Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Why I'm proud of Nick Clegg's stance on drug law

Nick Clegg: "treatment not punishment"
Back in 2011, I gave my first speech to Liberal Democrat Conference.

Unsurprisingly to those who know me, this was on the need to reform our approach to drugs

I spoke  of the need to abandon the "war on drugs" (which isn't working), to consider drug use more in terms of it being a health issue than a criminal matter, of taking an evidence-based approach and of the wisdom of considering the merits of the Portuguese mode.

I was one of many speakers that day, who helped to ensure a historic vote in favour of re-evaluating the law and decriminalising drug use. I was very proud of our party on that day - in spite of the predictable interpretations from the right-wing press we did the right - and, indeed, sensible - thing. The so-called "war on drugs" and successive government "crackdowns" on drug use have utterly failed - it's time to rethink our strategy, while listening to those who are experts in this field and looking at the examples of our European neighbours.

Today Nick Clegg, with Sir Richard Branson who is a member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, has urged the UK government to begin decriminalising most drugs. Clegg and Branson assert, in a piece published in The Guardian, that “as an investment, the war on drugs has failed to deliver any returns. If it were a business, it would have been shut down a long time ago. This is not what success looks like.

“The idea of eradicating drugs from the world by waging a war on those who use them is fundamentally flawed for one simple reason: it doesn’t reduce drug taking. The Home Office’s own research, commissioned by Liberal Democrats in government and published a few months ago, found there is no apparent correlation between the ‘toughness’ of a country’s approach and the prevalence of adult drug use. This devastating conclusion means that we are wasting our scarce resources, and on a grand scale.”

Branson, who usually dislikes taking a political position,believes that "the status quo is a colossal con perpetrated on the public by politicians who are too scared to break the taboo." He isn't wrong on that score.

In today's press conference, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

"We know that around one third of British adults have taken illegal drugs in their lifetime. For many, it's something you try when you're young then grow out of. In this country, if you're a young person – say, out at a club with friends – and you get arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs, it's likely you'll end up with a criminal record. That means this stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it's as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even a taxi driver."

Now that's patently sensible stuff. But this hasn't stopped the usual voices of unreason in the right-wing press from turning on Clegg. Equally as predictably, the euphemistically named Centre for Social Justice, has voiced its own opposition with chief executive Christian Guy taking to twitter to announce that "cannabis causes major problems in our poorest communities & ruins lives. The detached liberal elite doesn't get that."

What the detached CSJ doesn't "get" is that we are very aware of the potential risks of cannabis use, but that in itself is no reason to criminalise and ban things. No doubt people's lives are often ruined in other ways - such as people having affairs, through extreme religious indoctrination or taking part in dangerous sports. But none of these things are banned. I note that Guy doesn't apply his logic to either alcohol or gambling, so naturally find his argument somewhat thin. He does, however, make the implied charge that those advocating a more considered approach towards drug use are guilty of naivety and of seeking to worsen the situation of those in poverty.

Nothing could be further from the truth. What Nick Clegg, and others, are hoping to achieve is to free people from a system that enslaves and keeps them in prisons of their past. We don't want the opportunities of what Christian admits are often society's most vulnerable and disadvantaged people to be compromised by having a criminal record for possessing a bit of weed.

A number of charities have also added their names to the list of Clegg's critics - criticisms include the oft-debunked notion that cannabis use leads to "harder" drug use and that there are proven links between "skunk" use and first episode psychosis. However, what these voices fail to appreciate is that use of both harder drugs and stronger forms of cannabis are themselves a product of prohibition. So long as the black market exists it is logical that stronger, higher yielding versions of products are sought. Legalise cannabis, and it will be much easier to control the strength (and safety) of substance being used - reducing the health risks in the process.

This naturally applies to all other drugs, too.

The positive thing is that, with the Liberal Democrats making the right noises, opposition is tending to come from the same obvious outlets: the Conservative Party, the Daily Mail, and the CSJ. It is they who are refusing to follow the lead of the evidence on this matter, not Nick Clegg. Fortunately, the rest of the mainstream media are less overtly hostile and the very fact that such a well-known figure from the business world as Richard Branson is sharing a platform with the Deputy Prime Minister shows how far public opinion has shifted.

