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Sunday, 28 August 2011

I'm going to be in Caithness for the next week and will taking a short break from blogging.

I look forward to expressing my view on all things political when I return, but in the meantime I intend to enjoy my time away!

Friday, 26 August 2011

Paint bomb overshadows crucial meeting

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was attacked last night in Glasgow with a blue paint bomb.

The blue paint ruined Mr Clegg’s perfectly good jacket and also hit Scottish party leader Willie Rennie. Predictably, the media were very keen to make the biggest possible deal out of the attack, which happened as Clegg was attending a meeting with Liberal Democrat activists in the city’s West End.

I really don’t see what all the fuss is about. After all, I’ve had a lot worse things than blue paint thrown at me in certain areas of Glasgow. Sky News were quick to point out that “The colour of the paint is thought to be a reference to the Conservatives, the Lib Dems' coalition partner.” Really? And there was me thinking someone was trying to suggest he was a Rangers supporter.

Sky was also on hand to suggest that the man throwing the pain had done so “to register his anger at the direction Mr Clegg was taking his party and the coalition's austerity measures”. Hmmm. If he really wanted to do that, why not simply direct angry questions at Mr Clegg in the full glare of the TV cameras...that might have made more of a point.

To be honest, this a complete non-story. Member of the public throws paint/custard/pie/egg (delete according to preference) at a politician. No-one gets hurt (unless you’ve been unwise enough to target John Prescott). The only remarkable thing about this is the light-hearted responses of Clegg and Rennie. Clegg dismissed the incident as one of those “things [that] tend to happen sometimes in the job and it's no big deal”. Rennie laughed “I've always wanted a blue streak in my hair but my mother wouldn't let me.” Priceless.

What this incident also highlights is the laziness of the British media, and their London-centric approach to politics. Neither Sky nor Channel 4 seemed aware that Willie Rennie was the leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats. And while the press were understandably keen to play up the attack, few in the media seemed very interested by the more pressing matter of what Nick was going to say to the party faithful and – more crucially – how he would be received.

As I wasn’t able to be there personally I can only go with what others have said. On facebook, Allan Heron commented that “Nick's defintition of values was that of a libertarian and not of a liberal. No mention of commuinity, and no mention of (to use Paddy's term) Citizen's Britain. He's very good in that arena but said nothing to convert any doubters (although that may not be possible). Like many in the Westminster bubble, still shows a disconnection with Scotland.” Another contributor, Graeme Cowie, addded that “whilst his UK strategy will recover, we've got no answer yet to the SNP's communication of a vision for Scotland. I like Clegg and I can make sense of and identify with his strain of liberal thinking but if we can't make it relevant to people in Scotland then 4% could yet be our glass ceiling rather than our worst case scenario.

These are very serious and real concerns, and are represent the kind of anxieties many party members have. I am similarly concerned about the lack of a distinctive Scottish vision, the disconnection Allan refers to and the real possibility that unless we rebuild and become more relevant to Scots the hoped for reverse in fortunes might never become anything more than misplaced optimism. It is these questions that should be taken up by the media, not the irrelevance of a young man throwing paint around.

Personally, I’m tired of attacks on Nick Clegg – instead I prefer the intense questioning and constructive scrutiny of his leadership that I know party members have offered in recent days. Unfortunately, due to the actions of a foolish publicity stunt, the substance of what was discussed has paled into insignificance as far as the press is concerned. A crucial meeting about our party's future has been overshadowed by a tin of blue paint. And for that Scottish democracy is all the poorer.

Bill Walker performs amazing u-turn on “homophobic remarks”

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

SNP MSP for Dunfermline Bill Walker, who has been widely dismissed as a bigoted homophobe by the national media and parliamentary colleagues alike, made an astonishing u-turn after unexpectedly attending a gay party in Edinburgh last Friday.

Walker, who has in the past described gay marriage as “just not right” and a “contradiction in terms”, had an amazing change of heart after he mistakenly entered one of the city’s gay clubs while on his way to deliver a speech at the Brian Souter Appreciation Society’s annual dinner. Mr Walker was witnessed talking “in a relaxed and animated fashion” to several gay people partying at the venue and was clearly enjoying himself. “He was definitely in a very gay mood”, said club regular John Green. “He really hit it off with some of my friends. He’s a totally fun guy, not at all like you’d expect.”

Walker told reporters that his lifelong opposition to LGBT rights were reversed after meeting gay people in person. “You know, they’re really quite good people” he admitted. “There’s one guy, Andy, just the most cultured person I’ve ever met. I really can’t believe I could ever have thought that being gay was wrong. You come to places like this and you can see it’s so ...right. Some of these people are just made for each other, you can see they’re in love and for me that’s just fantastic. And all the people I met tonight are just so easy to get on with, not at all like my other friends.”

The MSP made it clear he was very affected by Laura and Debbie, who are soon to commit to each other in a civil partnership. “They’re such beautiful people” he explained, holding back the tears. “Allowing them to get married just like everyone else is the very least they deserve. I really am horrified that for so long I just didn’t appreciate what LGBT people have. I want to put it on the record that I am sorry for any hurt my attitudes and homophobic comments have caused.”

He said he had spoken to one man who had been the victim of homophobic attacks in the past. “That’s just terrible” said Walker. “And to think that I did nothing to help. I feel dreadful.” Walker was also spotted talking for some time with theology student Dan, who wants to be a Church of Scotland minister, and his husband Gary. “Look, these guys know far more about the Bible than I do and they showed me how wrong I’ve been and that Christians shouldn’t be persecuting minority groups. It makes sense really. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid.”

Walker was keen as usual to talk about politics: “I really don’t know why Alex Salmond didn’t bring me into line earlier” he said. “I really was talking total rubbish! That Nazi insult was a step too far. If I’d said something silly about Scottish independence then I’d have been absolutely pilloried and hung out to dry by the SNP leadership. But there I was, being judgemental and bigoted towards gay people and they didn’t seem to care. I don't understand it.”

Walker admitted that he felt “very strange” when he initially discovered he was surrounded by people of an LGBT persuasion. “But you know, they were very welcoming”, he was keen to point out. “They made me feel completely relaxed, and that there was nothing wrong with me being different. You know, I wish everyone was this tolerant!”

Strangely, Walker has not been contactable since last night, when he was seen leaving another gay club in the company of a young musician called Mark. His whereabouts remain unknown. Walker’s office have refused to comment while Mark’s agent has confirmed that the musician is “available for weddings, bar mitzvahs and those parties in Greek restaurants where you smash loads of plates.”

Unfortunately this story is a product of my own imagination and any similarities with real events are extremely remote. However, if Bill Walker would ever like to visit one of the many gay clubs in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, I would be more than happy for him to be my guest.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Nick Clegg visits Scotland

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is currently visiting Scotland to speak to party members in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Unfortunately due to work commitments I am unable to attend the planned sessions, but I am very pleased Mr Clegg has both taken the time to listen to Scottish members' concerns and attempt to address some of the unique problems facing the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

Following the Holyrood elections, in whose aftermath I wrote to Clegg expressing concern that the cause of Scottish liberalism has been set back 50 years, the scale of the challenge facing the Scottish party became painfully clear. While I firmly feel part of the solution is for the Scottish party under Willie Rennie to gain a more distinctive voice ideally through affirming our technical independence from the UK party - and facilitating a particularly Scottish liberal resurgence - there is no doubt that Nick Clegg must also have a role to play.

Gavin Hamilton was at yesterday's meeting in Edinburgh and spells out some of the detail. The Scotsman was also on hand to report on Clegg's performance. As I explained, I wasn't there personally, but from what I can gather there are many positives - not least in Clegg's apparent attitude towards the peculiar predicament of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

The Scotsman reported that Clegg showed "great humility" and expressed a willingness to "listen to what activists feel". He acknowledged the "painful circumstances" and admitted that the party was being punished in Scotland for its Westminster alliance with the Conservatives. Gavin Hamilton wrote of Clegg's "grace and resilience under pressure" as well as his ability to connect with the "day to day concerns" of Scots. Championing a pragmatic approach, Clegg focused on rebuilding trust in addition to demonstrating the importance of delivering in government.

Clegg is apparently convinced that "recent electoral setbacks are 'short-term'", according to The Scotsman. I would like to think that he is right, but the scale of recent setbacks - combined with our historic failure in recent years to communicate effectively to the public what underpins our outlook - leads me to take an opposite, longer-term view. What Clegg is undeniably right about is the central issue of trust, but I do not feel - in spite of recent improvements in the opinion poll ratings - we can simply assume that those so willing to desert our party only months ago will be easily won back. What actually happened in May was that constituencies in which the party had been working for decades to get Lib Dem MPs and MSPs elected - and to keep them elected - such as Argyll & Bute or Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross, witnessed the destruction of everything that had been worked for over that period. We're not talking about a minor erosion of our support base, but what amounts to a catastrophe for the local parties. Clegg predictably takes a wider, more national approach, no doubt buoyed by recent opinion polls. but to make progress in Scotland we've got to rebuild from the grassroots in those constituencies that have in the recent past provided our elected parliamentarians. Short term approaches simply won't work and Clegg, while right to be positive and upbeat, needs to temper his aspirations with a touch of realism.

The glib statement that "we have lost support, but what goes up comes down in politics" frankly does nothing to reassure me that Clegg understands the seriousness of the situation. Yes, he appreciates the immediate problem and has highlighted what some of our priorities should be but his resigned attitude that improvement in fortunes is simply part of the natural political cycle is more than frustrating. Our stock will only improve if action to revitalise the party and reconnect with voters is taken quickly.

