My campaign to be the first regional Mayor of the West of England has got off to a flying start. After the selection of weak and inexperienced candidates by the Conservatives and Labour, I’ve been heartened by the reaction of people saying that they are glad the Liberal Democrats have put forward a strong choice. I have the right mix of local knowledge and experience of national power to make a success of the role of regional Mayor.
The Liberal Democrats are poised and ready to fight an upbeat campaign, ambitious for our region. I will work to grow our economy in a sustainable way. I will prioritise affordable homes and decent public transport. I can win an election in the West of England. The bookies agree! After my candidacy was announced Ladbrokes made me favourite to win, just ahead of my Conservative rival. The candidates from Labour, Green Party and UKIP are rank outsiders.
The Metro Mayor will work with a new Mayoral Combined Authority (MCA) made up of the council areas that cover Bath, North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire. The Mayor and MCA will have new powers that are currently exercised by government ministers in Westminster. This is the latest step in making Britain a less centralised country. The West of England and several other English regions are at last catching up with Wales, Scotland and London. The new West of England Mayor will be on a par with the Mayor of London.
The primary duty of the Mayor and MCA will be to grow and develop the region’s economy. To support this task, the Mayor will take on powers over roads and public transport, the allocation of land for jobs and homes and the provision of skills and training for adults. In the coming weeks I will be setting out my ambitious plans for using these powers. I will be publishing my vision in a detailed manifesto. This will not be based solely on my own ideas and experiences. I will draw on the ideas of my liberal colleagues and also a wide circle of local business leaders, social entrepreneurs and experts in the policy areas for which I hope to become responsible after the election on 4th May.
The following is therefore just a taster of my forthcoming plans for the West of England. I will set out some broad principles for the policy areas that fall within the remit of the Metro Mayor and also how I would work with others to achieve my aims.
The West of England is already the most prosperous city region in England. We could become even more prosperous if the factors that hold us back are tackled. These are mainly the shortage of affordable homes of all types and the woeful state of our public transport.
I also want our growing prosperity to be shared more evenly. There are some social groups that have been left behind. I will work hard with employers and training providers to widen the opportunities for single parents, newly arrived communities and those who have led dysfunctional lives. I see an enhanced role for social enterprises in tackling the issues that can hold people back.
Prosperity is also uneven in a geographical sense. The northern fringe of Bristol has seen an economic boom. The poor transport infrastructure has put huge pressure on local roads and made it difficult for people living in south Bristol or North East Somerset to access the new jobs. I will work with employers and investors to focus on the Temple Meads Enterprize Zone and other areas that would benefit from new employment. I see the priorities as Severnside, south Bristol, the Norton-Radstock area and Bristol Airport.
I will work with Business West and UK Trade and Investment to bring international investment to our region and also to grow our exports. Tourism and the creative industries are already making a great contribution but I believe the twin strengths of Bath and Bristol can be optimised by marketing them together as a world renowned brand.
The West of England’s prosperity has been underpinned by membership of the European Union’s Single Market and Customs Union. I worked with others to secure a strong Remain vote in the area. As Metro Mayor I will continue to fight against the damaging hard Brexit being pursued by the Conservatives, with the connivance of Labour. I will defend the rights of the tens of thousands of EU nationals who live and work in the West of England. Their contribution is essential to many of our key industries, our universities and our public services.
Affordable homes for everyone
As a country and a region we have failed to build enough homes in the last 40 years. The rate of house building in the West of England has not been enough to cater for our growing region. This puts huge financial pressure on people. House prices in the West of England are on average 10 times the level of salaries, with the ratio worst in Bath.
There is a draft “spatial plan” for the housing needs of the next 20 years, produced by the local councils. It is flawed and I will review it if I am elected. It puts a huge amount of pressure on the towns and villages of South Gloucestershire, the area that is already over-heated. The MCA is an opportunity to plan holistically for the economy, housing and transport. I will insert several guiding principles.
