Friday, 26 September 2014

Oh no, here we go again

Quite remarkable, I wanted to post the letter I have just sent to the Prime Minister on proposals to launch yet another war into Iraq.  I haven't used this blog for over a year and what do I find when I log on: only reference to the last debacle, which incredibly, politics managed to defeat.  One year on, the same questions arise: where is the foresight in politics, where is the long term planning?

Anyway, I said this, for all the good it will do. Perhaps if enough of us query this latest adventure, we might make a change.

The proposal to be put to MPs today is for a new campaign of bombing in Iraq to fight ISIS/ISIL, the terror group which has taken control of vast swathes of Iraq and Syria.  This is a noble ambition which most people would support.

What it is not is a long term strategy for the stability and future of Iraq, a country I probably don't need to remind you has been bombed, attacked and invaded periodically by the UK since 1917. 

Now is not the time to jump into quick action which will inevitably result in the deaths of people who are not only innocent but who are suffering under the terror group and whose lives will inevitably get worse if we begin a campaign against them.

Now is the time for politicians to plan a strategy for the next 100 years across this whole region, working with our allies in Turkey, as well as less savoury countries including Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia to enable the people from the Mediterranean to the Gulf to foresee a time when they can live in peace and allow their countries to grow and develop.  I struggle to see how a new campaign of bombing and death will help this.

The simplistic approach of bombing raids in Libya has left that country immeasurably weaker and cannot have been said to have improved the lives of people there, regardless of how vicious the regime of Gaddafi was.  In Libya, as with Iraq, I have no doubt that your actions were well-intentioned but they did not achieve their goal of a free, stable country moving towards democracy.

Please reflect on the history of this benighted region and country and please think twice before going down the disastrous path several of your predecessors have.  There is an alternative, once referred to as 'jaw-jaw', which remains preferable to its rhyming alternative.  That alternative approach will inevitably have to be taken and it would be a principled politician who sought to do so now, rather than after the deaths of hundreds, possibly thousands.

I hope you will seek to avoid the errors of others today.


Friday, 30 August 2013


Yesterday's Commons vote showed incredible strength in politics and democracy, the bedrock of our freedom.

What about the others?
To those who decry the fact that we ignore crimes against humanity at our peril, talk to me about the gulags in North Korea. Tell me about the machine gunning of a singer in that nasty little country for having sex. Tell me about the starvation of millions of North Koreans and who and what we can bomb to stop that happening.  Go on, in the comments below.

Or explain to me our role in dealing with one of the most vicious, evil wars ever, in eastern Congo. If you want atrocities, look no further, from gang rapes of women staked out in forests, to mutilations, to people being forced to have sex with razor blades dug into the ground, or child brothers and sisters forced to have sex with each other.  The truly disgusting things which have happened in Congo for years make the murderous Assad look like a beginner, yet where is the clarion call for action?  When are we going to bomb the perpetrators there?

Also, what plans do we have for Sri Lanka after their 'government' (a cabal of brothers, in fact) slaughtered thousands of Tamils to create a wasteland they called peace? The answer is that we plan to attend a Commonwealth conference there.

We could also talk about the continued occupation of Tibet by China, couldn't we. Shall we send a couple of Typhoons over there, Dave?  Or what about the continued occupation of Palestine - not to mention part of Syria - since 1967 by Israel, with the attendant apartheid and ill-treatment of several generations of Palestinians forced to live in refugee camps. Let's have a Parliamentary vote on action there.

It's all too easy to call for 'action' and to decry others for their lack of resolve, but where to first? The world is a nasty place and we must do everything we can to reduce suffering but the key phrase is 'everything we can'.

So let's discuss Syria, North Korea, Congo, Tibet and Israel, shall we, if only to watch Ed Miliband squirm his way out of that.

