Re-Alignment – Sunday Times 3 July 2016

Sunday Times 3 July 2016


A prayer attributed to a medieval cleric goes: “Lord, things are serious. This time please come yourself, this is no job for a boy”.


A people’s revolution lays waste to all previous European certainties. The sound of the tumbrils echoes round Westminster. One of the two Party leaders-of-state has been beheaded and the other is being led to the gallows by his mutinous Captains. Les Misérables march on Westminster behind a bunch of squabbling would-be leaders, who, beyond Brexit, agree on nothing and hate each other with a passion.. This is one of those revolutions which will end up devouring its children – as well as many innocent others along the way.


What on earth that is good, can be dragged out of this unholy mess?


Actually there is something, if we on the modern progressive wing of politics, now play our cards cannily.


First a bit of analysis, then a short proposition.


Many of the great changes in British politics did not come through political Parties, but through people’s movements which re-shaped political Parties. Think the huge public meetings which led to the Great Reform Act; think the Trades Union Movement which gave birth to Labour; think of the Suffragets, think the Gay Rights movement; think potentially last Thursday which looks as though it will now break both the Tories and Labour.


The new phenomenon of our time is the populist reverse take-over of political Parties. Trump did it to the Republicans, the hard left did it to Corbin’s Labour Party and the Brexiteers are about to do it to the Tories.


At one level all this is healthy and natural. Given the retreat of our political classes from the battleground of principle to the politics of managerialism; given the disconnect that has grown up between politics and people, some kind of convulsion was inevitable. But why does it always have to be a convulsion for something more ugly, more divisive, more xenophobic and more dangerous. Why is there never a convulsion for something better, instead?


One big recent event points to the possibility of a movement for better things, rather than worse ones. The huge public outcry which which erupted after the killing of Jo Cox seemed to hint that what people felt was murdered that day was not just a remarkable person, but also their own cherished ideas and values.


The present 3.5 million strong petition for another referendum may not succeed. But it is a powerful expression of public hunger, beyond political Parties, to find a way to fix the mess they think (me too) we have created for ourselves.


And so we have arrived at a most intriguing situation. The two great Parties-of-state who have dominated our politics for a hundred years, are no longer able to contain the opinions within them. With both spinning away to the extremes, what happens to the homeless millions – in politics and outside – who now have nowhere to go with their views and their votes? There is my wonderful Lib Dems of course. But we were set back hugely at the last election and it will take time to get back where we were, and the next General Election may only be months away


One of the barriers standing in the way of something more sensible is the political party itself. Look at a business model which does not take into account the new technologies and you see a model that is on its way to failure. Though all our Parties enthusiastically use the new technologies to communicate with the electorate, none use them either in their internal structures or propose them in the external practices of our politics.


And so engagement in Political Parties remains the preserve of the fanatic, in the case of the Tories, supplemented by the geriatric. The Lib Dems don’t do fanatic – more’s the pity.


The political Party and the political movement have become separated. We need to bring them back together again by widening access and lowering the cost of engagement. One model is the Five Star movement in Italy (but not its politics). Internet based, low membership fee, much more direct democracy. There are dangers here, not least of entryism and take overs. But are they really less than the dangers of the organisational collapse of political Parties which have become little more than clubs for the few, instead of voices for the many?


And while we are on the subject of the new technologies, is there anything more ridiculous than modern men and women doing their tax returns on line, manage their bank accounts on line and see their Doctor on line, but having to struggle through the wind and rain to a damp Church Hall to cast their vote with a stubby pencil scratching a cross on a scrap of paper?


I am not suggesting that all political parties follow the Five Star model. They won’t either easily, or soon enough.


And I am not suggesting forming one either. We’ll have to make do with what we have for the moment. But what about creating a space – a kind of virtual town hall meetings like those which led to the Great Reform Act – where those from any Party and none who hold modern progressive views – those epitomised by Jo Cox – can gather to find the means to defend what is decent and call for something better than the politics of extremism and xenophobia. It would only be a start. But with a General Election perhaps soon, who knows where a start could lead.


We would have to put aside the instinct in troubled times to seek refuge in the bosom of our own tribes.


But is that such a price to pay when, in the words of Jo Cox, there is so much more that unites us, than divides us?






