En Marche

“En Marche!”

“Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the moderate voice, that never have spoken yet.”

(With apologies to GK Chesterton and his poem “The Secret people”)

Indy 28 April 2017


Listen carefully and the sound you hear is the rumble of the tumbrils on the cobble stones

What has amazed, puzzled and frightened us these last three turbulent and revolutionary years, is that it has not been those inhabiting the shrinking, bewildered terrified circle of conventional politics who have changed things, but the angry beast circling it menacingly outside. It is people’s movements who have changed things, not political parties.

And yet, and yet, true to form when an election is called we still pull out our magnifying glasses and examine minutely every hair twitch and whisper inside the political circle and ignore what is happening in the wide circle of the millions outside it. Like Edmund Burke on Marie Antoinette, we examine the plumage, but ignore the dying bird.

Trump, Le Pen, UKIP, the SNP, Alternativ für Deutchland. They are ubiquitous, all pervasive, in many cases unresistable and to conventional politicians utterly, utterly terrifying. Mrs May is not an exception. If Mrs May did not want Brexit, then she is its true, if illegitimate daughter.

As Marianne to Marine le Pen, so is Britannia to Mrs May as she frog-marches our country out the exit door of Europe in this election.

Only Emanuel Macron seems – perhaps – we hope – to have found an answer.

The new voiceless and left out are not the hard left and nationalist right. They are now more than adequately represented. The new voiceless in Britain are the millions of those who are as angry as I am, as frightened as I am and as keen to change things as I am, but who have not yet found a way for their voice to be heard and make a difference. Of course I want these new left out millions to vote Lib Dem – and many now are. A strong force of Lib Dems in the next parliament is very necessary. But it is not sufficient. It is not good enough just to reduce the Tory majority. What we need now is to start building a force that can hold this Government to account in the next Parliament and replace them at the one after that. Labour cannot do that and the Lib Dems cannot do it alone.

Meanwhile the millions outside the political circle who believe as we do, remain voiceless scattered and broken, waiting for a lead.

But they are not getting one.

So far, from the progressive parties and the progressive voices within parties, there has been chiefly silence. Some braver souls, like would-be teenage lovers at a dimly lit party, have reached out furtively seeking fingers to touch across the divide, only to pull back for fear of rejection or discovery if the lights go up.

And so nothing happens. And if nothing continues to happen then we are- all of us -about to be run over by a proto-UKIP steam roller driven by Mrs May and then all we stand for will be lost for a decade. Dr Johnson used to say that the prospect of hanging in the morning sharpens a man’s mind wonderfully. But it hasn’t. We, who should be calling the progressive forces of our country to arms, remain stuck in torpor and uncertainty.

And thus will the Government of Britain be handed over, for the first time since the Great Reform Act, not to the moderate voices who represent the true political centre of gravity of our country, but to those who would divide us into extremes, isolate us from our neighbours and perhaps even break up our United Kingdom as a consequence.

What we need now is a British “En Marche”. What we need is a Macron. The problem is we haven’t got one.

But still and withal, given what is at stake here, is it really the case that sensible voices in and outside the political circle cannot find the way to make this happen? The only way to stop this election resulting in an elected dictatorship under a hard right, hard Brexit Tory Party, is to turn it, as Macron has done, into a clear choice powerfully advocated, between an open, liberal, internationalist Britain and one based on nationalism, division and isolation.

Hands up who’s up for the fight?

Home thoughts on the eve of the Election

The Independent

20 April 2017

On the Eve of the election

For the second time in 18 months, the country has to pay the price for a Prime Minister who has put the Tory Party’s interests before the nation’s interests. Last year, I predicted that Theresa May would call a snap election this spring. And now she has.

So what next?

 I have a suspicion that the surprise no one sees coming in this election will not be what happens inside the small, cramped circle where politicians and political parties live, but what happens when the voiceless millions of the moderate, progressive centre outside that circle demand to be heard. If you want to see what can happen when they do, look at what is happening now with Macron’s “En Marche!” movement in France.

 It’s worth examining for a moment what Mrs May actually said this week when she announced a general election.

 An election was needed for the country, she claimed.

 Why? We have a perfectly good Parliament with two years to run, doing its job scrutinising legislation which will affect our lives for years to come. We all know that May didn’t want Parliament to get involved at all, until the Supreme Court told her she had to. Now she wants an election which will give her what the Supreme Court wouldn’t: a Parliament whose Tory majority is so big she can simply ignore it. Theresa May was prevented by the courts from bypassing Parliament. Now she wans to make it her poodle.

 An election was needed to unite the nation, she said.

 Some cheek coming from a Prime Minister who inherited a divided country and, with every act and word since, has widened the divisions further! It was she who, in her first speeches as PM, laid into the supposed “liberal elite” who voted remain; she who said that those who thought themselves citizens of the world were citizens of nowhere; she who chose the most extreme and brutal form of Brexit which puts our country on the edge of the cliff and as far away from Europe as possible; she who, instead of trying to reach out to the 48 per cent who lost, then encouraged a campaign of insult to anyone who dared to raise their heads above the parapet and argue for a more moderate approach; she who has presided over a frightening the rise in hate crime in Britain: she who, by moving her party lock, stock and barrel onto policy positions indistinguishable from Ukip (like grammar schools), has widened the divisions in British politics and left those of the moderate centre more voiceless and scattered than ever before in my political lifetime.

