Tuesday, 28 June 2016

So.... #Brexit ...what happens now? A timetable.



The UK has voted to leave the European Union. I disagree with that decision, of course, but I am a democrat, and my democratic principles mean that I do not think that we should seek to overturn the result by any kind of undemocratic means. Quite the opposite - we should now engage in a democratic process to decide where we go from here.

The UK is currently in a difficult position, and is also putting the EU in a difficult position. It is quite clear that there was never any kind of agreed coherent Brexit plan on the table from the leave campaign - nothing the UK can go to its current partners with and say 'this is what we are intending to do now we have voted to leave'. We are also, as a result of this vote, in a position of political flux, in the two largest parties in particular, and in a state of financial instability due to uncertainty, and in a state of constitutional crisis, with various parties talking about a break up of the UK (and the different Brexit implications for the various different parts of the UK). We need to bring some clarity to all of this somehow, and quickly.

It seems to me that we have to set a clear, unambiguous timetable that allows differing views on Brexit (or not) to be put to the people via a democratic process. Some have talked of a second referendum, but personally I don't think that now is the time to re-run that divisive battle. It is clear that at least some people are changing their minds, and it is clear that some of the 'promises' and statements from the leave camp are unravelling, but the fact remains that the result is what it is, and we have to now move that process on. having had our 'In/Out referendum', we need to get beyond that simplistic vote and look at the details of what kind of Brexit we are ultimately going to try to have (based firmly in the reality of what kind of Brexit is actually possible, of course!). We need to get down to the nitty-gritty, and then let the people decide how to proceed from here.

Of course, that is made slightly more complicated in a sense by the two biggest parties having an unprecedented simultaneous leadership crisis. In another sense, though, that is an opportunity. The various candidates should have to plan and lay out their own Brexit visions as part of their internal party campaigns, and there is no doubt that that will be the big issue in their campaigns. They must put forward their ideas and plan, and let their parties decide which plan they want presented to the people. Other parties have to develop their detailed plans too, of course. We need a period for that to happen, and we need to make it clear to the EU, who are currently in the dark about what we propose as a country and when we are planning to trigger the Article 50 process to actually begin formal discussions to leave, that that is what we are doing.

So, by way of a timetable, I would propose something like this:

1. Over the summer, broadly in line with the timetable already set out by the Conservative Party over their leadership campaign, we have a period where all political parties can sit down, detail their plans, discuss and debate them internally, and choose new leaders to present them (and ultimately negotiate them with the EU) where they feel it necessary. By the end of the usual party conference season, all parties should have their own plans fully detailed, confirmed and in place, ready to present to the EU for negotiation when Article 50 is triggered, and ready to present to the people of the UK.

2. At that point, parliament should be dissolved, and a General Election should be held - perhaps in late October or early November. The date of that should be formally set now, so that there is no possible messing about later down the line. At that General Election, the various different Brexit plans will obviously form the basis of debate, and the people can choose between them at the ballot box. The people can then decide what vision of Brexit the UK is going to pursue with the EU through the 2 years of post Article 50 negotiation.

3. After that election, a new government can be formed according to the usual democratic process. After a brief pause to allow for the government to be fully formed, and for anything like coalition talks to take place, plans can then be moved forward. That government should then be the ones to begin the process of triggering Article 50 (or not, of course, if that is the platform that they have been elected on), and that government will then lead negotiations with the EU on the basis of the plans they have presented.

4. Given the timescales of the previous parts of the process, and to allow the new government to be firmly established and any necessary parliamentary processes to be followed to allow notification of the triggering of Article 50, it would then make sense to me to set a formal date of 31st of December 2016 for the formal triggering of Article 50, such that the UK would then formally leave the European Union on 1st January 2019. Those intended dates can be provided in advance to the EU, so they know exactly what is coming and when, allowing them to put in place any plans they need to for negotiations and so on (and to give a level of certainty for markets, other international partners, etc.).

Setting that timetable now would give clarity for everyone. Every party will know that they have a set amount of time to finalise their plans, and the people will know how and when they will be making their decision between them. The EU, and indeed the markets and so on, will also have clarity - they won't know what plans we are going to put forward until the end of that process, of course, but they will know when that will happen, and how it will happen. It would give everyone a measure of certainty that they just don't currently have in the UK's situation of apparent political meltdown. It will allow a little oil to be poured on the current troubled waters, so to speak, to just calm things down a little from the current level of general panic - not an end to the uncertainty about what will ultimately happen, but at least a measure of certainty about how and when the critical decisions will be made.

As a final note, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has already stated that, in line with the long-standing pro-EU stance of the party, the Lib Dems will stand on a platform of not Brexiting (and in the context of the timetable outlined here, therefore presumably simply not trigger Article 50 at all if elected). That is something I fully support - while I would not support any kind of 'trickery' to block the referendum-expressed will of the people, I see no problem with giving them another democratic opportunity to decide that, having seen the full plans and what it will all mean (and that will inevitably have been stripped of some of the wilder rhetoric and confusion of the leave referendum campaign), they want to remain in the European Union.

This is such a huge decision for the people of the UK. It decides the whole context of the future of the country. They need to be absolutely sure that they want to do it, and if they do want to do it they have to decide how they want to do it before the politicians go ahead and get on with it. We all need some clarity amidst the current confusion, so that we all know exactly how and when that is all going to be dealt with. I think that is in the best interests of the country, and in the best interests of every voter and every party, whether they supported Leaving or Remaining.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

I want my country back. #wearethe48



You don't have to be a racist or an idiot to have voted leave, of course, you just have to have allowed yourself to be misled by those who are. That is, sadly, what has happened - people have been misled. Duped. Lied to.

