Friday, 29 August 2014

Jim Murphy halts speaking tour - a calculated over-reaction?

It has been announced that Labour MP Jim Murphy has cancelled his pro-Union 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of Scotland due to "intimidation".

Murphy has been taking his message around Scottish towns for the last few weeks, in jingositic fashion replacing the traditional soapbox with a Irn Bru crate.

Yesterday, while addressing the public in Kirkcaldy, Murphy was hit by three eggs. A photographer was also threatened, on account of "being English".

This should not be welcome in Scottish politics. Throwing eggs and threatening is hardly the hallmark of a healthy democracy.

Murphy told The Guardian: "What is happening is that the yes campaign is now organising to create a mob atmosphere at our street meetings. It's co-ordinated, it's determined and it's increasingly aggressive. What started as individual passionate nationalists having their say has changed into angry mobs of nationalists coming along and making sure that no one else has their say... instead of undecided voters being encouraged to stop and take part in the debate, those who ask genuine questions are being interrogated by yes campaigners."

It is an inescapable fact that the campaigning has often been less respectful that it could be. One the the first influences in determining my own decision to vote yes was a cartoon from my own party blackening up the First Minister. And we've experienced much worse since then, from both sides - and from none.  it should be pointed out that individuals who feel strongly about issues do not necessarily belong formally to any of the rival campaign organisations.

The scenes yesterday were ugly, that much is true. But uglier still, from the viewpoint of furthering Scottish democracy, has been the attempt by Better Together to suggest that Yes Scotland have co-ordinated such attacks intentionally, and that such tactics demonstrate the undemocratic nature of what Scotland would look like if independent. The smears are no more civilised that the egg-hurling, but the difference is that those making accusations of Yes Scotland, and drawing unreasonable conclusions, are either officials of Better Together or people who I would normally credit with sufficient intelligence to appreciate that the actions of a tiny minority have little relation to the attitudes of the majority. It's disturbing to see some buying into the myth that the idiotic antics of a few are suggestive of the nature of an independent Scotland. (I'd probably point out that, in any case, cultures and societal attitudes are generally not determined by constitutional arrangements, and that the same intolerant persons would still be here regardless of the outcome of the vote.)

We could all look at a picture of the Westboro Baptist Church, with their hate-filled slogans written on poorly constructed banners, and think "stupid Americans" or "typical Christians". But in doing so we would, by resorting to such ridiculous simplicities, miss the bigger picture and the actions of the many in America and within the church who are working to facilitate a more inclusive society. The same is true in Scotland. There have been individuals supporting both Yes Scotland and Better Together who have behaved shamefully, but the respective campaigns (for all the shortcomings I've often documented on this blog) are not actively encouraging mob rule. 


It must be said that this kind of thing is not exactly new to British politics. In the 1992 General Election, John Major took to the streets. Hounded everywhere by Labour supporters (who behaved in much the same way as Murphy's detractors; hecking, shouting over him and generally making a nuisance of themselves) he too was hit by a well-aimed egg. His response, showing courage in the face of intimidation, ("I will not be shouted off the streets") helped win him the 1992 election. Stunts like this are usually counter-productive, and usually only succeed in gaining public sympathy for the target.

Murphy understands this fully, and has the political nous to use it fully to his advantage. For all the talk of police concern for Murphy's safety, the scenes in Kirkcaldy were no worse than previous attacks on politicians - and certainly not as concerning as the attack on John Prescott in Hull in 2001. Are the Yes supporters, for all their noise and bluster, really any worse than the Labour supporting mobs who followed the Tories around in the 1980s and 1990s?

Murphy thrives on conflict and the adversarial. He's a hugely provocative figure. His personal style and outspoken nature means he will always be the kind of politician targeted by mobs. But he's a man of tremendous strength, and the notion that he's the kind of person likely to be intimidated is laughable. He does understand, however, the value of playing the victim and painting his opposition as tolerant of underhand and intimidatory tactics.

It's important to maintain a sense of perspective and not to deduce too much significance from the fact that some people, irrespective of their political tribe, behave disrespectfully towards others. Hecklers have been a common feature of political discourse for centuries and actually are the sign of a healthy and thriving democracy. During the 2011 election campaign, as a candidate for Renfrewshire North and West, I attended a TUC hustings meeting at which there was both a healthy level of interjection and banter from the floor and a regrettable tendency by some to attempt to bully SNP candidate Derek Mackay. I'm not opposed to those who don't share Murphy's views challenging them in the most public of public forums, although there should never be a need for dissent to be expressed in uncivil ways. It appears that lines have been crossed, but to draw unfair conclusions about Yes Scotland and to overstate the security threat is an irresponsible over-reaction - albeit one that has undoubtedly been cynically calculated.