Plan, plan, plan - or why two pages of opinion is no basis for war
In 1941, Churchill established a committee to discuss how to run Germany after war was won.  This was prescient in the extreme as, at the time, Britain was losing the war.  After 8th May 1945, Germany was restored, rebuilt and, in the following decades, became one of the most successful democratic countries in the world, thanks in no small part to the long view of a British Prime Minister who knew what to do on 9th May 1945.  Contrast that with the fiasco of post-invasion Iraq and the pygmy policies of Blair and Bush.

In 1944, the Allies invaded France to push Germany back and eventually defeat the Nazis.  The invasion took place on 6th June and was an astonishing success, the greatest seaborne invasion in history.  However, it didn't start at midnight plus one on the 6th June; it started years before with planning, raids, intelligence gathering and devastating bombing raids on Nazi targets to weaken the defenders.  The Germans were overrun with overwhelming force and even then they defended their ground fiercely, putting the invasion in doubt until the end of the first day.

These examples demonstrate the need for cold, hard calculation and careful planning before lobbing a couple of bombs into another country or sending some Typhoons.

What, where, when, why, how?
Those who want to take action need to address a series of questions, which is what Churchill would have done and why his genius persists:
  • What are the aims of a Western intervention. Exactly, not roughly. Clear, precise goals with timescales and anticipated outcomes.
  • What is the exit strategy for any and all plans to get involved in this nasty civil war?
  • What - precisely - would we do in Syria? What would we attack, how and where would we draw the boundaries and how could we avoid civilian casualties if we bombed their capital city, Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world?
  • Assuming we would bomb chemical weapons stores, how would we guarantee that the attacks would not spread out the chemical agents, instead of destroying them?
  • What would happen after any intervention? This is the key question. How would we respond to Syrian retaliation, for example on the British base in Cyprus or in France or Britain?
  • How would we deal with the likely intervention of Iran into the Syrian civil war in support if its ally?  Should we bomb Tehran?
  • How do we deal with Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation from Lebanon which is supporting the government in Syria? How do we avoid drawing the brittle state of Lebanon (part of Syria until the French split it off after 1918) into a wider conflict as a result of Hezbollah's involvement?
  • What happens when nuclear-armed Israel seeks to capitalise on the widening conflict to attack targets in Syria - as it has already done several times in the past few years - or Iran?
  • A limited attack on Syria will not remove Assad.  His almost certain survival in the face of 'Western aggression' would likely strengthen him. How would this serve the Western intention to 'teach him a lesson'?
  • All wars end when the two sides talk to each other. Why is lobbing bombs indiscriminately into a country better than trying to get to that inevitable final stage now?
It's really easy to say 'we must do something' and to send someone else to do your dirty work.  It's a lot more difficult to set out precisely what.  If the visionary - and utterly ruthless - British Prime Minister who led us to victory in 1945 was around, he wouldn't touch the Syrian crisis with a bargepole. He would know that it is an unwinnable situation which can neither benefit the UK nor be benefited by our military involvement.

Feet of clay
To my great disappointment, as I have been waiting to hear his normally wise words, Paddy Ashdown has expressed dismay that Britain will be 'standing alone' after this vote and that our relationship with the US has been weakened.  It pains me to say this about the man who saved the LDs but this is utter nonsense.

Firstly, Britain is not the Americans' key ally, we are their key supporter.  They don't rely on us, as we do on them. We have been firm allies of theirs for decades and that remains.  Come the next crisis, Britain will stand with America. Nothing fundamental has changed, except perhaps the ignition of the tiny spark of a notion in Washington that we might like to have a different view occasionally. That's a good thing among allies.

Secondly, we are firm friends and being a friend does not mean rushing into trouble when the other one whistles. It means supporting that friend, either actively or critically.  A good friend is the one who has the courage to stand up to another and asks if what they are doing is right.  The fact that members of the US Congress are calling for a debate suggests that the British Parliament got it spot on.