Clegg did seem to think that Alex Salmond's leadership would be found wanting during the next few years, asserting that "the SNP offer absolutely nothing in government". I wouldn't be so unkind to the SNP - they offer far more than Clegg gives them credit for. But I sense Clegg is right in the need to take a longer-term view; there is only so long Alex Salmond can play the nationalist cards to effect and ultimately will be judged on economic matters.

There are many Scottish Liberal Democrats who have been fiercely critical of Nick Clegg in recent months. One of my own criticisms is that during the coalition talks, and in their aftermath, very little attention or thought was given over to the likely impact association with the Conservatives would have on the Scottish party - or the local parties in key Lib Dem constituencies. Worryingly, for all the positive sounds Clegg made yesterday in Edinburgh, it seems that although he recognises the huge mountain Scottish Liberal Democrats will have to climb if we are to reclaim the voters' confidence he has no concept of the localist dimension. Neither does he seem to attach very much importance to the forthcoming local elections.

I am pleased that Nick Clegg has taken the time to visit Scotland and hear for himself the concerns, fears, hopes and aspirations of Scottish party activists. I am pleased he has shown some "humility" and empathy with our particular situation. But I retain concerns that we have a federal leader who blindly believes an electoral resurgence will be inevitable part of a natural cycle ("what goes down must come up again"). History demonstrates that is simply untrue, but more pertinently it showed him to be short of the radical ideas necessary to revitalise our party and to reinject a sense of purpose.

A final point - it was thoroughly unwise of Nick Clegg to make an intervention on the release of the Lockerbie bomber. Calling for al-Megrahi to be returned to prison was a crude example of bandwagon jumping. Firstly, as I know one the Lockerbie victims' families I find it highly insensitive when any politician looks to make easy capital from what for them was a personal tragedy. Secondly, as Clegg himself admitted, this is a matter for Scots law and he should have no business in making judgements about a decision made by the Scottish government. Perhaps if he applied equal scrutiny and criticism to Conservative positions on - for example - health, the coalition government's policy positions might appear less confused...

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

SNP MSP digs a bigger hole

Obviously John Mason, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, doesn’t know how to stop digging.

Having his “equal marriage” motion having been derided as homophobic prejudice by both the media and his parliamentary colleagues, Mason would have been well advised to let the matter drop rather than go on the defensive. Unfortunately, such wisdom doesn’t appear to feature in his repertoire of personal capabilities and in spite of his apparent intention to diffuse the situation (made explosive following the intervention of Bill Walker) his recent interview with Christians Together asked far more questions about Mason’s motives and attitudes than it answered.

Admittedly, Mason was far more measured and considered than his colleague Walker had been days previously. He spoke of the need for a “sensible” debate without irony, apparently ignorant that his own actions to date have undermined “sensible” conversation, instead providing the likes of Bill Walker with the platform for expressing unconcealed intolerance. He defended his motion as being “designed to protect the freedom of thought, practice and expression by individuals” - again he fails to see that what he has achieved in practice is to stir up those who would deny the freedom of practice and expression to particular sections of the community.

Mason claimed that he was “perfectly relaxed” about “gay marriage”, a somewhat surprising admission given the evidently unrelaxed tone of his motion. True, he didn’t seem as highly strung and as intensely hostile as the ridiculous Bill Walker, but during the interview he allowed the facade to slip – firstly, when discussing the difference between a civil partnership and marriage he stated that “the idea of marriage as between a man and a woman...[that fight] has already been lost”; secondly, he argued that the battle on civil partnerships had also “been lost”.

The implications are obvious: the concept of same-sex relationships is not something he is either comfortable or relaxed about, but a reality he has become resigned to as a consequence of battles “being lost”. That is a very telling and significant admission.

He’s also “happy... if the churches argue against gay relationships as such.” I’m not sure why, as in doing so churches would only see themselves becoming more marginalised and increasingly socially irrelevant. I also think he’s remarkably out of touch with his church – the Church of Scotland’s recent decision on the appointment of gay clergy is hardly suggestive of hostility towards “gay relationships as such”, whatever his own attitudes.

Mason seemed keen to suggest his overriding motivation has been to enhance democracy and facilitate discussion. There has been “no debate at all”, he complained. “Somebody needs to say something from a different angle and [my aim is] to deal with churches being vulnerable to being taken to court... some people don’t even want this issue discussed.” In response to this seemingly reasonable suggestion I would argue that no-one is suggesting enforcing acceptance on those churches who do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages – merely allowing those that wish the legal freedom to do so. I would also ask Mason why he is at such pains to suggest that sections of the Christian community will find themselves “in court”, because this assertion is both lacking in evidence and amounts to frankly irresponsible scare tactics. Neither is it a reasonable or fitting way to frame the debate on equal marriage. Finally, if there is anyone suppressing debate then it isn’t either Mason’s party (who have pledged a consultation on same-sex marriage), the vast majority of MSPs (other than the Tories) or LGBT rights campaigners, who all look forward to an honest and open discussion in the context of facilitating equality.

Mason might deceive himself that his prejudiced motion has stimulated important discussion. The only real discussion it has generated is on the degree to which Mason and Walker are unfit for public service – something I’m more than happy to leave to the electors of Shettleston and Dunfermline. But his self-congratulation and spurious defence of his position leaves a vital question unanswered: what kind of debate is necessary? A quality, forward-looking conversation rooted in the desire for a fairer, more equal and more liberal society, or the polarised, reactionary, intolerant and vitriolic “debate” favoured by Bill Walker? Personally, if I had put forward a motion on the basis of facilitating protection for minorities and promoting tolerance (as Mason claims) I would be horrified by Walker’s subsequent outbursts and the appallingly low-level quality of “debate” that has followed.

Asked about whether Alex Salmond should intervene, Mason was quick to reply that he is only supporting “protection for ‘all minorities’” which is something that both Alex Salmond and SNP want. But no, he insists, the First Minister should not intervene on what is, after all, a “conscience matter”. Mason might well consider it to be a conscience matter, but the stark reality is that his behaviour has undermined the SNP’s credibility on equality to the point that Salmond’s continued non-intervention is proving embarrassing. The more Mason keeps on digging, the more necessary such an intervention will be.

In attempting to appear reasonable, Mason has actually demonstrated his own narrow perspectives and prejudices. Salmond must surely act, quickly and decisively, if the forthcoming debate is not to be centred on the outdated attitudes of some of this own MSPs with disproportionately loud voices.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Surprise, surprise: Lib Dems on the receiving end of hammering in Edinburgh

The result of the by-election for Edinburgh's City Centre ward highlights a number of unpleasant realities for the Scottish Liberal Democrats.

The most unpleasant of these is that the defeat was predictable as it was crushing.

Immediately after the result was announced this morning I was discussing it on twitter with a number of people - not all Liberal Democrats. It became immediately obvious that whatever the result meant for the various parties, is was in truth a great victory for apathy. With a minuscule turnout of 23%, I find it worrying that over three-quarters of the population are insufficiently inspired to exercise their democratic right. Given that the highest aim of democracy is informing and empowering the electorate, we still have a long way to go.

A bit in the way of background for the benefit of those who know less about Edinburgh politics than I do: Edinburgh City Council is currently controlled by an SNP-Lib Dem administration. Edinburgh is unusual in that there has been reasonable support for all four major parties across the city, as well as sizable pockets of support for the Green Party. Prior to the election, the Liberal Democrats held 16 seats, Labour 15, the SNP 13, Conservatives 11 and the Greens 3. This meant that a Labour victory would have made them the joint largest party and would have had the potential to, at the very least, destabilise the ruling coalition. Probably the most significant and hotly-debated issue in Edinburgh's local politics is the troubled trams project, for which the Liberal Democrats particularly have been closely identified and which directly affects the city centre ward .

There was, therefore, little surprise that an independent anti-trams candidate stood in the by-election, caused by SNP councillor David Beckett leaving to study in America. Given the closeness of the parties last time around an extra candidate in the mix was likely to make things interesting.

The result from last time (courtesy of fellow blogger Gavin Hamilton): SNP 20%, Con 20%, LD 20%, Lab 18%, Green 17%.

The result of yesterday's election is as follows. First preference votes: Con 837 (24%) SNP 797 (23%) Lab 682 (20%) Green 494 (14%) Anti-trams 394 (9%) Lib Dem 251 (7%). As my Scottish readers will be aware, local government elections are held under STV, with the votes of the lowest-placed candidate progressively redistributed with each round:

Round 2. Lib Dem eliminated: Con (+67) 904, SNP (+28) 825, Lab (+34) 716, Green (+82) 576, Anti-trams (+8) 402

Round 3. Anti-trams independent eliminated. Con (+139) 1043, SNP (+68) 893, Lab (+29) 745, Green (+59) 635

Round 4. Green eliminated. Con (+67) 1110, SNP (+188) 1081, Lab (+223) 968

Round 5. Labour eliminated. SNP (+287) 1368, Con (+154) 1264

Caron argues that Labour should have performed better here. I'm not sure if I concur. There are unpopular coalitions both in Westminster and in Edinburgh City Council, but that does not in itself mean that Labour should be favourite to win. In fact, this was the SNP's to lose - and they very nearly did, to a Conservative. Until the final round of voting redistribution it was the Tory candidate in the lead.