Willie Rennie claims that this shows the need to "stand up to the nationalist thugs". It does not. It shows the need to stand up for a better way of doing politics. He could, and should, have used more temperate language. I have only once experienced seriously thuggish behaviour - when I was my brother's agent in Blackburn in local elections that were essentially an straight BNP v Labour battle. The respective campaigns, and the inevitable animosity (culminating in brawls, allegations of voter intimidation and a ballot box somehow going on fire), were so poisonous as to make the worst cybernat appear positively tolerant by comparison. It does Willie little credit to resort to such loaded statements, when he could very easily have called for calm, reasonable and respectful conduct from all sides.

Hopefully Murphy's tour will continue in a few days' time, when the police accept he isn't being targeted by seasoned terrorists; I also trust that Yes Scotland will distance itself from the extreme behaviour of a few of its more vocal supporters. This action from the Yes camp is, in my view, vitally important to rebut the claims being made by Better Together and Murphy personally. Perhaps then we'll remember Jim Murphy in the same way as Brian Mawhinney, Ed Miliband, John Prescott and David Cameron - just another politician who's had an egg thrown at them.

It could have been worse. At least it wasn't blue paint...


Thursday, 28 August 2014

Where is the "liberal" in "Better Together"?

To say I'm not the most committed devotee of Better Together, the official campaign opposed to independence, is something of an understatement.

This has not, however, stemmed from a personal position that is diametrically opposed to Better Together's principal objective. For many years I had advocated a referendum, imagining that I would probably vote "no". After all I am a federalist, not a nationalist. I had hoped any referendum on Scotland's constitutional future would be framed - to some degree - by the Liberal Democrats' policies and proposals for further empowering the Scottish Parliament and introducing a federalist settlement for the wider UK.

The opportunity to have the debate on our own terms evaporated in 2011 with the SNP's majority victory, although the reluctance to even entertain the notion of a referendum was a product of the mistaken belief that such a result was an impossibility. It is in this context that Better Together should be judged - rather than making a case, the terms of the debate are such that they will necessarily be forced respond to the SNP/Yes Scotland proposals. This was inevitable; however, in doing so they have surrendered their responsibility to make "the positive case for the Union" and instead wholeheartedly adopted the negative tactics of cynical opposition.

It did not have to be this way though, although the early signs were far from promising. In January 2012, I asked why the Liberal Democrats would wish to be associated with a campaign choosing to adopt a negative and unnecessarily adversarial strategy: "the danger is we could sink without trace, overshadowed by the main parties and an intemperate debate we can't possibly hope to influence. The Lib Dems have the opportunity to stand aside from the hideous, shallow spectacle of political immaturity and articulate something more reasonable, more sensible, more liberal..."

The Better Together approach has been pretty consistent in the intervening two and a half years. It has been embarrassing, not to mention frustrating, to see Liberal Democrat friends adopting a near uncritically supportive stance as far as Better Together is concerned.  Unquestioningly reposting BT materials on facebook and twitter, irrespective of how disrespectful, ill-informed or divisive they could be, has been alarmingly common. Many jumped to the defence of Ian Taylor in a way they never would for Brian Souter. Others have relentlessly defended the indefensible, with the tired line that "it's not negative to ask questions of the SNP".

We've even heralded the wisdom of a former chancellor who, only a few short years ago,  was being reduced to a blithering bundle of nerves on the floor of the Commons by Vince Cable.

The inescapable fact is that the "No" campaign has never seriously attempted to be anything but negative. You might argue that it's a sound strategy, but it's wrong to deny the reality. If, however, it was only the negativity of Better Together that was an issue, I'd probably have less of an issue with Liberal Democrat involvement.

As I predicted - and it gives me no pleasure to be proved correct - we have lost our voice entirely. Aside from a vague and rather meaningless commitment to greater powers for Holyrood from the three Better Together parties, we've been very much a party on the periphery. That's not to say that many of our members have not been tireless activists, but that our distinctive liberal message has not been communicated. It was always going to be this way.

