Saturday, February 15, 2014

Men, is your behaviour driving women out of politics?

Imagine you are in a meeting trying to make your case. How would you feel if, every time you opened your mouth to speak, somebody interrupted you before you had got to the end of your first sentence? Not just once. Every. Single.Time.
Imagine you are in a meeting, trying to make your case, but the decision has clearly been made by a small cabal of powerful men who have reached their own understanding over dinner and some booze the night before, at an event that you were not invited to.
Imagine you are in a meeting trying to do your job responsibly, but because your recollections or views don't fit in with what others want, they become aggressive, shouting you down, demeaning your abilities, decrying your right to suggest something different. You feel completely under attack, humiliated, your heart is racing, you can feel the tears stinging and try to suppress them because you sure as hell aren't going to give them the satisfaction of showing weakness.
These are just three examples of behaviour I've repeatedly experienced and witnessed while going about my Lib Demmery over the years, and it still goes on to this day. And virtually always, the aggressors are men, who would never behave towards other men in such a manner.
You will always to a certain extent get people who will take advantage of their position and power, but this is not what I'm talking about. That's kind of part of politics. I'm talking about those men who, whether consciously or not, treat women with less respect than they do men. It's almost as if they think we're interlopers. I would not for one moment think that this sort of behaviour is confined to the Liberal Democrats, or even active politics, but it's my own party I want to change.
Academic Mary Beard, who has been the victim of Twitter trolls, has given a lecture, reported in the Guardian, about the way women are treated when they dare to put their heads above the parapet and speak out. She says that from Homer to Twitter, prejudice hardwired into our culture leads to vocal women being treated as "freakish androgenes." Dealing with that can't be remedied by measures like all women shortlists alone:
But if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still tend to pay a very high price for being heard, we have to recognise that it's more complicated and that there's a long backstory."
Women's interventions were often described as "strident" or "whining". "Do those words matter? Of course they do – because they underpin an idiom that acts to remove the authority, the force, even the humour from what women have to say. It's an idiom that effectively repositions women back into the domestic sphere (people "whinge" over things like the washing up); it trivialises their words," she said.
"Contrast that with the 'deep-voiced' man, and its connotations of profundity. It is still the case, I'd argue, that when as listeners we hear a female voice, we don't hear a voice that connotes authority; or rather we haven't learned how to hear authority in it."
What is her solution?
"We just have got to have a bit more onsciousness-raising, old-fashioned feminist consciousness-raising. How do we use language? Why does it matter? And how does it put women down?"
This isn't about robust exchange of views. Anyone in politics should expect that. And anyone in the Liberal Democrats should always relish reasoned debate and discussion as a way to learn as much as a form of combat. Nobody in any position of power within the party should expect their decisions to go unchallenged. No, my concerns relate to a specific issue with how some men behave towards women.
Sometimes they aren't even aware. In my first example, of the man who interrupted me every time I opened my mouth, I eventually took him to one side and, very gently, asked him why he did that. He didn't even realise he was doing it but when I gave him a whole list of specific examples, he started to get it and to his credit worked at changing his behaviour. Our working relationship improved vastly as a result.
So, what's the solution? Well, it's certainly not easy. It is a problem, though that we ignore at our peril. I've seen good women driven away from active politics out of sheer exasperation at the way powerful men exclude and demean them. Participation in politics should not require putting up with such behaviour and politics itself is better when it more accurately reflects the society we live in.
A start would be for us all to be much more aware of our behaviour and that of others. Men in powerful positions, have a look at your own behaviour. Do you exclude women, do you behave aggressively towards them in a way that you would never do to a man? If so, change your behaviour. Decide that you won't do that in future. It's not difficult.
The rest of us need to look out for women who are being treated like this and challenge disrespectful behaviour. Even if we don't agree with what they say, we should always support their right to be heard and treated with dignity. Let's tackle our everyday sexism.

Bluff, bluster and bullying says Salmond. Pot, kettle and black come to mind.

