuclear, allegedly independent, alleged deterrent. If we do we shall remain a nuclear armed state until the 2060s at a  lifetime cost  now estimated to be over £200bn.

Given the chaos following Brexit and the formation of a new government, not to mention another appalling atrocity in France, there doesn't seem much point in debating this issue at the moment - other than to embarrass the Labour Party..

No hint of wiser and more mature politics from Mrs May so far then.

Such a deterrent would not be independent since it is inconceivable that it could be used without the permission of the United States. Nor would such a weapon be much use against the very real threats that face us today, identified as terrorist attacks, climate change, pandemics and cyber warfare.

The vast expenditure involved would not only absorb funds which could be used to finance  the NHS properly, upgrade our prisons and make them fit for purpose, provided an adequate social security safety net, build lots of houses and improve our inadequate transport infrastructure, to name but a few off the top of my head.

It also means that our conventional forces, including our intelligence services, are over-extended, inadequately equipped (see the Chilcot Report) and many of our service personnel, we now learn, are condemned to live in substandard and even rat-infested housing.

The only argument for replacing Trident is the illusory one of keeping us at the top table and allowing us to strut around the world as a big hitter - something, if you want that sort of thing, which could have been better achieved by remaining and playing full and constructive part in the EU.

Sadly not only will most of the Tory MPs vote for the illusion, but many of  Labour's MPs, recently described to me as "Mardy-bums,"* will do the same rather than  follow Jeremy Corbyn's wise lead.

It is my fervent hope that the parliamentary Liberal Democrat Party, minuscule though  it now is, will assert our right to be regarded as the party of reality and reason, and vote solidly against.**

This is apparently a Sheffield expression,  used by children to refer to those who refuse to play, but sulk, if the game is not played according to their liking. I heard if for the first time yesterday morning, used by  a friend of mine, lifelong Labour Party member, I should have thought highly moderate, in reference to  the Labour MPs, and Hillary Benn in particular, who are trying to knife Corbyn in the back rather than support the leader their party has chosen.

**Post Script (added 20th July).  Well they did, or almost - seven out to the eight of them did.  The eighth, Greg Mulholland, Leeds North West, abstained.  But it's only modified rapture, because all of them, including Mulholland, were in favour of downsizing the nuclear capability rather than getting rid of it.  While this may seems successful "triangulation" between what is sensible and what they think the electorate  can be persuaded to accept, it seems to me to be cowardly.  There is no practical case for our retaining Trident, even if not "like for like".  It will be merely a prestige symbol.  We are a mature democracy and should treat the electorate as adults and have the courage to say so.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Can Brexit mean Remain?


A host of "authorities,"  some of them died in the wool democrats, are arguing that parliament should ignore the referendum result and refuse to trigger Article 50.

One such is my friend Michael Meadocroft, liberal and Liberal to his fingertips, who calls upon what's left of the Liberal Democrats in parliament to do just this.



Tim [Farron] has taken the right decision - to campaign for UK in Europe at a forthcoming general election - but it will be nugatory if parliament has already agreed to invoke Article 50.



I am surprised and highly disappointed that the parliamentary party - and, alas, many other well-meaning but naive politicians - tamely accept the outcome of the referendum. Is this the successor to the brave parliamentary party that alone stood against the array of political and social forces and opposed the Iraq invasion? It looks like a pale shadow of the party of 2003,  whose judgement was, of course, proved absolutely correct.



The Leave campaign easily surpassed the level of manipulation that justifies declaring the referendum illegitimate. No referendum ever answers the question posed but this one was in a class of its own. To say that it was democratic and represented the view of the electorate on whether to Remain or Leave the EU is to accept that the cynical and deliberate mobilisation of xenophobic and dangerously prejudiced arguments on immigration can be set aside. For a large swathe of the electorate - certainly enough to swing the outcome - the referendum was on immigration not on the EU and the effects on immigrants and minorities of legitimising open attacks on them is already being seen. Those of us who manned stalls out side supermarkets or who engaged with electors when delivering Remain leaflets are well aware of what had motivated Leave voters - and it wasn’t membership of the EU.



Has the parliamentary party forgotten so quickly the bravery of Elwyn Watkins exposing successfully in the courts the 2010 general election lies of Phil Woolas in Oldham East & Saddleworth? That action showed that deliberate deception at an election renders the result null and void. The same verdict applies to this referendum, with its lies on the £350 million a week, the pending accession of Turkey and its 76 million people queuing to arrive in the UK, with the accompanying sickening illustration of non-white refugees seeking to leave Slovakia..



