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House of Cards (and Liberals)

In Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on July 30, 2011 at 12:13 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

With silly season on the horizon,will David Cameron and Nick Clegg take, like the Daily Soapbox, a new layout?

KEY: Name, Position, Party, Likely Movement: Comment

David Cameron, PM, Con, No Change: The only chance of movement here is personal tragedy or palace coup. Neither seems likely; having led the Conservatives back to government, and seeing their vote hold up in the polls, and being rated highest of the three party leaders, any dissidents in the party will likely be quelled. Read the rest of this entry »

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Cameron Should Have Been in the Commons Today

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, The Media on July 11, 2011 at 10:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Most days, the Prime Minister doesn’t turn up to the House of Commons. Most days, he doesn’t have to. Most government policy-making and implementing occurs outside the House. Not today, however. The business today was Education Questions, the Public Service Reform White Paper, Jeremy Hunt’s Statement on Phone Hacking and the last stages of the Europe Bill – as well as a debate on crime victims in the EU and an adjournment debate, both scheduled so late (crime started at 21:00) to make any movement supremely unlikely. Cameron had reason to attend all the important business of the day.

Education questions [WATCH] were the least important to attend, but the Conservatives have by far the most comprehensive policy on education. Michael Gove has made some strong announcements on school discipline of late, and Cameron would only benefit from being associated with those. Michael Gove is also an amusing performer, and it would have done Cameron no harm to laugh at some of the more witty jokes.

Cameron pre-empted the public service bill [READ] at a press conference in Wapping, of all places (where, famously, News International is based). Oliver Letwin then got up in the House [WATCH] and did it better. While Cameron should not have led on the paper (after all, he didn’t write it), it is an important plank of the Big Society agenda. Since this is the least understood part of the Tory position, Cameron should have attended the presentation of the paper that builds on his signature themes: people power, choice, decentralisation. While his press conference brought the move some initial publicity, it was buried in the live feed of Hunt’s statement.

And he should really have been present for that one. Ed Miliband was planning to turn up, as was half the house. To be seen during Hunt’s statement [WATCH – SHORT] [WATCH – LONG] – or even giving a statement additional to Hunt’s – would have made him appear strong. He would have been vulnerable on points about Andy Coulson, and may even have had to say that Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, did not communicate concerns about him, or else face total embarrassment. But, as it was, Alan Johnson was able to make a wise crack about the monkey being present and not the organ grinder, and Hunt was unable to provide answers on points about the Prime Minister’s staff. Hunt, for his part, performed well, despite the rather pathetic set of cards he had to play, and even made some purchase against Ed Miliband’s rather shrill attack by saying that the matter transcended party politics. This tactic would have played even better if the Tory backbench had got the hint and not taken to asking partisan questions. Cameron’s additional gravitas would have helped the backbench get the message, and would have enabled him to at least put a brave face on the matter and face down Labour’s criticisms, even if he only provided a politician’s answer.

The Europe Bill (Lords Amendments) [READ] is a more extended piece, and Cameron need only have stayed for the first few speeches. Europe is an issue on which the Coalition may fracture, and is an important issue for those on the right of the party that he has, as yet, been unable to carry with him. His presence would have given the impression that he remained concerned about Europe, like many backbenchers and party members.

Cameron missed a trick by not making a statement directly following Hunt’s. He will take questions from the Commons on Wednesday, and unless Greece or Italy defaults on their debts or Birmingham falls into a black hole, Coulson will dominate. If he had answered questions today, he would have fulfilled his duty to the House to answer questions, and be able to present Labour, as Hunt tried to do today, as excessively partisan. Labour MPs brought half a dozen points of order saying that Cameron should come to the House for a statement – while the Speaker does not have the power to compel the Prime Minister to come to the House, it is bemusing that journos now regularly get in ahead of MPs, and on different days, doubling the amount of negative headlines for Cameron.

In short, Cameron today gave Labour an open goal, and missed several opportunities to bolster his brand, and, while he was at it, the House of Commons and the political class. Jeremy Hunt appeared weak and isolated, with senior cabinet members, such as Osborne and Hague, also conspicuously absent. This undermined Hunt and the government. It would have been worse risking embarrassment, even if he had turned round, said that he got that one completely wrong, and would not make that mistake again. Honesty is, usually, the best policy. Hiding behind other news stories just delays the inevitable bollocking.

Ed, show us the alternative

In BBC Question Time, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics on April 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

By James Bartholomeusz

Audience responses on the BBC’s Question Time usually range from the mildly interesting to the banal, providing little more than an identification of which panel member the viewer most aligns with. However, once in a while, someone says something so original and yet so obvious that it merits serious consideration. Such a thing was said on last Thursday’s episode: a woman, chosen by David Dimbleby to speak, asked why Labour, if it’s so committed to the alternative, doesn’t pen a Shadow Budget to lay out their alternative deficit reduction plan.

The panelists response to this was painfully predictable. Diane Abbott, as the Labour representative, spluttered something about it being nonsensical four years before an election, whilst Mark Serwotka, the head of the PCS union, repeated his tenuous claim that there is no necessity for any spending cuts whatsoever. And yet this idea of a Shadow Budget, levelled by someone so lowly as to not be a professional economist or politician, is one that, I think, should be adopted by the Labour Party without hesitation.