The Sun also turns on Nick Clegg, but has surprisingly little negative to say about the policy itself, preferring to ridicule on the basis of poll ratings instead. It seems that it, too, has given up on the "war on drugs".

While no other party has been quite as bold as the Liberal Democrats in advocating a fresh approach to drugs, the attitudes of the SNP and Labour are significantly more open to new possibilities. It is not the Liberal Democrats who are isolated on this front, but the reactionaries within the Conservative Party who vainly believe the "war on drugs" is somehow faring better than the "war on terror". The steadfast refusal to accept certain realities is tantamount not only to a national embarrassment but of a wilful determination to prevent some of our most vulnerable citizens suffering from the stigma, marginalisation and deprivation of opportunity that a criminal record represents.

The Liberal Democrats have today confirmed that our election manifesto will commit to ending the use of imprisonment for possession for personal use, allowing for cannabis to be prescribed for medicinal use, making the Department of Health rather than the Home Office responsible for drug policy, and adopting an approach similar to Portugal's to facilitate treatment rather than punishment. We have also committed to enforcing tough penalties for those who manufacture or deal in illegal drugs.

Nick Clegg today, in spite of the hostility from some quarters, made a speech in which he said:

“Drugs reform, like prison reform, is one of those issues that political parties always talk big about in opposition, only to fall silent and do nothing in Government. Not the Liberal Democrats...We believe the time for action on drugs reform is now.

“The 'War on Drugs' hasn't worked. Despite the decades of tough talking and billions spent in waging this war, the global drug problem and the criminal markets that underpin it remain all but untouched by our enforcement efforts.

“I’m incredibly frustrated that, after five years in Coalition, we cannot take our work to its logical conclusion – just because the Tories are scared of being branded soft on drugs. It’s time [for] the world has moved on; reform is no longer a taboo subject and voters expect politicians to deliver results based on solid evidence, not overblown rhetoric.

“If you’re anti-drugs, as I am, then you have a responsibility to look at the evidence of what actually works to reduce drug harm. We need to get a grip on this problem. So, if you’re anti-drugs, you should be pro-reform...politicians are letting down the victims of the drugs trade by failing to engage with the evidence.

“Talking tough while acting weak may be tempting, but it no longer fools anyone.  It is time to commit to a radically smarter approach to tackle this problem head-on.

“The first step is to recognise that drug use is primarily a health issue. [Secondly] handing out criminal records to users does nothing to reduce overall levels of drugs use. [Currently] a stupid youthful mistake could damage your whole future – possibly stopping you from getting the job you want, whether it’s as a doctor, nurse, teacher or even taxi-driver. We need to put an end to this ludicrous situation. Our focus should be on getting them the help they need, not punishment, so they can go on to realise their ambitions and make a positive contribution to society.

“The time for change has come. We need political leaders to let go of the same old, safe language, to end the war on drugs and, instead, use their power to implement evidence-based policies that work.

“That’s how we save lives. It’s how we punish the pushers, not the users and the victims of drugs. It’s how we stop the violence, reduce addiction and secure the fairer, more peaceful and prosperous world we want.”

I perhaps don't say it too often, but today I'm immensely proud to admit that I agree with Nick.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Lib Dems should support EU veto

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
It's good to recognise when other parties make positive suggestions.

This weekend Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood indicated that she has devised a plan with Nicola Sturgeon that would mean Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland could veto the UK's exit from the EU.

Effectively, the veto would mean that an English majority vote in support of an EU exit would not in itself be sufficient to guarantee a withdrawal.

There has been some criticism of the "democratic" merit of this position - some are arguing that this makes a referendum pointless, or that a simple arithmetic should be sufficient. Scots and Welsh have been represented by some as seeking to enforce their wills upon England.

This is simplistic, and such suggestions betray attitudes that fail to understand the realities currently facing the Union. There will be no more powerful case for Scottish independence than for English voters to enforce an EU withdrawal not supported by Scotland's electorate. Similarly, those who seek to present a new type of union - in which the constituent nations are a family of equals - need to be careful what signals they send out if they reject this proposal.

