Catalonia: the case for a federal Europe

The increasing tensions in Spain, leading up to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October, offer a strong case for a more federal Europe, made stronger by the lack of other viable options.

In the distant past, this is something that would have been settled on the field of battle. Spain would seek to put down the province declaring independence, and Catalonia would have resisted.

In the twenty-first century, there’s reasonable hope that this won’t end in bloodshed. There’s a vestige in that older way of thinking in the speed with which Spain suspended Catalan autonomy, calling fresh elections, and the threats to arrest the (now ousted) Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont. From the outside, it feels like a game of double bluff, but one in which every twist tears at the self-understanding of the many who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish, making it harder to find a negotiated solution.

In a dis-spiriting parallel with Brexit, the near-impossibility of establishing an independent state seem not to impinge on the desire for it (countries can only join the EU with the agreement of all existing members, and Spain would be likely to veto membership). The sense is of poorly and partially articulated grievances leading to actions that make things much worse.

For the EU this presents a dilemma. Donald Tusk quickly came out with a statement saying that, the declaration changes nothing, and the EU will deal only with Madrid. In one sense he has no choice: for the time being this is an internal matter for a member state. In the short term, that would come under pressure only if Spain cracks down on Catalonia in a way that calls into question its commitment to the basic ideals of the Union. That’s possible, and there was pressure for action on that basis against Hungary in May 2017, but the hope is that things won’t get that bad.

But the other side of the EU’s dilemma is that this does change everything.

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Theresa May in an impossible position

Are we right to mock Theresa May, or is she caught in the impossible position of trying to deal with the wreckage of her predecessor’s mistakes, over Europe and in calling a referendum without planning for both possible outcomes, and the divisions in her own party?

Almost since the moment when she became Prime Minister it has been tempting to mock Theresa May. From her 2016 conference speech, when she seemed to have abandoned her previous support for EU membership and managed the meaningless “Brexit means Brexit”, through vacuous comments on the “will of the people”, to her performances as the “Strong and stable” “Maybot” in the 2017 General Election.

But is this fair? Her disastrous speech speech to the 2017 Conservative Party Conference begins to flag up another side. As it stands, she may well go down in history as the most unfortunate Prime Minister in a very long time. In the long view of history, she may get credit for courage in an impossible situation, and come to be seen as one of the high-profile victims of Brexit.

That conference speech said more than its words. Letters falling off a sign, someone playing a prank, and a nasty cough could be seen as bad luck. But things are rarely as simple as that, and it can be worth asking what is happening unconsciously in the seemingly-accidental.

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Brexit: exacerbating the wealth divide

Privileged access for big business to government in the Brexit process threatens to make it a “Brexit for the rich”, not the people who voted for it and already felt left behind.

The Independent for 26 August 2017 ran an article by Jon Stone and Joe Watts, based on a report saying that big business and banks have been dominating access to government over Brexit, while labour groups and NGOs have been marginalised.

Without access to the report itself, its not possible to verify its assertion, but at the very least it seems highly credible Last year I blogged about Brexit as a new “class war” in which it felt as if the wealth were grabbing the opportunity of Brexit to re-shape Britain in a way that exaggerates wealth divides.

Advocates of “trickle-down” economics will say this is fine: prioritise the key wealth creators and everyone gains. That didn’t work under Margaret Thatcher, and there’s little scope for it working now, except for those who are temperamentally-equipped to gain from a brutalising “each person for themself” mentality.

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The not-very-great Repeal Bill: a power grab from No.10

The Great Repeal Bill has finally been published. It’s grab for power from No.10 which is both an assault on parliamentary democracy, and a sharp illustration of the impossibility of achieving a Brexit that is actually good for the UK. It is also the polar opposite of the “take back control” slogan of the Leave campaign.

On the face of it the idea is simple: repeal the 1972 European Communities Act, which provided a mechanism to bring into UK law things emerging from the EU, and shift all EU-derived law into British law. British and EU law have been so intertwined for so long that simply repealing everything would create some big holes, so this could be seen as a pragmatic solution. It means that on the day after leaving the EU, UK law would be in the same place that it was the day before.

But things are not quite what they seem.

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A government fails

The fire at Grenfell Tower is clearly a very serious event. A 24-story building, newly refurbished was engulfed in flames. Advice to people to stay in their flats in the event of fire catastrophically wrong. Reactions to the disaster throw a spotlight on the failings of the government.

So far, so bad. There is grief and there is anger. At the time of writing this, it’s not clear whether the fire was a result of building regulations not being followed, or not being sufficient to ensure fire safety. Whatever the actual cause, many people have died nasty deaths.

Pulling the lens back from the fire itself, it raises serious questions of government.

Under normal circumstances people look to government to provide order and stability. In difficult times governments also have blame and anger projected onto them.

