Sunday, March 31, 2013

1983 election on BBC Parliament tomorrow

BBC Parliament is continuing its bank holiday tradition of giving political geeks the chance to relive elections of their lives.

Tomorrow they are broadcasting the 1983 election results. I know Mrs Thatcher being re-elected with a stonking majority is not something we want to dwell on. Nor is the fact that the Alliance came within a whisker of knocking Labour into 3rd place in terms of the popular vote and ended up with just 23 MPs.

It was my first election, though, in the same way that Tom Baker is my Doctor. It was the first time I'd delivered leaflets, canvassed, did a detention for doing same during school hours, and enjoyedvictory in Caithness and Sutherland.

I shall definitely be watching - particularly on the Friday morning segment where we'll see the Highlands seats declare - including Charles Kennedy's election at just 23. Jim Wallace and Malcolm Bruce also entered Parliament then.

A perfect programme to stuff envelopes or enter data to.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Letter to the Leader: Happy Easter from a very busy Party

Dear Nick

Thanks for your letter. You definitely deserve a lovely, peaceful, break with your family and I hope you all have a lovely time.

It was good of you to mention the forthcoming Council elections and to recognise the huge amount of work that activists, candidates and councillors will be putting in over the next month. As you know, elections aren't won solely in the four weeks before polling day. It's the constant year-round working with and listening to the local community that gets Liberal Democrat councillors elected. We have some fantastic councillors around the country. They are the bedrock of our party's success and we can never thank them enough for all that they do.

I know that you, too have been out on the campaign trail, as recently as last weekend in Sheffield where you were snow clearing and door knocking.

I thought you might like to know about some of the hard work that's taking place over the holiday weekend, though. Bank holidays are not an excuse for Liberal Democrats to put their feet up - it's two extra days' leafletting and canvassing.I dare say that there will be some ingesting of chocolate, too, but Lib Dem campaigners are not known for their DIY or Spring cleaning. I know of one wife of a Liberal Democrat councillor who once tore a strip of wallpaper off the hall in the hope that it would inspire her husband to get it decorated. It did. After a few years.

Anyway, here are what people are up to:

In Eastleigh, Cllr Louise Bloom has  "already been deliverering and got loads more to do, going to go out shortly actually and will listen to Saints vs Chelsea at the same time, we can march together!"

In Clitheroe, Cllr Allan Knox is "Lealetting - county council seat to hold...."

In London, David MacDonald is "working on a new borough tabloid

Sam Fisk is heading off to Stevenage to deliver leaflets.

In the East Midlands, our old mate David Bill is "Delivering targetted letters aimed at converting yes voters into postal voters and letting everyone know we saved the local ambulance station."

In the East of England, Lorna Dupre is " Catching up with email; thinking about the next loads of literature to design, mailmerge, print, fold, stuff; getting my own nomination paper filled in; sorting out meetings to finish the rest of the other 17 for which I'm agent." But at least she has chocolate.

Holly Matthies is "catching up on posting out new-members' packs to people who've recently joined LGBT+ Lib Dems."

Richard Marbrow is doing:  Boring PPERA admin followed by some time on Connect and Nationbuilder working out how to get information from one to the other.

In Fife, Cllr Susan Leslie was up early: "I set up the my Councillor's Surgery stall at Kirkcaldy Farmers Market at 8.10m this morning. Great morning and lots of chat with folks. Then onto Kinghorn at lunchtime for the dedication of a new bench at the harbour. Now at 3pm I do have my feet up but feel I deserve it."

But the most heartwarming sty is that of little Bailey. He's a wee shih-tsu who's just been fostered by Brentwood Councillor Karen Chilvers. He told Facebook:

"Well, as Caron Lindsay knows, I have been out delivering leaflets with my Fosty Mum. It was cold but I enjoyed telling people about being liberal because I got a chance because of nice fair-minded people. I do think it would be nice if someone had offered us a cup of tea along the way though!"

He wants us all to be aware that his foster brother Louis has been out on a ward walk with his Mum. And it was snowing!

That's just a tiny wee snapshot of the Liberal Democrat army in action, this and any weekend. 

They will not stop until the polls close on May 2nd. In Scotland where we don't have elections, we'll be visiting Northumberland and other places and will be phonebanking like demons just like we did for Eastleigh. 

I hope you've enjoyed this whistlestop tour round the country. It represents a tiny fraction of what I've read on Facebook today. 

Thank you, too for all the work that you and our ministers do, and the fantastic achievements on mental health, shared parental leave, childcare, pensions and that small matter of giving 24 million people a tax cut that you all have brought about. If I'm going to single out anyone, it would be Mike Moore. Getting the Tories, Labour and SNP to agree to pass the Scotland Act was no mean feat, as was making sure the independence referendum is fair, legal and decisive. We get all that.

There are, though, some things that we don't get, and nor should we. Secret courts was a huge thing. I don't think anyone in the Westminster Bubble really truly appreciates how painful this is for the whole party. We can't go through this again on communications data. Seriously. 

We need you to deliver Liberal Democrat priorities in Government. You need us out there spreading that message in communities up and down the country. The closer we can work together, the better. There's a bit of a disconnect at the moment between leadership and grassroots that will get worse if it's not addressed. We also need you to listen to us. It seems sometimes that you would like to get rid of us and get some new, more compliant members who won't ask any questions. You need to walk a bit more in step with us at the moment.

I remember you once having a right go at Gina Ford, decrying her advice to leave babies to cry as absolute nonsense. There's an analogy here with the Party. You can't ignore us and leave us to cry when you do things that are really counter-intuitive to us. That will just make people cross, resentful and demotivated. And we need all the people we can  out on the streets consistently over the next two years. There have been warning signs of long standing activists reaching breaking point. That has to be addressed before it gets worse.

This is a time for rapprochement not recrimination and the party needs an assurance that no more ground will be given on civil liberties. 

Happy Easter  and enjoy hiding those eggs with your boys. 

Best wishes


George Foulkes was wrong, but all political parties need to do more to tackle rape culture

Yesterday, George Foulkes caused a bit of a stooshie with this tweet:

Now, one of these three events is very different from the others. Yes, we need to confidence in what our school kids eat. Yes, anyone facing the threat of losing their job is pretty awful. But the brutal assault of a child in a public place is too horrific for casual political banter. There are limits, and he crossed the line.