The current debate on the economy, both national and global, has lined up between the two foremost schools of economic thought: neo-classicalism and Keynesianism. The neo-classicalists, inspired primarily by the 19th Century economist David Ricardo, see budget deficits as dangerous and immoral: according the Ricardian equivalency, any national deficit between income and spending (the UK’s being approximately 10% of GDP) is just taxation deferred for future generations. By radically cutting public spending to balance the deficit (‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, or, in Cameron’s terminology, ”rolling back the boundaries of the state”) neo-classicalists believe that the private sector will be freed from taxation and competition with the public sector to drive the economy back to prosperity. Keynesian thought, meanwhile, led the original response to the financial crisis, bailing out the banks and implementing fiscal stimuli to drive the economy quickly out of the recession. Now out of the immediate danger zone, Keynesians, such as Robert Skidelsky and Joseph Stiglitz, do not dispute the need for eventual deficit reduction, but are concerned that a premature fiscal contraction underestimates how much the private sector relies on the public sector, and so will drop the UK economy back into recession. Instead, Keynesians argue for fiscal policy based on growth and investment to stably harbour the economy, whilst slowly but steadily cutting the deficit.

This is the debate which, since the initial crisis response, has been mapped on to British party politics. Last May, both the Labour manifesto was based on the Keynesian response, whilst the Conservative one was neo-classicalist, and the Lib Dems in between but Keynesian-leaning. At least partially on these grounds, the majority of commentators predicted, before the election, a Lib-Lab coalition in the event of a hung parliament. And a hung parliament we had, except that the Lib Dem high command, vested with the choice of how to form the next British government, elevated David Cameron’s Tories over Gordon Brown’s Labour. Now in government, Clegg and his allies have apparently been won over to the neo-classicalist, and by extension George Osborne’s, fiscal plan: to entirely eliminate the deficit by the end of the parliament through a 73:27 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises.

All the evidence suggests that Osborne’s economic management so far has ranged from lacklustre to abysmal. The Office of Budget Responsibility, set up by the current government, has downgraded its growth forecasts from 3-3.5% to 2.6%. Unemployment is still rising, now at a 17-year high, with one-fifth of all young people unable to find a job. Inflation is at 4%, the highest in 20 years. The Consumer Confidence Index was last measured at -29, the biggest drop since 1994. Even the mainstream centre-Right newspapers, which had previously praised the Chancellor’s conviction, have now turned their attention more to the human costs of deficit reduction than the stability it will ostensibly bring. Osborne’s attempt to blame poor economic performance on heavy snowfall over December fooled no one: the US, German, French and even Spanish economies grew by over 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, whilst ours shrunk by more than 0.5%. The problem is, what is the alternative?

Ed Miliband’s Labour, having dithered in the autumn months, has now settled on maintaining Alastair Darling’s plan of halving the deficit in a single parliament. With Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor, this position has now been confirmed. Labour has since busied itself with rebuking the Tory-led government on its choices for deficit reduction: the VAT rise to 20% (predicted to cost families with children £450 extra in 2011), the rise in higher education fees, and front-line cuts to public services have been particular targets of the Shadow Cabinet. But Labour has yet to commit to what it would cut, or which taxes it would rise, were it currently in government. Although exactly how much would have to be cut under Labour’s plan is unclear, Miliband and his colleagues have so far sidestepped the sticky issue of what their ‘alternative’ would actually entail. It is this, more than any other factor, which will cost them electoral support.

I marched, carrying a Labour Party banner, alongside up to half-a-million others in London two weeks ago. And yet, will Labour’s reticence to commit to a specific deficit reduction plan, I am losing faith that there is a credible alternative to the government’s plan, however badly executed. A YouGov poll conducted on the same day found that the majority of the population, 52%, now supports the campaign against public sector spending cuts. But Labour should not fool itself that, just because it happens to be in opposition to an unpopular government, it will automatically gain the support of the electorate. This was the mistake made, in the last two decades, by both Kinnock and Cameron; 1992 resulting in a narrow Tory victory, and 2010 in a hung parliament. Labour should pen a Shadow Budget, laying out exactly which cuts and tax rises it would make. Ed Miliband has rightly sounded the death knell of New Labour and embarked on a holistic policy review, refusing to make manifesto commitments before the cuts have really started to affect the nation. But reconstructing its economic credibility needs to be the party’s top priority, and Miliband cannot afford to be haunted by the ghost of Gordon Brown any longer.

Libya: Winners and Losers

In America, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Government Spotlight, Parliamentary Spotlight on March 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

The no-fly zone is up-and-running after a tense few weeks of events in Libya and tough diplomacy. The events that have led up to UN Resolution 1973/2011 have been complicated, and they have had political impacts on both individuals and nations. This isn’t as complete or detailed as it could be, but it includes some of the major movers, particularly in the UK. This was written shortly after the no fly zone was implemented, and the flow of events may have altered some of the analysis here.

Col. Moammar Gaddafi: Has fared badly in international eyes, most recently breaking a promise of ceasefire, but generally sounding rather detached from events, and indeed reality. However, in Libya, the picture is split; he’s managed to maintain popular support in the capital, and defections from his cause have not damaged his capacity to deploy aircraft and heavy weaponry. He still retains some loyalty, or some visage of terror, or both among the Libyan people. Anti-Imperialist rhetoric may play well to the people of Libya, but in rebel-controlled areas, there seems no evidence of this. He may take some pleasure from the fact that no-one in the English world knows quite how to spell his name.

UN: Despite questions whether a UN resolution was needed to impose a no-fly zone, all the countries involved chose to go through the UN. This will raise its damaged status as a body, and also encourage further interventions to be cleared through it. Resolution 1973 has been called a watershed for what the UN could hope to achieve in further crisis, as and when they arise in the Middle East and around the world. There are, however, questions as to what actions the UN will be forced to take in other countries this year, such as Bahrain.