Osborne is lost and alone 23 march 2016

Osborne is lost and alone Paddy Ashdown



After almost a year imprisoned in a dark and comfortless place, the Liberal Democrats have had a rather cheery week, indulging in the guilty pleasure of watching George Osborne and David Cameron making a complete hash of trying to govern without us.


It started with George Osborne’s schoolboy braggadocio about abolishing the Lib Dems and ended with him being torn apart by the right wingers we protected him from, following a cruel and foolish budget which would never have allowed to see the light of day.


Never in modern politics history has such a biter, been so painfully bit!


Hubris, that great devourer of over-blown ambition has just taken its first victim in this Government. There will be more. Free of the restraint (I wanted to say wisdom – but that would be boasting) of the Liberal Democrats and now unprotected from the rampages of their own right wingers, this Government does not need a decent opposition to bring them down – they seem more than able to do the job for themselves.


It was never supposed to be like this.


The Osborne/Cameron claim that they are “Caring Conservatives” was always pretty hard to swallow. But to go on repeating this mantra like a failed witches incantations after this Budget and IDS’s broadsides only serves to show how out of touch they are.


But the real problem for the two old Etonians is that “Caring Conservatism” was not just the slogan – it was also the strategy. And it is now as dead as a Dodo (I nearly said parrot). This is not just because no-one believes it any longer, but also because the Tory right wouldn’t allow it – and, freed from the restraints of coalition they are the ones calling the shots, from forcing the Prime Minister to make a humiliating interruption in a European crisis summit on refugees, to discuss the taxation of sanitary products, to forcing the Chancellor to cut the heart out of his budget strategy (if indeed there was one).


It was never supposed to be like this. But then Mr Cameron has ever been all tactics and no strategy.


It is an open secret that the Tories bet on a second coalition. Osborne’s election messages of aggressive welfare cuts were only ever intended as dog-whistle promises to call in the Tory vote. They weren’t supposed to become policy – the Lib Dems would see to that, he gambled. The problem is that, without the Lib Dems, the dog has now turned into a pack of ravenous wolves, whose first meal this last week was George Osborne’s ambitions and whose second – when they get the chance – will be him.


Never has such a petard hoister, been so comprehensively hoisted.


And after Osborne, well we know who comes next. Westminster now resonates with the dark growlings of Tory right-wing malcontents rumbling that, win or lose the Euro referendum, Osborne must go soon and Cameron must follow him soon after.


That’s the problem with ravenous wolves. Once the hunt is begun, they always want more.


For all the fact that we Lib Dems are enjoying the delicious schadenfreude of the moment, there is a serious – even tragic point behind all this.


George Osborne is just one pawn in a greater game which we all risk losing. We face an uncertain future over Europe and real challenges with a weakening economy. Britain cannot afford a Chancellor who is so careless with his judgements, or a Government rendered dystopian by a bunch of back-benchers who view every issue through the distorted prism of their anti-European prejudices.


It was never supposed to be like this.


This was supposed, just a brief year ago, to be the new Conservative dawn. It is turning out to be the old Conservative European nightmare.


We were promised that Promethean Cameron would leap forward unbound. Instead he finds himself chained to a chariot drawn by a baying clan of horsemen of the Tory apocalypse.


Remember when they boasted that at last they were free and could govern by themselves? Well now they are and, as Laurel and Hardy would have said, just look at the fine mess they have got themselves into!


Never has such a carefully prepared bed, been so excruciatingly painful to lie in!



Mrs Thatcher 8 April 2013

Mrs Thatcher


“There is nothing I have done in my life which frightened me so much as standing up in the House of Commons as a wet behind the ears new Liberal Leader and being ritually hand bagged by her in front of the radio microphones of the nation (TV in the Commons did not arrive until later). I opposed almost everything she did (but found myself following many of them when I tried to get the Bosnian economy going by lowering taxes and freeing up the market). Though there will be many who saw her as the author of much destruction that we still mourn, much that she pulled down, needed to be pulled down. She was better as destroyer of old tired institutions and lazy ways of thinking than she was as the builder of new ones; better at defining divisions than building cohesion. But, probably that’s what Britain needed then. Had we on the left had not grown so lazy about our addictions to the easy ways of state corporatism, she would perhaps have been less successful at so cruelly exposing their hollowness. The pre-eminent attribute in politics is courage; the moral courage to hold to the things you believe in. And this, like her or loathe her, she had in abundance. Personally charming to all except those in her Cabinet; fearless when taking on her enemies, even to the extent of making up some of her own; utterly implacable in her patriotism, albeit of a kind which didn’t always serve the country’s long term interests. She won great victories for what she stood for at home and huge respect for our country abroad. If politics is the ability to have views, hold to them and drive them through to success, she was undoubtedly the greatest Prime Minister of our age, and maybe even the greatest politician.”

