Friday 28 April 2017

Liberal (Democrat) consistency.

For the start of my recent holiday (see previous post) I dug out my copy of the London A-Z to find out how to get from the hotel* I had booked to the theatre** I wanted to attend.  The cover price of the guide was 3/6d, so I've clearly had it a while, and probably not used it much, because out of it dropped the agenda for them meeting of the Liberal Party Council on 21st February, 1970. Oh happy days.

On the back of the agenda I'd written the notes I'd made on the themes for our campaign in the General Election expected within the next twelve months. (It actually took place on the 18th June that year)  Here, without embellishments (other than in brackets) is what I had written:_

The Liberal party cares

Show then you care; Vote Liberal (was to be our slogan for the election)

The real danger to democracy  is the threat to Liberal Values.(plus ça change)

Four headings:

1.  Care for the future for you and your family
     a)  environment (there well before the Greens, or even the Ecology Party, were founded)
     b)  education
     c)   law and order 
     d)  social services.

2.  Care for our industrial society
     a)  industry
     b)  prices and incomes      tariff restrictions
                                             national wage agreements
                                             national deferred profit sharing
                                             incentive schemes for the civil service
    c)  Trade Unions.

3.   Britain's World Role
     a)  UN
     b)  U Europe  - democratic
     c)  Aid.

4.    Politics, people and power
     a)  Parliament
     b)  Regionalism
     c)  Participation.  

Admittedly it is not all that clear from the notes what we proposed  to do about all these things. (eg the Trade Unions, but I did not then and do not now believe in union bashing.  I believe unions can and should, as in France and Germany, be given a positive role in industrial and commercial organisations, including participation in management and employees having a share in the profits).

One thing I would no longer go along with is "incentive schemes" for civil servants, (or anybody else for that matter.)  I suppose this was meant to be compensation for the lack of profits to share, but, as we now know to our cost, such schemes lead to misleading targets and distortions. In all spheres employees should be paid a fair rate for the job and then expected to give of their best, the overwhelming majority of whom will.

But on the whole I think that agenda gives a fair indication of Liberal policies to which we and the Liberal Democrats  we became have stuck to consistently for the past 47 years.  We were and are well ahead of our time.

PS  It's interesting that other items on the agenda included the Cabora (sic) Bassa Dam  Project, two resolutions on cannabis, and the 1970s Cricket Tour (In those days Peter Hain was an enthusiastic Young Liberal, but, alas, did not follow up on this early promise.)

*Avonmore Hotel, Cartwright Gardens, WC1H  9EL Within walking distance of King's Cross and St Pancras, relatively inexpensive (for London), clean and incudes a cooked breakfast.

**  Arts Theatre "The Wipers Times".  Poignant but funny account of a troops' newspaper in the First World War.  Co-written by Ian Hislop.


Thursday 27 April 2017

UK Election: another broken proimise (1)

I've just returned from a week's holiday in the Netherlands, where I've been more or less cut off from British news, so much of what follows has probably already been said.  However, for the record. . .

I started my holiday by travelling down to London on Tuesday 18th  April, and was startled,  on leaving King's Cross Station,  to see blazoned on the front page of the Evening Standard that Mrs May had called an election.  At first I had assumed it was some sort of spoof as per Private Eye .

It has never been  quite clear why Mrs May  has, since having become Prime Minister, so emphatically ruled out the possibility of a General Election before the schedule end to the parliament in 2020.  But she has, not once but several times.

So why the change of heart?  The tale that her mind was cleared during a walking holiday is clearly pure bunkum.  The decision is obviously guided at least to some extent by the plotting of party advantage  in, nowadays, smoke-free rooms.

Even the  published reason, that the nation is coming together  in wanting to get on with leaving the EU,  but parliament is divided with ne'er-do-wells trying to obstruct her implementation of the "will of the people," is equally disingenuous.  Sadly, parliament is already far too supine in succumbing to her will, and failing dismally to represent the views of the many of us (and nearly all the "experts") who see her policy as folly.

It is also sad to see the one significant constitutional achievement of the Liberal Democrats in the coalition, the fixed term parliament, fall at the first hurdle. It would, of course, have been embarrassing for Labour, given their legitimate and profound disagreements with the government's social policies, to have voted against and thus blocked  the dissolution.  But even so a reasonable case, that all energies must be focused on the Brexit deal, could have been made.

As a result, Mrs May has been allowed to break her oft-repeated promise, and our politics is diminished. No wonder people are disillusioned.  I suspect they will become even more so as the simplifications (the will of the people), distortions (strong and stable leadership) and, yes, downright lies ( watch this space) are bandied around in the coming weeks.

But, as Harold Wilson famously noted:  "A week is a long time in politics."  And with six of them to play with a lot can go wrong for Mrs May.  Her predecessor David Cameron miscalculated badly, and quite unnecessarily. It's perfectly possible she may have done the same.