The leave camp lies are already falling apart, and it is already clear that they have no plan whatsoever, and no clue about what's even maybe supposed to happen next. They never did. For many of them it was never supposed to really happen  - for the likes of Boris it was a Tory party power play ruse. For others it was all completely irrational 'make us Great again' pseudo-Imperial nonsense anyway (and then there were the actual racists - seeing the likes of Britain First, the BNP and the National Front heartily celebrating should be enough of a flashing early warning light to show that we've probably not done the right thing here).

This was always all about the internal conflict in the Tory party, and appeasing the hardline right wingers to keep them off Cameron's back, while keeping UKIP at bay electorally (and the Tory referendum promise itself was based on the polls-led assumption that the Tories weren't going to win a majority in 2015, so they'd never have to actually do it). Cameron gave the Farages of this world an apparent veneer of serious political legitimacy, and the perfect opportunity to mislead the public (particularly those who wanted to have a go at 'the establishment') into thinking they would be getting something that was never, ever going to be possible, and that was never, ever really on the table.
The problem with the racism angle, of course, is not that half of the UK is actually racist, but that the racists now believe that half of the UK agree with them, and are fully behind their agenda to 'send them all home'. They are both overjoyed and emboldened by the result, and we're only just seeing the beginnings of the manifestations of that. There are already widespread reports of immigrants, particularly brown-skinned and/or Muslim ones for some strange reason, being shouted at in the street and told to pack their bags and go home on the basis that 'we voted out'. That is what this has done, and what it was always going to do.

It is only going to get worse as those truly racist xenophobic types realise their new Whitey Utopia, Land of Plenty, 'Great again' Britain, free from the shackles of 'foreigners', and rich and wonderful for everyone (everyone truly' British') like it was in the good ole days (as if it ever was), was all a load of complete rubbish, and that what we are actually facing is just a deeply uncertain economic future, with less money to spend, a less beneficial international working relationships, and pretty much the same kind of immigration anyway (unless we leave the EEA, of course, which would be nothing short of an act of total economic suicide). The only really likely drop in immigration from Brexit will be caused by the lowering of pull factors on the basis of a crashed and screwed economy and the increased number of emboldened, open racists roaming the streets looking for 'the other' to abuse (or worse). I predict that they won't suddenly see the light when that realisation dawns, either - they'll just blame the EU for not giving us extra-extra-special preferential treatment and terms in the negotiations, and the 'immigrants' who haven't gone home yet when we've voted to tell them to (because that is what the racists think that everybody has done). 'Bloody foreigners'.

The warnings were being delivered right the way through the campaign. The evidence of what was likely to happen was there. Unfortunately, it was all just dismissed by many as 'scaremongering' and 'bias' (often just because 'stick it to Cameron, man'), while the outright lies of the leave campaign (already falling apart within hours of the result) were swallowed hook, line and sinker. Scotland is a great example - people said repeatedly that leaving the EU would mean Scotland leaving the UK. That was just 'scaremongering' because 'they already just had a referendum so they can't have another'...but now they are starting the legislative process to allow for a second referendum on it. That £350 million the remain campaign said didn't exist...turns out it didn't exist. That end to immigration that the remain people said wouldn't exist...nope, that doesn't exist either. 'Scaremongering'.

The entire leave campaign was lies. I've seen some spin and twisted truth and so on in politics over the years, but never anything at all remotely on the scale of the leave campaign. It was total, blatant dishonesty from beginning to end. There are elements within the Remain campaign who have to take their share of responsibility too, of course - there were some things that were over-emphasised, some figures that were dubiously interpreted, and some things that were spun and twisted, as is sadly all too common in modern politics. The official Remain campaign was not a good campaign, and petty nonsense like the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition refusing to share any platform with anyone else, putting his domestic party politics above the future of the country, certainly didn't help. Still, this was not on the scale of what the leave lot were up to.

As much as leave voters would like to tell themselves that they've done it for really sound reasons and it will all probably work out in the end if we all shut up and get on with it, I'm sorry, but it won't. People should have listened to the experts, and looked at the evidence. There was no sound, logical, reasoned, evidence-based reason for doing something as drastic as leaving the EU. No reason that stood up to any kind of scrutiny, or held water. None whatsoever - not a single argument put forward by the leave campaign made any sense at all as a sensible reason to leave the European Union. Of course, though, we're all 'fed up with experts'.

And as for that 'well the decision's made so put up with it and pull together' kind of stuff going around towards anybody who is complaining in any way at the result...whatever reasons they thought they had despite all the warnings and information that they were given (and there's lots of 'but why weren't we told this before' flying about from regretful leave voters - you were, you just refused to listen), these people have screwed my country, and they have screwed the future for my children. While I will certainly never, ever sink to the level of some of the worst elements of those celebrating the result with their vile personal (and other) abuse (and worse), I'm not going to sit back, shrug my shoulders, and say nothing about it either. I'm going to be silent about what has happened, what is happening, and what is now likely to happen as a result, and I will be actively involved in trying to salvage something from the situation we've been left in, and I would urge anyone else (even those who don't normally 'get involved' in things like 'politics') to do the same.

In that context,  I am overjoyed at the speed with which my party leader, the leader of the only united UK-wide openly pro-EU party, has reacted to confirm that the party will be standing on an openly pro-EU platform at the next general election (whenever that might be):

"The Liberal Democrats will fight the next general election with a pledge to take Britain back into the EU, claiming the referendum result was secured on a campaign of lies.

Voters backed Brexit in a “howl of anger” at out-of-touch politicians, but must be given the chance to rethink the decision, according to the Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron.

