Saturday, September 20, 2014

Devolution: now that we've found love, what are we gonna do with it?

So, Scotland having voted to remain in the Union but with an understanding that there will be greater devolution to their Parliament, we can now move on to what it means for the rest of us.

Luckily, as a Liberal Democrat, I understand and accept the logic of devolution, of subsidiarity and federalism, which is that things will be different in different places, with a greater priority placed on X in Y, as opposed to Z. And, frankly, assuming that we can annex the Waveney Valley and North Essex, and make Ros our constitutional monarch, the notion of a free Suffolk is a strangely alluring one...

But, seriously, the Scots, the Welsh, and even the Northern Irish have it fairly easy, in that their boundaries are clearly defined, and they have an established tier of governance. For the English, however, it isn't necessarily as simple.

England is big, disproportionately so by comparison with the other constituent nations, making the conflict between it, and a federal United Kingdom, potentially debilitating. And yet, can English regions be credibly treated as being on a par with Scotland, for example? Indeed, can you design English regions that would encompass everyone and retain a sense of attachment in their residents?

In other federal states, such as the United States, Germany and India, there is no such dominant single element, so there is little help there to be had, and we will have to come up with an answer that enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to feel that they have a real state in a federal union, yet prevents the English from feeling as though they are being constrained or otherwise taken advantage of.

This offers a real challenge to politicians, especially Westminster ones, most of whom were elected to exercise power, rather than to give it away. If the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament are to be mirrored in England, what is the purpose of Westminster as it is currently constituted? Indeed, whisper it quietly, where does the House of Lords, elected or otherwise, fit in?

If Westminster is to become the home of a federal Parliament, how many representatives do you need, and what are they for? Is London the right place for the English Parliament, and do you need regional and sub-regional tiers? You could, for example, offer a choice between regions and counties, so East Anglia might emerge as an administrative tier, or Suffolk might take on extra powers.

Six months ago, this would have seemed entirely esoteric, and a debate for constitution geeks. Now, everyone has a stake in this even if they don't really understand it. But, it's a debate that is firmly on the turf of Liberal Democrats, and we have an opportunity to make the case that we've been rehearsing for decades. A federal Britain in a federal Europe - what's there not to like?...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland: and if the world were to come to an end tomorrow...

It is, I am reminded, now less than twelve hours until Scottish voters start to stream into polling stations in order to determine their future, which is nice, when you think about it. Or not, depending upon your persuasion.

In my case, I've tried to drum up some enthusiasm... and, for the most part, failed to do so. I've observed the passion, indeed the venom, of a campaign in which neither side has offered a genuinely credible vision worthy of a nation with increasing bemusement. On one hand, the Yes campaign has either wished away virtually all of the difficult questions or, worse yet, viciously attacked anyone who has the audacity to ask them, whilst the No campaign has veered from fearmongering to promising what appears to be the Earth if only Scots will stay in the Union, something which leads me to wonder what the rest of us might think about such largesse.

I have been inundated with requests to call voters north of the border - as if my accent would more good than harm - or give money, or sign letters saying how much I want the Scots to stay, all of which I have studiously ignored. It is, I think, none of my business, even though I am technically half-Scot myself (my mother was born in Keith, about halfway between Aberdeen and Inverness). I don't feel particularly Scottish, even though I could play football for them, and don't have a desperate sense that there is a part of me that yearns to be part of that nation.

No, if a majority of the Scottish electorate don't want to be part of the Union, then so be it. All I ask is that both sides understand that their behaviour during the campaign comes with consequences, regardless of whether they win or lose.

For the Yes campaign, who have promised a land flowing with milk and honey, the challenge of negotiating a settlement (note that I don't insert the word 'equitable' - no deal will be seen as such, regardless of the facts) with the very people they have so unpleasant about and to will be an interesting one. Doubtless anything that goes wrong after independence will be blamed on Westminster by the ultras, but they shouldn't expect the rUK negotiators to quietly roll over - the remaining nations will expect, nay demand, a robust approach.