USA: Has remained aloof and silent for much of the crisis, but eventually fell on the side of those calling for a no-fly zone, which added much weight to the case for intervention. The rebel faction in Libya seems well pleased with the decision to intervene, and some of this goodwill will rub off on America. The surreptitious transport of weapons across the Egyptian border to the rebels, quite probably at US instigation, will also have improved America’s image. However, in the broader international community, the country’s slow and cautious action will contrast with its previous history of reckless and large-scale intervention, and this has vastly improved its standing.

Barack Obama: Has taken a cautious approach, and has seen little change in his standing. Many in America would have wanted action more quickly; however, he secured a UN mandate and eventually delivered action. Prolonged silence had previously risked undermining the influence and leadership the President of the USA is expected to wield, but the silence and the risk was ended by his forthright support of UN Resolution 1973.

John McCain and John Kerry: Both these former American presidential candidates were vocal and early advocates of a no-fly zone, and now that it has come about, their gravitas has been augmented as they have been seen to give the right policy advice to the White House, which was eventually taken. Although this represents a coalition of opinion between a leading Republican and a leading Democrat, their influence is unlikely to secure a more consensual Congress for the rest of the Presidential term.

UK: Negative reports were abound concerning the previous government’s close relationship with Libya and the poor contingencies put in place to evacuate British nationals. These were compounded by what seems to be one of the worst special operations missions in recent history. However, international leadership on the no-fly zone will have regained some of the nation’s democratic capability. A broader debate regarding whether the UK has the requisite military capacity to sustain a lead role in the no-fly zone has died down, but will weigh heavily on the minds of MoD staff.

David Cameron: Despite all the above, he has risen to the challenge of mobilising many reluctant countries to support a no-fly zone, and many in his own party and country. His campaign has been high-profile and high-minded, avoiding some of the dissent said to be at work in his cabinet. The no-fly zone will reflect well upon him.

William Hague: Blunder has followed blunder, from ill-advised comments that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela to poor management of aircraft and special forces. Although many from his party gave him plaudits for his work with UN delegates, his position is more precarious than it was, his aura of competence rather tarnished.

Douglas Alexander: Hague’s shadow sensed opportunity in his blunders and attacked him at every turn. However, if Hague now has egg on his face, Alexander now has boiled eggs on his face; his opposition to a no fly zone has led to an embarrassing and high-profile U-turn; though the damage to Labour does not seem to be too great, Alexander’s almost impeccable reputation is now bathing in the mud.

Michael Gove, George Osborne and Liam Fox: The most vocal advocates of intervention, along with William Hague, have won over the government and the Commons. Their standing in Cabinet will be increased at the expense of those opposed to intervention. In particular, Liam Fox is well placed to argue for fewer cuts in his budget, and since Osborne is on his side, it would not surprise me to see more money channelled towards defence at the budget after next, particularly if there is a windfall.

Bob Stewart: This mostly unknown Conservative MP (Beckenham) has become increasingly prominent due to his experience as a military commander in Bosnia, where a previous no-fly zone has been implemented. His expertise in this area has undoubtedly swayed government and international opinion, and he is likely to receive a ministerial portfolio before long, especially if he continues to sound so authoritative during interviews.

France: The Republic suffered embarrassing revelations about its foreign minister in the Tunisia crisis, but a quick sacking, a trial of a former President, and a well-managed evacuation managed to submerge most of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, vocal support for a no-fly zone will have won it kudos in diplomatic circles, however, undermining the EU’s nascent diplomatic efforts may in turn undermine attempts to centralise defence and foreign policy at the EU level.

Nicholas Sarkozy: Has had a good crisis, being seen to lead the world, and actually leading it. French fighter jets were the first to enforce 1973, and this show of strength will strengthen his upcoming election campaign. His name is, according to reports, being chanted on the streets of Benghazi, and the Guardian suggests that his handling of the crisis has saved him from electoral ruin.

EU: Has had quite possibly its worst crisis since the former Yugoslavia broke up. Two of its three major members have argued with the third, and it has been unable to build consensus among a Europe strongly divided on the issue. Its failure to secure the support of Malta and Cyprus for intervention will cost the coalition enforcing 1973 dearly. Any diplomatic efforts it made were largely or completely ignored, which will underline an impression of disunity and impotence; the UK and France will pursue their foreign policy almost without heed to the opinion of the EU.

Angela Merkel: Has had to balance the German public’s desire not to get involved in any foreign war with EU and US alliances. Due to an impending election, she has favoured the people’s view, and Germany abstained at the UN. Whether this will gain her many votes (coupled with withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, she may convince the German people that she is indeed a pacifist) is yet to be seen. A good call – no permanent damage seems to have been done to bilateral relations, though any chances of diplomacy through the EU seem to be wrecked.

Lebanon: Tabled resolution 1973 at the UN, and had it carried by the necessary number of votes. A potentially clever move as it re-entrenches European (especially French) support for the embattled democracy. And the Lebanese public do not seem to mind their country inviting the US to bomb fellow Arabs.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi: Previously the hope of reform in Libya for the West, he has shown a ruthless streak, both handling the media with some guile and promising destruction to Libya’s enemies. Nonetheless, his political capital in the West has decreased. With his assets now frozen in most countries, he will struggle to find a way in life if the West does not make an accord with Gaddafi. His standing in Libya itself has also been harmed, as he is one of the few Gaddafi males not to be in command of a military unit, and his vision of a Libya reconciled with the West seems to have collapsed completely.

