Monday, 17 December 2007

Tommy comes out gunning

Yesterday's news that colourful (in more ways than one) former MSP Tommy Sheridan has been charged with perjury over evidence he gave in his libel trial with the News of the World might not come as a surprise to some people.

Some might say that it couldn't happen to a nicer chap, but I certainly wouldn't want to denigrate such a fine, upstanding (and litigious) man as Mr Sheridan.

As legal proceedings are active, I can't comment on the substance of the allegations. However, I was intrigued by the statement he gave to the media on leaving the police station after being charged. In this, he said that he was the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by the Murdoch Empire.

I have no idea whether or not this is true, but if it is, I'm certainly impressed by the scale of the conspiracy launched by Rupert Murdoch, encompassing as it does four out of six of Tommy's then SSP colleagues in the Scottish Parliament who gave evidence against him, several other Scottish Socialist Party members who also testified, the judge at the libel trial who requested the investigation into perjury at the trial (into all witnesses, not just Tommy), the Lothian and Borders police who carried out the probe, and presumably the voters of Glasgow who failed to re-elect Tommy to the Scottish Parliament. Even by the Dirty Digger's standards, this is very good going.

But can someone supply me with a credible reason why Murdoch should go to such lengths? I can't actually work out why he would go to such trouble. Tommy Sheridan was the leader of a group of just six members of the 129-member Scottish Parliament. Even on the most optimistic scenario for the SSP in the 2007 elections, they would barely have scraped into double figures (as it was, in reality they lost all their seats at Holyrood). And, lest we forget, the Scottish Parliament has absolutely no powers over broadcasting or newspaper regulation. As far as I'm aware, Sheridan wasn't proposing to nationalise Sky Sports or ban the Scottish Sun, neither of which I suspect would have gone down terribly well in Shettleston. So what did Murdoch have to gain from destroying Tommy Sheridan?

I also note that Tommy complained about the waste of resources involved in the perjury investigation. However, try as I might, I can find no record of his impassioned protest against such waste when Tory figures such as Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken faced similar allegations.

Tommy Sheridan, you're incredible.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

EXCLUSIVE: Danny Alexander reselected

Danny Alexander MP was last night unanimously reselected as the Lib Dem candidate to fight Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey at the next Westminster General Election. I look forward to working hard to help secure his re-election.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Rough justice?

The saga over Donald Trump's proposed £1bn golf investment in Aberdeenshire rumbles on, with the news today that the planning committee chairman whose casting vote saw the proposal rejected by Aberdeenshire Council, Lib Dem councillor Martin Ford, has been voted out of his post by his fellow councillors.

The vote was 26-10 to remove him, meaning that 32 of the 68 Aberdeenshire councillors failed to vote on this issue (I believe three were absent and 29 abstained). That level of abstention is shocking. On a relatively simple matter, whether someone should stay in office or not, councillors really should have the guts to stand up for what they believe in and vote one way or another. Regardless of what they thought of the actual decision, if they thought Cllr Ford was well within his rights to use his casting vote against the project, then they should have backed him. If not, they should have voted against.

I also think that questions need to be asked of at least 14 Lib Dem councillors who failed to back Cllr Ford. I would have thought that one of the basic elements of being part of a political group on a council is that you support fellow group members when they are under fire, especially if, as in this case, the person concerned has done absolutely nothing wrong.

The behaviour of those who failed to vote is in stark contrast to Cllr Ford's own conduct. He refused to just roll over and let his tummy be tickled by a developer promising to throw millions into his area, but instead decided that the environmental costs of the scheme outweighed the possible benefits. In doing so, he was standing up for what he thought was best for the area.

Now, I don't know whether Cllr Ford and the others who voted against the Trump scheme were correct or not. I don't know whether the economic benefits outweigh the environmental drawbacks, in particular the damage which would be done to the sand dunes by the proposed development. I do know that the people who are best placed to make that decision are the local councillors in Aberdeenshire.

That is why it is so disappointing that a few days ago, the SNP government in Scotland decided to call in the application and decide it at a national level. This is yet another broken promise by First Minister Alex Salmond, who before the elections in May was certainly making noises about placing more trust in local government. Yet the first time there's anything controversial, he decides that civil servants in Edinburgh are better placed to decide the matter than the people in the local community.

Even worse is the fact that the day before the scheme was called in, Salmond met officials from the Trump organisation, which indicates to me that he is acting at their behest in calling in the application. That creates a direct conflict of interest, which I think means that the only way the application can now be decided is through a public inquiry.

I think the only person who emerges with any real credit from this whole affair is Cllr Ford. Several of his fellow Aberdeenshire councillors don't and the opportunist scumbag Alex Salmond certainly doesn't.

LATER: I had meant to mention that Iain Dale (the Lib Dem one) has also given his views on this.

Al or nothing

Like many people, I saw only a brief clip on the news of Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. But the full speech is well worth reading, which you can do here.

