Saturday 21 August 2010

Tough week for the Liberal Democrats

Been a rough week for the Lib Dems: since the election, they've seen their poll ratings down about 10% or so, on 14% according to the latest YouGov poll. A lot of tiresome "ConDem" bashing is really starting to get on my wick.

A few stories in particular caught my attention, though. The first is in relation to Simon Hughes, who to be fair was never exactly going to be a LibCon enthusiast. He caused a bit of a stir by talking about a coalition veto, and reiterating that a future LibLab pact was still "on the agenda". When I first saw this, my immediate reaction was quite similar to Boris Johnson's aide and London Assembly member James Cleverly: it came across as Hughes trying to derail the spirit of the coalition in what is undoubtedly a challenging context. I was particularly angered because the inference I drew from his, and the mutterings of some other LibDem supporters I know was that they would only ever be comfortable with a coalition with Labour. It seems to me, frankly, to be quite hypocritical for those who believe in proportional electoral systems and therefore coalition based government, not to work with the coalition the election result dealt them. How democratic would it be if, under STV, we had de facto permanent LibLab government because their core votes plus just a handful of swing voters happens to make-up 50% or thereabouts of the voting electorate?

Tony Benn once said of those in power that one of the most important questions we need the answer to is "how can we get rid of you?". A Liberal Democrat party backing Labour all the time would make it absolute hell to get rid of an almost certainly Labour dominated government. Given Labour's track record of overspending and expanding the state beyond acceptable levels, that would be a truly dire, illiberal and certainly undemocratic reality.

HOWEVER, having thought about it for a couple of days, I actually think what Simon Hughes has done is a potential blessing in disguise: for the Lib Dems AND for the Coalition. With Labour doing everything they can to leech off  Lib Dem support (more of later!) the main accusation has been that the Lib Dems have been annexed by the Tories and have sold-out their principles to facilitate cuts. The effect of Hughes' superficial scepticism of the coalition could be to act as the lightening rod for Lib Dem disaffection, preventing large-scale defection to Labour and providing Nick Clegg with a useful check on the Tories if they try to deviate too far from the coalition agreement. Because of their core votes, the Tories are never going to be fully social liberals, and the Lib Dems never fully economically liberals. In the absence of a strong "libertarian" grouping in the UK, the existence of a strong Liberal Democrat party is absolutely essential to produce even occasional semblance of such an agenda. By channelling economic disaffection to a figure within the Lib Dems, the Coalition is more likely to hold, and in time, prosper.

The second "news" story relates to rumours that Charles Kennedy and 5 other Liberal Democrat MPs are planning to defect to Labour by the end of the month. The claim has been denied officially by Lib Dem Officials and although not yet by the man himself, I'm largely sceptical that there's any truth in it. Jo Swinson, one of those I would have thought would be among any number led by Kennedy, has point blank denied knowledge of any defections in the pipeline (Kennedy or others) and made clear in no uncertain terms that she has no desire to defect to Labour! As a final link, after a lot of speculation on Twitter, I thought this Tweet rather hit the nail on the head.

If, however, the rumour does prove to be true, I think it would not only be a sad day for the UK's liberal agenda, but would also reflect very poorly on Charles Kennedy, a man for whom I have a lot of respect. It is one thing for him to oppose the Coalition deal on a variety of policy and identity grounds. It is quite another to show total disloyalty and contempt for your successors, and to spit the proverbial dummy out the pram because your democratic party have come to a different conclusion from you. I hope for Kennedy's sake that this isn't true, and that he fights his battles from within the party, instead of making friends with those responsible for a 40 year debt legacy, erosion of civil liberties and the greatest vacuum of principles in British politics through the New Labour project.