As mother of an almost 14 year old, I winced when I read his tweet and replied to him:

What I took back from him is I think as close as an admission from him that he understands the point I was making as we're ever likely to get:

Of course, Nationalists on Twitter were not chuffed. Foulkes, of course, loves winding them up, much more than is helpful to the debate to be honest. They didn't help themselves when they started bandying around crime stats, though. I doubt the numbers game matter one tiny bit to that poor wee girl and her family.

I would probably elbow my way past George Foulkes to accuse the Nats of failing to meet people's needs now. In fact, I wrote a bit about it on Lib Dem Voice the other day, linking to Christine Jardine's article saying the same thing. They do need to get a grip of the here and now and not just ignore it and blame all failings on the fact that they don't have the powers to do stuff. Most of the time, they do.

I got to thinking, though, that maybe we should start to talk - that's talk, not throw political brickbats about - about what we can do about the sort of culture we have, how it demeans women and how we can change things. To do so we need to listen to some of the people who are out there working with young people. Or we can have a look around social media and find some of the terrible sexism and misogyny around. Chris Glendinning has a point about what we need to do here:
If we want to actually to tackle rape, then we can’t do this just by improving the legal process for complainers. Education also has a crucial role to play. When the Scottish Youth Parliament’s Education and Equalities Committees consulted young people on PSE in schools, the results were startling. When we surveyed young people on the issue of consent to sex and relationships in February this year, 63% of respondents said that there schools didn’t do enough to teach them about the importance of consent. If we want to tackle rape as an issue, we’ve got to simply stop saying to women “don’t do these things that could get you raped” (such as dress provocatively, get drunk, show consent to any sexual conduct with a man etc.) because firstly it is simply wrong: no-one is to blame for rape but the rapist themselves; and secondly because it does nothing to tackle the rape problem structurally, and do more to say to men “don’t rape”. Campaigns, such as “This is not an invitation to rape me” by Rape Crisis Scotland and the “We can stop it” by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland are fantastic, but they need to be rolled out on a much more widespread basis in schools, colleges and universities if we are to actually change social attitudes for the better.
There's a few things I'd like to add to Chris's suggestions. The effects of exposure to easily available internet porn which portrays women as receptacles rather than as equal participants in a relationship are being noticed by those who work with young people and in the UK Government's own review of sexualisation of young people. These articles by Ann Czernik in the Guardian also make scary reading.

We also need to look at the effects of the way women are treated in the mainstream media.Why, for example, are we still willing to put up with women's breasts being all over a national newspaper? What about the effect of pressure to conform to certain body types and an increasingly narrow definition of beauty? How does that impact on girls' and boys' expectations as they grow up?

As I say, no political party either gives tackling our victim blaming, misogynist rape cultre enough priority or tackles it properly. If we take anything from the furore over George Foulkes' tweet, it should be a determination to remedy that.

Caron's Catch-up - Easter special

I decided it was time to start a new mini feature where I could quickly write down all the things I don't get round to writing proper blog posts about.

Where I've been: Nowhere very much, a change from most of the rest of March. A trip into Edinburgh for some Lib Demmery was just about it.

However, that is all about to change as we head to a spectacular '80s party at Anne and Stevie's tonight. Complete with Bob's new fog machine.....

Where I've almost been: 

I might have gone to see Rory Bremner recording his new show in Edinburgh. My friend had a confirmation email, but we found out late on Thursday that that didn't necessarily mean we'd get tickets.

What I've watched:

An increasingly depressing House of Lords debate on secret courts.

Very interesting documentary about Mary Magdalene, which has offended some for the few seconds in which Melvin Bragg discussed and drew no conclusions on whether Mary had had a sexual relationship with Jesus Christ. The only thing that offends me is the way in which Mary seems to have been stitched up by the patriarchy of her day and beyond. Anyway, it's well worth watching so catch it on the iPlayer if you can.

Masterchef: I have to try making Skordalia. Sounds delicious.

What I'm reading: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. Not far in but enjoying the characterisation and style.

Highlight of the week:

Without doubt, the arrival of my gorgeous nephew, Baby Ethan. At a week old, he's discovered Cardigan Chic.

It's still another week until I get a cuddle with him - he'll be grown up by then! I can't wait.

Not loving:

The weather. Too darned cold, and I don't expect to have to drive through the snow to pick my daughter up for her Easter holidays.

George Carey: He has a very strange view of the word marginalised, I must say.  The Christian religion has special provision for schooling, reserved places in Parliament, and a highly privileged position in our culture. What is a shame is that he's been quite happy to marginalise women, LGBT people and anyone else who doesn't agree with his world view.

His comments on equal marriage are especially bizarre given that the Church of England has been given a specific exemption from the legislation. They are given more protection than they need. Why should they wish to stop other people from living their lives as they wish. Couples want to get married because they love each other, not to spite the Church.

North Dakota's new abortion law: the most restrictive of the 13 passed in the last three years by various US states.

Looking forward to:

Two weeks off with Bob and Anna. I think pandas and penguins might feature in the next week, as will the Science Festival in Edinburgh. And then we're off to the Black Isle.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

My email to Liberal Democrat peers on secret courts

How I spent my morning: emailing every single Liberal Democrat peer I could find an email for and who wasn't Jim Wallace, Jonathan Marks or Tom McNally with this email. I then excised the Lib Demmery and did another version for cross benchers. 

The letter itself is mostly nicked from those nice Liberal Democrats against secret courts people with my own bit tacked on at the beginning.

Richard Morris has written his own version which you can read here

Let's hope it persuades them to do the right thing and vote for the amendments this afternoon.

