As the Scottish referendum recedes with almost unseemly haste into the background, the country as a whole is now confronting an arguably far more disconcerting prospect than Scotland leaving. The largest part of the Union, England, has finally been allowed to move to the top of the list of problems to be dealt with. With such a vast preponderance in population and wealth, and relatively low share of public expenditure per capita (97% of the UK average as a whole, with some regions as low as 83% of that) and no devolved government to speak of aside from the London Assembly, England has long been shuffled, awkwardly, off the stage to make way for other debates. Since the North East Assembly referendum of 2004, England has lain essentially dormant for the largest three parties in the UK, its only appearances being mostly peripheral to the policy process.
Now, after the Scottish people had had their say on the Union and used it to stay within, it is as though people from the Prime Minister through Tory backbenchers, the Leader of the Opposition, newspaper columnists and more had suddenly recalled that the UK did not simply consist of the UK, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; that there was another home nation, surrounding the moat of the M25, and now pressing in more and more urgently at that barrier to lived experience.
To be flat, the three main party leaders have failed to engage with England, the English or Englishness. They have contented themselves with schemes to tinker with the Westminster Parliament’s voting and procedural rules, with shunting fresh powers over various odds and ends down to the hands of councils or, in the case of Labour since Friday, apparently attempting to pretend that England does not exist. Yet by signing pledges and talking about fresh powers to Scotland if it stays in the Union, they have ensured that England’s awakening would be more forceful and urgent. By noting that people in Scotland are disenchanted with Westminster politics and so seeking to develop plans to give them extra powers, but failing to acknowledge an identical trend in England and respond with similar forceful declarations of intent, they have fallen into a trap of hypocrisy of their own making. Their floundering about the issue now will only further fuel the flames.
In honing its prowess at becoming self-replicating, the political class of the country has failed to learn how to be self-preserving. They have effectively “bred” out of their genepool any thought of England, or any instinctive grasp of the grand strategy or bold idea. Mediocrity, technocracy and tepidity reign supreme. England, a country with achievements that still make us blush with embarrassment, with a vast and rich history, with all that it has done and keeps doing, is to be fudged or ignored away, or broken into petty fiefdoms by Westministerial fiat, to be given fresh powers over bin collections or arranging flower beds. There is no thought given to demos; to having a social community that would attach to a political one, an essential glue in any democracy.
What we have instead is, for example, bleating about how one party or another would “always” win in this or that settlement; as though electoral fortunes never turn. There is no ambition in this sort of squalid argument, no vision for the future of the country, only a gutless partisan fear of the “other”. It even condemns ones own party in its force, for clearly those who speak this line have no faith in their own organisation being able to effect meaningful change (and so, one asks, why bother being involved in politics at all?).
What is needed now is a clear, bold, and ambitious plan for a federal UK. I feel English more so than ever today, but I know that an English Parliament (even sans Cornwall and London) would simply be too big, and flatly too powerful for England’s detractors, to stomach. I suspect a regionalist approach will be the route of least resistance, but even there it is far from a plain course to chart. How do you divide England into regions that reflect both practical political concerns (roughly equal populations, for instance) with the need to marry each one to an identifiable demos? Is there, for example, a Thames Valley demos, or an East Midlands demos? There are no easy answers here, but we must seek them, because to divide a country into units without care as to who identifies with these units is to stay stuck in the same miserable technocratic rut as we have managed to find ourselves in this past few years. Further, any such bodies need to have both equalised public funding right across the UK, and fresh tax-raising powers. Without the money to do things differently, they are not worth a candle; and this means bending back the fingers of Treasury civil servants, who always seem to delight in affixing conditions to every penny they send out.
Clearly, we have run out of road to dodge these issues. England is awake, perhaps groggily, definitely grumpily, and it is demanding to be seen to. We can muddle onwards as we sometimes pretend we have always done, or we can re-learn the tricks that made us so successful; the ability to radically change ourselves, very quickly, to adapt to a world that we no longer were effective in. A fully federal UK that includes a proper, meaningful settlement for England would be only part of the process of restoring a healthy political system to the UK; but it would be critical all the same. We need to show that we understand that the situation is intolerable and that change must be delivered to fix that; proper, serious, change on an industrial scale. We must engage with the largest part of the Union with all the vigour we engaged with one of the smaller components. If we do not, then we will relive the last few weeks over, and over again, until finally we are done as a country.