Thirdly, Paddy said that President Assad would be cheered by the outcome.  Since when did the British Parliament have to answer to blood-soaked dictators?  Parliament did its job yesterday for the UK and discussed an issue of major importance to us, not the killer in Damascus.  It took a decision based on the evidence provided, which was simply insufficient to justify military adventures.  The message is not to Assad but to the Syrian people: democracy works and it keeps leaders in check.  Remove the murdering dictator who has his foot on the neck of your great country and you can have a taste of freedom, debate and challenge to those in power.  It won't be easy, it will be horrible but the thousands of British people who struggled for democracy in this country have left us with a legacy which yesterday shone like a beacon across the world.

How about a little growing up?

Putting aside all the political blather, the cold hard truth is that neither the British nor the American people want to get involved in the quagmire of Syria.  It's a dirty, nasty war and people are being treated shockingly by both the gangster regime and by rebel groups but we can't stop it, whatever the armchair Generals would like to think.  Now would be a great time to initiate a ceasfire, start talks and stop the slaughter. This will happen in the end and the greatest legacy of one of Parliament's greatest days would be if those talks could be brought forward by several years, instead of being put back by unnecessary international meddling in a problem which is infinitely more complex than the 'gunboat' brigade would have us think.

At the end of yesterday, democracy won (note: conscious football analogy).  What a stunning victory and what an inspiration to those still fighting for their freedom across the world against murderous dictators like Assad.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Lib Dems should welcome - and call for - a referendum on Europe, not to mention the UK

The BBC's Nick Robinson has written a useful piece setting out the Tory arguments about Europe and, helpfully, he sums it up by pointing out that it is all the fault of the Lib Dems.  If it wasn't for the pesky Lib Dems, the Tories would have a referendum, Britain could be saved from the clutches of foreigners and Nigel Farage could be exiled to St Helena.  Utter, unalloyed cobblers.

What the BBC's nice Mr Robinson is either wilfully or accidentally ignoring is the simple truth that the Tories have been fighting over Europe since the 1970s and they will fight over it for decades to come, coalition or no coalition.  No amount of referenda will resolve their deep-rooted dilemma, which is that Tories want to wave the flag but they also want to trade and make money.  They think they can't do both in the EU, completely missing the point of the organisation, whose raison d'etre is to encourage trade.  You almost have to feel sorry for them.

Labour is in a similar, if more muted bind.  The bruvvers who pay for them don't like the free trade element of Europe, yet old Trots like Bob Crow think socialism can be born out of the workers coming together in Brussels.  On the other side, the Labour party in the Commons has no policies, least of all on Europe.  Labour has been against, for, against and for Europe, like a bad-tempered yoyo.  It would take the gentlest of nudges to get them fighting once more.  And that's what the Tories want: Labour and the LDs to start fighting over this.

My frustration with this is that we are involved in their private/public madness at all.  Lib Dems are pro Europe, internationalist and relaxed about trade, managed immigration and the myriad benefits the ECSC, EEC, EC and latterly the EU have brought us, from a convenient end to all those nasty wars to the rather brilliant integration of Eastern European countries after 1989 ( a policy fostered by one M. Thatcher, should anyone care).  Why on earth don't we make more of a fuss about this?  
If it is the right policy - which I believe unequivocally - we should not be afraid to argue for it.

With the other parties riven by fear over Europe and the almost Dom Joly-esque lunacy that is UKIP, why don't we turn to face the Toriesand loudly proclaim our support for a referendum.  If we do, several Tories are likely to self-combust in fury at our temerity.  Others will accuse us of being disloyal to the coalition.  Yes, that would be Tories accusing someone of disloyalty...I'll leave you to chuckle over that image for a few moments.  

We should not fear a referendum, we should lead the charge for it.

All that said, I am not in favour of referenda for their own purpose.  There is no question that they are generally bad as the mob then rules but occasionally one is needed to draw some bile from the body politic.  The experience of 1975 is instructive as it lanced a boil for a generation.

