Albion in the Unenchanted Forest

Albion in the Unenchanted Forest

So, what happens now?

The short answer is that from this broken, dysfunctional, dystopian fractured and fractious state of our politics, any outcome is possible. Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no Brexit, no deal, crash out, break up of the Tories, break up of Labour, new centre Party, Lib Dem Government – no I go too far – but you get the point.

A number of things are certain and they’re all pretty strange, such is the measure of our bad fairy tale times.

Unless something really big happens, everything will stay the same.

The plague of Rumplestitskins which have overwhelmed us – Trump, Johnson, Farage – will continue to smash the crockery, because they can, because they enjoy it and because no-one is able to stop them.

Our Pushmi-Pullu Cabinet will continue going nowhere, because it knows of nowhere to go to. And our sad Cinderella PM, ashen, distraught, dutiful, close to tears and desperate to go to the ball, will continue to be stopped at every turn by one ugly sister or another.

In the history books of our times, a good number of pages will be written about what happens in the next few, febrile months.

Now that the quarter-century of hidden Tory revolt on Europe has broken into open warfare, it cannot be magicked back into the box. The whisper I hear about the Westminster tea rooms, betrays that old fatal symptom of a party in full-scale self-destruct: “We don’t mind if we lose, just so long as our faction wins control of the Party”

And indeed it might just come to that.

We are now close to the point – maybe at it – where no Brexit outcome, from the most extreme to the very softest, can find a majority in the Commons.

There is a reason for this stalemate.

Politics can only work if, on the great issues of the day, the Parties oppose each other on a united basis. Only then can the people have rational choice. Only then can we have meaningful debates across the floor of the House which arrive at meaningful conclusions.

But on the great issue of our time – Europe (and many of the others as well – but that is for another time), the Parties are catastrophically internally divided. And so the struggle is not between them, but within them. And so the national interest becomes submerged under the inner Party squabbles. This way madness lies and our entire political system is becoming infected by it.

The evident truth is that the current political division with which we are presented and through which we try to run our country, is no longer fit for purpose. It neither represents the true choices people want in a modern democracy, nor provides a sensible framework for running a democratic system of Government.

Consider for a moment the most likely course of events for what happens next.

Starting this late in the curve and having wasted so much time, there is now no way that our Prime Minister (if indeed she survives as far as Thursday) can bring Parliament any deal in October worth the name. At most it will mix 20 percent firm detail with 80 percent fudge, backed by a solemn promise to fix the rest in the transitional period. If Parliament buys that, it buys a pig-in-a-poke.

Given what has happened over the relatively smaller matter of customs last week, it seems very rational to conclude that Parliament will say no and demand something better (leave a side what kind of better for the moment because that’s something they can’t decided on either). But who has the mandate to negotiate that, if the EU will allow us to?  which I imagine they will. Mrs May would of course have to go. But who is to replace her? With everyone in the trenches there is no longer any candidate who can unite the Tory opposing forces. The Brexiteers will not permit a Remainer and the Remainers will not permit a Brexiteer.

So we are back to deadlock again.

And so a shame-faced Parliament will have to return to the people and beg for a solution, because they cannot find one.

A Referendum? That’s certainly one solution. But is a yes/no answer on such a complex question really enough to find our way out, if the Parties stay the same? Might we not then be hog-tied after it, almost as much as we were before it?

A General Election on the issue of Europe, then.

But how can we have a General Election which offers a clear choice, if both Parties are divided? That is merely to translate deadlock in the Commons into deadlock in the ballot box.

The truth that is staring us in the face is that we cannot find a way out of this miserable never ending nightmare, unless we can find our way to a new shape for our politics. The Rumpelstitskins have found theirs. They have not scrupled to invent new Parties or colonise old ones. They are united, powerful and deadly in the way they have changed our politics for the worse.

Do we have to cede the ground to them? Is it really an impossible dream to gather together those scattered amongst all parties who share the same liberal views. That’s what Macron has done and given a new future to France in the process.

In these unpredictable times anything is possible. If the hobgoblins can be so successful at making things worse for our time, could we not at least try to create a good fairy to make them better? It may not succeed. But I become more and more convinced that it is the only way to find a route out of this unholy mess.

An Essay to my Party II

An Essay to my Party on the eve of Conference

Part II

So, here, as promised are three dangerous ideas for the future. Please be clear. I am not necessarily proposing these. Just asking why we are not even discussing them?

Dangerous idea 1.

We are guiltily obsessed with student fees. The fact that we don’t need to be, because the principle is right, does not make life easier (how I wish we had called them a Graduate tax!). But now with the student loan debt rising, do we not also have to consider how we get better value for what students pay? If we have a tertiary education system which cannot be paid for without loading more and more debt on our young, should we not be looking at the system, not just at how they pay?  We persist in the medieval practice of taking students to medieval ivy covered buildings, to receive their education in the medieval manner from minds, too many of which, when it comes to delivering education, are stuck in the middle ages. Yet distance learning was pioneered in Britain at the Open University when communicating with your tutor meant stuffing your academic paper in an envelope, licking it, sticking a stamp on it and putting it in the local post-box. Today the whole planet is into distance learning. Many of our own Universities make tons of money providing distance learning degree courses to students all over the world. But none of them are in Britain! If we were to convert at least part of our tertiary education syllabus to distance learning we might reduce the cost of degrees without diminishing their quality, give students more flexibility, force lecturers into the modern age, widen access and create a superb platform for adult education all at the same time. Why, beloved Lib Dems, do we allow medieval vested interests to preserve our ivy covered tertiary education system exactly as it is, loading more and more debt on students and preventing us from doing what much of the rest of the world is doing already? Just asking.