I for one do not believe that the majority of English people are as Euroskeptic as some would suggest. I think a referendum would result in a win for those championing continued EU membership. But it could be a close thing, and I don't blame Wood and Sturgeon for seeking to put in place safeguards to secure Welsh and Scottish interests.

I'd even go so far as to suggest this is what federalism should look like. Leaving the EU would have a significant effect on Wales and Scotland, something understood by their voters, who are much less anti-EU than certain parts of England. Why then should Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland not have the option to block change that has been rejected by their voters in a democratic referendum?

It's not really a veto that Wood is calling for, but for all UK nations to be recognised as such and for a final decision on exit only to be binding if it wins support of a majority of voters in all four countries. The situation in which England votes for exit and the others vote to remain in the EU is hypothetical, but it remains a distinct possibility.  At the heart of the issue is not so much the question of EU membership, but that of a democratic marginalisation of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - one that is increasingly being felt in Scotland.

Where should the Liberal Democrats stand on this? I'd challenge a federalist, pro-European party to support a plan that I believe can further the case for federalism while taking a step towards securing continued EU membership. There will naturally be howls of opposition from Tories who fail to understand democracy in any other terms than the country with the largest population having the loudest voice. But those who value the Union need to think long and hard about the nature of that Union - and the kind of relationships between the "family" members. Do we want to create a dominant England and an increasingly resentful Scotland? Do we wish to see a "family of equals"?

Unlike David Cameron's ham-fisted approach towards the "English question" - manifesting itself in the ill-conceived English Votes for English Laws proposals - this from Plaid Cymru's leader at least recognises political reality, and also the essential truth that it is federalism (including English devolution) that will provide the answer to Cameron's conundrum.

I hope Lib Dems can support this - it would be positive to see some active promotion of the federalism we preach with such gusto.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Remembering Holocaust Memorial Day

Today various events across the UK mark Holocaust Memorial Day.

From Lewis to Cornwall, thousands of people will remember the estimated eleven million victims of the Nazis’ systematic and brutal killing machine – as well as those who have been killed in subsequent genocides.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will attend a Holocaust Memorial Day service this evening at Ayr Town Hall, just one of many gatherings which aims to honour those who died while reflecting on the effects of intolerance, discrimination and hatred.

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27th January annually to recall the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi death camps. We recall the “Final Solution”, a chillingly well co-ordinated liquidation of a race of people in which an estimated six million Jewish men women and children lost their lives. We also remember the relentless persecution and anti-Semitic legislation which, from 1933, denied many of the most basic human rights to Jews and essentially sought to strip them of their humanity.

The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2015 is “Keep the memory alive”. In remembering honestly, we must reflect on the suffering of Europe’s Jews at one of the darkest times in modern history. But we also should remember the five million other non-Jewish Holocaust victims who died at the hands of the Nazis, and the countless others who personally experienced oppression and exclusion simply because of who they were. These include political opponents (e.g. Communists and Social Democrats), disabled people, Romany gypsies, Poles, people with mental health problems, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian priests such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe, twins (Dr Josef Mengele required them for his “research”) and, inevitably, gay people.

Indeed, the Nazi quest to exterminate gay people was as organised and thorough as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. Peter Tatchell explains at length in a thoughtful, and sometime harrowing, contribution for the Huffington Post the consequences of being gay in Nazi Germany. Like the approach to Jews, the process of persecution began with homophobic legislation and a deliberate cultivating of intolerance towards a particular section of society. This in turn led to homosexual orientation becoming an arrestable offence in itself, the propagation of pseudo-scientific gay “cures”, gay people being classified as “inferiors” and – ultimately and horrifyingly – the mass murder of homosexual people in a warped quest to reserve the genetic purification of the German people.

The words of Heinrich Himmler leave little room for doubt as to the Nazi’s plans: "We must exterminate [homosexuals] root and branch... We can't permit such danger to the country; the homosexual must be entirely eliminated." The systematic elimination of gay people was so thorough that very few survived to tell of their ordeals.

