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Monday, 25 February 2013

Rennard scandal proves change of culture is needed


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

When the news initially broke last week, my initial reaction was disbelief.

I do not know Chris Rennard personally, although I have met him on two occasions. But I know him by reputation – and what a reputation he had. As Director of Communications from 1989 until 2003, he was widely credited with the by-election victories at Eastbourne, Newbury and Eastleigh – and before that with creating the brand of community politics that worked so effectively not only in his native Liverpool but in council ward and constituencies across the UK.

His legacy, in campaigning terms at least, is hugely significant.  The Liberal Democrats’ successes in the 1990s and early 2000s were due to a combination of factors; however, Rennard’s pivotal role in the emergence of the Lib Dems as a force in British politics is an inescapable statement of fact.  He is to our party what Peter Mandelson was to New Labour. There have been very few other figures who have been so vital to recent political history, yet so anonymous to those outside of either Westminster or their own party.

Rennard was well-liked with few obvious enemies. Those of us who knew him well – and I was speaking to one such Peer yesterday – found him amiable and dynamic, if a bit unconventional.  Others, who knew him only as an innovative campaigner and recognised his contribution to our party’s achievements (and even its identity), held him almost universally in high esteem.  It seems most who knew anything about Chris Rennard were as shocked at the emerging allegations as I am.

The allegations currently in the headlines centre on sexual harassment.  The media circus that has followed the Channel 4 report seems to have lost sight of the reality that, for all involved, this is a tragedy: a human tragedy, with far-reaching consequences.  Not only has this had the effect of diminishing the suffering of the victims (and all such cases have victims, even if we don't yet know who they are) it has also compromised a search for truth - in the case of the Daily Mail at least - with a concerted and deliberate campaign to destroy the political credibility of the party leader and the career of Chris Rennard.

In the eyes of many in the media, those who have made the allegations against Rennard are of little more than peripheral interest.  This displays a flagrant lack of respect for the many victims of similar offences, not to mention the very courage people often need to come forward and speak of their ordeals.  That is not to suggest that all individuals making allegations should be automatically assumed to be entirely truthful, but they should be afforded respect by the media.  Nothing is more disgraceful than the savage media exploitation of those who may already have been savagely exploited.

I have been in conversation on twitter with one of Rennard’s accusers, Alison Smith.  She rejects the label “victim”, or the notion that she is in some way being exploited by the media.  I understand her entirely, especially in relation to the overuse of the word “victim” with its natural connotations, but the fact that someone doesn’t feel exploited does not necessarily mean they are not being exploited.  It is evident that those making most noise about Rennard’s alleged improprieties care little for the well-being of those who may have experienced them.

Aside from the tabloid media, political opportunists within the Conservative Party have cynically sought to use this for short-term political gain, conveniently forgetting about the records of their own parliamentarians. What is essentially a matter surrounding unwanted advances should be focused on the women concerned, but has somehow become about so much more - namely Nick Clegg's leadership and the Eastleigh by-election.  Most of the “outraged” couldn’t tell you who Alison Smith or Bridget Harris are.

As Alison Smith told me, it’s the culture that must change.  Firstly, it’s the culture of the media; a culture obsessed with personality but with little regard for humanity.

But this is not about the media, much as many would like it to be.  Unfortunately all my criticisms that the media’s aggressive attempts to make this about Nick Clegg were undermined by Clegg’s own poor handling of events and his statement yesterday – which seemed to reinforce the point that, yes, this was indeed all about Nick Clegg.

Clegg’s handling of key situations since entering coalition has been poor.  Events have, unfortunately, followed a similar pattern this week, with initial denial of any knowledge of “allegations” followed after intense media pressure with an admission that the leader was, in fact, aware of non-specific rumours.  The distinction is more than an academic one, but Clegg did himself few favours and yesterday’s admission will reinforce public mistrust and perceptions of untruthfulness.  Clegg was at pains to “reject the insidious suggestion that my office or I are responsible in any way for a deliberate cover-up”, but has only succeeded in convincing many that his initial response was less than honest.  He knew about the harassment claims, even if he didn't know very much.

