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 Politicalbetting.com 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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