And as for the No campaign, promises of more powers for Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom mean more devolution of power for the rest of us, in other words, federalism. You can really see the Conservatives pressing for that, can't you? And as for the centralising control freakery tendency that lead the Labour Party, the very notion of giving away power to others would probably bring them out in hives. At least Liberal Democrat policy has always called for subsidiarity and the handing back of power to individuals and communities, even if some of my colleagues give an impression of being far more in favour of the theory than the actuality.

No, I'll save my passion, and my energy, for what happens next, whatever that may be. I'm a liberal, and what I care about is what is and what might be, rather than fret about missed opportunities and what might have been. For, regardless of the result tomorrow, we are likely to be waking up on Friday morning on a country that has changed forever...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

ALDE: doing good, one small policy proposal at a time...

I am, as a politician (and I use that term in its loosest possible sense), a gradualist at heart. Perhaps it is the slightly diffident bureaucrat in me that shies away from big, spontaneous gestures, or a lack of a specialism that offers the required expertise, that prevents me from proposing big ideas, but I do flatter myself that, when it comes to the mechanics of implementation, I have an eye for implications. And today, that came in useful.

We were discussing membership structure proposals at today's meeting of the ALDE Financial Advisory Committee - naturally, I cannot discuss specifics as everything is still at the proposal stage, and the relevant bodies are yet to be informed - but as we discussed them, and the implications, it dawned on me that they presented an opportunity to reach out to those parties who, for various reasons, find it hard to pay affiliation fees and therefore opt for a more limited form of membership.

And so, I offered up a suggestion which, I hope, will make it easier for smaller parties, from places where politics is difficult, to engage with the rest of us. It does involve some expenditure on the part of the ALDE Party, but I see it as an investment in building a bigger, more diverse, European liberal family, and, given the support of the Treasurer and, I believe, the Secretariat, it is a decided possibility.

As I said, it isn't a big thing, but it is the ability to make a contribution which makes my position as a member of ALDE's Council so worthwhile - a place where process and careful analysis take precedence over grand politics and the expression of ideas.

What that means is that, unlike my usual diffident approach to elections - it would be nice to win, but it isn't the be all and end all - this one is different. I would really like to be re-elected this year to another two-year term, so I'll be campaigning somewhat harder than I have in the past, on a platform of vorsprung durch verwaltung - progress through administration.

You see, I believe that political parties have a duty to run themselves efficiently, as their internal workings are a window into the way they believe politics should be done. They should also wear their principles on their sleeves, because if they don't, why should a voter have any faith that, in power, they would be true to them?

It is that spirit that I bring to my work, and whilst virtue is apparently its own reward, the recognition that re-election represents would be even better...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

And so, another journey to the home of the Salamander...

It is that time of year again, when your correspondent travels abroad to carry out the solemn duty of advising European liberalism as to its moral and ethical responsibilities in terms of internal financial management.

I enjoy my membership of ALDE's Financial Advisory Committee, in that it allows me to be helpful - at least to a certain extent - in a field I understand, and yet remain relatively non-political. Our role - the Committee has seven members - is to examine the financial aspects of ALDE Party activity, suggest ways to progress its objectives and act as, if you like, a back-up conscience for both the Bureau and the Secretariat.

You note that I don't claim that we are the conscience, as I have every confidence in both the Bureau and the Secretariat to behave appropriately. However, sometimes, an external perspective, not involved in the day to day necessities and obligations of running a political party, is useful and, I hope, valuable. We are, by our relative separation from the professional staff and leadership, able to ask questions the answers to which may seem obvious to an insider but, to an outsider, might smack of "but that's how we've always done it".