The London School of Economics: Was badly damaged when it was found that it had accepted large donations from the Gaddafi clan. Previously an institution with a reputation of spreading enlightenment throughout the developing world, it has pledged to return all the donation it can to the Libyan people, and made grovelling apologies to the government. There has already been one resignation, and another could shortly come from Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty UK, who sat on its governing board. Harrowed appearances suggest that the folks at Liberty do not take kindly to her approving donations from sponsors of terrorism, though she denies the connection.

The Scottish National Party and the Labour Party: Both these parties curried favourable relationships with Libya during their terms in office at Holyrood and Westminster respectively. However, despite some cheap shots from some ministers, both seem to have emerged relatively unscathed from such a potentially toxic friendship. That said, Scottish voters have yet to have the opportunity to punish the Holyrood government at the polls, although it is unlikely that foreign policy will be a major factor at the elections in May.

Overall, the no-fly zone has been well-received in the international community. The first military Arab League involvement will shortly come through Qatari air jets; meanwhile, the normally pacifist Norway has also committed jets. The no-fly zone doesn’t seem to have stopped the civil war from either rebel or Gaddafi’s side, but it seems to have the desired effect of reducing the damage to civilians, particularly from Gaddafi’s aircraft and heavy armour. The issues that seem to be arising next are whether Resolution 1973 allows UN-affiliated forces to target Gaddafi himself, and, more broadly, what the exit strategy might be. Polling suggests strong division among the British public regarding whether this intervention is the right policy, and this may create political problems further down the line. The situation is still in flux, and the political consequences are still not settled.

Coalition: the free marketplace of ideas

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 8, 2011 at 9:24 pm

Celebrating 100 posts

David Weber

It is ironic, that a country so associated with the development of a free marketplace as our own, should find itself so paranoid of the notion of freedom of political ideas. I am being slightly cheeky here: I do not refer to political freedom with a capital P: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of movement or freedom of entry into political parties. All such things are long established, and do credit to our political system. I refer to freedom of ideas within the political discourse.

The terms ‘freedom of ideas’, or ‘marketplace of ideas’ are often misunderstood as only applicable in a binary, “1st Amendment/Police State” sort of way, where the only barriers to freedom to focus on are legal restrictions and the threat of violence. Such concerns are, of course, tremendously important, so important that it is easy to understand why they dominate conversation about freedom. But they are the skeleton, without which the structure would not stand, rather than the flesh. What determines whether freedom flourishes is just as much the complex, multi-layered cultural climate that surrounds it, as it is the legal rules which govern it.

Just as if you pump carbon dioxide into the climate unsustainably, you risk turning the climate into a hostile, unfriendly place; if the climate for freedom of ideas is not right, the marketplace will suffer. It is such concerns which are fuelling debate about such diverse subjects as copyright law and patents; libel; privacy law; media ownership; party funding; cuts to the arts and humanities, subsidies to STEM subjects and Tuition Fees; Parliamentary Privilege; Electoral Reform; Devolution; Question Time; and Nick Clegg.

And I find these discussions just as fascinating, if not more so, than the adrenaline-fuelling outrage stories such as that of Paul Clarke’s Shotgun last year, or the Twitter joke trial. Those were undoubtedly the more exciting, more thrilling stories to ponder and agonise over, but they lack the infinite depth and complexity that some of the others engineer. Indeed, that is why outrage stories are more thrilling, because a bare-faced, unbelievable simplicity has been violated, whether freedom of speech, innocent until proven guilty, or any other principle of decency. But one’s mind chews over the detail of a thorny problem much longer than the simplicity of an obvious one. Consider it a contrast between the headline of a newspaper and the quality of its crossword. Though the headline might be why you buy the paper, it is often the crossword which dictates how much time you devote to it.

In case you think I am joking by making an example of Nick Clegg (and I certainly was by making one of Question Time), think again. Nick Clegg, along with David Cameron, David Laws and collected others from their parties, have done more to further the interests of the free marketplace of ideas than any other politicians have this year. Although this may be a small order of merit compared to the champions of libel reform, and the heroes who fight bad laws in court, it is still an important one, and one which is quietly having a beneficial effect in freedom’s favour.

In case you think this is a political defence of the Coalition’s agenda, do not worry yourself. Feel free to hate the Coalition with as much passion as you can muster for what it intends to do. My interest is purely in what it is, for many of its members, unintentionally doing. It cannot be intentional for most of the Conservatives in government to fight against the collected traditions of cabinet government down the ages in stifling freedom of information, diversity of ideas and honesty of opinion. Nor can it be pleasing for the Liberal Democrats to have to expose the divisions in their own party, the limits of its honesty, its crimes of opportunism, and its members’ addiction to doing things together, like mythical lemmings.

Nevertheless, the Coalition is quietly but systematically dismantling much of what is wrong with British politics. It is testing the boundaries of what collective responsibility can censor. It is practically writing a textbook about the limitations of our political system for honouring promises, representing public opinion and giving people a democratic voice. And this is good, because it aids the truth. Britain does not have a particularly democratic system of government. It does not represent its people well. And promises are rarely kept in politics, they are merely normally managed better. There is a long and ignoble tradition of parties spinning their way out of promises, and it is refreshing to see some more bald-faced confessions.

The irony is that until the election, many would have spun these traditions as good things. Evasiveness and dishonesty lead to Collective Responsibility (with a capital C and R). Single-party and undeserved winners lead to strong government. Honouring manifesto pledges in letter but not in spirit is an example of a peculiar marriage between delegate and representative traditions, with MPs making fine independent judgements whilst scattering breadcrumbs of honesty to their constituents. Such is the balanced way in which the British constitution works, it would be argued, long has it functioned and long may it continue to.