The catastrophic consequences of leaving the EU, for both the UK and for Europe, have been well-rehearsed and yet the parliamentary party is prepared to accept these on the basis of a highly flawed referendum. Further, can it be regarded as legitimate for parliament to act on the result to bring about a fundamental change to the constitutional position of the UK based on such a small minority of the electorate? Only 37.2% voted for Leave. A change of such magnitude needs to be based on the settled view of a majority of the electorate and this result palpably failed to demonstrate that.



It is significant that in 1978, as a Labour (and later SDP) backbencher, George Cunningham,  persuaded parliament that it should insert a threshold requirement of 40% of the electorate for the result of the Scottish devolution (not even independence) referendum to be effective. The result that year was 52% to 48% in favour but it was therefore not enacted. A very good precedent to day.



Significantly, Nigel Farage, on 15 May, stated the same view: that if it was a narrow victory for Remain - and, helpfully, he quoted precisely 52% to 48% - it could not be regarded as definitive and he would demand a second referendum! How much more significant to have those actual  figures cast for the opposite and more drastic option of Leave?



One further party point: we should not allow the same campaigner organiser who promoted lies and deceptions against us in the AV referendum in 2011 to have the satisfaction of seeing the same tactics work again on this much wider and more significant issue.



The party’s promise should be to thwart the early enactment of the referendum result - ie to vote down any early invoking of Article 50 - and to tackle the clear and understandable causes of disenchantment among the anti-immigration electors and in due course to fight a general election on the declared policy of Remain. Such an election, particularly if the difficult issues are not addressed, is likely to produce a number of UKIP MPs but by then there should be much clearer awareness of the consequences of brexit for the case for Remain to be accepted by a majority of the electors. Whether a further referendum is then needed is a question for that moment. There are precedents for such a second vote, in Ireland, France, Netherlands and Denmark.



The sight of Marine Le Pen congratulating Farage was chilling. Unless Liberals and their allies face up to the far right across Europe the future is bleak. We have been consistently for a united Europe since the 1955 general election and must maintain that view today. Are our MPs, and others of like mind, really going to troop regularly through the lobbies time after time in favour of legislation they know to be disastrous in its effects?



Michael Meadowcroft.

3rd July 2016

For once I cannot agree with Michael.  However narrow the margin of defeat, it is surely not legitimate to change the rules just becasue we don't like the result. Maybe there should have been  provision for a two-thirds majority, maybe we should have been told the referendum was only advisory, maybe there should have been a means of making legal challenges to downright lies.  

But there weren't.  And the Liberal Democrats are as complicity in this negligence as everyone else.

As as this letter in yesterday's Guardian points out:





The European Union Referendum Act of 2015 passed the Commons 544-53 on second reading. The House of Lords also approved. Only the Scottish Nationalists opposed the bill; other parties, even the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, agreed not just on holding the referendum but on structuring it as a single vote, a one-day plebiscite requiring only a simple majority nationwide to pass – no supermajority, no “multiple lock” recognising Britain’s constituent parts, no later confirming vote and no requirement for a detailed prospectus of the leave position.
Any of those parties or their leaders could have said at the time that this was a careless and dangerous way to proceed. Why didn’t they? And what responsibility does that give them for the resulting mess?
Jeff Smith
Brno, Czech Republic


The answer to Mr Smith's question is that our parliamentarians should do their best to clear up the mess their lack of thought has created.  I should prefer our future to be in and fully co-operating with our partners in the EU.  Outside it we are diminished apolitically as well as economically.

But we shall survive,. It will not be the catastrophe that Michael claims.  We need to work for the closest possible relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, remaining outward-looking, devoted to the rule of international law, playing a full  part the UN and other international institutions, and avoiding becoming more of a lapdog of the United States.

More serious than our economic future (we are still very rich: all we need do is spread it around a bit more) is the precarious state of our democracy.  To ignore the referendum result becasue the "British people have spoken" but given the wrong answer, will further fuel the disillusionment which already exists.

Rather, we need to tackle the flaws in our democracy: a fairer voting system, equitable funding of the parties, more devolution, real equality before the law,  a more diverse media, greater economic equality, a vibrant education system for all, and a curb on the ability of the rich to manipulate the system to their advantage.