Whatever Nick Clegg knew, given that he was aware of “rumours”, the detail of the allegations cannot have come as a huge surprise. Outright denial of knowledge was therefore plainly foolish, and points to another feature of our political culture that urgently requires change.  The instinct to deny first and concede later shows a certain disregard not only for truth but also the public, and is not befitting of a party claiming to be above dishonesty and spin.  The Liberal Democrats have become the victim of - if not willingness to “cover up” – an economy with the truth in what must have seemed relatively trivial situations.  Imagine what might (not) have happened had Chris Huhne admitted to dishonesty over a speeding ticket?  Or if David Laws had not felt the need to deny his living arrangements?  Or if Nick Clegg had said, on Thursday, “I’ve heard some rumours and didn’t think much of them at the time. Obviously we’ll be taking a serious look at the situation now.”

This is the tip of the iceberg as far as how the party handles situations.  Clegg seems to have the opposite of the Midas touch: everything he puts his hand to crumbles to dust.  This is not coincidental, and in this case is the product of a culture that looks to limit damage rather than seek truth.  A policy of honesty first is always risky, but is certainly preferable to making forced statements correcting earlier forced statements.  Perhaps the instinct towards damage limitation is a demonstration of Clegg’s personal vulnerability and his growing mistrust of the media – he certainly is looking and sounding more and more like a victim himself. Whatever the reasoning, Clegg’s apparent backtracking and the statement itself raise more questions than they do answers: serious questions that demand serious investigation.

The lines of questioning must surely include the role of Jo Swinson who, in 2008,seems to have conducted something of an inquiry in which “women confided in [her]” and was followed by “action...to try to put a stop to any inappropriate behaviour” .  This would appear to indicate that more than non-specific “rumours” were circulating at the time, and suggests that either Nick Clegg is not being truthful or that MPs leading internal inquiries don’t report to their leaders. Either way, it is hugely concerning.

An inquiry has now been launched and I for one am pleased that there is now an independent element to the process.  I will not make any judgements prior to knowing what the outcome of that inquiry is.  Certainly if suspicions of an intentional and systematic “cover up” are proved correct, I will be unable to remain a member of the Liberal Democrats.  I do not say this lightly but, having campaigned against the abuses and concealments of information within the Roman Catholic Church and having been a victim of abuse myself, I could not with integrity retain my membership card.

That is the worst possible outcome and, in all probability, not the most likely.  What does seem more than probable is that the original handling will be shown to have been haphazard and insufficiently effective, that serious rumours have been too readily dismissed rather than thoroughly investigated, that those who came forward in confidence were let down by those in whom they had confided and that a culture of misogyny continues to permeate Westminster (let’s be honest, this is not merely a problem for the Liberal Democrats).

The best case for changing the political culture has been articulated in the last 24 hours by Lembit Opik, Tony Greaves and Jasper Gerrard.  Opik appeared on Sky News and seized the opportunity to score some easy political points and, while much of what he said made some sense, it was too egotistical and driven by resentment to be effective or helpful.  Tony Greaves, for whom I generally have enormous respect, leaped to the defence of Rennard; certainly his sense of personal loyalty is admirable.  What is less admirable is the barely disguised retrograde attitude towards harassment and women more generally.  Says Greaves: “We don’t know the details of anything that may have happened. But it is hardly an offence for one adult person to make fairly mild sexual advances to another. What matters if whether they are pursued if they are rebuffed…In passing I would note and guess that if the allegations as made are a matter for resignation, perhaps around a half of the male members of the Lords over the age of 50 would probably not be seen again.”  You don’t have to experience abuse personally to recognise the idiocy of those assumptions.  Another Liberal Democrat, Jasper Gerrard, decided to make a name for himself by declaring that the alleged incident was “just something that's unfortunate but is being blown out of all proportion.” Claiming the allegations were of merely “historic” significance, he also asked why “all these allegations are coming out just before the Eastleigh by-election”, as if the by-election was more important than the issues raised by the allegations and the reaction to them.