Dangerous idea 2.

We have long understood that property owning rights are one of the foundation stones of democracy. Yet each of us, gives away our most intimate of property free and daily to the most powerful corporations, who make millions and millions from it.I am talking of course, about our personal data. Why do we Lib Dems not assert the citizens right to own their own data and to have control over how it is used? Why about proposing a law – perhaps a European one – which says to Messrs Amazon, Google, Starbucks etc, that they can use our personal data for their commercial purposes, but only with our permission and if they give us a share of the profits. Can you think of anything which would more alter the relationship between these masters of the commercial universe and the customers whose information they exploit for such enormous profit? Can you think of anything which would more empower the citizen in the market pace? Isn’t that what we Lib Dems are supposed to be about? So?

Dangerous idea 3.

The political parties or movements that are thriving at the moment (e.g. En Marche, Italy’s 5 star movement and Momentum to name a few) are those who have adopted an internet based model which enables mass younger membership, flat low cost management, modest entry fees, direct democracy, constant engagement, high participation and the opportunity to take part in politics as just one of the multi-transactional things we do in our busy lives. The older conventional political parties are stuck in the model of the1870s; vertical hierarchies, festoons of committees which claim democracy, but end up with management by those who can spare the time; low and ageing membership; high cost of entry; limited engagement; even less real participation and a dependency on political obsessives (like me). And they are dying. The number of people in political parties has dropped from 10.5% of the electorate 20 years ago, to 1.5% today. Should we be worried about this? Apparently not. I know this, because I sent a paper to our Party Board suggesting that we might take a look at these revolutionary new ideas being followed by those who are succeeding, where we are not. I did not suggest anything as radical as actually doing this. Just that we should look at it. I know it was discussed (and rejected with some muscularity) as I read about it, not always in the most admiring terms, in these and other pages where the Party, usually with delicious irreverence, exchanges its views. Fine. It probably was a dotty idea. But here’s the thought. Imagine if this was one of our new members suggesting an idea for us to consider and they heard nothing more except rumours of its death, without even an acknowledgement, let alone an explanation or reply. Would they consider us, a Party open to new ideas? Or one defensively closed against them?

Dangerous idea 4. In Estonia and Lithuania they are thinking ambitiously about the application of blockchain and bitcoin to public services, and what these innovations can do to deliver greater efficiency, transparency and citizen power. Why aren’t we?

I have concluded that all this is so, not because we have really lost our intellectual curiosity, but because of the dead hand of Brexit. I admit second place to no-one when it comes to fighting for the best Brexit we can, and preferably no Brexit at all. I am proud of our Party’s clear position on this defining issue. But is our obsession with Brexit in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to be, whether in the EU or out of it? For me the heart of liberalism is our crusade for the empowered citizen, not the powerful state. This is a radical disruptive and insurgent idea. But where is it? When did you last – at Conference or outside it – hear us arguing that case, debating new ideas to make it happen or proselytising it before the court of public opinion?

Look, for instance at this week’s resolution on the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The answer to the abuse of tenants in places like at Grenfell, is to give them the power and support to manage themselves through tenant’s co-operatives. I thought this was our policy. So where is it?

Answers on a post card please – preferably post marked Bournemouth and dated next week.

See you there.

Happy Birthday Royal Marines – not.

Article Daily Telegraph

26 October 2017

The government would do well to remember the words of Nelson’s colleague Admiral, the Earl of St Vincent, who said of the Royal Marines: “If ever the hour of real danger should come to England, they will be found the country’s sheet anchor”. It comes to something when a senior US military figure, Lieutenant-General Jerry Harris, seems to understand better than our own Government why cutting the Royal Marines would be dangerous for our defence and that of the Western alliance.

This is the most perilous and unstable time I have known in my adult life. No-one can predict the future. We will need troops who can move fast, be flexible and adapt to any environment. The Royal Marines have done that for our country for more than 350 years, and still do it regularly, day in day out and to world class standards.

It is ironic indeed that this seems to be better understood abroad than it is at home. Senior US military figures have repeated unequivocally their message to the UK about cuts to the Royal Marines budget, describing them as dangerous.

The Ministry of Defence is considering a cut of 1,000 Royal Marines and the loss of two amphibious assault ships, which the American high command has warned would change the relationship between the UK Marine Corps and our Royal Marines.

If these reductions go ahead, they will undermine our position as a serious military force. Col Dan Sullivan, who works at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Virgina, says that a cut to the 6,640 strong Royal Marines would be a “real blow”. He makes the point that the Royal Marines are particularly vital because a major military power needs the capability to “project power ashore at some point.”

As Major-General Julian Thompson, himself an ex-Marine said, cuts will send a message to those who threaten us and our way of life, that the UK is just “not interested” any more.