This post originally appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice
That the SNP would dismiss yesterday's announcement on currency by George Osborne should not come as a surprise to any of us.
Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have taken to the airwaves to complain of "bluff, bluster and bullying" by those nasty big boys from Westminster. It's actually quite brazen to sit there and say, having been told a very firm "no" that the answer was really yes. But their aim was to whip up fury amongst their own supporters, to incite an emotional reaction in those who don't like English Tories telling things like they are.
That was always going to be the huge risk of Osborne's gamble and the jury is still out on whether Danny Alexander and Ed Balls were right to agree with it. Those voters who are undecided, who instinctively might veer towards yes but are worried by the uncertainties of independence might be propelled back towards them in the face of what they might perceive as a reactionary and petulant manoeuvre. Except that doesn't quite work when one of the people agreeing this, Danny Alexander, is a highlander through and through.
From what I can see in my social media timeline, and I'm discounting people already involved in politics, those who were already committed to voting yes are outraged, those who were already committed to voting no are pleased and those who don't know are splitting fairly evenly. That's only a small sample of family and friends. It'll be interesting to see the first proper poll.
I am still in two minds about whether this is the right thing to do as I wrote the other day. I do, though, completely see the rationale behind being honest with the voters ahead of the referendum. It's really important that Scots know what they are voting for. I said then that Osborne needed to be logical, reasonable and measured in his tone. By and large, he was. In fact, he was quite cold and forensic. I'm not normally one for giving added publicity to anything that George Osborne says, but he summed up the whole independence debate quite well with this observation:
People in Scotland are being asked to accept two diametrically opposite things at the same time.
That with independence everything in Scotland will change
and at the same time nothing will change.
The SNP wants to bring about fundamental change, but are giving false reassurance to people that things will stay the same, they'll still use the pound, they'll still have the Queen and they'll barely notice independence. If that's the case, what's the point? Leaving the UK is a huge decision that will require changes in every aspect of our lives, and  will involve massive risk and uncertainty. To pretend otherwise is wrong. If Osborne's move yesterday gets more people realising that, then it will have succeeded.
The SNP's line has been that the UK Government is bluffing and they will still be arguing for a currency union because that's what'll happen in the event of a yes vote. They have refused to give out any details of their Plan B. The tone of the debate on Twitter has been of the "You can't stop us using the pound, na na na na na" variety. I've heard nationalists on discussion programmes also talk about using the euro or the dollar, like it's really easy to do and there is no downside.  Prominent pro independence folk like Jim Sillars and Dennis Canavan, neither of them every likely to be on message for the Yes campaign at the best of times, have repeated their calls for Scotland to have its own currency.
The Scotland Office's Scotland Analysis paper on currency looked at the four options considered by the SNP's Fiscal Commission and concluded that in every event Scots would be worse off out of the UK. Quelle surprise, I hear you say, but it makes sense. A new country doesn't have a proven credit history. How tough do individuals find it to get credit for the first time? Well, it's the same for countries, who generally have to pay a higher rate of interest. That feeds back to more expensive mortgages and borrowing costs for businesses for citizens.
Then of course there's the fact that if you just use someone else's currency, you don't have a proper central bank, or lender of last resort. It was quite scary to hear SNP minister Fiona Hyslop suggest on Brian Taylor's Big Debate today that the bank bailout in 2008 just benefitted the city of London. I was under the impression it protected the savings of ordinary people and their jobs, too. If there is nobody to give your banks liquidity when they need it, and they all do from time to time, a hitch quickly becomes a crisis.
You can't really accuse someone of bullying when you then infer that taking your share of the national debt is conditional. Trying to get your own way by threatening not to fulfil your obligations is not far off blackmail. All the nonsense being put about by nationalists that it's the UK's debt abd nowt to do with them will amount to nothing when lenders make an independent Scotland borrow at exorbitant rates, if they allow it to borrow at all. Starting life as a pariah state that doesn't pay its dues is not a good prospect. The idea that the SNP can just walk away from that debt is like me saying I'm not paying income tax because I've lost Child Benefit.
One of the great things about the independence debate is that we get Jim Naughtie back for our version of the Today programme a couple of days a week. This morning, he got closer than anyone else has done so far to getting Salmond to admit that there would have to be an alternative proposal at some point:
JN: Does that mean in the event of a yes vote you go into negotiations without another option in your back pocket?
AS: Well let me say for the third time Jim that the fiscal commission working group set out all of the monetary policy options for an independent Scotland but recommended the best one was a sterling area and that’s the one that we’re going to be articulating and that’s what you’d expect us to do….
JN: OK Alex Salmond says there is no alternative –
AS: No I didn’t say that Jim, I said
JN – I’m just checking
AS – Try again, I said the Fiscal Commission Working Group set out a range of monetary policy options for an independent Scotland…
Willie Rennie encouraged Salmond to get on with telling us his Plan B:
The penny has finally dropped. The First Minister has effectively conceded that the Sterling Currency union with the UK will not happen.
He pointed towards the options in his fiscal commission but he needs to tell us which one he’d choose.  Would it be the Euro or a separate Scottish currency?
The clock is ticking. With 10 days until Scottish Cabinet meets in the North East, the First Minister can’t turn up empty handed. I am clear that the only way to keep the UK pound, and all the benefits which come with it, is to keep the strong UK family of nations. Now that Alex Salmond is without his Plan A he has a duty to tell people in Scotland what his Plan B is.
If Salmond goes into the referendum without fully explaining his alternative, then he'll be asking the voters to pay the biggest game of chicken in electoral history. His comments to Naughtie suggest that he knows that even if he's not prepared to explicitly say so just yet. His original suggestion that they'd just wait it out till after 18th September has been exposed as bluff within 24 hours. If he wants examples of bullying, bluff and bluster, he could easily look in the mirror.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ruling out a currency union. Locking the horse inside the stable?