Dear (Lib Dem Peer)

As a long standing member of the Liberal Democrats, I am very concerned about the measures for secret courts in the Justice and Security Bill. Put simply, they create a situation where it is simply not possible for a trial to be fair. If you torture me and I sue you and you file a defence that I can’t see, how am I supposed to tell the Judge that you are talking hogwash? It must feel very counter-intuitive to be asked to support something which does not satisfy the Joint Committee on Human Rights and is opposed by human rights groups such as Liberty, Reprieve and Amnesty as well as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Law Society and many prominent lawyers. You may be aware that last night the Liberal Democrat Lawyers issued a statement saying that this Bill presents more of a threat to our liberties than terrorists do.
If you vote in favour of the three amendments on the Wiley Balance, the last resort issue and for reviews, then you will have the backing of the party outside parliament. Every test of opinion so far has overwhelmingly rejected the idea of secret courts. Federal Conference has voted against them twice and I proposed the motion at Scottish Conference that was opposed by only two people and one of them was Jim Wallace!
Today you have the opportunity - once again - to protect fair trial guarantees which have existed since the Civil War. The measures introduced by the Justice and Security Bill undermine the Rule of Law in our country and amount to an attack on the ability of the citizen to hold the government to account.
All the way through the process, Lib Dem backbenchers in the Lords and the Commons have leaders in trying to protect civil liberties in the face of this bill.
  • In the Lords, Lib Dem peers were instrumental in adding many of the protections recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
  • In the Commons, Lib Dem MPs, Julian Huppert and Mike Crockert tried to protect those changes in Committee in the face of Government amendments designed to weaken civil protections - and add further amendments that would bring the Bill in line with the original recommendations of the JCHR.
Unfortunately our backbench MP were unable to get these protections into the Bill. Both Julian Huppert and Mike Crockart voted for the amendments along with Party President Tim Farron and Deputy Leader Simon Hughes. Julian and Mike voted against the Bill at 3rd reading. 

You are now presented with a Bill that:
  • fails to deliver the protections voted into the Bill by Lib Dem backbenchers in the House of Lords
  • fails to deliver the recommendations of the JCHR
  • fails to deliver Lib Dem party policy
  • fails even to deliver the amendment proposed by Lord Marks that was heavily defeated at Lib Dem Conference in the Autumn. As you may recall, the  amendment sought to commit us to:
    Ensure that closed material proceedings can only be used as a last resort in cases that would otherwise be incapable of being tried.
There are amendments tabled which will improve the Bill. Lord Pannick wrote in the Times on 13th March 2013 about the issues of principle which remain, and the amendments which are necessary. These are now reflected in the two amendments tabled by Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, and the amendment tabled by Lord Beecham. These amendments put into effect the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The Special Advocates have published a further briefing note which supports these two amendments. It is here: and also attached to this email.  This briefing highlights, for example, that the argument that 'last resort' would 'necessitate a costly and time-wasting PII exercise to be undertaken before it could be said that a fair determination was not possible without a CMP' is - at best - misleading. As they argue:
Whatever procedure is adopted, courts will have to subject to careful scrutiny any material said to be sensitive on grounds of national security. Our experience of disclosure processes under statutory CMPs suggests that it is no less time consuming than the process of examining documents for which PII has been claimed in non-statutory proceedings.
Please support both of these amendments when you are called to vote today. The consequences for our judicial system could not be more serious. You may have seen the reports of the Supreme Court sitting in closed session for the first time in history on Thursday 21st March 2013. Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, said the court did so only with "grave reluctance". He spoke out regarding his concerns about this Bill on 4th March when he said: "anyone interested in democracy" would be concerned about Closed Material Procedures.

I am not in the privileged position of having a vote to determine the protection of our freedoms. You are. Please protect our democratic institutions, protect our fair trials, and vote for the amendments in line with the recommendations of the two reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights today.

Many thanks.
With best wishes,
Caron Lindsay

Liberal Democrat Lawyers say secret courts are "an attack on the rule of law"

Last night the Liberal Democrat Lawyers' Association held a meeting at the National Liberal Club to discuss the Justice and Security Bill and most particularly the provisions allowing secret courts in some civil cases.

They later issued a statement condemning the measures which you can see on their website. 

It was the unanimous view of the meeting that the measures introduced by the Justice and Security Bill amount to an attack on the Rule of Law in the United Kingdom and that those present were opposed to the measures contained in Part II of the Bill. It was felt that arguably the measures are a greater attack on our traditions and freedoms than that posed by terrorists, as the infringement of our freedoms is State-led. 
The meeting urged all peers, and MPs, particularly Liberal Democrats, to support the three amendments for the following reasons:
1. Last resort
The responsible Minister, Ken Clarke, has said that the use of a Closed Material Procedure should be only as a last resort. However his wording currently included in the Bill does not deliver this. The wording proposed by the amendment, which was passed by the Lords on 21st November 2012, and was reversed by the Commons in Committee, delivers the last resort meaning and effect.

2. Wiley balance
For decades judges have protected our national security whilst also protecting the open and fair administration of justice. Throughout the course of this Bill the government has been unable to point to a single case where national security has been jeopardised by a judge's order for disclosure. The "Wiley balance" amendment gives the judge the ability, in essence, to balance the public interest in protecting national security with the public interest in the open and fair administration of justice.

3. Renewal
This Bill has constitutional significance. It changes at a stroke the relationship between the State and the individual - and the ability of the individual to call authority to account for wrongdoing. As such, it is entirely appropriate for a renewal clause to be debated every four years.
The Liberal Democrat Lawyers are just the last in a very long line of experts who oppose this bill and its threat to our freedoms. Liberty, Reprieve, Amnesty, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Law Society and others have all expressed their concerns.

I always thought we were for the ordinary person, standing up against the excesses of the state. With this, and Nick Clegg announcing that he wanted to look at charging for translation services for those in the immigration system, you have to wonder what on earth is going on.

Let's hope the Lords does the right thing tonight and votes for the three amendments. The right to a fair trial remedy for victims of state abuse should not be lost without a fight.

Monday, March 25, 2013

It may be a good thing that Mark Webber was robbed of Malaysia victory by his team-mate #F1

Like many, I watched the podium ceremony after yesterday's Malaysian Grand Prix with more than a little bit of grumpiness. 

Mark Webber, who had led from early in the race after passing his pole-sitting team-mate, looked, by the final pit stops on lap 43, to be heading for a well-deserved victory. His team had told him to look after his tyres, which meant that he had to slow up a bit and not push the car to its limits. After all, a car that blows up or ruins its tyres on the last lap is no good to man or beast. This needed the co-operation of Sebastian Vettel, who was ordered to hold his position.