If you want to see what Better Together is about, consider their slogans, messages and broadcasts. We have the "UK OK" catchphrase - stunning in its reinforcement of the mediocre nature of the Union. Then there are its messages - focused on personalities, dismissing SNP ideas rather than advocating any of their own, demanding answers while providing none, and often resorting to undignified and juvenile asides (e.g. "Alex Salmond is a big fearty") - usually playing the man and not the ball. As for broadcasts - and they have been of one standard throughout (shall we say they are not in the same league as the SDP party-political broadcasts?) - let's take a look at the latest work of genius which neatly encapsulates everything that is wrong with the campaign.

For those who haven't seen it, fortunately YouTube is on hand to preserve the evidence. It was so unconsciously patronising and sexist, that it has led to the former convenor of the Scottish Lib Dems, Sandra Grieve, announcing she will vote "Yes". Grieve, who was also a member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, referred to the broadcast as "the straw that broke the camel's back...but I've been increasingly uncomfortable with what I experience as a condescending smugness from Better Together." Former Lib Dem MSP Margaret Smith also attacked it, slamming the portrayal of a woman "who didn't know the name of Scotland's first minister and left all her political thinking for her husband to do." It certainly was both sexist and condescending. But it was also amateurish, devoid of any conviction, shockingly old-fashioned, unimaginative, confused, immature and with little regard to what actually might happen after September 18th. In short, it is an epitome of everything Better Together is. Another Lib Dem member branded Better Together "No2AV all over again", although No2AV were a far superior and more professional campaigning outfit.

I was encouraged to see many Lib Dems speak out against this foolish broadcast. It isn't hard to see why people who have given so much to a campaign are disappointed when that campaign produces backward-looking and illiberal material like this. And yet what is more disturbing is that this is simply typical of what Better Together has become. There is nothing faintly liberal about its message or its philosophy. It promises nothing that a liberal can take pride in. It has not even given our party a platform from which our own distinctive vision can be communicated. It is more than disappointing that there has been such little opposition from Liberal Democrats to the way Better Together does business until recently, when it is evidently too late to reconsider our involvement.

Many criticise our party for "selling our soul" in order to enter coalition. Whatever the truth behind that claim, at least we have gained something from coalition. It is very difficult to see what we have gained in practice from association with the tribalism, negativity and opportunism of our Labour and Conservative counterparts in the "no" camp - and we have most certainly exchanged our "soul". For what? For a dysfunctional Unionism we claim not to believe in? I understand why many Lib Dems may vote to retain the Union, but I genuinely fail to see how it has been to our advantage to align ourselves to completely with this unholy alliance.

Many Liberal Democrats have served Better Together well; perhaps too well. But it has not served the interests of our party. As the polarising debate has become ever more toxic, adversarial and personal we've found ourselves being drawn into it; even defending the kinds of politics we would have at other times considered an affront to democratic conversation.

There is nothing inherently "liberal" about Better Together. It is, at best, an embarrassingly backward-looking organisation with little innovation on the campaigning front and even less in the way of original ideas for creating the kind of Scotland in which we all might want to live. Better Together has stated that Scottish voters will have to justify how they vote to future generations of Scots, and they are quite right in this regard. Personally, however, I'm more concerned with having to explain to future Scottish liberals why our party so slavishly supported a regressive - and, frankly, illiberal - campaign to the detriment of much we aspire to.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

So Better Together aren't pointlessly negative? Sure...


A common feature of what has passed for debate on Scotland's future has been the relentless and cynical negativity from Better Together.

It's also been a common feature to see "no" supporters refute this claim; they will consistently argue that it is not "negative" to question the claims of the SNP, to dismiss some of the claims made within the White Paper or to continue pressing Alex Salmond on the currency question. They may also state that to some degree the "no" campaign - like any campaign opposed to change - will inevitably be painted as negative by its opponents.

That latter point does have some credibility, but the fact that a campaign is ridiculed for its negativity by its opponents does not necessarily confirm that it isn't. I'm still waiting to hear the "positive case for the Union" - it may, of course, be the case that it is being made but is drowned out by the cynical, personal and overly critical nature of Better Together's general campaigning strategy.  A rebuttal of the SNP's and Yes Scotland's vision for an independent Scotland, however communicated, does not amount to a case for anything.

It's been frustrating at times, as someone who at times has been more interested in the debate than the outcome, to have seen how the political conversation has descended into petty-mindedness. Supporters of both sides have successfully showcased the worst of Scottish politics, but at least the "cybernats" largely work on their own initiatives and act independently of YesScotland. Not so the likes of Ian Davidson or Margaret Curran - or the "insider" quoted in the Daily Record today.