One interesting observation is that many Labour voters were willing to lend second preferences to the Tory rather than the SNP candidate. The obvious conclusions to be drawn is that they either see Salmond's SNP, rather than the Tories, as public enemy number 1 or else are protesting at the SNP-Lib Dem administration at ECC. Either way, there is clear evidence of Labour supporters not only tactically voting against the SNP but willing to lend their vote to a Tory to keep out the SNP's candidate. SNP MSP Marco Biagi insisted that "this is a great result for the SNP and shows that our momentum is still continuing from the Scottish Parliament elections in May." No, it doesn't. In spite of their incumbency the SNP hung onto the seat by the skin of their teeth, no doubt thanking their lucky stars that 287 Labour voters were content to lend them second preference votes.

From a Liberal Democrats' viewpoint, the result is depressing. There are a number of factors behind the outcome - not all of them national. The unpopularity of the Westminster coalition, ECC's ruling SNP-Lib Dem partnership and the trams project meant that Alastair Hodgson's chances of winning were remote, but the scale of the collapse in Lib Dem support is difficult to come to terms with. Caron argues that the "[Edinburgh] Councillors are fantastic people who have done excellent things, but they aren't reaping the electoral rewards because nobody knows about it." This may very well be true. But unless a change of tactic - or fortune - is forthcoming next year's local elections will be of catastrophic proportions for our party.

It is not sufficient merely to become more adept at defending our achievements, as many Lib Dems were suggesting earlier today on twitter. On one level, good liberal policy and activity at the heart of government should be openly applauded. Certainly, some of the nonsense and plain untruths being peddled by opposition parties and the media need to be challenged. But let's not deceive ourselves into believing all we need to do is carry on, take it "on the chin" and simply be more vocal about how wonderful we are. I also have grave concerns about our tendency to allow ourselves to adopt a defensive approach, rather than being proactively positive about who we are.

Caron thinks the Edinburgh Liberal Democrats needed "a kick up the rear". Well, she should know better than I! But how many such kickings does the party in Scotland need before it realises that neither playing up our achievements or more aggressive campaigning will themselves bring about the revival in the party's fortunes we so desperately want? Of course, our councillors should be connecting with the electorate, "putting themselves about" and selling themselves more effectively - but this does not detract from the central truth that what is needed is a reinvigoration of our party's purpose, structure, ideology and intellectual identity.

From a campaigning point of view, a little in the way of imagination and creativity wouldn't go amiss either. I have lost count of the number of well-meaning Lib Dem friends who genuinely believe the way forward is to return to the community politics of the 1970s. While I agree that the focus on localism and communities should be central to 21st century Liberal Democracy, I have no appetite to resort to old ways of thinking. What is needed is something new, fresh and relevant.

As we have seen from the Holyrood elections, strong proactive incumbents are vulnerable to being rejected by the electorate if their party is perceived as out-of-touch or lacking either purpose or relevance. The successes and achievements of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland were many, yet were overlooked by voters unhappy with our role in the Westminster coalition. Even positive campaigns, like that of Alex Cole-Hamilton in Edinburgh, were undermined by the negative public perception of the Liberal Democrats.

It is this negative perception that must be challenged and reversed. I have written before on the long-term solution, which I term a Liberal Renaissance; however, this will take time to realise and the one thing we have little of ahead of next year's local elections is time. There can be little doubt that the short-term vision for the Scottish Lib Dems, especially as council elections are concerned, is survival - in the longer term it must be the development of a new culturally relevant expression of liberalism backed by intellectual rigour and popular support. The challenge is how to get there - Willie Rennie, it's over to you.

Party leaderships should distance themselves from Livingstone and Walker

Here in Scotland, while SNP MSP Bill Walker has been actively cultivating his reputation of being a crusty, reactionary religionist bigot, his party's leadership have - quite surprisingly - been silent on the matter.

For those not well-informed about Scottish political matters, the SNP government announced that later in the year it would be running a democratic consultation on same-sex marriage. This is a positive move, supported (obviously) by the Liberal Democrats, Greens and the Labour Party. Unfortunately, in advance of the consultation and unhelpfully pre-empting its findings, one SNP MSP - John Mason - put forward a motion in which he suggests that the government's actions amount to forcing equal marriage upon those who oppose it, and asks the government to "note" that there are many Scots opposed to marriage equality. As I observed at the time, this is a rather spurious justification; I wonder if Mason would accept that the SNP should not pursue independence simply because many Scots are opposed to it?

While Mason's move was unhelpful, worse was to come in the shape of another SNP MSP: Bill Walker. Walker went further than Mason, arguing that "gay marriage is a contradiction in terms" and "just not right". More pertinently, in a bizarre outburst he compared LGBT rights campaigners to Nazis. I'm sure the First Minister, along with every sane person in Scotland, realises that is not the kind of language either his party or Scotland wants to be identified with in the lead-up to the consultation.

There is no doubt that this has been embarrassing for the SNP and the First Minister personally. Yet he has persistently refused to criticise Bill Walker, even for the sick and unnecessary Nazi slur. Scottish Television reported that, when a Labour MP privately asked Mr Salmond to distance himself from Walker's comments, not only did he refuse but was "rattled" and "went absolutely crazy". While I can fully appreciate why defending Walker must be rather uneviable; what I don't quite comprehend is why Salmond is refusing to even comment, let alone take action. We haven't even seen an intervention along the lines of "Walker is entitled to his view but they're not necessarily those of the SNP as a whole." Nothing.

I have a great deal of respect for Alex Salmond and I am disappointed, as well as surprised, that he has not sought to distance himself or his party from Bill Walker's ill-advised remarks. The homophobic sentiment expressed by Walker was bad enough, but the Nazi references are simply inexcusable. I can not, for example, imagining the SNP leadership remaining so silent if Walker had made a similar statement on the issue of race or gender. A week later and Salmond continues to refuse either to apologise or to condemn the comments. I can understand Salmond not wanting to turn this into a political issue but the longer he maintains his silence, the greater the likelihood of it becoming one.

Salmond must distance himself from Walker and his intolerant attitudes otherwise there is a very real risk that the SNP's reputation for equaility and fairness will be seriously undermined. The likes of Walker must also appreciate that with elected office come certain responsibilities and one of those is not to label those of a different opinion as Nazis in the national press.

Yesterday, in a different political context, another high profile politician made an unwelcome reference to Nazism. Labour candidate for London Mayoral elections, Ken Livingstone, referred to his contest with incumbent Boris Johnson as "a simple choice between good and evil", and akin to "the great struggle between Churchill and Hitler". Such a statement both historically inaccurate in the extreme as well as insulting on a number of levels, especially to those who fought against Nazism in the 1940s. Livingstone went on to make some rather unfunny jokes about voters supporting other candidates burning is Hell "for all eternity". While not providing much in the way of amusement, Livingstone's humour does provide some curious insights into the workings of this man's mind.

Reaction was predictable. Mr Johnson's campaign has said it is ignoring the comments, but they seem the only people in London who are. Every newspaper, local and national, are running with the story. Today's Independent quotes Tory MP Gavin Barwell who says that "even to joke that Londoners who don't vote for him will 'burn forever' after everything we have been through in the past two weeks is crass even by his standards. After the events of the last week, Londoners need a mayor who will unite our city, not one who regards people who don't share his views as evil."

Mr Barwell is correct: Livingstone's comments were crass, ill-advised, potentially inflammatory and divisive. I personally have concerns that someone who is running for high office can not only compare opponents to Hitler but then have the temerity to later dismiss it as mere "humour". It is not remotely funny and even Labour supporters on twitter were shocked and embarrassed. A Labour frontbencher told the Daily Mail that "every time he opens his mouth, he becomes a less serious contender for London mayor. Whatever you think of Boris Johnson, he cannot be compared to Adolf Hitler. And nobody in their right mind would compare Ken Livingstone to Churchill."

Ken Livingstone belongs to the same school of political thought as Bill Walker: if you don't like someone, and lack the intellectual rigour to win the argument, just call them a Nazi. Such an approach to political discussion is not befitting of a local councillor, let alone an MSP or the Mayor of London. Ed Miliband must distance himself at the very least from these stupid comments and probably from Livingstone himself who has a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable. I appreciate that, with Livingstone's past, any Labour leader will naturally be wary of risking a prolonged fight with him but the ex-mayor lacks the credibility and popularity he once had. Surely it wouldn't be hard for Labour to find a strong and serious candidate capable of taking the fight to Boris Johnson.

No respectable person should using Nazi analogies as terms of abuse, and Livingston and Walker have both been widely and publicly criticised for it. However, that none of this criticism has come from their respective party leaders is deeply concerning. There must be serious questions asked as to whether Walker and Livingstone are fit for public life; until Salmond and Miliband openly criticise these renegades there also remain very real questions about their own fitness for office.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

What SHOULD be the political response to recent disturbances?

Last week’s riots in a few English towns require a political response. That political response should be considered, sober-minded and far-sighted. Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent days that response, especially from the Conservative Party, has been blinkered, populist and irresponsible.

In place of a measured reaction from the Tories we have had the usual mixture of right-wing and foolishly populist suggestions, including turning Wembley Stadium into an open-air cell, cracking down on social media, removing benefits and council tenancies from those found guilty of certain (often unspecified) crimes, reintroducing National Service and effectively enforcing martial law. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary Theresa May have come across as slightly more sober-minded but, undoubtedly keen to put being seen to be tough ahead of social responsibility, are guilty of perhaps not fully thinking through their ideas.