The triple world champion was not happy with that. He'd complained earlier in the race that Mark was holding him up. At that point, he'd have been free to pass him and didn't. When the team orders were given, he disobeyed them, pulling a pretty reckless passing move close to the pit wall that could have taken them both out. Team Principal Christian Horner was heard to say "This is silly, Seb."

But he got past and took the victory. Mark Webber was clearly unhappy, offering no congratulations and not  engaging with Vettel in the podium ceremony.

Eventually Vettel apologised, saying, slightly melodramatically, that he would have a hard job sleeping last night. A little late for that, I think. 

It's been clear to many that the Red Bull team revolves around Vettel. It's very unusual for a decision or an order that is in Mark's favour to be issued. It was annoying that when that did happen, the order was disregarded.

So, what happens now? Will Red Bull make him give the position back should he try anything like that in the future? I can't see that happening. However, there may be a more interesting consequence. When did we last see a great show of  form from Mark Webber? In 2010, when relations between the two Red Bull drivers were at their worst. If Webber hadn't broken his shoulder before the Korean Grand Prix, then there's a good chance he, not Vettel, could have been the world champion then. 

When Mark feels he has been unjustly treated, he is at his best. Let's hope that Vettel has set in train a course of events that gives Mark the title he deserves. He has been one of the most consistent and fair drivers on the grid in recent years, as well as being a pretty decent human being. It's time to see achieve the greatness we know he's capable of.

Elsewhere in the race, how funny was it to see Lewis Hamilton turn into his old McLaren pit spot? I can't by rights say that I'd never do anything so ditsy, so I have no right to laugh, really, but I did.

Hamilton and his team-mate Nico Rosberg were at the centre of another "team orders" story yesterday when Nico was ordered to stay behind Lewis. Team managers were worried that the cars were not sufficiently fuelled to get to the end of the race and needed to keep them both from running out. Nico was livid that he wasn't allowed to pass Lewis, although many speculate that Lewis has his position as number one driver written into his contract. Ross Brawn had to patiently explain to Nico over team radio why he had to reign in his natural instincts.

These sorts of team orders are understandable. The sort of thing I really object to is the ridiculous situation where Rubens Barrichello was made to let Schumacher pass purely for points in the championship at an early stage in the season. That's not the situation we had yesterday. 

Apart from Webber, the biggest loser of yesterday was Fernando Alonso. He was not pulled in at the end of lap 1 even though his front wing was hanging by a thread. It was understandable that Ferrari might want to wait until they could be sure it was wise to hange from intermediate tyres to slicks at the same time, but they should have realised that that wing was not going to stay on. If it had bucked a couple of seconds earlier, Mark Webber could have been seriously hurt. As it was, everyone was fine, but that, to me, was yet another Ferrari strategic blunder which could, come the end of the season, cost Alonso dear.

In full: Willie Rennie's speeches in the Iraq debate at Holyrood

Over at Lib Dem Voice yesterday, I put up a summary of Willie Rennie's speech in the Iraq debate in Holyrood last week. I thought I'd put the whole thing up, and his summation, here because they are worth reading in full. It was a good and generally thoughtful debate. What was particularly interesting is that Willie's remarks met with applause from the SNP benches who usually don't have much good to say about him. You can read the whole debate here.

Anyway, here are Willie's speeches:

When the sirens whined, we dived to the floor, struggling with our flak jackets and helmets, yet the local politicians carried on as if nothing had happened, despite the risk. They had become accustomed to the sirens and the missiles.

That was repeated over and over again during the three-day visit of the House of Commons Defence Committee to Basra, Umm Qasr and Baghdad. During that visit, 40 missiles fell within range. Even the green zone in Baghdad was not spared the infringements. We were due to meet the Iraqi president, but his house had been hit that very day. The missiles were a normal, daily occurrence. They were a matter of fact.

That was in 2007—four years after Tony Blair and George Bush made that fateful decision to invade.

A few weeks after I visited Iraq, I was at the funeral of Scott Kennedy. He was a young soldier who died in Iraq, blown up by a roadside bomb. His funeral was in Oakley, in my constituency. The community turned out en masse to show their support for the family. They recognised the difference between the armed forces and the Government. They recognised the talent and commitment of their soldiers, but disagreed with the war.

A normal occurrence in Iraq, which happened every day of the week at the time, cost Scott Kennedy his life, and it cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends and relatives. We felt it in Fife that Scott Kennedy had lost his life, but in Iraq many others whom we did not know also lost their lives. Just today, another 48 people have died and scores have been injured in bomb attacks in Baghdad. The war cost us £1 trillion but, a decade on, Iraq is still rocked with instability and division. The war was based on a false premise. It was illegal, costly, bloody and just plain wrong. [Applause.]

Although I am proud that our party opposed the war, I am more ashamed that our country went to war in Iraq. It was a war that secured the support of the UK Parliament and this Parliament. I am ashamed that that happened, and of the intervention by the Labour Government, with the support of the Conservatives. I praise John Lamont for his contribution. I disagree with what he said, but I commend him for standing up and saying it because people need to hear why the case was made for the Iraq war.

Back in 1999, Tony Blair laid out new criteria for what he believed was humanitarian intervention. Those principles were not wrong; he just did not stick to them. His failure to adhere to those principles damaged not just the principles but, as we have heard, lives.

It is often said that countries, generals and leaders fight the last war rather than the next one. Decisions taken often reflect more the success or failure of previous conflicts rather than the special circumstances of the next. Iraq was affected by the success of Kosovo, Sierra Leone and, to a limited extent at the time, Afghanistan. However, failure in Iraq should not preclude future action elsewhere. It should not alter our collective responsibility to support freedom and protect human rights around the world. Doing nothing can be as bad as cavalier adventurism. No war is ever won; it is just that some are less bad than others. However, always sitting on our hands can be even worse.

What tests, then, would we apply to future military action? If we are to have a serious debate, that is what we should focus on. I have four simple tests. The first is whether military action is legal under international law. Secondly, does it command local and regional support? That is also important. Thirdly, are we confident that it will alleviate suffering? Finally, and often most controversially, is the United Nations behind it, or, in the absence of that support, are there reasons to intervene on clear humanitarian grounds?