My colleagues, Boris, Hans, Luca, Monica and Roman, bring different experiences to the table, and different perspectives, which is useful because there are as many ways of doing things as there are countries in the European Union, and issues that might pass unmentioned in one country might be problematic in another. For example, accepting a particular source of sponsorship may generate issues in, say Italy, that cause no problems in Sweden.

We do have a new member this time, as there is a new LYMEC (Liberal Youth Movement of the European Community) Treasurer to be introduced and welcomed, replacing Anne, whose input was always helpful.

So, wish me luck, as I'm kind of doing this for you - because financial probity matters to everyone in civil society...

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Scotland: you gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together?

If the polls are to be believed, the margin between those intending to vote 'yes' to independence in the Autumn, and those intending to vote 'no' has shrunk towards the margin of error. And whilst I'm not a defeatist, and I'd really not want to see the Scots go, I could hardly complain if they did.

I'll set aside the impact of Scotland reclaiming its independence on the rest of the United Kingdom - it's mostly conjecture and there'll be a queue of people writing about it before very long - and look at the decision itself.

As a liberal, I believe in self-determination and devolution of power, and I suppose that there can be no clearer declaration of that than the desire for nationhood. And yes, the concept of a sovereign state is somewhat different in our modern, inter-connected world than it might once have been, but it is still one that stirs the blood. So, if the Scots want it, they should have it.

It must be for Scots to take responsibility for their actions though, to weigh up the modern day equivalent of the 'cost in blood and treasure' of breaking away, and it is for those in positions of authority to talk through the issues in a manner that treats the people as adults, with hearts and minds, which is why the debate that is currently taking place looks like such a shambles, with its utter disregard for the significant areas of doubt and uncertainty that exist on currencies, European Union membership and finance to name but three.

And nationhood is not, and should not be, conditional - the "we'll keep all the good bits of our old relationship" argument - because they aren't yours to promise, they're for others to offer, should they be so inclined.

There will be a price to pay for newly independent Scots, as my friend Cicero has already noted. Can the Scottish economy sustain the calls upon it that currently exist, let alone the promises that Alex Salmond has showered upon wavering voters? How painful will the transition phase be? How much will it cost to create a civil service to administer the new nation - diplomatic corps, tax authority etc. - and to build the support systems that they require?

Of course, one thing that emerging nations have not had to think much about is the view of the financial markets in a global economy, and yesterday's selling of Scottish companies (and the pound too) is a reminder that no country, no matter how passionate it is, is truly independent anyway unless it is to become a hermit nation, not a prospect that is likely or credible for Scotland.

So, despite the pleas from my friends and my party to fight to keep the Union together, I'll be remaining on the sidelines, conscious that the debate for Scotland's future appears to be an unsafe place for those with an open, questioning mind but without a direct stake in the outcome.

I have only one thing to add, and that's a reminder. Any decision, especially one as big as this, comes with a proviso, that the winners accept the consequences of their actions, and honour their commitments. And that goes as much for the 'No' campaign as it does for the 'Yes' one...

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Liberal Democrats: try and keep your head up to the sky?

If all that I knew of the Liberal Democrats was the pronouncements from the centre and the debate on Liberal Democrat Voice, I would probably be pretty depressed. That isn't to say that it hasn't been a bit grim of late, as the fire of the Party seems to be turned on itself, aided and abetted by outsiders with little fondness for liberalism or, in some cases, interest in its survival in our country.

In some cases, where people have been hurt, or failed by the Party, I understand their unhappiness, even whilst wishing that it wasn't so. And if they feel that, having tried every other way to seek remedy for what happened, their only option is to attack the Party in a public forum, then those of us who remain will just have to take it on the chin.

We are promised change by our leaders, and maybe it will come. But it won't be quick, and it won't be certain. Not every member of the Liberal Democrats is a liberal or a democrat, political parties attract some people who, given half a chance, will demonstrate just how astute Lord Acton's comment on power and its ability to corrupt was, and one person's morality is not that of another. And, in judgement of such things, we are ultimately reliant on humans, with all their multiplicity of faults and failings.