Such arguments convey an inability to cope with uncomfortable truths. If what we are experiencing now is an example of constitutional imbalance, then I say we could all do with a continued dose of it. It seems to me ridiculous to assume that the average citizen will worry about the niceties of Constitution whilst being unable to cope with the occasional expression of honest ministerial opinion. It is equally ridiculous to think that people cannot prefer honest confession of broken promises to spin and obfuscation. And the very idea of coalitions automatically leading to instability and stagnation is already almost extinct after nearly 8 months of good practice.

But of course, the truth is that my opening premise works both ways. Coalition in the United Kingdom is being shown to work because the climate is already supportive of it. Radicalism is low, common sense in reasonable supply and if anything, our problem of apathy works to its advantage. If  you compared to Italy, you would find that it has historically failed to cope well with Coalition not because of PR, but because of a climate which has dominated its politics for decades. But even then, Coalition can arguably be used as a solution to division and extremism as well as being a freedom which mature nations qualify for, and benefit from. Part of Italy’s problem probably stems from choice of coalition. Whereas the strength of the Northern Irish system, as I argued in my previous article, is the lack of any such choice, and the democratic structure of the legal requirement, which automatically requires the largest two parties take part in government, and entitles smaller ones to cabinet seats. Of course, such a system would not have worked had Northern Ireland not been at a stage where, in general, it wanted it to.

So Coalition cannot always work, but the situations where it can are varied and diverse. It is a political freedom which requires maturity and a beneficial climate, but wherever it can work it has the potential to improve not only the freedom of political ideas, but the use to which such freedom can be put. Honesty has proved empowering. The Coalition is considering a faster pace of reform than single-party government has given us for a decade. You may disagree intently with what that is resulting in, but freedom is not defined by whether you like the use it is put to, apart from perhaps the consideration of its own long-term future.

It may yet prove that such freedom in political ideas without democratic reform to accompany it, and force it into greater accountability, is dangerous. But the indications are favourable, indeed, for democratic reform itself. The Coalition has a short-term rather than a long-term vision of reforming the House of Lords; a long overdue alternative form of representation, which will hopefully complement the purpose of the House of Commons rather than replacing it. It intends to introduce the Alternative Vote if the public vote in favour, which is a small but crucial reform for polite discourse during elections. At present, the system makes parties all too happy to turn their opponents against each other, which is a malicious and cruel incentive. And above all, the one way in which freedom of ideas is destined to flourish is the utter inability of the Prime Minister to habitually shuffle individuals between jobs like a pack of cards. His is truly the primus inter pares, not just technically.

I would also like to raise a glass to the Coalition for setting yet another example in the Daily Soapbox’s favour, of professional collaboration, courteous disagreement, and “an independent community, recognising that we all think better when people of different views express them clearly”. This is our 100th Post. Here’s to the future.

This is the second in a series of posts considering the nuances of democracy, intended as something of a response to polarii’s epic summer trilogy. Do take a read of that as well, if you have a spare week.

State and Society

In Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology on January 6, 2011 at 12:50 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

“We are not here to manage capitalism but to change society and define its finer values.”

An interesting quote – left unattributed so you can vote in The Daily Soapbox’s latest poll. The answer will be revealed in my next article. Click here to vote.

The quote is about the role of government, and its objectives, and how it relates to society. I am going to leave capitalism to one side, however, and take the road less travelled-by, and consider government and society. The contrast between the two most recent governments of the UK – Blair and Brown’s ‘New’ Labour, and Cameron’s ‘One-Nation’ Conservatives – I think is clear and stark, and perhaps unexpected.

One would think that it would be the free-market, Thatcherite Conservatives who would have little input on society and simply toddle along ‘managing’ capitalism, and the socialist Labour party that would concern itself with ‘improving’ society. However, New Labour did not live up to its inheritance. During its years in office, the gap between rich and poor widened. Many commentators both inside and outside politics pointed to youth that were becoming increasingly disenfranchised from society, and a general move away from feeling part of a community. Charitable giving remained high, though slightly decreased as a proportion of disposable income. Experiments in ‘multiculturalism’ led, in many places, to different ethnic groups growing apart from each other, and ‘ghettoisation’. While it’s not a disastrous picture, we don’t come away being sure that New Labour set out to improve society.

While, ostensibly, this may have been their purpose, in reality, much of what happened under Blair was not about society but managing capitalism. New Labour continued policies of privatisation pursued by previous Conservative governments, and extended them to things even Thatcher didn’t dare privatise: notably, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (most of which was privatised as Qinetiq in 2001) and the Commonwealth Development Corporation (sold to Actis in 2004), alongside privatisations the Conservative party supported, such as privatising the railway system. The argument ran that the government’s services were better delivered if the market could deliver them, overseen by the government; essentially, it managed capitalism. The tax system remained pretty much the same, if anything, regulatory laws became more lax.

This contrasts with the society front, where those measures that were most likely to fracture bonds of trust between groups were pursued. CCTV was widely increased, as were speed cameras. ID cards were attempted, but failed. Extensive Health and Safety legislation, and strengthened CRB checks – which, in fairness, probably prevented some hideous events – made it incredibly difficult to run some  events. There were fewer school trips; it became increasingly difficult for charities to get involved in certain institutions, such as hospitals and schools. Equalities legislation was constantly challenged in the Lords, especially when it was realised that some clauses would require Christian churches to employ Muslims as pastoral workers. ‘Prevent’, the strategy designed to counter radical Islamism after 11th September, singled out the Islamic community for intervention, and made them feel more marginalised than before. Blair ‘didn’t do God’, and hid his tendency towards Catholicism. In short, society was not changed – or not for the better – and any values that may have defined it were suppressed.

