Are we becoming like North Korea?

I have just sat through almost every debate in the auditorium of Spring Conference and have been struck by the lack of real debate. This is primarily because nothing remotely controversial is put to the conference. We get votes in favour of between 80 and 99% in favour of policy motions and even in favour of amendments.

The only time a vote was even remotely close was on whether or not to HEAR a request for a reference back!

The most enthusiastic anyone got to debate issues was on how to reform the party structure.

I have been a party member since 1964 and have attended many assemblies (Liberal Party) and conferences (Liberal Democrats). I don’t think I look back with rose tinted spectacles, but I have a clear recollection of closely argued debates where a few votes either way determined the outcome. The late Edward Dunford once said that you could see the audience swaying one way and then the other as a debate progressed.

I attended my first party conference in 1967 in Edinburgh. We had a debate on Federalism with a clear choice between regional parliaments for England or an English Parliament (Scotland and Wales were to have their own parliaments). The debate was fierce with Jo Grimond, recently having stepped down as leader, arguing passionately for an English Parliament, immediately followed by Young Liberals Chair, Louis Eaks, arguing equally passionately for regional parliaments. Much to many people’s surprise, regional parliaments won the argument (not by many votes I recall) and Jo suffered a rare defeat for his views. The huge crowd in the Usher Hall listened to the arguments and made their decision.

The only thing which seems to raise the temperature in this way is the idea that we might actually have a proper debate on nuclear weapons and that Conference might actually have a unilateral proposal that they could vote for. Now that WOULD be a real debate. So far, Federal Conference Committee have never allowed such a debate.

Our agenda for this year’s Spring Conference was full of worthy motions, all important, but absolutely none of them controversial. It seems to me that fewer and fewer people attend debates, because frankly, there is nothing to debate or argue about. Instead, they go to training and fringes.

When policy motions pass with such overwhelming majorities, it seems like we’ve moved to North Korean style politics, where a few people are allowed to vote against, but in reality, no-one really does, or only for show.

Is it not time for Federal Conference Committee to show its mettle and independence and choose an agenda that contains at least some motions where there is the possibility of real debate and where the result is not a foregone conclusion?

* Dr Michael Taylor has been a party member since 1964. He is currently active in the Calderdale Party.

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26 Comments

  • There was a real debate on Saturday morning on whether a third of the proposed £15bn education catch up money should be in the form of vouchers to parents and guardians, or whether it should all go to schools.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Mar '22 - 4:05pm

    Hm. The one debate I didn’t attend and it voted for vouchers that our party and its predecessors all fought strongly against. Still, it makes the point that one debate out of many actually was worth arguing about. I am saying clearly that we need lots of real debates where there is a real opportunity to exercise our brains and decide between genuinely competing alternatives, rather than having debates about motherhood and apple pie.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 14th Mar '22 - 4:11pm

    As a matter of interest, when was the last time a motion was actually rejected by Conference? Motions do sometimes get amended, but while I’ve been in the party, motions have *never* seemed to be rejected outright.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 14th Mar '22 - 4:29pm

    There was a debate on nuclear weapons at spring Conference 2017 (I think). The motion itself wasn’t unilateralist, but there was a unilateralist amendment. But the leadership made it clear they didn’t want the amendment passed. As I remember it, some very misleading arguments were made by the pro nuclear weapons side. People were implying that getting rid of nuclear weapons would somehow be letting the EU down (despite the fact that the vast majority of EU countries haven’t got nuclear weapons), or that being an internationalist party somehow should mean having nuclear weapons. It was all rather depressing.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Mar '22 - 5:02pm

    In 2017 there was an amendment that was claimed (by the establishment) to be a unilateralist amendment, but it wasn’t. And Catherine is absolutely right, wholly misleading arguments were put by the pro nuclear bomb side.
    All those of us who want to get rid of the bomb now want is an opportunity to have an honest debate where there is an amendment that really is a unilateralist one that we can vote on. I would love for such an amendment to be passed, but I am under no illusions that it would be. Quite how a Liberal Party like hours can even contemplate having, let along using nuclear weapons is beyond me.

  • Every year, FCC members say that they received motions on subjects they’d dearly love to have selected, but which were so poorly-drafted that they couldn’t – the result is that only the better-drafted motions tend to be selected; these tend to be motions from party bodies like FPC, which in turn tend to be better-researched and less controversial, especially if they’ve already been consulted upon internally. So my advice to those who dearly want to debate any topic would be to take advantage of the FCC’s motion drafting advice, as early and often as possible. (If, as mooted elsewhere, FCC were to also allow debate on questions or statements as opposed to detailed motions, that would also be a positive step.)

  • Paul Fisher 14th Mar '22 - 6:00pm

    The reason I joined the LibDems after the EU referendum was that I thought the party was a beacon of democracy. One of the reasons I left just over a year ago was the realisation that despite all the really honest and good people, their opinions were being controlled by a subterranean ESTABLISHMENT. Very sad and disappointing, very!