Process is not, in itself, the solution to the mess that the Party finds itself in, as, unless the culture changes, the process is only good for punishing people after they have hurt others. It might act as a deterrent, and I hope that it does, but it won't prevent such events entirely, and I worry about the current level of expectation that it might. In an organisation which is predominantly run and led at local level by volunteers without experience of handling complaints, and where awareness of best practice is patchy at best - trust me, I have plenty of practical experience on the subject - you are only as strong as your weakest link.

So, we must strive to build confidence in our members and supporters that, where wrongdoing is discovered, that it will be acted upon swiftly, and with due process. But we must also stand prepared for the weaknesses of individuals and the randomness of misfortune...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

ALDE: listen as your day unfolds, challenge what the future holds...

It's getting towards the time of year when thoughts turn to re-election, and as my second term as a member of the Liberal Democrat delegation to the Council of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) comes to an end on 31 December, I should be giving some thought towards a manifesto.

There are some new complications this year, in that gender balance will be more strictly enforced, which given that more men than women generally run, makes my prospects somewhat less rosy - c'est la vie, I guess. I am, it is true, somewhat more low profile than once I was, which probably doesn't help either, and I belong to a smallish, rather out of the way Local Party.

It would be nice to think that I could run on my record, but as hardly anyone knows what ALDE does, and even less what the Council is for, I'll be up against people who have views on European policy (even though it is Congress that makes policy, not Council), and have little or no interest in what Council does - it's the administrative bit of ALDE.

But I would rather like to get elected for another term. I like the way politics is done at European level, more collaborative, more consensual, I enjoy working with others to reach a policy solution that brings people together rather than driving them apart. And, at a time when domestic politics both within and beyond the Liberal Democrats is, to be frank, a bit depressing, doing something rather more positive is important.

So, I'll be pondering over the messages for my campaign, and working on the text of what will probably be just an A5 page in a large booklet of similar pleas for support. And whilst it might be premature for me to express a wish that you might look kindly upon my candidacy, do remember that, like most other candidates for elected Party office, I'm doing this because I want to serve my Party, not as some sort of quest for fame.

Crossing the path of Erik XIV once again, this time in Turku

That Erik XIV certainly got around, albeit somewhat unwillingly. This is Turku Castle, or Åbo Slott, as Swedish speakers would refer to it, where our friend was imprisoned. It would seem that he was moved around quite a lot, to prevent anyone getting any ideas about putting him back on the throne, until it was eventually decided that poisoning him was best for everyone (except Erik, presumably).

Turku was our third stop on our circumnavigation of the northern Baltic Sea, having left Mariehamn on a surprisingly perfect afternoon, on the M/S Viking Grace, a vast, rather snazzy ferry which travels backwards and forwards between Stockholm and Turku, calling in the Åland Islands en route. It was, in retrospect, too early to leave Mariehamn and, likewise, too early to reach Turku. But that's part of the travel experience and, as I always tell Ros, we can always go back.

In truth, Turku is not an obvious tourist destination, and despite its status as one of the two EU Capitals of Culture in 2011 - Tallinn was the other - there is little to keep the questing traveller. We went to Naantali, a rather lovely old town masquerading as a ferry terminal - we stood where the map suggested that the terminal should be, but couldn't find any evidence that a ferry travels from there to Kapelskär via Längnas, even though it actually does. 

On our second day, we visited the castle. It is rather something, notable for having had, as one of its defences, bears which would savage unwary attackers. Apparently, this would now be considered cruel and unusual punishment, although anyone attacking a castle rather deserves all that they get, if you ask me. The English-speaking guide was very good value for the €2.50 that she cost, with a lot of interesting stories and some very un-Finnish humour.

The riverfront makes for a pleasant walk too, and the cathedral is imposing, but it isn't enough to make me think that I really ought to go back - just watch, there'll be an ALDE event there next year, now that I've said that...