Contrast Cameron’s Conservatives: as soon as he came into leadership, Dave undertook a policy review, which led to a statement of values. In fairness, even the global recession has not altered them; slogans like: ‘We’re all in this together’ or ‘There’s such as thing as society, it’s not the same thing as the state’ arise here, not in the crisis years. There is a strong grouping of thought within the party that Britain’s society is broken, and that it needs fixing. In the brief time since the Conservatives have been in government, they have been at pains – at least in presentation – to emphasise the ‘progressive’ elements of their policies, from the CSR to the tuition fee rise. They have promised policy on attempting to integrate criminals better into society, on encouraging charitable giving. They have abolished ID cards, stopped ‘Prevent’, and Cameron openly, though infrequently, discusses his religion. Iain Duncan Smith, who spends much time talking about his faith, is putting considerable policy resource towards making society and the market work for the long-term unemployed, and other marginalised groups, such as the disabled; an area where Britain is most obviously broken. By far the biggest idea in government at the moment is the Big Society – but not many details have been released on this, yet.

Undoubtedly managing the market system has to be an important task of government, it need not be the limit of government’s aspiration. It certainly isn’t for Plato, it certainly isn’t for Marx, both of whom believed that good government would lead their citizens to be more virtuous. Government can change society, and can define its values, though it has to persuade and not compel the governed. And finer values have often been defined in history from the political leaders – we need look no further than the US Constitution for a paradigm shift not only in American values, but in worldwide values.

One reason why New Labour was unsuccessful in changing society – for the most part – was a desire to skirt not only the finer values, but any values at all. Another reason was that it accepted Thatcher’s suggestion that ‘there is no such thing a society’; or at least, Thatcher’s state didn’t acknowledge society for the purposes of government. A further reason was that they did not perceive that society needed much changing; it just needed more public services and more guidance from government. New Labour managed capitalism, and didn’t have the ideological framework for anything grander; there was no vision, no values, that could provide the reason to change society, that provided the basis for a redefinition of values. Cameron’s Conservatives have this value-driven background. And they acknowledge that society exists, but that it is not the same as the state. And they see a problem with Broken Britain’s society. They have motive, method and ability. The whole Big Society agenda, and with it, Free Schools, more freedom for charities, the latest incarnation of national service, may come to nothing. Possible. But it’s at least grounded in a philosophy that does seek not merely to manage capitalism, but to change society and define its finer values. It’s risky – Labour are right – but it’s also exciting.

Concerning Devolution, and Democracy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics, Regional politics, The Media on January 6, 2011 at 12:49 am

David Weber

Warning: long article approaching

For a while I’ve been wanting to write something equivalent, or at least in response to polarii’s analyses of democracy, not just to outline differences in opinion but also to cover issues which, I feel, were not discussed. The cut and thrust of this article, and possible future ones, will mainly focus (through the prism of a leading issue) of on the general untidiness of democracy; in attempting to define it, assessing its qualities, and outlining solutions. We will start by looking at Devolution.

Devolution has been in the news recently, and for once it isn’t the arguments about a Scottish independence referendum. The new powers proposed by the Calman commission are (partially) being unveiled by the new government, which seeks to deliver a certain amount of tax-raising power to Scotland, presumably not least with the intention of forcing it onto a more equal fiscal footing with England. That Scottish Government ministers are protesting that it will make Scotland worse off in cash terms seems to be evidence in support of this.

I do not have a great deal of sympathy for the Scottish government here, not least because the level of Scottish spending seems unnecessarily disproportionate to England. Obviously, Scotland being in general poorer than England, a degree of higher spending is needed, but for that to extend to free University tuition seems ridiculous, when there is no evidence that English students are particularly disadvantaged by the system which applies to them. Clearly, in this place, if in no other, there is some fat which could be trimmed.

But while the Commission’s terms of reference were the fiscal imbalances in Scottish devolution, I will be looking at democratic imbalances of devolution in general. According to some schools of thought, these are so grave as to override any merits the policy may have, and make abolition of the devolved assemblies the only solution. I am not so sure. I will begin, however, by outlining the case against Devolution.

The first, and most obvious attack, is the “West Lothian Question”. This actually originates from a theoretical question asked by the eponymous MP for West Lothian, Tom Dalyell, in 1977, long before the 1998 Scotland Act came into force:

“For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate … at least 119 Honourable Members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?”

The word “decisive” is crucial, as some might hope this question away as an eternally theoretical one, with majorities never slim enough for it to truly make a difference. This is wishful thinking. Labour governments often rely on Scotland for a lot of their support, and indeed the Labour government in 1979 was brought down by the votes of Scottish National Party (SNP) MPs. More recently, in 2006, the vote on — you guessed it — University top-up fees was won based on the support of Scottish MPs; had they abstained, it would likely have been defeated. Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted in favour of raising detention without trial to 42 days in 2008, which passed by a majority of exactly the same number as the 9 DUP MPs, although that particular bill was rejected by the House of Lords.

Not only this, but there is also a more fundamental undemocratic charge against Devolution. It provides some people more representation than others, creating a two-tier or even a multi-tier system, where geography determines strength of political representation. Thus in Scotland, voters elect not only sovereign Westminster MPs, with theoretical responsibility for everything, but near-as-sovereign Holyrood MPs, with very real responsibilities for Health, Education, Justice etc. into the bargain. The voter therefore has two calls for help if something goes wrong, and, in theory, twice as much leverage in their everyday battles. In contrast, a voter in Herefordshire elects a sovereign Westminster MP and a couple of rather dusty councillors, if they even know that a local election is on. Voters in Wales have something of a half-way house between English anonymity and Scottish power. Voters in Northern Ireland — well, I’ll not get into that minefield (until later).