  • Simon McGrath 14th Mar '22 - 6:39pm

    I agree its a pity we didnt debate unilateralism at this Conference – a few weeks after Putin has demonstrated so convincingly the case against it.

  • Brad Barrows 14th Mar '22 - 8:48pm

    @Simon McGrath
    Clever way to open the debate on unilateralism but since you have, let me point out that Ukraine does not blame its lack of nuclear weapons for it having been invaded, but it’s lack of NATO membership. And NATO is currently making clear that any attack by Russia on any NATO member – whether or not they happen to have their own nuclear weapons – will trigger all NATO members going to war. The case for the UK to end having its own nuclear capability and spending the money thus saved to greater conventional capability, has never been stronger.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Mar '22 - 9:17pm

    @simon Mcgrath: If you have nuclear weapons, then you have to be willing to use them otherwise they are not a threat. Since I do not believe the UK would ever use them without permission from the USA and the only time permission would be given would be when Armageddon was underway, then Putin has nothing to do with the argument.
    @BradBarrows: If I wasn’t a pacifist I would agree with you. Perhaps we should have a debate about meaningful alternatives to war, though some countries in the Western Alliance are showing just how badly you can hit a belligerent country with effective sanctions, which according to Fitches will cause Russia to default on its debts very soon.
    Anyway, the point about the nuclear debate I made was only illustrative about the many controversial items we don’t debate. What about a debate about the young liberal slogan about drugs when I was a YL. “Legalise, standardise and tax”. Another potentially amazing debate.

  • @John Grout “Every year, FCC members say that they received motions on subjects they’d dearly love to have selected, but which were so poorly-drafted that they couldn’t”

    Perhaps someone needs to put forward a suggestion/motion that conference should have a section on such “work-in-progress” motions, where a vote for the motion isn’t for the motion to be adopted but for it to be properly worked on.

  • The answer is no. We are not becoming like North Korea.
    However I think an important issue is raised.
    The contribution which the party could make in our present world is to explore ways of allowing genuine participation in decision making.
    If we were to succeed we would be able to build up enthusiasm amongst members new and old, and act as a beacon to show the way to others.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 15th Mar '22 - 8:46am

    A lot of members probably lack confidence in their ability to draft a motion. A typical motion for conference has numerous “this conference notes” etc, and people assume that a motion has to be lengthy, and have many clauses etc. This probably partly explains why there are not more submissions from “ordinary” members.
    Why shouldn’t a motion be very short, perhaps just one sentence, for example “Conference believes the monarchy should be abolished” (just to give one example that would lead to some heated debate). A motion like this would probably not currently be accepted by FCC, on the grounds that it doesn’t say what sort of head of state should replace the monarchy, etc. But why shouldn’t a motion and debate just establish a principle? A policy working group could then be set up to work out details, which could then be submitted to conference at a later conference.

  • Trevor Andrews 15th Mar '22 - 8:48am

    I agree, there is nothing like a good debate.
    However, it does need a motion for and one against. So it would seem we are all united in agreement; is that not a good thing? You here so many cries for a “unity”.

  • David Garlick 15th Mar '22 - 10:26am

    Debate at Conference is essentially about ideas most of which have been given a great deal of thought and discussion before arriving at conference. As has been said the Nuclear weapons apart there cannot be many areas on which there is not a broad consensus even though there may be differences of detail. We don’t need to be sidetracked from getting the Tory Party out by highlighting those detailed differences. If there is an issue that has not been addressed then Autumn Conference beckons.

  • @Mick Taylor. Whether or not you personally believe that the UK would ever use its nuclear deterrent isn’t really a factor in whether or not President Putin believes it.

    He has to calculate whether, if he carried out his threat to go nuclear, would the USA/France/UK respond? When his friend Donald was in charge he might well have believed that the USA would not act but he can’t be so sure now, just as the Soviets couldn’t be sure throughout the Cold War. However, even if the USA didn’t act, what would France and or the UK do?

    As for effective sanctions, it does remain a simple truth that without the astonishing military resistance put up by Ukraine the Russian conquest would have been over already and sanctions would not change anything after the event.

    The League of Nations supposedly rested on a 3 stage process of:
    1. Diplomacy
    2. Economic sanctions
    3. Military sanctions.
    It never got to Stage 3 and the various Dictators simply got bolder and bolder until finally Hitler was astonished that action was taken over his invasion of Poland when nothing at all had been done before.

  • John Barrett 15th Mar '22 - 11:54am

    Catherine Jane Crosland and many others are absolutely right about the lack of serious and heated debates at conference. The suggestion of a short and sweet motion such as “Conference believes the monarchy should be abolished” would generate a healthy debate and much publicity, but sadly I believe there is a reluctance to promote any debate on subjects that are not in line with current party policy or leadership and which would show there are naturally a variety of views within the party. This then gives the “North Korea” results after debates. This may be because some think that it is more important to avoid any internal party conflict, or opposition to the current line on most serious issues. End result – nobody is listening or watching, no media coverage and fewer people will want to go to conference.