The cheap slogans of Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are unravelling, and the public will feel betrayed when promises on the NHS and immigration are not delivered, the party said.

Since the shock referendum result, the Lib Dems have recorded thousands of voters signing up to become members."

 http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/26/lib-dems-pledge-british-return-eu-next-general-election

I would obviously be concerned, as a democrat, if we were seeking to simply ignore the referendum vote and try to block leaving the EU on an undemocratic basis, but standing at a general election on a pro-EU platform in order to secure a democratic mandate for retaining the UK's membership of the EU is absolutely the right thing to do. When all around are losing their heads, and the two main UK-wide parties are imploding into their own private civil wars, Tim Farron and the Liberal Democrats are providing the kind of solid, decisive, united leadership that the country, and the 48%, so desperately need.

This is the time when the 48% have to stand together, and stand together with those who have been duped by the outrageous lies of the leave campaign. If you are one of those people, whatever vote you cast in the referendum, who now believes that the people have made the wrong decision, and that we should fight to preserve our future within the European Union, even if you are not normally a 'joiner' and don't normally do politics', now is the time to take a stand and join us (as over 2,000 people have already done since the referendum was announced):

https://libdems.secure.force.com/LiberalDemocrats/NewMemberRegistration


Saturday, 25 June 2016

For those complaining about people being still unhappy at the EU referendum result.



For those who are complaining about people being still unhappy at the result of the referendum.

The emergence of rampant anti-intellectualism probably worries me more deeply than anything else, when it comes down to it. There's always a level of it in society, of course, but now many people have been persuaded that it's somehow a righteous and noble way to go about making important decisions. A population will swallow almost anything if it is persuaded to act purely on knee-jerk emotion instead of stopping to think, or listen to advice from experts, or look at the evidence. It's what allows the utterly irrational to be become 'common sense' (the politics of 'yes but we all know' - the favourite debating tactic of Farage and Boris, funnily enough). That's why it has been such an important part of so many dictatorial takeovers (it's no accident that things like book burning and attacks on 'weak and subversive academics' are such a common early feature of extremist revolution). If people stop to listen and think, it's not at all hard for them to understand that 'foreign' people are actually just the same as us, for example, and that we can't really turn the clock back to the 1950s, and that the 1950s wasn't actually as great as some seem to think anyway.

If people only take a moment to look into it, they would, for example, have realised immediately that there was no '£350 million a week' to spend on the NHS (as the leave campaigners began to admit within hours of the result) - that the money didn't exist, and that it was an outright lie (even though it was painted on the side of a bus, posters, etc. - it was a shameless, barefaced lie). The only reason they got away with it was that they kept repeating it over and over so that it sunk in as 'yes but everyone knows', and kept telling people that listening to experts was a bad thing (and effectively that they were being both 'unpatriotic' and 'cowardly' if they didn't listen to the leave campaign, and the leave campaign alone). The leave campaign was entirely build on lies, but enough people were persuaded not to question them that it was able to succeed. Even the TV media, in it's attempts to remain 'balanced', failed to adequately call them out on such constantly repeated lies.

When people are persuaded that stopping and thinking and listening are a bad way to go about things, that's a really, really serious problem.

To illustrate it with a simple quote from a well known film, 'So that is how liberty dies...with thunderous applause'. That is how it always happens.

The people of the UK (well, about 52% of them, and that's enough to have a majority) have been sold nothing more than a series of lies. Normally a country like the UK, with a free press, decent education standards, etc., would wake up to that quite quickly (before it happens, in fact), but with the growth of the anti-intellectualism element there's a really good chance that not only will they not, but that they will be easily persuaded to blame 'foreigners' and 'subversive elements' for anything that might appear to change between the leave campaign promises and the reality that emerges.

These are very, very dark and dangerous times. I make no apologies whatsoever for still being very, very concerned about our future.


Saturday, 18 June 2016

Rhetoric has consequences, and we cannot stand by and do nothing.

 
 
The last few days have been truly horrible in so many ways. It has been one thing after another. The horrific events in Orlando, followed by the tragic murder of one of the UK's elected Members of Parliament, who was going about her normal daily business of serving constituents, as so many MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors and others do on a daily basis. 

I didn't know Jo Cox, but I know several MPs and other elected officials. It could so easily have been any of them. Staff and party activists, too - those who are out talking to people in the street, or knocking doors, or working in MP offices, or assisting or waiting at MP surgeries. I've met and chatted with many, from many parties, many times. It could so easily have been someone I've met. It could so easily have been one of my friends. It could so easily have been me, for that matter. All it might have taken would be to knock on the wrong door, on the wrong day, with the wrong message - that is a risk that all of us who are engaged in political campaigning take every day.

This is where the ever increasing rhetoric of hatred towards 'politicians' and the 'elite', and the 'political class' from the extreme fringes of politics has now brought us. On both sides - let's not pretend that this particular thing is entirely restricted to the right - look at what has been happening recently on the leftmost fringes, too, with the rhetoric being aimed towards the 'political elite' of the 'establishment'. Not just political disagreement, openly and even robustly expressed in a democracy (between human beings who can then go and have a chat/pint together, despite their different political views), but real, demonising hatred towards the whole group, regardless of the individual - that is what our public discourse has increasingly started to become. The language of hate. The language of uprising and revolution. The language of dehumanisation towards any who stand in the path of our ultimate victory, even if that is not what those using it really intend.