The Holocaust casts a long shadow over Jewish history, but also over that of Europe’s LGBTI communities. Remembrance is not the preserve or responsibility of one group of people but of all society – when one of us is demeaned and dehumanised so too are all of us. The scale of the Holocaust must never be forgotten, but neither too should its origins. We must remember how certain groups were classified, symbolised as “different” – becoming objects of hatred – and systematically dehumanised, their fundamental rights as human beings being denied. The lessons of the Holocaust are as relevant today as ever: legitimisation of discrimination and the divisive language of “us” and “them” have been at the root of every genocide in history.

I have some personal interest in the Holocaust. My maternal grandfather was a Polish Jew who fought in the RAF during World War II. He left his family behind, and saw none of them again. We can only guess what possible fates befell them, although it seems more than probable they ended their lives in Auschwitz. My stepfather’s father was a member of the Allied force that liberated Bergen-Belsen. They had quite different experiences, but neither was able to talk about them openly. Each lived with their unspeakable memories of the horrors they had witnessed, or of loved ones they knew to be lost.

It is not only the Nazi atrocities that are remembered at this time, but also the many genocides that have taken place since – in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. As well as the victims, we remember those who were heroes for peace – the often unsung people who did so much to relieve human suffering during wither the Holocaust or more recent genocides: people such as Donald Caskie (a Church of Scotland minister who was “straight at home and gay abroad”), Raoul Wallenberg, Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, Irena Sendler and David Ndaruhutse are just a few of those who denounced philosophies of discrimination and resisted oppression.

As a bisexual person of Jewish descent Holocaust Memorial Day has a specific and profound personal significance. But it also has importance to wider society, as we remember what has gone before and accept the challenge of confronting hate and creating a safer, more tolerant and inclusive future.

In remembering the Holocaust honestly, we should not be considering banning Mein Kampf (as one Labour MP is suggesting) but improving education. Mein Kampf and its philosophy should instead be confronted and exposed for what they are – the 90-year old ramblings of a self-deluded megalomaniac who delivered untold suffering to millions of people.  We need such examples from history to actively demonstrate where intolerance leads.

Fortunately, the Holocaust Memorial Trust is committed not to banning what helps us understand the past, but to using the experiences of the past to challenge how we live in the present and demonstrating how we can all contribute to a better tomorrow – one in which all differences are not only accepted but respected.

Further information on Holocaust Memorial Day events can be found on the Trust's website.

This piece was originally written for KaleidoScot.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

If this is Home's rather underwhelming

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg today argued that the implementation of the Smith proposals represents "Home Rule" for Scotland.

Writing for Scotland on Sunday, Clegg insisted that "Thursday was a good day for Scotland and our United Kingdom...The Scottish Parliament has grown in authority and stature in its short life and these new and significant powers will enable it to grow even more.

"You will have the flexibility to do things differently in Scotland as Holyrood will now raise the majority of the money it spends. It means if you want to spend more on mental health care, like Liberal Democrats have advocated, then you can do that. Likewise if you want to cut taxes for those on low and middle incomes then that will be possible too. These are two priorities that Liberal Democrats will be making the case for." So far, so good.

Clegg also referred to the Scottish welfare budget of £2.5 billion, which can be used to provide "support for people with disabilities and carers", and to the advent of votes for 16 and 17 year olds.Again, all good liberal ideas, but am I missing something?

"Home rule is part of the Liberal Democrats’ DNA" he said. Indeed it is, which is why I'm wondering how anyone could possibly call the Smith proposals "Home Rule".

"It’s part of our history going back to William Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign in the late 1870s. We have always been 100 per cent behind the transfer of powers away from London and these new powers mark an exciting time in Scottish politics." I am not entirely sure on the 100 per cent claim, but he's correct that our Home Rule credentials go back almost 150 years. There can be no denying this, but the political realities today are very different than in the early days of the Liberal Party. Whether Gladstone would or would not have recognised the Smith recommendations as the embodiment and fulfilment of his aspirations is questionable, but what is more apparent is that as far as modern Liberal Democrats are concerned, these plans fall far short of our own plans for Scottish Home Rule within a federalist UK. So, why is the leader so keen to suggest that the Holy Grail of "Home Rule" has finally been realised?