Since the release of the report of the independent inquiry into child sex abuse in Rotherham, parts of the media and public have consumed themselves with questions about the community that the abusers who have been convicted came from; the Pakistani community. I rather worry we’re overlooking a different community whose culpability in this is not direct; they did not abuse anyone, or at least no-one from that community has been arrested for abusing anyone, to my knowledge.
What is it about the white community that makes it so easy for them to ignore abuse, ignore a failing system and encourages them fail to act with due speed when the problems are uncovered? Why do their cultural norms, in Rotherham at least, lend themselves to covering up these problems rather than confronting them? What, exactly, is wrong with white people in Britain today that means that this sort of abuse will be hushed up, reports done down and problems skipped over? I think we need to look long and hard at the white community in this country, and ask some serious questions as to their credibility when it comes to dealing with this issue.
Note: This is a touch tongue-in-cheek, but my point is this: as much unites those who tried to cover this up as those who perpetrated these crimes. I’m sick of seeing people use this incident to cover for their own racist prejudices against immigrant communities in the UK. We’re all in this up to our necks.
A few days ago, I told a meeting of the Liberal Youth Policy Committee that I joined this party to fight for the things I believed in. Today, I feel that the future of the party is such that there may not be a space for people like to me to fight for what they believe in much longer. I fear that 2014 will be my last year in the party, and then I will turn my energies elsewhere, because I have seen the future, and it is neither pleasant nor liberal by any meaningful stretch of the imagination.
UKIP’s declinist narrative is an easy sell, but we should challenge it at the root, and expose its many weaknesses.
Britain’s place in the world has changed significantly over the last hundred years. Gone are the days when we were the most powerful country on the planet, with a huge Empire, vast battle fleet and colossal industrial base. Today we are clearly no longer in such a powerful relative position, and this change has absorbed modern historians of Britain for quite sometime. In an effort to explain this, a school of thought has emerged, which together holds the label “declinist”. They go beyond a recognition that Britain’s rank in the world has dropped, and seek to create a history of Britain in recent decades that is entirely about decline; not just the relative decline that we can all acknowledge, but an absolute decline from the country that delivered the Industrial Revolution, the Empire and so on.
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!
- John of Gaunt; Richard II, Act II, Scene I
For St George’s Day & Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday.
Sajid Javid may make a perfectly decent Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, regardless of whether he’s a painter or not.
Following the resignation of Maria Miller, the Prime Minister engaged in a small shuffle of ministers to fill the gap opened in the cabinet ranks. The man chosen to replace Maria Miller at the cabinet table is Sajid Javid, MP for Bromsgrove. Javid is British-Pakistani, the son of a bus driver from Rochdale, attendee of a state school and the University of Exeter. His career after that was in the financial industry, working for several large banks before he eventually became an MP in 2010. Of course, no sooner was the appointment made than the quest was on to find all the dirt there is on Javid and spread it around plenty. Such is the fate of all those who go into public life these days.
Opponents of Mr Javid’s appointment generally have focused their attack on his choice of career. Given that these are the sort of people who normally focus on attributes such as race, gender and background, it is a natural reaction when confronted with a state-educated British-Pakistani son of a bus driver from a Northern city for them to seek other avenues of attack to diminish Mr Javid’s integrity. There are two ways of attacking his choice of career; one of which we’ll focus on here. The other is the problems with the financial industry, a vast and wide-ranging debate which would take up several theses of its own. The one we’re going to focus on here is the question of whether Mr Javid has any real experience related to his new job at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and whether this matters.
Last year, when Margaret Thatcher died, I tried to sketch out an understanding of her in a context that didn’t easily fall into either of the two strongly opposed views on her premiership. I saw her as a revolutionary Prime Minister; both in a positive and a negative sense, and someone who shaped Britain in a way that very few other Prime Ministers can claim to have done. Today we are confronted with the passing of another titan of that age; Tony Benn. After reading far too many hollow tributes to the man, I want to try again to unpeel the fluff from his memory and seek to remember him in a more clear-sighted way.
It is all well and good to repeat that he “stood up for what he believed in”, but we need to confront the content of his convictions as much as we do the strength with which he held them, or came to hold them. Benn made no secret of the fact that he had migrated leftwards as his life went on, particularly during his time as a minister. He was always steadfast in his beliefs, then, but he was more a glacier than a signpost; steadily advancing his worldview, changing subtly all the time, yet to many eyes appearing unchanging. Any good politician or leader does this, reflecting on the changing of the world. Benn’s masterstroke was to be able to change and yet still be resolute in what he believed in.