And never again have another referendum.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The circus moves, nay gallops, on.


 It's only just over a week ago that a letter in the Guardian reminded us  that whereas Harold Wilson had claimed that " A week is a long time in politics," but nowadays "24 hours is quite enough."

So my previous post,  less than 24 hours ago, claiming that the Tories are good at burying a disaster and moving on, has been proved true far more quickly than anyone expected.  Andrea Leadsom has withdrawn from the leadership race and Theresa May is to inherit the premiership.  In due course we shall learn whether Mrs Leadsom made the decision of her own volition, or whether , as is more likely, she was visited by the traditional Tory hatchet "men in grey suits" and told to get out of the kitchen

Now the pantomime  will move on to David Cameron's last Prime Minister's questions, his visit to the palace to resign, (hand in the seals of office - will he wear his Bullingdon Club frock coat?) and Mrs May's kissing of hands (do they really do that?)

Then the circus will focus on the formation of the new cabinet.  My hope is that Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom will be sidelined to the European  Brexit  Negotiating Committee so that they can do less domestic harm and bear the responsibility for failing to gain the concessions that that they declared  would be a cinch in the referendum campaign.  And  with any luck George Osborne will be consigned to "Groom of the Backstairs"or something similarly inconsequential. (A friend of mine in the coalition had the fancy title of  "Captain of the Yeomen of the Guard.")

Mrs May has already mouthed the platitudes of following a policy of  benefiting us all, and not just the rich.  We shall see, though the Tories have a good track record of saying one thing and doing another.  Her own record is not a promising one for Liberals  She is, after all, the Home Secretary who sent out advertising lorries telling immigrant to " 'fess up or go home,"  and until the last minute of her (no longer necessary) campaign wanted to withdraw for the European Convention on Human Rights.

Sadly, whilst attention is now focussed on the Conservative future the Labour Party  remains mired in trying to solve the problems of the past.   M/s Eagle should take a lesson from Mrs Leadsom, withdraw, and let the left unite around the only leader with any claim to charisma.  Sadly the Labour Party doesn't seem to have any "men in grey suits"  to wield the hatchet.

Monday, 11 July 2016

The way out of the mess.


I have been away on holiday for the past two weeks, hence no posts.  However,  as the holiday was in this country, largely stimulating  walking with Anglo-French Walks in the Surrey Hills, I've managed to keep track of events, and so herewith a few reflections

It is surely bizarre that the most gormless self-inflicted political mess of the post war era, caused entirely by the Tories, should result in a crisis in the Labour Party.  True, David Cameron has resigned (in disgrace, thought his appears to have passed unnoticed) but both the Tory Party and their supporting media machine have moved on, the fiasco is largely forgotten, and we are to be enthralled by the competition between the illiberal right-wing Mrs Tweedle-dum and the far-right-wing matriarch Mrs Tweedle-dee to be become our next prime minister.

Whatever the outcome the Tory Party will surely unite and forge ahead to dismantle what's left of our civilised and caring state, consigning their  folly to the dustbin of history, which is exactly what they succeeded in doing after Suez in 1956.

In the meantime poor old Labour is still stuck in a crisis of its past: the election by an optimistic membership of a visionary leader who does not have the support of the majority of their MPs, who appear to think they must "triangulate" with neo-liberal economics or lose their seats.

The purported excuse for attempting to depose Corbyn, criticism of his "lacklustre" performance during the Referendum campaign, seems to me to be pure pretence. He went up and own the country making reasoned speeches about the EU, recognising that at present it has its faults (too business-orientated) but the best protection of our liberties, environment, human rights and working conditions.  The 70+ % he gave it seems to me to be about tight. 

If such reasonableness did not attract the headlines garnered but the reckless exaggerations (and, as it turned out, lies) of the major Remain and Leave camps, then the prejudiced press and our appetite for sensation rather than reasoned argument are to blame; not Corbyn himself.

Two of the best speakers on Europe are Nick Clegg and Tim Farron.  I presume they too went up and down the country making enthusiastic speeches,  but there was hardly a murmur of this in any of the media.  That is not to say they didn't try. Clearly the media have decided we don't count any more.

