Sunday, August 31, 2014

Scotland deciding

If there's one political issue I get asked about more than any other at the moment it's Scottish independence.

I am not aware of any current active political consideration of independence for Scotland but I presume people mean the referendum on leaving the United Kingdom. But since the Scottish government wants to both stay in the European Union and enter a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom it's not accurate to call this proposal "independence".

It's up to Scotland to decide but I can't deny it would be a body blow. I have many happy childhood memories of visiting my late grandparents in Edinburgh and beyond. Scotland becoming a separate state may not mean I could no longer visit Edinburgh and remember, but it would make it a different experience. It's not easy to put the feeling into words but the prospect is not something I would like.

However there are some issues that are not exclusively matters for Scotland. Whether or not there are border controls and passport checks between countries are a matter for both countries to determine. A separate Scotland is as free as one can be in the EU to decide what controls and restrictions are in place for entering the country, but it will have no direct say over what the rest of the United Kingdom chooses to do. If the rest of the United Kingdom chooses to have border controls to enter from Scotland - and it's quite possible we will as it's likely that Scotland as a new EU member will have to sign up the Schengen Agreement as a condition of entry (whereas Ireland is not a signatory) so this would be essential to prevent a hole in our immigration strategy - then all a separate Scotland can do is protest.

And a currency union isn't going to automatically happen just because the largest party proposing a Yes vote advocates one. The rest of the United Kingdom would also have to agree to it. You can find expert economists who support just about any position and argue endlessly over whether it makes it good economic sense for the rest of the United Kingdom, but membership of a currency union is also a political matter and the three largest UK parties have all ruled it out. A referendum might be a necessary hurdle. The UK has spent the last two decades seeking to avoid another currency union despite lots of people, including Alex Salmond and some expert economists, insisting it makes sense. So there's no automatic guarantee an alternative one would happen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Iain Macleod

In 1968 a senior Conservative Shadow Cabinet member and former Minister of Health boldly took a stand against not only the government's proposed legislation on immigration but also in contrast to his own party's support or it. It was a brave move but very characteristic of a man who is in many ways the ancestor of much of the modern Conservative Party.

That man was Iain Macleod, who died forty-four years ago today.

Macleod did not initially seem destined for a political career. Born to a GP in Yorkshire but from the Western Isles, he at first undertook a career as a professional bridge player, even being on a team that won the top award. He would subsequently write a book entitled Bridge is an easy game; a title I cannot agree with. But then came the war in which he served with distinction and was severely wounded. Throughout the rest of his life he was often in great pain, a sight all to obvious when he made many of his great speeches. But he did not regard his pain as a great disability in politics - after all how was it bad thing to be a Conservative who couldn't look over his left shoulder?!

He turned to politics, notably standing in 1945 as the Conservative candidate for the Western Isles despite there being no Conservative Association there. He and his father held a meeting of themselves and emerged as candidate and association chairman respectively. Subsequently Macleod worked in the Conservative Research Department and contributed radical ideas to the post war reimagining of Conservative aims. Elected in 1950 for Enfield West, Macleod was one of many talented Conservatives to enter Parliament that year who would dominate politics for the next quarter of a century. He soon proved his great oratory in a debate on the Health Service and in 1952 because the first of his intake to head a ministry when he was appointed Minister of Health, albeit outside the Cabinet. (In those days not all heads of department served in the Cabinet and Churchill's style at the time was to have a smaller team of "Overlords", including some non-party cronies, taking general responsibility for direction whilst leaving the detail outside.) Over the next decade he served in a variety of posts including Minister of Labour, during which he defeated a bus drivers' strike, Secretary of State for the Colonies during which many got their independence, and then jointly as Chairman of the Conservative Party and Leader of the House of Commons. These two roles were hard to mix, the one requiring a non-partisan consensual approach, the other a robust partisan. (Subsequent Leaders of the House who have combined it with a campaigning position have had similar problems. William Hague please take note.)

He was a man that many modern Conservatives have much in common with even if they don't realise it. A moderate laissez-faire in economics (in 1965 he remarked on Powellite economics that "I'm a fellow-traveller, but I prefer to get out one or two stops before the train crashes into the buffers at the terminus") and a supporter of liberal causes and keeping the state out of enforcing morality, he was also prepared to take bold stands against his own party's right. As Colonial Secretary he realised the Empire was dying on its feet and it was essential to decolonise quickly even when it meant ignoring the entrenched privileges of colonial elites - in response to those who argued he moved too fast he replied "...although it was extremely dangerous to move quickly it would have been far more dangerous to try and hold back..." This may have cost him any chance of the party leadership but he remained convinced he had done the right thing and, in his close friend and biographer Nigel Fisher's words "saved Africa for the Commonwealth". He disliked the word "Conservative" but oddly preferred "Tory", looking to the traditions of Disraeli and Lord Randolph Churchill.