 We do badly need a more united Britain. But those who believe that giving Theresa May’s Tories a bigger majority is the way to do it are indulging in the triumph of hope over our recent bitter experience of what she and they stand for.

 Lastly, Theresa May claimed that an election would strengthen her hand in the coming EU negotiations. But the real reason is somewhat different. She knows perfectly well that there are very painful Brexit times ahead. She wants to get an election in before this happens so she can simply ignore the pain when it does – and reject and claim that she should consult anyone beyond her narrow circle about the final deal she reaches.

 This election may seem like an exercise in democracy today – but it’s actually about giving Theresa May the means to ignore democracy tomorrow.

 Nevertheless, now we have an election, like it or not.

In which case, we Lib Dems say: bring it on!

 We are ready for the fight and confident that, with civilised liberal values like tolerance, respect for others, moderation and the habit of compromise more at risk then ever before in my life time, this is a battle worth fighting and one we will relish.

 We are inspired too by the thousands who have now come to join us. Our membership has doubled since the referendum, and it leapt by more than 1,000 in the hours after Theresa May’s announcement. And we are winning in the ballot box too, in by-elections both parliamentary and local.

 Having had to eat my hat last time (for the record, I have eaten five), I am not in the business of making predictions. So instead I will make an appeal to my party. This is not the time for tribalism. I believe we can achieve great successes in the next weeks. But while Lib Dem victories are necessary for a fairer Britain, they are not sufficient.

 The historic task before us is to be the catalyst for a political force capable of being a real and powerful opposition to the Tories. Labour cannot do that. And we cannot do it alone.

 It’s time to reach out beyond our tribal barriers and build a wider progressive movement which can oppose and in time replace the Tories by giving voice to the new voiceless in Britain – the thousands in politics and the millions beyond it who believe in the values of tolerance, internationalism, diversity and partnership, and do not believe these can be delivered by a divisive Tory Prime Minister with a bigger majority.

If we Lib Dems see that as our vision, we can turn what will be a good election into great one – perhaps, indeed, a historic one.

Don’t cut the Royal Marines!

Royal Marines

12 April 2017

‘I never knew an appeal made to them for honour, courage or loyalty that they did not more than realise… If ever the hour of real danger should come to England, they will be found the country’s sheet anchor.” So said Admiral Lord Vincent, a contemporary of Nelson’s, speaking more than 200 years ago about the Royal Marines.

It was the Royal Marines who captured Gibraltar in 1704, almost a hundred year before Lord St Vincent spoke those words. And since then, for three long, dangerous centuries, they have carried more of the burdens of battle in our nations defence, fought in more conflicts and played a part in more victories than any other British regiment, from Gibraltar, to the Falklands, right through to Afghanistan.

In this most uncertain and unpredictable age, what we need are forces that are fast, flexible, mobile and able to fight in any environment. This is what the Royal Marines do – and they do it better than any other force on earth.

So why on earth are we cutting the Royal Marines?

The answer is as simple as it is depressing.

Because the Navy has not got enough sailors to man the ships it has, let alone the two huge aircraft carriers shortly to enter naval service (five years after the initial target date). Many defence experts fear these are future floating white elephants which are soaking up the money to pay for the defences we need now to keep the country safe.

How did this happen?

It is precisely the outcome many predicted during the disastrous 2010 Government Defence Review. Liam Fox, then Defence Minster, was repeatedly warned that without leadership and strategic direction, that Review would descend into an undignified squabble between the Chiefs of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to hang onto their most prestigious projects, irrespective of whether they met the nation’s needs or not. And that’s exactly what happened. The RAF hung onto fighters that couldn’t fly off aircraft carriers. And the Navy went ahead with two huge £6.2 billion carriers, even though they had no fighters to put on them.

And so we must now cut to pay for these.

When Defence Secretaries had to cut in the past, they always began with the MoD’s back-room “tail” of administrators. Our present one, Sir Michael Fallon, is different. He starts with the élite and those on front line.

The price we have to pay for this folly does not end with the Royal Marines.

Finding the sailors to man those carriers has meant that other navy warships have been left idle at quaysides, or prematurely shunted off to the Reserve Fleet.

The Army is feeling it too. Their combat training has been slashed by a billion over the next decade. The first casualty in this cut back will be the tank training in Canada – just at the moment when that training becomes more vital as we deploy British armoured units to Europe’s eastern border to face the new threat from Russia. One MoD source said “the only way (we) can (make these cuts) is to stop training” altogether. This is playing fast and loose, not just with the nations defence, but with soldiers lives as well. Anyone who has seen action knows that less training, means more dead soldiers on the battlefield.

It’s not that there is no “tail” to cut. We all love to be thrilled at our summer fetes by RAF display teams like the Red Arrows. But if front line troops are being slashed, do we really need to be funding six of these teams? Is it really sensible to spend money for our defence, on heritage aircraft for museums? If we cannot  find the cash for fighter jets, should we really be spending it on air cadet gliders scattered on disused airports up and down the country?

It seems to me someone somewhere has their priorities wrong.

This is not a time to be cutting those upon whom we depend for our defence now, like the Royal Marines, for projects of doubtful purpose in the future and schemes which, however nice, are not part of our ability to protect ourselves in an increasingly hostile and unpredictable world.