Gerrard asserts that “we shouldn't be treating it as some kind of major major crisis” (as opposed to a minor major crisis, presumably) but seems oblivious to the fact that it is precisely Clegg’s handling that has created a political crisis, arguably the most severe test of his leadership to date. And what he, Greaves and Opik crucially fail to appreciate is that sexual harassment isn’t about a little bit of innocent touching, whose propriety or otherwise is determined by the response of the recipient, but that it is a fundamental question of how power is used and trust is betrayed. Clearly there remains a culture, even within our own party, that considers this kind of thing fundamentally harmless.  That may not be the prevailing culture, but it is a deeply embedded one nonetheless.

Finally, I will suggest that the Liberal Democrats for so long have been complacent, swallowing the self-fuelled myth that we are morally superior to our Labour and Conservative counterparts.  We have made so much electoral capital (thanks, Chris!) to positioning ourselves as being above not only the low standards set by others but even politics itself, that we believed we were protected from such scandals.  In thinking so, we refused to accept the possibility that Liberal Democrat parliamentarians – our parliamentarians – could behave in such a way.  It never entered our consciousness that three years into coalition we would have lost two of our five cabinet ministers in such ignominious fashion or that esteemed individuals such as Cyril Smith and Chris Rennard could have their reputations sullied by the suggestion of sexual impropriety. Subconsciously we turned a blind eye to abuse, via the self-delusion that such things only affected other parties.

Whether Chris Rennard is guilty I do not know.  Obviously I hope not.  Again, whether my party has acted with incompetence or is even responsible for an unforgivable face-saving cover-up, I cannot say with certainty at this time. In some respects, however, this is academic. What I can say is that a culture needs to be changed, and that we all have a responsibility to pressure for that change.

No longer can we tolerate a media that diminishes the human aspects of abuse, cynical politicians of all parties who shamelessly use others' sufferings to their advantage, a tendency towards deniability, the complacent belief that we as a party are above such things and attitudes that regard sexual harassment with resignation – not only as normal but essentially a simple reality of life.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The real significance of Glasgow University's mock-referendum

On Thursday Glasgow University held a mock-referendum on whether Scotland should, or should not, be an independent nation.

This allowed Yes Scotland, Better Together and large sections of the media opportunities to make much of the campaigning and the result itself, most of which is plainly overplaying the significance of a rather trivial event.  There was nothing particularly surprising or newsworthy about the mock-referendum or the outcome, in which 967 students (37.3%) voted "Yes" to independence, with 1614 (62.7%) voting "No".

The first - and most obvious - lesson to be learned from this is the obsession the media has with the independence vote.  It knows no bounds.  That is not to say that the media is actually aiding the facilitation of a mature, responsible national discussion on independence because the opposite is largely true.  But it is obsessed with polls and voting intention - and of course there can be no more representative group within Scottish society than Glasgow University's students - right?

Several leading headlines suggested this poll was far more important that, say, the UK losing its AAA credit rating, on which Better Together has invested so much energy (and its credibility) to hail as concrete proof of the advantages of the Union.  (We save billions, apparently, because of that credit rating we no longer have, and which Scotland might have should it be independent.  No, doesn't sound like much of a case for the Union to me either).

But I digress. Yes, back to the media. You would have thought that this student poll was the most important news of the day - perhaps even of the week, given the way the Scottish media behaved.  I suppose it demonstrates a lack of imagination on the part of the media: why attempt to grapple with the complex political and constitutional issues when instead there is the option to over-analyse a student poll?

Better Together have, understandably, been quick to hail the outcome and Yes Scotland, equally as understandably, have been keen to play up the positives from their own campaign.  On twitter, many observers became rather over-excited while drawing all sorts of conclusions and asking intelligent, and not so intelligent, questions such as "How many of the students were English?"  Certainly it seemed there were more people tweeting about the mock-referendum than actually took the time to vote in it.

I certainly don't accept that this rather selective opinion-poll should be taken particularly seriously, and I certainly see no reason for assuming that the views of Glasgow University's student fraternity in February 2013 are a better indication of what the actual referendum outcome will be in eighteen months' time than any other select group of people.