Firstly, a presumption in favour of development first within our two cities and several towns on brownfield land. I will establish a Mayoral Development Corporation to assemble land. I would prevent any urban sprawl of Bristol north of the M4. The green belt between city and country must be stoutly defended in that area. Similarly, I do not want to see towns and villages blended into each other. This is not a city versus country issue. The character of our towns and villages is appreciated by Bristolians and Bathonians as much as it is treasured by town and village dwellers.
New homes must be accompanied by enhanced bus and rail services to make the communities sustainable. I will help the councils raise the finance necessary for them to build more homes for social rent. The state must be more interventionist in the housing market as private sector providers will not plug the gap. I will also provide for a growing appetite for customised and self-build homes.
Public transport in the West of England is shockingly inadequate. Our bus services are not integrated, the largely cash based payment leads to slow journeys, congestion and pollution. The local rail services for Bath and Bristol are the worst of any city region in England.
I will use new bus regulation powers to push through cashless payment on board buses. More park and ride is needed around both cities but must not blight the rural landscape, such as the proposed Bathampton Meadows site.
Rail services must be expanded, with extra services for Yate, plus new stations at Ashley Down, Charfield and Saltford. I will also press ahead with the long hoped for new passenger services on the existing freight lines across north Bristol and to Portishead.
Rail and road services do not stop at the West of England boundary so I will work with the leaders of Wiltshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire to champion our wider regional case to central government. In particular, I will lead a deputation to Westminster to demand that our rail electrification is put back on schedule.
New housing areas will be built on existing transport corridors, making them more viable and strengthening the case for new transport investment. I will encourage the councils to continue enhancing cycle routes.
The post 19 skills budget transfers from central government agencies to the Metro Mayor in 2018. In the meantime I will plan with employers and colleges for the transfer. I will be particularly interested in proposals to tackle the gender imbalance in some apprenticeships. I also want to alleviate the pockets of long term worklessness in parts of Bristol and Bath. I will draw on my experience as Communities Minister to make sure that newly arrived immigrants have the language and other skills necessary for integration.
My style as Mayor
I know some people are sceptical about the need for another directly elected Mayor. However, devolution in England has been painfully slow and so we must seize this opportunity, make it work and demonstrate that our region can take on more responsibility in the years ahead.
As West of England Mayor I would firstly seek to work harmoniously with the leadership of the three council areas. I will welcome strong scrutiny from the 200 councillors and also draw on their detailed community knowledge. As someone who has served as a ward councillor and a national government minister I will be able to reconcile community interest with strategic vision. I will also want to harness the abilities of the nine constituency MPs in the West of England. I will be accessible to residents with public meetings across the whole area, urban and rural. I will be a strong voice for the region, meeting directly with senior members of the government, many of whom were my colleagues in the coalition.
Finally, the West of England has been a region too long over-looked by successive governments. We have not shouted loud enough for investment. The new Metro Mayoral office will bring this regional reticence to an end. I will bring together Bath, North East Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire – Together, with one voice.
Donald Trump’s arbitrary ban on immigration from seven Muslim states and his slamming of the door to all refugees will cause huge damage to the US around the world. Rather than make America safer it will deepen hatred among its enemies. I will also trigger revulsion among its friends. By imposing a blanket ban on Muslim immigrants Trump is handing a propaganda victory to the dangerous fundamentalists who hate western democracies. By shutting out refugees he is tearing up the treaties between civilised states that say we have a duty to save and welcome those in danger. Trump is a New Yorker. How the Statue of Liberty must be weeping…
Trump is behaving as President just as he did on the campaign trail. Some people might welcome a politician keeping their promises…but Trump’s campaign rhetoric was so extreme that few people expected him to be as extreme in office. Yet so far he has almost destroyed diplomatic relations with Mexico. He has spoken approvingly of the use of torture. In his inauguration speech he said his trade policy would be “America First”. This should make shudder those who thought Britain would be better off outside the EU.
What next? If I lived in Ukraine or Estonia or Latvia I’d be pretty worried. Trump wants to cosy up to Putin. He has questioned the fundamental principle of NATO, that an attack on one is an attack on all, with a duty to respond. East European NATO members honoured this commitment after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. Trump seems little inclined to listen to his security chiefs, bumping one of them off the National Security Council to make way for an “alt-right” journalist and Trump devotee.
