Today is International Men’s Day, with the theme this year being focused on men and health issues. In a world where average life expectancy for men remains lower than for women in the majority of countries on the planet, where the victims of war are still overwhelmingly male and where finding good male role models can be a real struggle in the raising of children, I think it’s important to have a day to talk about this stuff.
I’ve long had a problem with the argument that dealing with women’s issues means that men’s issues will be dealt with as well, automatically. It strikes me that this argument does nothing to actually engage with men - rather, often, it pushes men away by seemingly deeming them to be either an enemy to be reproached or an idiot to be lectured. A joined-up approach; where we recognise that issues facing men are often as urgent and difficult as those facing women on account of their gender; is essential.
Ultimately, I would prefer an International Gender Day, or something of that ilk, wherein we can frame our conversations in terms of issues specific to our gender identity, whatever that may be - male, female or otherwise.
For today, Sullivan Ballou’s letter to his wife, written just before the First Battle of Bull Run.
I want to to tell you all about two men, very briefly. In the link above is my Great Uncle Tom’s obituary in the Telegraph. I never knew my Uncle Tom very well, but he worked for various aerospace companies on various projects - including the design of a British equivalent to the Space Shuttle in the 1960s. I’m very proud of him for all he designed and all he dreamt up. If you Google him, then you’ll get US patents in his name. I wish I knew my Great Uncle Tom better than I did, but sadly never got the chance.
Then, today, we had Grandad’s funeral. You won’t find my Grandad’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph, but I want to tell you about this very special man. Though, in the 5 years since my Grandma died, his health had steadily declined and the man I knew as a child faded away; I will always remember my Grandad. I’d like to tell you just one story about this calm, practical and hard-working man - a story that illuminates his good nature so well. In the final Christmas we shared with him and Grandma, he bought her an extra present, which he made sure she opened last. It was the most beautiful ring; and Grandma was utterly bowled over. My Grandad just sat on the sofa next to her, giggling away and lifting his feet in the air, practically glowing when she kissed him on the cheek. The two of them made each other so happy; and they made so much of my childhood just as happy as well.
I cannot tell you how much those two people made me the way I am today, nor can I adequately tell you just how much I miss them both. But I know I’ll see them again; and that is what gets me through.
"While the precise cost of rectifying these deficiencies is still unknown, investigations conducted in recent years indicate that it is already in excess of 40% of the insurance reinstatement value of the Palace (approximately £1.8bn). If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.”
I hope we can get the cash together to save this fine old building, and indeed bring her up to the standard a modern Parliament needs.
I support an independent British nuclear deterrent. Those 7 words are enough to land me in hot water with a lot of people from across Britain. Trident is widely reviled as a symbol of the past, as a colossal waste of money and as an evil thing, a blot on Britain’s reputation in the world. Yet I believe that Britain needs nuclear weapons - nay, the world needs them - because they bring a blanket of security, ironically, without which the world today would be a darker place.
This is not to say that I believe that a like-for-like renewal of Trident is the best option, nor that I believe that the current set up of the nuclear weapons systems of this country are perfect. There are many ways we could seek to create a more versatile, perhaps even cheaper deterrent - smaller vessels than the Vanguard class, for example; missiles on warships and for aerial deployment as well.
But I do firmly believe that nuclear weapons have been a force for peace in my lifetime, and will be again in that time. I know I am not alone in this - a very senior member of the Labour Party once told me that nuclear weapons have been the greatest force for peace in the 20th Century, and there is much to commend that argument. One of the key barriers to repeating the Great Power conflicts that so marred particularly European history over so many centuries has been the ability of those states to totally annihilate each other; and in turn be annihilated. Quite simply, it is the fear of these weapons that have kept states in line.
They have not prevented war by proxy, or smaller states engaging in brutal conflicts with one another, each appalling in their own right. But we have not seen a repeat of wars on the scale of the past; the balance of power this time is weighted down with an even more awesome (in the older sense of the word) threat than Gatling guns and barbed wire. It may only be a shade safer world than before, but in the mud and blood of international politics, that shade safer is something I would like to keep.
You see, as eminently reasonable as we may think ourselves and our common man, as bound by reason and enlightenment and civilisation as we may look into the mirror and tell ourselves we are, we remain at the mercy of the same grinding logic of power politics as generations before and generations yet to come. We are, all of us, still capable of lapsing into that state of nature that Hobbes speaks of in The Leviathan; wherein all life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.” Those like William Golding who look into the human condition and find darkness are worth listening too because they tell us so much about the way international politics, as well as domestic affairs, can be shaped by these darker impulses and heavier truths.