It seems that the attacker was mentally ill, but that's the thing with the rhetoric of hate, wherever it is aimed - it influences people who might not be able to see it as mere rhetoric and hyperbole, and not to be acted upon 'in real life'. That is why we always need to be so careful about such things.
A family is now without a wife and mother. Until this moment, though, and the sudden realisation of humanity that it has brought, to so many people she would just have been one of those 'politicians' from that 'elite' 'political class' - those people who are so often so hated.

Think about that.

As Alex Brooker pointed out last night on The Last Leg, we often moderate what we say in front of children, because we know they are vulnerable. In other words, we know they might take what we say as mere rhetoric far more literally than we intend it. We have to consider that there are also vulnerable adults in the world with, for example, mental health problems (and apparently the perpetrator in this tragic case is one such, though we don't know any details of what those were or how they might have effected their judgement) - those who might take what we say very literally, and consider it appropriate to act upon them in a way that we had not intended.

We ALL have a responsibility for this - not just 'politicians' and the media, but all of us who discuss these issues, comment on social media, and so on. The 'keyboard warriors' (and I don't exclude myself from that - I spend a great deal of time doing 'online' things as well as more 'active' things 'in the real world') have to understand that what they are doing is not some isolated little thing that disappears into the ether, not to be taken seriously, and not to be seen by people who might misunderstand or take things too literally.

We need, as a country, to do better by our 'politicians'. We need to remember that they are human beings, even if they are human beings that we disagree with vehemently. That is down to all of us, and includes not only 'keyboard warriors' and the like, but our media, and our politicians themselves - they can't absolve themselves from the responsibility for the type of rhetoric that they have been using against each other. It all has an influence.

Of course, it's not just the 'anti-political' rhetoric that we've seen on the rise recently - it's the more and more radical and angry poison that has been pouring out as we draw near to such an important decision about the future of the United Kingdom. It is the language of hate towards 'the other' that has become increasingly a part of our 'mainstream' political discourse. It's a spiral of rhetoric being whipped up deliberately by certain politicians and media outlets to further their campaign. This very week we have Farage's already infamous 'Breaking Point' poster being proudly unveiled - an almost carbon copy of German Nazi party propaganda images that has now been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred. This is the kind of tactic that some of our politicians at the fringes are using to further their aims, but those 'fringes' have somehow now been accepted as 'mainstream' and 'acceptable', and have opened a can of worms that even they are not able to control.

Alex Massie puts it very well in his Spectator blog:

"When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged. You cannot turn around and say, ‘Mate, you weren’t supposed to take it so seriously. It’s just a game, just a ploy, a strategy for winning votes.’

When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks. When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either.

Sometimes rhetoric has consequences. If you spend days, weeks, months, years telling people they are under threat, that their country has been stolen from them, that they have been betrayed and sold down the river, that their birthright has been pilfered, that their problem is they’re too slow to realise any of this is happening, that their problem is they’re not sufficiently mad as hell, then at some point, in some place, something or someone is going to snap. And then something terrible is going to happen."

This morning the accused gave his name in court as 'Death to traitors, freedom for Britain'.
 
Think about that.
 
This is where our current political discourse has now brought us. Perhaps we are, in a sense, at 'breaking point', or at least at a turning point. A turning point that will decide the future direction of the country, and that is a future that worries me deeply, particularly as someone who has spent some time studying history. As I have said previously, in particular in my 'Refugee Language - A Warning From History' post, if we do not understand history we are doomed to repeat it. Ask yourself this question:

How did a cultured, civilised nation like Germany elect a group like Hitler's Nazis?

Personally, I cannot answer it better than with the words of Michael Rosen

"I sometimes fear that 
people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 
worn by grotesques and monsters 
as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 
It will restore your honour, 
make you feel proud, 
protect your house, 
give you a job, 
clean up the neighbourhood, 
remind you of how great you once were, 
clear out the venal and the corrupt, 
remove anything you feel is unlike you...

It doesn't walk in saying, 
"Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution."

Think about those words. 
 
Then think about these words, from Hermann Goring:

"...the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."
 
Really think about them - in the context of where we are in the UK today, and in the context of what some of our politicians are saying and the kind of tactics they are employing, and in the context of the kind of rhetoric that they are using to attract the popular vote from those who feel disenfranchised, worried and fearful about their futures (mostly those who have suffered most from the economic hardships of recent years). "It works the same way in any country." We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that we are somehow 'different' and 'better' than the German people were in the 1930s. We are not. We can have our emotions manipulated in the same way, and we can start down the same political path as a country. We need to be aware of that.

I have, I confess, spent parts of the last few days thinking 'what's the point?', and I know I'm not the only one. Indeed, I have asked myself whether I have reached a 'breaking point' where I feel I can do no more, as what I believe in gets more and more submerged beneath the apparent tsunami of fear and hatred. All around me I see the UK descending into something that I thought, or hoped, that I'd never see. All around I see a rise in extremism from the political fringes - a return to the mainstream of the kind of opinion and rhetoric that had previously long since disappeared to the very fringes of our politics, where it was derided and laughed at, and treated as an irrelevance. A hateful kind of politics, where fear is something to be positively exploited for votes - be it fear of  'the other', or the fear of the 'elite', or fear of 'disaster', and where the political ends seem to justify any means whatsoever. This is not something that I think has been entirely limited to one side of recent debates, even though the fear being promoted by one side has such particularly dark and and hateful elements and potential connotations. 

There is a point, though. There is always a point, and it probably best explained in simple terms by this quote from John Stuart Mill:

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing."
 