The majority of Americans (and let’s not forget Hillary Clinton got more votes) will be horrified by the image of their country being shown to the rest of the world. Those of us actually in the rest of the world should be even more worried. America and Britain have both made plenty of foreign policy mistakes. But America has mainly been a force for good, standing for democratic freedoms against tyranny in Europe and elsewhere. An American retreat into an isolationist, selfish country would be a disaster for the world. America using its power to be a global trade bully is a frightening prospect.
I am embarrassed that Theresa May was so eager to dash across the Atlantic to pay homage to Trump. It’s even worse that she immediately gave him the highest diplomatic honour of an invitation for a full state visit. I’m glad that over a million people have signed the petition to stop this visit.
Trump’s behaviour is a warning to the world that we could be plunged into a new era of global insecurity. Britain should think again before walking away from the deep trade and cultural links that have secured peace and prosperity with our fellow members of the European Union.
The American President is often referred to as the Leader of the Free World. Trump doesn’t deserve that accolade and maybe he doesn’t want it. It will be up to Europe, Canada and other freedom loving states to take up the mantle. I want Britain to be part of that liberal world order, standing up for freedom, tolerance and trade that brings peace and prosperity.
The petition against Trump’s state visit can be signed here https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/171928
I’ve listened to two speeches in the last few days. One motivated me to redouble my efforts to support a cause I’ve long supported. The other left me depressed and worried about the future direction of our country. It was a rather dry lecture from a philosopher that gave me hope. It was the Prime Minister who gave me cause for worry. Prof AC Grayling told an audience in Bristol that Brexit was a national emergency to which we should respond with all forms of peaceful resistance. Theresa May set out her Brexit plan and it’s much harder to bear than I feared.
After losing my seat in the 2015 general election it would have been easy to have melted into the political background. But the calling of the EU referendum meant that I quickly rediscovered my political mojo. I threw myself into campaigning for a Remain vote in Bristol. I worked with Liberal Democrat colleagues but also was one of the founders of Bristol Stronger In. Working with people from other parties and none was uplifting. But in the early hours of 24th June I was despondent again. The ballot papers in front of me showed that Bristol had voted comfortably (62%) for Remain and my former Bristol West constituency had done so with an emphatic 80% vote. But the TV screens at the counting centre told a different story. Once again I was to leave a count just after dawn with a heavy heart.
What came next took me by surprise. First there was an influx of new members into Bristol Lib Dems. Then I was asked by a Labour member if I would meet with some people who wanted to fight together against the madness of Brexit. In the last six months I have been involved in the growth of a small band of people meeting every Friday evening to plan protest rallies, a march and petitioning. Some of the core group were political animals, most were new to politics. Now Bristol for Europe has over 2000 signed up supporters. At our Saturday street stalls we meet people with a real worry about where our country is going and a desire “to do something” to stop a hard Brexit. There’s also the occasional row with an unforgiving Leaver, which livens things up!
Hundreds of people have turned out to our rallies on Bristol College Green to hear speeches from me and Labour and Green Party representatives. We brought Bristol City Centre to a halt with our march, well supported despite the torrential rain. Last night we held our first evening speaker meeting. I was sceptical as to whether people would turn up to listen to a philosopher and what’s more, pay £5 to get in. But the Lantern Room at Bristol’s Colston hall filled to its 250 capacity and we could have let in many more. The lucky audience got quite a treat.
Prof Anthony Grayling is a well-established philosopher and media commentator. He is Master of the New College of Humanities, a London college set up as a result of the reforms put in place by Vince Cable and David Willets during the Coalition. Being his own boss clearly gives him the freedom to speak clearly and fearlessly, without the “on the one hand and then on the other” guff we often gets from academics worried about institutional reputation.
Grayling certainly spoke his mind. Each sentence was “like a perfectly crafted arrow” directed at our government, as someone put it to me in the bar afterwards. Grayling speaks with a soft voice so a velvet fist might be a better description of his duffing up of Theresa May, her government, the Labour Party and indeed the majority of the political class. His main charge was of the cowardice of Parliament to stand up for its own sovereignty. The referendum was advisory. MPs had been told so by the (superb) House of Commons Library. Now every letter he writes to MPs, asking them to do their jobs, is met with replies of “the country has voted” or “the people have spoken.”