This is why I am an English School scholar, and this is why I continue to support nuclear weapons. By seeking to manage, not reject, power politics we can try and tame, rather than ignore our darker impulses and the immovable truth of our circumstances in international affairs. Power politics is not something we can wish away; we have seen before how attempts to do so - the League of Nations is perhaps the greatest example of this - will always end in miserable failure and the suffering of a new, more violent war as we are reminded of these solemn truths. Pretending as though power is something that can be forever ignored, or removed, or belittled is inviting chaos and our own destruction. We must understand it, work with it and try wherever possible to steer it to a better world, yes. But we must never pretend that we are so different from our ancestors that we have, or can, move beyond it.
A Britain with nuclear weapons is one that recognises these truths and seeks to work with them. A Britain that agonises over them is one that understands the conflicts that we must all face - kings and peasants - when we struggle with the nature of man and the world around us. But a Britain that walks away, that pretends power politics is something we can ignore and that thinks that a world where we are weak is one where we will still get what we want, is foolish, blind and ignorant of the world. We must be at the table in full force if we are to get the world we want, otherwise we must be prepared for a world we cannot stand. That is why I support Britain retaining the bomb; that is why I think it is money worth the spending.
Hugo Rifkind has given voice to what I’ve thought for quite a long time. Attacks on the Tories, or conservatives, or the ‘other’ in politics on the basis that they are evil fundamentally miss the point that there are very few people in the world who you could count as being truly ‘evil’ and they are not specific to one part of the political spectrum. It also betrays a staggering lack of political understanding, when you fly right past the debate and instead fixate on the uniquely evil status of your opponent.
We’re all guilty of this kind of behaviour in modern politics; myself included. But we have to recognise that this is corrosive; it turns voters off and it leads to positions that cannot be reconciled in the face of even growing national emergency. We’ve seen in the United States two parties entrenching themselves firmly on each side of the battlefield, denouncing compromise as betrayal and failing to see the other as being different, rather than evil.
If you build your political identity around the notion that one part of the spectrum is evil; that those who inhabit it are somehow particularly malicious; then you deserve the terrible politics you will help create. If you’re naive enough, blind enough, willfully ignorant enough to short-circuit the debate so you can jump straight to the bitter moralising and the denunciations of the other as being pure evil, then you deserve the rotten leadership you will help elevate.
The people who you often find yourself facing over the despatch box in politics are not evil. They are not incapable of emotion or thought and they are not living on a different planet to you. You may find their argument to be flawed, you may disagree with their conclusions or reject their methods. But don’t take this as being a sign that they are evil. If you can avoid that, then you can help build a politics worth being proud of. If not, then you’re really just pitiable.
Today’s Times pulls no punches in its assessment of the Liberal Democrats and our future as a party. It rightly, in my view, identifies the need for the party to chart out a radical, centrist trajectory - distinct from Labour or Conservative grounds. As both of those two parties seem to want to shift back away from the centre; to escape legacies of leaders they would both, it appears, like to forget rather sooner than the rest of us, it leaves a Blair-sized hole of recent lore.
I have said it before, and will say it again - we must not fool ourselves into believing we can be a centre-left party again. Those voters and that image are dashed to pieces, and desperately chasing it will only remind the public of things we have failed to do. We have done so much in government, it is time to adopt an ideological and presentational position that marks us as centrist. In any case, there is already a centre-left party in the UK; it is wealthier and larger than we, and it is called Labour.
It is no good, either, chasing oppositionalist or protest voters around, whimpering like a smacked puppy. Their support is one we have lost; and I welcome this. We must be a principled party of power, not the party that opposes because it can and so works hard to prevent itself ever being taken seriously. I suspect these voters are broadly centre-left or plain left; I have come to suspect that they are less keen on the making of the sausage than those on the right. They flee the first sign of trouble in power, because they have less patience with the way the world is. I may, of course, be wrong. But the point still stands - these are the quicksand votes, the one upon whom any success is fleeting and soon utterly lost.
To embrace a centrist position is to be in favour of reform of the state, not to further the market, but to deliver better services, greater transparency and accountability. It is to strengthen local government because it already has such a powerful role in peoples’ lives that its responsibilities should be met with power in town halls, not hoarded jealously in Whitehall. It is to propose taxes for the wealthy on the basis of the need to balance the books and stimulate growth, not the language of greed and envy that characterises left-wing discussions of such measures. It is a wide open plain, where Liberals have been before and where we would do well to go again.