First, I will deal with Mrs May. Only today she has championed increasing the powers of the police, but seems quite short on the specifics of how such powers can be introduced while cutting frontline police officers. Such a lack of detail, picked on by Labour, is symptomatic of the absence of thought given to the issue. Aside from her failure to address the operational questions, May also appeared ignorant of the issues at the heart of the matter instead using the rioting as a justification for her policing reforms and, bizarrely, budgetary cuts. She made some positive but vague noises about increasing police accountability to the public and providing more in the way of riot training, but her only apparent “solutions” were to expand gang injunctions, make it easier to impose curfews (which have limited effect) and give police more powers to remove masks. The mention of curfews is bound to respond in favourable headlines from the right-wing press, but given that this is in response to the worst rioting for decades it seems remarkably limited in scope.

Furthermore, May seems to have succumbed to the Daily Mail’s “name them and shame them” lynch-mob attitude and announced that she hopes courts will follow “guidance” allowing them to lift anonymity in the case of children. All in all, it was a speech thin on substance other than making overtures to the Tory right on policing powers. Coming from a Home Secretary in the aftermath of a crisis it was appallingly lightweight and even the case for curfews was inadequately made.

I now turn to the Prime Minister. Yesterday, giving a speech at a youth centre in his constituency, he pledged the government would "turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families” within the next four years. Like Ed Miliband, he did well to draw a link between the riots and a deeper malaise - including the conduct of parliamentarians, bankers and journalists, while reinforcing that the riots themselves were not primarily politically motivated. He also recognised that the social conditions in which young people are raised need to be improved if the threat of future such disturbances is to be avoided. “Social problems that have been festering for decades have exploded in our face," he said. "Our security fightback must be matched by a social fightback. We must fight back against the attitudes and assumptions that have brought parts of our society to this shocking state."

So far, so good. But it’s Mr Cameron’s own attitudes and assumptions, expressed elsewhere in his speech, that give me cause for concern. He remains determined to see our nation as “broken” and allows this to frame his outlook and remedies. He spoke of a nation in which “people show indifference to right and wrong” – in spite of the public outrage and the response of many within the affected communities. He talked of a “moral collapse”, which he believes is central to the root cause of the violence, and of his determination to “confront” it. Cameron identified “irresponsibility”, “selfishness”, and “behaving as if your choices have no consequences” as evidence of Britain’s moral decline. He also turned on “children without fathers”, “communities without control” and “reward without effort”(although what he plans to do about the X-factor culture is anyone’s guess).

Cameron believes that the riots are the product of "criminality - plain and simple". Actually, the matter is neither plain nor simple. What the Prime Minister fails to see is that criminality, and the gang culture in key British cities that fuels it, is itself a product a number of social, economic and political factors. He also fails to appreciate that the rioting by a minority of individuals in a small number of English cities – while serious – actually highlighted how determined the moral majority are to rid their communities of this type of behaviour. In Liverpool and Birmingham we saw communities that, far from being “without control”, stood up to the rioters and helped with the efforts to restore order. We witnessed widespread disgust at the actions of the rioters and the scale of greed which appeared to motivate some of them. Here is not a Britain on the brink of “moral collapse”, whatever Cameron wishes to believe for political reasons, but a country that is united in being appalled by recent events.

It’s also blatantly mistaken to present the problem in moral terms, rather than as a product of complex and multiple factors including socio-economic deprivation. Unfortunately in the course of his speech the Prime Minister was dismissive of any link with poverty. Admittedly, it is glib and simplistic to suggest that poverty is the sole reason the riots occurred – but it is no coincidence that rioting took place in areas that appear to have historic predisposition to such expressions of violence; areas which also have more than their fair share of inequality and social problems. Yes, this orgy of destruction was motivated by greed rather than by anger – but that alone is not the whole story. I can not take seriously any Prime Minister – or even an MP – who does not wish to more fully understand the causes of these disturbances. To dismiss out of hand the link with poverty, before the commission has even been established, is both careless and arrogant. Caricaturing the nation as morally bankrupt in a way that would make even the most rampant of Presbyterian ministers cringe is plainly negligent.

To suggest, as Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman did last week, that the rioting was politically motivated is symptomatic of blindness. To claim issues of social inequality and deprivation, fuelled by decades of government underinvestment, are irrelevant is equally blind.

While I have expressed disapproval at some Labour figures’ cynical and misguided attempts to attach political significance to the rioting, I am broadly in agreement with Labour leader Ed Miliband who drew attention to the differences between his own position and the Prime Minister’s moralising. It is, insists Miliband, irresponsible to play up the “culture of depravity” that Cameron believes led to rioting; issues of social deprivation needed to be considered at the very least as a context. This is a perspective largely shared by the Liberal Democrats, many of whom have used the last few days not only to distance themselves from the Conservatives, but to articulate well-formulated and socially responsible alternatives to the kind of rhetoric being recklessly promoted by our coalition partners.

Firstly, a number of Liberal Democrat bloggers have responded; Lisa Harding expresses disappointment at the consideration to clamp down on social media while the non-aligned Better Nation argues (as do many charities) that proposals to axe benefits and evict those involved in rioting would prove counterproductive and would simply reinforce social exclusion. Chris Sams wrote to Tim Farron and Nick Clegg urging them not to allow further attacks on liberty. I agree with my fellow Lib Dems. What is needed are not knee-jerk reactions, empty populism and easy headlines, but a responsible, sober-minded and socially just new approach towards crime and its root causes. Such sentiments were expressed by Simon Hughes MP who, writing in the Observer, opined that “we should be careful not to rush into kneejerk solutions including over-hasty moves to change the social contract and approaches to sentences which may have the reverse effect to that intended.” Jenny Willott, the Lib Dems’ welfare spokesperson, considered that moves to axe benefits “would turn more to acquisitive crime. I completely understand people’s desire to stamp out the problem, but it is important that we do not make things worse.” Like her, I can not see how making people homeless will reduce levels of violent crime. Enforced homlessness and destitution is hardly a recipe for empowerment. It is a shame there are those in government who refuse to accept such common sense.

More positively is the good sense that Nick Clegg has espoused in recent days. Even the Daily Telegraph’s Mary Riddell, hardly a natural ally of the Lib Dem leader, was supportive of his emphasis on restorative justice (something which featured highly in our election manifesto); in particular, his suggestion that rioters not receiving custodial sentences should take responsibility for their actions and help clean up their communities:





"At last, someone talks sense on crime. Nick's Clegg's announcement that rioters spared prison must clean up their neighbourhoods is the best suggestion so far. Research has established beyond doubt that restorative justice – under which victims and offenders come face to face – works even for serious crimes. I've seen it in action, inside Pentonville prison, in a meeting between a frightened widow and the man who broke into her home and was subsequently jailed. He was sorry; she realised that the monster of her imagining was an inadequate and drug-addicted failure. Her long nightmare ended with that encounter. "

Clegg’s announcement that there will be a commission - essentially amounting to an inquiry - is also positive and will hopefully, if allowed in the scope of its remit, go some way to uncovering the complex problems at the heart of the matter. This is quite a victory for the Lib Dem leader as only last week the Prime Minister personally ruled out an inquiry. This represents a multi-party, non-partisan approach that will allow communities to be listened to as well as bring about greater understanding of the reasons for the scale of the disturbances. Clegg, while clearly promoting restorative justice, was keen to play up the importance of listening to victims and promised funding to allow them to confront offenders who attacked them while ensuring victims are themselves represented on the commission. He also opted for an approach that is actually tougher in practice than anything espoused by the Conservative Party in hailing community payback schemes as the way forward. And while he doesn’t necessarily rule out benefit sanctions he agrees that the government must be careful not “to create unintended consequences where actually the taxpayer ends up giving more, or [where] we create more social problems or problems of law and order.”

The Guardian has, fairly, deduced that “the Clegg liberalism was a bit more meaty than the May authoritarianism.” How right that is.

There must be a political reaction to the rioting, but decisions must not be made hastily and not in response to the prejudices of Conservative back-benchers. Neither should they be made to appease the right-wing media. Instead, Clegg’s commission must be allowed to run its course free from government interference and with a sufficiently wide scope of remit to make recommendations into how the government should proceed in regards its social policies, on welfare and on penal and policing reform. The findings of the commission should not be pre-empted if this is to be a genuine listening exercise.

So what SHOULD the political response be? Clearly, it is in a multi-party, non-tribal approach that allows itself to be informed by the findings of the commission, whatever they may be. There must also be a united commitment to acting on any recommendations to deal with the numerous and complex issues at the heart of the matter. But more importantly it is vital that at this time politicians do more listening than they do talking - and that those dedicated to ensuring the events of the last week are not repeated do not behave rashly or pre-empt the commission in order to justify current policy or provide a populist headline.

The riots have told us little new about British society. We know about the effects of gang culture, social exclusion and material deprivation, as have previous governments. These are long-standing, rather than new, problems. What is now required is for a less piecemeal and target-driven approach to that favoured by the previous Labour government in particular and to adopt longer-term, more holistic solutions while giving them time to work. Talk of an expansion of anti-gang operations and revitalisation of inner city communities should be welcomed as a part of such a longer-term view. On the other hand, reckless discussion about attacking social media and the creation of a virtual police state is both ridiculously facile and unworkable in practice. The harsh "remedies" being promoted by some Conservatives may capture the nation's mood for vengeance and retribution but are unworkable both practically and legally and would potentially jeopardise the coalition.