Well said, Chris!

No, not Chris Huhne this time, but Chris Keating, who has posted this about the abhorrent practice of 'waterboarding'', in support of Amnesty International's Unsubscribe Me campaign.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Red card!

Imagine for a moment that you're a scheduler for a small regional television company and you have the choice of showing one of two live Champions League football matches featuring British teams, neither of which is from your region.

Do you go for:

(a) A match which is crucial for one of the British sides, which is being shown on the rest of the network of which you're part, where if that side wins they qualify for the next stage of the Chanpions League but if they lose they go out.


(b) A largely meaningless game, where the British team has already qualified and their opponents are likely to be going out, barring a freak result. This match is also being shown on your sister channel, so most people do already have the option of watching it if they want and you'd therefore be duplicating the transmission.

If your answer was (b), then congratulations, there's a job available for you at STV.

Monday, 10 December 2007

In a spin over wind power

What is it about this government that even when they're trying to do something right, they still get things wrong?

Take for instance today's announcement about wind power. As someone who thinks the UK could be doing far more to move down the road towards renewable energy, you might expect me to welcome the government's commitment to generating all electricity for domestic use from offshore wind farms by 2020. And, insofar as it goes, it is good.

But scratch beneath the surface and you soon find that it's the same old Labour bluster and spin. For a start, by announcing the proposals first in the media and then at a European energy conference in Berlin, John Hutton broke the pledge which Gordon Brown gave when he took over to make major announcements to Parliament first. That happens very frequently now, but it's still worth pointing out when it occurs.

And turning to the substance of the issue itself, the government's announcement is as hollow as it could possibly be. For a start, the 2020 ambition doesn't even seem to have the firm status of being a target, but is rather more of a hope or aspiration. But without additional government support or guaranteed supply contracts for energy firms wishing to build offshore wind farms, it's very difficult to see how those 7,000 new turbines are going to be built by 2020.

Furthermore, if it's to have any credibility, the government should really be looking at renewable energy sources as a whole, not just putting all its eggs into the offshore wind energy basket. For instance, why is there no mention of wave and tidal energy? Companies like the Inverness-based Wavegen are developing this technology and surely it would be sensible to consider this at the same time as promoting offshore wind farms, especially given the advantage which wave energy has of being permanently available, unlike wind power. And what of solar or geothermal power? I don't see any mention of what contribution they could make in today's announcement.

In his response to today's announcement, Lib Dem environment spokesman and leadership contender Chris Huhne was surely correct to highlight that projects like a Severn barrage could play a big role in generating clean energy, and also to say that there should be greater support for micro-generation in the form of a high feed-in tariff when exporting power to the national grid, as they have in Germany. In addition, the government has to make much greater efforts to promote energy conservation.

Unless it is prepared to take steps like that, then the government stands very little chance of meeting its shiny new renewable electricity target by 2020. In the absence of any firm commitments, we can suspect that this is just another example of spin from a government which is more concerned about being seen to take action on climate change rather than actually taking the decisions needed.

And this proves what exactly...?

Although I'm a Chris Huhne supporter in the leadership election, this has to be one of the silliest campaign postings there's been on behalf of either candidate. Doing a map showing that Huhne apparently has nationwide appeal won't make anyone vote for him. Chris's campaign would have to have gone seriously awry for that not to be the case. And I'm sure that a similar map could be produced for Clegg's campaign. I know it's near the end of the campaign, chaps, but try and keep up the standards.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Taking Liberties and taking action

Today I finally got around to watching the DVD of Taking Liberties which I won courtesy of Liberal England - and I urge anyone who cares about freedom in this country to do the same.

I was already aware that the Labour government's record on civil liberties was terrible, but even I had my eyes opened as to just how poor it actually is. When someone can be threatened with arrest just for having the word 'peace' written on a cake, you know the idea that the UK can be considered a country in which freedom is valued is unfortunately just not true.

Chris Atkins' film is immensely thought-provoking. It covers all the well-known cases - the Fairford protestors, Maya Evans, Brian Haw, Walter Wolfgang, etc - as well as quite a few with which people might be less familiar. For instance, the EDO protest against an arms maker in Brighton was not one I had really heard of before. It also allowed people like former Guantanamo detainee Moazzem Begg and one of the people acquitted of the so-called ricin plot to have their say.

I don't think Atkins' film actually said anything which wasn't known before. What was effective was bringing together in one place all the different ways in which Labour under Blair and Brown has been and is continuing to take away basic liberties which people have taken for granted for generations.

But despite the vast catalogue of infringements on our freedom, the basic message of the film is positive. It celebrates the fact that people can take on and beat the people who try and take away our liberties (the Fairford protestors, for instance, eventually won their case in the House of Lords).

So, while I would recommend that everyone see Taking Liberties, I would empasise that watching it is not enough. If you care about freedom in this country, then join Liberty, support NO2ID (that reminds me, I really must get around to sending off my pledge money), join one of the demos in Parliament Square, I don't mind what you do (yes, you!), but do something.