Those are the questions that we need to apply to future conflicts. In Libya, I would say that the limited special forces action and air strikes relieved suffering. We secured the support of Arab countries surrounding Libya. We also secured a strong mandate from the UN and our action was judged legal. I would say that it passed the test. We also passed the test in Mali.

Syria is the biggest test because the United Nations is clearly divided. With Russia standing firmly behind its ally, we have been limited to humanitarian aid. However, thousands of people are suffering and lots of people have died. Many more will die in future. The UK Government, along with many other European Union countries, has agreed to provide non-lethal equipment to the Opposition in Syria but has refused to rule out further support. It is a really difficult test. Do we stand aside when more people die in Syria? We need constantly to reapply the tests that I set out, which are whether we have regional support, whether action is legal and whether we have UN support.

I supported the 1 million British people who marched against the war in 2003. They were not duped by Saddam Hussein and his deception and cruelty, but what they could not understand was why the containment and deterrence approach was to be abandoned; nor did they accept that military intervention was justified. They did not believe that Saddam Hussein was a good guy. They believed that the measures that were being taken were sufficient at the time and they were not convinced of the need for military action. They feared the wider consequences in the middle east, for Israel and Palestine, but also for the Iraqi people. They were anxious about Bush adventurism and revenge for the perceived failures of his father. They were concerned by the actions of a seemingly overcompliant UK Administration that was too eager to please George Bush. It is a shame that this Parliament and the Westminster Parliament did not listen to those people more carefully.

For Scott Kennedy and the hundreds of thousands of others who have lost their lives, it is imperative that we study our history and learn our lessons. That could be their legacy.
I move amendment S4M-05981.1, to insert after “UN resolution”:
“; regrets the decision of the Labour government, with the support of the Conservatives, to press ahead with the invasion despite considerable opposition and many warnings about the danger of armed conflict; is of the view that the intervention was illegal under international law”.


I woke up this morning to hear a radio report from a BBC reporter who had been in Iraq in the days immediately after the invasion. He was speaking to a man who had been sentenced by Saddam Hussein’s regime to a punishment for mistakenly writing on Saddam Hussein’s head on a currency note. The punishment was to be death by acid bath. That was Saddam Hussein. That was the brutal dictator who we were dealing with at the time. I therefore have a huge amount of sympathy for those who found it to be a difficult decision to make when they supported the Iraq war.

I fully accept that Ann Clwyd, with her stories—and I have listened to Ann Clwyd on this in the House of Commons—makes a compelling case about the minorities who were punished in Iraq. I have heard the stories that John Lamont mentioned about the thousands of Kurds and Shias who were put to death under Saddam Hussein’s regime. I have heard the stories about the marsh Arabs, who suffered after they were left high and dry after the first Gulf war.

They thought that they were going to get the full support of the allies against Saddam Hussein at that time, only to be left in the lurch. I understand all those stories, but the four tests that I mentioned earlier—that were absolutely required to be met in order to go ahead with the war—were not followed.

Tony Blair made a compelling case; the simplistic argument—“If you knew what I knew”—is very compelling. He tried to tempt us into believing that he knew much more than he was able to tell us. It was quite an attractive argument and I can understand how so many were seduced by it. I do not condemn those who took the decision to support the war. I disagreed with them fundamentally. I was opposed to the war, my party was opposed to the war and I am glad that we were opposed to the war, because we did not believe that there was justification for the war.

Kevin Stewart made an excellent speech, with his remarks about Allan Douglas and the turmoil that Allan Douglas’s family has gone through since. I have had to sit in the House of Commons when Gordon Brown—and Tony Blair before him—read out the weekly roll-call of the dead. It was a sobering experience. It brought it home that we had made a decision in the House of Commons to go to war and as a result, this roll-call was now being read out and 179 men and women died in Iraq. Allan Douglas was one of them—one of the brave. We need to remind ourselves of those personal stories. Joan McAlpine’s story about a victim on the other side, Ali Abbas, was equally compelling. He was one of hundreds of thousands who suffered as a result of what happened in Iraq.

Those stories are important. We should not just think of such things in geostrategic and geopolitical terms. It is all about the individual—what does it do to the individual? Drew Smith made a good speech about veterans. Again, this is one of the lessons that we have to learn—about looking after the people who fought for the nation on our behalf. The problems around alcohol, prison and homelessness are well recognised. The Scottish Government and the UK Government have made good progress. The priority treatment for veterans is excellent. Headley Court down in the south-east of England is a fantastic facility. If members ever get a chance to go and see it, please go and see it. Veterans first point, at the other end of Princes Street, provides an excellent service, in particular for people who are suffering from mental health problems and also from combat stress, down in Ayr and elsewhere in the UK. It provides excellent facilities to deal with the problems that Drew Smith rightly highlighted. That is one of the lessons from Iraq—that we improve the support for those who have fought on our behalf.

Iraq has been unstable since the start of the war. The shift in the balance of power between Iraq and Iran has been quite significant. Iran is quite a manipulative nation; it gets its tentacles all over that part of the world. When I was in Basra, I saw the effect of Iran’s influence in the south of Iraq. It was funding some of the terrorist groups in the south. It managed to kidnap some of our sailors in the Gulf. We should be wary whenever we intervene within a region; we have to be conscious of the balance of power between all the different stakeholders and countries, because if we unsettle that balance, there are unintended consequences.

I disagree with Fiona McLeod. I recognise that Fiona McLeod is a pacifist. We have to weigh up the people who may suffer if we fail to act. That is the balance. The four tests are critical: making sure that we alleviate suffering; making sure that we have regional and local support; the United Nations has to be on board; and it has to be legal. Those are the four tests. If we comply with those four tests, we should not leave a nation and the people who are suffering within it high and dry.