Better Together's Alistair Darling - who, it should be stated, has proved to be an asset to their campaign - recently and gamely took part in the ice bucket challenge. Good for him. He was nominated by James McAvoy - who also nominated Alex Salmond. Unfortunately the First Minister hasn't yet got round to staging this charity stunt - which has provoked Better Together to tell the Daily Record that “it looks like the First Minister is a big fearty after all. Surely Alex Salmond hasn’t got the heebie-jeebies?” Cue hundreds of supporters of Better Together making quite a deal of this on twitter.

Is this really the best Better Together can do?

On one level, the ice-bucket challenge is silly, nothing more than a bit of fun that raises some money for a good cause. But this episode underlines the character of the Better Together campaign. The slurs on others personalities, the focus on issues that don't really matter, the determination simply to get one over the SNP and Alex Salmond personally - this is what we've come to expect. They're more interested in creating rather pitiful stories like this for Daily Record readers than they are in actually dealing with the important issues which should be framing the debate.

I'm not sure why Better Together think that this strategy will work, although perhaps they look at the polls and imagine they will win in spite of themselves. How can any self-respecting Scottish voter who is remotely informed on political issues take seriously a campaign that is so focused on the insignificant, that exists only to oppose and is determined to make itself appear small-minded? Better Together should be sending out a signal to Scottish voters that they are serious, that they can be trusted to deliver a better Scotland in the event of a "no" vote and that they are committed to a collaborative apporach to politics. Instead, they resort to the politics of the lowest common denominator.

Please, for the sake of informed democracy, can we start talking about what actually matters to Scottish people?

Last week former Scottish Green Party leader Robin Harper announced that he would be voting "no". How he chooses to vote has little effect on me - although it does confirm the range of opinion within the Green Party - other than to consider what a loss his sober-minded and tolerant approach would have helped Better Together if he'd been involved from the beginning.

Better Together can hardly be complaining about being perceived as negative when they do idiotic things like this. I'd also remind them it's not only negative to paint "yes" supporters as nationalists, but intellectually lazy - especially when they actively appeal to emotion in promoting a British nationalism I find every inch as repellant as its Scottish equivalent.

There are only a few weeks left. I'd like to think that Better Together can up its game in the final days, but I wouldn't bet on it.


Monday, 18 August 2014

Would we be "diminished" by independence?

Danny Alexander gave an interview in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph - that upholder of liberal principles - in which he claimed that "we would all be diminished by Scottish independence", suggested that English and Welsh people should attempt to convince their Scottish friends and family members to vote "no", and went to lengths to emphasise that the referendum decision is irreversible.

The full interview can be found here. I won't repeat it in full, but the principal points he made are as follows:


“Like millions of people in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland I would be desperately sad if the UK broke up,”

“I believe that our campaign has the momentum now – we are winning the argument."

“I hope that it will motivate people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as in Scotland to have their say. One of the things that we have got to get across to people is that this is a decision that is irreversible.” 

“If Sunday Telegraph readers want to pick up the phone or send emails to their friends, family, colleagues workmates, I think that can only add to the quality of the debate...people should express their views and if they have got friends, family, relatives in Scotland then they having those conversations is also important.” 

“Those 300 years of shared history, those bonds of family and friendship and economic bonds are something that are important to everyone in the UK and whichever part of the UK you live in, we would all be diminished by independence.” 

It's hard to feel that Alexander has not missed an opportunity here. This interview is suggestive of desperation on his part, when he could have made a strong case for the Union and, indeed, the Liberal Democrat position for post-referendum Scotland. Why appeal to non Scottish British residents when (as a Scot) he should presumably know how we react to the suggestion that we should be told how to behave by English people - and especially the kind of people who are likely to read the Daily Telegraph!

The assertion that Better Together is winning the argument is open to question, and certainly the most recent polls would suggest that the momentum is not necessarily with the "no" camp. The fact that polls show a lead for "no" should not be taken as an indication of the effectiveness of Better Together, and certainly not its arguments. Actually, the quality of “the argument” itself has been poor, being generally obscured by media obsession with polls and personalities, and characterised by the unnecessary and undignified spat over currency union. Dismissing the claims made for independence by Yes Scotland do not in themselves amount to a robust case in support of the Union either.