But Grayling believes that the people have not spoken, at least not in sufficient numbers to force MPs to capitulate and wave through Brexit. He quoted the statistic that only 37% of “those given the opportunity to vote” had supported the Leave option. He went on to say that the opportunity to vote was denied to millions of people who would be profoundly affected by the outcome. These included 16 and 17 year olds (many of whom had voted in the Scottish independence referendum) plus EU nationals living in Britain and many British ex-pats living elsewhere in the EU.
So on the basis of an advisory vote that excluded many people and showing minority support for Vote Leave, Grayling said “Britain is being hustled out of the EU with undue haste” by Theresa May’s government. He went on to say that we are all “being hijacked by our own government!”
Grayling believes the rush to the Brexit door is a national emergency. In a democracy those of us who disagree have the right and the responsibility to offer peaceful resistance. He offered three approaches. First, bombard all MPs with letters. He believes MPs and Ministers eventually crumble under the weight of correspondence from angry constituents. Governments, he said, were like the Wizard of Oz, all sound and fury. But behind the Whitehall curtain lurk some less formidable people.
Second, there’s the recourse to law via the courts. At the time of writing we await the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether MPs must be given a vote on the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the opening of our departure negotiations. His third suggestion was less orthodox. He would like to see various forms of civil disobedience. He was not advocating a general strike, as had been reported in the press. Indeed, he joked that many of us in the audience probably did things that might not be missed by the public if we went on strike. Perhaps he thought we were mainly academics…
There is something in Grayling’s third suggestion. He pointed out that the communist regimes in Eastern Europe crumbled in the face of civil disobedience that often started with a regular city centre gathering of dissidents that grew into an unstoppable force. I have explored this with Bristol for Europe colleagues at this week’s meeting. Watch this space!
However, my personal experience makes me doubt the impact of Grayling’s plea for mass letter writing. This may once have been true. In my early years as Bristol West’s MP I read most of the incoming letters. That was because they were usually paper based and signed by a constituent. But soon the volume of emails became too great for me to read more than a selection. The staff team read them all and drafted replies that came from me. Once the likes of 38 Degrees started to bombard MPs’ offices with standard emails and repetitive phone calls I think MPs became immune to the force of numbers and saw it as simple bullying. The Wizard needs a different approach if we are to avert being blown away in a Brexit twister.
After the meeting I advised Anthony that it was far more effective to meet MPs in person, in their surgeries or Central Lobby. Remain supporting MPs will appreciate the personal encouragement. Leavers or those Remainers resigned to the finality of Brexit, need to see the whites of the eyes of constituents whose lives will be blighted by Brexit. He promised to incorporate this advice into his next talk.
Grayling gave me renewed determination to resist Brexit. On Tuesday morning I listened live to Theresa May, speaking at Lancaster House. My mind flashed back to 2014 when I spoke in the same room, as Communities Minister welcoming the President of Bosnia. I spoke of how a war ravaged Europe had come together, how the communist East was now in the EU and that the Balkans were now joining too. Peace and economic prosperity are the huge achievements of the EU.
Theresa May’s vision was rather more bleak. But at least she finally gave us some details of her plan. Her words were so damaging that she has had even more of an effect on me than Grayling. We know now that we are to jump out of the Single Market and probably the Customs Union too. Yet the Prime Minister says she wants a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU. Is she really so blind to the fact that our existing arrangement is the best deal we could possibly hope to secure? She went on to say that we would refuse to abide by European Court rulings on trade rules and that we would not pay (like Norway and Switzerland) for market access. This is a cake and eat it negotiation opening gambit. It will surely be met by a giant raspberry from the other 27 EU members.
So Theresa May’s new mantra is Brexit means Hard Brexit. Those of us who think this is a dangerous threat to the liberties of our citizens and will undermine our national prosperity, cannot stand idly by. Hard Brexit must be met by Hard Resistance.