It is very important that even this should be qualified in the current context, I think. It isn't about 'bad men' - humanity is not so simple that there are 'good people' and 'bad people'. It is about bad things happening to the world if we stand by and let them happen without trying to intervene. It's about human beings who may be misguided, or who may be wrong, but who are not 'inhuman' or 'subhuman', and who don't deserve to be treated as such, no matter how wrong or dangerous we believe their ideas might be. It is all too easy to respond to hate with hate, and we have to avoid doing that. We now know the possible consequences all too well.
 
Even if we ultimately fail in our endeavours, we cannot just stand by and do nothing. We cannot, so to speak, fiddle away while Rome burns (I'll leave out the questions of historical accuracy of that specific 'event' - you know what I mean, I'm sure). We must stand up to hate, and we must stand up to the promotion of fear as a political device, and we must at every opportunity point out what is wrong with what they are doing and saying, but we must do so in the full realisation that those we oppose are also human beings who must be treated as such - to do otherwise would be to give in to the very thing that we are trying to defeat. We must stand up to lies with truth, and we must stand up to emotive and reactionary rhetoric with a calm presentation of evidence. We must continue do so, even if nobody listens or finds our message emotionally attractive, and even if we always feel like we are swimming against the tide. 
 
As Diane Grant put it, "It's better to walk alone than with a crowd going in the wrong direction." I do feel like the UK is currently going in a very, very wrong direction politically at the moment via the politics of fear and hate, and I will continue to stand, as calmly and rationally as I can, against that, even if I am doing so alone, and even if nobody is listening, and even if I am doing so ultimately in vain. I know that I'm not quite alone even if it feels like the opposition are much stronger at the moment, and I hope that ultimately it will not be in vain - only time will tell, though.

I can do no better than to finish with a few words from Brendan cox, the husband of the tragically murdered MP Jo Cox, in his moving tribute to his wife and mother of his children:
 
"...that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn't have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous."
 
 

Monday, 13 June 2016

The EU, The Referendum, And Beyond.



I thought I'd take a few moments to set out exactly where I am on this whole question of membership of the EU. Now, I've never considered myself to be among the most ardently 'pro-European' (in the sense of the EU 'project') of Liberals. I know there are even some (a minority, I suspect) who would even go so far as to want to see an end to the idea of 'nation states', and to have a single European, or even world, 'state' for all people. I'm certainly not among their number, or even close. Indeed, I'm not even a great believer in further integration in many ways, and I do have reservations about some of the things that the EU currently does and the way in which it does them. Having said that, I've yet to find anybody who thinks that the EU is 'perfect' anyway. I'm still very much on the 'Remain' side, though, so I thought I'd spell out why.

Firstly, let's briefly (as briefly as I ever do anything, anyway!) address that whole 'nation state' thing - what are they, and why do we have them, and what are the implications for Europe? They are actually largely a relatively recent invention, stemming from the rise in 'nationalism' during the nineteenth century. People tend to forget how 'young' states like Germany and Italy really are as unified administrative structures centred broadly around the geographical limits of a 'nation', occupying areas previously administered by smaller essentially 'feudal' aristocratic holdings. That brings up the question of the difference between 'state' (administrative unit) and 'nation' (people with a broadly common cultural/historical identity, often (but not always) occupying a particular geographical area), which is important to understand. The idea of 'nations' ruling themselves is an obvious one that comes with the idea of 'democracy' - 'the people' are sovereign, and so it makes sense to base the unit of sovereignty around the geographical areas that similar people occupy.

Of course, there's a potentially negative element of that 'nationalism' idea that we need to be very wary about - the idea that 'my nation' is somehow 'better' than 'your nation'. It's an all too common mistake for people to make when thinking about 'culture' (and/or language) and 'identity'. It's not necessary to believe that your own 'nation' and 'culture' is in any any way 'superior' in order to be comfortable with being part of it, or indeed in order to think that it's a fairly logical way to base an administrative unit. The mistake happens sometimes on both 'sides' - not only the assumption of 'superiority' on one 'side', but that assumption that any recognition of 'nation' is somehow based in that idea of 'superiority', rather than simple a recognition that something of a broad common cultural and linguistic context among a large part of the population in a geographical area is a reasonably good basis for forming a 'state' and taking democratic decisions (at least as good as any other basis, certainly), or indeed simply a matter of enjoying a distinct cultural heritage into which context you were born (or indeed moved).

Of course, it should be noted that there is nothing 'homogeneous' about 'nationality' - it doesn't mean that everyone is alike, or that anybody should have to conform to anything, or that new people with different ideas shouldn't be accepted, or that the context can't freely evolve. It doesn't mean a person shouldn't pick and choose what bits of  'their own' or anybody else's culture and heritage they want to enjoy and celebrate. It just simply means that the overall common background situation gives a large part of the population some common points of reference, which is useful in a democratic 'state', as is something of a sense of 'belonging' and 'fellowship' (as long as, as previously noted, it doesn't go beyond that into any thoughts of  'superiority', or even 'separation' from fellow man of other nations).

So, in the context of the EU debate, where does that leave the UK? Well firstly, it is vitally important to realise that the UK is not a 'nation state' anyway - it is not a state based around a single 'nation', but a state constructed around a political union of several distinct nations (each with their own historical and cultural 'identity', and even to an extent language). Despite efforts over the years to impose a sense of 'Britishness' from above, the English, Scots, Welsh, etc. still maintain their separate 'national identities'. That's fine - it doesn't have to stop us existing together in a single administrative entity, even if that entity hasn't always worked very well for everyone. Whether we remain together is a question of whether it is in our best interests to do so.

That brief (!) discussion of what the UK is does become important in the EU question, and that final sentence is absolutely critical. What administrative and bureaucratic entity we are a part of should depend on what is in our best interests. It shouldn't be about 'superiority', 'sovereignty' or 'identity', as the EU debate is all too often framed, it should be about things like security (financial and otherwise), and real benefit for the people.