Mediterranean refugees -FT – 1 November 1943

Mediterranean refugees -FT – 1 November 1943 

Over the years, British politicians have clashed with EU officials on everything from the size of bankers’ bonuses to the power consumed by vacuum cleaners to how knobbly a carrot can be before it no longer counts as a vegetable. But this week Brussels put forward a conclusion on a matter of life and death that elicited harmonious murmur of agreement from Whitehall. It is that the best way to discourage refugees from north Africa from seeking a better life is to let them drown.


In 2013 700 people, many of them women and children, are believed to have died trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe. This year the figure is 3,000; the number of people setting out from the north African coast has probably increased by a similar proportion. About 180,000 have made it safely to European shores so far this year. Humanity and respect for life are basic European values. But in a crowded continent whose near neighbour is one of the world’s most impoverished and volatile regions, they are being tested.


Refugees travel far and wide after reaching dry land. The influx poses a problem for every European nation, but none has shown much interest in dealing with it. Or at least, none had shown much interest before last October, when the skipper of a stricken trawler squinted into the early morning sunlight and, seeing land, set fire to a blanket in hopes of alerting people on the shore. By the time help arrived the boat, crammed with fleeing Eritreans and Somalis and drifting about a mile off the Italian island of Lampedusa, had caught fire and sunk. More than 300 people are believed to have died.


That tragedy was the spur for Mare Nostrum, a yearlong Italian naval operation that has saved 150,000 lives. But Rome has had to shoulder the €9m a month cost alone. Other European capitals, content to benefit from the generosity and humanity of the Italians, have declined to lift a finger.


People-traffickers, many of them based in Egypt, have also been more than happy to take advantage of Italian compassion, often phoning the Italian navy to tell them about a leaky boat full of refugees off the north African coast. They know that under international law the Italians must then rescue those whom the smugglers have just abandoned. Not unreasonably, the Italians have concluded that they cannot continue to have their generosity abused.


And so the EU has been forced to act. It has chosen to do so, not by relieving the Italians or even by helping them, but by sending in the European border force. In place of Mare Nostrum will be an operation run by Frontex, the authority that polices the common frontier of the 26 nations participating in the Schengen area of passport-free travel. It will have only one-third of the funding of the Italian operation. And it will not be allowed to operate outside European territorial waters. It cannot rescue abandoned refugees in international waters, as the Italian navy has been doing; they will now be left to drown. This, it is suggested, will be helpful because it is considered that the salutary spectacle of women and children drowning in numbers could reduce the “pull factor” that is created when they are rescued.


Has Brussels really become so separated from common human decency that it can contemplate such arguments, let alone invite us to accept them?


The new European policy will not hurt the people traffickers, only one of whom has ever been arrested – in Egypt. Its intended victims are the hapless human flotsam those criminals have abandoned, who we now propose to leave to drown pour encourager les autres.


It will not work. The recent surge in Mediterranean refugees began after the sinking off Lampedusa, a tragic spectacle that did little to put people off. More deaths are unlikely to be much more effective as a deterrent. True, the Italian rescue operation also began after Lampedusa. But the passage is by any measure remains a dangerous one; the number of deaths has continued to increase. People attempt it because of the desperate circumstances they face. However grave the risks, little is more frightening than staying where they are.