As I have reminded the government before, the Royal Marines provide an essential pool of manpower from which our our Special Forces are drawn. Cut them and you will cut our Special Forces too. They have fought in more theatres and won more battles than any other British unit. To dismiss this legacy, and along with it a unique military capability, is to weaken our national defences and diminish our standing with our Allies.

We have a Twitter-happy president who might well turn out to be trigger-happy, too, and a prime minister all too keen to ally herself with him. We have a Foreign Secretary who remarked recently that a military option for relations with North Korea “must remain on the table”. This is hardly the time to  diminish one of our most unique and defining military capabilities.

We all know why this is being done. The Royal Navy cannot find enough sailors to man its ships. Many believed that the decision to spend so much of our defence resources on two aircraft carriers we may never need in the future was one of the worst procurement decisions of our time. Now we have them, these ships of course must be manned. But to make the Royal Marines pay the price for this is to compound an error with a folly – a dangerous one at that, with the military strategists having to work out how they can possibly make the £20bn to £30bn cuts to the defence budgets over the next decade which the Chancellor is demanding.

Today we celebrate the 353rd birthday of Her Majesty’s Corps of Royal Marines. A week ago we commemorated the 212th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar. Have we so forgotten our history that we now consider weakening the maritime capability that has kept this country safe – that has been its sheet anchor in stormy times? The good Admiral Earl St Vincent would be spinning in his grave.

Where are we after surprise Thursday?

Politics after the 2017 Election.

Saturday 10 June

Some things are clear as the smoke begins to drift way after the election – more can be sensed as dim shapes in the murk which, for the moment, remain more hinted at than certain.

Here is what can solidly be said

  1. This was the most unusual and unpredictable election of our time.
  2. That may indicate that last Thursday presages a real change to the structures and habits which have dominated our elections for the last 30 years.
  3. Most pundits claim that politics has reverted to the old two party system of the immediate post-war period. Others (me amongst them) disagree. Though the results have a retro look about them, there is no evidence that Britain below the surface has returned to the bi-polar politics of our fathers and grandfathers. The multiplicity of opinions, aspirations, wishes, ambitions and world views which are so much a function of this pluralistic internet age, remain today as much a feature of life in Britain as they are in any other Western democracy.
  4. The election results were binary, not because Britain has suddenly become binary, but because of the peculiar overlay of the Brexit in-out choice and the failure of those who represent the now voiceless centre in politics to reach out beyond their huddled tribes with a proposition capable of motivating the moderate voices in Britain in the way that Jeremy Corbin did for his neo-socialism.
  5. Mrs May was widely praised before the election for miraculously healing the chasm everyone which knows lies at the heart the Tory party. But British elections have an extraordinary habit of finding out our leaders’ flaws and weaknesses. In what will go down as the most catastrophic election campaign in history for a ruling Party, our Prime Minister for all her virtues of straight-forwardness and patriotism, was revealed, not as the re-incarnation of Margaret Thatcher, but as brittle, bad tempered, tunnel visioned and extraordinarily insensitive to her own deficiencies and the limits of her power.
  6. Nothing better illustrates these personal faults more than her decision yesterday to try to hang on to power when her continuation in Downing Street is now, not, as she preposterously claims, the means to see us through this crisis, but the greatest single road block to that happening. As the largest party, the Conservatives’ right to form the next Government is clearly established under the practices of our Constitution (our essential sheet-anchor in stormy times such as these). But the Tories go beyond the sensible limits of those rights if they think they can propose to our Parliament (or should suggest to our Queen) a legitimate Government headed by a Prime Minster who has now, not a shred of democratic legitimacy left.
  7. Mrs May has done her country, her Party, and herself no favours by trying to hang on. On the surface this appears to be an act which combines wilfulness, irrationality and the fact that she and the small cabal around her have completely lost touch. But is there another explanation for her seemingly perplexing and self-damaging behaviour? Could her Cabinet colleagues, perhaps headed by the ambitious Philip Hammond, have persuaded her that, since a Party election for yet another PM unelected by the country, would be damaging, divisive and destabilising, she must hang until they find someone by acclamation to  crown seamlessly in her place (Mr Hammond himself perhaps)?
  8. One thing however is beyond speculation. The yawning divisions in the Tory party are now laid bare. The humiliation (and danger) of begging for support from the DUP will go unnoticed and unfelt by the hard-right, hard-Brexiteers who now dominate the Mrs May’s proto-UKIP Tory Party. For them the DUP are soul-mates in policy, attitude and world view; they are welcome re-enforcements to the right wing cause – and perhaps even to an historical return to the good old days of the Conservative and Unionist Party (did you notice Mrs May used just this phrase yesterday?).
  9. But for the left of the Tory Party (as also for all who recognise the dangers to the Northern Ireland peace process), playing hard-line Ulster unionism into our already highly volatile post election political crisis, will be total anathema. Many of us have long speculated that, what Robert Peel called the “battle for the soul” which split the Tories over the Corn Laws 200 years ago, is being replicated by the issue of Europe today. We are about to discover if this is so, as Tory leaders try desperately to stop the blood letting from the wounds laid bare by Mrs May’s leadership and the pressures of a Tory/DUP partnership in a hung Parliament. Ruth Davidson the heroine leader of the Scottish Conservatives and Anna Soubry the narrowly elected Tory MP for Broxtowe appear as harbingers for this.
  10. It is not in any way to diminish Mr Corbyn’s remarkable successes in this election campaign (and before) to warn that, nevertheless for Labour, these results flattered to deceive. Many of us have been warning for two or more years that Jeremy Corbyn (like Bernie Sanders in the US) would have much wider traction than most of the tabloids and all the  Tories hoped. He has an attractive, straightforward and decent personality which has been re-enforced an appealingly under-stated public style (in sharp contrast to Mrs May). The Corbin team fought a campaign which showed real mastery of the arts of mobilisation and sectoral politics, especially when it came to using social media and targeting the youth vote.
  11. One thing will not be the same again in future elections. Political Parties will never again ignore the young vote or treat them with complacency. This is Mr Corbyn’s permanent legacy and it is a proud one.
  12. Nevertheless and withall, the hard fact is that even at the top of their game and despite the manifest and many targets presented to them by Mrs May and the Tories these last seven years, Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party still could not win – or even get close to winning. This is not a definitive verdict – and does not necessarily mean they cannot win in the future. It is only to observe that, despite all Labour’s successes in the last five weeks, there is no evidence yet that with these policies and these people, Labour can carry the wider country in the future. Indeed there is much evidence that they cannot. This presents moderate Labour MPs with a difficult dilemma. Do they, like Chukka Ummuna, gulp down as much humiliating crow as necessary to re-ingratiate themselves with those they have excoriated, in order to secure a front bench position in a Party which, all rational argument says, will never have power. Or do they, like Chris Lesley tell the truth that Labour is still far away from power and likely to remain so, unless and until it can make a wider appeal to the centre ground.