My last article sees Nick Clegg's rebuke of a member of the public accusing the coalition of going on "an ideological crusade to attack the weakest in society"

Leaving aside the low-grade rag the story's taken from, I find myself having a lot of sympathy with the content and manner of Clegg's response. The never ending rhetoric that's being thrown about, portraying the Tories (and via the Coalition, the Lib Dems) as people that will sell your gran on eBay and make you pay the Paypal fees is getting utterly tiresome. The public finances are in an absolutely appalling state, and people don't seem to be picking up that a) almost all of the cuts were of the scale and ilk Alistair Darling alluded to in "the deepest cuts since Margaret Thatcher", so would have been done by Labour anyway b) they're trying to minimise the threat to the absolute poorest by looking at universality of benefits and lowering, for example the Child Benefit threshold so families on two professional salaries, who clearly don't need it, no longer get the same as those who are genuinely impoverished.

Economic growth over the next few years, regardless of deficit reduction model, was never going to be as substantial as during the Blair-Brown years. The suggestion, therefore that we can sustain those sort of levels of spending, when Brown ran up annual deficits during boom-time, is borderline hilarious. The problem with the last 13 years is that people have grown to expect that the state will assist them to a level simply not viable. Responsibility and hard work have been replaced by senses of recklessness and entitlement. Of course some of the public spending was inherently good; few argue with that. The problem is that it was too much, too quickly and too unaccountably. PFI contracts handed out willy-nilly, keeping new schools and hospitals off the balance sheet, leaving the children of people yet to be born to pick up the last of the bill for facilities that will almost certainly be redundant in under 20 years. A tax and welfare combination that makes it less of an incentive for people to work more than 16 hours a week on the minimum wage than to sit at home and pretend to look for a job. That's the legacy we inherit, and although the next four years are going to be bloody difficult for all (and yes we'll have to be especially careful about the vulnerable) a sharp dose of reality being brought to public sector finances will leave us much stronger going forward.

Wednesday 11 August 2010


As some of you will know, I'm involved with a group of Partick Thistle fans who produce a topical podcast, taking a lighter look at the World of the Jags, past, present and future. Having managed to join-up with The Harry Wraggs (an online Thistle community) we're looking forward to some top notch interviews and special features over the coming season. You can have a listen to the last Jagscast here, or subscribe by looking us up on iTunes. Keep your eyes peeled for a Mini-Jagscast from the midweek Berwick Rangers game, with Manly J Panda as your host.

Monday 9 August 2010

Summer Reflection

Twelve months ago, I thought I had my future career objective set in stone: I wanted to be a solicitor. I was going to find a public law firm, work my way up and become a partner, possibly eventually leaving to establish one of my own. I had my place at Uni to do the LLB and things couldn't be clearer.

It's remarkable, though, how things you seem so certain of can so quickly riddle you with doubt, and how idealist notions you have of how things will pan out in the future never quite live up to their rose laden tint.

Don't get me wrong; I've really enjoyed the last year or so, and I'm still going to finish my joint honours law degree; but it's been enough to persuade me that it just isn't for me.

What to do then, 3 or 4 years down the line? The best thing about the long summer-holiday is that you can take the opportunity to switch off a bit and reflect. I asked myself: what is it that I can really be passionate about, engross myself in, and most of all gain satisfaction from in a career?

I thought about the things that interested me and made me so enthusiastic at school. I pondered for a minute my success and fascination with maths, chemistry and physics. Involving it in a career, though? I couldn't do that. I need something in my life that I can keep to myself: my own intellectual challenge. The old saying about not mixing work and pleasure is true, as the former inevitably drains what of the latter you might once have had.

So then I turned to my other side. I've always been forthright in my political views and most who know me probably see me as a bit of a political anorak. The way the world constantly changes because of decisions made by those in positions of power is something I just cannot help but show enthusiasm and interest about. If there was a tipping point that changed my way of thinking, it was Election Night. For 48 hours straight, I stared at a 15" screen, desperate to find-out who had won that Welsh marginal; who looked likely to win the recount in that former Sinn Fein stronghold; would the Conservatives sneak over the line, or at least close enough to do a deal with the DUP?