This week the government said that Frontex ships would not be in breach of their international obligations to rescue those in peril at sea. The ships, ministers assured parliament, will be safely tucked away in European territorial waters, far away from the drowning refugees. It is a cynical justification, and one that belies the claim that this policy is motivated by a genuine care for the welfare of refugees


What should European nations, including the UK, be doing instead? Helping the Italians rather than abandoning them to do our dirty work would be a good start. Brussels could also do more to pressure the governments of Egypt and other north African departure nations to act against the traffickers – and provide them with the technical help to do so. In the 1960s the Special Boat Service was sent to the Caribbean to prevent drug traffickers from Colombia from reaching countries such as Jamaica and Barbados. If this worked in the Caribbean then why should it not in the Mediterranean now? People traffickers, too, are a grave threat to our security.


The EU should also invest much more development and diplomatic assistance in a region where conflicts have for too long been allowed to fester. Somalia is a failed state, Ethiopia close to one. And Eritrea is in the grip of a brutal regime that controls its citizens through open-ended “national service” for men and women from the age of 17. These are among the main sources of this caravan of human misery.


The UK should be pressing our EU partners to match the development assistance we have provided in north and east Africa. And we should all intensify our efforts. The west readily finds billions when it comes to fighting a war. But when it comes to preventing conflict or rebuilding peace, we offer little more than pennies.


Any of these – or all of them in combination – would be far better than the policy the EU proposes which, apart from being inhuman, immoral and potentially illegal, will also not work.


Joint article with Jo Cox Daily Telegraph 11 January 2016


Joint article with Jo Cox Daily Telegraph 11 January 2016


In order to break the siege, you need to first break the silence surrounding it.”

The person who spoke these words was in Yarmouk, a camp in Syria’s capital, Damascus, besieged for two years by the Syrian government, causing a reported 200 people to die of hunger. In nearby Madaya, 40,000 people have been denied any assistance since October. Images of emaciated Syrians – reminiscent of the images we saw in Srebrenica, and we all know how that ended – have emerged over the past week; images of children forced to survive on rotting leaves and water with spices in, their skin stretched thin over their young bones. Their mothers helpless.

As a former aid worker and a close observer of what happened in Bosnia, we are used to seeing suffering. But what is happening in Madaya matches the worst the world has seen in recent years.

The UN estimates that 400,000 people have been systematically denied food, medicine, water in medieval siege conditions in Syria: the real figure is probably nearer to 1 million. Meanwhile the Syrian Government plays grandmothers footsteps with the international community: besiege a city, wait for the political pressure to build, make limited or phony concessions, and then, when everyone has lost interest, continue as before. Last year the UN made 91 requests of the Syrian government to secure humanitarian access across conflict lines. Less than a third of those have been approved. In total, only 13 cross-line convoys were completed.

It is in this context that we should view the UN aid convoy heading for Madaya. Even if the Syrian Government is serious this time about allowing the convoy through, there will be many armed groups on the way who can stop it, or insist on a price for letting it pass – just as happened when the UN did this to relieve starving communities in Bosnia. The UN and the British Government must keep up the pressure and break these sieges and pressure EU partners to join in. Only if we do this can we save the lives of those in Madaya, but also the hundreds of thousands of others in less high-profile hell holes. Negotiating an alternative air route to supplement – or if necessary replace – the land route to get aid to Madaya is a very effective way of keeping that pressure up.

Some argue that flying aid in is too dangerous because this is Syrian air-space and Assad has sophisticated Russian air defence systems. The answer to this is simple. Pressure Russia to agree to the airdrops and get their Syrian friends to do so too. It will be difficult for Russia to refuse in the face of the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes in Madaya. Who knows in Putin’s push to build international support – he may even want to join in?

We faced the same problems when the US flew life saving air-drops into Srebrenica, where the Serbs also had Russian air defence missiles in place. We didn’t let it stop us then and it shouldn’t now.

Britain is the second largest contributor of humanitarian aid to the UN Syria appeal – something we should be proud of. The Government was also instrumental in getting Security Council backing for the UN to deliver aid across conflict lines and across Syria’s borders to get to all those who need it. The job is not yet done.

The UN ‘welcomed’ Thursday’s announcement that aid would get into Madaya. Humanitarian aid is not a luxury. It is a right, enshrined in international law, reiterated in numerous Security Council Resolutions. The legal mandate is there. Humanitarians must use it. In the unnecessary days of negotiation between the Syrian Government giving permission and the UN trucks moving, more people have died.