After all, it's your freedom that's being taken away.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

This bear is illegal

I am publishing this picture in the full knowledge that apparently by doing so I am insulting Islam and inciting hatred. I think I should be prosecuted.

Money for nothing?

There's a few things I don't understand about the Labour Party's latest funding scandals, now to be the subject of yet another police investigation.

Apparently, David Abrahams offered money towards Gordon Brown's leadership campaign but was turned down. And Wendy Alexander, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, has now admitted that she received an illegal donation towards her campaign to lead the Scottish party.

The common denominator with these two funding issues is that neither of them actually faced a contest to become leader of their respective bits of the Labour Party. Both were unopposed, so what the hell were they spending the money on?

I'm also intrigued by the fact that Mr Abrahams was so impressed by the quality of the candidates for Labour's deputy leadership election that he offered funding for two of them. I can understand someone giving money to help a particular candidate get elected, but giving money to more than one campaign looks suspiciously like a wealthy businessman trying to buy influence by being well in with whoever came out on top.

But this whole mess again indicates the need for reform of the way political parties are funded - although I'm not convinced of the case for direct state funding of parties. Firstly, I think there needs to be a cap on the amount any one individual or organisation can give to a political party of, say, £50,000 per year. Secondly, I would like to encourage smaller donations to parties by introducing some sort of voucher or tax credit which people can use to make donations of up to £100 per year for the campaigning organisation(s) of their choice, pressure groups as well as political parties. That would mean that parties would become more focused on getting supporters, rather than relying on a few big donors. It would not be compulsory for people to use such vouchers/credits, and any unused funds could be returned to the Treasury.

Until measures like this are introduced, the party funding scandals will continue with monotonous regularity.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Grin and bear it

Some people might react to the news that Gillian Gibbons has been charged in Sudan with insulting Islam and inciting hatred as a result of calling a teddy bear 'Mohamed' with either shock or anger. My reaction is rather different - puzzlement.

I am genuinely bewildered that anyone, anywhere, could possibly be offended by the naming of a teddy bear. Is there really anyone whose faith is so insecure that they think that calling a teddy bear Mohamed is meant as an insult? Unless there is some significance to teddy bears in either Islam or Sudan that I am unaware of, this seems an utterly trivial thing to get worked up about.

But apparently there must be people who are offended by this, as the BBC report quotes a group called the Sudanese Assembly of the Udemas as saying that it's part of a Western plot against Islam, which is just bizarre.

I am glad to see that the Muslim Council of Britain has come out strongly against this nonsense and I have to say that the Muslims I know are sufficiently secure in their faith not to be in any way concerned about such matters. However, I do note that the MCB adopted a rather different attitude on the Danish cartoons controversy. Is there really such a difference between the naming of a teddy bear and cartoons depicting Mohamed? I don't really see it myself.

However, one reaction which I think would be completely out of place would be to condemn Sudan for being completely backward in its laws. If it is, then so is the UK. Let us not forget that in 1977 the late and unlamented Mary Whitehouse successfully brought a prosecution for blasphemy against Gay News for publishing this poem by James Kirkup. And just last week, the producers of Jerry Springer - The Opera were taken to court by some Christian extremists who accused them of blasphemy.

I think it's high time in this country that we got rid of our blasphemy laws, which only protect Christian beliefs. All religions ought to be able to stand up for themselves, without relying on some legal crutch whenever they feel their sensibilities have been offended. Whether it's the naming of a teddy bear, cartoons, poems or inspired satire, those with religious beliefs really should just learn to grin and bear it.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

It's in the post

My vote for the Lib Dem leadership election, that is. And as I said earlier, it's gone to Chris Huhne.

My reason for plumping for Chris was that I think of the two candidates he is the most likely to be able to articulate a liberal vision which can attract people to us. He has also shown himself to be a tough campaigner who is also calm under pressure. His economic experience and insights will also be important for us, as economics is not an area in which Lib Dems have often been associated as having much to say. I think Chris is likely to change that.

However, none of this is not to say that Nick Clegg would not make a good leader if he wins the contest. I think he is probably still the favourite to win (my prediction would be Clegg by 54% to 46% for Huhne). However, I think overall Clegg's abilities as a communicator have been somewhat oversold - quite often it amounts to warm words but not much else. I also think that Clegg finds it more difficult to deal with pressure, getting rattled a bit too easily or engaging in bluster to deal with awkward questions.

I therefore think that of the two, Chris Huhne would make the better leader.

Thanks Jonathan!

My prize for being one of the winners of Liberal England's DVD competition arrived on Friday. I haven't yet had a chance to see Taking Liberties, but I'm certainly looking forward to it. For those of you who don't know the film, it examines Labour's shocking record on taking away our civil liberties since 1997.