Conclusion? This election has plunged our country into a crisis no-one saw coming. Finding a way through is going to prove very difficult, especially given the deep polarisation of our politics, which, despite the ballot box results, still imposes a binary choice on a nation which remains at its heart deeply pluralist, multi-layered and multi-faceted. Nowhere is this more powerfully or painfully illustrated than in the most important single fact of the 2017 election – that the moderate, decent, progressive centre of British politics, the place where elections up to now have always been won and lost, now lies empty, voiceless and waiting for someone to claim it.

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.


Article 50 – Prospect Magazine 15 March 2017

Prospect Magazine 15 march 2017

Oscar Wilde said “In a democracy, the minority is always right”. This thought has given me much comfort during nearly half a century fighting for liberalism.

But the post-Brexit debate has been different. A minority we still remain – but only slimly so and that has been wonderfully comforting.

I am fairly certain (Liberals don’t do certainties) that history will marvel at Brexit as the most bewildering act of national self-harm knowingly and willingly committed by an advanced nation in full possession of its faculties. And yet that is the decision we took and we must now enact – at least for the foreseeable future – unless and until the worm turns.

But the Brexit decision is only one of the puzzles we have had to deal with these last few months.

The other is why did Mrs May – again willingly and knowingly – choose to make a difficult path much, much more difficult?

Any good Prime Minister inheriting a country so at war with itself as we were after the Referendum would have placed healing national division as their first priority. But from her first unwise Conservative Conference speech with its demonization of the “liberal elite” and the assertion that those who see themselves as citizens of the world, are citizens of nowhere, Mrs May has, quite again deliberately, sought to widen the divisions between the 52% who said YES and the 48% who said NO. She followed this divisive rhetoric with divisive action, choosing a Brexit that puts the country as far away from Europe as it is possible to get (for which she has no mandate whatsoever), moving her Party onto policies indistinguishable from UKIP and attempting to bully her way to her chosen destination by steam-rollering a by-pass around Parliament – until the Supreme Court gave her a lesson in what it is to govern in a democratic country.

And so, our country launches itself down Mrs May’s Article 50 path to exit more divided even than it was during the Referendum. The public discourse is uglier, the entrenched positions are deeper, the level of vitriol is higher and the hate crimes grow and grow. For these divisions at such a difficult time, there will be a price to pay – including in the end, by Mrs May’s Government itself.

So what now?

As an exercise in whistling in the dark, the recent budget was about as good as you get. The Chancellor’s sepulchral style is not given to optimism. His speciality is calm. But even he could not hide the fact that this was a budget focussed, not on the sunlit uplands ahead, but on the monster of Brexit hard-times stirring beneath our feet. That’s why he’s not spending windfalls, but hoarding them. Big business, also awash with money, is doing the same thing for the same reasons. They both know that true pain of Brexit will increasingly be felt the further down Mrs May’s Article 50 track we go. If public opinion is to turn, watch what happens after inflation begins to bite around the turn of the year.

But the ambushes along Mrs May’s way are not just economic ones.

We are now facing the real possibility of the break up of the United Kingdom. Viewed from the moment, it does not seem likely that a Scottish referendum would succeed. But Mrs Sturgeon knows what most modern politicians have forgotten, that politics is dynamic. Snap-shot opinion polls tell you where things are, but not the direction in which they are heading. Status quo was yesterday’s dynamic. Fissipariousness is today’s.