The beliefs he is most associated with can be brought together under the label of socialism; his republicanism, his Euroscepticism, his vision of democracy, all fed back to and grew from his slowly intensifying socialism. His view was that nothing short of radical change was needed to bring about a socialist society, one that he believed would be of great benefit to all of us, and that elected governments too often failed to come close to that standard. He had time in government and opposition to sketch out programmes to make the change - the Alternative Economic Strategy, which laid out a vision for transforming the British economy from top to bottom, is perhaps the most prominent form of this.
Of course, none of this came to pass - and we are welcome to dispute whether it would have achieved the ends it set out to; or indeed whether the ends and means it set out were right or desirable. Benn’s political career after 1979 was one of steady migration to the wilderness of Parliamentary, if not wider, politics, where he became marginalised in his own party as Blair undertook his own project to transform the Labour Party and so the country. Whilst he would become prominent in causes and events from the Stop The War Coalition to Glastonbury, he would never again be at the very centre of British politics; the white heat of government.
But his programme was revolutionary, and in that sense we should draw a comparison with the other great revolutionary political leader of that age - Margaret Thatcher. Both were “conviction politicians” in the public eye, with set views on a wide variety of topics and powerful personalities and skills deployed to press these agendas forwards. They were similar in other ways; both embraced the notion that Britain was declining and this was because of some deep, pathological failings in the country, and that only radical action - of the sort they came to advocate - could overcome these failings and so give Britain the life it needed, or deserved, after the failings brought on by these deep failings. Both also changed at a slow and subtle pace, moving position all the time and yet appearing to be unflinching in their defence of their beliefs. We are also told by those who knew them well that both were good people, displaying qualities of compassion and civility that may have diminished in our politics today.
What separates them as much as ideology is the plain fact of power - one revolution occurred, and so the other had to fail. Consequently, ones reputation became deeply, bitterly divisive in the public eye, and the other became a genteel, grandfatherly figure, occupying a high place in the public imagination. Benn will receive a more level-headed treatment, I believe, because he never carried through his full programme, and so our view of him is less distorted by the power that he did wield.
I do not know how either of them would have felt about being compared in this way, though from what I have read of recollections of them both, I hope that they would have enjoyed it. Benn’s programme for government ran against many of the things I hold dear, and I would have opposed it vigorously, no doubt. But there is little doubt in my mind that he was a transformational figure in British politics in his own way; a revolutionary without a revolution, whose personality will be fondly remembered by many, even if his policies slide away in the mists of history.
Foreign policy and defence are two of the most central functions of any state. Therefore, the state of thought in the Labour Party on these two issues is of great importance to the future of Britain, given that they are one of the two larger parties in British politics and currently hold a lead in the opinion polls. Sadly, from what emerged from Mr Miliband’s trip to Afghanistan recently, the state of thought within Labour on these topics varies between basic and ridiculous.
There are two issues we can address from that BBC article; the proposed law on discrimination against members of the armed forces, and the grounds on which a future Labour government would take us to war. The former is a singularly ridiculous idea, the latter demonstrates a vacuum of original thought, or indeed serious thought, that should alarm a great many people.
A law to prevent discrimination against serving members of the armed forces is not a new idea for Labour; the previous Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, Jim Murphy, had also floated such an idea before he was removed from office last October. Now we are told that such a law would be in the first Queens Speech of a Labour government after the May 2015 election. Regardless of who promotes it, and when, such a law is a terrible idea.
We have a voluntary military; all those who have joined the armed forces do so of their own free will. Why should such a choice become protected characteristic, equivalent to gender, race or sexual orientation? There is nothing to stop this standard being applied to any other career whose members hold a unique, if unhealthy, position in the esteem of certain sectors of the population. We might argue that the Police should receive protection on similar grounds to members of the Armed Forces; such a move would impede efforts to improve accountability of the Police, given that those who question their actions could be construed as committing what would be a hate crime. That they are not only pushing this idea, but willing to put it at the top of their legislative programme, demonstrates that Labour understands neither human rights nor the armed forces.