Clegg emerges with signifcant credit from his performance today, while Cameron and May (particularly the latter) have come across as authoritarian and intellectually lacking. While it is shameful that the riots brought out the worst in a number of British people, it is a tragedy that they have also brought out the very worst in some of our politicians.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

EU must respond to Hungarian threat

I happen, by fortunate accident of birth, to be a Scot. I am also a European with an internationalist, rather than nationalist, outlook. I am an advocate of the European Union as an institution, although my sympathies do not necessarily extend to the bureaucratic way in which the EU conducts itself or its centralising ethic. However, I have an interest in European issues and make attempts to gain a level of understanding of such matters above what may be gleaned from the British media.

I have recently been considering the thought-provoking recommendations of Austrian journalist Hans Rauscher, a writer of considerable skill and reputation at Vienna’s left-liberal Der Standard. He recently insisted that Hungary should be ejected from the EU; describing the country as a “cuckoo in Europe’s nest” Rauscher puts forward an argument for EU action which, frankly, the rest of Europe deserves to hear. While the world’s media focuses on the struggle for power in Libya and human rights abuses in Syria, equally pertinent and not entirely dissimilar battles are being fought in Hungary – much closer to home but strangely outwith the glare of the global press.

I must advise you that as most of my information has been gleaned from German language newspapers and that my practical knowledge of the language is limited verging on the rudimentary, it is highly possible that I may do Rausher a disservice through inadequate translation. However, I feel I understand his principal points and believe they need to be at the very least considered more widely on a European stage.

Hungary joined the EU only seven years ago, upon a promise to uphold the shared values of democracy, the rule of law and respect for minorities. Whatever else the EU is, argues Rauscher, it is a community of values. This is enshrined within the Lisbon Treaty to which Hungary was content to be a signatory: “Human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and the respect for human rights: these are the core values of the EU which are set out at the beginning of the Treaty of Lisbon. They are common to all Member States, and any European country wishing to become a member of the Union must respect them."

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, in office for little over a year, seems set to dismantle – or at the very least erode – his own government’s commitment to such values. He has gone so far as to expressly declare them to be obsolete. With his comfortable majority and the apparent support of a sizeable Euro-sceptic section of public opinion, Orban has “declared war” on virtually everyone and “has quickly created an authoritarian pseudo-democracy with ultra-nationalist traits”. His vision for Hungary’s future appears based on a Putinesque system incompatible with Western social values. Already he has successfully altered Hungary’s electoral law to effectively ensure repeated re-election while last year’s media bill has subjected the press to significant governmental interference. The justiciary has been filled with personal and party supporters to ensure that any attempts to overturn the “legal coup” will be frustrated.

There is, however, further cause for concern about the motives behind, and the inevitable by-products of, Orban’s policy direction. Minorities feel vulnerable as anti-Semitism not only appears on the rise but is becoming a more frequent feature of mainstream news reporting. The ultra-nationalism behind Orban’s thinking has the potential to create significant diplomatic tensions between Hungary and her neighbours – most notably with Slovakia and Romania, whose territory covers the Carthusian Basin Orban claims as Hungarian by right. In providing Hungarian citizenship to every “ethnic Hungarian” living within the wider area of the Carthusian Basis, he has essentially attempted to undermine the arrangements laid out within the Treaty of Trianon to ensure the maintenance of peace in Eastern Europe. His actions have certainly succeeded in angering the Slovakians who have, concerningly, intimated that "this is the beginning of a war".

It has not been sufficient for Orban to control the press; he wishes to extend his “coup” to his political opponents who he hopes to jail under what will essentially be false pretences. He is currently planning to prosecute his three predecessors as Prime Minister for “economic management”: in short, he argues that overseeing an increase in national debt from a little over 50% to 80% constitutes a “political crime”. However, that statistic is actually better than many other European democracies and no worse than Britain’s record; critics of Orban believe he is using the economic crisis as a convenient excuse to “muzzle and jail its political opponents” in a Stalinist-type purge.

Orban himself, as might be expected from someone using his democratic mandate to crush democracy, is a mass of contradictions. He has a reputation for being an anti-communist, yet espouses pro-Chinese ideology. He advocates a future for Hungary’s industry on a Russo-Chinese model (surely doomed to failure) while simultaneously adopting policies damaging his country’s manufacturing base. And, while invoking the spirit of 1956, he leads a government which has drafted a new constitution – to come into effect on 1st January 2012 – in which the period between the Nazi invasion in March 1944 and the 1990 elections legally ceases to exist.

Hungary’s rejection of Western values is something that every member of the EU should be seriously uncomfortable with. Euroscepticism is inevitable in the current political climate, but what Orban is promoting goes beyond the typical dissatisfaction directed at European institutions. Giving a speech at a formerly-Hungarian town in Romania, Tusnádfürdö, the Prime Minister insisted that “we have lived our lives within their framework of the world’s values, now they have become less important. They are obsolete.” Orban has laid down a challenge to which the European Union must respond: can he continue, unchecked, to limit press freedoms, imprison political opponents, stir up ultra-nationalist tension and move Hungary towards a new value system incompatible with that of the EU? Or will he be reigned in before the powder keg is ignited?

Rauscher believes that the best course of action is for Hungary to be suspended from the EU. That might be the most obvious course of action, but I feel it may be ineffective and actually play into the hands of Viktor Orban's anti-European tactics while further pushing Hungary away from the values Rauscher holds in such high esteem. Considered action on the part of the EU is not only necessary but overdue (other than expressing a few concerns over press freedom the EU has been rather silent). Europe must now find the courage and the diplomatic wisdom to respond to the Hungarian government's anti-democratic tendencies and aggresive nationalism with some urgency if a new threat to Eastern European peace is to be thwarted.

SNP MSP withdraws homophobic "Nazi slur"

Bill Walker MSP seems to have parted company with his senses of reason and proportion this week.

The SNP MSP for Dunfermline is one of three MSPs to support John Mason's "equal marriage" motion, which is homophobic in the sense that it appears to support maintaining sexual orientation as a barrier to legal equality. However, Mr Wilson went further than Mr Mason's expressed sentiments, informing a local newspaper that he found gay marriages to be "a contradiction in terms" and that "anything that puts homosexual relationships as any way equal to male-female marriages is just not right". Some of his SNP colleagues immediately attacked his unwise decision to unburden himself of his homophobic prejudices to a local journalist, with SNP MEP Alyn Smith labelling him "a bigot".

Unfortunately, these criticism from colleagues failed to have the effect of silencing what are unhelpful contributions to the ongoing debate on equal marriage. Walker, who clearly has something of a persecution complex, proceeded to attack his critics, claiming that he was being "intimidated and threatened" online by LGBT rights activists. I would not approve of a campaign of intimidation, although I imagine if such claims were true then Mr Walker might now have developed some insights into the ways in which many LGBT people have been treated in recent years. However, he has not so far offered any evidence with which to back up his rather spurious and generalised claims and yesterday created further outrage after comparing LGBT rights campaigners to Nazis.

Apparently, in response to nothing more sinister than an anti-homphobia logo, Walker commented that "I regarded that as quite intimidating actually because ... it reminded me of the pre-war Nazi-type stuff banning things." Firstly, I worry for the mental health of someone who can not only be offended but intimidated by a pro-equality logo. Secondly, the Nazi slur is unjustified and insulting, especially given what people of homosexual orientation had to endure under Nazi rule.

The SNP have not, I believe, as yet issued a statement although Walker has been forced to backtrack and withdraw his comments admitting to being "intemperate". He certainly was intemperate. But he was also irresponsible, prejudiced, unprofessional and frankly a national embarrassment. While I welcome the fact he has withdrawn his comments under pressure, there can be no escape from the shameful truth that he meant what he said, that he genuinely does feel that gay equality is "not right" and that those who disagree with him are guilty of "intimidation". "For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks." (Mt 12:34) During the last few days Bill Walker has shown what kind of man - and MSP - he is. I am certainly glad he isn't mine.

It's difficult to assess his possible motivations for his apparent determination to demonstrate to the electorate how out of touch he is with public opinion. Lalland's Peat Worrier, an SNP blogger, sees Walker as "seeming desperate at every turn to introduce himself to the Scottish people as a cantankerous and shallow-pated hephalump with all of the mental and political dexterity of quivering invertebrate." While Walker is a member of the Church of Scotland, he dismisses religious influence as a factor in his action, professing to see the issue in purely moral terms: essentially he arrogantly perceives himself and his own sexual orientation as morally superior to that of others.

Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray said: “Alex Salmond has to now make clear where he stands after this bizarre and offensive outburst by Bill Walker, tainting his critics with this Nazi slur.” I agree entirely. Salmond has so far preferred to sit quietly as the controversy has unfolded. Walker's offensive outburst is surely evidence of the need for the SNP's leadership to exert some control over the few but highly vocal rebels who are not only undermining their party's broadly liberal stance on LGBT rights but also providing a dis-service to the Scottish Parliament as a whole. Perhaps Salmond will rid his party of this turbulent false prophet, or at the very least exile him to the Westboro Baptist Church.

