Wednesday, 8 July 2015

EQUALITY FOR ENGLAND - AND WALES AND NORTHERN IRELAND. TOO MUCH TO ASK?



Having got involved in a lively debate on Twitter about the future for the UK constitution and England's place therein, I should set out my stall so that I can't be accused of simply carping.
 

The UK can only stay together if all the constituent parts have equality and - crucially - consider themselves to have equality.  For this reason above all others, I would like to see a federal system with England and London having parliaments with equal powers to all the other parts.  This of course means that Wales and Northern Ireland would see their powers increased to an equivalent level.

EVEL plans
The 'English Votes for English Laws' proposal - or 'EVEL' to give it the news editor's fantasy acronym - is attractive at first sight, given that it avoids the need to set up a new parliament and  it stops us getting more politicians.  So far, so Sir Humphrey harrumphing in his club. 

However, this cannot work for a number of reasons, most obviously because there are precious few laws which are  completely English.  The arcane funding system for the UK is based on how much money is spent in England, so everyone has a stake. 

EVEL also assumes that the people of England are content to let a bunch of Westminster MPs decide for them what is best for them, rather that having a different power centre to represent them.  As someone who completely rejects the arrogance of both Tories and Labour and dislikes the effective dictatorship of Parliament, this isn't good enough.
 

The other point is that it simply isn't fair for England to have such a system, which is a compromise in every way.  If other parts of the UK have their own parliament, why on earth can't we?  No amount of sophistry can address this simple question of fairness.  Why does someone in Hamilton have a Scottish Representative to speak for them while here in darkest Oxfordshire I am supposed to trust my MP - one D. Cameron esq. - or my County Council, with its fading budget, its limited powers and its old boys' network?

Cut England down to size
The main challenge to an English parliament is that 'England is too big', 'England will dominate the UK', to which the easiest response begins with 'b' and ends in 'ollocks'.  Any fule who takes even a few seconds to reflect on this would know that a proper federal system could very easily mitigate any domination that might occur. 

For example, the second chamber could be so ordered as to allow equal numbers from each of the constituent parts of the UK.  A proper federal system would also assume that far greater powers would be held at national (England, Wales, etc.) level, thus considerably diminishing the potential for the UK government to ride roughshod over local wishes.  

Another point is that a proper settlement for the UK would require a constitution which could very clearly set out the limits of powers, avoiding the possibility of domination by either the UK government or one of the nations. 
 

It is also worth reminding ourselves that England is not homogeneous.  The north of England gains greatly from the Scottish economy, as does Scotland vice versa.  Similarly, Powys and Herefordshire are only divided by a politician's line.  The people there share roads, hospitals, shops, whatever they want because the lunacy of borders has not yet returned to these islands.  It would not be in England's interests to dominate. 

England is part of the UK - just as Scotland is, whatever the SNP might have us believe.  The shared interests are obvious to all but the biggest fool wrapped in a flag.  A fair system would enhance that, rather than challenging it, as is happening currently and as would be made worse by the supposed snub of EVEL.

Regions, schmegions
As for regions in England, no.  Why should England be cantonized when Scotland isn't?  Aren't the Orkneys distinct - and even potentially returnable to the Norwegian King, who only sold them to Scotland 500 years ago?  Wouldn't be more logical for North and South Wales to be split?  This way lies discord, division and break up. 

We could spend years arguing about this region or that in England.  All that would achieve would be more dissent, a more messy system and problems stored up for a later date.  England has existed for 1200 years.  It works, not always perfectly but as an entity it should be retained.

London
The only change to England under a new system that I would suggest would be to make London a separate entity within the UK.  London is so distinct and its economy so large that it would dominate England.  More positively, it would be good to give London a strong voice in the UK and the world.  Whatever your view of London, it is a powerhouse, the only world city and a turbo motor for the global economy.  Hate it if you want but we all need it and benefit hugely from it.


Cut Westminster down to size
The flipside to federalism would of course be for the UK Parliament to have far fewer MPs and more limited powers.  As in Germany, these powers need to be clearly defined and limited.  A UK parliament would be responsible for a few areas, like defence.  It would therefore only need a Parliament of, say 200 MPs.  They could move out of the crumbling palace in Westminster to somewhere more central.  A friend of mine always favoured York as being pretty much in the middle of the country.  Maybe, but that would be a consideration for another day.