Clegg makes some valid points about "the fog of negativity", the absurdity of Conservative proposals for English Votes for English Laws (which he calls an attempt to "correct an anomaly in the UK creating another anomaly") and the merits of the Smith proposals. But he is over-egging the pudding more than slightly. What is needed are not ridiculous claims and triumphalism from any party, but an acceptance that a compromise deal has been reached through which certain benefits have been obtained. These changes move us further down the road of devolution; they are welcome; they realise some historical Liberal objectives; they ensure that Scotland will become more autonomous than any other region of the UK.

But these changes do not realise "Home Rule". Neither do they really move us closer towards a federalist settlement - although the constitutional convention Clegg wants to see work on the English question very possibly could. What Smith did was to recommend a number of changes to how devolution works, and in the circumstances it delivered. It delivered a strengthened Scottish Parliament - it did what the rather ambiguous and non-specific "vow" demanded.  It might have delivered more, although I'd have been surprised if it had been bolder. I'm not going to join the cynics, but for this believer in "Home Rule" the proposals cannot be the end of the line but only the beginning, and do not represent the triumph of Gladstonian Liberalism over SNP Nationalism.

A great deal of what Nick Clegg had to say was positive. But, if this is Home Rule, then it feels rather underwhelming.

It is quite deflating to see not only Nick Clegg, but also various others including even Margaret Curran, attempting to sell the Smith Commission as the culmination of a century and a half of often fraught political campaigning. I'm sure I'm not the only person to take that view. In fact, to see Labour championing the supposedly newly-gained "Home Rule" as their own cause is quite nauseating.

When we think about "Home Rule", it does not mean a bit of tinkering with devolution. It is something bold and radical. It might even be called extreme, or ultra devolution. It is a worthy aspiration, but to use such loaded terminology to describe something that is (to misuse Nick Clegg's derisory description of an AV referendum) "a miserable little compromise" as the fulfilment of the Liberal dream is going too far and risks offending those of us for whom "Home Rule" is something far more ambitious. That's not to say that the compromise reached isn't progress, but let's not overreach ourselves.

A sense of proportion is necessary. Smith represents some welcome and overdue progress - nothing more, nothing less.

I hope we Lib Dems continue to talk about, and work towards, Home Rule. It is, as Clegg rightly states, in our DNA. But let's not have any of this nonsense that it's already a reality.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

A few thoughts on yesterday's Trident debate

Nick Harvey: "[Trident] is assumed to be beyond debate"
Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

A fair bit has been made of yesterday's Opposition Day debate on Trident - although arguably the media have not given it quite as much attention as it merits.

True, it's a debate on a motion that has zero chance of being passed. This, however, does not make it irrelevant - in fact, Trident renewal is of huge interest to voters, especially in Scotland where attitudes are more clearly defined.

The nuclear "deterrent" has long been an issue that has plagued, and to some degree defined, the Liberal Democrats and its predecessor parties (anyone remember Eastbourne in 1986?). There are a polarity of views within the party, but essentially there has always been a sizable section of the membership vehemently opposed. And so, in spite of an official line to abstain, it was going to be interesting how Lib Dem MPs would vote.

The first thing I should do is to thank the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party for securing the debate. Please understand me - I fully appreciate their politically-motivated reasons for doing this (especially the SNP, who are seeking to cement in the public imagination their determination to make Trident renewal  a "red-line issue" in any post-election negotiations) - but we should be grateful that Trident renewal has been placed on the Commons agenda. We should not be afraid to debate what is of interest to many British voters, and this is an issue that will not go away.Whether we should continue to commit to £100 billion renewal at a time of austerity is something that at least deserves to be discussed openly.

As Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey observed during the debate, "keeping a nuclear deterrent going at the level we thought necessary at the height of the cold war in 1980 gets an automatic bye and is assumed to be beyond debate. Nobody even wants to put it on the table and debate it alongside those other things that are there to mitigate the dangers that our own security assessment said in 2010 are first-league threats that we face here and now." And so the opposition parties deserve real credit for ensuring the debate took place at all. 