Thursday 13 April 2017

Inequality exacerbated

On of the functions of the central state is to re-direct funds from the wealthier parts of the country to the poorer parts.  This is done in the UK by central government grants to local government.

The intricacies of how these grants are calculated  are beyond the comprehension of most of us, but it seems odd that, when these grants are reduced, as they have been over the past seven years  as part of the government's misguided "austerity" policies, the biggest reductions are to the poorest areas and not to the richest.

An article written a couple of years ago  but still relevant,states:

The variations in individual councils are striking. Some 23 councils will see spending power reductions of over 5%, with Labour-run London borough of Hackney the biggest loser at 6.46%. But 17 home counties authorities will see an increase of over 2% in their spending power: all are Tory-run, with Reigate and Banstead seeing the biggest increase, at 2.92%.

How do they get away with it?  I suppose it could be argued that the areas with the biggest problems get the largest grants, so consequently are able to bear the greater cuts, but it all sounds a bit fishy.

More recently the overwhelmingly Conservative Surrey County Council felt it hadn't enough income  properly to fund its Social Care Services, so it proposed to have a referendum  to permit an "above the norm" rise in council tax.  For some reason the government found this was embarrassing, so a deal was done, the government found extra funds, and there was no need for the referendum.  The government denied that this was a "sweetheart deal" but rather a "gentleman's agreement."  Seemingly there aren't enough "gentlemen" in such as Labour dominated Newcastle and the North East  to facilitate a similar accommodations there.

Then we look at education.  London's pupils are alleged to have forged ahead in their achievements over the past few years. Government expenditure per pupil per year in the City of London was £8 595 when this article was written, compared with £4 648 in my own area of Kirklees.  The lowest was in Cambridgeshire, at a mere £3 950. Of course, London property prices are higher so  the business rate will be too (for local authority schools, though private schools which are charities get an 80% discount), and the teachers have to be paid more. (Disclosure: I benefited from the London Allowance in the early stages of my career - I think it was just undert £1 a week)

And a final thought.  Figures recently revealed show that, on average, Labour-led councils have taken in 11.6 asylum seekers per 10 000 population: the equivalent figure for Conservative-led councils is 0.7.  There are apparently just four asylum seekers living in Mrs May's Maidstone constituency.

The prevailing philosophy of the government appears to be "unto him that that shall be given," and of Tory councils " what we have we hold."

Monday 10 April 2017

US Constituion stymies Trump

The thoughts behind  this post were formulated before President Trump's volte face in foreign policy and his illegal bombing of Syria.  Whether this is the start of a changed and consistent  foreign policy, a caprice or a temper-tantrum remains to be seen.   The situation is so complex that I have no firm views on the tactics the international community should be following, but  I deeply regret that we do not have a strategy which enables the "great powers" to work together to stop armaments reaching this desperate country, even if they are incapable of brokering a peace.

However, on the (US) domestic front it does seem that the American Constitution is sufficiently robust to prevent the wildest excesses of Trump's campaign rhetoric  from being put into practice.  I believe this is because the US Constitution has an effective and functional separation of the powers of government: the executive, the legislature and the judicature.

So we have seen Trump's illogical banning of entry to the US of citizens of seven largely Muslim countries blocked, twice now, by the judiciary, and his threat to abolish Obamacare blocked by congress.

I suppose it is nothing to do with the Constitution, but I do also admire the courage of the Deputy Director of the US National Security Agency in dismissing Trump's claim that President Obama had asked the UK's CCHQ to "wire-tap" the Trump campaign as "errant nonsense."  I cannot imagine and British civil servant standing up to the Prime Minister in this manner.

Sadly the concept of the separation of powers is hardly apparent  in the British Constitution.  The executive (government) has by definition control of the legislature -  it is formed by the political grouping which "commands the confidence of the majority in the House of Commons."  The party whips are so powerful and our MPs so supine that we have in effect an "elective dictatorship,"  - the government can do more or less what it likes for five years and is then answerable to the electorate. So we have seen Mrs May's s erroneous policies, not just for Brexit but for "hard" Brexit, believed to be mistaken by the majority of MPs, railroaded through parliament.

Our judiciary remains reasonably independent, and, in defiance of being labelled "enemies of the people" by the  government's chief supporting newspaper,  forced the government, twice, to give Parliament a say in the triggering of Article 50.  Unfortunately MPs didn't have the guts to take advantage of the power they clearly hold.

Given that the resources and energies  of our political class are to be entirely devoted to the minutiae  of Brexit for the next two years (and possibly longer) there is little hope of any serious attention being given to constitutional affairs.  Yet, if nothing else, the Brexit débacle demonstrates that our constitution is no longer fit for purpose and needs root and branch reform.