For those decrying the move from historic Westminster, why not just return the English parliament there – it was, after all, the English Parliament for much of its history.  It could be based in a new, modern, practical building.  Anyone horrified by such a suggestion should remember that the current Palace of Westminster is itself fairly new, having been built in the 1840s after a fire destroyed the old building.  Keep Westminster Hall, Keep Elizabeth Tower and build something fit for purpose around it - a 21st century legislature, not a museum.


Equality rules UK
The UK can only remain together if all the parts consider themselves to be equal and to have legitimate representation.  It would be easy to say something stirring about the English not having a voice but there is no need.  The facts are presenting themselves already.  As internal hostility and dissent increase across the UK, these are genuinely dangerous times. 

The most successful country in the world ever could be about to destroy itself thanks to that vicious old bastard which rears its ugly head far too often and draws sensible people into ignorant hatred - stupid nationalism.  If the Devil was to have a new look for the 21st century, it might perhaps be a fool with a flag - any flag - his face screwed up in hatred as he shouts at something or someone unseen.

The inevitable footballing analogy
The only place for nationalism is on the football field, where it can be expressed angrily for 90 minutes before everyone goes home to be human again.  The two minute hate for today, if you like.  I do this. I go to football. I scream at the other team. I shout at my team.  Then I applaud both teams off the pitch, go to the pub and all is well.


It would be wonderful if some really radical thinking was to be done in the UK, the country which created modern, representative democracy and spread it across the globe, the country of the English Republic, the country which did some reprehensible things but which rallied a global force and in turn sacrificed itself to stop dictatorship, the country which has reinvented itself remarkably in the past 20 years, the country which expressed such love for itself so majestically in London in 2012.

 

The UK - and England - needs bold thinkers now.  I hope they show up soon, before it is too late.

The bottom line
The location, numbers of representatives, electoral system and the exact nature of a new system are all to be decided. What must be agreed is the need for equality for all the constituent parts of the UK.

And I meant this to be brief…

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

CHARLES KENNEDY

Farewell, Charles Kennedy, one of our finest leaders, the man who took us to one of our best election victories ever, who made us popular across the country with his intelligence, wit and personality, and the man who led the Liberal Democrats in opposition to the terrible 2003 war in Iraq - in the teeth of almost universal hostility at the time.

His death comes at a terrible age but his legacy is huge.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

WHY NOT TRY FEDERALISM IN THE UK?

I am a lesser citizen than many people in the UK.  I have fewer rights and less control over my future.

This is not because of the Tory majority government elected with about 25% of the popular vote, nor because of the one party state I live in which is dominated by Tory place people with little interest in my local community - although both of these continue to rankle.  Nonetheless, both these facts are down to our democracy which, imperfect though it may be, must be respected.

No, the reason I am worth less than other people in the UK is because they get to elect their national (or regional in the case of Northern Ireland) representatives.  In England I am apparently not good enough for this.

'But wait', the cry goes up, 'there is a plan to devolve power to English cities!'  'Hurrah', cry the denizens of these fine cities.  'Boo', cry those of us living in all the other parts of England which aren't cities, which is quite a lot.

'Aha, but the government plans to introduce 'English votes for English laws'! 'Yay!' cry the Parliamentary authorities, delighted at the additional overtime in prospect. 'Huh?' shrug the rest of us, utterly confounded at how on Earth this could be implemented given that funding for a plethora of things across the UK is dependent on decisions taken over English services.

What a ludicrous, senseless mess this is, apparently dreamt up in an attempt to stop anyone having any real democracy - for how could our tiny brains cope with such freedoms?!

Accepting that the current system is a complete mess and that the UK is creaking at the seams, someone has to do something radical.  The tragedy is that everyone is looking at the numbers for the next contest in one year or five year's time and not really looking to the next couple of hundred years, a situation which is frankly disgraceful and which should cause any MP with an ounce of decency to hang their head in shame.

Rule one of government is to protect the state and the people. The current crop of politicians are simply not doing this.  Through their bickering, they are contributing to the break up of the country.