Rector of Glasgow University Charles Kennedy said, after the vote: "First and foremost, the real winners today are the democratic process itself and the historic reputation of the University of Glasgow in the lineage of the national debate down the generations. So my congratulations to the student bodies who showed such a lead here - and to the 2,500 students who voted. The real lesson is the extent to which students wanted to hear more of the detail and the arguments involved. Both sides need to campaign positively."

I don't often disagree with Charles Kennedy, but I will here.  There is one very real and serious lesson we should take away from this poll - and it is one that lays down a challenge to both campaigns but particularly Better Together.  It is the non-vote.

Turnout in the University's mock-referendum was high by its usual dismal standards, but doesn't disguise the fact that well over 80% of students were insufficiently interested or motivated to vote, were undecided or were unaware there was a poll being held.  The latter surely cannot be an option to any student who watches BBC Scotland or reads any Scottish newspaper, which suggests many simply don't care.

Apathy's a problem, so it's said, but who cares?  I'd suggest that in cases where the outcome of a referendum may be determined by those who for whatever reasons do not vote, everyone should.  In Glasgow's mock-referendum the most startling figure was the pitifully low turnout.  No doubt there are reasons for this peculiar to the strange world of student politics, but it's an important point nonetheless and the non-vote could have a significant influence on the independence referendum next year.

Opinion polls tend to put those who favour independence at around 35% of the electorate.  The naturally fluctuates but generally it's been reasonably consistent. What it is safe to suggest is that those in favour of independence are near certain to vote "Yes".  They're people who have made a decision to support change and who are by and large determined to do what they can to assure it.  On the other hand, while 70% of people might not support independence, this does not necessarily indicate that those people are inclined to vote "No" or even to vote at all.

A low turnout will probably not favour Better Together.  To date, Better Together has been cynically negative - a tactic that can often be effective, as evidenced by No2AV.  However, the situation is more than slightly different than in May 2011 and if Better Together want to secure a "No" vote it will have to work to persuade people of the need to vote.  Complacent attitudes and negative campaigning strategies could prove counter-productive, turning off many potential voters. Above all, Better Together must realise that voters need to be engaged with and that a lack of conviction of the merits of independence does not necessarily lead them to vote "No".

I've not been particularly impressed with either the campaigning or the political conversation to date, which I feel reflects poorly on Scottish politics and indeed on our media.  However, there remain eighteen months in which improvements can be made.  Certainly, to use Charles Kennedy's words, "both sides need to campaign positively", with increased focus on "the detail [of] the arguments".

That, however, is not the main lesson of the Glasgow University mock-referendum.  What needs to be observed, and has been neglected by the media, is that apathy, indecision and "independence fatigue" among the electorate have the potential to undermine a "No" vote.  The University's poll was decided, in part at least, by the large non-vote.  In spite of the media obsession with the poll in the lead-up to the vote, the majority of the "electorate" stayed away.  The voters of Scotland likewise are less interested in the campaigning and opinion polling than the Scottish media and political types and, unless they are given a reason to make their vote count, there could well be a similar story in 2014.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Equal marriage is here...almost!

John Pugh:  "I think there is a liberal case against the Bill"
Yesterday was a great day to be a Liberal Democrat.

I expected no other outcome.  The momentum on the equal marriage debate – and other LGBT rights matters – has been firmly with progressives for years.

That said, when the vote was confirmed, my initial reaction was surprisingly emotional.  I didn’t view it as a political inevitability, but a righting of a wrong.  For too long some people have been marginalised and treated as unequal in the eyes of the law.  Yesterday our parliamentarians said “enough is enough”.

Of course, it meant having to listen to the BBC, and other media, referring to the historic vote on “gay marriage”.  It shows how little they actually understand about the heart of the matter.  It isn’t about marriage – and certainly not “redefining” it, although that has been done several times in the past.  Marriage isn’t being redefined: it remains, by nature, a joining together of two individuals, for better or for worse, to the exclusion of all others.  What’s actually happening is that marriage is being extended.  It’s a matter of fundamental human rights; of equality before the law.