The second thing to note is how united the Conservative and Labour leaderships are on the issue. The Conservative position is for a like-for-like replacement; Labour want to create a similar, submarine-based system - but both are committed to the principle and scale of the project. What was more surprising is that there was not more opposition from Labour backbenchers. A party once almost synonymous with nuclear disarmament now has only a few voices of dissent. And those voices were the predictable ones: Dennis Skinner, Jeremy Corbyn, Paul Flynn, Diane Abbott and David Lammy. I was also pleased to see Ayrshire MP Katy Clark among the noes, but aside from that Scottish Labour were conspicuous by their absence.

I appreciate that this was a motion introduced by the SNP, but the scale of Labour opposition - and Scottish Labour's decision to ignore it - was unexpected. Yes, this is an Opposition Day motion. Yes, it was introduced because the parties behind it have political motivations for doing so. But here was an opportunity for Jim Murphy to demonstrate that he is aware of public concern, that he has a grasp of the vital issues, that he can take on the SNP. Which brings me to my third point - Scottish Labour are running scared on Trident. Why else squander the chance to make their case? Scottish Labour seems as paralysed on Trident as UKIP is on the NHS - afraid to go against public opinion while simultaneously refusing to support it.

The fourth observation I'd make is that it was very obvious this issue was being debated against the backdrop of a pending General Election. There was much evidence of tribal put-downs, especially from Conservative minister Michael Fallon, who referred to Labour as "the shower opposite" and accused the Lib Dems and SNP of pre-election scheming: "It is contemptible for the Scottish nationalists or the Liberal Democrats to suggest that they might use the ultimate guarantor of our freedom and independence as some kind of bargaining chip in some grubby coalition deal. To put it more simply, it is only the Conservative party that will not gamble with the security of the British people." This was naturally predictable, but perhaps it is right that Trident renewal should become an election issue. Why should something so important, as Nick Harvey asked, be "assumed to be beyond debate"? Make no mistake - Trident will play a significant role in the 2015 General Election, and not only in Scotland. Jim Murphy may not wish to discuss it, but in this case he's not set the political agenda.

My fifth point is in relation to the Liberal Democrats. Our MPs generally did as they were told, and abstained. But four MPs did vote for the motion - Julian Huppert, Mike Crockart, Mark Williams and Andrew George. Crockart tweeted prior to voting: "Trident is out-dated, unaffordable, cold-war relic. It can never be used. Doesn't relate to today's security threats. Voting against renewal." Other Lib Dem voices expressed similar concerns, on social media and in the chamber. Nick Harvey (who didn't vote, but ripped to shreds the government's position) made an impressive contribution to the debate: "The world has changed. The cold war is over. The iron curtain has come down. The Soviet Union, which was our known adversary, no longer exists. In 1994, Britain and Russia de-targeted each other and changed their policy to say that we were not nuclear adversaries of each other. Yet nothing changed: since that time, we have continued with 24/7 patrolling. I join the Secretary of State in saluting those who have been involved in sustaining that for all that time. The Royal Navy and all those at the Faslane base and in the supply and support chains have mounted a gargantuan effort to keep continuous at-sea deterrence going, and they deserve great praise for that. It has been at considerable human cost and very substantial financial cost, but it is very much harder to discern quite what practical utility it is fulfilling in 2015 when we do not have a known nuclear adversary."

This is the kind of thing that we need to say in the lead-up to the election. The Conservatives have set out their stall, as have the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens. Labour is also clearly committed to some kind of renewal, although Scottish Labour seems reluctant to sell its product. The Lib Dems need to find their teeth and be willing to talk about the nuclear deterrent. We need to say that it is unsustainably expensive and militarily unfit for purpose. It does nothing to deal with the current and very real threats of the 21st century. It belongs in a different era and should be consigned to the history books. We should not be afraid of saying this.

Of course, how we get there might be a matter for discussion, but our essential position needs to become clear.