There is still room for a debate here - Social, Radical, New, Green and all the other forms of Liberalism are, I would contend, ultimately naturally centrist ideological positions. We can contend over how best to deliver reform for our objectives, or what to tax to help bring our finances in order and achieve wider Liberal goals - a greener economy, for example. But we must agree that it is in the centre we can fight, and win. There are many who have not voted for us before and fit into that window well, I feel. We are foolish to chase those who have left us with the vain hope that reminding them of what they call betrayal; we would be much wiser to find new friends, and go from there.
Let us take Brighton as the beginning of this debate, and when we meet in Glasgow next autumn, let us be ready to declare ourselves as we must be - Liberal, centrist and radical.
Bach’s Mass in B Minor; I’ve been reading a book recently on German culture, how rich and important it is and has been, and how we need to understand Germany with a longer view than 1933-1945, with a brief mention for reunification. So enjoy this, perhaps the best creation of one of the greatest names in the history of music.
My contribution to the Liberal Youth’s blog, on why we need to talk about war, law and the aftermath if we’re going to talk about intervention in Syria.
During the reshuffle, the government unveiled a new Cabinet sub-committee with the task of implementing policies to boost growth. The question they are confronting is at the very centre of British politics at the moment; indeed, it’s been the case for a very long time. I wrote an article for Parliamentary Brief last year in which I cited Reginald Maudling’s 1963 Budget Statement; he was clear then that there was no question on the need for economic growth. All politicians - apart from a few of the Green persuasion - seem to be united in this common cause, of finding and driving economic growth.
Thus, the committee finds itself right at the heart of the problem. It must marry up policies to marry growth, political reality and the thorny reality of Britain’s fiscal problems; not an easy task for even the steeliest of politicians. Doubtless they will receive reams of advice which they neither solicited nor desired, but they would do well to sift through it for new ideas. I’d like to throw my own two pennies into the collective pool of advice on this one, with 4 key areas that the committee will need to look at, a few ideas for helping and not a few problems they might want to steer away from on the way.
- Fiscal Mix - Not Mervyn King’s breakfast matter, but rather the tricky issue of keeping the UK’s deficit reduction plan on something resembling a meaningful track while finding room to boost growth through tax and spending changes. The first thing to look at is further spending cuts. The welfare budget will always be a favourite target, given it is so relatively large and so politically rewarding, especially for the Conservatives. But I feel the main effort of the DWP must be focused on making the Universal Credit work well, not finding more pennies. The committee should look at areas such as ‘alternative medicine’ funding on the NHS; bus passes, TV licences and winter fuel payments for pensioners on high incomes and funding for carbon-capture and ask whether they are worth keeping. Tax rises are also in the mix; I feel that both the mansion tax and Clegg’s briefly floated ‘tycoon tax’ should both be returned to the table to help raise additional money to help balance the books. Both these will free up some money to do things beyond controlling the deficit - the committee should consider a tax credit for manufacturers purchasing new plant & machinery; additional science spending and further support for apprenticeships as ways of helping growth yet more.
- Capital Investment - Of course, spending on programmes constitutes only one part of government outlay, and the committee will doubtlessly be wading into the issue of capital spend. From housing to railways, it has been a favourite topic of commentators and politicians in this debate; splurging cash on all sorts of things we can build to stimulate growth. The committee should be wary about simply throwing cash at anything and anyone to get growth going; we need to plan this spending so it ties into future aims. The UK must green its economy - those who think protecting the place we live damages growth do not understand economics, globalisation and perhaps do not live on the same planet as we do (literally). Things like the third runway at Heathrow or massive road-building schemes must be put firmly out to pasture. Rail improvements, high-speed (above 25 mb) broadband, affordable & green housing and mass transit systems must be catapulted up the list of things we need to start building. A focus on refreshing brownfield sites, a la Olympic Park style, rather than squabbling over the green belt would help. Dispersing people & jobs to currently cheap cities - like Hull - would go a long way towards meeting this.
- Business Finance - the Government has a report on business finance sitting in its in tray, with some interesting ideas on improving access to finance for both new businesses and businesses trying to expand. The committee should look at the report again and commit to a wider selection of the measures. Regional capital and stock markets would help close the gaps in the report - they might also help local government raise money closer to home. The committee can also look at the success of the Cambridge & Counties Bank, which is using local government pension funds to help local businesses start and then grow. The banking sector remains slow to lend; there’s only so much the government can do to change that directly; but in the meantime, some healthy competition should help shift a few balance sheets into gear. By using pension funds and local government cash reserves, diversity in the banking sector can be boosted, funds moved and businesses helped; once the financial system has come unstuck, the returns can be reaped through (at least partial) privatisation of these institutions.