In early 1968 Britain faced the prospect of hundreds of thousands of white and Asian Kenyans coming to the UK as the recently independent country pursued a policy of Africanisation, including the outlawing of dual citizenship. Few batted an eyelid at the prospect of white Kenyans coming to the country - indeed previous legislation had left open the relevant loophole precisely to allow their entry. The Asian Kenyans provoked a very different response. The Labour government introduced the Commonwealth Immigrants' Bill that would restrict their right of entry. Macleod was outraged at the breach of past promises - indeed it was the prospect that any further government assurances would be reneged on that was accelerating the pace of migration - and took steps to publicly commit himself to opposing the Bill before the Shadow Cabinet had agreed to support it. He did this by two ways, one was by firmly sticking to promises he had made as Colonial Secretary that he could not break, and the other was through publishing an article setting out his views whilst nominally in opposition to a Private Member's Bill in the Spectator, exploiting the publishing schedule, and thus made it impossible for him to do anything but oppose the Bill. It was a risky strategy but a courageous one. Macleod strongly believed "...quite simply in the brotherhood of man—men of all races, of all colours, of all creeds. I think it is this that must be in the centre of our thinking..." The idea that the character of citizenry was determined by a person's skin colour was complete anathema to him.

He faced the dilemma of being opposed to both racial discrimination but also to the idea that legislation can change people's minds and hearts. Ultimately he concluded the Labour government's proposed legislation was unworkable and wrong but that in no way meant that he endorsed the views it sought to tackle. However to help colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet he used his influence to get the Party to not vote against the Bill. After Enoch Powell made his notorious speech, Macleod refused to speak to him for the rest of his life. Later that year Macleod put his career on the line by threatening to quit if his friend (and later biographer) Nigel Fisher was deselected for being too liberal and replaced with a Powellite MP.

In 1970 the Conservatives won the general election in a surprise to many. Macleod had fought a good campaign and I know many Conservatives who can still recall his great oratory on display then. He became Chancellor of the Exchequer and seemed set upon a bold reform of the tax system but the following month he was struck down with abdominal pain and subsequently died of a heart attack. How the Heath government would have gone had he lived remains of much speculation.

But Macleod's legacy is clear to see. Progressive socially liberal conservatism that values opportunity for all, which sees a role for the state to prevent and correct societal wrongs, which is compassionate and cares for the most vulnerable in society, which seeks to free the individual as much as possible, and which seeks to control public spending firmly is present for all to see. In his youth John Major was an admirer of Macleod and much of his approach in government lived up to that legacy. Today's generation of Conservatives are less likely to remember and recall him but they too live up to his legacy.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Sometimes you have to fail to succeed

So David Cameron tried to block Jean-Claude Juncker's appointment and failed. It happens - not everyone can win all the time. But it was also necessary. If he'd just thrown up his hands and said there's nothing that can be done to reform the European Union many would have doubted it all the way to the inevitable referendum.

Instead he set out to do what he could to stop this federalist taking office. But it was impossible to do so and that's been shown. Would all those now piling in rather the United Kingdom had meekly nodded its head to Juncker's appointment? Of course not - they'd have been critical of that as well, protesting that an effort should have been made. Well one was - and even though the immediate objective was unsuccessful it has shown how unlikly it is that the EU can be reformed. Many may need further convincing before it becomes clear the only two options are a federal superstate and withdrawal, but it's a start.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Comments on ballot papers don't deliver a message

At some point I'll post my more general reflections on the council and European elections last week but for now I want to focus on one aspect that doesn't get much discussion - spoilt ballot papers at the count.

For those who've never been to an election count, one of the important later stages is the adjudication. This is when all ballot papers identified by the counting as "Doubtful" - i.e. those that don't seemingly express a clear & correct number of intentions - are ruled on by either the Returning Officer or a formally designated deputy. Candidates and/or their agents are entitled to attend to witness the rulings though challenges must be submitted through the legal process. Crucially it's often the case that not every candidate/party is represented at this but that's their own decision.

Coming late in the count and usually straight after a long and intense campaign, all the candidates and agents are invariably tired and focusing their remaining energies on spotting valid votes for their own side. The ballot papers also go by fairly fast, especially in a borough such as Newham, which has many doubtful votes.