Let us turn now to the effort of Mr Miliband to sketch out grounds on which he might take the UK to war in future. This is the most serious decision any prospective Prime Minister is ever likely to take, short of the use of the nuclear arsenal. Therefore it is alarming to see that the Labour Party apparently are unable to fully formulate a basic set of guidelines beyond some half-baked platitudes that could have been uttered by the meanest functionary.
All wars, Mr Miliband, are conducted in the name of a vision of the national interest. The national interest is not a fixed thing, it is not an objective truth; it is constructed and refined by a whole host of actors, central among which are elected governments. Saying you will only take the UK to war if it’s in our national interest is the sort of statement you expect a junior spokesman to make; I’d hope the Leader of the Opposition is capable of more meaningful foreign policy than beige utterances.
What gets him into real hot water, however, is when it comes to dealing with the two primary foreign policy questions involving force that the Coalition have dealt with; Libya and Syria. He points to the threat to civilians in Libya as being a reason to go to war with that state; yet he feels that a war with Syria would have been wrong. Does the UK’s national interest include the use of force to alleviate human suffering, or does it not? We are left in the dark by his confused attempt at including this big idea within his beige boundaries. If threat to human life on a mass scale is enough to drive the UK to war, then we would have expected him to back the government when it wanted to go to war with Syria.
He does try and lever his way out of this with talk of needing a clear “strategy” for any conflict. His own party have a terrible record on this from the 1998 SDR to Iraq, and in the absence of much original thought from his leadership, I am not filled with confidence that they will manage to implement this recommendation if restored to office. Of course, strategy is how we get to our political end, rather than the end in itself - any fool who’s read Clausewitz can tell you that. The national interest is for Mr Miliband a thing worth going to war for; an end. Apparently so is human suffering on a massive scale, but only when it concerns the Libyan rather than Syrian people. A clear strategy will help you end that suffering through the use of force, if you wish to do so; it will not give you the end goal that you need to begin to design it.
In short, Mr Miliband has no idea when or why he’d take the UK to war, beyond some trite recycling of phrases any spin doctor could’ve strung together. Coupled with his buying in to the dangerous hero cult around the armed forces, this bodes worryingly for the future foreign and defence policy of any Labour administration.
Sitting on your hands while everyone around you, it seems, is voting on policy feels pretty rotten. If we’re going to be serious about our democratic credentials, then we need to end that sort of situation. The sooner we can roll out OMOV as a party the better.
When you go to a fringe and Jeremy Browne talks about the need to be a more assertively liberal party, and then the next day Nick Clegg closes conference with a speech about building a coalition of liberals, it makes you feel really good about the future of the party.
When you meet the people who are the future of the party, in terms of age, then it makes you feel even better.
A debate where we’re all broadly agreed on important issues that no-one else is either remotely interested in (digital rights) or remotely credible on (Europe) also helps with the happy feeling.
When a chair in fringe debate asks you to ask a question; ask a question. Do not start to list things you’ve thought of, do not start to tell your life story, do not ramble about your ward or your experiences or whatever. A question is one, maybe two sentences top. There are lots of people in that room, we all want to hear more from the panellists, who we came to see, not you.
I need to learn to function past 10 PM, and I need to learn to drink more. I could also do without suffering some sort of dyspraxic attack during a conference.
All in all, I enjoyed conference, albeit I’m now dealing with a massive attack of nerves as to whether people liked me. It’s also, for now, assured me I am in the right party and it’s worth continuing to fight for the stuff I believe in from inside.
My first national party conference will be in a few week’s time; the Liberal Democrat’s spring conference in York. There are excellent policy motions on a variety of topics, including a digital bill of rights and the European Union. Sadly, in the middle of all of this, there is yet another signpost on the long road many in public life tread to avoid the topic of England. The motion in question is Power to thePeople (F14).It is a shame that this motion fails so completely on the subject of England; it is stuffed with otherwise excellent policies on electoral reform, Lords reform and changing the way the House of Commons operates. But when it comes to the largest nation in the UK, the paper falls flat.
Already, this year has seen a rush of commentary on the upcoming centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. Amidst all of this, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has landed himself in hot water with comedy writers and Cambridge professors alike for his views expressed in this article for The Daily Mail. Mr Gove was not helped by his widespread unpopularity, especially among those who devote their life to commenting on things, and his message has been slowly picked to pieces in a series of different newspapers over the next few days.