It is regrettable that in the weeks leading up to the consultation on same-sex marriages John Mason's unwise motion and Bill Walker's offensive comments are framing the debate. I can only speculate as to the purposes of John Mason's original motion but if, as he claims, it was simply designed to ensure that Scotland will be "a pluralistic society where all minorities can live together in peace and mutual tolerance" then surely it has already proved counter-productive. We can not afford for a democratic discussion about equality of marriage to become centred around the outdated and retrograde attitudes of a minority.

The Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows an overwhelming majority of Scottish people support same-sex marriage. This is surely an issue on which the wishes and thoughts of the majority should be listened to. I am pleased the Scottish government has opened up what I hope will be an informed, constructive and positive consultation process which will allow it to kick into touch the homophobic views of Walker and his ilk (who delude themselves that they speak for the "moral majority").

Bill Walker certainly has very little personal or political credibility following his recent antics: perhaps he will now simply be allowed to drift into obscurity until his inevitable defeat at the next election?

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Scottish blogosphere should be celebrated

As I noted recently, it’s currently time for the annual Total Politics blog awards. Anyone with an interest in political blogging can, until 19th August, nominate their ten favourite blogs and bloggers – and their favourite tweeter.

There are a lot of reasons why this year’s political blog awards are exciting me in a way they haven’t previously. Firstly, this is perhaps the understandable and inevitable consequence of my own transformation into a regular blogger. Secondly, I think there is real potential for Scottish and female bloggers to do well in the Total Politics awards – thus hopefully providing an opportunity for them to gain the overdue recognition they deserve. Thirdly and finally, I see this as an opportunity for people to become more enthused about what I term the “new media” and to come to a greater appreciation of the calibre and influence of political bloggers.

I’ve already voted and nominated my ten favourite blogs, my ten preferred bloggers and the tweeter I considered the most influential. According to the rules of the poll, I’m not allowed to share the detail of how I voted as this may be interpreted as an instruction for my followers, such as I have, to vote along the same lines. But I would like to share that almost all of my nominations were from the Scottish blogosphere with some notable exceptions (one inspiring free-thinker from Woking, a female MP and my friend Stephen Glenn who apparently doesn’t really count as a Scot). The reason for this isn’t patriotism or partisan preference for things Scottish, although I admit Scottish bloggers are perhaps better positioned to speak about many of the issues nearer to home that concern me. On a personal level I engage with a number of Scottish bloggers, both from the Liberal Democrats and other parties. But the main reason I voted for so many Scottish bloggers is because we have such an abundance of blogging talent this side of Hadrian’s Wall that, aside from a few key English bloggers who genuinely enthuse me, I generally don’t feel the need to be scouring the wider blogosphere for either information or inspiration. I’m not saying that talented bloggers are confined to Scotland; simply that there are many intelligent, informed and gifted contributors closer to whom who write with clarity and conviction.

As established, I’m not going to give you a list and tell you how to vote. But if you haven’t experienced for yourself the talent pool I refer to (and, let’s be honest, many of my readers are from outwith Scotland so it’s a distinct possibility) I would like to share with you some of our Caledonian gems. Scottish politics has a distinct character and this is naturally evident in the thoughts of our political bloggers and commentators. I would also like to encourage you to vote in the Total Politics Blog Awards but – far more importantly – to use the poll as an opportunity to delve a little deeper into the blogosphere and uncover some treasures you perhaps were previously unaware of.

I’m sure everyone with the remotest interest in Scottish politics or the Liberal Democrats is aware of the famous and enormously prodigious Caron. But are you familiar with the creative and thought-provoking musings of Gordon Anderson or the equally well-considered contributions of Priggy? Similarly, Douglas McLellan offers independent and original insights into various aspects of Scottish life and politics while Gavin Hamilton, in his View from the Hills, casts a discerning eye over the city of Edinburgh and wider Scottish society. Stephen, a Northern Irish honorary Scot and Livingston supporter, maintains a Liberal Journal reflecting on a range of complex questions relating to both Scotland and Ulster and is a champion of LGBT rights. A future star within the Scottish Lib Dems is surely the Rt Hon Trouble, while a new collective blog, Wild Women, promises to be a trailblazer for liberal values and feminism.

Of course talent is not limited to my own party. I always find Labour Hame able to provide stimulating and often intellectually rigorous debate. Labour activist Duncan Hothersall is always worth listening to, with his mix of passionate advocacy for equality and wry political analysis. The SNP seems to have been unfairly blessed with a dearth of talented bloggers, but I would single out Lalland’s Peat Worrier for his intellectual and irrepressibly elegant style, not to mention his ability to review developments in an unusually original, scholarly and humorous way and Joan McAlpine whose journalistic skills are always evident in her near-poetic blogposts. Other fabulous Scottish blogs include Herald journalist Iain McWhirter’s topical updates, Better Nation and A Burdz Eye View.

I should also mention that Andrew Emmerson, while not strictly speaking Scottish, does an incredible Scottish accent. Or so I’m led to believe! All the same, he's an outstanding blogger who deserves to do well.

These are only the tip of the iceberg as far as Scottish blogging goes. These are simply some of the blogs I enjoy reading. There is of course an incredible catalogue of blogging excellence outwith Scotland and if you’re voting in the Total Politics poll I’m sure you’ll bear the many excellent English blogs in mind. The only recommendation I would make is to vote for A Scottish Liberal. But the Scottish blogosphere more generally is currently in a particularly healthy state, and this is something that should be celebrated! What about a Scottish Blogging Day?

Lords Reform Reviewed

This is the first in what will hopefully be a series of contributions from respected guest authors. This month Robert Maclennan writes on the Coalition's proposals for reform of the House of Lords.

Discussion is the best kind of democracy. That wise opinion of John Stuart Mill is ample justification for bi-cameral parliamentary government. The reform of the House of Lords by the Asquith government one hundred years ago was intended to remove the power of the second chamber to block decision making by the government, not to close down discussion. In that aim, the reform was successful. And discussion can lead to a change of mind. In a recent five year period 40% of amendments to legislation passed by the House of Lords against the initial wishes of the government were ultimately accepted by the government. Such outcomes have rarely been subjected to criticism and, no doubt, justify the accolades of the present Prime Minister and Deputy that “the House of Lords works well...and its existing members have serviced the country with distinction.” The question which must, therefore, be answered about the Coalition Government’s proposed changes in the composition of the House of Lords is “How will the proposed new second chamber work better than the present one?”

It is instructive to consider the constitutional context in which the Draft Bill to provide for a “wholly or predominantly elected” House of Lords is published. By the end of the twentieth century the good governance of the United Kingdom was perceived to be threatened by the growing extent of the exercise of centralised executive power. In a unitary state where the government wields the prerogative powers of the crown largely unchecked by Parliament, where the electoral system can sustain in office for a long time the same political party with the support of only a minority of the electorate and where membership of the House of Commons is increasingly professionalised and with the preferment of its Members depending upon the patronage of the Prime Minister the trends are troubling. Cabinet government itself has been seen to be eroded by the personalisation of power and what has been called “sofa government”. In consequence, constitutional reform, or “modernisation” as it was comfortably described, became a hotter political topic than usual.

By the end of the 1990s steps were underway to devolve power, to open up government processes to scrutiny through freedom of information, to effectively protect human rights, to secure the separation of the highest court of the realm from the legislature and to strengthen the independence of judicial appointments. At the same time Parliament began to reconsider its own composition, processes and conventions. The Commons’ Administration Committee, chaired by Tony Wright, pushed to strengthen the independence of the House Committees from executive influence. The dominance of the hereditary membership of the House of Lords was greatly diminished by the 1999 Act. It can be seen that the central thrust of the reforms was to redistribute power and to strengthen the checks and balances of our Parliamentary democracy. The continuance of this process is the real opportunity to be pursued in pushing forward further parliamentary reform, including reform of the second chamber. As the proposals stand, however, they would fall far short of securing these purposes.

The paradox at the heart of the Coalition Government proposals is the extraordinary utterance that “The powers of the second chamber and, in particular, the way in which they are exercised should not be extended.” What, then, is the point of the proposed changes? The compliment is paid to the House of Lords that it has “served the country with distinction”. Its “lack” to which the government draws attention is “sufficient democratic authority”; but, it is proposed that the Lords having been given sufficient democratic authority, must do no more and do it no differently.

Those who have long favoured an elected second chamber have done so because they have seen it as a contribution to strengthening the hand of the legislature over the executive arm of government. In particular, some have observed that although the House of Commons is wholly elected it is itself capable of behaving like a well-trained poodle and of performing at the command of the government. A second chamber, or Senate, wholly elected by a different voting system from that of the House of Commons, could indeed call governments to refrain from precipitate or ill-considered action. The authority of the senators, stemming from their democratic election, would reasonably entitle them to pit their judgement against that of the government in the full knowledge that, like the government, they themselves would be held to account by the electors for their actions. The fear of gridlock between executive and legislature can be exaggerated, for if there is openness of reasoning between the arms of government and the balance of argument is finely drawn then normally deference to the executive is to be expected in a parliamentary democracy.