“It is an irreversible decision” – of course it is. That only adds to the attraction of it for those Scots who feel that Westminster has historically taken too many decisions for them. We know how important a decision it is – please do not patronise us, Mr Alexander. No-one imagines for a minute the decision will be anything other than lasting. No-one thinks they can try out independence for a few years and then, if they don't like it, rejoin the rest of the UK.

Alexander also fails to address, aside from appeals to the emotional bond to 300 years of history (much of which should not be over-romanticised), what is so special about the Union - not least from the Liberal Democrat federalist perspective. Better Together had it right when they created the “UK-OK” slogan. That succinctly sums it up – the UK is OK; that’s all. It's not perfect. It's certainly not everything it could be. In some ways the Union is highly dysfunctional. It’s a marriage of co-dependency. But some divorces can be both amicable and profitable, and the debate isn’t about whether Scotland CAN be independent, but whether Scotland SHOULD be. In this context, I'd like to know more about why Danny believes in the Union because he gives no real reasons in this interview other than that it would make him “desperately sad”. Sorry Danny, your personal sadness isn’t going to convince me. The positive case for the Union might have, however, but there hasn't been enough of it.

I'm sure there is actually a lot Danny Alexander and myself may agree on, but I do not share his faith in the Union's capacity to regenerate and reform itself. For all the talk of "increased powers" post-referendum, no solid proposals have been forthcoming and Alexander tellingly omitted to refer to them in his Telegraph interview. Unless what is being proposed goes beyond mere devolutionist tinkering it would be as attractive a prospect to me as an evening with Ann Widdecombe.

Better Together criticises Yes Scotland and Alex Salmond in particular for failing to provide answers, for being patronising or for appealing predominantly to the emotional. Danny Alexander has personally been guilty of all three on this occasion.

As for whether we would all be "diminished" by independence - of course we wouldn't. Rather, we are all diminished when our intelligence is insulted by what masquerades as political argument but is merely bombastic rhetoric; we are diminished when we become pawns in political games; we are diminished when we are instructed rather than empowered to make democratic decisions; we are diminished when we are told to believe rather than question. In this respect, much that has passed for dialogue in the last two years has been deeply diminishing - but independence itself cannot be assumed to have diminishing consequences.

The nature of an independent Scotland will not be determined by the referendum vote, however "final" and "irreversible" a Yes vote would be. This would, instead, be forged in subsequent negotiations and by the actions of future governments. It is therefore with some truth that the only certainty, irrespective of the referendum outcome, is more uncertainty. Some level of detail, therefore, as to what constitutional and political reforms can be expected would be more effective in convincing waverers of the need to vote "no" than coercion from Telegraph readers in Truro or Tunbridge Wells.


Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Should the Lib Dems withdraw from Better Together?

Tony Greaves: "The more I listen to the Better Together
campaign, the less I like it."
I'm not a fan of Better Together - something that's unlikely to change, although I do have respect for some of the figures within it.

I'm also not really one to get out the "I told you so"s when circumstances prove me correct. However, having made the case in January 2012 for Liberal Democrat non-affiliation to a "no" campaign that would inevitably employ the tactics of cynical negativity, it has been encouraging in recent months to see overdue and welcome criticism from Lib Dems - including Scottish leader Willie Rennie, albeit implicitly, in his promotion of a "sunshine strategy" - in regards the relentlessly negative campaigning and how this is actively undermining the case for the union.

Liberals like Charles Kennedy have also brought a sober-minded, balanced, fair and reasonable perspective to the debate. It is not necessary to agree with Charles to appreciate his innate decency, his understanding of Scottish and constitutional issues and his love of Scotland - not to mention the kind of asset he could be if his positive message was not drowned out by the tribal bickering that has characterised much of what the media (and the respective campaigns) have passed off as democratic discussion.

I've made no secret of my desire for Better Together to lead the political conversation, and in doing so to be more intellectually honest about the shortcomings of the current constitutional arrangements. I've also argued that the most realistic chance of achieving anything like the federalist settlement we claim to believe in was lost when the Liberal Democrats refused to countenance the idea of a second question on the independence ballot.

I'm perfectly open to the reasonable suggestion that I could be wrong on these counts, although I've yet to be convinced - especially in relation to the damage Better Together is doing to the Lib Dems, the opportunity for a genuine federalism and even the union itself. While I understand why people may vote one way or the other, or as individuals opt to campaign one way or the other, I have never seen the wisdom in our party - which is neither nationalist nor unionist - falling down firmly in support of the Better Together camp.