For evidence, see Northern Ireland. Observers have long predicted that the time would come when the demographic balance in the Province would tip away from the Unionists, towards the Nationalists. Northern Ireland now teeters on this historic knife-edge after the recent Stormont elections. In part this is because some Unionist middle class voters now see a united Ireland inside the EU, less terrifying than a Northern Ireland forced to be outside it and isolated from its neighbours by a hard border. By the way, whisper it softly, some in Gibraltar are also beginning to view the competing claims of British and Spanish sovereignty through the same prism.

Mrs May’s ridiculous attempt to persuade us she is Mrs Thatcher reincarnated in kitten shoes has brought the country to the edge of a disastrous rift with the EU and given the nationalists in Scotland and Ireland cause and space to play fast and lose with our unity.

The problem with breaking things up, is that it’s easier to start than to stop.

Finally there is, as always, the famous devil in the detail. The complexities of the Brexit negotiations are as nothing to the whole roiling devil-fest waiting to break out when the Government launches the Great Repeal Act repatriating tens of thousand of EU laws to Westminster.

What does all this add up to? It may not be in Mrs May’s mind, or in her programme, or her agenda, or her intentions. But my guess is that as the next months tick by, the temptations of an early election will become almost irresistible.

Liberalism in an age of Trump

The Times – Red Box

The Trump era and liberalism
19 January 2016

The lessons of history are clear.

There has never been a successful government, a prosperous era, or a peaceful world that has not been based on liberal values. The opposite is true as well. If the world loses touch with these values then what follows is conflict, division and tyranny.

So it ought to worry us all that liberal values are now more endangered and under attack than at any time in my adult life.

Liberals – small l please note– believe not in the strong state, but the powerful citizen; we oppose equally centralised power, and the socialist notion of the supremacy of the mass. We believe in the free market, but as our servant not our master. We are internationalist and stand against protectionism, isolationism and nationalism. We celebrate diversity, not uniformity. We understand that the individual’s responsibility extends further than ourselves and our country to others beyond our borders and to future generations. We value the habit of compromise and depend upon the qualities of tolerance, compassion and respect for others.

I am struck – horrified actually – by the similarities between this age and the 1930s.

Then, after a depression and the failures of politics and government, there was a catastrophic collapse of confidence in the establishment, a fear that democracy wasn’t working and a hunger for the Government of strong men. Multilateralism, gave way to nationalism and isolation. Vulgarity trumped (no pun intended) decency. The harsh, ugly, voices were followed, while the counsels of reason fell on deaf ears. Many found it convenient to blame all our ills on the foreigner over the border and the stranger in our midst. Politicians found the extravagant lie, more tempting than the boring old nuanced truth. The rule was if you lie, tell a big one and tell it as often as you can. Stick it on a bus perhaps and drive it round the country.

I do not say that we are bound for the same destination as the 1930s. I cannot bring myself to believe that possible.

Nor do I claim that none of this is our fault.

I am much less interested in who is to blame, than what to do next.

The forces of the progressive centre in the 1930s were broken fractured, scattered and divided – and never got their act together. And so it is today.

Not all liberals are in the Liberal Democrats. There are many in other Parties – and many, many more who are as worried about what is happening as I am, but who do not wish to belong to any Party.

This last year, British politics abandoned the centre ground and spun away to the extremes. The Tories have moved onto territory indistinguishable from UKIP. For the first time in my life the official Labour Party makes no attempt to occupy the centre left, but is now proudly, avowedly 1950s style hard-line Socialist.

So what about those in the middle, where the true political centre of gravity of our country lies?

Hilaire Belloc has it perfectly:

The people in between
Looked underdone and harassed
And out of place and mean
And horribly embarrassed.

And, he might have added, scattered, dejected, lost and voiceless too.

Spare a thought for the lost tribes of Tory and Labour. What should those from the great Conservative tradition of internationalism do, now that their Party has abandoned them? What should those in Labour do, who believe in the free market now that their Party has explicitly rejected it?

What interests me most, however, is not the liberals, large l or small, inside formal politics, but the millions outside it.

The voiceless who found their voice in the Brexit and Trump elections were the left out and the left behind. They now have their voice. And a powerful one it is, with Trump as US President.

The moderate, liberal progressive majority are now the new left out and left behind – the new voiceless.

The phenomenon that astonished us these last years is the way that the most powerful instrument for change has not been those inside politics, but outside it. It is people’s movements now, not political parties who bring down Governments, colonise old parties, invent new ones and elect Presidents.

But why do all the people’s movements have to be for the ugly things, rather than the good ones.

2016 was the year that terrified us all because of the destructive populist forces it unleashed. Could 2017 be the year which will amaze us because the moderate progressive liberal voice in our country makes itself heard at last?

On that question depends whether or not we can turn the tide of destructive populism that otherwise threatens to overwhelm us. It is now up to those in politics, whether small l or large L, to put aside their tribalism and work together to make that happen.

Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010


Tuition fees Yorkshire Post 12 December 2010


There is a cartoon by the most famous World War I cartoonist, Bruce Bairsnworthy , which shows two British Tommies, covered in mud and grime, holding onto their helmets while sheltering in a shell crater. The hole is full of water and there explosions on all sides and shells falling all round. One Tommy turns to the other and says “If you know of a better ‘ole – get to it!”


The two Parties in our coalition Government must feel a little like that as the House of Lords today does what the Commons did last week and debate the issue of tuition fees the second week.