The final point that we need to remember is about those who spoke up. At the time, the momentum was in favour of war. I remember the pressure that we felt that we were under from all the compelling arguments that were being made. I am delighted that many MSPs, including Bruce Crawford, Jenny Marra and Fiona McLeod, attended the march, but I also give full praise to those who spoke up in the House of Commons— Robin Cook, Ming Campbell, Charles Kennedy and Alex Salmond all deserve credit, because they stood up when it counted. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Salmond propmises post independence childcare revolution weeks after turning down Rennie's plans for nursery education

Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond  gave his keynote speech to SNP Conference this afternoon. There were three things in it that struck me as a Liberal Democrat.

A numbers game

Apparently a “yes” vote for independence would be a vote for a “prosperous economy and a just society.” Does this remind you of any phrase being used rather a lot at the moment by any Liberal Democrat who can be persuaded to do so? I wonder how prosperous an economy built on wildly optimistic estimates of oil revenues would be to start with.

Many nationalists have been complaining about their fixed budget doesn’t give them enough control. Come 2015, they’ll have much more power to change that thanks to the Scotland Act introduced by Liberal Democrat Secretary of State Michael Moore. As he’s always said, that’s a stepping stone and there’s a growing consensus for further devolution in the future.

Power to the people?

It is said that to govern is to choose but even more fundamental than that is to choose how you are governed. I did wonder if he was having a laugh, here, as his SNP Government will centralise anything that sits still for a minute or more. Schools, police, you name it. They have taken power from the people to Holyrood and they don’t get the idea of local communities having a say on things which affect them. As a highlander, I instinctively find the idea of a centralising SNP Government in Edinburgh as unpleasant as a centralising government in London.

People should not vote for independence thinking they will have more say. They won’t if the SNP have their way. However Ming Campbell set out a blueprint for giving more powers away from Holyrood in his Home and community rule commission report.

Transforming childcare

Salmond knows fine that women are more sceptical about independence and he has to win them over somehow. So it’s hardly surprising that he talked about childcare and even used the phrase the gender gap. Look what he had to say:
But I believe a transformational shift towards childcare should be one of the first tasks of an independent Scotland.
What a cheek! This comes only weeks after he turned down Willie Rennie’s pleas for more nursery education for 2 year olds. He already has powers to do something about this, but chooses not to. It’s a cynical move, especially given that Nick Clegg and Jo Swinson are in the process of implementing a radically different system of shared parental leave and are offering help with childcare costs to the tune of £1200 per child per year.

Voters in Scotland will have to choose between the reality of what is available to them and some unspecified revolution yet to come.

Willie Rennie noticed the same thing and said:
The First Minister's decision to put childcare into his list of independence promises for tomorrow is not the outcome 50,000 two year olds who will grow up in Scotland between now and the referendum deserve. I'm disappointed that our reasonable and costed plans to deliver free nursery care for forty percent of two year olds is now being used as a sweetener in the independence referendum.
However I'm sure that parents, mothers in particular, will be even more disappointed. I want to build a stronger economy in a fairer society which enables every person to get on in life. It could not be clearer, or more saddening, that the First Minister is now confusing our nation's ambition with his obsession for independence.
If I had to summarise the speech in a tweet, it would be “Iraq bad, Westminster evil, and we’re not going to give you goodies until you vote yes.” It was, as ever light on detail.

The other big news elsewhere from Inverness was a challenge to David Cameron to come and debate Salmond. The SNP know they don’t have the arguments, but if they can get an unpopular Tory PM an hour and a half’s airtime, they think that will scare voters into the arms of the Yes Campaign. The pro-independence arguments are so weak that even Cameron could demolish them, but Salmond’s challenge reveals more about the desperate situation of the Yes campaign.

Baby Ethan is here!

How gorgeous is my lovely younger nephew, born at 12:20 am today? Unlike the rest of his siblings, we knew his name and what he looked like before his arrival due to the wonders of technology.

He may have been due last Sunday, but when he decided the time was right, he didn't hang about. I got a text from my sister saying she was off to hospital at 11:18 pm.

Next thing I knew, his photo appeared on Facebook. He is the second of my parents' grandchildren to have been born on a Saturday. The others  have all been born on Mondays or Fridays. And they have all been gorgeous too. And still are.

He is an enormously lucky little boy. Apart from his parents, he has five sisters and a brother to dote on him, two sets of grandparents, two aunties and uncles and 3 cousins to spoil him. And did I mention how cute he is, even though it's blindingly obvious:-).

I've had Anna's baby photos out today. She is unimpressed at the number of dresses I made her wear as a baby. She's only worn one in the last 5 years or so and that was for my sister's wedding last year.

So, welcome to the World, Baby Ethan. Hope you find it as full of love and hope as you find yourself surrounded by today. And well done to my amazing sister, too.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Nick Clegg's speech on immigration: the good, the bad and the ugly

The much-missed Conrad Russell said you should read something three times before you pass comment on it. I've done that with today's speech on immigration by Nick Clegg. I've also had several cups of tea and am frantically hunting for some smelling salts to revive me. Leaders are supposed to lead and to challenge established thinking. I have no problem with him sticking his neck out on an issue if that is what he wants to do. It's important that we listen to him and if we don't like his ideas, to calmly and respectfully tell him so.

It seems odd that he chose to ask the party to ditch its immigration policy today when he could have done so  at Conference in Brighton two weeks ago. It seems that he has done little internally to prepare the ground, not even discussing his plans with the Federal Policy Committee.
Let's look a bit more closely at what he said.

The good

Well, at least one of the three main party leaders hasn't ingested the Daily Mail's rhetoric on immigrants and recognises the importance of a rational debate.
The political mainstream has a duty to wrestle this issue away from populists and extremists. A duty to shift what can be a highly polarised debate – particularly in difficult economic times – onto practical and sensible ground.
And recognises the positives of people coming to make their lives here:
Of course, if you believed every headline, you’d think that when immigrants aren’t stealing British jobs... they’re all living the high life in 12-bedroom Kensington mansions, courtesy of the state. But that’s a complete caricature of the truth.
(Although I think I'd have preferred the use of the word nonsense somewhere in that last sentence)
The majority of people who come here work hard and make a contribution. Many have served – and still serve – in our armed forces. And if every member of an immigrant community suddenly downed tools, countless businesses and services would suffer. The NHS would fall over.

So where did it all go wrong?