In calling for a referendum over Europe, I can see an opportunity to address a far wider problem.  In this particular case, Europe might be considered a symptom rather than the key problem.  The issue we face in the UK is one of political legitimacy across the board, which comes down to our constitutional settlement, which is flawed and imperfect.

I - and millions more like me, I would bet - am an Englishman frustrated by the greater control Scots have over their government, angered that I have no say over the potential destruction of the Union next year (a union being an agreement between partners, rather than a creche where one bad-tempered infant can simply threaten to walk away, in return winning more sweets from a petrified childminder), and disappointed that no Westminster government has had the guts or the wit to address the 'English Problem' - that of proper democratic legitimacy for this part of the UK.  

However, this is not a plea for nationalism, far from it.  The reason I am so fed up with Pandora Salmond's nonsense is precisely because it threatens to unleash the stupid, vicious nationalist demons we have managed to control for so many years.  No, my frustration with the constitutional settlement in the UK goes form Europe to the local Council, where, despite their woeful performance in Oxfordshire, it was nonetheless the Tories who won the County Council elections with the support of a tiny minority of voters.

The Lib Dems could point out that the system is broken at every level and propose that what is needed is what politicians talk about but seldom offer - real power at the proper level.  Local government for important local issues like planning and roads, sensible regional government for strategic plans, economic development and major transport infrastructure, national government for defence, foreign policy, energy policy, and European democratic government for international trade and environmental policy - but not agriculture and fisheries.

A constitutional settlement which recognised the many levels of government and their interrelationship could redefine politics in the UK, re-energise English regions, refine our relationship with Brussels and rectify the democratic deficit which leaves much of the country under the tired, grey hand of Conservatism.  It might also stay the divisive hand of Pandora Salmond and his ilk.

And the simple riposte to the fools who say they 'don't want to be ruled by Brussels' is that, even if you live in Lambeth, you are still ruled by remote government in Westminster, which cannot possibly understand the individual situation across the UK in communities as diverse as Handsworth and Chipping Norton.  One of the great unsung innovations of the coalition has been the move to localism, giving local authorities far greater freedom to run their own affairs, for better or for worse.  Let's have more of the same.

The LDs should welcome a referendum on Europe and they should make clear that we need a vote on a proper system of government which includes Europe, Westminster, a settlement for England, sensible English regions and practical local government to provide what Sir Humphrey once decried in horror to Jim Hacker as, 'democracy, Minister!'

Chances of this happening? Zero, because one-story hacks like Nick Robinson will continue to focus on Westminster, two party politics and ancient wars which will be fought and re-fought until nobody cares any more.  So much for political debate.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Bonnie Tyler: economic guru before Vince

Vince Cable seeks more capital input into the economy, Bonnie Tyler chosen for Eurovision.  Coincidence?  I'm not sure...

Turn around
Every now and then I get a little bit nervous and you're never coming round [to my view of the economy]
Turn around

Every now and then I get a little bit tired of listening to the sound of my tears [as you refuse to listen to my views on the generating additional wealth through investment]
Turn around
Every now and then
I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by [It should have been me in Number 11!]
Turn around
Every now and then
I get a little bit terrified and then I see the look in your eyes [Empty, like an overpromoted public schoolboy way, way out of his depth]

If that isn't a call for the Chancellor to revisit his economic policy I don't know what is.  Bonnie Tyler: economic guru before her day - and now sacrificial lamb on the altar of Europop.

Monday, 4 March 2013


(Any relation to actual Tory candidates in recent by-elections at which they suffered a crushing third place defeat is, of course, entirely coincidental.)

Maria sat forlorn and beat
And contemplated her defeat
Not only had the Lib Dems triumphed
But UKIP had stood there, defiant.

From second back in 2010
She’d fallen back to third, since when
She’d um-ed and ah-ed and wondered what
Had caused the Tory Party’s loss.

It wasn’t her! She knew for sure
For she had been a Tory pure
Of upper lip stiff, steely eye
And resolution undenied.