A shorter version of this blog was published by Lib Dem Voice at http://www.libdemvoice.org/a-tale-of-two-speeches-52995.html
The report of the independent enquiry into Bristol’s year as European Green Capital is a big disappointment. In fact it could be described as limewash, covering over the cracks in the financial credibility of the council and the company it set up to deliver the programme of events in 2015.
It was a year ago that I first started asking questions about how the council and its company, Bristol 2015 Limited, had spent over £8million pounds of taxpayers’ money. I was alerted to the fact that various people had been rebuffed when making quite routine freedom of information requests about the awarding of contracts by the company. The company and the council were refusing to disclose details of expenditure. The vast bulk of the expenditure was financed by a £7m grant from the coalition government. As I had been instrumental in obtaining this grant for Bristol, I had a legitimate reason for putting my own questions to the council. But I got stonewalled too. But I persisted and I was pleased when the new Mayor, Marvin Rees, announced he would appoint an independent person to look at the issues.
Mayor Rees was as good as his word and last November I gave oral and written evidence to retired senior civil servant Steve Bundred. I stressed that my sole concern was the lack of financial transparency. I was always a keen supporter of Bristol Green Capital and the hundreds of activities that it spawned. I just wanted all the facts out in the open.
Unfortunately, today’s report does nothing to clear up concerns about the spending of our money. This may not be Mr Bundred’s fault. He was hampered by terms of reference that did not include the company’s financial practices. In the most telling phrase in the report Bundred admits that his focus was not on the finances but rather it was on “learning from successes.” In other words, he was pronouncing the year itself a great achievement, which I have never doubted, with the finances just a minor issue. Bizarrely, he asserts that “suspicions were wholly unfounded, as the council has subsequently established.” He offers no evidence for the council’s finding that all was sound on the money front.
Bundred does acknowledge the central point of my complaint, that the company should have anticipated requests for transparency. He goes on to say that he beleives that “avoidance of freedom of information responsibilities can never be a legitimate objective of a public body.” This rather leaves hanging in the air the question whether the company was set up expressly to avoid financial scrutiny. He does at least say that future big projects that involve the private sector should have transparency embedded from the start.
So what have we learned? Not very much. We still don’t know who were the beneficiaries of some very lucrative contracts for PR and digital comms. If the money had been spent directly by the council then we would know about every £500. As it is, we are still in the dark. Bundred’s report could have shone a light, recommending that the council publish all the information that it holds. But he didn’t, so all we can hope for now is that some public spirited whistle blower does the right thing.
This is all a great shame. I am proud of the fact that Bristol won the award of green capital. Some great things were done in 2015. Thousands of school children know more about how to live in a sustainable city. Many community groups delivered great local projects. Thousands of people volunteered their time. Sustainability and transparency should go hand in hand. The public expect both from their political leaders. But in 2015 only one of them was delivered.
You can read more about the questions I asked in my blogs in January, February, March and June 2016.
This is the link to Bundred’s report https://www.bristol.gov.uk/bristol-green-capital
One hundred years ago today David Lloyd George became Prime Minister. He was Britain’s greatest radical leader. His liberal radicalism was unchecked by any vestiges of class background and little dimmed by religion. He is, so far, the only Welshman to lead our country (though Cromwell was of Welsh descent) and was the first from humble origins. He stormed the heights from outside the political establishment, without any of the advantages of family background, schooling, wealth or military accomplishment. His ascendancy a hundred years ago, when Britain was at the height of its imperial power, looks all the more remarkable when you look at the backgrounds of most 21st century leaders.
He is remembered for his achievements in both peace and war, unlike his colleague and friend Churchill who has eclipsed him in popular memory but is celebrated solely for his wartime leadership. In peacetime as Chancellor he worked in partnership with Asquith to give us old age pensions and payments for sickness and unemployment, financed by the scheme of national insurance that endures today. As Prime Minister of a war time coalition he delivered votes for all men over 21 and women over 30. He built the first council houses and wanted all new homes to be “fit for heroes”. As a Liberal coalition housing minister myself I visited the Building Research Establishment that he founded.