As suggested by the preceding paragraph, devolution is also unequal between regions. The Welsh Assembly does not (yet) have the extensive powers of the Scottish Parliament. London has the Greater London Assembly which, although weaker still, is far more powerful than most local government in England. So in summary, the picture painted by devolution is a very uneven and untidy one, resembling the sort of painting which attaches a lot of importance to the leaves of a tree but somehow fails to convey the basic structure of the trunk with balance and accuracy.

Such is the case against devolution. And before I go into any further, and consider the counter-argument, it is worth considering the fact that nothing argues for the current system quite so well as the inability of its opponents to outline sensible solutions.

One such solution is “English Votes on English Laws”: barring Scottish and Welsh MPs from voting on English legislation. This has a certain long-enduring popularity, and it is often assumed, most often by Conservatives, that this would solve the Question in a blow.

Now, if there is any one phrase I have grown to hate, normally because it is nearly always misapplied, it is “constitutionally illiterate”. Yet I am tempted to apply it here. Devolution, as some opponents evidently fail to grasp ten years after its implementation, is not the same thing as Federalism. The official power of the UK Parliament to overrule the Scottish Parliament is absolute. Parliament is sovereign. It’s political power is, of course, limited severely by devolution. But this is not to say that it will never overrule the devolved assemblies.

And whereas the ability of regional MPs to overrule the will of English MPs is limited, due to their small number, the scope for English MPs to overrule the will of the devolved assemblies, should they wish to, is far greater. Therefore the only way “English Votes on English Laws” would be constitutionally balanced would be to similarly ban English MPs from voting to overrule the devolved assemblies. Which would mean that for each of the four countries, there would be matters where the UK Parliament had no say. Far from strengthening the Union, English Votes on English Laws would go some way towards dividing it permanently.

There are also more practical objections. There is the fact that it probably wouldn’t lead to equality of representation in the first place, because it doesn’t address the “different quality of representation depending on region” criticism of devolution that I outlined earlier. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters would still have far stronger local democracy than England, although I acknowledge that the situation is almost impossibly complex to assess when it comes to Northern Ireland. But the gravest objection is that it would throw up the possibility of two different majorities being available in the House of Commons, one for English legislation and another for UK legislation.

Such a possibility would not result in, say, a Conservative English legislative agenda put forward by a Labour UK government, because a Labour government would never allow it. The result would be stagnation, or at best, coalition between the two parties on English legislation.

Here is the fundamental problem. People seem to think, against all political observation, that the devolved legislatures are the only important part of devolution. The fact is, however, that without devolved government, devolution is at most a panacea. So quite apart from the constitutional issues, changing the rules governing English legislation would at best only be a half-way step towards the full-blooded localism which has transformed Scottish and Welsh politics.

It is, of course, possible to engineer a more low-key, slimmed down version of English Votes on English Laws. The Democracy Taskforce, set up by David Cameron in 2006 and chaired by Ken Clarke, recommended changing Parliamentary practice to make it convention for regional MPs not to be involved in English legislation during committee and report stages only, without banning them from doing so; thus avoiding the constitutional objections. and limiting the potential for deadlock (as all MPs would vote during first and second reading, thus the whole house would initiate English legislation). In seeking to be so reasonable, the Taskforce created an opposite problem: the solution would be far too limited to address the extent of the problems. Not only this, but the potential for deadlock and odd results would still be very real: a bill could be re-written or sabotaged in committee and report stage, creating a legislative mess and confusion about where accountability lies.

So what other solutions? English devolution holds some attraction and almost certainly far more merit, but would run up against some much stronger political roadblocks. The amount of power it would be necessary to give away even to grant it the same stature as the Welsh devolution would entirely transform the way UK government works, and might alarm even the most ‘radical’ of reforming governments, who rarely give away power with no thought to the consequences, which would be unknown in such a big step. More problematic would be the size of England: with approximately 80% of the people in the whole Union, an English system of government would operate very similarly to the UK one. Such an idea also ignores the political motivations behind devolution to begin with, which I will come to shortly.

So were, or are, the opponents of devolution right? Is it impossible for the system to work democratically, or ‘neatly’? Is it crucial for the future of the Union that the devolved assemblies be abolished? Should we offer the regions (and perhaps Cornwall) an “all-in/all-out” referendum? It is at this point where I realise that I am vaguely puzzled, because no opponent of devolution ever makes the case that before devolution, the UK was a model of democratic perfection. This is because it wasn’t.

In fact, the democratic imbalances inherent in UK government before devolution far eclipse any created by devolution since. In 1979, Scotland went from one extreme of propping the Labour government up to being positively ignored for the following 18 years. Wales was in a similar position during the mid-80s, with Plaid Cymru at one point selling “Tory-free” mugs in celebration of Wales’ utter lack of connection to the UK government. In contrast, in 1997 virtually all of Scottish and Welsh representatives supported the incoming government.

In fact, what opponents of devolution really fail to grasp is that the UK system of government has never been particularly democratic when it comes to a matter of detail. If you wanted completely democratic government, then all elected representatives would govern in coalition. Elections as we know them are about winning. Winning is incompatible with everyone being listened to. In a competition, there are winners and losers, which leaves some people with power and some people without it.