My thanks to Jonathan Calder for running the competition and to Lord Bonkers for drawing my name out of his top hat.

And never let it be said that Keith Chegwin does not have his uses.

Into Eden

On Thursday, I was at the newly-refurbished Eden Court Theatre in Inverness to see Blazin' Fiddles. This was my first visit to the theatre since it reopened a few weeks ago after being closed for more than two years for a refit which in the end cost £22m. This has been somewhat controversial locally and even cost the chairman of Highland Council's ecucation, culture and sport committee his job earlier this year after he called it "a bit of a waste of money".

However, just like the Scottish Parliament, if you go to the theatre, you can see just where the money has been spent. The box office is now a bright and welcoming area, extra bars and restaurants have been added, a smaller second auditoriun introduced, new lifts installed (there weren't any in the previous theatre) and new facilities added. The project has also involved the refurbishment of the former Bishop's Palace, which forms part of the complex and was in very poor condition. Overall, the investment has given Inverness a top-class arts and entertainment facility of which the area can be very proud.

The Blazin' Fiddles concert itself was very good, and if you're a fan of traditional Scottish music, I can certainly recommend seeing them.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

A load of balls

I'm sure I speak for everyone in Scotland in wishing the England football team the best of luck this evening. Don't I?

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Reaction to the data fiasco

Nich Starling is on good form with his posting on the data fiasco, pointing that the problems caused by this immense cock-up could last for generations.

Mary Reid was as shocked as everyone else and rightly asks why this has taken a whole month to become public.

Caron asks to what extent the staffing cuts made at HMRC have contributed to this disaster.

A number of people including David Nikel and Rob Knight point out that the loss of such personal data must mean an end to ID cards.

Charlotte Gore and Jonathan Calder both point out the government's hopeless record when it comes to IT projects and databases.

Goodnight Darling?

The news that the personal data of more than 25 million people has been lost is a blunder of such monumental proportions that it really does beggar belief.

According to the reports, the discs involved were sent just through an ordinary internal mail service, using a courier. This seems an almost unbelievably cavalier way to treat such sensitive date.

The first serious issue it raises is just how secure our personal data would be under the Labour government's proposed national ID database, which lies behind their appalling ID cards scheme. Why the hell should we trust the state to keep data about every aspect of our lives secure, if they can't do it for those claiming child benefit? Given that the ID database is going to be even more massive than the child benefit one, it seems very unlikely that the government is going to be able to keep everything on it completely secure. No system is perfect, and even if the national ID database were 99% secure (a very dubious assumption), that's still a helluva lot of personal data leaking from the system. This farce gives another reason why the Labour ID cards scheme must be ditched as soon as possible and resisted if it continues to proceed.

But on the child benefit data itself, there are some very real concerns about the way the government, particularly Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, has dealt with this matter. Darling has already been dismally unimpressive in his handling of the Northern Rock fiasco and he needs to come up with some answers fast if he wishes to survive. If he can't, then it defnitiely will be Goodnight Darling.

For example, what was the reason for the data needing to be transferred? Has this sort of large-scale data transfer taken place before? What security arrangements, if any, were in place to protect this data? Why was the decision taken to transfer the data on computer discs using an internal mail service? Was this normal practice?

And the two most important that I want answers to are why the hell it took the Chancellor 10 whole days to condescend to let us know that this data had gone missing and what compensation arrangements are going to be put in place for those millions of people who may now need to shift bank accounts and maybe get new National Insurance numbers?

Am I angry about this? You bet. And I'm not even one of the ones who is personally affected by this.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

A question of culture

One thing that I've not yet seen discussed in the Lib Dem leadership election is the whole issue of culture. I think that's a shame, as I believe it is something on which we could have a fair amount to say. I think that as a party, we quite rightly stress that quality of life is at least as important as material wealth, although I don't know whether we always discuss what that means in practice.

One important area of quality of life is cultural activities. I am fortunate in that I am able to take part in quite a range of activities, such as going to museums and art galleries and to the theatre and concerts. Other people are not so fortunate, because of a lack of facilities, money, transport or education, or some combination of all of these.

I think we as a party need to do some serious thinking about culture and what we could or should do to support it. What role should the state (at a local or a national level) have in supporting cultural activities? How do we avoid cultural funding becoming a 'middle class subsidy'? Should funding for things like the arts just be left to commercial funding or the National Lottery, and if so, how can potentially controversial or unpopular cultural activities be supported - should they just be left to wither and die? How far does artistic freedom of expression extend? Should cultural funding support big institutions such as the Royal Opera House or the BBC or should it be more focused on grassroots activity? What should we do to encourage cultural activity in schools, especially considering the pressures on time and resources which the national curriculum entails? What role does culture have in social justice and tackling inequality?

I'd welcome any views on these subjects and I'll be interested to see whether either of the leadership candidates expresses any opinions on these issues.

Jock and awe

Jock Coats' latest in his 'Revolutionary Liberalism' series can be found here. Well worth a read.

