Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Robert Brown tells Social Liberal Forum: we must hold firm to our roots and hold our red lines

Robert Brown is, as you know, along with Shirley Williams, Doctor Who, the Pandas at Edinburgh Zoo and Michael Schumacher, one of this blog's heroes. His sound liberal values, his intrinsic sense of justice and his general all round wisdom snd fierce intelligence make him worth listening to.
It actually pained me to speak against him during the debate on the Coalition at the weekend.Some said he called me an unbalanced monster in his reply, but I can confirm that this was not the case, even if you believe that I am.
I also ditched Robert for Nick Clegg and Willie Rennie on Friday evening. The Social Liberal Forum, where Robert was debating Chief Whip Alistair Carmichael on the Coalition clashed with the Scottish Women Liberal Democrats Reception. 
Thankfully, I have a copy of the full speech that Robert gave which is printed below. It's full of good sense and ideas. Enjoy. And if you want more of the same, buy the book.....
I joined the Scottish Liberal Party in 1965. Since then, I have seen great triumph and demoralising setback, exhilarating national by election victories and local ones with results in two figures. I have been a foot soldier, a Party Officer, a Councillor, an MSP and a Minister – and I hope to be a Councillor again in May.
But there has been nothing in my political lifetime to compare with the tsunami of May 2011 – not just because of the devastating defeats, but because of the sense that our trumpet was not sounding clearly, that we had forfeited that precious commodity of trust, and that we were being dragged along in an embrace with a Tory boa constrictor from which we could not escape and which was squeezing the life out of us.
On any view, it has been an extremely difficult time for the Party and for the country. The challenges which the Government have had to wrestle with have been enormous and unprecedented, and often, as with the Euro crisis, largely outwith their control. Far from having all the answers, I am not sure that politicians in any party have even been asking all the right questions.
Happily there are usually people happy to fill a hole and a number of groups and bodies and individuals have come forward with this in mind - the Social Liberal Forum, Liberal Futures, a separate initiative by former MP John Barrett, a variety of politics dinner or pizza clubs, and our own book The Little Yellow Book co-edited by Nigel Lindsay and myself which we are launching at this Fringe tonight. More agonising and debate at grassroots level on policy and strategy than I can remember for a long time! There are vigorous exchanges on Facebook and Twitter and in the blogosphere - all in all a bit of a flowering of fundamental political discourse which is to be welcomed.
Tonight’s Fringe meeting is designed to look critically at the Liberal Democrats and the Coalition and I want to put 3 propositions to you on this:
The first is that the Coalition Government was necessary and inevitable following the election results of 2010 but that, in David Steel's words it is a business arrangement and not the meeting of long lost lovers that its early presentation suggested.
The second is that there is life before, after and apart from the Coalition. In other words the Coalition does not define nor restrict Liberal Democracy in a straightjacket.
The third is that Coalition is an extremely difficult place which has, on a number of previous occasions, almost destroyed the Liberal Party as an effective political force. Consequently the Party needs to have a very strong sense of its own identity, its own core values and the roots of its political beliefs.
There can be no doubt that serious mistakes were made in the early days. The presentation was poor and chimed badly with our core support - particularly but not only in Scotland. There was one central failure which was the debacle on tuition fees. It is true that Labour sold out manifesto promises by introducing both tuition fees and I think top up fees in defiance of election pledges, but the issue was never so central to their image and beliefs as it was to us.
Retrospect is of course a great teacher but I am in no doubt that we could have delivered a better deal on tuition fees and that that would have suited us infinitely better than the huge investment in the unlamented AV referendum.
Now you might say this is ancient history so why rake it up now? But I do so because the mistakes at that time were so devastating to our hard won reputation for trust and because they haunt us to this day. There is also a lingering sense that the leadership were not that keen on getting rid of fees and had indeed agreed to sacrifice them well before the election.
And it remains the case too that there are a significant number of longstanding Party members and supporters who remain unenthusiastic or disaffected from the Coalition or from some of its key policies – part of the purpose of our book and events like tonight’s is to be a bridge to enable people across the Party to feel ownership at least of the terms of debate.
And from the perspective of our earlier Coalitions in Scotland, I am not sure how far the experience of 1999 and 2003 were truly taken on board in London. It would be interesting and useful for those involved to have a critical retrospect and comparison on that.
Now Liberal Democrats in the Coalition Government undoubtedly have significant achievements to their credit –
·       Some major hits on the civil liberties front which were important but regrettably sound not at all in the ballot box.
·       The substantial rise in the tax free threshold and the current campaign for an early achievement of the £10,000 mark
·       Major reform of the state pension and this year’s rise of £5.30 week – carried through by Steve Webb, described as the best Pensions Minister in a generation.
But much will turn nevertheless on the economy and the deficit, all of which is rather uncertain at present. That, after all, is the main national interest for whose sake we went into Government and on whose success we may well stand or fall.
In other areas, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have been raising the right subjects recently - on splitting the Banks, on obscene executive pay, on co-partnership in industry - but they must be able to deliver, not tinker, otherwise it raises the key questions of their influence, commitment and trust.
So what are the litmus tests for the Coalition?
I would suggest the principles and mood music must include:
·       Having a clear, recognised and independent position in the Government 
In fairness, this is something where lessons have clearly been learned, although not without the assistance of major party rows – but it will be difficult to throw off the defining images of a different kind from the early days. 
·       Delivering the Coalition agreement (which remember was called “Freedom, Fairness, Responsibility”) – but not backing things not in the Agreement to which we have not agreed.
 I remember my shock when I heard the Prime Minister announcing a consultation on plans to end security of tenure for council tenants as if it was Government policy. I remember too my surprise at him exercising the veto at the European Union Council of Ministers – although I confess I remain unclear as to what exactly he vetoed.
 I don’t know how things work inside this Coalition but I don’t believe that such things would have been possible in the Scottish Coalition without Liberal Democrat agreement.
 ·       Being on the side of the underdog and the dispossessed. This is helped by the £10,000 tax free policy and the commendable triple lock increases in the state pension, but it is vital there is no slippage on maintaining the higher 50p rate. The mansion tax is estimable but I am not so convinced that sacrificing the 50p rate for a mansion tax is a good idea. 
·       Sorting out the bonus scandal. This is a specific Coalition commitment with huge popular resonance. While I welcome the limited progress made on this, there is something unappealing about Government-inspired media campaigns to strip people of knighthoods or pressurise them to refuse bonuses. What most people can’t accept is how banks, largely owned by the state, can’t get rid of bonuses – particularly so when the bonuses appear to equate to continuing losses – and why the Government can’t, if necessary, make them do so.
 Since the government feels able to cap benefit payments, why does it not cap pay at state-owned banks – which is supported indeed from the same pot?
 I know this is a tricky area with our Coalition partners but I am personally more than a little fed up with the unconvincing special pleading that we see from the Stephen Hesters of the world. Freedom and opportunity are inseparable from making our country a more equal place too.
 ·       Expanding opportunity particularly for young people. I think we underestimate at our peril the destructive effect of being unable to get jobs – it is a phenomenon which affects teachers, social workers, nurses and lawyers, College graduates and above all those leaving school with limited qualifications. The fear of job loss permeates to all levels of society. I welcome the £1 billion youth contract but it is at best a palliative. I don’t have a magic wand to offer but I cannot believe that the top minds in government cannot identify ways to deliver not perhaps a right to work but an opportunity to work for many more people.
Moving from deficit recovery to economic recovery
On a UK scale, it is the dilemma that afflicts Greece. How sustainable is it to have more and more people unemployed, not using their talents, reliant on state support, not contributing to the national economy and the national wellbeing?
And this echoes with welfare reform, because, whilst the public support the idea that the right to benefit is conditional, most people have problems with welfare sanctions when there are no jobs, and particularly with people with fluctuating disabilities who are at the bottom of the heap.
·      Supporting the public and general interest – My own view is that we have become a bit obsessed with structures and the dubious doctrine of competition in public services, and that this may underlie our difficulties with the NHS Bill in England.
Now some people say that the philosophy of our leaders is not really Liberal, that they are obsessed by revived Orange Book notions of neo - liberal economics, and that they are instinctively comfortable with the Tories.
I don't accept that. The Orange Book essays are well within the fold of longstanding liberal ideas and contain much good sense. But I cannot pretend to feel at home with some of the public sector reform stuff. And I think it is because we have undervalued the idea of the public interest and of public service.
·       And, for Scotland, sustaining and progressing Home Rule and a federal UK is vital. That is a debate for the Home Rule Commission later tonight.  