Things are very tough – especially for my colleagues in the Lib Dem. But there ain’t no better ‘ole to be in. Everywhere else is worse than where they are now.


There are two central questions which need to be answered in this debate.


The first is one primarily it seems for the Liberal Democrats. Why have we changed (some people, especially some students, would use a stronger word such as “betrayed”) the policy we stood on in the Election? I have to say this is a little unfair, since every Party has changed the tuition fees policy they stood on at the Election. The Tories went into the election opposed to tuition fees and are now in favour because of the economic crisis. The Lib Dems did the same and now find they have to change because of the coalition. And Labour went into the last election in favour of fees and now oppose them because of the opportunities this offers to bet up on the Government.


But then politics isn’t fair, so it’s the Lib Dems who have to answer for their u turn, not the others. I think this is probably so because our MP’s and Leader were seen signing those pledges and the point is somehow made that if its in the manifesto, that’s one thing, but a personal pledge is something different – something special. I think this is a bit Jesuitical. If its in your manifesto and someone asks you to sign a pledge saying the same thing, how can you say no. Whether it was right for it to be in the Lib Dem manifesto, of course is a different point – but then apply that to the other Parties who have also done u turns, in the same way. I don’t see people protesting about Labour’s “betrayal” but if breaking your word is the sin that’s getting people upset then surely this should apply to them, too?


The second point to make is that Labour abandoned their manifesto support for tuition fees, not because they needed to reach a compromise with another party in order to provide the country with strong government at a time of crisis. Labour didn’t want to work with anyone else if they couldn’t govern alone. They preferred to run from their responsibility to clean up the mess they had created. No, they changed their election stance on tuition fees, not for reasons of national interest, but for reasons of opportunism.


The promise Lib Dems made at the election was “If we become the Government, we will get rid of tuition fees”. But we are not the government. We have a coalition Government. And that means two Parties working together in the national interest. And that means compromising with each there. In a Coalition neither Party gets everything it wants. They both have the chance to put into operation some of the policies they like and some they don’t. How could it be otherwise? Both can honour some of their promises, but at the price of giving up others.


And if that’s not a price you are prepared to pay, then forget partnership politics. Forget, too a strong Government with a clear majority at a time of economic crisis. Forget a lot of other things as well. Like economic stability; low interest and mortgage rates; public expenditure choices made by an accountable Government, rather than unaccountable markets. And jobs – lots and lots of jobs.


The truth is that thanks to the mess the last Government made, we don’t have any choice now. We have to take drastic action to start living within our means. And that includes our Universities too. Every other public service is getting a cut of 25%. If they don’t bear their share, the pain for everyone else will have to be greater.


That leaves us with a choice. Either cuts which will ruin our Universities for ever, or ask students who will benefit in later life to pay something back when they do.


I am clear which f those two choices is in the nations interest.


Which leave the final question.


Are the Government’s proposals for tuition fees fair.


I do not condemn people who demonstrate in support of their views. I’ve done a bit of that myself in my time. And I suspect that demonstrating students condemn the violence we have seen quite as much as everyone else. Nevertheless I do wonder whether all those demonstrating on the streets of our cities (and no doubt we will see them outside Parliament again tonight) know the actual details of what they are demonstrating against.


And if they do, then I have to ask why didn’t they demonstrate against Labour’s tuition fee scheme that we have at present? Because the new ones are far, far better. Like the current scheme, no-one will have to pay up front to go to university. They only pay afterwards IF their salary is more than £21,000 a year (£6,000 above the £15,000 which is the repayment threshold at the moment). And even then when they do pay, they will pay less – about a half less – than they do at present. And unlike at present the richest will pay most and the poorest least, which is not the case at the moment. And part time students, who pay now will not pay at all. And those from the very poorest families will get up to two years without any fee charges.


I understand about the issue of debt. And I don’t like it either. And I know its tough. But then, if we are going to get out of the mess we are in, it’s going to be tough on us all. And students, who have more to gain than most by pulling this country out of the dangerous place we are in now can’t be an exception to that.


I agree, this ‘ole ain’t comfortable. But I don’t know of a better – or a fairer – one to go to.



Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010

Student fees article Heffer Column Daily Telegraph 7 Dec 2010


A Liberal MP, elected in the Liberal landslide of 1906, which also changed the face of British politics, wrote


“The people in between

Looked underdone and harassed

And out of place and mean

And horribly embarrassed.”


Hilaire Belloc was probably not describing the eternal difficulties of trying to occupy the center ground in British politics. But if he had been, he couldn’t have done it better, as my Lib Dem colleagues are finding to their discomfort.


Having said we believe in partnership politics we Liberal Democrats now have to show it can work. And in the process, wrestle with the fact that this is terra nova for us all. We are all having to invent new ways of doing things. We are all stumbling a bit in the dark.


This is difficult enough for those inside the coalition. Much more so for those reporting on it from outside, or trying to change the Government’s mind by exercising their democratic rights on the streets.


This is not going to be a smooth process or an easy one. There are going to be tough passages and inelegant moments. And, as on tuition fees at the moment, it is not always going to be a pretty sight. It was Bismarck who said “those who love sausages and respect the law, should take care not to watch either of them being made”. It turns out to apply – and in spades – to coalition politics, too.