Cut it out, Chris!

I made up my mind to vote for Chris Huhne as the next Lib Dem leader after watching Thursday's Question Time debate in which I thought he was clearly the better performer, relaxed and confident, able to articulate a clear liberal vision while having an obvious mastery of detail. Although today's Politics Show debate did not change my mind, I thought Chris did himself absolutely no favours whatsoever.

The problem is that although there are legitimate questions to be asked about some quotes which Nick Clegg has come out with in the past, there are ways and means of doing that. Talking over Nick and preventing him from answering, which is what Chris was doing in the programme, is not only silly, it's unnecessary. Nick was visibly riled by the end, and quite rightly so.

Also, Chris has to get a grip on his campaign workers. If people in his campaign are putting out briefings without his approval entitled "Calamity Clegg", then he needs to give them a swift kick up the backside and tell them that if that's how they work, their services are no longer required on his campaign. That sort of briefing is unacceptable and I think heads should roll as a result.

UPDATE: I see similar things are being said by Charlotte Gore, Linda Jack (twice), Jeremy Hargreaves, "Harold Muckle", Colin Ross, Joe Taylor, and Julian H. Doubtless there will be plenty of others.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

It's make my mind up time

Tonight's Question Time debate between Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg is probably the only chance I'll have of seeing the two Lib Dem leadership candidates in action together and it's certainly helped me decide who I'm going to vote for. I decided to give the candidates marks out of 10 in each of 5 categories - vision, charisma, passion/forcefulness, grasp of detail and ability to deal with pressure to see if a clear winner emerged, which I think it has.

But first a review of the programme. On the first question, about the previous leaders, both gave very good answers, stressing the need for unity, with Clegg possibly the more passionate in his answer. However, I thought he struggled a bit with the supplementary question from Dimblebore, initially asking "Did I say that?", which is never a good thing to say as the answer is invariably: "Yes, you did." He then claimed that either it was a completely different context or he had forgotten the quote, which left me with the impression he was squirming. Huhne, meanwhile, was utterly solid.

Both answered the question about hung parliaments very well and I don't think there was an awful lot to choose between them. On Trident, which is clearly a point of difference between them, I thought Clegg came perilously close to distorting Huhne's position, seeming to say he wanted to spend lots of money on a new generation of nuclear weapons, whereas, as Huhne himself said, he is questioning whether a minimum deterrent is necessary and, if so, what form that deterrent should take. Personally I would like Huhne to come right out and say that nuclear weapons are utterly useless in today's world and that, with just 1% of the world's nuclear missiles, there is no way the UK can play any meaningful role in multilateral disarmament, so we might as well get rid of them anyway. I thought he gave a very good answer about Pakistan, while Nick gave a good analysis on Russia. Overall, though, I thought Chris had a slightly better grasp of world affairs than Nick.

On the tax cuts question, Huhne got the chance to set out the party's tax plans succinctly, whereas Nick didn't really get the chance to answer that one due to Dimblebore's intervention. The more interesting question was the next one, about which one was which. Clegg at first stressed how similar they were, which I thought was a slight mistake, as it gave Chris the chance to stress his background and the way he'll be able to take on Gordon Brown in the economic field. Nick responded about the passions that brought him into politics, which was very effective, but in the follow-up on education I thought Chris gave a very good answer, stressing the need for people to be enthused by learning.

The question about young people they both answered very well. On the Cameron question, I thought Clegg gave a very good answer, stressing the gulf of difference between his approach and Cameron's. Huhne, meanwhile, had his one weak moment of the night, giving us the Reagan quote on experience which was so beloved by Ming - I swear if I hear it again, I'll scream. And finally, the question on the other candidate's good qualities was a fitting note to finish on.

Overall, then, what is my verdict? Firstly, I'll be happy with whichever of them becomes leader, as both demonstrated that they have very considerable talent. However, I felt there was one of them who had the edge, who showed he can provide a liberal vision with passion, who is calm under pressure, has a solip grasp of detail and will be a feisty campaigner against our opponents.

My scores on the doors were: Vision - Clegg 7, Huhne 8; Detail - Clegg 8, Huhne 9; Charisma - Clegg 8, Huhne 7; Passion/forcefulness - Clegg 7, Huhne 8; Pressure - Clegg 6, Huhne 9. Totals: Clegg 36, Huhne 41.

I shall therefore be voting for Chris Huhne in the leadership election.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Aren't staff meant to be neutral?

I was looking at the list of supporters of both leadership candidates last night and on both of them I recognised a number of names of people whom I believe to be party or parliamentary staff. I was under the impression that such staff were meant to remain publicly neutral - can anyone tell me if this is the case? If it is, shouldn't both campaigns remove the names of such people from their supporters list?

This comes on top of allegations that staff resources have been used to promote one side of the argument on policy debates at recent federal party conferences. I suspect there might have to be a question to the Federal Executive at the next federal conference in Liverpool asking them to clarify just what the roles of staff should be in internal party matters, especially where such staff are funded by public money.