Tuesday 4 April 2017

Self-harm Wednesday, 29th March 2017

Our calendar already has a Black Wednesday (along with a Bloody Sunday and a Black Monday)
so the options for a suitable appellation for last Wednesday, when Mrs May triggered Article 50 for us to leave the European Union, are slightly limited.  "Dismal" Wednesday? "Disastrous" Wednesday (no, not really - we shall survive, but poorer and with less prestige), "Dismaying" Wednesday (a pleasantly unexpected pun), Stupid Wednesday (hardly strong enough). So "Self-harm," because it's the most accurately descriptive.

I've been interested, and actively involved  at a minor level, in  British politics for most of my adolescent and all of my adult lifetime, and I cannot remember a time when I've felt so ashamed of and bewildered by an action of my government. Perhaps the Suez Invasion of 1956 comes nearest, though that did have the silver lining of permitting learner drivers, of which I was one at the time, to drive and therefore practise unaccompanied, because of the petrol shortage. So I could crash the gears without the accompaniment of my Dad's wincing, and also avoid the expense of the instructor.

I would never have believed that a mature and sophisticated political system such as ours could be responsible for such a catalogue of ineptitudes as  led to last Wednesday's destructive action.

  •  We should never have had a referendum in  the first place.  Politicians of both left (Clement Attlee) and right (Winston Churchill) have pointed out that referendums are alien to our representative democracy, and devices used by dictators to give a spurious legitimacy to their autocracies;
  • Just 20 years ago, in the General Election of 1997, the Referendum Party, financed by multi-millionaire Sir James Goldsmith, polled a mere 2.6% of the total vote, and that's where the level of their support should have stayed; 
  • Yet agitators, described by Sir John Major as "bastards" and David Cameron as "fruitcakes," have managed, with the support of a poisonous press, to turn our world upside-down;
  • In spite of this agitation,  EU membership was not even among the top ten issues which concerned the electorate only a short time before the referendum campaign;
  • Yet in his campaign for the 2015 General Election, David Cameron promised an In-Out referendum if the Conservatives won.  It cannot be emphasised enough that this promise was made not in the national interest, but solely in the interests of the Conservative Party, who feared a haemorrhage of support to UKIP;
  • I claim  no special insight into Cameron's mind, but it's a fair bet that he made the promise in the expectation that he wouldn't win an over-all majority, but be forced again into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats who could be relied upon to veto the referendum;
  • Having unexpectedly won a majority Cameron  felt compelled to keep his promise, but was so complacent of victory, or criminally negligent, that he failed to introduce into the Referendum Bill provisions for the normal super-majority necessary for such an important decision, or measures to ensure a reasonably honest campaign;
  • Both the Labour and Liberal Democrat members in both Houses of Parliament share the blame for these omissions. Were they asleep? What do thy think the get their massive salaries and allowances for?  The House of Lords at least is full of gifted lawyers who should have spotted the omissions;
  • The campaign was disingenuous on both sides, but particularly on the Leave side;
  • Hardly had the narrow Leave victory been announced but their promises began to unravel and their leaders walk away;
  • Given that the referendum was legally only advisory, MPs, the overwhelming majority of whom believed we should remain in the EU, had every excuse for rejecting the advice and moving on to tackle the real and urgent problems facing the country;
  • But they were too chicken and fell for the nonsense that "the people had spoken."  (Again it cannot be said too often that, of those entitled to vote, 27% didn't, 37% voted to Leave, 34% voted to Remain, and the 16 and 17 year-olds, thought to be overwhelmingly in favour of Remaining, were not allowed to vote);
  • For some reason completely beyond anyone's comprehension, rather than try to minimise the damage, the government has chosen to opt for a "Hard" Brexit.  Assurances from the leading Leavers during the campaign that voting to leave the EU would not involve leaving the Single Market or the Customs Union have been ignored;
  • The Labour Party's opposition to the government's approach has been pathetic.  There may, just, be an excuse for their MPs being whipped to vote for the triggering of Article 50 (fear of being seen to oppose the so-called "will of the people") but there can be no excuse for whipping their peers to vote against the amendment to require the government to try to remain in the Single Market
So, with no effective opposition, we are to spend the next two years implementing our national self-harm.

As an antidote, last Saturday's Guardian contained an article by Natalie Nougayrède which gives a welcome positive spin on the EU.  Here's and extract:

Europe is one of the best places to live in today..  It is a rich part of the world with high living standards.  Hardly anyone  who resides in Europe wants to flee it. On the contrary , many strive to reach it, to settle in it and build a future in it for their children.  Likewise many who live outside the European Union  dream of seeing their country join it one day, or, at least, hope it might emulate Europe's standards and quality of life. 

That's why we Remainers must continue to campaign, as vigorously and as indifferent to scorn as the "bastards " and "fruitcakes" who precipitated  this stupidity, for a return to sanity, to stop the process if we possibly can, or to rejoin the Euorpean Union if the present lunatics now in charge of the asylum bring their misguided objective to fruition.