The esteem in which the "no" campaign is held by the public is such that, in the not unrealistic scenario that Scotland does reject independence, it will be in spite of their campaigning tactics rather than because of them.

As mentioned previously, more Liberal Democrats have spoken out against the appalling Better Together campaign, including many "no" supporters frustrated at how their party has been sidelined and its key messages eclipsed by the petty, and sometimes bitter, anti-SNP talk.

Today, the latest installment of Liberal Democrat commonsense comes from Tony Greaves, one of the negotiators in the Liberal-SDP merger negotiations of 1987-8. It makes compelling reading. He makes many of the same points that I have in the last few years, from the unfortunate effects of association with Better Together to the lost opportunity regarding the second question, but his language is more direct. One might even suggest it is more angry; frustrated at a misguided and patronising "no" campaign that had the potential to be so much more.

Typical of his contribution is this excerpt on the currency question:

"The more I listen to the Better Together campaign, the less I like it. I was appalled by the threats by the Westminster parties, including ourselves in the person of Danny Alexander, over the pound. The view that a currency union would be out of the question, full stop, not to be discussed; and that it could not be negotiated in any circumstances; is or is not sensible policy. But as a blunt statement at this stage, it was stupid politics and anyone with an ounce of common sense could see that."

He also states that he is "astonished that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are now content to be labelled as Unionists", and remarks, in closing, that "it’s time for our friends north of the Border to crystallise their Liberal Democrat vision for Scotland, disengage from all-party establishment mush, and join the likes of Michael Moore on a distinctive Liberal campaign trail. Or we might all be saying bye-bye."

He isn't wrong. There is time for a "sunshine strategy" to be effective, but it will require - in the infamous words of a recently separated Hollywood star - a "conscious uncoupling" from Better Together. Our voice is more distinctive, more positive and more direct outwith a campaign that often treats us, and the electorate, with disrespect. If we are to make the case for federalism, we have to firstly understand what we mean by that and, secondly, be able to communicate it effectively to voters. Unfortunately, the straightjacket imposed by conformity to Better Together's strategy has prevented both the internal and external conversations from taking place, and resulted in the Lib Dems being publicly perceived as little more than an anti-SNP party, in the way that we were once seen as anti-Tory.

I agree with Tony Greaves, who appears (in spite of - or perhaps because of - his self-declared limited involvement in Scottish politics) to have a well-considered appreciation of the ramification of the independence referendum for both the Scottish and federal Liberal Democrat parties. Whatever the next few months have in store for the Lib Dems, there can be no escaping that our future in Scotland will be directly affected by the stifling relationship with Better Together.

Tony Greaves was writing in The Liberator


Friday, 4 April 2014

RIP Margo Macdonald

I fully intended to write my own, somewhat lengthy tribute to the great Margo Macdonald, considering her political life with particular reference to the independence cause, her passionate campaigning for rights for sex workers and her political courage and tirelessness in leading on the matter of assisted suicide.

However, I feel that not only are there already so many fitting tributes from people of all parties, but that my own words would be ill-qualified to do justice to her enormous achievements and immense humanity. 


I think it is sufficient to say that Margo taught us so much; particularly in showing us how to be fully human while simultaneously leading on so many key issues. She was not popular because of her political affiliation, her beliefs or - indeed - her outspokenness, but because she took an active interest in people. 

Speaking as a Liberal about a liberal, I miss her already.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

It's Nick v Nigel Part 2

Is this advert unwise and insensitive?
In case anyone missed the first pitched battle between the leader of UKIP and the Deputy Prime Minister, BBC2 are screening a further installment tonight.

Calling it a debate is, to use mild terms, more than disingenuous because it will not be a debate but a media circus. No realistic observer expects anything other. This kind of "debate" is also an affront to real political conversation, not to mention an embarrassment for those of us who believe in facilitating the kind of dialogue that engages, empowers and informs - which has been exchanged for what is alleged to make good television: namely, two men (it would be men, wouldn't it?) with entrenched views trading put-downs and insisting they are right. Is this how we should be debating complex policy issues in the 21st century?