There is a second good reason for giving legitimacy by direct election to the second chamber and that is to enable the workload of Parliament to be spread across two chambers. The House of Commons is heavily over burdened. The advent of IT has added greatly to the accessibility of MPs whose duties are, properly, seen as being to represent every interest touched by government and public authorities. The increase in the constituency workload is matched by an increase in MPs’ direct engagement in oversight of the executive through membership of the growing number of departmental and other standing committees of the House. The increase in the volume of legislation brought to Parliament also bears down heavily on its Members and the consequent increasing practice of timetabling legislation in the Commons does result in matters being less considered there and, not infrequently, passed to the Lords without full scrutiny of all clauses of bills. The time is surely ripe to acknowledge that spreading responsibility, even primary responsibility, across two elected chambers would help to ensure better governance by enabling both Houses of parliament to focus their attention and, in combination, to scrutinise more effectively the wide spectrum of public decision making. There might, for example, be sense in retaining the primacy of the House of Commons over money bills but also in giving primacy to the second chamber to scrutinise legislative proposals from the European Union. Prerogative powers of appointment and treaty ratification could be overseen by either chamber.

Regrettably these opportunities are not opened up by the Coalition Government’s proposed reform of the House of Lords. Indeed, they are explicitly blocked. The Coalition “does not intend to amend the Parliament Acts or to alter the balance of power between the Houses of Parliament”. Thus, even the delaying power of a second chamber would not be increased. It must be doubted that an elected second chamber would agree to play second fiddle for so long. It can be reasonably anticipated that, just as there has been continuing tension between devolved governments and central government over the distribution of power between them, there would be conflict almost immediately about the limited scope of the second chamber’s powers initiated by those legitimately elected to serve in it. For example, the conventions which have normally constrained the House of Lords from rejecting secondary legislation which has been approved by the House of Commons would be seen for what it is – a convention capable of being overturned. The proposed Bill does not resolve questions of the relationship between the two chambers. It will entrench conflict.

Another oddity of the proposals to enhance the “democratic authority” of the second chamber is the failure to make any provision for the accountability of its members. This appears to be deliberate. The provision that elected members may serve only once and may do so for fifteen years, or for even more if they are elected at the beginning of a parliament which does not run its full term, is to deprive their electorate of any hold on their members. It must be questioned how long the conferral of “democratic authority” can last. Moreover, the Government has stated that it “expects members of the reformed House to be full-time Parliamentarians” but there is no provision to ensure this.

A criticism is made that present House of Lords members do not themselves participate in all the business of the House. Many, of not most of them, are engaged in external, but often highly relevant professional or business activities, and when matters arise on which they can speak and offer advice with authority which comes from knowledge they do tend to be present. Others have expressed concern that full-time professional politicians, members of an elected second chamber, are less likely to contribute such knowledge to public debate. That argument may have contributed to the Coalition Government’s proposal that sixty of the three hundred members of the second chamber should be appointed also to serve for terms of fifteen years, to retain some appropriate expertise. That provision, however, would appear less apt to secure relevant knowledge of matters under discussion than to maintain the public and parliamentary perception that the second chamber had less democratic authority than the House of Commons. It might, as the Coalition appears to wish, prevent any party from being strong enough on its own to block a government proposal in the partially elected second chamber. Ministers in proposing reform of the House of Lords have called for “sufficient” democratic authority for the new chamber. That begs two questions: “what is sufficient?” and “sufficient for what purposes?” – it appears that the design is intended to prevent the balance of power tilting any further towards Parliament.

Those who advocate the election of the second chamber must face up to the huge changes which it would make to the performance of its roles. The inescapable loss of expertise and experience which would flow from the abolition of a deliberately appointed chamber ought to be addressed by those of us who favour an elected second chamber. It is that expertise and the evidence of the commitment to public service of the members of the House of Lords which is widely acknowledged as giving it its distinctive justification. A possible contribution to answering the conundrum would be to recognise the case for appointing a Council of State comprising a membership drawn from those who are recognised to have achieved eminence and who have made a contribution across a wide range of positions in civil society. The role of such a Council of State would be advisory, but it would have a prescribed place in the governance of the country and, in particular, in the legislative process. It s members would be equipped to offer not just particular specialist knowledge which might otherwise be overlooked. Such people are often reluctant to seek elected public office, although some of them might have done. They are not particularly partisan in their viewpoints but have insights, experience and commitment to public welfare which is of continuing relevance and value. Some might be chosen because their knowledge is unlikely to be directly represented in an elected chamber. Sitting on a continuing basis, such a Council of State would have an identity and the gravitas to draw public and parliamentary attention to issues and possible resolutions of problems which otherwise might not be considered in the hurly-burly of political life.

The “Mother of Parliaments” at Westminster has in the past provided a model for many other legislatures. It is worth noting, however, that most of the second chambers in other democracies are not only elected but are substantially smaller than the proposed House of Lords. Whether directly or indirectly elected that are on average less than one-third of the size of what the Coalition has proposed for Britain. The relatively small size of those chambers would seem not to diminish their standing. Indeed, it might be argued that smaller elected bodies achieve more eminence and influence and would thus be more attractive to aspirant politicians. If, however, the Coalition’s proposals are enacted then the membership of the new second chamber will be a mixture of people with remarkably diverse status. There will be “transitional” peers, i.e. those waiting to be dropped at successive election; appointed peers; a handful of ministers seconded by the Government to the second chamber; elected peers and twelve bishops. It is hard to see how such a galère of members would strengthen the coherence of the second chamber or persuade the public of its “democratic authority”.

The virtue of evolutionary constitutional change is often extolled by British commentators. The package of proposed reforms of the House of Lords gives little real hint of the direction towards which Britain’s parliament might tend. It might indeed, due to its ineffectuality, lead to uni-cameral government. In other countries, such as Sweden and New Zealand this is now the norm. But such a development in Britain with our propensity to promote central control and fortified by an electoral system which does not tend to spread power across parties could lead to a dangerously unchecked presidential system. it is good that the debate has begun and it is hoped that the Joint Parliamentary Committee scrutinising the Bill will not be unduly confined by its terms.

Robert Maclennan (Lord Maclennan of Rogart) was MP for Caithness & Sutherland (1966-2001), leader of the Social Democratic Party (1987-88) and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for constituional affairs and culture (1994-2001).

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Some thoughts on the recent public disorder

Today parliament has reconvened to discuss and debate the recent public disturbances which, if the media were to be believed, have swept across Britain in recent days.

I am happy to join with MPs of all parties in condemning the criminality that has resulted in widespread destruction, looting, hundreds of people being made homeless and, tragically, some being killed. The “riots” that have been the focus of such intense media interest should be seen for what they are – a human tragedy, and a completely unnecessary one at that.

Being the kind of person I am, I have tried to make sense of what has gone on; to understand and comprehend the rationale behind what on the face of it is mindless and gratuitous violence. For all my years of experience working in mental health services, I must admit to being unable to identify any social, economic or cultural factors behind the disturbances. That does not mean that such factors are not at least partially responsible for the rioting we have seen, but they are not the principal influences. For all the attempts of certain figures within the Labour Party to equate the rioting with justified protest against coalition policy, that logic simply doesn’t hold true. In fact, not only is it seriously flawed, it’s also negligent and irresponsible.

If we can cast our minds back a few days we might remember that disorder reared its head following a protest over the killing of a young man, Mark Duggan, on Thursday. The protest itself passed off reasonably peacefully, but appears to have been hijacked by some determined to use the opportunity to attack the police. Criminality spread, not only across London but later to Nottingham, Liverpool, Manchester and other urban areas, with buildings being burned, shops looted and, sadly, some people being killed. I can safely say that the majority of the “rioters” were completely ignorant of Mark Duggan’s death and had little in the way of political motivation other than taking advantage of an opportunity to pillage, loot and embark on a spree of destruction.

To suggest that the “riots” are in some way either politically motivated or stem from government policy is, at best, a misconception. Ken Livingstone and Harriet Harman have, shamefully, sought to make political capital from the situation. On one level we should not be surprised that such tribalists can not resist the temptation to score cheap points. However, on another, we should be appalled that senior figures can stoop so low as to peddle a myth that has the potential to create further social division.

Harman, speaking on Tuesday’s Newsnight, suggested that the public disturbances were a manifestation of public anger against “the trebling of tuition fees...young people feel[ing] they are not being listened to...jobs being cut and youth unemployment rising.” Essentially, she sought to link the violence with tuition fees, EMA and job centres. I will not argue that social deprivation does not create the conditions in which people can turn to violence. However, it is both wrong and irresponsible of Harman to connect the criminality on the streets of some English cities to current government policy, however unsatisfactory that policy. Fortunately Ed Miliband appears to realise this and has urged his MPs not to attempt to make mileage from the violence, insisting that Labour should “not engage in simplistic explanations”. The New Statesman makes a similar point, observing that “The riots were not, as some have claimed, an uprising or insurrection against the coalition’s spending cuts. Many of the cuts deemed responsible for the violence have not even taken effect. This is not to say that the cuts will not make matters worse [but] placing an undue and politically convenient emphasis on their role risks masking the social and economic deformities that lie beneath the violence."

Fortunately, it seems that Harman and Livingstone are isolated within the Labour Party, at least so far as their tactics are concerned. The majority of Labour MPs are determined to forge a cross-party approach to tackling the unrest and its root causes. My personal viewpoint isn’t simply that Harman’s opportunism was wrong, but that her determination to take advantage of human suffering and the effects of criminality for political ends is as morally abhorrent as those who have taken advantage of the situation to loot and steal.