As Prime Minister during a war crisis he was the most powerful man in the land. The establishment needed his dynamism and leadership, yet he had nothing but contempt for most of them. He paid little heed to their rules of etiquette, having an active sex life outside an otherwise loving and long lasting marriage to Margaret. He railed against the House of Lords when it blocked his 1909 “People’s Budget”, using language about the men “drawn at random from the unemployed” that outraged polite society. Later he would sell peerages and honours to raise money for political funds. A parallel may be drawn with King James I, a ruler from the Celtic fringe who also had little time for English manners.
Lloyd George spent 55 years unbroken service in the House of Commons and was a minister in continuous office from 1905 to 1922. He was ousted at the height of his abilities, with so much more to give but never again given the chance to lead. He was kept out of office as the non-Conservative forces fragmented around Asquith’s pride and stubborn refusal to stand aside and MacDonald’s determination for Labour to supplant the Liberals, at all costs. The 1920s echo nine decades later.
It is a shame that the most significant years of Lloyd George’s career were before the age of film and sound recording. He was a great political showman, taking a pride in his appearance as well as care with his words. His oratory, read today off a printed page and imagining the cadence and style of delivery, is stunning. His ability to deploy words as a political weapon probably owed much to childhood listening to chapel sermons (many from the uncle who brought him up in Llanystumdwy) and close study of fellow political orators. His verbal dexterity may also stem from his bilingualism, with his famous words delivered in his second language.
As a liberal politician from a Welsh background I have always revered Lloyd George. The history books have not always been kind to him, highlighting his sex life, cavalier attitude to money and a tendency for political shiftiness. But which great political career did not feature elements of betrayal and vice? When his nation needed him, with 1916 being as critical a time as 1940, he did not flinch from the task.
There is a song “Lloyd George knew my father” but in my case they certainly never met. But I did have the pleasure of meeting one of his daughters (by his first wife) Lady Olwen Carey Evans. Thirty years ago she was the guest of honour at a Welsh Liberal SDP Alliance conference. She was the oldest attendee and I was the youngest and we were photographed together. Unfortunately I never got a copy. Lloyd George himself, a great moderniser, would have been a star in our current age of social media.
A century after he became Prime Minister David Lloyd George deserves to be remembered as one of the great holders of that office. As a war leader he is up there with Pitt the Younger and Churchill. As a radical reformer he matches Gladstone and surpasses Attlee. Much of what he achieved endures today and all modern liberals, radicals and progressives should celebrate his life and legacy.
Liberals on both sides of the Atlantic will have their heads in their hands today. How on earth could one of the best prepared candidates in American history be defeated by a loud mouthed, pampered extremist with no government experience? On the back of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union 2016 is going to be the year two liberal nightmares became reality.
This is a rude wake up call for every liberal, progressive centre left politician and commentator in the USA and Europe. Liberal and social democrat (let alone socialist) parties and governments are struggling everywhere, with the notable exception of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party government in Canada. Brexit and Trump’s victory has shattered the cosy consensus among the political establishment, including for this purpose the centre right conservative and Christian Democrat parties, that globalisation and mass immigration were necessary and beneficial for all advanced economies. It also exposes the feeling of many people, especially white straight men, that the equal rights given to women and various minorities are a challenge to their status. Many people are fed up with being told what they can’t say and do. Rather like at the end of Gladstone’s great reforming ministry in 1874, the people may have “grown tired of being improved” by their liberal masters.
What are the lessons that must be learned by liberals and other centre left thinkers? I think the main one is that we should listen more to and understand more about people’s concerns, as they feel them and choose to express them. If you are well educated then rapid change in the economy and society is something that you’re well equipped to adapt to. You may even find it exhilarating. But if your formal education stopped at school leaving age then rapid change is more of a challenge. It’s something that alarms you, rather than something that you want to embrace.
Globalisation has brought about a collapse of extractive and manufacturing industries in many communities such as my own native South Wales or Tyneside in north east England. The same is true in parts of Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump and Brexit campaigners exploited the resentment that jobs that were once secure and generally well paid had been offshored to China and Eastern Europe. Globalisation has also seen a massive expansion in financial and ancillary services. But these jobs are in London and New York and are for the well-educated. When they had an economic crisis in 2007-10 they were bailed out by the taxpayer. When steel, mining and manufacturing faced a challenge the result was closure, unemployment and boarded up shops.