She’d done her bit, she’d met with folk
And smiled for journos, cracked a joke
Been on the stump for weeks non-stop
To garner votes to win the comp.

She’d missed some meetings, one or two -
Which caused no little ballyhoo.
The reason for this, people knew:
She had so very much to do.

So if it hadn’t been Maria
That made votes Tory disappear.
And if it wasn’t the campaign
That had caused so much stress and strain

Another thing had failed, she brooded –
But what could leave their vote denuded
This anti-European concluded
It must be gay marriage which blew it.

Maria clapped hands with delight
"We need to lurch much further right!
Those UKIP rags would suit us well
We’ll ring the immigration bell!

"We’ll generate a foreign threat
Of swarthy Europeans bent
On overrunning England fair -
And leaving no one over there.

"And about that Tory cause of yore
The European juggernaut
Which wants to take our sausages
And make them into offal sticks!

"The Europe which will leave us hungry
By milking us of all our money.
Those Continentals want us low
So they can rescue their Euro.

"The 0.5% GDP
Which we send them each year will be
Used for means we cannot guess
(But probably involve the French!).

"Oh how we erred in Eastleigh past!
We hadn’t got a decent chance
When we opined so moderately
We should have gone more OTT!"

Maria smiled and thought how much
She’d win the votes when she stood up.
As any Machiavellian knows,
A foreigner’s worth his weight in votes.

Saturday, 12 January 2013


I feel this post should start with a phrase like 'it's been six months since my last diatribe' but I shall soldier on with all the confidence and lack of awareness of the average blogger.  'Tis time, dear reader, to put my thoughts down in more detail than Twitter can allow about a subject dear to my heart.

I have worked in local government since 1994 (Pity me!) and I am now involved in research into care, which is an interesting if vexing subject since it centres around how to help people who need that help but with a pot which seems to shrink each year.  My experiences over this time have led me to the conclusion that local government is a 'good' which millions of people rely on (drive a car? those roads you trundle along are maintained by someone.  Create waste? Yep, you guessed it...) but one which has not grown and developed as it perhaps might have done had it been less constrained.

For local government is like a prisoner chained to a wheel, forced to carry out the same tasks over and over again but with less gruel as each day passes.  Budgets are being cut year on year and needs are growing continually. The problem which I have concluded exists is the simple one about whether the questions being asked about local government are the right ones.  Some thoughts on this can be summarised thus:

1. Budgets are being cut by central government. True, but is this the problem or is the problem that central government sets the budget for local government the greater problem?

2. Services are being challenged across the board.  True again, but is the problem more that services are being prescribed by someone else rather than being led, amended and pioneered locally?

3. Local governments face limited and falling budgets and struggle to provide services they are required to.  True - and where does this requirement come from?

4. Council Tax is a very bad joke and does not serve the purpose it was set up to address in any way, shape or form.  The Tories designed it as a stop gap in the 1990s and Labour failed utterly to adddress the open wound it created over 13 wasted years.  Er, do I need to add to this?  Essentially, local finance is non-existent, coming mostly (75%) from central government.

Go down the pub and any number of old lags are happy to slag off the coalition and politicians - I'm often one of them.  Perhaps we need to delve a little deeper and recognise that things are changing far more than is being given credit for.  The 'fat' years have ended, the money has been squandered by the last government. The services people rightly came to expect after 1945 have moved too far from what was originally envisaged. The vicious, divisive forces of nationalism are threatening our very country.  Why?

Local government is often expected to be a cure-all and it is also often a cosy club of retired people who give people the government they think they deserve.

So here's the essential issue I can identify: it's not the funding, it's not the service cuts, it's not democracy and the need for a mayor here or there, the issue is whether local government in England is fit for purpose or whether it is based on outdated principles, old structures and tired politics.

I'm not planning to be a lazy blogger and to leave it here but I do want to set out my thoughts for me to address.  I hope this is a start to my own reflections.

NB: if you are reading this with an increasing sense of anger and dismay that I could possibly think such thoughts, allow me to offer you a single word by way of riposte.  Rutland.

