Wednesday, December 21, 2011

And that was 2011

This is my last entry of 2011 to conclude another interesting year.

The coalition government is generally on the right path. We are seeing more liberal democrat policies coming in – raising the tax threshold, the pupil premium, political reform, green investment etc – as well as maintaining our interests in other areas such as the NHS where we were able to make some, but not many, modifications to the Conservative programme.

No single politician has ever been so hated by the media, but Nick Clegg stands firm. They will never forgive him for winning the first debate, nor for getting in the way of a right-wing Tory agenda – but he deserves admiration for sticking it out whereas lesser men would have crumbled under the daily pressure.

I think David Cameron also deserves some credit for, most of the year, keeping his more ‘loony’ segment of the party at bay. For example, he has so far resisted the usual Tory desire to cut taxes for the wealthy. However, the black mark is his blunder at the European talks recently and the choice to isolate Britain within the EU. I fear we will see the repercussions of this throughout 2012.

There have been other mistakes, of course. The tuition fee blunder rumbles on, the attack on public sector pensions was petty, and I would like to see more to encourage growth within the private sector. Unemployment is far too high, especially youth unemployment, and I hope we see more to address this most major of issues.

We got an expected bashing in May, losing nearly 700 councillors, including both our Sittingbourne representatives, and the AV referendum resulted in a convincing defeat. My second attempt to join Swale council saw me come last - a poor reward, I felt, for my hundreds of hours work in Murston over the last two years. We must be prepared for similar bashings in the next few years while we remain in government.

Blog-wise I was delighted to make my debut in the Total Politics top blogs lists. OK, it was only Number 54 in the Lib Dem blogs, and 62nd Lib Dem blogger, but I was pleased with my first appearance.

Two of my entries made the weekly Lib Dem Voice Top of the Blogs list. One was my last entry ‘Welcome to the year – 2030’, in which I told of a gloomy future for England following an isolationist policy. The other ‘We need a different ‘Lib Dem Voice’' from April where I criticised the lack of debate within the party – this was my mostly-read article of the year.

I would like to give an honorary mention to ‘Human Rights for Pot Plants’ in October which was my response to Theresa May’s daft use of a cat to promote repealing one of the most important pieces of legislation. I enjoyed putting that one together.

The personal low of the year has been the situation with my best friend of 23 years, who has been seriously ill with liver disease, and in and out of hospital throughout the last few months. As I type he is once again in intensive care. There is also my cousin, and a friend at work, who have both been having treatment for cancer, although thankfully both seem to be on the mend. And I have a minor eye operation coming up which promises not to be much fun.

In 2012, we have the Olympics, the diamond jubilee and the European football championships – and doubtless more news stories and political events to keep us all occupied. Much to look forward to.

So I conclude by thanking you all for reading my blog – and, whatever your party, whoever you support, I wish you all a happy Christmas and a good new year.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Welcome to the year - 2030

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

As King William V prepares for his coronation, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on a couple of tumultuous decades in the history, not only of England, but also of the former United Kingdom. Following the difficulties the country has had, politically, socially, economically, and, of course, with our football, the coronation presents a rare opportunity for the English to let their hair down and forget their troubles for a few days.

The happiest amongst us are, of course, the Conservative party and its supporters having won yet another general election. Removing the seats of Wales and Scotland from parliament hit the opposition parties hard, and, despite a scarcity of Tory MPs in the north, political commentators conclude that, by retaining first-past-the-post, and a plentiful supply of safe seats, it is hard to imagine anything other than a Conservative majority government in England for decades to come.

It is well over a decade since England and the European Union parted company, and remains a hotly debated topic ever since. While the EU struggled in the 2010s, England’s self-imposed isolation saw her miss out on the subsequent economic recovery and boom that the European countries continue to enjoy. Reminders from the media about Churchill and who-won-the-war-anyway seem to grow more hollow each year.

It is of course a different story for Scotland – now celebrating ten years of independence followed by a timely re-entry into the EU. Access to the wider markets, without tariffs, and considerable goodwill from the major EU states, meant Scottish industries soon boomed and the loss of trade with England was soon replaced.

Edinburgh continues to enjoy a cultural revival, its universities overflowing with students from all over Europe enjoying subsidised fees (except those from England, of course) and the wealth generated has ensured the Scots continue to enjoy a first class health and education system.. The Prime Minister of Scotland is looking forward to welcoming the new King to its opening of parliament at the Salmond Hall.

Once Scotland got independence, that of the other nations was inevitable but so far not as successful. Northern Ireland remains mostly dependent on their cousins south of the border, while Wales continues to struggle. (After changing to first-past-the-post, Wales is now permanently Labour-run much as England is permanently Conservative-run). However, it is still early days for Wales, having only recently re-entered the EU and adopted the Euro.

Having left the EU, the then-UK continued to trade with Europe but of course there now existed extra expenses across the EU-boundary. This meant the price of imports went up which was passed to the customer and hence fuelled inflation. Increases in fuel prices were a bitter blow. And the export market reduced as European countries found alternative sources within the EU. Trade continues of course but at a fraction of the rate that we saw in the 2000s.

Economic experts continue to question the wisdom of breaking off from the EU at a time of economic difficulties – and point to the fact that the unemployment figure has never gone below three million ever since. Cynics point out, however, that while the bulk of this unemployment is in areas which do not tend to vote Tory, there should be no danger to the Conservative majority.