Catching up with the Dillons in Moffat
In truth, I can fight it no longer: my future is in politics. Exactly where, I don't know: as someone who would probably stand on the Conservative ticket I wouldn't stand a dog's chance in hell of winning a seat in Scotland, but indeed politics isn't just about elected representatives. The two options I'm still considering are working in central government or the diplomatic service via the Faststream Civil Service scheme. I'll probably change again in another twelve months, but with the time to reflect, I can sit comfortably with where I think I'm going, even if the future is uncertain.

I'm conscious I've not posted here since quite a bit before the election, and I guess with a few month's hindsight now is as good a time as any to reflect on the new direction of our country.

In the European elections last year, I voted Conservative without giving it an awful lot of thought. I felt the way Labour had handed the Lisbon Treaty was an absolute democratic outrage, and I couldn't sit comfortably with ardent Europhilic Liberal Democrats. As the campaign went on in the General Election, though, I really began to lose confidence that the Tories would be able to win hearts and minds whilst still taking the difficult steps to sort out the economic mess Labour had got us into.

What was my choice then? I started reading a little into the work of some prominent and rising Liberal Democrats, who have reflected on the direction of the party, increasingly seen as a middle class Labour alternative. The Orange Book, published in 2004, with contributions from, among others, David Laws and Nick Clegg, asked some radical questions and diverged from the traditional Lib Dem position of using the social market to resolve society's problems and inequalities. In his contribution, Laws suggested that the NHS might better operate if certain parts of it were restructured to form a free market health insurance scheme, with tax relief being used to ensure maximum access at the best level of cost-effectiveness. Clegg surprised me with a vigorous critique of the European Union and how (then) it needed to reform considerably if Britain's future could be within it. He inspired me, a Euroapathist, into seeing that the EU could be used to strengthen the UK's position in an ever more globalist world, if only we stopped bickering about loss of sovereign powers and focused on strengthening the principles of intergovernmentalism at the top table.

When I saw this fresh thinking, and then noticed just how many of the contributors now lead the Liberal Democrats, it was startling. Their manifesto seemed to be one both with a social conscience and an element of rationalism. Their classical but progressive liberal agenda (as opposed to the meaning we associate with "liberalism" in Britain) resonated strongly with my views on civil liberties, coupled with a pragmatic approach to macroeconomics.

I then compared that with the Tories, who seemed still to be shackled by their core vote. Their inheritance tax and marriage allowance policies in particular made me think they were going to struggle to engage sufficiently with the electorate, especially in Scotland where old wounds continue to antagonise despite efforts at modernisation.

And so I voted (perhaps a little tactically) in Glasgow North West for the Liberal Democrats. It was naturally in vein (despite their appalling record both across the UK and as representatives for Glasgow, Labour managed to increase their majority) and when the seats distributed themselves as they did, I feared that the Lib Dems would cave-in to grass roots pressure and prop-up Labour.

Imagine, then, my delight at the Lib-Con coalition being struck after days of deal-making. Certainly on the face of it, they tick all of the boxes I could want: a centre-right but liberal era of British politics. The cores of the two parties isolated: we have the best of both worlds.

Reality, of course, never quite lives up to expectation, and it was desperately disappointing to see David Laws, a man for whom I have great respect and agree on a great many things, depart only days into the new Parliamentary session after personal indiscretions re-expenses. On the whole, though, I think the coalition has done as well as could be expected in its first Parliamentary session. There's been teething problems: the free-schools initiative needs ironed out, and some of the necessary cuts aren't going to make them popular by any means, but I find it equally instructive that Labour's attempts at splitting the coalition has driven them close together. Ultimately it will be judged by its long-term results, but after 13 years of expansion of the state, erosion of civil liberties and undemocratic croneyism, it's nice at least to have the promise of change for the better.

On a final note, I'm sad to report that while I was on holiday in Brittany, one of my hamsters passed on, just shy of its second birthday. It had been getting on a bit and had to be separated from the other one after being bitten by it, and although it seemed to make a reasonable recovery I suspect it had an impact on its prospects. I'll miss the wee guy, and I'll always remember his obituary: Byte bit 8-Bit and 8-Bit bit the dust.