Lessons from Canada

When I was in Ottawa, I went for a tour round the Canadian parliament. Although it's clearly based on the British model, there are some interesting differences.

For a start, it appears that there's the dangerous innovation of allowing every MP in the Canadian House of Commons their own desk within the chamber, meaning that MPs are more likely to attend debates as they can actually get some work done while listening to their colleagues speak. I suspect the British House of Commons is probably too small to allow that to happen at the moment, which is another good argument for having a slimmed down HoC with substantial power devolved to the nations and regions of the UK.

On the subject of devolved power, the debate I attended in the Canadian HoC was on education and it was interesting to hear a speaker from the Parti Quebecois making many of the same arguments beloved of our own dear SNP, to the effect that all the province's problems would be solved if it had full national sovereignty. In a world where national boundaries are becoming increasingly irrelevant, I find such arguments rather quaint. What matters is not so much national sovereignty but how well political power is used and to what extent shared problems can be tackled. Separatist arguments, whether in Scotland or in Quebec, always seem to ignore these issues.
However, it was a reminder that even if the UK were to move in a more federalist direction, along similar lines to Canada, it would not mean that questions about independence would magically disappear, as some people appear to believe. Although I think federalism is the best answer to nationalism, the latter would still continue to exist and we must recognise that.

Allegory of good government

While I was in Siena, I took the opportunity

of climbing up the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico, which is the town hall in the city. Siena is one of the few Italian cities to have a civic rather than a religious building as its main focus and the views from the top of the campanile are certainly worthwhile. Afterwards, it's worth popping in to the Museo Civico in the building, to see the fresco paintings by Lorenzetti entitled Allegories of Good and Bad Government, which I thought were excellent. Appropriately enough, the fresco devoted to Good Government has survived rather better than the Bad Government one, which has deteriorated rather badly over the centuries.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Normal service will now be resumed

Hello again. The reason there haven't been any postings to this site for a couple of weeks is that I've been away on holiday in Canada and Italy. I was touring round Ontario and Quebec and then had a long weekend in Siena, all of which I can thoroughly recommend. Did all the usual touristy things, such as Niagara Falls, the Olympic Stadium in Montreal and the CN Tower in Toronto. One of the biggest disappointments, though, was discovering that the Skydome stadium in Toronto no longer exists - it's now very boringly called the Rogers Centre after a takeover by a telecoms firm a few years ago.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Steel's views on abortion

David Steel's views on abortion were considered to be front page news in The Guardian today. The former Liberal leader, who was the architect of the 1967 Act which legalised abortion, is quoted by the paper as saying: "Everybody can agree that there are too many abortions."

Yet if you turn to the actual interview which prompted the news story, he actually says something very different. There, he states: "I don't think we had expected anything like those numbers," he concedes, "but when people say there are 'too many' I say: 'All right, you give me the right figure.' And of course, nobody can."

Now, I don't know whether Steel gave contradictory quotes to The Guardian or whether the newspaper has somehow mistakenly reported or distorted his quotes in search of a better news story. Either are entirely possible and it doesn't really matter.

What does matter is how sensible Steel's approach to the issue is. He clearly has no appetite for restricting access to abortion, and indeed seems to support relaxing the requirement for two doctors to approve of a termination. But he quite rightly says that the abortion issue has to be seen in the context of policies on contraception. It's clearly far better for pregnancy to be avoided by means of effective use of contraception than for abortion to be seen as means of contraception. That in turn requires good sex education to ensure that women and men can make their own choices on the subject. Abstinence programmes on their own are largely ineffective.

But overall, Steel is right to highlight that criminalising abortion means that poorer women are likely to suffer from back street abortionists, while richer ones can always find ways around the law. We should also remember that when abortion was illegal, levels of infanticide were also significantly higher, whereas I recall reading a few years ago that government no longer bothers to collect statistics on that, as it is now so rare.

That doesn't mean that we all necessarily have to approve of the numbers of abortions being performed each year. In the words of Bill Clinton: "Abortion should be safe, legal - and rare."

The amazing vanishing envoy

Anyone who read Jonathan Freedland's piece in The Guardian today on the proposed Middle East peace conference might have noticed an interesting omission.

Nowhere in his piece does he consider it worthy of mentioning the efforts of the peace envoy to the Middle East, what's his name again? Oh yes, Blair. Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. You might have heard of him.

Anyone who can shed any information on his whereabouts should get in touch with the White House, as I'm sure they'd be interested in hearing all he's done in this vital position before holding the conference.

It surely can't be the case that the former Dishonourable Member for Sedgefield hasn't actually managed to achieve anything in his new role, can it?