Liberals need to say loud and clear that they know some groups have been hurt by rapid economic change. An interventionist industrial policy should spread the new jobs that come from the digital economy and other new industries to parts of the country that have felt the loss of traditional jobs. Trump will soon be exposed for not being able to “bring back the jobs” that have been lost to Mexico or China. But if he’s as “smart” as he says then he will put in the infrastructure spending and tax incentives to get new well paid jobs to Detroit and Pittsburgh. In Britain the Coalition government made a start on developing regional centres and Vince Cable developed a series of industrial strategies, seeking to copy Germany. The new Tory government will have to go further to make sure Brexit doesn’t widen Britain’s economic divide.
Liberals also need to appreciate that some people are troubled by the rapid social change of the last few decades. We shouldn’t retreat from advances made for women and minorities. Overt sexism, racism or homophobia must be faced down. But if people complain about housing allocations, school places, waiting to see a doctor or say they don’t like the way some immigrants don’t integrate, then their concerns should not be ignored or dismissed as racist or ignorant. We must understand some people feel that others have seen their status rise while their own self esteem has fallen. In ‘Mississippi Burning’, the film about racism in the deep South, Gene Hackman’s FBI character tells a colleague that his daddy poisoned a black farmer neighbour’s cow as if he “wasn’t better than a negro, who was he better than?” Resentment can lead to prejudice and bad behaviour. But the cause of the resentment needs to be addressed, as well as telling someone that prejudice is wrong.
Finally, the behaviour of liberals themselves has made it easier for demagogues to succeed. Liberals, social democrats and socialists are pretty vicious to each other. If a progressive in government compromises in order to get most of a policy into law or fails to achieve 100% of a manifesto then it must be a betrayal and a sell-out. The British Labour Party in 2016 prefers to be led by the purist Corbyn and largely disowns its most successful leader Tony Blair. Bernie Sanders helped make Hillary Clinton toxic to many young voters.
When the comrades aren’t stabbing each other in the back they like nothing better than to dance on the grave of a liberal. Seeing off progressive rivals is often seen as a higher priority than defeating conservatives. I understand this is jokingly referred to as “business before pleasure” inside Labour. This attitude will make it harder for the Liberal Democrats to defeat the Brexit supporting Tory Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by election. The local green party have behaved more constructively than their American standard bearer Jill Stein whose candidacy in Florida and New Hampshire has helped Trump in the same way as Ralph Nader helped Bush in 2000. We must all learn that belittling and toxifying each other only helps the conservatives in politics.
So if liberals and other progressives are to recover the political initiative then we need to listen to people’s concerns and reassure them where they are valid. When the concerns are wrong or the benefits of globalisation in terms of cost of living, new products and new opportunities are not appreciated then we should redouble efforts to stand up for the benefits of a more open society. We must have credible answers that deal with their anxieties about their social and economic status. And we must find ways of cooperating with like-minded politicians and thinkers, abandoning petty tribalism. If liberals don’t respond quickly to the rise in support for demagogues then the likes of Trump, Farage and Le Pen will set the agenda for the next decade.
Brexit has changed the face of Britain before it even takes effect. An ugly face of our country has been unmasked and dark forces unleashed. The 16 million who voted to Remain in the European Union have been branded traitors by the more hot headed Brexiteers. Foreigners have been abused on public transport and businesses owned by east Europeans have been vandalised. The Home Secretary, who voted remain, announced an outrageous plan to force businesses to draw up lists of non-British employees. Anyone with just the slightest grasp of European history should have alarm bells ringing in their head.