I found it interesting that the unrest occurred in places where there was historical precedent. The Tottenham riots began in the Broadwater farm area, where there had been riots in 1985 resulting in the killing of PC Keith Blakelock. As trouble spread, it inevitably moved into areas such as Brixton - the scene of anti-police riots in 1981. Disturbances broke out in other English cities but again these were largely in areas where there might be seen to be a historic predisposition to rioting, such as Toxteth in Liverpool (the scene of disorder in 1981 and 1985) and St Ann’s in Nottingham, where race riots occurred in 1958. Unrest in Manchester seems to have been orchestrated by organised criminal gangs - but lest we forget Moss Side was also the scene of racial riots in 1981.

I am not suggesting that history necessarily repeats itself, or that a predisposition to rioting is geographical. It is not. But there are reasons why parts of British society were so willing to become violent and destructive towards the communities they were part of. These areas not only have a history of public disturbance, but a history of social deprivation where there is a lack of social cohesion, little sense of community and even less in the way of opportunity. There are reasons why rioting took place in Toxteth, St Ann's and Brixton, as opposed to Tunbridge Wells, St Alban's and Barnstaple.

That is not to say that the rioting we have seen in recent days was purely an expression of social deprivation, because it hasn’t been. Not only has this not constituted a political protest – it isn’t even a protest in the way that the aforementioned disturbances were. I have no truck with those within the media who are attempting to suggest that racial or religious differences were in some way responsible for the outbreak of violence in London: like Harman’s uninformed intervention, such an analysis is not only wrong but socially irresponsible. Racialising the disturbances is unhelpful and an insult to the community work and political action that has resulted in improved relations between religious communities.

Obviously, the immediate concern is to deal with crime and its consequences. Those who are found to be responsible for indulging in the mindless and unnecessary brutality we have witnessed in recent days must be brought to justice and given appropriate sentences. While it is important to understand the various factors that either led to the riots or created the conditions in which they took place, understanding is not justification. Thuggish criminality deserves to be punished, especially when it leads to homelessness and death. There can be no excuse for such behaviour, but that does not necessarily imply there can be no reasons for it.

Prime Minister David Cameron today responded to a question from Caroline Lucas MP by insisting that [indiscriminate crime] “is not about inequality”. It’s tempting to believe that, but it’s not quite true. Inequality does not excuse criminal behaviour. But it is not accidental that areas which have known little other than social deprivation and hopelessness for generations breed dissatisfied elements lacking in respect for authority or the wider community. That does not mean that poverty excuses a lack of values, but it does show that successive governments have failed to rise to the challenge of tackling the complex problems linking crime and deprivation – as Tony Blair described it, being “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.

I’m not going to lay the inequality commentary on too thick because social inequality is, at best, only an indirect influence behind the disturbances. There were also many areas of the UK that have experienced poverty, marginalisation and deprivation but whose communities did not indulge in wanton destruction. It is also true that within the very communities affected by the recent violence many local people organised themselves to oppose it and to assist with cleaning up their streets – evidence indeed that even within these areas the vast majority of people have strong moral principles and a real community ethic.

The government must do what it can to understand the various factors leading to this shocking, unnecessary and mindless outburst of violence. It must examine new solutions to deal with potential future unrest and the root causes of the most recent rioting. In doing so, it should examine more effective policing methods – not least in how to ensure the police are able to more easily connect with communities. Changes to sentencing should perhaps also be considered, especially in relation to premeditated crime organised via social media. But there can be no escaping that social factors must also be considered, and overdue remedies prescribed. It should also enter government thinking that, while the rioting was not a direct protest at government policy, there may be some respects in which current policy will not alleviate the problems of social incohesion and perhaps revisiting some of the detail could be considered.

Finally, I would like to comment on Alex Salmond’s disappointing intervention yesterday on the matter. If it was inexcusable for Harriet Harman to seek to make capital from human suffering, it was even more difficult to justify the First Minister using the situation to further his nationalist arguments. Without expressing any empathy with the victims of the violence, Mr Salmond’s concern seemed to be only with the media’s use of the word “British”. Speaking on BBC Scotland he said: "We know we have a different society in Scotland, and one of my frustrations was to see this being described on BBC television and Sky as riots in the UK. Well, until such time as we do have a riot in Scotland, then we've seen riots in London and across English cities. It's actually unhelpful to see them inaccurately presented, because one of the dangers we face in Scotland is copycat action." Another SNP MSP Joan McAlpine used twitter to explain that “the riots are NOT in UK or Britain. They are in England” and "it's an English problem."

How does anyone respond to that? Well, on one very basic level they are of course right. There have been no outbreaks of violence in Scotland related to that in London, although several Sunderland supporters were violently attacked in Edinburgh on Saturday and there is evidence that some individuals were attempting to orchestrate copycat riots. But they are in fact missing the point. This is not a reason for complacency or to attempt to turn what is a complex social problem into a national one. It’s also not true to describe it as “an English problem”: it is, in fact, a human problem that has taken hold in a few small areas of a few English cities. It’s not often that I quote from Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, but he is right when he maintains that “there are few Scots who don't have relatives or friends in the places affected south of the border. Alex Salmond does not seem to recognise that there are many parts of England that are luckily untouched by riots, like Scotland, and that an argument about their geography helps no one.”

That Alex Salmond and Joan McAlpine – both people I respect enormously – have used the situation in other parts of the UK to shamelessly further their arguments for independence is more than disappointing. On one point I naturally agree with them – Scottish society is fundamentally different, but that is no excuse for complacency: I can not, for example, imagine that there is a need in England to legislate to ban sectarian prejudice at football grounds. Scotland has its own (sometimes unique) problems and, as Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie makes clear, “Scotland is not free from social tensions and community disorder, and instead of gloating about riots in another part of the UK, the first minister's efforts would be better spent addressing those deep-rooted issues here.”

The disorder we have witnessed on out TV screens in recent days requires a responsible response from our elected representatives, not party political point scoring. In this respect, we have seen Nick Clegg, David Cameron and to some degree Ed Miliband emerge with credit whereas others – who have surrendered their capacity to part of the solution – have simply reinforced their reputations as party tribalists.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Sugar Sheds are key to Greenock's future

And now for something completely local!

Fellow blogger and SNP MSP Joan McAlpine has used her Scotsman column to write in support of the campaign to reclaim Greenock’s Sugar Sheds for community use. The Greenock Telegraph has reported on this local campaign in recent weeks but as far as I am aware this is the first time it has caught the attention of the national media.

I fully support her stance and the campaign, which has a facebook page and a surprisingly well-researched blog (Keep Greenock’s Sugar Sheds a Community Space). People who either live in or know Greenock will recognise how important the Sugar Sheds are to the town’s identity. They are not only an important landmark, but a link to our industrial past; a reminder of the town’s role in the “triangular trade” and slavery as well as Greenock’s influence and importance as a trade centre. As Joan McAlpine neatly summarises, the Sugar Sheds are “cathedrals of industry”.

The Sugar Sheds are, however, much more than simply reminders of our industrial heritage. They are not merely memorial stones to an almost-forgotten past, but have the potential to shape Greenock’s future. They can and should be a focal point via which the town can be regenerated and revitalised. And this potential was realised by local people at the recent Tall Ships race, when the Sheds were temporarily converted into theatres and stages for all kinds of artistes and bands. It is this, rather than backward-looking sentimentality, that has motivated campaigners to call for the derelict Sheds to be put to community use.

It is perhaps fitting that it should be the Tall Ships Race that served as the trigger for the local community to consider new uses for the Sugar Sheds. A town that owed its past to shipping now may owe its future to the way in which its inhabitants have so easily connected with its shipbuilding heritage. As Joan MacAlpine observes, the Tall Ships race energised local people “in an extraordinary way”. In some respects, this was an inevitable by-product of Inverclyde’s history. In other respects, it represents a positive collective aspiration for a better future.

McAlpine, considering Greenock’s future, prescribes imagination and innovation: “a little imagination can go a long way in allowing beauty to shine through dereliction.” That much is true. However, while the Sheds were saved in 2006 following a fire, until now very little imagination had been committed to determining what the Sugar Sheds’ future should be. Yes, the buildings should be preserved - that much was agreed. But during the last five years no-one had any more useful suggestion to offer than conversion into offices.

Now, of course, local people have been empowered to put forward an idea that is not only innovative and positive but also practical. That is not only a good thing, but in the present economic climate quite miraculous. The campaign group have found a way of connecting Greenock’s heritage and history with tomorrow’s opportunity. The campaign, in turn, has inspired local people to get behind the proposals while MSP Stuart McMillan has been making the right noises and, I believe, is to meet with Riverside Inverclyde to explore the various possibilities.

So often, what is termed “people power” expresses itself through protest or expressions of anger. In some respects that is inevitable. But it is refreshing when communities organise themselves and promote something so positive, so different, so far-reaching and yet so simple. And, unlike some other campaigns to “save” historic buildings or monuments, this is not an exercise in nostalgia by those who prefer to live in the past, but a dynamic vision for improving the town and the community. I am genuinely uplifted by this “people power” and I am in complete support of its aims.

I hope our MP, MSP and councillors share the campaigners’ appreciation for what the Sugar Sheds represent both in terms of Greenock’s past and its future. I strongly feel that a great deal can be achieved if there is the political will to do so. There is so much that can be done creatively with the available space that the very least should be a public consultation on more specific options for “community use” which will benefit the people of Inverclyde.

The local campaigners behind this proposal have not only caught the imagination, but perhaps done something even more improbable. They have allowed many local people to feel positive about the future of their town in a way that no MP, MSP, councillor or political activist has been able to. That for me is something worthy of enormous praise.