- Politics - aside from Ed Ball’s persistent and rough wooing of Vince Cable, the government has a series of political tools it might use to help growth today and tomorrow. The above mentioned report on business finance proposes a Small Business Administration to bring together all government programmes to help them, and also to bundle loans together and sell them on capital markets to help these companies access a much deeper pool of money. The government should definitely get behind this - making government easier for small business surely will help cut overhead costs. The committee might also want to review the power of the Treasury in Whitehall; there may well be grounds to reasonably suspect this mighty department of throttling others for its own, rather than the national, benefit. To that end, BIS should be built up - for example, moving cultural industry responsibility from the DCMS; and the Treasury pruned assertively; one way to do so would be remove tax credits from their hands and give them to the DWP.
There are, of course, a myriad of other ways that the committee could recommend we change course and encourage growth. But we need to keep an eye on the future; the government has failed to clearly articulate what sort of Britain it wants to see out the other side, and put large sums of money and manpower to that end. The vision of a green, manufacturing-led, high-tech British economy should be appealing to far more than apparently embrace it. Costing the Earth to eke out a percentage point of GDP growth will ultimately damage the economy; so will simply lifting the lid and splurging cash into the economy, letting the balance sheet rot for now in the hope it’ll fix itself one day.
Liberal Democrats need to get into this mix with some of the bright ideas we’ve come up with before and some of the one’s we’ve had since, and get fighting for them. It is possible to build a Liberal vision of Britain’s economy; what we have to do is carry that out in a way that brings voters with us, and back to us, before the next general election. In doing so, however, we will achieve a greater thing - boosting Britain’s economy today and for years to come. That, surely, will be a legacy worth defending in 2015 and beyond.
God Save the Queen.
Break from serious politics to bring you this interlude from last night’s marvellous Olympics opening ceremony in London. Well done to all involved!
(Source: modelcity, via averybritishblog)
I had a rather nice time this weekend helping my local party run a stall at Hull Pride, getting names to an equal marriage petition and generally seeking to establish a wider presence at such events in the city. The Labour Party also had a gazebo there, similarly engaged in a similar petition (this on “gay cures”) and recruitment activity. My interest was piqued when one of the city’s triad of Labour MPs tweeted a picture of a new recruit with a line about him joining to help “stop the Tories”. This is a city which has not had a Conservative council since at least 1973 (indeed, barely had any Conservative councillors) and not had a Conservative MP in any of its three constituencies since the 1964 general election. There are no Tories here in Hull to stop (no offence intended to any of my friends in the local Conservative Party). Thus I was puzzled at this MP, and his local party, fighting to stop a threat that doesn’t meaningfully exist within this city to them.
Then I saw that Nick Clegg had a comment in the Daily Mail yesterday, saying that he would be open to a Coalition with Labour after the next election. Whilst I am personally uneasy at the prospect of a coalition with Labour, I recognise that the logic of the election results may mean it is the only workable conclusion after the electorate have had their say at the ballot box in 2015. Indeed, I am broadly unsympathetic to remaining in government after 2015 anyway; the party needs a break from what has been a brutal experience, and the allegation of power-seeking will take much longer to wash out as a result.
Yet the response from Labour has been dismal. Ed Miliband has launched straight into the fray with vitriol, calling Clegg a “Tory accomplice”. I have blogged before on what I grandiosely entitled “false bifurcation" - the idea that there are only two sides to the political debate in any situation, and that this is somehow a natural and almost healthy state of affairs for a political system. Of course, to those watching these events unfurl from a Liberal perspective, this kind of simplistic narrative lays bare the fundamentally illiberal nature of the way the Labour leader looks at the world. It is surely a basic tenet of liberalism, with or without a capital L, to believe in pluralism - be that in politics, economics or elsewhere. If you believe that a two-party system is both the natural and best state of affairs - and if you persist in crushing everything else into that logic - then you are not a Liberal (or at least, you’re a pretty poor one).