This is where I come to the EU specifically - the question for me is one of balancing potential benefits and disadvantages of being 'in' or 'out'. It's about looking at the evidence, the expert analysis and opinions about what the future is likely to bring, and so on. It's about what is best for the people - which situation will benefit us (the people of  both the 'nation' and the 'state') the most in practical ways, and which will make our lives better or worse, or harder or easier. Without going into all of the details here, there is no doubt in my mind from looking at all of that that the UK and Wales are both materially far better off remaining inside the EU. The 'Leave' campaign is very much based around 'sovereignty' and 'identity' (and sometimes seemingly even 'superiority'), not just in terms of the EU itself but in terms of the 'threat' of immigration (somewhat ironic, I feel, from the point of view of an island (or islands) occupied by several identifiable 'nations', populated and 'cultured' largely as a result of waves of immigration and international contacts throughout its history!) - I don't buy any of that. It's entirely the wrong way to frame the debate to me, and entirely the wrong thing to be concerned about, even if the emotional appeal to some people seems quite obvious.

There's a very simple issue of political ideology here for me - as a Liberal I believe very strongly in both 'internationalism' and 'localism'. We should work together at all levels, and take decisions on issues at the most appropriate level. Sometimes that is best done very close to the people (should we spend money on putting in a new bench in the park?), and sometimes it is very much more international (how do we address climate change and global terrorism?) - those things are complimentary, not mutually exclusive. Some things are best done, I think, at a local level, some at a 'national' level (Wales, specifically, in my case), some at a wider UK state level, some at a more European (EU) level, and some more internationally even than that (and it should be noted that we have rightly 'surrendered' bits of our 'sovereignty' to organisations like the UN and NATO for that reason).

The issue of 'sovereignty' is, for me, an entirely outdated concept - we no longer live in a world where the primary question of government is one of which guy (the sovereign, obviously) has 'absolute power' in a certain geographical area, and thankfully so. It's not about us as a state (or nation) having 'control' over everything at all, but about making sensible decisions about which level is best to have a level of 'control' over which particular issues. Do we exercise our collective democratic 'control' to deal with certain things within our local community, or as a whole across a continent? The answer to that question should depend on the issue being discussed, in my opinion, and how it is beast dealt with. Indeed, as I have posted previously, I don't think it's only a matter of the issue area, but of the specific question being asked within that area - that comes down to that issue of 'localism' and 'internationalism' being able to compliment each other in the decision-making process.

There are, I think, some legitimate concerns about the EU taking more decisions at is level than it needs to be doing, but equally there are similar concerns about it not being able to take some of the decisions that really would be best made at that level because 'state' governments are unwilling to allow it the responsibility for doing so. That's a question of pushing for, and leading, reform, though, and not throwing out the baby with the bath water - just because it doesn't get everything right at the moment doesn't mean that it can't improve, and doesn't mean that it is getting everything wrong. Indeed, it has done, and continues to do, many good things, and it continues to reform and improve (if sometimes frustratingly slowly!). There are also issues surrounding whether all of its mechanisms are currently fit for purpose. Again, though, the answer to that is to reform, not to cut ourselves off, surrender the very real benefits that it brings, or pretend that we'd somehow be better of without it altogether (or indeed that losing the benefits of it would be a 'price worth paying' for our 'sovereignty'). I think it's quite clear that we wouldn't be better off, and even if we were to leave it would still very much exist, and we would still very much be tied to it and its rules, but we would no longer have any voice in the way that it works or the way it reforms. I think that's a really bad idea.

So, what if we do end up voting to leave? Well, aside from the potential for economic damage and so on, it's going to have significant implications for the UK as a 'state' unit, partly because of its own international nature. We have recently had a referendum on independence in Scotland, and the Scots would, in my opinion, be entirely justified in claiming that the UK leaving the EU has changed the context of the specific question that was asked entirely. The choice was one of a UK within the EU or a Scotland seeking to join the EU, but it would have become a choice of UK or EU (and I don't doubt for a second that, while there would be new things for Scotland to have to accept as 'new' members, the EU would do everything possible to 'fast track' Scotland's membership). As much as I would be against an 'Indyref II' any time soon under other circumstances, I for one would fully support that choice being given to the people of Scotland in the form of another referendum should the UK vote to leave the EU.

Indeed, there will, I have no doubt, be voices calling for the people of Wales to have a similar choice, and not just among the traditional voices of Welsh political 'nationalism' (and mine might very well be one of them). The issue comes down to a choice about the most appropriate avenues for doing things at the 'international' level, and whether Wales and its people would be better off in the UK but outside the EU, or in the EU but outside the UK. My preferred option would by within both, obviously, but if that choice is no longer possible the context changes, the question changes, and my answer to the question of Wales seceding from the UK may well also change (especially if Scotland decides to leave, and even more so if there is some prospect of a loose 'Celtic' cooperation of mutual benefit with Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, within the EU). Wales in particular has long had a pretty raw deal in terms of 'need' from the UK, whereas the EU has taken the issue of under-investment and poverty in Wales far more seriously. If the choice becomes one or the other, I will be thinking very, very carefully about which serves the interests of Wales best, and I know I'm not the only one. And that isn't even touching on the whole can of worms that could be Northern Ireland in the event of a 'Brexit', of course.