Now the right wing press, cheerleaders for Brexit, has turned its fire on British judges for upholding the right of Parliament to vote on government plans that affect the rights of every British citizen. “Enemies of the People” screams the front page of the Daily Mail, with pictures of the three High Court Justices who ruled that Parliament must vote on the triggering of Article 50, against the wishes of Theresa May’s Brexit-Tory government. The Sun says that a “loaded foreign elite” led by a “foreign born multi-millionaire” are attempting to dictate to the British people. No, the editor has not gone on a suicide mission to attack his Australian born, USA citizen, billionaire media mogul boss Rupert Murdoch. He’s actually attacking Gina Miller, the Guyana born but British citizen and London based fund management entrepreneur who led the legal challenge against the government’s intention to deny MPs a vote on Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The Express, not to be outdone, says we are in a crisis “as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches.”
All three tabloids have a long record of stirring up hatred of foreigners and immigrants. They now must be deliberately trying to deepen the division in society after the vote to leave the EU. Of course judges or anyone else in authority should not be above criticism. Questioning the decisions of our rulers is essential in a liberal democracy. But branding whole groups of people “traitors” or “enemies of the people” comes from the language of totalitarian dictators, not a free press. During the French Revolution, before sending enemies to the guillotine, Robespierre said that the “revolutionary government owes nothing to the enemies of the people but death.” Lenin used much the same language during the Russian Revolution. Our high court judges are, I assume, pretty well protected but others who want to defend the rights of British citizens in the European Union will have no protection from verbal and physical abuse.
A sense of irony is presumably lobotomised out of all tabloid editors, such is their need to pander to all sorts of competing prejudices and conflicting viewpoints. But these are the same papers that took up Boris Johnson’s cry that the referendum was all about “taking back control” from European law makers and European judges, so that the British Parliament became sovereign and only British judges adjudicated on our freedoms. I’m fed up with Theresa May’s parroting of the vacuous “Brexit means Brexit” but surely if Brexit means anything it means Parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of British law?
The three judges were doing their job, upholding British law. The rights and freedoms of British citizens cannot be taken away by the executive, or the “crown” to use its original name. This has been the British constitutional settlement since the 17th century, with Charles I and his second son James II both being despatched in order to establish the sovereignty of Parliament. Our MPs (plus the anachronism of unelected Peers) stand between us and an over-mighty government. The triggering of Article 50 in order to begin the negotiations to leave the European Union is a fundamental act that will affect the rights of every British citizen. Article 50 is a clause of the Treaty of Lisbon. As an MP I voted to ratify that treaty in January 2008. Triggering the clause must surely be done by the government only after it has obtained the authority of Parliament.
Yet we do not know what terms the government is seeking from our current European partners. I for one do not want to be stripped of my European Union passport. It gives me the right to travel freely, without the costs and restrictions of visas, around most of Europe. I don’t want to lose the right to work in Paris or Berlin. I don’t want the children of my friends and family to be stripped of the right to study in Europe. I don’t want the entrepreneurs who make our economy hum to be stripped of access to the world’s largest single market. If Theresa May intends to surrender all of these rights that belong to me and my friends then of course our Parliament must be able to vote on whether those terms are acceptable. I do not understand how anyone can rationally defend a position where a government (which did not have these threats to my freedom in its election manifesto) can contemplate throwing away our rights without authority from Parliament.
Even worse would be keeping us all in the dark about the government’s intentions. Ministers say that this is to protect their negotiating hand. But Brussels is not Las Vegas and my rights are not a game of poker. In a free society we have the right to know what the government is doing in our name and our Parliament has the obligation to defend those rights or at the very least not surrender them without question.
Of course when it comes to it, Mrs May will get her Article 50 trigger through Parliament. Tory MPs will mostly vote for it. Labour MPs, looking over their shoulders at Brexit voting constituents in a majority of their seats, will hold their nose and vote it through. If I were still an MP I would firstly want to bind the government to a negotiation objective that secures the best of the European Union. But if the government were intent on a hard Brexit then I would vote against Article 50 as I believe it would harm the interests of all citizens, including those who voted to leave. As a Liberal Democrat I believe there must be another referendum in 2018 or 2019 on the final deal negotiated by the government.
We are living in dangerous times and it is the duty of all of us who believe in freedom and the rule of law to make our voices heard. I may be branded a “remoaner” or even a traitor but now is not a time for liberals to be bullied into silence.