Friday, October 15, 2010

Guest Post by Norman Fraser: Unanswered Coalition Questions

Perhaps a recent anecdote sums it up best.  Last week I asked a question of Michael Moore MP, Secretary of State for Scotland, at a Party gathering in Glasgow.  My point was that the size and dangers of the current deficit were exaggerated and that I felt that the resultant alarm was being used by the Tories as an excuse to cut faster and deeper than was strictly necessary.  I argued that Tory small-state ideology was the driver of the cuts rather than economics.

Michael Moore’s answer floored me: I was told to “change my newspaper”.  There was no attempt to rebut the opinions of a phalanx of Nobel prize-winning economists, argue against the graphs and tables that show the current deficit as far from exceptional, or contradict the numerous reports of investors confirming that there was no City pressure on the Government over the size of the deficit.  Just an airy hand-wave and an implicit injunction to do as my betters have decided.  I was left furious and spluttering at being so crudely patronised.

I am aware that there are good reasons why the coalition was formed and I broadly accept them but that does not mean I like the idea.  I joined the SDP in 1982 when the Labour Party imploded and the SDP/Liberal Alliance looked like the only effective way to fight Thatcherism.  I count myself a social liberal, aware of the need to preserve freedom but strongly of the belief that the state can positively promote that freedom.  I look at the coalition agreement and I see large chunks of Thatcherite policy in it.  Worse still, I see policy being made, ostensibly on the hoof, which follows Tory instincts and is not covered by the coalition agreement.

 The current NHS proposals will not affect Scotland but they worry me as an example of what is happening.  Our own manifesto made only modest proposals for changes in the NHS and the Coalition Agreement does not cover the massive top-down re-organisation the Government’s plans.  The NHS proposals seem to me to represent a decapitation of NHS strategic planning and as opening the organisation up to privatisation on the sly.  Private profit seems the motivator here, not patient care. 

Meanwhile there has been no comment on this policy by the Lib Dem leadership.  Am I to assume that the Parliamentary Party has discussed and wholeheartedly approves a policy no Lib Dem campaigner fought for and no Lib Dem elector voted for?  Is there a distinctive Lib Dem view on these proposals?  If there is, what is it?  All I hear is silence.  Will I have to wait until the debate on the Bill or will I still be waiting when the Act becomes law?

Luckily, there was a more reassuring meeting in Glasgow last Monday night.  The Presidential hustings found both Susan Kramer and Tim Farron in good form.  Both the candidates are totally committed to the coalition but both made it clear that they are aware of the fears and reservations of many members.  There was much discussion of the need to improve communication between the Parliamentary Party and grassroots campaigners.  Rather than ignoring legitimate concerns both candidates addressed them.

It is this approach that is more likely to reconcile me to the coalition and send me back onto the streets to campaign for it.

Norman Fraser is a former member of the Scottish Liberal Democrats' Executive and Campaigns and Candidates Committee as well as being a Returning Officer extraordinaire and a key member of the party in Glasgow.


Unknown said...

Maybe Mike might like to read the friendly advice I gave to Lib Dem ministers a few months ago:

Neil M said...

There are two things about coalitions that seem to me to be self-evident.

Firstly, nobody gets everything they want and everybody gets something they didn't want. Compromise is at the heart of any coalition agreement and rather than being embarressed by our failure to deliver 100% of our manifesto we shoudl embrace that compromise and spell out to the electorate that the more they vote for us the more they will get.

Secondly, an agreement made between parties at the start of a parliament will never be able to comprehensively predict every issue that is going to arise over the life of that administration. As important as how you resolve the issues in front of you is the mechanism you put in placee for dealing with "matters arising". The best example of this is the 2003 Scottish coalition deal which had the most comprehensive mechanism you could wish for. So hopefully the "on the hoof" policy-making Norman complains of does not happen.

Finally, I wonder if other Scots experience the frustration I do about the current coalition. We've seen this situation before and it seems many people (most of all the media) have not learnt the lessons of the last decade of Scottish politics. I am not one for making anything compulsory but sometimes I regret the lack of history taught in this country.


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