Next month, the UK will host a conference on aid for Syrian refugees and protection for those still in Syria. This is an invaluable opportunity to galvanise support for the millions affected by the Syria conflict. That conference will be a sham if it is not able to offer hope for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living under siege in Syria.

The means are there. The legal case is clear. The humanitarian need is overwhelming. And so is the public support. All that is lacking is the political will.

If we could do it for the starving in besieged Srebrenica and again for the besieged Yassidis in northern Iraq, there should be no reason it cannot be done for those suffering and dying, in besieged Madaya.

There is no time to waste.


Lords reform 27 June 2011 The Times

Lords reform 27 June 2011 The Times

Those who oppose parliamentary reform have used always four arguments. There is no public call for it; it will all end in constitutional collapse; it is vandalism to let the elected into our quiet groves of wisdom – they won’t handle things half as well as we do. And why fix what isn’t broken?


All these arguments were on full display in the Lords last week and will be, no doubt in the Commons debate today.


Its true the public are not clamouring for a democratic Lords. But they have told us clearly enough that they don’t like our way politics is, as the gap between Government and Governed grows wider. We need to respond to that call and the Lords cannot be exempted from this process.


What the constitutional armageddonists say they are frightened of, meanwhile is that elected Lords would challenge the primacy of the Commons. I don’t want to see that either. But why should it? There are 61 elected second Chambers around the world. In none has election of the second chamber led to threatening the primacy of the first. Is Britain’s constitution really so weak that it would risk collapse if its second chamber was elected, like the overwhelming majority of others worldwide? Those who extol the magical virtues of an unwritten constitution, cannot then say that nothing may ever change unless the consequences are written down!


As for wisdom versus democracy, well I concede; there is a reservoir of expertise in the Lords. But it is not evenly spread, unique, or, much of it, up to date either. Most of it exists on the cross benches. So if some find simple democracy too radical, maybe we should preserve this 20% provided they are independently appointed. That would be uncomfortable for those who think democracy best. But if that’s the price for an overwhelmingly elected Lords, then I, for one, would swallow it.


Then there’s the charge that a democratic Lords would mean a more political Lords (perish the thought!). As though it wasn’t political already! There are 201 ex-MPs who have humped their politics the short distance from the green benches in the Commons to the red ones in the Lords – not counting those who are there because they have filled Party coffers. The overwhelming majority of those who attend the Lords are there for political reasons and have a political job to do. We are – all of us – political placemen (or women), put there by a system of patronage, in the hands of those in power. I thought that went out with Stuart Kings!


Our second Chamber is too important to be a retirement home for ex-MPs passed their sell-by date (myself included), when it could be properly democratically elected.


The House of Lords is already political. How could it be otherwise? The question is whether its politicians are put there by the powerful – or the people.


The Lords should have two functions. The first is to be a revising Chamber. This it does well.


The second should to act as part of our system of checks and balances, to stand up to an over mighty executive, backed by an overwhelming majority in the Commons, when they try to do foolish things like the Poll Tax – or launching us into an illegal war. This we do, hardly at all. How can we? We are the Government’s creature.


The very first thing a new Government does is appoint enough new peers to create a majority for itself in the Lords, which replicates the one it has just won in the Commons! Which means we are all too frequently reduced to a reflection which magnifies the power of the Executive, rather than a counter balance which, subject to the Commons’ ultimate authority, checks it. We may have a bicameral system when it comes to the small thing of amending legislation. But when it comes to the big thing – acting as a check on the executive – ours is no more than a mono-cameral system with a bungalow annexe.


Last week Labour old warhorses in the Lords ignored their manifesto commitment to an elected Chamber and once again joined backwoodsmen of the Tory right to block radical change.


There is a chance for a great reform here. In the end, it may all depend on whether Labour in the Commons is prepared, to put its money where its manifesto was. If it doesn’t, then, we may lose another chance for change. Then we will know that, once again, Labour just cannot be trusted with reform.




Lords reform 25 Aug 2014

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced yet more appointments to the Lords.  The Liberal Democrat peers were appointed on the pledge ‘to abolish themselves’.