I also detest the term “gay marriage” because it fails to appreciate that marriage is never gay.  Neither is it straight.  Marriage is marriage is marriage.  It is an understanding between two people.  I, being bisexual, have never been in a straight relationship.  Neither have I been in a gay relationship.  I’ve been in many bisexual relationships – whether same-sex or opposite-sex – because I bring myself into these relationships.  They’re defined by who I and my partner are as people, not by our respective genders.  The same is true of marriage.  Its quality is defined by the people entering it and their commitment and love for each other – not some outdated and legalistic demand to conformity, as if marriage is some kind of exclusive club.

Fundamentally, it is a question of how we value people.  Can we honestly claim to value human life when our law consciously diminishes a large section of it?  Can we genuinely be accepting of minority groups when legal distinctions continue to be made against them?  Last night our MPs said “no”.  It was a truly historic moment.  It wasn’t simply parliament agreeing to extend marriage, or our elected representatives telling Cardinal O’Brien and Brian Souter what to do with their bigotry (but thanks anyway).  They were effectively saying that LGBT people are whole, we are valuable members of society, we deserve to be shown not merely tolerance but acceptance.  They were saying that love expressed between same-sex couples is not inferior. MPs showed us respect, and for that I respect them.

This is only one step towards full LGBT equality.  It’s not even the end of the road for marriage equality – the Bill has to now go to the Lords which could prove interesting.  But it’s a huge step and I have no doubts that equal marriage will soon be here.

It feels so good to say that.

It’s a far cry from the poisonous political scene of only thirteen years ago, when hostility to repealing Section 28 wrought destructive havoc, particularly in Scotland.  Those who have come on this journey with me will appreciate exactly how monumental this vote is.  The path to equality has been long and arduous and there have been times when the probability of being where we are now seemed so remote.

Thanks therefore are due to the MPs of all parties who voted “aye” last night.  However, I would also like to thanks all those activists and campaigners who made this happen.  I don’t know who you all are, but I know how much you have done.  You have helped change the course of history.  You have helped to end at least one form of legal discrimination.  You contributed in no small way to last night’s outcome.

While myself and many others were celebrating last night, Prime Minister David Cameron will have a few headaches.  Only 127 (42%) Conservative MPs voted with the government.  Indeed, some members of the government didn’t, including Owen Paterson and Dominic Grieve.  This is one matter on which, unlike Europe, Cameron has refused to pander to the whims of his backbenchers  - most probably because he knows he’d picked the winning side.  Either that or he genuinely believes in equal marriage.  Whatever his motivations, it is obvious that the Conservatives remain divided on the matter and that many within the party will not take defeat easily.  As several Tory traditionalists stood up during the debate to justify continued discrimination – the worst being Roger Gale who suggested that the government may as well legalise marriage between siblings – it was glaringly evident that Cameron’s attempts at reforming his party have proved far from successful.

It was truly amazing how many of our parliamentarians don’t see LGBT rights as an essential extension of human rights.  How can anyone claim to believe in human rights if they don’t apply those same rights to the LGBT community?  How is it intellectually possible to admit that same-sex couples can adopt children but should not marry as this threatens the security of the family unit?

All the same, that was the Conservatives.  We expected (even hoped for) them to demonstrate that they remain a party of intolerant reactionaries.  We shouldn’t care if they wish to tear themselves to pieces in the aftermath of such a sensational vote.

What I was concerned about was that four Liberal Democrat MPS voted against.  I was not particularly disturbed by the number, as much as who they were and the rationale for voting the way they did.  Alan Beith and Gordon Birtwistle I fully expected.  They have their beliefs, have been clear about them and I fully respect their positions even if I disagree with them.  I also imagined that Greg Mulholland would have joined their ranks but in the circumstances I must applaud him for abstaining.