This post first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice
The currency in an independent Scotland has been the subject of much frenetic debate in recent months. The Scottish Government's White Paper on independence is clear that their preferred option is to continue to use sterling within a monetary union with what would remain of the UK:
The Commission's analysis shows that it will not only be in Scotland's interests to retain Sterling but that - post independence - this will also benefit the rest of the UK.
Under such an arrangement, monetary policy will be set according to economic conditions across the Sterling Area with ownership and governance of the Bank of England undertaken on a shareholder basis.
The SNP has this unfortunate habit of thinking that just because it wants something to be the case, that it'll happen. In any relationship, the views of the other parties have to be taken into consideration. Over the past few months, expert after expert has said that Scotland would have to cede its newly won independence and submit its spending plans to the will of the Bank of England and would have arguably less influence over its fiscal policy than it does at the moment.
Just the other week, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, laid out the conditions which would be necessary for a successful currency union:
The euro area is now beginning to rectify its institutional shortcomings, but further, very significant steps must be taken to expand the sharing of risks and pooling of fiscal resources. In short, a durable, successful currency union requires some ceding of national sovereignty.
It is likely that similar institutional arrangements would be necessary to support a monetary union between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK.
But despite all of that sage and expert advice, Alex Salmond told the FT that he has no intention of ceding any power at all over fiscal policy:
Mr Salmond said an independent Scotland would be happy to cede sovereignty on monetary policy but on fiscal policy it would only have to accept aggregate limits to state debt and borrowing.
He added on that the currency union might be the trade for Scotland agreeing to take on a share of UK debts:
In the interview, Mr Salmond refused to consider a “Plan B” on the currency, warning that refusal by the remaining UK to accept shared use of the Bank of England would free Scotland of any responsibility for the UK debt.
“You’ve got a negotiation where the UK government will want to persuade the Scottish representatives that they should take on a share of debt which is the legal liability of Her Majesty’s Treasury,” he said.
 So, you have a Scottish Government doing it's usual false reassurance and asserting that it'll all be fine despite growing evidence to the contrary. What should the UK Government do? Well, one option is to stand by while yet more experts demolish the SNP's arguments. The other significantly riskier option is to take the whole idea of a currency union off the table. This, we are told, is what George Osborne is going to do tomorrow, with the backing of Ed Balls and Danny Alexander.
Why the risk? It makes the UK Government sound reactionary, petulant and unwilling. This could alienate the very people that Better Together needs to vote No in September. These are the people who respond to the Yes pretty picture narrative. They will even say that it doesn't matter if we're poor as long as we're free. However unpretty not having a viable currency would be, Osborne's gamble runs the risk of sounding like more of the macho posturing we've had on both sides of this debate. It's not a good look. It feeds those who view the Union as some great oppressive tyrant.  But, and it's a big but, if a currency union just isn't going to work, is it not better for the UK Government to be honest about it? How would the voters in the rest of the UK feel about sharing its currency with a country that's just left that union? Would a government of any flavour be able to get that through the House of Commons? I can't see it. If it's a political, fiscal and economic non-starter, is it not best to say so now, rather than let Scotland vote yes on the basis of false reassurance. Saying no then would be locking the door after the horse had bolted. I just hope saying no now isn't locking the poor beast in the stable in the dark for months on end.
Bluntly, Scotland needs the currency union a great deal more than the rest of the UK. Nicola Sturgeon goes on about transaction costs for business. Well, the other UK countries may well be Scotland's biggest trading partner, but Scotland isn't the rest of the UK's, not by a long chalk. You have the 600 million people in the EU and US way ahead of our 6 million people, and nobody's seriously suggested we join the Euro for a while, or the dollar ever.
Reaction from the SNP so far has been either that the UK Government is bluffing or that it's bullying. Well, they can't have that both ways.
I'm still not convinced that this is the best tactic. A lot will depend on what Osborne actually says tomorrow. It's not the time for rhetoric and passion. If he's going to set out this stall, his language will have to be rational, reasoned and measured. He'll have to set it out very carefully and logically, with no rancour. He has a lot of convincing to do, and, let's face it, he is not the most popular politician as far as Scots are concerned. Already the execution of this has been incredibly cackhanded. If David Cameron had kept his mouth shut at that press briefing yesterday and just let Osborne make his speech on Thursday, we could have had the judgement done on his actual words, not conjecture, for 36 hours before. Cameron did this last year, too. He made some comment about the timing of the referendum not being an issue to journalists before it had been agreed between the Governments.

The SNP must now state their Plan B

One thing that's absolutely for sure is that the SNP has nowhere to hide now. They'll try, for a while, to just lob accusations of nasty Westminster bullies into the air but that won't count for much if, having been told they won't get their currency union, they don't produce an alternative.  Otherwise, they will be asking the electorate to play the biggest game of chicken in history. Currency is fundamental to everything we do, so we need to know exactly what's going to happen. It would have been wrong of the SNP to keep making promises it was in no position to keep on something as important as this. It's interesting that nobody really cared about the currency a few months ago, but now polls are seeing it figure quite highly.
So, everyone, to the tune of "Donald where's your troosers", Alex, where's your Plan B?
The three pro UK parties are taking a huge risk here. It will be some time before we see if it pays off, but I'd say it has a pretty good chance. That doesn't mean I have to like it, though.


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