Miliband may claim precedent with Gordon Brown - but he forgets that Mr Brown was leader of a defeated government. His eagerness to dabble in political bloodsports if he has to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats after the next election smacks of little more than petty, illiberal tribalism. I suspect he is worried that he may have to face a Liberal Democrat leader who will take him to task over Labour’s many and varied illiberal vices - ID cards, drug prohibition, centralisation and the rest. Whilst he may yearn for the pliant voices of Liberal Left in the driving seat, he may well have to deal with the reality that Mr Clegg is entrenched in his position after 2015 and forcing him out may simply embitter relations with his new partners.
But that is all speculation - what matters here, and now, is that this incident has shone a light into Labour’s cold, dark, bifurcated soul. If you’re not with us, you’re with the Tories. You’re either for the market, or for the state. Hugs or hate. I could go on. Except this is not how democratic politics works - politics is all about many opinions, from many perspectives, competing for an advantage in the public sphere to gain hold of power and exercise their ideological commitments in the name of the public good. Labour need to stop playing the “if they’re in Coalition with the Tories, they must be Tories” game. For one, it will make life difficult after 2015 if they’re in coalition with us - too many Labour activists are in the party to, as we saw in the opening paragraph “stop the Tories”. If you’re in party A to thwart party B, in my eyes, you should not be in politics at all. You join your party to fight for what it believes in, not oppose another regardless of fact.
Another, more embarrassing problem for Mr Miliband is he is already a “Tory accomplice”. There are 6 councils in Scotland where Labour and Conservative councillors are joined in running the shop. There may well come a day when a Labour/Conservative coalition in the Scottish Parliament becomes a necessity to get a majority - and heaven knows what that will do. Mr Miliband may think he is well-served today by engaging in some illiberal muck-slinging. However, he has both betrayed his illiberal instincts in doing so, and opened a wound in his own flank in the process. This Liberals would be foolish not to go for. After all - does Mr Miliband support an open, fair political system; or a closet, two-party one which benefits him more than the country?
I posted on LibDemVoice last month on why I thought ideology was important for the Liberal Democrats. In that piece, I articulated my view in terms of giving a reason for policies - they are not detached, isolated bits and pieces of technocratic management. A typical push-back to this argument has been that “voters don’t care about ideology” and experience on the doorstep is cited. I want to dispose of this myth, and return to the theme of developing a strong Liberal identity.
Voters do not state cares about many important issues on the doorstep. We rarely meet voters who articulate at length about the importance of foreign policy, for example, but there are very few who argue that the state shouldn’t do foreign policy and do it well. Voters’ wants and good politics are not co-incidental; voter’s needs are shaped by the circumstances of their lives, rather than the national picture. This is not because they are idiots, but rather because, like all of us, they focus in on what is closest to them. We must recognise that politics cannot just be conducted on the doorstep if we are to be successful, national and strong.
Ideology enables a party to develop a coherent platform of ideas and policies that do appeal directly to voters. The process of policy development is massively enriched by having a common vision of Britain in a party that enables you to pull together to get where you want to go. If we want to recapture an audience to listen to us before 2015 - something we need to work on now - then we need to give them a reason to stand with us. Keeping open a post office here or fixing a war memorial there can be done by any party, at any time, and we need to go beyond that now.
We need to develop a policy base that is distinctive from the other parties, as well. We are in Coalition because of national circumstance, not personal choice. It is my opinion that there are no “natural” coalition partners for a Liberal party in the UK; I entirely reject the notion of groups like LiberalLeft that we somehow belong with parties like Labour and the Greens. These two parties value the big state, authoritarian view of the world - where Whitehall knows best and the individual knows least - that we should push against. I am aware there are some who think we should tack towards a bigger-state perspective, but we must remember that the state is a threat to a free society. The state, like any other interest group, seeks to gather power to itself and use that power to protect itself at the expense of others.
Of course, we can argue that we can do useful things with the state - but we, as Liberals, must be suspicious of the central state from the outset. If we want to expand spending, then it must be done transparently, temporarily and must be funnelled down to as local a level as possible. If we want to embark on new state projects, then they must meet those criteria as well - they must be only when all other options are exhausted, when there is no-one left to fill the gap. Treating the state as though it should be the first and freest choice to solve our myriad problems does not sit well with Liberalism, in my view.
Others are welcome to disagree with my conception of Liberalism - but I urge the Liberal Democrats to pick up the question of ideology and get to work on it. We are already ideological creatures - we do community politics, for example, because we are Liberals. Community politics is not just a thing that exists in an ideological vacuum - we should examine why we do it to try and see how we can make it work better, or adapt it to changing circumstances. Once we have a place to begin, only then will we be truly successful in winning voters and rebuilding our base.