However, John Pugh and Sarah Teather came as something of a surprise.  I’ll deal with John first because he was the first to make a public statement.  Yesterday morning he wrote an open letter to his constituents, explaining that:

“I cannot claim to be an expert on all the issues of sexual morality and legislation though I strongly suspect that the values and principles we apply to our general behaviour and relationships apply in much the same way when we come to sexual behaviour.
"I want to say right at the start that I do not believe I am homophobic and am comfortable with Civil Partnerships legislation and the protection that offers to those in long-standing gay relationships. I have polled many of you by e-mail and the most widespread view in my constituency is support for civil partnerships but not for gay marriage [that term again!].
 "I thought at the start that as I struggled over this issue, I would arrive at a position that would antagonise either my church which is solidly (though not exclusively) AGAINST or my party which is solidly (though not exclusively) FOR.
 "As I put my own ideas in order I realise that I stand a fair chance of antagonising BOTH my church and my party.
 "It remains to be seen which is the most forgiving/understanding.
 "I will vote against the Bill - against Gay Marriage but not necessarily for all the reasons the churches give but because I think there is a good liberal case against the current legislation.
 "I was surprised in agonising over this how little I relied on any distinctively religious beliefs to arrive at my conclusion. I think there is a liberal case against the Bill and though it may start from a different point than church or religious teaching, it seems to arrive on the same page and embody similar insights.
"My fundamental objection (see below) against the government's proposal is that it achieves none of its objectives and weakens the link between marriage and the family.
"As a result it draws government (the state) into a whole, new series of debatable judgements and rulings on sexual, personal and religious behaviour.
"Far from being permissive in effect, it could herald the advent of ever more arbitrary prescription as we forget why the state legislates at all in this deeply personal aspect of life.”

It was a strange statement, particularly in the claim that the Bill would weaken the link between marriage and family.  Clearly his understanding of marriage and family is not the same as mine.  I also, having read (most) of the Bill, disagree that it invites the government into making judgement on sexual behaviour (certainly no more than current legislation) or that it is by nature prescriptive.  It is a Bill that affords same-sex couples who want to be married, and those who wish to celebrate those unions, the freedom to do so.  I see nothing illiberal in that.

While that contribution was frustrating, I was more disappointed by Sarah Teather who chose to make a statement ten minutes after the vote and who previously had given every indication of being supportive.  The former minister revealed that:

“This evening I voted against the second reading of the same-sex marriage bill. It was one of the most difficult decisions I have ever taken. As a life-long liberal and a committed Catholic I spent many months reflecting on this issue in the lead up to the vote. I wanted to explain to people why I took this step.
"Changing the definition of marriage for me raises other more complex issues.  I believe that the link between family life and marriage is important. We know that permanent stable loving relationships between parents are very important for children...I recognise that this kind of stability can exist outside of marriage, but the act of giving and receiving vows in front of others and making a commitment for life is an aid to stability. It is precisely the reason that marriage has formed the basis of family life for thousands of years, and is the reason that the state has historically tried to encourage it.
"I also recognise that not all couples who get married have children for a variety of reasons, and similarly that many children are now born outside of marriage. My concern, however, is that by moving to a definition of marriage that no longer requires sexual difference, we will, over time, ultimately decouple the definition of marriage from family life altogether. I doubt that this change will be immediate. It will be gradual, as perceptions of what marriage is and is for shift. But we can already see the foundations for this shift in the debate about same-sex marriage. Those who argue for a change in the law do so by saying that surely marriage is just about love between two people and so is of nobody else's business. Once the concept of marriage has become established in social consciousness as an entirely private matter about love and commitment alone, without any link to family, I fear that it will accelerate changes already occurring that makes family life more unstable. (I should add, that I also suspect it will make marriage ultimately seem irrelevant. After all, how long before gay people begin to say, as many straight couples of my own generation have begun to say, "if marriage is just about love, why would I need a piece of paper to prove it?")
"The argument in favour of same-sex marriage has mostly centred on rights. But this isn't the only liberal philosophical perspective on the legislation. The more I considered this bill the more I was unsure about the state's role. If an important reason for marriage is that it is a space for having and raising children, I can see the relevance for the state being involved in regulating it and encouraging stability for the good of society and for children's welfare. Similarly, if there is a need for protection of rights to property and rights to make decisions, there are good reasons for the state to provide regulation. But neither of these things is what this legislation is trying to do. In this case, the state is regulating love and commitment alone, between consenting adults, without purpose to anything else. That feels curious to me, as I would normally consider that very much a private matter.”