There was a clue very early on that this was going to make many Liberal Democrats feel very uncomfortable.
We need an immigration system that is zero-tolerant towards abuse.
If you are going to highlight one feature that you think a public service should be, surely  "fair"  would be a good start, particularly when you are talking so much about a fairer society?  That would be a system where the right decisions are made in good time and people are treated with respect. In short, almost everything the UK Borders Agency doesn't do at the moment. It troubles me that he defended the Coalition's cruel policy of a minimum income for those who want to bring their spouses to live in this country. I have friends married to non EU citizens who are currently living abroad. Is it right that they can only live together here as a family if they're affluent?

I find it strange that he didn't talk about the asylum system, where people are forced to live on next to nothing and get little help, even at the most vulnerable times of their lives.

Nick's speech contained three major ideas:
  • He wants to remove our policy of a path to citizenship for those who had been in the country for more than ten years;
  • Security bonds for people from "high risk countries" who want to visit the UK;
  • Charging for translation services if people won't learn English.
On the first, he said that " it was seen by many people as a reward for those who have broken the law." That was an attitude encouraged by the likes of the Daily Mail. Would it not be better to find the language to reach the people who believe their rhetoric than ditch a pragmatic idea?

It gets worse

I am not sure I understand how asking people from "high risk countries" to pay a deposit which is returned to them when they leave is compatible with "so that they don’t unfairly discriminate against particular groups." The proposal is discriminatory in nature against every single person from that country who wants to come here.

Sometime in the next few days, I'll be heading to Inverness when my nephew, Baby Ethan, is born. The only barrier I'll face in doing that is the snow gate at Drumochter. If I lived in the EU, I'd have no bother getting in to see him, and nor would there likely be a problem if I was from the US or Canada, or Brazil. Pakistan, though, that would be different. I've worked on immigration cases. I've seen people struggle to get their siblings in to see them for the last time before they die of Cancer. I think the solution is getting the visa handling services to treat people fairly, not force them to find even more money. I'm not convinced a security bond would stop people being turned down indiscriminately and having to wait months for an appeal, either. Nick specifically said that:
Visiting Britain to celebrate a family birth, or a relative’s graduation, or wedding should not become entirely dependant on your ability to pay the security bond.
How, though, do you prevent that from happening?

I've spoken English all my life and I find the immigration rules complicated

The very idea that we could weaken people's position in an incredibly complex system by making translation services available only to those who could afford to pay for them is the very opposite of what I understand fairness to mean. Now, I agree that if you live in a country you should attempt to speak the language. I've laughed at ex-pats we've met in Spain who have no intention of learning Spanish. But expecting non-native speakers to find their way through the system without help is not on.

What happens now?

There is no doubt that Nick's remarks will incite heated debate within the party. My suggestion is that everyone who has any direct experience and knowledge of the immigration system and its many failings gets in touch with Andrew Stunell, who is leading Nick's review into our policies. We need to treat this review like we did the communications data stuff and make sure that the recommendations which come out of it are fair, liberal and evidence based.

If today's speech is Nick playing good cop ahead of Cameron's speech on immigration, the ensuing debate is not going to be easy. There are plenty people who want to be tough on immigration. Surely it's our job to be liberal?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Scotland's Day of Destiny clashes with Liberal Democrat Conference

Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond announced today that the Independence Referendum would be held on 18th September 2014.  Three and a half years of preparation and campaigning will come to an end and Scotland will decide whether its future lies within the UK or out of it. At the moment, the polls are looking pretty good for staying in the Union, but that is no cause for complacency. Every vote will have to be fought for across the whole country. It will be a very different sort of campaign.

You would think, wouldn't you, that when you were deciding on a date like that, you would check out that there was nothing else going on at the time? Like a major party political conference, for example. My first reaction when I heard the date was "When's Federal Conference?" Sal Brinton confirmed on Twitter that it's expected to be in Liverpool from 13-17 September.

Faced with that choice, Scots will have to stay in Scotland but that is not without its problems. Someone pointed out on Twitter that there could be election expenses implications if anyone mentions the Referendum publicly at the Conference. And will the Nationalists make a fuss if the BBC covers any of the Conference in Scotland? It will mean that Scottish Liberal Democrats don't get to vote on the elements of the Manifesto for the 2015 election which will no doubt contain plans for further powers for the Scottish Parliament after a "no" vote. It is far from ideal and probably a lot more complicated than we yet realise.

It is pretty disrespectful on the part of the SNP not to have considered this. They might not think some conference in England is important, but the fact is that many Scots have strong ties south of the Border and these things do matter to them.

It's unlikely that the Referendum date will change, especially as the SNP Government has an overall majority at Holyrood. Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour conferences are always held back to back and are agreed years in advance and venues secured. Whether they meant to or not, the net result is that the SNP has created some inconvenience for our party. We'll sort it out, but it's annoying that we have been put in this position.

We will just get on with it, but it's worth pointing out that if we had done this to the SNP, they would have been in every single television studio squealing outrage.

The most important thing, though, is that we get the issues properly debated. It's really important to show that being part of the UK really does give Scotland the best of both worlds. We know that Alex Salmond has been irresponsibly vague on whether he had legal advice on Scotland's future EU membership. We've had a leaked report by the Finance Minister which suggests uncertainty over Scotland's future oil revenues being over-ridden days later by the First Minster proclaiming that there would be an oil boom as I told you last week.   If they carry on like this, there'll be more truth in Grimm's Fairy Tales than in the Yes Scotland manifesto come the referendum.

Liberal Democrat Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore told Scottish Conference this weekend that the SNP had deliberately twisted facts to suit their case, that they had chosen Independence Day even before they had announced the day we'd have to make our choice. The SNP claim that, in the event of a Yes vote they will be able to have all the arrangements for independence finalised by March 2016. That will involve getting all 27 EU member states to agree to admit an independent Scotland and would require speedier negotiations than the EU has ever shown itself capable of. If they are going to do it that quickly, what are they prepared to sacrifice in our name? Today, as the date was announced, Moore had this to say:
I am glad people in Scotland have now been told the proposed date for the referendum.
The debate about Scotland’s future has already begun and will only intensify, and that is something I look forward to.
I am confident when Scots go to the polls they will vote in favour of Scotland staying within a strong and secure UK family.
I shall be doing all I possibly can to make sure that they do just that. 