If the UK leaves the EU I think it very likely that it will bring an end to the UK in its current form. I suspect many people in some parts of the current UK will feel that the UK has become a 'state' entity that is no longer necessary or useful - it would no longer represent any kind of 'internationalism' - quite the opposite. That is not something that I want to see, and is not something that I think is in our best interests, but if the UK were to leave the EU I think some kind of move away from the UK entity for some parts of its current territory will become inevitable. I see the best interests of Wales firmly as being within the UK, though I am very much a 'Federalist' rather than a 'Unionist' in that context - UK reform is as important, if not more so, than EU reform to me. If the UK no longer serves the best interests of Wales through choosing a path of isolation outside the EU, that changes the equation. I confess that, as I see things currently, I would be far more concerned about a future within the UK but outside the EU than I would be about a future within the EU but outside the UK. That is not a choice I want to have to make, and I don't think it is in the interests of anyone in any part of the UK for anyone to have to make it.

What it comes down to for me is a practical, evidence-based consideration of whether the interests of the UK and its people are best served by remaining in the UK, or by leaving. I really don't give a damn about 'sovereignty' (perhaps partly because my own 'nation' is not used to having it anyway!), and not do I give a damn about 'identity' and that kind of nonsense. It isn't relevant to government, and it isn't relevant to the question of what will bring most benefit to all of our lives. For that reason, I am fully in favour of the UK remaining a full and leading member of the EU. Yes, we need to reform the EU, and we need to reform the UK even more, but that to me doesn't mean that it isn't in our best interests to remain within both of those entities. I don't see that it is worth chasing an outdated, rose-tinted dream of the wonders of 'sovereignty' at the expense of what is actually in our best interests.

So that is where I stand. there is a huge amount of information, and mis-information, and emotion-playing nonsense (it's a kind of 'we can create more fear than you' battle going on, which I think is distinctly unhelpful!) coming out from the various campaigns and organisations on all sides, but I don't want to fall into the trap of repeating and/or dismissing those in any detail. People should do their research, cut through the nonsense, and make their own decision. My decision is clear, though.

Stronger Society, Fairer Economy, and Something Else Meaningless and Bland.



This is is an issue that has concerned me for some time, and one that has now been highlighted by Prof Roger Scully of Cardiff University in his excellent blog post Not Waving but Drowning. It relates to those soundbite slogans we Lib Dems, and all of the other parties, invent at election time to emblazon across all of our literature and media output. Remember 'Stronger Economy, Fairer Society' (and something about opportunity that we sometimes add on but not even we can really remember the wording of)? How about 'Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross', or that frankly weird thing about 'Unity' and something that suddenly appeared from nowhere?

We keep coming up with this stuff, as do all the other parties, but none of it means anything, and none of it actually tells anybody anything about what we stand for. Mostly it could mean virtually anything, and could be interpreted by any party as being what they stand for (and it uses the kind of 'politician language' that immediately makes people suspicious - we might as well have used 'Seasonally Adjusted, And In Real Terms'!). Even when it doesn't mean absolutely anything that any party might want to lay on top of it as an interpretation for their own agenda, as in the case of the 'Look' slogan, it still doesn't tell the public anything about or beliefs (and in that particular case, only serves as a target for people to quite rightly remind us that those who just walk down the middle of the road tend to get run over!). Even the above-pictured 'Working For You' - do we really believe that other parties wouldn't say that they are working for the electorate (even if we know that they very often aren't, or not in the way that we would be, at least)?

Why do we keep doing this? Well clearly someone somewhere has decided that it works. I've never been sure of that at all, though, and I do wonder about methodology that underpins that belief - are we taking the result of 'study groups' and the like and reading too much into them, or looking at them the wrong way? Are we showing people a slogan and asking them if they like it (and if it would help make them vote for a party that uses it), and then taking that to mean that it's a good slogan for us to use? I don't know - that's mere speculation on my part as to what lies behind it all. If we are, though, I think we've missed something - what we need to be asking is whether it actually tells them anything useful about the party and what we stand for, and whether it is specific enough that it separates us out clearly from what other parties are about.

We know that we have a perception problem in the Liberal Democrats - people don't know what we are for. They don't know what we stand for, or what we believe in, and we've spent so much time in the past emphasising that we're 'Not One, and Not The Other', and 'In The Middle' that most people don't think we really stand for anything (and will happily abandon anything we have said, because we don't really have any strong principles or convictions anyway). The common assumption for many years was that we were, in effect, a kind of wishy-washy 'Labour-lite' - that is something that hit us particularly badly when it came to announcing a coalition deal with the Conservatives - how could 'Labour-lite' ever contemplate such a thing? We'd never done enough to dispel that sort of myth, largely, I suspect, because of short-termism in our campaigning - it was winning us a few votes (particularly in seats where the main opponent was a Conservative), so we let it slide. It's understandable, of course, but in the longer term, that decision has has some pretty severe consequences. We need now to consider the longer term - we need to tell people who we are, what we believe in, and what we are for.

We can't afford to keep doing the bland thing in the hope of maximising our vote 'this time around' by being as inoffensive as we can to everyone in the hope that they'll consider us. In effect, we need to offend people who don't agree with what we stand for, or at least to not be afraid to do so. This is a simple democratic principle - the whole point is to stand up for what you believe in, try to persuade people that you are right, and try to persuade them to vote for your ideas. It shouldn't be about trying to be 'all things to all men' in order to get elected - I'm not suggesting that we've ever abandoned our principles, but just that we seem to have to many because they never knew what they were. We were too afraid to tell them in case it lost us their vote, so they made up their own interpretation, and had their own expectations that we then didn't meet. Much of that is down to this ongoing soundbite issue (although it isn't the only issue, it is, I think, a massively important one).