Another one bites the dust

He took over the top job in January last year and didn't have the best of starts. Almost immediately, he faced questions about his age and experience. Although his performances did improve somewhat, he slipped back and ultimately he lost the confidence of his supporters. His time in charge will probably be looked upon as a period of failure and now, in October 2007, after less than two years in charge, he's out of a job.

No, not Ming - Stephen Staunton.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Europe is not a foreign country

Time for a posting on something other than the Lib Dem leadership election. I read a comment piece in one of our local papers today (I would provide a link, but the website concerned has failed to put the piece on the web as yet) about how close we are to having a common European identity and what that means for existing national identities. The author, Jim Miller, believes such a European identity is not too far away and that people may have to get used to expressing their identities on many levels.

As a liberal, this is an argument I feel comfortable with. I do not see any contradiction between people being Scottish and British, or British and European. Indeed, as someone with a Welsh father and Irish mother, who was born and brought up in England and now living and working in Scotland, I regard any attempt to force a narrow definition of national identity upon people as absurd.

Indeed, this is one of the reasons I don't believe in Scottish nationalism. The idea that the only identity which matters is Scottishness is dangerous, like all exclusive definitions of nationality. Not only that, but it ignores the fact that other values can be just as important, if not more so.

I believe we should embrace the idea that national identity should be something which operates on many different levels - and I think that includes a European identity, which is why in any referendum on the European reform treaty I would vote yes, as I want to see an effective European Union. Indeed, the idea in our interdependent world that national sovereignty is the solution to Scotland's problems is utterly wrong.

Where I would disagree with Jim Miller's argument referred to earlier is that I think that European identity already exists. There are values of freedom, tolerance, democracy and innovation which I think are common European values, although I would also accept that these are also shared by other democratic countries around the world. Like an awful lot of people, I feel comfortable travelling in much of Europe, and don't really consider it as 'abroad'. It is certainly not the foreign country depicted in the more xenophobic rantings of some of the right-wing press. Being European is part of my identity.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

The leadership race is over

At least, it is if you read some sections of the media. Nick Clegg is interviewed in The Observer and the intro states that Clegg "is almost certainly going to be elected leader of the Liberal Democrats". Such judgements are very premature. This election is decided by the party members, not by a few cheerleaders in the media and I suspect the vast majority, like me, are yet to make up their minds.

The reason for that is that while I may agree with an awful lot of what Clegg says, I also like what Chris Huhne is saying too, in his article for the Sunday Telegraph. The problem is that while there are differences in language, it is far from clear whether that represents a real difference in values or priorities.

For instance, Huhne explicitly states that social justice and fairness are one of the key differences between ourselves and the other parties. Huhne talks about empowerment, but it seems to be that he is talking about much the same problems as Huhne in terms of the effect of the centralised state on people's lives, particularly those who are most in need of help or support.

Two quotes illustrate the extent to which they are talking about the same things. I challenge anyone to decide which one comes from which candidate, without reading the respective articles in full:

"Liberalism has always been a creed that aims at individual fulfilment, freedom from a bossy, intrusive and overweening state, and in favour of all those whom David Lloyd George used to call "people of push and go".

"It's a scandal that under Labour social mobility has ground to a halt. The acid test of a liberal Britain is that people live as freely as possible without entrenched disadvantage, prejudice and needless government interference."

If you correctly identified that the first was from Huhne and the second from Clegg without having read the articles, you're either very lucky or you've taken an obsessive interest in the minutiae of the two candidates' pronouncements and probably need to get a life.

What will make up my mind over the course of the leadership election is which one I feel is best placed to articulate a vision of a liberal Britain which will attract the most people who might be sympathetic to our values. I'm not interested in trivia about whether Clegg is friends with Sam Mendes or inappropriate comparisons like that contained in The Observer that Huhne is the Lib Dems' equivalent of David Davis (er, no).

But one thing we have to bear in mind is that until ordinary members like me make up our minds, the leadership contest is far from over, despite what some in the media might think.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Who's afraid of Nick Clegg?

The answer to that question seems to be the Tories. Not only is there a thread on asking whether the Tories should be afraid of Nick Clegg, but a few days ago, the ever-reliable Simon Heffer wrote in the Telegraph that "in answer to the question of which of them the Conservative Party would less like to see running the Liberal Democrats, the answer has to be unequivocally Mr Clegg."

But last night I was out for a few beers with a Tory friend of mine and our conversation naturally turned to the Lib Dem leadership election. He was aware of Chris Huhne and thought him quite capable. On the other hand, he had barely come across Clegg and knew very little about him.

One mistake that people involved in politics sometimes make is to assume that everybody else is as interested in the minutiae of political debate as we are. That just isn't true. And just because people in a political party may think somebody comes across well in the media and is capable, it doesn't follow that the rest of the country does.

So my challenge to the Clegg campaign over the coming weeks is to give us good reasons for thinking that he can attract votes from the Tories and for that matter from Labour. The campaign needs to demonstrate that Clegg can is capable of crafting a liberal vision which can fire people up and attract more supporters from across the spectrum. That will require him to show real substance and that he is not just good at giving soundbites on TV. And he will need to demonstrate that he is just as good as attracting support from former Labour voters as he is at attracting ex-Tories.