Time to throw an anvil at secret courts

Next Tuesday, which is both my nephew's 14th birthday and the 32nd anniversary of the founding of the SDP, the Justice and Security Bill comes back to the House of Lords for consideration. Now, my esteemed colleague Mr Valladares has given a very helpful account of what the Lords can and can't do. He goes on to suggest that the Upper House will often back down in the face of pressure from the elected Chamber.
If ever, though, there was a time for the peers to kick off, it is now, when the right to a fair trial remedy for those who have been tortured or otherwise wronged by the state is being threatened. This is what I said in my speech to Scottish Liberal Democrat Conference last week:
 ...if you torture me and I sue you and you file a defence that I can’t see, how am I supposed to tell the Judge that you are talking hogwash?
And when the Judge makes a ruling against me, which I also am not allowed to see, how am I supposed to know what my grounds for appeal are?
Mike Crockart and Julian Huppert have worked really hard on this Bill. They spent days on Committee trying to change it. They moved a vote to delete the secret courts provision and lost by one vote. But even all their hard work wasn’t enough. Mike and Julian did not think that there were sufficient safeguards in the Bill for them and they voted against it last week.
The fundamental principle behind the secret courts provision is so fundamentally wrong that it is impossible to amend it to make it acceptable. I think the best you can say is that they’ve turned it from a cowp to a midden.
There are some things that you just can't polish. This Bill should never have seen the light of day and certainly not with a Liberal Democrat's name on it.
Over the next few days, I think we should all contact as many peers as we can and ask them to do whatever they can to keep this Bill from becoming law, to amend the amendments in such a way as to keep the Bill going back and fore between both Houses until it simply runs out of time before the end of the session or the Government can be persuaded to withdraw it. Our civil liberties are worth protecting.

James Carville, brilliant and slightly eccentric Democrat strategist who masterminded Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns, once said:
When your opponent is drowning, throw the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) an anvil.
Similarly, when a bad piece of legislation is drowning in the currents between two Houses of Parliament, throw it an anvil, not a life jacket.

Let's spend the weekend filling their inboxes with short, well-argued pleas to find some way of sparing us the effects of this Bill. Liberal Democrat Peers are listed here and crossbench peers are listed here. Remind them that it's totally counter-intuitive for us as a party to be on a different side to Liberty, Reprieve, Amnesty.  Remind them that human rights lawyers and the special advocates themselves oppose the bill and the Joint Committee on Human Rights is still not satisfied with the Bill.

If you agree with me that this Bill is entirely wrong in principle, get those anvils poised and ready to throw. Still not convinced? Read this by David Howarth, former MP for Cambridge.
Consider, for example, the torts of assault and battery and false imprisonment, torts on which our freedom from state oppression are built. The defences to these torts include necessity and self-defence. Those are precisely the defences that would be in issue in the most profound and difficult of cases, for example a torture and ticking time-bomb case or a case of holding a potential terrorist’s family as hostages. Are we really to have secret precedents in these areas of law? The very thought should make any liberal, or indeed anyone who believes in the rule of law, shudder.

The joy of Twitter on its 7th birthday

So, it's 7 years today since the first Tweet was sent. Coincidentally, earlier this week, this happened to me:

A kind of super diamond jubilee.

I was quite pleased with myself but was soon brought back down to earth by this:

So, in the last four and a half years, I've spent six weeks of my life on Twitter? That is a lot of time. Most of it, I'd say, has been well spent, though and I've made actual proper friends on the social networking site.

Just a couple of years in, I wrote this post, in response to Nadine Dorries being her usual snide self,  suggesting that people who said they were ill and spent their time on Twitter were malingering. For me, Twitter had been a lifeline when I spent months recovering from Glandular Fever in 2009.
For me, Twitter was a way of keeping in touch with my friends - and getting to know more brilliant people. It was also something I could do from bed and with a maximum of 140 characters, it meant that it didn't take too much time or energy to take part in a conversation and just feel that I was still part of the outside world.
I am sure that if I hadn't had that sort of interaction that I would quickly have gone under. I've suffered from Depression before on many occasions and I know how scary, dark and horrible a place that is. I credit Twitter as being one of the things that spared me another crippling spell with the Black Dog and thus enabling me to return to my normal productive self as quickly as I possibly could.
A year earlier, I'd written about 3 things I'd done on Twitter before I got out of bed in the morning. I can't believe I actually helped Nadine Dorries with something.

Some friends and I were talking about how we use it this morning. I tend to use it for:

I have had quite a lot of feedback from people that my tweets covering things like Nick Clegg's weekly LBC phone in and party conferences are helpful to people who aren't there. Mark Pack told me the other day that he was worried people might say that there's no point in going to Conferences because they could just read my tweets - a bit like in the olden days, when football started to be televised, that people worried nobody would go to the grounds. Well, that proved to be true, didn't it? And I can only be in one place at a time...

Keeping up with my friends on Twitter has brightened many train journeys, enhanced numerous episodes of Strictly Come Dancing, made F1 races even more exciting and has added to my knowledge in a mostly good way. I had a chat on Twitter with some friends this morning about its various uses.

I could never write about Twitter without mentioning the much-missed Andrew Reeves though. Some of you will remember the time we had to get him out of Twitter jail. He loved Twitter and it was highly appropriate that on the day of his funeral, people shared their many memories of him.

I shall end by reminding you of a funny coincidence of tweets one night. Sally Bercow went off to Harry Cole's Christmas Party and tweeted:
whispers* Now off to @'s Christmas Party .
At almost exactly the same moment, I tweeted:
Can't believe they let Sally go in there without a hard hat. What happened to health and safety law? Has it been suspended for the night?
I was watching the Coronation Street tram crash death scene at the time. It was also the day of the tuition fees vote, so it was good to have this to laugh at.

This should have been a five minute post. It's taken me much longer than that as I've sauntered down Memory Lane. That is the one big drawback of Twitter - it draws you in a little bit too much sometimes. It's clear that there's no 7 year itch, though. Tweeting is here to stay.


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