Away from the venal politics in Westminster, everyone seems to have a view. I claim no special insight but this is my idea to save the UK from stupid nationalists and narrow Tory and Labour apparatchiks.

The answer may be to turn things on their head, looking up, not down.  

If England was treated the same as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and got its own Parliament that would be a start.  English MPs could be elected by constituencies, as they are now.  If Wales was to get the fair funding it should have under a properly balanced system that might stop the grumbling across the Severn.  If Northern Ireland had the same status as the other parts of the UK, politicians there might continue their efforts to do their jobs instead of reverting to the dangerous bickering of old.

For those worried about smaller elements of the UK being discriminated against, the answer is a second chamber chosen from the constituent parts of the UK, with each equally represented there.  Squealing nationalists might reflect that such a model actually discriminates against England.

Where we could really change the debate and improve governance could be at the UK - not the national - level.  

At present I didn't elect the Prime Minister.  I live in his constituency but I didn't vote for him - and neither did more than 99% of the population of the UK.  People talk a lot about proportional representation and it would certainly be infinitely more democratic but perhaps the focus for the main PR debate is in the wrong place.

How much more legitimate could our government be if it was elected in a UK-wide election?  If we elected, say, 200 MPs across the UK on a national list system (one for England, one for Wales, etc) and the leading party - or parties - then formed a government, the government of the day could genuinely say it represented the views of the most people.  


This would not necessarily be a majority but it would be a whole heap more than the Prime Minister got and far more votes than the current government received earlier this month.  In the interests of balance - and the coalition aside, since that government had 55% of the popular vote - this damning statistic would apply to all but one of the post-War governments.

With a proportional government at the top, the constituent parts of the UK - Wales, England, Northern Ireland, London and Scotland - could choose whatever system they liked.  It would be up to them.

Imagine: a pared down federal government overseen by a second chamber reflecting the views of the five elements of the UK and competing power centres in London, Cardiff, Belfast, Edinburgh and wherever the English Parliament decided to base itself.  It's fantasy, isn't it.

A nice dream.

PS: London should be considered apart from England.  It has always been different, it is bigger than Scotland and Wales put together, it skews the English economy towards it and it has distinct interests which, if properly addressed, benefit the whole of the UK.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

HOW LABOUR (AND OTHERS) HAVE LIED ABOUT THE NHS - REPEATEDLY

Private Eye had a nice piece in its latest edition setting out a number of times we have been told by those 'on the left' that we have 'days to save the NHS'.  Here are the highlights:

"There are 14 days to save the NHS."  Tony 'you can trust me' Blair, 17 April 1997
"We have only 24 hours to save the National Health Service."  Him again, 30 April 1997
"WE HAVE 48 HOURS TO SAVE OUR NHS."  The Mirror, 10 October 2011
"We have just three months to save the NHS."  Ed Miliband, 4 February 2012
"12 DAYS TO SAVE THE NHS."  The Mirror, 26 February 2012
"We have just 13 days to save the NHS."  Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey, 7 March 2012
"ONLY 24 HOURS TO SAVE THE NHS."  The Mirror, 20 March 2012
"You have five days to save the NHS."  Lord Reid, 14 September 2014
"Four months to save the NHS."  The Mirror, 4 January 2015
"We only have 100 days to save the NHS as we know it." Ed Miliband, 27 January 2015
"JUST 52 HOURS TO SAVE OUR NHS"  The Mirror, 5 May 2015

Either they're lying or just dim.  I know what I think.

Perhaps just dim, as they seem very keen to forget the 'preferred provider' privatisation debacle under New Labour or the scandal of PFI deals which continue to hobble hospitals up and down the country with crippling debts - all in the interest of keeping costs of investment in the health service - which Labour bangs on about endlessly now - off the books to shore up Gordon Brown's short-sighted economics.

If only someone had the wit and the courage to admit the truth: that the NHS is actually doing okay, daily providing a high quality service across the country but that it needs a sensible, fundamental non-political review to bring it into the 21st century and ensure it remains the leading health service in the world for decades to come.

There isn't a 'crisis'.  We don't need to 'save' the NHS. We just need to bring it up to date and that requires courage and long-term thinking, which is so clearly lacking.