In fact, the only system which comes close to being democratic is the devolved Northern Irish assembly, where the two biggest parties must by law be in coalition, which ironically is as a consequence of their historic inability to co-operate with each other. Winning is only proportionate to a public mandate, and the voice of the loser is granted equal respect as the voice of the winner. The lessons learnt from Northern Ireland’s history should, I hope, actually go some way in helping people to appreciate the importance of taking note of everyone’s voice, no matter whether they conform to a majority, plurality, minority, or just form one person’s opinion.

And this is what devolution to Scotland and Wales also set out to do, to end the ludicrous situation where UK politics regularly left regions polarised and often marginalised. Opponents of devolution rather remind me of people stood with a magnifying glass in front of a work of art, moaning about a hairline crack in the middle of the darkest shade, while utterly failing to appreciate the beauty of the picture as a whole. In fact, in my dedication to creating a fair and exhaustive summary of the flaws of devolution, I have been rather complicit in this myself. No doubt there is still much room for improvement. England lacks the local voice that, in time, it may find it needs. Westminster could do much more to prevent regional MPs from acting undemocratically. And Scottish politics is still alarmingly close to polarisation, with a separatist party viewed as the official alternative to Labour. But Scotland has found itself open to far more political plurality than it ever understood before, with the Liberal Democrats finding a voice in its previous government, with the SNP winning Westminster seats which would previously have been considered solid Labour territory, and with a proportional legislature which has quite failed to self-destruct and has quietly governed on a cross-party basis. Far from being a thorn in its side, devolution could teach the Union quite a few lessons for its future.

Mr Bean’s revenge

In Events, Government Spotlight, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media on December 22, 2010 at 12:47 am

David Weber

Vince Cable famously said of Gordon Brown “from Stalin to Mr. Bean”. Yet it is Mr. Bean today, long since politically deceased, who must be celebrating (or at least mildly pleased). For Vince Cable has suddenly affected a transition of similar proportions himself, and the worst of it is that he can blame few people other than himself.

True, he can blame the Telegraph, which must be furious for failing to fell a second cabinet minister; and Robert Peston, and the BBC. But such a strategy will do little to comfort him: journalists are ever trying to sniff out facts to undermine politicians, parties and governments. And the manner of his falling seems careless: it is one thing to be secretly recorded having discussions with senior party figures and wealthy businessmen, but it is another for these quotes to slip out during constituency surgeries.

In fairness to Dr. Cable, we should take into account the Liberal Democrat fragility. It is understandable that members are particularly concerned about the impact of coalition on their majorities, given their national showings in the polls, and the sense that they will be punished for being the junior partner in the Coalition. It is also understandable that the people they find most difficult to deal with will not be their colleagues or department connections and interests, but party activists, members and voters. It is those people who will be the most difficult to win over.

Despite this, the effect on the reputation of Dr. Cable will be considerable. Having built a reputation for being a sensible pair of hands, long-sighted and competent, he now is dangerously close to Mr. Bean, and does not convey the same easy amiability. Rivals and ill-wishers will have serious ammunition, and his Liberal Democrat colleagues will probably take steps to distance the party from him. He may well no longer be seen as a pivotal figure.

Though superficially it may seem that the Daily Telegraph, and the BBC — who broke the most controversial comments concerning the BSkyB takeover — are the chief beneficiaries, this is not the case. In fact it may be that through being overenthusiastic in lighting the blue touchpaper, they have been somewhat burned. Both parties are opposed to the BSkyB takeover, and this leads to the significant problem that their own interests may be seriously set back in the near future.

The News Corporation takeover bid for BSkyB, the subject of Dr. Cable’s political near death experience, now looks healthier. Had Dr. Cable kept his cards to himself, he may well have been able to block the takeover even if few independent justifications were at hand. However, with his stated intention to “declare war” on Murdoch’s “empire”, and “win”, the government’s decision will be far more explosive. Add into the equation the EU regulator’s recent green light, and the future looks rosy for Murdoch.

The Telegraph, however, was one of the signatories to the letter opposing Murdoch’s bid, sent to the Business secretary, Dr. Cable himself, only recently. And this may be the reason why it was the BBC who released the most controversial part of the story, concerning Murdoch’s “empire”, and not the Telegraph. That certainly appears to be the claim of the original whistleblower, who complained about the way the Telegraph was releasing the information.

Yet it is difficult to see how the Telegraph could have avoided this story emerging, particularly after giving such a high profile to the first part of the story (concerning Dr. Cable’s relationship with the Coalition). Indeed, from the very moment when the investigation was successful, it must have only been a matter of time before the information emerged into the public domain. Perhaps they intended to make certain of Dr. Cable’s resignation, by releasing the quotes at a time which maximised damage. Or perhaps they intended to bury the more dangerous comments about News Corp, to favour their own interests. We will never know.

So who are the winners in this? It is David Cameron who must now be feeling pleased. Dr. Cable owes his position to him, which will make him far less of a problem for the time being, and easier to remove in the future, as his party will be keen to end their reliance on him.Thus the Liberals’ standing in the coalition is reduced, and Cameron’s control over his government increased. Better still, the issue of Conservative party relations with News Corp, a thorny issue, may yet resolve itself in his favour. If regulators continue to sign off the bid, his Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, might even be able to approve it with little controversy, and use it to testify to the Coalition’s political diversity of opinion, and the Conservatives’ independence from the Liberal Democrat party. Relations between News Corp and the Conservative party would improve considerably, and the approaching election in 2015 would look that little bit less difficult. Except for the Liberal Democrats…