There is so much in there I find objectionable.  In honesty, I am amazed that Sarah wrote this.  I’m even more amazed that she thought it.  Even more concerning is that she waited until after the vote to justify herself, rather than be open with her party and constituents.  Her defence is essentially convoluted waffle, reinforcing the myth that marriage is being redefined and that in some way concern for the family is at the heart of her objections.

Both John Pugh and Sarah Teather referred to their religious faith, as if that in some way justified the stance.  While I respect that it can be difficult to separate religious faith from a secular position, and accept that belief makes an inevitable contribution to our worldviews, I struggle with those who object on the basis of their inflexible "Christianity".  It is too glib and simplistic, not to mention intellectually lazy.  It is not Christian to withhold rights from minorities and I for one want to reclaim my faith from such fundamentalism.

People’s religious beliefs drive them. Imposing them onto others, however, is hardly in the spirit of what a secular position demands. MPs are, ultimately, representatives, not preachers. They are there to serve.  Ultimately the objections were largely academic (barring potential electoral ramifications) and I would defend the right to freedom of speech, but what if the margin had been narrower?  Would the withholding of freedom from a large section of society be a fair price to pay to ensure MPs' freedom of speech and conscience?  Would that be liberal?

So, strangely, the euphoria was transformed temporarily into disappointment.  The most disappointing thing wasn’t the way some of our MPs voted, but their disingenuous rationale and the pseudo-intellectual objections, behind which lies a more fundamental unease with LGBT equality.

However, we should not allow such things it dominate our thinking.  A major victory for equality has been won.  So much has been said in the last twenty-four hours, and I’ll finish by restating my delight at the outcome and my hope for a future in which the notion of making distinctions based on sexual orientation is so absurd to be laughable.  Here's to a an inclusive, tolerant and liberal society!

I leave the final word (unusually) to Nick Clegg:
“I genuinely believe that we will look back on today as a landmark for equality in Britain...No matter who you are and who you love, we are all equal. “
Amen, brother.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Is the future federal?

I ask the question because Willie Rennie's made a timely and positive contribution in today's Scotland on Sunday.

The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader argues that "we must realise the future is federal".  But why must we?  What evidence actually points towards this eventuality.  And who is the "we" Mr Rennie is trying to convince?  It would seem he's aimed his piece squarely towards the SNP, but surely if federalism is to become a reality it requires the Labour and Conservative parties to be convinced of its merits?

A lot has been made of the Electoral Commission's decision in respect to the wording of a question on which most Scots have already made up their minds. Less has been made of the Commission's recommendation that voters require more information about the ramifications of both a "yes" and "no" vote, as well as the obvious challenge to both campaigns and the media to up the ante in regards actively informing the electorate rather than reducing the most important constitutional question ever put to the Scottish electorate to glib simplicities and party-political tribalism.

Rennie is right to ask questions of the SNP.  But he also needs to ask some very serious questions of the Tories and Labour, towards whose leaders he appears to be undeservedly generous and accepting at face value.  It's difficult to know where the Scottish Conservatives stand, with Ruth Davidson sending out conflicting signals, although it would be surprising if they'd support anything more than the very minimal increase of devolved powers.  Labour seems not to wish to talk about devolution at all and, while Johann Lamont can be expected to promote some package of enhanced devolution at her party's conference in April, there doesn't seem to be enormous appetite within the Labour Party for a radical overhaul of the status quo - or, indeed, for anything remotely resembling the federalist "Home Rule" Willie Rennie champions with such enthusiasm.

In honesty, there's not been sufficient talk of federalism within the Liberal Democrats in recent years - especially for those not in Scotland.  The important question of English devolution has been intentionally avoided, and the cause of an English Parliament abandoned to the likes of the English Democrats.  I've made the quip before, and it remains true, that if we it was a crime to be a federalist party there wouldn't be enough evidence with which to secure the Liberal Democrats' conviction.  Obviously the SNP's independence referendum has resulted in the Liberal Democrats' responding with the Home Rule Commission's praiseworthy recommendations, but is it sufficiently credible, sufficiently grounded and sufficiently flexible to convince opposition parties of its merits and thereby justify Rennie's faith in a federalist future?