Saturday, 30 June 2012


The Lib Dems are generally pilloried for our approach to Europe.  We like it, we support it, we promote it. That much is understood and generally misrepresented by all and sundry.  I, for example, am a passionate European but I think the European Union as it is constituted is a disaster.
As for the Tories, they are a running joke on Europe, with successive Tory leaders hurled onto the rack of right-wing Euroscepticism which infests their party. That much is also understood and generally enjoyed by all and sundry outside of the Tory Party.

Their latest leader has proven himself singularly inept on Europe, starting with his foolish decision to leave the right-wing grouping, the European People's Party, which would have gained him allies across the continent. He did this for short-term gain, to win his party's leadership. He won the leadership of his party but he lost the support of many potential allies in Europe.

He has failed miserably to do anything positive in this current crisis. He goes to meetings, he annoys people, he makes sub-Churchillian statements about the importance of the latest press statement...and all the time economies tumble and people suffer.

However, we shouldn't blame Dave for his failings on Europe. There hasn't been a single British Prime Minister who has 'got' Europe, not even Ted Heath, who was at least a committed European but so much so that it made him craven as he begged for membership.

The problem with this - and the reason for this rant - is that we are once again missing a huge opportunity.  Since 1945, European countries have sought involvement and leadership from Britain and since 1945 Britain has failed.  We have pretended that we are separate (look at a map: we aren't), or better (look at GDP figures for Germany and France: we aren't), or just not like them (look at 5,000 years of history: complete twaddle). 

Now we're in a new period of desperate crisis, with European countries riven between the Germans, who are being asked to bail out less cautious countries and who are quite reasonably asking what is in it for them, and a host of others who want growth, investment, development, an end to austerity and chocolate for breakfast but who can't say who pays for this (see 'Germany', above).

A British Prime Minister with a vision, a stated commitment to the idea of European countries working together and a sense of the fundamental importance of the European market to the British economy would be jetting around the capitals of Europe, offering support, advice and brokerage and providing a British vision for Europe based on enterprise and co-operation - but without surrendering Britain to a federal Europe, whatever the rabid right wing loons might have us think.  That Prime Minister would develop relationships and would secure a place for our country at the heart of negotiations to lift Europe from its current gloom - and through this process lift Britain's economy from the doldrums.

Sadly that Prime Minister is as real as Paddington Bear.  What we have is Dave the Eurosceptic, Dave the populist, Dave the conciliator, Dave the prisoner of the Tory right wing, Dave the man with the vision to see as far as 2015 but no further.

The latest 'debate' is over a referendum on Britain's membership of Europe.  Fine with the Lib Dems: we're the only party which has called for this to be held.  However, this is not a policy, merely an argument. We would be confident in such an argument since we would reckon on the support of British business, which would like to secure the 50% of our trade which is done with Europe, together with the 3m people who rely on Europe for their jobs. Bring it on.  Unfortunately, this is not a long-term policy for Britain or for Europe.

Labour will demand a referendum. Dave will too, in order to head Boris off in his bid for the Tory leadership (and possibly Prime Ministership, may God have mercy on us!) but neither of the old parties has a policy on Europe. We do.  We know it's good for us and good for Europe for a strong, robust British membership which gives us the strength and the allies to take on the parsimonious Germans and the spendthrift French, Italians, Spanish and Greeks and hopefully bring them closer together.

In the Independent today, Vince Cable was interviewed discussing the decision of John Smith in the late 1970s to encourage Japanese investment in Britain - at the time a risky and unpopular strategy.  He had a vision and it worked.  Sadly we never had a Prime Minister Smith.  Instead we got a warmongering pygmy. There is about as much light from Labour on Europe as there is from the deepest recesses of the Tory right-wing.

Until we get someone in Number 10 who is grown up about Europe we are all doomed: Britain to a position of irrelevance and Europe to perennial arguments between Germany and the rest.