On the more basic level, many people bemoan the loss of skilled help and relatively cheap labour from eastern Europe. Once the government imposed work permit requirements on all non-UK citizens, the exodus began but left the country critically short of skilled labour in agriculture and the NHS. Complaints about builders and plumbers have soared to record levels, and, despite the high level of unemployment, many employers say they struggle to get willing applicants to do the most basic of jobs.

(You may recall the scandal of the northern MP who smuggled a Polish plumber across the border from Scotland – using the excuse that he felt British plumbers did not provide sufficient skills and customer service. The Sun’s constant accusation of being ‘quisling’ and reminding him of Poland’s war record forced him to step down).

While the countries of the former UK continue to have different fortunes, mass apathy continues to remain. Political party membership is at all all-time low, turnouts for general elections are down to 40% with others in the 20s. And the restrictions on party funding make it virtually impossible for anyone, other than the Tories, to mount any sort of campaign.

Some would argue that football is more important, and we well remember the rejoicing in 2022 as Scotland qualified for their first world cup in 24 years. On the other hand, having left FIFA at the demands of the government and the media, England are, of course, ineligible for such events.

As for the continent, there were very difficult times in the 2010s, the Eurozone crises, the constant relaunches of the Euro - but they got there at last. The continent may be dominated by the larger powers, but all 35 states within the EU are enjoying continued growth and prosperity, the Euro continues to hold its own against the dollar, the yen and others, and the social unrest is just a memory.

Because of the waiting list, there are even suggestions of renaming the European Union to incorporate those countries from western Asia and north Africa who wish to have some sort of associate membership.

So King William may reflect on the contrasting fortunes of his commonwealth. Canada, Australia, Scotland, and, above all, India, continue to soar. England and Wales continue to struggle with seemingly permanent recession.

But the new King will no doubt hope that his reign will be far more peaceful than that of his father – so let us rejoice in his coronation, let us look forward to the new age, and let us pray for a new beginning and a break from the mistakes of the past.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Why I am pro-EU and pro-referendum

One afternoon, as I was strolling though Westminster, I was approached by a smartly-dressed young lady who was holding a clipboard. She explained they were collecting signatures for a petition to demand a UK referendum on membership of the European Union.

‘Do you think the UK should leave the European Union?’ she asked me.
‘No,’ I explained, ‘the EU is far from perfect but I think it is in our interests to stay in.’

She then politely thanked me and wandered off – no longer interested in my signing her petition. Presumably she thought I would not be interested in calling for a referendum – and in this she would be wrong.

Like most Liberal Democrats, I think the UK should be an active member of the European Union. The EU is a bureaucratic monster, a complete shambles, in dire need of cost-cutting reform – the Strasbourg building can go for a start – and we, the British, should be in there kicking backsides and rallying the members in sorting it all out.

However, I also believe we should have an immediate in-out referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Eurosceptics assume they have the monopoly on such a demand (a Facebook campaign for a referendum bombards me with anti-EU propaganda). But in this they are wrong.

There are many who would welcome a referendum and then to campaign to stay in. Paddy Ashdown, then Lib Dem leader, called for a referendum on the Maastrict treaty in 1992. Nick Clegg, at the time of Lisbon 2007, called for an in-out treaty. In both cases, the Conservative and Labour parties closed ranks to shout down such ideas. Presently Labour’s Keith Vaz is a prominent MP calling for a referendum – and defied his party whip to do so – even though he would support staying in.

There are many problems in today’s society where we need international co-operation – terrorism, organised crime, drugs and the environment are just some examples – no one state can effectively fight these issues on their own. And there are case in worker’s or minority rights where the EU has protected those that the state has let down.

It frustrates me to see the Eurosceptics leading the EU debate and that we are in but not in. Every time there is a new treaty or initiative we follow, we do not lead.

So why are pro-EUs calling for a referendum? My reasons are as follows.

1. The topic is far too important to be just another issue at general elections. During canvassing, hardly anyone referred to it with the main issues being prices, jobs and immigration. (The immigration issue is, of course, an EU effect despite impressive Tory slight-of-hand at the election).

2. There was a referendum in 1975 on the then-EEC – but this was 36 years ago, and Britain and Europe has changed much since then.

3. The domestic split weakens any British Prime Minister. Whereas Angela Merkel can carry the full weight of the German people, a British PM lacks this authority because of constant snipes amongst his own domestic front. A solid Yes vote from the British people would give the PM greater authority to battle for Britain’s share of the EU cake.

4. Once the Yes vote is carried, we can then get to the business in hand – we can all think of how we can make the EU better, less bureaucratic, more streamlined, and how it can work better for us. We can take the initiative instead of just following along.

5. A Yes campaign would make people more aware of the benefits the EU gives us. At the moment, the only information they get is from the newspaper media – hardly a balanced view. The EU is in desperate need of a good PR campaign.

6. If the vote is for No, then we give our two years' notice (as per Lisbon) and make preparations accordingly. This would be preferable to the ‘in-out-shake it all about’ situation we have the moment.

7. Whatever the result, it would be the end of UKIP. If we vote to stay in, then UKIP have lost the argument. If we vote to leave, then UKIP can say they have won, but then there is no point in carrying on.

Europe is a minor issue for the British people. Whereas other countries send their top people to the EU, we instead send rejected politicians and civil servants, and have a very low turnout in European parliament elections. How many people can name their MEPs? (The majority of whom have decided to exclude themselves from the centre of European policy).

People need to know that the EU has a great effect over their own lives. A national debate and a referendum will give them that knowledge – and further referendums over future treaties will increase that public participation.

So let’s back Britain, let’s back the EU, and let’s back a nationwide referendum.