Being the leader of a party in coalition is arguably the most difficult job in politics; you have to succeed in two key tasks ; holding the coalition together – and holding your party together at the same time. And this job is even more difficult if you happen to be the leader of the smaller party – then you get blamed for everything, as Nick Clegg is finding, as his opponents ordure is dumped upon his head (or, more literally, put through his letter box). It’s all becoming a bit French, with the Prime Minister taking the place of the French President hovering above the grubby scene with elegance and detachment. And the poor Deputy Prime Minister, like the French PM, taking the can for everything.


I think the last Liberal leader to have his effigy burnt in Whitehall, was Gladstone at the time of the murder of General Gordon. But I remember, myself being the target of quite a lot of abuse, albeit of a politer kind, when I argued that the right of abode should be given to Hong Kong passport holders; that a penny should be put on income tax for education; that we had to vote with a hated Conservative Government for the Maastricht Treaty and our European principles; that there should be intervention in the Bosnian war. So I know a little (a very little in comparison) what it is like.


I think Nick Clegg is dealing with the present situation with wisdom, skill, courage and an almost unbelievable degree of grace under fire.


He has recognised that, when it comes to holding his party together on this most difficult of issues, the process is as important as the outcome. He has listened (almost too much) to the views of his colleagues and, while stating his preference for voting for the student fee proposal, has kept the process open, even against derision and disbelief, until he is satisfied all the voices have been heard. The phrase “we agree to disagree” may have neither weight nor traction for those in our commentariat who like their politics instant, brutal and preferably bloody. But it is nevertheless one of the key phrases that lies at the heart of the British democratic tradition. And it is what the new politics of partnership has to learn if it is to have any chance of success.


I do not believe it likely that all Liberal Democrats will vote in the same lobby on student fees on Thursday. But then, I never have. Perhaps I wish it were otherwise. But I knew it never would be. And, however much they pretend to shock and scandal at their supposed discovery of this obvious fact, anyone worth their salt as a commentator on British politics should have known that, too.


Nick Clegg’s task has not been to seek to impose his will on his colleagues by coercion, as some seem to demand. That would never have worked. These are Liberal Democrats, who think for themselves, thank God. His achievement has been to bring them through this, united as a team, even if they cannot be united in the lobbies. To disagree without rancour.


Now, be honest, when, in our recent politics, did you see that before?


I admire him for this. I am pretty sure I couldn’t have done it half as well. And that’s good news for the Coalition, for the new politics of partnership and for strong government at a time of crisis.


There are some in and out of the Westminster village – and some more on the streets of our cities – who believe that the Liberal Democrats are the weakest link in this coalition, and think that, if they force us out, they can bring it all down. We aren’t and they won’t.


Whatever happens on Thursday, I don’t believe our Party unity will be weaker – it may, indeed even be stronger. That’s Nick Clegg’s achievement. And it’s a very big one.


The dividend for this will not be felt this month, next year, or even in the next two or three years. It will be felt at the next election. If by then, we have held our nerve, stuck to our guns and delivered good government at time of crisis, then British politics will have been changed for ever and the Lib Dems will be beneficiaries, not losers.


As for the substance of Thursday’s vote, that seems pretty simple to me.


The Lib Dems promised at the election, that if there was a Liberal Democrat Government we would get rid of tuition fees. But there isn’t a Liberal Democrat Government. So we had to negotiate an agreement with another Party. And its that agreement, subsequently endorsed by both the Parliamentary Party and the Party Conference, which we now have to honour.


We really would be a laughing stock – and deserve to be – if, having signed that agreement and internally endorsed it, we now run away from it.


All the more so given the merits of the policy itself.


There are three groups of stakeholders here: universities, taxpayers and graduates.


Universities will be better off; with revenues secured, our newer universities can plan ahead, confident of survival, while our elite universities will be stronger to compete in the global market place.


Taxpayers will be better off – as private payment increases, so the burden on the public purse decreases.


And graduates will be better off – particularly those on low earnings. With the threshold at which repayments start increased by £6,000, low earners will repay less, while those from the poorest households – those eligible for free school meals – will be assisted by our pupil premium and then get up to two years at university without any fees at all.


Sounds a pretty good deal to me.


Though, of course, as always, I respect the positions of my colleagues who don’t agree. But, Hilaire Belloc’s spirit please note, I do not intend to look “horribly embarrassed” about it.






The Citizen and the State Social research Institute & IPSOS MORI 22 Nov 2014

By Paddy Ashdown

Re-balancing the State in favour of the citizen


I have a radical thought and it is the following: the days of the classic nation state are over. We have to find a new balance between the power of the citizen and the power of the state. Hidden behind the economic crisis – the protests in Spain, France, Greece and all over the world – is a crisis that is ultimately more dangerous. It is the crisis of democracy itself.

The problem can best be expressed like this. We now what must be done to solve this economic crisis. But we do not know how to get the support of our people to do what must be done.

Everywhere in the world, the centre ground is in retreat and the demagogues are on the march. You can see it in Greece, France and Holland. You can see it in the rise of the Tea Party in the United States to the electoral gains made by UKIP in Britain. We are suffering from two simultaneous crises. One economic and on of confidence in our political system and above all in our political elites.