The Lords has two functions. To revise and to hold the Executive to account. The first it does quite well, the second it does not at all – how can it when it is a creature of the Executive; when it is deliberately overloaded with new Peers to give the Government of the day a hand me down majority whose job is not to challenge them, but to push through what they want.


The Lords is wholly undemocratic and will never have the legitimacy it needs for a healthy democracy until this is changed .


Every party in their manifestos hints at reform or abolition of the second chamber, but the Liberal Democrats are the only party committed to it. So today we recommit our party – and its new Peers – to working actively for the reform of the House of Lords and ideally its abolition in favour of an elected second chamber. We urge the other parties to join us in this effort.


There is a simple reason for this and it is called democracy; the people’s laws should only be made by those whom the people have elected. They should not be made by cronies appointed by the Prime Minister.


We Lib Dems wanted reform in the last parliament. But, in the Lords, Tory backwoodsmen helped by labour deadbeats scuppered it. The argument was that there was no public call for reform then. Well there is now!


Now is the time to try again.This time, we call on them to join us and make our second chamber fit for purpose as part of a modern democratic system, not a medieval relic from a bygone age. The Liberal Democrats stand ready to work with anyone, in any party, to create a wholly, or at the very least, mainly elected second chamber. Our new Peers in the Lords will add weight to our voice and our ability to make this happen.


The Lords was already the largest legislative assembly in the world outside of China and costs taxpayers around £100million a year to run – even before yesterday’s announcement. There are 56 two-chamber Parliaments in the world. The overwhelming majority are properly elected. Britain, in the dubious company of Belize, Burkina Faso, Fiji and Trinidad and Tobago, is one of the disgraceful exceptions.

We send our soldiers abroad to fight (and sometimes die) for democracy. But we do not yet even have it fully in our own Parliament.

The time to put this right is now. To delay further in the face of recent abuses would be an affront to our democracy and to our country.





The Lords reform Mail on Sunday 9 July 2012

Mail on Sunday 9 July 2012


The case for reforming the House of Lords is simple enough.


In a democracy those who make the people’s laws should be the people’s representatives. Not appointees of the Prime Minister; or the descendants of the male favourites of past Kings; or those of the female ones they went to bed with.

We send our young soldiers to other people’s countries to die for democracy – and kill for it too. Yet we haven’t got it in our own country. With the rest of the world on the streets calling for democracy, we Lords can’t be bunkered down in our golden Chamber, resisting it.


More than 50% of these appointed peers come from London and the South East, while only 25% of the people do. How can we take decisions for the whole country when we only represent a tiny portion of it? There are seven times more peers aged over 90 than under 40. At 71, I am a positive stripling! How can such a gerontocracy represent our whole vibrant nation? And once a Lord forever a Lord. At present you can never be removed. Even if you cheat or go to jail. How can we help bring new standards to politics, when we can’t even kick out the criminals in our own numbers?


We are not just facing an economic crisis. We are also facing a political one. The people have completely lost confidence in the politicians – and with good reason. The gap between government and governed has grown dangerously wide. If we will not refresh our democracy we could see it under threat. How can the Lords be excluded from that process?


Why dysfunctional? Because the Lords has two jobs to do. Revise the laws that come from the Commons and hold the Government to account. The first we do well. The second we do not at all. We are graciously permitted to go round with a golden poop-scoop clearing up the legislative mess left by the House of Commons Elephant at the other end of the corridor. But when it comes to holding the Executive to account we are wholly incapable of doing it. How can we hold the Government to account, when we are the creatures of its patronage? If the Lords had been able to do this job properly, we would probably never have had the Poll Tax or, I fancy, the Iraq war either. Lord Hailsham famously warned of the dangers of an “elected dictatorship” in the House of Commons. If ever there was a time for a strong democratically based second Chamber to buttress our democracy, it is now.

Whatever view you take of the Cameron/Clegg proposals nobody can seriously call them ‘ill-considered’. They were preceded by a Royal Commission, four White Papers and three Joint Committees. If this is so “ill-considered”, how come every Party called for it in their manifestos at the last election? (Labour, now cynically inventing reasons to scupper the Bill to make trouble for the Government, have believed in it for decades).