Sergeant Blackman deserves no special pleading; indeed, his sentence makes sense for Britain, for the Afghan mission and for the military.
This morning’s Daily Telegraph carries an interview with the wife of Royal Marine Sergeant Alexander Blackman. Claire Blackman has joined a chorus of voices calling for leniency, or even a pardon, for her husband, who was recently convicted by a court martial board of murdering a prisoner while on service in Afghanistan. Without meaning to sound too callous, Mrs Blackman, along with individuals such as Colonel Richard Kemp and Lt. Colonel Simon Chapman are wrong. Their argument that we should be lenient to Sgt. Blackman shows very poor strategic vision; a lack of understanding of what the mission in Afghanistan is and should be about, and a failure to grasp the best way to get to that point.
Sgt. Blackman’s actions have done more than “just” breached the Geneva Convention; they have brought the British military, and the whole point of its mission in Afghanistan, that bit more into disrepute and darkness. In any case, a breach of the laws in war is a serious matter for any serious military, and it is right that the court, and subsequently senior officers in the Armed Forces, have come out publicly to make statements to that end. What they understand, and what individuals such as Lt. Colonel Chapman clearly do not, is that having armed forces that obey the laws in war, and are seen to take seriously breaches of those laws, pays dividends for Britain.
We are engaged in a mission in Afghanistan partly born of the idea that we can bring to the Afghan people a better quality of life. That notion remains up for debate - both in itself, and in terms of how we have gone about trying to deliver it. But I have no reason to doubt that those who embarked on this mission, and those who continue to command it, genuinely share that goal. In order to deliver a better life for the Afghan people, we must demonstrate to them that we are generally good people; that we obey the law and we take breaches of those laws very seriously indeed. If we are trying to lead by example, then we should be clear that no-one is above the law, and that these laws represent values that we hold dear.
Thus we can come to the idea that, because the Taliban wouldn’t obey Geneva, we shouldn’t obey Geneva. This is a fallacy of the first rank, born of a lack of strategic thinking. We are trying to demonstrate to the Afghan people that we can provide them with a better future than the Taliban; we are trying to win the battle of ideas. We do not do this by throwing away our values and rules in the face of the enemy. We do this by showing that we are committed to laws and their enforcement, and we will take action against those who break them. What possible strategic value would it have to excuse someone who flagrantly breaches the law? The message this sends to the many Afghans trapped between the two sides in this war is clear; there is no difference between either side. Both will murder prisoners (for that is what we are discussing here, a murder), both will treat the law with contempt when it suits them, both turn a blind eye to breaches of the law.
Lastly, I wish to turn to the fallacious assertion that we should consider special pleading for Sgt. Blackman because of the conditions he was operating under. We must note that thousands more British soldiers; and tens of thousands more American, Dutch, Canadian, French and other soldiers have served under similar conditions in Afghanistan and other combat zones over the last few years, and the overwhelming majority have not broken the Geneva Convention. This sounds glib, but the point is clear - these men and women are trained to operate under these conditions as best we can, and they are exposed to an understanding of what is right and wrong on the battlefield. Furthermore, Sgt. Blackman, as a Royal Marine, was selected twice over, to be among the very best of the Armed Forces, and was placed in a position of responsibility. He surely understood that his actions would set an example for his men, and for others within the military, whatever they may have been. This makes his actions all the more inexcusable, when all things are considered.
Sgt. Blackman’s sentence is, in my view, of the right length. It sends a clear message to the world that Britain does not tolerate failure to uphold the law among its soliders, and that it values the success of the Afghan mission over any modern day hagiographical accounts of individual’s professional and personal lives, such as we have been subjected to subsequently. It signals to the Afghan people that there is a difference between us and the Taliban, and we are prepared to act to show that difference when we are called upon to do so. It has also shown that our senior military officers understand the strategic importance of being moral, and that a great many commentators - who have never risen to a rank where they have had to deal with strategy - do not. It is time we acknowledged the truth as found by the court; that Sgt. Blackman is a murderer; and that by doing what he did, he has diminished himself, his regiment and his country, and that by doing what it did, the court has done much to repair that damage.
to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,
AND FOR THESE ENDS
to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples,
HAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS
Accordingly, our respective Governments, through representatives assembled in the city of San Francisco, who have exhibited their full powers found to be in good and due form, have agreed to the present Charter of the United Nations and do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations.”