The real problem I have with this kind of televised debate is the media obsession with determining a "winner", as if political discussion is akin to a boxing match. Clegg has fallen into this way of thinking, naively believing that his logical and reasoned approach could land a knock-out punch to Farage. He was wrong on this score. For all his rational and utterly sensible rhetoric on the night, he failed to appreciate two key facts: firstly, political victories are not forged through logic but through trust and, secondly, that the appeal to the emotional is a powerful political weapon. It came as no surprise to me that many judged Farage as the "winner" in spite of having a poor grasp of basic facts (he surmised that 75% of UK laws originated in Brussels whereas the reality is about 7%, and made the elementary error of asserting the European Court of Human Rights was an EU organisation) because he understands this and recognises how to exploit it to his advantage.

The obsession with identifying a "winner" defeats what should be the prime purpose of political discourse - to empower the public to arrive at informed decisions. At times, the last televised debate bore more resemblance to a schoolyard spat or, I would suggest, two evangelical preachers arguing over which was the more ideologically correct. And while, as a strongly pro-European Liberal Democrat, I find it hard to disagree with any of Clegg's arguments, I was unsure how his approach would win any converts. It's is right to take the fight to UKIP and it is right to dismantle their arguments, but whether it should be done in this format, and whether Nick Clegg was the right person to do it, is highly questionable. Farage doesn't have to win the intellectual argument if he can successfully paint his opponent as a discredited, distrusted member of the self-interested political establishment. Neither does he have to support his facts if he can appeal instead to the emotional, the patriotic and the populist.

There is a need for a real debate on Britain's future within the EU, and for too long the initiative has been handed to UKIP who have been effectively been allowed to lead with their narrow-minded xenophobia and laughably romantic views of Britain's identity and role in the world. It is indeed a political conversation that the Liberal Democrats should take an active role in. However, a forum which reduced debate to a spat between rival personalities with what many would consider extreme views on Europe (most people are neither strongly in the "in" nor the "out" camp but, as in the case of the Scottish independence question, actually want something in the middle) is not how to best achieve it - and not only because Clegg will inevitably come off second best, but because these forthcoming European elections are about so much more than personality, UKIP and pleasing the media. Clegg's approach has essentially confirmed that the pending elections are about UKIP, which should delight Farage and his party immensely.

The Lib Dem PR machine has come in for a bit of criticism from me in the past, and it does again today. In advance of tonight's second round of the macho punch-up, the Press Office have put out a flyer praising Nick Clegg's courage. As well they might - while I doubt his strategic wisdom I do not doubt his bravery. However, unwisely and insensitively, it refers to Ed Miliband and David Cameron as being "missing in action". The use of such a military term is inappropriate for many reasons, and indeed is entirely wrong (the phrase refers to those who go missing, often presumed dead, while heroically involved in conflict - not those who refuse to carry out their duties, as seems to be the inference here). However, it's also in poor taste given what many families have had to ensure in recent years when their loved ones genuinely are "missing in action". There has been worse material put out by the party (and others) in recent years, but this says a great deal about the thinking of our party's PR machine and its need to more carefully consider potential ramifications.

It is also wrong to accuse the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties of desertion. Firstly, Nick Clegg did not necessarily want a debate with them, but with UKIP. Secondly, there are several perfectly valid and understandable reasons why they are well-advised to distance themselves from this kind of debate. They realise the risks and dangers. They appreciate that it will, in all likelihood, be of most benefit to Nigel Farage. They have not abandoned their responsibilities but have instead arrived at the conclusion that debating with Nigel Farage is about as sensible as sharing a platform with Alex Salmond.

And I won't go into any detail on the objectionable "British jobs" quote - but I have to ask if it was really necessary.

While I am naturally pleased that the Liberal Democrats have made clear their determination to be the party of "in", it is unfortunate that we are putting out material suggesting we are the only such party, as if we want to be the only show in town. In doing do, we overlook Ed Miliband's personal commitment to the EU and the opportunities that should give to the pro-European movement. There is scope for a cohesive, cross-party, diverse campaign for continued British involvement - that could tackle UKIP's untruths while simultaneously championing a more fit-for-purpose EU - but that won't be achieved by an emphasis on personalities and the party-political, which only plays into UKIP's hands.

No doubt, while watching tonight's debate, I will find little on which to disagree with Nick. Other, that is, than his misguided strategy and the hubris-fuelled delusion that he is the man to deliver a finishing blow to Farage. This won't be a debate, but a show and a point-scoring contest - a contest which will do little to inform public opinion, but whose winner will be determined by it. C'est la vie nouvelle de la politque.