Some of these themes are developed in The Little Yellow Book which we are launching at this fringe meeting tonight. Many of us have worried for some time about the lack of grassroots debate not just during the Coalition but long before – with a clear foreboding that we had lost our way in Scotland a bit.
Nevertheless the Coalition could be a bit like the story of the frog who was put in a vat of hot water. Frogs apparently adjust to their environment so the frog didn’t notice as the temperature was gradually increased – until he ended up being boiled alive. We have to be careful to avoid the fate of the frog.
We have to be careful too to avoid the problem which beset us in the 30s in the National Govt when some Liberals peeled off to the right and some to the left, leaving an eviscerated rump. This Party must be a broad Church with room and space for all Liberal Democrats.
Now I know that Alistair is worried - as all good Chief whips must be - about party disagreements and debate. But debate is the leitmotif of all good Liberals - to challenge, to argue, to be thrawn, to be difficult, to stand on points of principle, to be radical. Indeed I remember Alastair as a member of the Beveridge Group - which doesn't sound like a body in thrall to economic liberalism.
So I want to finish by saying that the Liberal Democrats need this debate and this argument which will reinvigorate and re-empower us. We need a framework of values from which to critique the Coalition Government. We need red lines in the sand to delineate what is unacceptable for any Liberal Democrat in any Government. And we need thought-provoking ideas to help set our direction of travel. Despite all, I remain, as I know you do, hugely optimistic about the relevance and strength of Liberal Democracy – providing we hold firm to our roots and have themes and a programme that sound true both to the trumpet player and to the public.

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