The Cameron/Clegg reform Bill does not “trash” the Lords, as some claim; it retains the best of what we have now and discards the worst. The new more democratic “Lords” will remain different from the Commons; they will be more separated from the short termism of a five year electoral cycle; less likely to cow-tow to the whips and the media. But the Commons will remain more powerful and able to get its way if it insists. Which means more democracy, but no deadlock; more power to scrutinise, but no power to paralyse. That’s proper democracy in action, not a sham based on an ancient gilded anachronism that should have gone long, long ago.


Some write of the “amazing expertise” in the existing Lords. They are right to do so: we have some very eminent, independent figures there. But they are far outnumbered by the retired, the rejected, the defeated and the sometimes down right dead-beat from the House of Commons. For them (us) and for the many who became Lords not because of their public service, but because they bank-rolled a political Party, the Lords is indeed a most comfortable and convenient retirement home. But is that a reason to keep it? Of course some of those ex-MPs can be experts too. But that’s not why they were put there. My colleague Alex Carlile, who wrote in this paper last Sunday, is not a Lord because he is a great legal eagle (which he undoubtedly is), but because he is a former Liberal Democrat MP. I should know. I recommended him for a peerage in the first place.


And that expertise will not, as he claimed last week, be ‘lost’ in the new “Lords”. Quite the contrary. The present Lords has some 80 active ‘crossbench’ experts amongst our 800 appointees. The new “Lords” will have 90 appointed experts out of 450. You don’t need to be a brain surgeon to see that the influence of non-party “experts” on Lords decisions will not go down in future, it will go up!


Alex also argued that the reformed Lords will be “decided in the tribal atmosphere of party committees”. Actually the electoral system proposed will actively discourage this and leave the ultimate choice to the voters. And that’s the point. At present the voters don’t get a choice at all; its only the Prime Minister’s choice that counts.


If we don’t reform, then the number of Lords could well rise from 800 to over 1000! All of whom can draw their untaxed allowance of £300 a day – for life. Cost? £18.7m and counting. More than double what it was a decade ago. And set to double again in the next decade. Everyone else is having to trim; the Lords is getting fatter and fatter.


Some say our priority now should be the economy. And so it should. But Parliament can do more than one thing at a time. When Britain’s young men were storming the beaches of Normandy, fighting for our very existence, the Commons was debating the post war education system. If that crisis could not stop us making this country fitter for the future, why should this one?


Others ask “why reform now?”


Because we have to refresh our democracy to put politics in touch with the people again. Because the Lords can’t be exempt from that. Because the Lords can’t do its job of holding the Government to account while we are its creature, rather than the people’s servants. Because while everyone else is having to cut, the Lords, already bloated with Members, is only set to get fatter. Above all, because in a nation proud of its democracy we should be ashamed that part of our “Mother” of Parliaments remains an undemocratic left-over from a by-gone age.


I came into the Lords to see it become a chamber created by the will of the people, not the patronage of the politicians. Next week the Commons will get its chance to do this. They should take it. This is the people’s business which has been delayed too long.


1193 words


Little England Guardian 2 Nov 2012

 Little England

The Little Englanders seem set to get their Little England.


Three factors push powerfully towards this outcome. The dynamic towards deeper integration south of the Channel; towards separatism north of the border. And towards growing isolationism in English opinion.


Of course the move towards deeper integration of the Euro Seventeen is far from certain. There are big hurdles to overcome; the agreement of their peoples and the scepticism of the markets to mention but two. It could all still easily fail. If it does then the following, does not follow – but the collapse of the Euro and perhaps the European Union as we know it, probably does. With incalculable damage from which semi-detached Britain will not be excluded.


If however the Seventeen can make it work – and that is the Government’s assumption – then the Seventeen will have their own President, their own bureaucracy and their own interests to pursue.


Then there will be a two speed Europe with Britain in the outer ring, heading fast for the exit.


Then the Seventeen will inevitably caucus to advantage their own interests and disadvantage others – why should they not? How far they will go we do not know, but it would be surprising if they did not, for instance prefer to promote Frankfurt over the City of London. Mr Cameron assures us he will not let this happen; but would he please tell us how?


How, too will he “repatriate substantial powers” from the EU if, as seems very likely, the rest (or most of them) say No? What will he do then? He can talk the talk today, but how will he walk the walk tomorrow? And even if some crumbs are allowed to fall his way, these will never be enough to satisfy the ravenous Eurosceptic beast on his back benches, whose might has now increased enormously and whose stomach is rumbling for more. They and UKIP are the clear winners of the last few weeks.