If Clegg can do that, both Labour and the Tories will have good reason to fear him.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

In defence of John Hemming

And I hereby declare that John Hemming MP has been elected Leader of the Liberal Democrats.

The above is a phrase that no returning officer will ever be called upon to say. You know it, I know it, everybody in the Lib Dems knows it. Hell, I suspect even John Hemming himself knows it. As a humble (?) backbencher, John would get only a tiny share of the vote. So why is he even considering standing in the current leadership election?

There are two possible answers. It could be that he's simply on an ego trip, but, knowing John, I don't think that's the case. I think the real answer is that he genuinely does want to provoke debate in the party. With two candidates in Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne who have very similar backgrounds and whose views and ideologies are not a million miles apart, a contest which featured just the two of them might not stimulate a great deal of debate about where the party is heading and I think the contest would focus mainly on personality differences. If John Hemming was also a candidate, I think there would be a far wider range of issues discussed, whether it's how we deal with declining oil reserves or the way social services deal with families (two of his pet causes). And that would force the other two candidates to give real consideration to the visions they have to offer the party and I think would promote greater clarity. Who knows, it might even serve to highlight differences between the two leading candidates which would help to make the contest a real choice.

But the general reaction to John's potential candidacy within the party has been one of hostility or irritation, and it also looks as though he's struggling to get sufficient nominations from his fellow MPs to allow him to join the race. Over on Liberal Burblings Paul Walter makes a plea for MPs to nominate to allow him to stand. I agree. When John sent out his position paper setting out his leadership stall, I emailed him to let him know that I'd be willing to sign his nomination papers in the interest of promoting the widest possible debate in the party, even though I'd almost certainly be voting for somebody else (who, I haven't yet decided). MPs should be willing to do the same.

Indeed, I'd actually go further and remove the requirement for MPs to have to nominate people for leader, although I'd retain the proviso which states that candidates need the backing of 200 members. If someone feels that they have something to offer, their voice should not be denied simply because they happen to be in a small minority in the parliamentary party.

Also, why when we claim to believe in devolution do we insist that the federal leader must be a Westminster MP? There are plenty of talented people in Scotland, Wales, the European Parliament and the Greater London Assembly, and I hope in the future we'll have people in other regional assemblies as well. While I'd expect the federal leader would almost always be a Westminster MP, it shouldn't be a requirement. Let's have leadership contests open to all the talents - including John Hemming.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Why foreign affairs sucks

One of the things which has been commented upon in discussion of Ming Campbell's fall as Lib Dem leader was the fact that before taking the top job, he'd been an accomplished foreign affairs spokesman. This is true, but possibly explains why Ming didn't exactly prove to be a successful leader. Foreign secretaries and spokespeople often tend to be lousy if they take over the top job. While all political careers usually end in failure, it seems foreign affairs is an especially poisoned chalice.
There are 13 people who have been both Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, of whom 3 (Wellington, Salisbury and Ramsay MacDonald) combined the roles, with Salisbury the only one who had been Foreign Secretary before becoming PM. The first was Lord Grenville, about whom I know nothing. George Canning died shortly after becoming PM. Wellington was a far better soldier than he was Prime Minister. The others in the 19th century were Palmerston, Russell, Salisbury and Rosebery, all of whom I will grant had some measure of success.
However, it's when we get to the 20th century that things really turn bad. The six people who served as both Foreign Secretary and PM were Ramsay MacDonald, Anthony Eden, Harold MacMillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan and John Major, of whom only MacMillan can be considered at least a halfway decent PM.
Things get even worse if we look at the list of Foreign Secretaries who have failed to lead their party or who have been a political disaster if they did so. Arthur Balfour, Austen Chamberlain (until William Hague the only Tory party leader not to become PM), Sir John Simon, Lord Halifax, Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Rab Butler, George Brown, Tony Crosland, David Owen, Lord Carrington, Francis Pym, Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind, Robin Cook, Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett - and that's not even a full list.
It's probably just as well for the Lib Dems that our current foreign affairs spokesman, Michael Moore, has been so anonymous in the role that nobody is even mentioning him as a possible party leader. I'd advise all Labour supporters to sell their shares in David Milliband now.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Welcome to The Sound of Gunfire

Hi, welcome to the site. My aim will be to provide commentary on a wide variety of political issues and news, as well as other things I find interesting, in particular cultural matters and travel. I hope you'll find it a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. In case you're wondering about the title, it comes from former Liberal leader Jo Grimond's famous conference speech, in which he promised to march his troops towards the sound of gunfire. As I'll also be commenting about various international matters, it seemed appropriate.
Doubtless over the coming weeks and months I'll have plenty to say about the Lib Dem leadership contest, amongst other things.

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