Some votes are ruled as valid and returned to the pile. Others are ruled out for one of the following reasons:
  • Want of an official mark
  • Being unmarked or wholly void for uncertainty
  • Voting for more candidates than voter was entitled to
  • Writing or mark by which voter could be identified
The first is rare nowadays due to changes in the way ballot papers are designed, printed and issued. The fourth should be self-explanatory though it includes polling numbers as well as names. The third is also known as "Overvoting" and is particularly common when there are multiple ballot papers given out at the same time - in my opinion the vast majority of these that I saw last week were either people who read the instructions on one ballot paper and followed them on the other two or people who put both their first and second preference for Mayor in the same column.

The second is something of a catch-all category, including blank ballot papers, ticks and crosses in so awkward a place they couldn't be determined, various attempts to vote for "None" and a variety of comments.

Why people cast spoilt ballot papers is ultimately known only to them, though I suspect a lot of the blanks come from people being given three papers and mistakenly assuming they can only vote on one of them. I'd be interested to hear people's experience from other multiple election counts but I'm not persuaded they're a sign of a mass deliberate "Vote Blank" campaign.

The comments are usually clearer, expressing dissatisfaction with some or all of the candidates or the absence of a particular party. But frankly they don't make any impact beyond comedy and irritation - it's a common opinion at counts that nobody who has seen how this process works would bother trying to send politicians a message by the ballot paper. The official returns bundle them in with the blanks and mistakes. The agents are primarily concerned to a) save good votes and b) work out where their supporters made mistakes & how to get them to get it right next time. Nobody is transcribing messages. If the agents report any of the messages back to party activists it will be for a laugh rather than anything else.

So all the essays and brief comments scribbled on ballot papers are ultimately ineffective. If you wish to not vote or to cast a blank then you're perfectly entitled to. But if you want to send a message to politicians in general or in particular, this is not the way to do it. Try email or Twitter or even, to show how serious you are, snail mail.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Stop and search

I've never been stopped and searched. If I thought that was because I present an innocent aura and no-one would ever suspect me of anything... I'd be seiously kidding myself. No there's a very different reason why I have never been stopped and searched by the police and it's for that reason that the tactic is counter-productive and inefficient, damaging community relations no end. It must be changed and I'm very glad to see an overhaul has been announced by Theresa May.

BBC News: Stop and search powers to be reviewed

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Clegg vs Farage - more please

In less than an hour it will happen. The leaders of the two biggest UK wide minor parties will go head to head to argue about Europe. And it could set a useful precedent.

In just about every country that has election debates - and that's an awful lot - there are regularly rows over who should be included and excluded. But they don't all have to be in one messy crowd. In New Zealand, amongst other countries, there are separate debates for major and minor party leaders and it brings greater clarity.

So come 2015 we could put Clegg and Farage, and probably also Natalie Bennett, George Galloway and the Westminster leaders of the SNP/Plaid Cymru (no Alex Salmond, it should be someone actually aiming for Westminster) in their own debate to slug it out, and have a separate one with the two major party leaders. Tonight is just a starter.

Friday, February 28, 2014

We don't all adore the Daily Mail

I've rather lost track of who said what, did what, supported what, opposed what and all the rest in the National Council for Civil Liberties. But one thing has become rather clear - with some exceptions nearly everyone on the right is siding with the Daily Mail and nearly everyone on the left is siding with Harriet Harman. That's not exactly the best circumstances to determine the truth of the matter.

But not everybody on the right is actually a great fan of the Daily Mail - that's no secret but it's not so well known. Often the paper's editorial line leaves many of us annoyed and frustrated. Frequently its fire is unhelpful and sometimes it's turned on the right. But worse still many of its columnists spread vile unnecessarily. I've heard many things said about the paper by my friends of the left (and those who think they're on the left) but I've heard worse things from fellow righties.

As the issue itself, it needs to be considered dispassionately and not through an automatic filter of one's pre-existing view about the Daily Mail, Harriet Harman, Jack Dromey, Patricia Hewitt or Liberty.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Meredith Kercher murder case

I haven't followed the Meredith Kercher case closely. I don't know all the facts of the case or just who is and isn't guilty.

Nor do I understand the Italian justice system.

Judging by the amount of coverage of the matter that probably makes me just as qualified as most of the talking heads on the matter.

A media circus has never served justice well. It just encourages arm chair judges, leads to no end of ill informed belief and few will have their minds changed by the verdict. A young woman died and the pain for her family must be terrible. Is this enormous coverage and attempted media juries really doing any good?

So let's stop all this endless media waffle and let justice be sought and found.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


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