We need only to go back less than one hundred years to find another age dominated by the same ingredients and we do not need to be reminded what it led to. Whilst it is both tempting and justifiable to blame those who run the establishment – the politicians, the media and the bankers – it is not sufficient. Even if all the above behaved like paragons, we would still have a dangerously dysfunctional political system.

The classic Bagehot and Dicey nation state – the systemic model for our politics and government – is breaking down. It has become dysfunctional, out of date and no longer fit for purpose. It is indeed being torn apart before our eyes by two opposing forces.

One is the gathering of power which now lies in the global space, beyond the borders of the nation state; powers strong enough to affect the lives of citizens, alter the course of governments and make a mockery of electoral promises. But in this article, I will focus on the second force that is tearing at the current fabric of the State from the opposite dierection – from below.

Let’s consider the way ordinary citizens live their lives today. They are individually empowered. Individually able to shape their choices without intervention of officials, able to adopt what passtimes or practices they wish, and choose their acquaintances without constraints of geography and locality. They are empowerd by daily choice in the market, but disempowered in the poitical sytem which gvies them a false choice every four year and then ignores them in between.

Consider this disjuncture between the way ordinary people in advanced democracies live and the way they are governed. The market is in touch, listen and is attentive to their needs. But their government is a distant institution most of them know almost nothing about. It explains its decisions in language they do not understand; itis ignorant of – or worse actively ignores – their views; it, is out of touch, and seems to care chiefly for itself. In the day to day business of living – in the market, on the internet, in private life- the citizen is powerful. But in the day to day business of our politics they are more and more powerless.

This gulf is now so structurally deep that it cannot be bridged by little things like reforming Members’ Expenses, improving Government’s communication, simplifying voting, stopping bankers from being greedy or journalists from being irresponsible. All these are necessary but not sufficient.

The crisis of trust in politics will not be solved by tinkering at the top and making the establishment behave better. It can only be resolved by re-connecting the citizen with power. If we are to make our democracy work again, there has to be a substantial re-distribution of the powers of the nation state.

Pooling sovereignty with others on the international level is necessary to deliver what we want for our citizens. But we must go further and pass power downwards to create intermediary institutions between the citizen and the state; which brings power closer to the citizen, gives them a stake in the governance of their lives, provides them with closer contact, more involvement, greater control.

This is not about shrinking the state as many in the Conservative would wish. It is about re-balancing the state in favour of the individual. That is one of the crucial differences between us. This is, of course, not a new Liberal idea; it’s an old one. But it’s now more relevant than ever – more necessary than ever.

Why should our national Government interfere so much in our personal lives? Surely, it should be looking after things that are genuinely national – our defence, our foreign affairs, our macro-economic policies, our national planning and transport policies. Westminster did far less, it would do it far better.


The truth of the matter is that the great black hole of Westminster has sucked into itself so much of the power that ought to lie elsewhere, that it has made itself dysfunctional. It simply cannot efficiently manage the power it has accrued for itself. Which is one of the reasons why it makes more mistakes and is trusted less and less by those it serves

So, when it comes to those services which touch on the lives of ordinary citizens – health, education, welfare, social services – why should these not be delivered, within a national framework of universal entitlements and by institutions much closer to the citizens?

The Great Reform Act of 1832 is credited with saving Britain from the revolutions which soaked Europe in blood in 1848. Perhaps the time has come for another Great Reform Act – one that doesn’t merely shuffle the papers of local democracy and localism, but actually hand down power.

The problem with the Government’s localism agenda is that it merely shifts power from Whitehall to the Town Hall – we will never regenerate our democracy by simply transferring power from one bureaucracy, to another. Local Government will have to recognise that it is only one of the local structures through which the citizen has engagement and control.

We must think about creating a much wider network of systems of the sort which you can find in Switzerland and the United States, which put citizen’s choice back in charge of the services they depend on, such as health and education. And if this leads to differences in delivery between one area and another, so what? You cannot believe in local determination and object to people choosing to be different.

The argument over private and public ownership of services is a good example of re-distribution of power. Over the last forty years or so, ordinary citizens have been ripped off, abused and exploited by bad public institutions, as much if not more so than exploitative private ones. The fault lies almost always with lack of transparency, bad leadership and rotten structures rather than the public ownership versus private ownership argument. The key question is not, as we like to think, public or private. It is how is the citizen and the public interest best served. And that can be determined by asking three questions:


  1. Is the process completely transparent for all to see – from the drawing up of the contract to the delivery of the service?
  2. Does the citizen have choice, or is it a monopoly?
  3. How is quality measured?


Surely, if we are in favour of a mixed economy, we should also be in favour of a mixed system of public service delivery too. The more mixed the better. This means more imagination, brave experimentation and an eye for implementing best practice.

Whilst more forward looking commercial institutions are taking the ideas of openness and public deliberation seriously, why do so very few public one? Why are we killing off, for instance alternative ownership and control structures based on mutualism, when we should be promoting them?

I believe we are facing a most dangerous conjunction. An economic crisis against a background of a frightening collapse of trust in politics, government and maybe even in democracy itself. Tinkering at the edges; putting our house in order and improving behaviour at the top will not solve this.

If we won’t find the courage to give the citizen more stake in the decisions which affect their lives, there may be worse ahead.