Conservative MP Oliver Colvile observed yesterday that the Liberal Democrats website affirms that “Britain’s nuclear deterrent, which consists of four Trident submarines, is out-dated and expensive. It is a relic of the Cold War and not up-to-date in 21st century Britain. Nowadays, most of our threats come from individual terrorist groups, not communist countries with nuclear weapons.The Liberal Democrats are the only main party willing to face up to those facts."

All we have to do is say what we've always said, and communicate the same messages. It should not be hard. While  five years in a coalition with the Conservative inevitably makes these messages seem less credible, we cannot stand by while other parties champion the causes we've passionately campaigned on for decades. We must become more courageous in being ourselves - and we too must be willing to take our sensible position on Trident to the electorate. I certainly have no problem in taking my own views of Trident as outdated, expensive and unnecessary to the voters of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill.

Finally, any Lib Dem members interested in joining Lib Dems Against Trident may wish to take a look at their facebook page.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

So...what does UKIP think about the NHS?

There has been much made of UKIP's confused stance on the NHS in recent months, with UKIP invariably seeking to quash rumours that it is not particularly friendly towards the idea of a publicly-run NHS.

First, there was UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall's infamous claims that "the very existence of the NHS stifles competition" and that "the NHS is not fit for purpose". These were soon deleted and denied by some as evidence of an anti-UKIP conspiracy, but the undeniable truth is that these comments were made. Nigel Farage was also filmed telling supporters: “I think we are going to have to move to an insurance-based system of healthcare...I would feel more comfortable that my money would return value if I was able to do that through the marketplace of an insurance company.”  UKIP was so damaged by allegations of seeking to move towards an insurance-based system that the party was forced to declare its support for a state funded health service in November 2014.

This hasn't put the matter to bed, though. Today leader Nigel Farage is talking about the potential to replace the NHS with an insurance-based system. Didn't he hear his party back in November? Well, yes...but he already wants to put this back on the debating table, insisting UKIP will have to "return" to the issue after the election.

Nigel conceded that “there is no question that healthcare provision is going to have to be very much greater in 10 years than it is today, with an ageing population, and we’re going to have to find ways to do it.” That much is true, and if the NHS to survive it requires innovative thinking in combination with evidence-based approaches. But why should that mean going down the insurance route?

Louise Bours, UKIP's health spokesperson, has responded to her leader's intervention: "What people have to realise about UKIP is that we are much more democratic than other parties. Nigel is entitled to his opinion and others are entitled to theirs, we don’t whip people into all thinking the same thing, like the establishment parties. As he has said before, he raised the idea for discussion a while ago, the party discussed at and rejected it. I am certain that if the party discuss it again, we will reject it again. The vast majority of UKIP members, the British public and I will always favour a state funded NHS.”

I have some issues with the NHS being used as a political football. I also have issues with assumptions that an insurance-based system will necessarily provide the answers to the complex questions surrounding how we provide for healthcare needs in the future, as well as with assumptions that the problems experienced by the NHS are entirely due to the way in which it is funded.  But what really concerns me about this is that UKIP's leader is seeking to go into an election without being able to commit to anything on the NHS.

Farage is essentially declaring that "our temporary position, which I disagree with, is to support a publicly funded NHS, but we're going to revisit this after the election and hopefully revise our view". This does not inspire confidence in either the leader or the party. If UKIP's leader and deputy leader genuinely believe that the NHS should be replaced, they're entitled to their views - but hiding behind a populist position for electoral purposes, only to overturn it later, is flagrantly dishonest.

Louise Bours certainly doesn't understand the nature of "other parties" if she genuinely thinks their members are unthinking, uncritical and unquestioning. But she misses the point - the British voting public need to know exactly where UKIP stands prior to the election. They have a right to know what UKIP's vision is for the NHS, especially in the longer term. Pledging to revisit a decision after an election offers no reassurance. A tweet from the party confirming "UKIP is committed to an NHS free at the point of delivery" (note: not at the point of need) doesn't really answer the question either.

This is not a teasing question of what the party might have to compromise on in a prospective coalition, but a straightforward matter of principle. The British public value the NHS and it is not much to ask for a coherent policy statement that can be believed. What would UKIP's starting position be in any negotiations?