Only last year Corbyn's challenger, Angela Eagle, came third in the first round of the election for deputy
(emphasis deliberate) leader, with only 16.2% of the membership's vote (after Tom Watson, 39.4%, and Stella Creasey, 19.1%) and was eliminated after the second round. She, and her backers, are  surely deluded in believing that  she is capable of "speaking out" to ordinary people. 

By contrast Jeremy Corbyn obtained an astonishing  59.5% for the actual leadership,in a four cornered contest..  He also has the added topical bonus of having voted against the war in Iraq which, I believe, M/s Eagle supported

With such a proven ability to reach out to "ordinary people," and a track record of being right when so many Labour MPs, not to mention their leader, were wrong,  why on earth is he vilified and branded as "unelectable?"  After all, Labour has won every by-election since the general election,often with increased majorities, and an estimated 70% of Labour voters voted "Remain" in the Referendum, a much bigger proportion than Cameron managed to garner from Tory voters.

As a letter in last Friday's Guardian, signed by four professors and 121 others, claims: "Corbyn  has been treated from the start as a problem to be solved  rather than as a politician to be taken seriously.    The reason is that he has never been part of the  Westminster village or the media bubble, and that he has never hidden  his commitment to socialist politics."

Well, as a dedicated Liberal I can't and don't agree with his commitment to socialist politics, but I do agree with his commitment to an expansionist (Keynesian)economic policy, fairer taxation, social justice and a mixed economy (bringing the railways and utilities back into public ownership, for example).

In my view the way forward is for the Labour MPs and members to give wholehearted support to the man who is beyond any doubt the post poplar politician in the UK.  It beggars belief that they don't recognise this and give thanks that they have such a leader.

I hope that the Labour Party will  not then split (that was tried and failed in the 1980s with the formation of the SDP) but recognise that they may not be able to win alone in 2020.

So, behind the scenes for the moment, should begin the  negotiations to form a Rainbow Coalition (Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP (sic) and maybe the other nationalists) to oust the discredited Tories and UKIP for a generation, and repair the tolerant and compassionate society which the Tories have done so much to break

Saturday, 25 June 2016

British democracy: the problem and the cure.


In the previous post I have argued that what we need to do to repair our democracy is to reform the electoral system.  That will be no surprise, coming from a convinced Liberal/Liberal Democrat of fifty years' standing.

Whilst we scratch our heads to wonder  why the majority of the electorate has chosen to ignore the advice of the overwhelming bulk of the establishment, I think our electoral system  gives part of the explanation, for two reasons.

 First, for the overwhelming majority of us, a referendum is the one opportunity we have to make our votes count.  I have voted in every UK election since 1959, except for 1979, when I wasn't in the country.  Yet my vote has never once helped to elect an MP.  Maybe you'll say that's because I choose to help build up a minority party rather than go for a winner, but much the same applies to supporters of the two biggest parties in their safe seats.

Less dedicated voters in the Labour heartland, where they "weigh the vote," feel that it's not all that important to turn out as Labour will win anyway.  And the same goes for Tories in the true-blue Shires.  So if you want to exercise your frustration and "get rid of them", you haven't a chance,  except in a few marginals.  But a referendum is the one opportunity for everyone to "kick them in the teeth."

Secondly, the electoral system explains why the party faithful, especially Labour, who had a relatively united leadership, failed to obey their parties' call.  Given a rock-solid marginal, it is easy for a party to parachute in a favoured acolyte from the centre.  He or she will do routine welfare work, attend a few social events, visit a few schools, but rely on the messages from the centre to communicate the party's principles and policies.

 There will be exceptions, of course, but I suspect this is largely what has happened to Labour in Scotland - the electorate have been taken for granted for too long. and found, in the SNP, a way to hit back. Having had. and continuing to have,  their fling they were happy to to listen to the experts and vote "Remain." In Labour's heartlands in the North East and South Wales the electorate have chosen "Leave" as a method of expressing their own protest.

Poor Jeremy Corbyn is being blamed for failing to inspire his voters, but they are really protesting about years of neglect. What on earth,  to take just one example,  did Tony Blair have in common with the people of Sedgefield?

So, once again, part of the solution is to introduce proportional representation  by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.  This system gives maximum choice to the electors We can not only choose between the parties, but between different wings of each party, every vote counts and has to be fought for. Sitting MPs as well as other candidates can take little for granted, but have to work hard to explain the party's  principles, beliefs and policies, and at the same time understand the concerns of the voters.

By this two way process politicians should be enabled to lead and take their voters with them.

QED