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Tim Farron’s resignation: it’s not about religion

I don’t claim to know the inside story of Tim Farron’s resignation, but two things are exercising me about the way it is being reported. One is the perception that this is about Christianity being unacceptable in public life (it isn’t). The other is about the changing sense of where things are for LGBT people in public life (much better than they were). The two are entwined because of the suggestions that Tim’s perceived position on LGBT rights and abortion lay behind pressure for him to resign.

I’ve only met Tim Farron once, and am in no position to comment on his actual views on either of these things. I’d be surprised if someone became leader of the Liberal Democrats who was strongly opposed to either of them, but the perception that Tim is lukewarm on gay rights kept coming up in the 2017 General Election campaign. My sense is that it reached the point when there was nothing he could say that would lay this one to rest because denials were being heard as evidence that there was something to deny.

The Christianity bit

There are plenty of Christians who use their faith to legitimate anti-gay positions, and plenty who do the opposite. A particularly affirming moment in the 2015 campaign came when Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, LibDem Candidate in Vauxhall, gave an interview in which he spoke candidly of how he had come to be HIV+. It came across my radar when LibDem president Sal Brinton, Vice-Chair of Christians in Parliament, posted a link to it on Facebook, with an expression of her full support for him.

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In the world of the Corbyn bounce

The unexpected is happening. In the wake of the late surge in support for Labour that wiped out Theresa May’s majority (and hit the Liberal Democrat vote), a new poll on 11 June showed Labour six points ahead of the Tories. Labour were also reporting 15,000 new members in the first three days after the 2017 General Election.

On the doorsteps on polling day, and with friends since, the sense is that Labour under Corbyn have caught people’s imaginations. What does this imply for Liberal Democrats?

My sense is that this is a problem because people’s imaginations have been caught by something unrealistic. If we now had a majority Labour government, disappointment would be around the corner, but for now, hopes are roused. There’s a parallel with Brexit being seen as a bright new future.

A sharp illustration is our respective economic policies. The Institute of Fiscal Studies concluded that our manifesto was the only one properly costed and also the most likely to deliver for low income people. If 9 June had seen Vince Cable become Chancellor of the Exchequer, that would have boded better for the economy than either of the other choices. Instead a costly cocktail of promises from Labour has fired people’s imaginations.

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New members of the Liberal Democrats, En Marche and non-target seats

The huge number of new members of the Liberal Democrats are making me think differently about the familiar problem of balancing resources between target and non-target seats, and the possibility of attracting support in a way that parallels En Marche in France.

Emmanuel Macron

For a long time targetting has been a difficult decision for Liberal Democrats. The electoral system means that, if we lean too far one way, we spread ourselves too thinly and are even more badly under-represented in parliament. If we lean too far the other way, we create Liberal Democrat “holes” where there is more-or-less little for people to join, which makes it really hard for that situation to change.

But one of the many unusual things about this General Election campaign is that it is taking place in a period of rapid growth while our membership is growing rapidly. In June 2017 I was the parliamentary candidate in a constituency where membership is up 400% since the 2015 General Election and 250% since the EU referendum.

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Welcoming the new president of France

In Emmanuel Macron, France has a new president who is liberal and pro-EU. There are encouraging parallels with his En Marche movement and where the Liberal Democrats find themselves after the rapid growth in membership over the last two years.

Emmanuel Macron

The headline is one of relief that Macron won a handsome majority over Marine le Pen. But the bigger earthquake is that his En Marche party has come from nowhere in little over a year. It’s rise reflects frustration with the established parties, and the widespread acceptance of a liberal mindset.

The Liberal Democrat membership surge since the 2015 General Election began with Nick Clegg’s remarkable resignation speech, putting a powerful case for liberalism even as we had taken an almighty pounding at the ballot box. As he phrased it then “Fear and grievance have won, liberalism has lost”. Shock at that, and the referendum result, and Theresa May’s opportunism in calling the present election, have mobilised people in large numbers. Standing in Hertford and Stortford in 2017, I am humbled by the calibre of our new members, and working with a local party that has quadrupled in membership since then and is still growing. The 2017 general election seems very much about working with this new energy.

Macron and En Marche, like the Liberal Democrats, are now part of ALDE, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. Their growth and ours feels like a reaction against the forces of division driving the rise of the far right.

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Brexit on the doorsteps

One of the salutary experiences of the last few months has been door-knocking in several areas which Liberal Democrats have not worked for a while and where there is significant support for Brexit. Responses have been varying. Alongside those promising to vote Liberal Democrat there have been angry responses — people who see the Liberal Democrat clipboard and slam the door and even someone who rushed out of their house to shout at me for putting a Liberal Democrat leaflet through their letterbox.

This leaves me wondering about the antipathy.

A slammed door says that someone is angry, but not why. Where conversations have been possible — though they are sometimes rather short — they have been illuminating.

It’s easy to dismiss the Leave campaign for its lies. The sense I have been getting on the doorsteps is of something deeper than that, as if we are wrecking the bright image of a wonderful Brexit. The situation was brilliantly summed up by a UKIP leaflet celebrating the wonderful [sic] prospect of Brexit and suggesting that people depressed or upset about it should join the Liberal Democrats.

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