Unless the Prime Minister can face them down – and I am not convinced he has either the will or means to do so – then we are firmly launched on a dynamic which moves the Tory Party from grumbling about the EU to a permanent state of anger at being “ignored” by it.


Future EU summits will not help the process. The night before the Seventeen did their deal, Mr Cameron dined with the Poles and the Swedes. I hope he enjoyed it – there will be lots more dinner parties like that in the future. More brave words before summits about “fighting Britain’s corner”; more disappointment afterwards when we realise that, apart from perhaps one or two from the outer ring, almost the only person in Britain’s corner, is Britain.


But the difference is that most of those on the periphery would like to get into the core. Tory England wants to get as far away from it as possible.


I say England because this is not true north of the border. There, another dynamic is now gathering pace – and its running strongly towards separation. If Mr Salmond can hold his referendum on his terms and time-scale, there is a good chance he will win it unless we are careful. Then it will be firmly in Scotland’s interest, as a small independent nation to accept what Britain has rejected. Full engagement in the EU and joining Ireland as a full member of the Euro.


Euro to the west of us; Euro to the east of us; Euro to north of us; Euro to the south; England splendidly isolated, splendidly alone and, as always of course, splendidly right!


Switzerland, with nuclear weapons


None of this is inevitable. None of it is planned. None of it will be intended. But all of it becomes more and more likely if we do not act to reverse the dynamic in our country. It is not just the future of the Coalition which is at stake. As Nick Clegg has said, it’s the whole country.


No-one is saying that the EU does not need deep reform. But the best way to achieve that is to be engaged and positive, not semi-detached and shouting insults. There are things that need to be done to ensure the EU interferes less and concentrates more on the things that matter to give us a larger voice in an increasingly inhospitable world. But these will not be achieved by a smash and grab raid to “repatriate powers” that is bound to fail.


Those who fight against the growing mood of isolationism in England are fighting against the odds, I grant. But to remain silent at this moment is to accept isolation by default. And for this country, whose history has been engagement, that would not just be a disaster, it would also be a tragedy.



Isolationism in Britain The Mirror 2 December 2015

The Mirror 2 December 2015



Often we approach the next conflict in the shadow of the last one. Labour crucify themselves on the altar of guilt over Iraq and right wing Tories conjure up its ghosts to add to their agenda of isolationism. The public reeling from the deceits of that war, are in sceptical mood – and properly so.


But this is not another Iraq. Then we had no UN resolution. Today we have one which places a duty on us to act, not stand idly by. Then we lacked an international coalition. Today one is being assembled in Vienna including our European neighbours, Russia, and all Syria’s Arab neighbours. Then we had to accept Mr Blair’s word on the weapons which threatened us. Today we have seen them on our streets and the sands of our holiday resorts.


If we will not act now, then when?


Three years ago the Commons refused to punish Assad for his use of chemical weapons. I feared then that the men of evil would be encouraged to do worse. They have. I worried that Britain was moving towards isolationism. We are.


Seventy years ago we did more than any other nation to give France back her liberty. Now we seem reluctant even to support her in her pain.


Then Britain was not afraid to stand alone. Now some want to stand aside, while others do our fighting for us


Britain has always engaged in Europe. Now our mood is to leave it. Since when have our interets been advanced by sheltering behind our island walls, shouting insults at foreigners?


The last Government led the world in tackling climate challenge. This Government retreats into climate selfishness and leaves the leadership to others.


Britain has always welcomed the desperate and the threatened. Now Germany’s Angela Merkel rises to the challenge of 800,00 refugees, while we shrink in horror from 3,000 knocking on the Channel Tunnel doors. It comes to something when the Britain of Winston Churchill, has to be taught a lesson in humanity and leadership by a German Chancellor.


On the face of it tomorrows Commons vote is about whether to extend our fight against ISIL in Iraq, over the border into Syria. But it is also about something else. Whether we will return to Britain’s great tradition of engagement, or retreat further into an isolationism which diminishes our role, our standing and our security in a dangerous world.