UKIP may indeed be a "democratic party" but when leaders undermine the party position so quickly and so publicly questions are inevitably raised. Perhaps Nigel Farage might now realise that, if he wants to be trusted on the NHS, sometimes omitting to offer his personal view would be a very sensible thing to do?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Votes at 16 - soon to be reality

I am very proud that the Scottish Lib Dems have committed themselves to reducing the voting age to 16 - it is one reason of many that I am a liberal.

There are a number of reasons why extending the franchise makes perfect sense. The most obvious of these is that it seems absurd to empower 16 and 17 year olds to exercise their democratic right in a referendum on Scotland's future, but not in a General Election.

The Lib Dems, the SNP and many Labour politicians have been advocating change. It's one small step in the right direction and one we should embrace.

Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael has confirmed today that a Section 30 order has been agreed to be put before both the House of Commons and Holyrood tomorrow, which will empower the Scottish Parliament to make a decision on reducing the voting age prior to the Holyrood elections of 2016.

Mr Carmichael said: "I'm delighted to confirm a timetable has been agreed for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in future Scottish Parliament elections. I've always been a firm believer in votes at 16, with the sheer number of young people participating and voting in last year's referendum I believe the case has become undeniable. Today marks the next phase in our commitment to people in Scotland and the start of a landmark week for the future of our country. Later this week we will publish draft legislation ahead of Burns Night meeting our promise to bring new powers built to last for the Scottish Parliament."

This move is part of the implementation of the Smith Commission's proposals. While welcoming of the announcement, deputy first minister John Swinney said: "The publication of these proposals creates the opportunity for people and organisations across Scotland to have the opportunity to shine a light on what is being offered. Whilst Smith did not recommend all the powers I would want the parliament to have, we will use what powers are made available, as far as possible, to increase equality, to tackle poverty and to grow the economy. We will lead the debate to ensure the Scottish Parliament is equipped with the powers our people believe it should have to tackle the fundamental challenges in our country."

Scottish Lib Dem spokesperson Liam MacArthur added: “Young people carried themselves with dignity and dynamism during the referendum debate. Liberal Democrats are delighted that the UK Government is kick starting the delivery of the Smith Agreement in such a fitting way. The transfer of powers to enable 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the next Scottish Parliament elections is a positive move which delivers on the Vow and for the democratic rights of young people.

“This is the beginning of a historic week for Scotland. Some people doubted that all five parties could come together to deliver these bold new powers, or doubted that young people were ready for the responsibility of the right to vote. On both charges those doubters have been proved wrong. This is a good week for Scotland, for home rule and for the Liberal Democrats.”

The wider debate about the Smith proposals is pertinent, but it is also positive to focus on the achievements. A referendum we Liberal Democrats never wanted has helped to bring about one of our principal objectives. The lessons of that referendum, at least so far as democratic engagement are concerned, appear to have been heeded.  For all the cynicism surrounding the SNP's initial proposals to lower the voting age, it is welcome to see that such cynicism has not only largely subsided, but that the extension of democratic rights to 16 and 17 year olds is likely to become reality very soon - at least for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

Scotland can now be an example to the rest of the UK in how to "do" democracy, how to better engage electorates and how to involve more young people in political processes. This extension of democracy always was, and still is, worth fighting for. Alistair Carmichael is right: the case is "undeniable". But the strong case is as applicable to Westminster as it is to Holyrood. While on the one hand democracy has been enhanced, an anomaly has been created by which a 16 year old may not vote in a General Election but does have a say in a Scottish Parliamentary election.

When some victories are won, it doesn't matter who gets the credit. I mentioned previously that I was proud to belong to a party that has championed votes at 16. But I am equally proud to live in a Scotland that is soon to make it a reality, and therefore thanks to everyone involved are in order. So thanks to each and every person who has stood up for this.

The challenge now is to bring this overdue reform into elections for the so-called "mother of parliaments". I suspect the Tories and UKIP may prove resistant, however...and so the fight will go on. Where Scotland leads, I am sure the rest of the UK will follow...eventually.