I'd quite like to see the Lib Dems - newly freed from the chains of working with the Tories - saying this perhaps a bit more bluntly.  Norman Lamb was a wonderful advocate for health and social care and I hope he continues that in this Parliament.  I'd like to think that others would listen to him...but what hope?

So, much will be uncertain in 2020 but we can doubtless all be clear that the 'debate' about the NHS will be just as tired and unproductive then as it is now. I wonder how many days we will have to 'save the NHS' then...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

20 EXTREME TORY POLICIES THE LIB DEMS BLOCKED, OR 'TORY BINGO'

The years will pass and memories will fade so, for the avoidance of any doubt, Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack has provided a handy list of 20 extreme Tory policies the Lib Dems blocked in the coalition.

Think of this as Tory Bingo. Spend the next five years seeing how many of these measures they reintroduce. Then join the Lib Dems here.

THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF BORSETSHIRE

The government has revived its plans for devolution to cities in England, giving them powers over housing, transport, planning and policing.  This raise a whole host of questions for the many millions of us who don't live in cities and who don't live in Wales, Northern Ireland or Scotland.

As a resident of a medium-sized village in the Prime Minister's constituency, I'd like to know what powers I am going to get under the new proposals, so here's a couple of queries:

  1. Will devolution to cities in England place them on an equal footing to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments?
  2. Will devolution to English cities be extended to the other parts of England, like my village? 
  3. If it is, will my village have full fiscal autonomy?
  4. If no power is going to be devolved down to my village, how will my sub-national interests be represented
  5. In the event of a majority of people voting to leave the EU, will my village have a right of veto over the decision if we vote to stay in the EU?
  6. Why is someone in Inverness entitled to greater representation than I am in Oxfordshire?
  7. Why can't England just have equality with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through its own parliament in a federal UK which treats every part of this country the same?
It is bizarre how utterly inept successive governments have been over devolution and equality across the UK.  Why can't we just have one system with the same powers for everyone?  Why does it need to be this uneven, unequal dog's dinner originally vomited out by New Labour in a desperate attempt to shore up the Scottish and Welsh votes.
 

Because that worked, didn't it..?

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

TORY DEMOLITION DERBY: SIT BACK, RELAX AND ENJOY THE SPECTACLE

This could be the most interesting five years in government we have seen for many years, easily rivalling the dog days of Tory rule in the 1990s, as they tore each other apart before years of irrelevance.

Now they're unfettered by us pesky Lib Dems, the Tories can do all those things they wanted to do but which we stopped them from doing, like bring in the Snooper's Charter, allowing more people to monitor what we do online.  I feel for the poor souls who are going to have to trawl through the myriad Jeremiads like this one, searching in vain for the latest outpourings of lunacy from the bearded maniacs in Syria.  I assume taxes will rise to pay for decent coffee for the security services as they fight to stay awake.  I'm with you, guys.

The Tories can also throw away the rotten Human Rights Act, a hateful law drafted to bring into English law all that 'protecting-people-after-one-of-the-most-devastating-and-destructive-wars-in-the-history-of-mankind' nonsense which British lawyers drafted for a broken European continent way back when we mattered.  Well, fair enough, I say.  Now we have Dave, Theresa and Michael guarding our freedoms, we have no need of this namby-pamby European liberty stuff, do we?

That's fine anyway, because we'll be out of Europe soon, whatever.  Not that the EU has anything whatsoever to do with the European Convention on Human Rights but, well, it's all the same really, isn't it?  It's all foreigners telling us what to do.  Who needs a 'right to life' anyway? Foreigners, that's who!

And as for the BBC, well, don't get me started.  Bunch of trots, with their balance and extensive coverage of democracy. Who do they think they are?! Hmm?!

No, we're in line for some common sense and decent British values at long last.  And I, as a Liberal Democrat, welcome that because I am going to use this corner of the internet to say loudly and probably too often, 'do you get it now, do you get what we did for five years, stopping this utter lunacy and frankly petty behaviour?'

To the 10,000 - and counting - new members of the Lib Dems, welcome. Enjoy the ride: it's going to be very, very exciting and our collective and growing voice is needed more than it ever has been.