To return to Prof Scully, he has been looking at survey results from the recent Welsh election to see what was happening in terms of the public identifying which party belonged to which slogan. The results for the Welsh Lib Dem slogan, 'A Wales That Works For You’, were that only 3% of people realised that it was ours. That compares with 13% who thought it was a Labour slogan, 7% who thought it came from Plaid, and 5% who thought it came from the Conservatives (and 69% who didn't know who it came from). This is very clearly, I think, a very significant problem. I would suggest that it is clear proof that these slogans do not work. They do not capture the public imagination, and they do not help the public to identify the party and what it stands for.

The results are fairly similar for the slogans of every party - it's not just a Lib Dem problem. It's not surprising when you look at all of these different party election slogans together:

‘Together for Wales’
 ‘Securing Real Change for Wales’
 ‘The Change Wales Needs’
 ‘A Wales That Works For You’
 ‘A Strong Voice for Wales’
 ‘Shake Up the Senedd’

Now just ask yourself what any of that means? What does any of it say about anything? Can you identify one from another? I'm pretty involved and clued up when it comes to Welsh politics, and the positions and beliefs of all of the parties, but I admit that wouldn't have a clue. Indeed, after watching the election very closely and being involved in campaigning in it myself, I don't have a clue - I couldn't identify which party was saying which slogan, apart from my own (and I had to think about that one too!).

I'm going to put this in very blunt terms here - all of these slogans are meaningless bollocks.

Politics in the UK is obsessed with generating these kinds of slogans. They say nothing, they mean nothing, the public don't identify with them, they don't tell the public anything about policies or ideologies or what parties stand for, and they clearly don't actually work very well in an electoral context (even if some study somewhere has found that some people find a particular slogan to be 'quite nice' or something) because almost nobody knows who is saying them. 

It's much, much more serious even than that, though. Ever heard members of the electorate saying 'they are all the same'? Take a look through those Welsh election slogans above - can you blame them? We actually are all the same, or at least we are all constantly falling over ourselves to appear to be the same. We're all spending our election campaigns emphasising something utterly pointless and meaningless that could be equally applied to any other party. We are all giving every appearance of being engaged in a race to the bottom, seeking to attain a state of ultimate blandness so that everyone votes for us on the grounds that we haven't actually offended them in any way at all. And then we wonder why there's a general problem with political disengagement!

So how do we address this issue? Well the first thing is to accept that we have a problem, obviously, and that we need to give up our addiction to such bland and meaningless nonsense. We need to be democrats - we need to stop being afraid to lose the votes of those who shouldn't be voting for us because they don't remotely believe in what we stand for. We need to stop being so afraid to offend people. If people are opposed to everything we believe, we should be offending them at every opportunity - that is how we can attract those who do agree with us, and that is what we need to be doing, morally as democrats as well as electorally. If we are going to use any form of 'slogan' it should be clear an unambiguous - it should say what we believe, and be identifiably unique to us and our core beliefs.

Another thing we should do, I think, is stop being afraid to treat the electorate as having the attention span and memory of the proverbial goldfish (although, as a side note, the rumours about goldfish are apparently not true at all). We can use more than 4 words when we speak and write to them - they really aren't that stupid! Of course, if we use more words some people won't read them, but then since we know that they don't remember the snappy, meaningless soundbites (and they don't say anything useful anyway) even if they have read them we are hardly losing anything there. We do, as a party, have some quite nice statements about what we stand for - yes, they can always be open to a certain amount of interpretation, of course, but they are certainly a hell of a lot clearer and more meaningful than 'Stronger Economy, Fairer Society' (or what it 'Stronger Society, Fairer Economy'?!). We shouldn't be worried about whether they read and remember the words we are saying - we should be thinking about whether what they are reading and hearing actually enhances their understanding of the party and what it stands for.

As a former school history teacher once taught me, the important thing is understanding the issues involved, not just learning the dates parrot fashion - if you want to learn the dates, you can quickly and easily look them up in a book. The same principle, I think, should be applied to our political 'slogans' - the intention should be for people to gain understanding of who we are and what we believe, not for them to be able to recite the slogan itself - if they want to remind themselves of the exact wording, they can look it up easily enough on one of our leaflets, our website, or whatever. The main point of it is to carry real meaning, not just be appealing and memorable.

With this in mind, my personal suggestion would be to use one sentence on all of our literature and media output, as we do with our election slogans, but not just election time. One sentence that actually tells people who we are. We have such a sentence right at the start of the preamble to our constitution (it's even printed on membership cards):

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

It's clear, and it says something, and it is unique to us. some may not read it, of course, but as I said we aren't going to be losing anything overall there. Some certainly will, and while the words might not stick in their minds the impression of what those words say might well do. Indeed, I would go further - while that is a great sentence to use on shorter leaflets and the like, when it comes to stuff where we have a bit more space to play with I would even include the rest of the paragraph, to read thus:

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives."

That is even more clear, and should give them an even more clear picture of who the Liberal Democrats are. It's not that long, and it's not that hard, but it actually tells people what we are about, so let's stop being afraid of printing something that a world of mythical parrot-goldfish won't be able to repeat back to us. Let's stop being so bland, and so afraid of offending someone who shouldn't be voting for us, and tell people what we are actually for. Let's treat the electorate like they are real, intelligent, capable, thinking people - that is not only the best thing to do and the right thing to do, but it is also the Liberal thing to do. It is for other parties and ideologies to think of 'the people' as something to be fooled, resisted and controlled - it is for other parties to think of the electorate as an amorphous beast that needs to be spoon-fed its politics. We should be the ones doing something different - crediting each individual elector with the intelligence to understand more than a few meaningless words of bland drivel.

Let's have the courage of our ideological convictions in the way that we treat the electorate.