Let's be brutally honest about this. Much as Rennie wants our party to be the "guarantors of change" (and I wish it were so), we have failed in the twenty-five years since the party was formed in 1988 to get federalism onto the agenda. We've failed even to get it into most of our manifestos during that time. Furthermore we have not, during eleven years in government in Holyrood and Westminster, ever succeeded in securing any significant step towards a genuinely federal settlement for the UK.

Now, I am a federalist.  A European federalist, no less.  Like Rennie and most other Liberal Democrats I would love to see a federal UK.  I'd also like to see a proportional system of voting for Westminster and long overdue reform of the House of Lords, but we know what happened to those aspirations upon the Liberal Democrats entering government.  Liberal Democrats have watched on as so many of the hopes we have held for generations have turned into dust.  Clegg doesn't exactly have the touch of King Midas.  The guarantors of change?

Federalism is a noble aspiration, as indeed are proportional representation and Lords reform.  There is no doubt in my mind that Menzies Campbell's report on Home Rule, some minor criticisms aside, was a welcome contribution to the debate.  It's objectives were praiseworthy.  The real question, however, is not whether it is laudable, but whether it is plausible.

It certainly has to be plausible if I'm being asked to vote to reject independence - which in my mind is preferable to the constitutional status quo - and hold out for full federalism.

Returning to Willie Rennie's piece in Scotland on Sunday, it is more than interesting to observe that he believes there is, in political circles, "an emerging consensus on the detail [of increased powers for Holyrood]."  I think he is right, in that Davidson finally realises the damage drawing a "line in the sand" will do to her party electorally and that there is a mood among Labour's senior figures to embrace further devolution (if only as a tactic to disarm the SNP). But is it a mood for federalism?  And can the broadest of broad consensuses ever be the basis for making confident boasts in the inevitability of the federal ambition?

The most likely outcome in the event of a "no" vote is a limited expansion of devolution that no Liberal Democrat should be happy with.  Regrettably, for all the positives Rennie espouses, the Scottish Liberal Democrats are not leading the conversation.  Rennie's championing of federalism continues to be drowned out by the cynical negativity of those he requires as allies.

Further devolution may follow a "no" vote in 2014 but, in the absence of any firm commitments, I would suggest anyone voting "no" in the hope of significant progress being made on that front is likely to be sorely disappointed.  In any case, devolution is not federalism.  Suggesting that the future may involve a little more devolution is not the same as insisting that the future is federal.

Whether a significant defeat for the cause of independence in the referendum would actually aid Willie Rennie's federalist ambitions is questionable.  There can be little doubt that such an outcome would prompt the predictable analysis that most Scots are content with the status quo, with a few tweaks.  It would not provide much in the way of ammunition for federalists anxious to break the mould of stale devolutionist thinking or the subservient relationship Holyrood has with a Westminster parliament that is proving itself to be virtually unreformable.

I welcome Willie Rennie's optimism, but it must be tempered by realism. Given our frustrations in government and the unlikeliness of either of the other main parties endorsing a federalist plan, the best that can be hoped for is an extension of devolution.  The only hope for federalism is the Liberal Democrats securing an overall majority in 2015.  I would suggest there's more chance of Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming Prime Minister.

So, is the future federal?  I wish that it was.  I wish that the Liberal Democrats (and its predecessor parties) had been better positioned electorally to take advantage of opportunities that have long since disappeared.  I wish we had the political influence to be "guarantors of change", possessing the leverage with which to bring our opponents to accept our vision and work with us to implement it.

The bottom line is that any change will only be achieved with the co-operation of Labour and the Tories.  They will certainly not buy wholesale into our forward-looking dream.  It is unrealistic to expect them to, and equally unrealistic to expect Mr Rennie to convince them to. If we've learned anything from our relationships in coalition, it is also that we cannot take our opponents at face value and that it is hugely unwise to invest so much trust in party leaders - especially when the party leader in question is particularly adept at exploiting the working relationship for his own political advantage.

Perhaps Willie Rennie has more cause for optimism than I imagine. Perhaps. But this Liberal Democrat is going to take a lot of convincing that federalism is a realistic prospect - or anything other than yet another Liberal aspiration to be crushed by the cynicism of our supposed partners.