  • Paul Holmes makes important points. Hitler was surprised at the International reaction to the Invasion of Poland. The Polish army put up a stout defense against the German invasion until Stalin joined the invasion of their country and murdered 22,000 of the Polish officer corps, police, intelligensia and religious leaders at Katyn. Stalin tried to blame it on the Nazi’s when the mass graves were uncovered in 1943.
    There can be no doubt that either Hitler or Stalin would have had any compunction in using nuclear weapons if they possessed them. That ignominious decision fell to Truman. It should be remembered, however, that the fire bombing of Tokyo in March 1945 caused more deaths than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The Alllied bombing of Germany in WW2 was equally horrendous and I don’t doubt that Churchill would have used Nuclear bombs against Germany if the UK had them.
    Mikhail Gorbahev is one of the few voices of sanity calling for all countries to declare that nuclear weapons should be destroyed Gorbachev Only the USA and Russia can lead that effort.

  • I have a seven year advantage over young Mick, being 19 at the time.

    Within weeks of Orpington the impact almost led us to pull off a major surprise by nearly winning a Tory Council stronghold – Hipperholme & Lightcliffe in the old Brighouse & Spenborough constituency. John Turner was our candidate, I was the Agent/Organiser, and one of our canvassers was the future controversial Judge James Pickles (constituency candidate in 1964).

    I don’t know if Mick remembers the ‘New Orbits’ magazine ? It ran an in depth article on Orpington. Conclusion ? Determined fighting, contesting and winning local Council seats in Orpington (face to face canvassing) lay the foundations of Eric’s victory. (Eric, I believe, was then a Liberal Councillor).

    It’s no surprise that hard work on the doorstep wins elections. ‘Flying the flag’, an armchair option, doesn’t. It’s a lesson I learned to be elected three times as a Liberal Councillor then twice more as a Lib Dem.

    PS…. Pleasing that Mick mentions the late (great) Edward Dunford, Richard Wainwright’s Colne Valley Agent. I have a photo of the Yorkshire Federation delegates at the 1967 Edinburgh Assembly mentioned by Mick (Richard, Edward , Trevor Wilson, Albert Ingham all in it). I guess the young Mick must be in it somewhere.

    PS Mick is also right that the party needs proper debate on the issues (also mentioned by John Barrett). Jo Grimond wasn’t scared of debate in the 1950’s, indeed it laid the basis of the Liberal Revival.

  • Tristan Ward 16th Mar '22 - 8:20am

    To those who recommend unilateral disarmament: may I recommend in turn a close study of Thycudides’ History of the Peloponesian War”?

    “The Strong do what they will; the Weak get pushed around.” (My translation).

    Putin’s belief that the west is weak was obviously a significant factor in Putin starting this war. A belief fed in part by the Uk’s departure from EU while the Tory party spent time cuddling up to Putin. (Nasty parallel with pre WW2 tory establishment cuddling up to Hitler we might want to make more of)

    I think it’s also worth remembering that both Pitts were wiggs (won the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars) Lloyd George won the 1st WW and Churchill a Liberal for a huge amount of his life (while the pre WW2 Tory establishment spent far too much time cuddling up to Hitler (nasty

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Mar '22 - 12:43pm

    I respect the pacifism of Mick, the republicanism of Catherine, but dislike both opinions and think neither a good recipe for policy.

    My opinion is this and all parties that slant a little left, is there is too much policy/ argument.

    Whether the two issues raised, or board structures, it is tedious!

    A party should enthuse. Mps should egage. Similarly the opposite way round.

    The conscience of mps ought to vote on monarchy, weapons, not mandates from well off activists, who in tiny numbers, dominate politics, by attending tedious conferences.

    I think most people are in the centre ground, I am as well. I could not support unilateral nuclear disarmament or abolition of this monarchy. I would not vote for this party or be a member if that was firm party intention.

    We ought to do more and decide less. Help each other, feed the pooreset, raise money for causes, connect with people.

    Less about fringe views, and boards!

  • Mick Taylor 16th Mar '22 - 5:18pm

    @David Raw. I realised after I’d written this piece that I was still 11 at the time of the by-election, my 12th birthday being in April.
    You won’t find me on the Yorkshire Federation picture. I was a delegate from Bromley at the time and didn’t move to Yorkshire until 1972.
    I do remember New Orbits Magazine and indeed have digitised a lot of copies of New Outlook from that period as well. There has never been any substitute for door to door canvassing and I’m pleased that the party has rediscovered canvassing in our two recent by-election successes and I know are now training volunteers to canvass as well as delivering. And yes, Eric was a councillor for Downe before he became an MP.

  • “I was a delegate from Bromley at the time and didn’t move to Yorkshire until 1972”.

    Never mind, you can’t win ’em all, Mick. You win some, you lose some.

  • Mick Taylor 18th Mar '22 - 7:19am

    @davidraw. You deserted Yorkshire for the far North. I chose it out of thousands!

  • @ Mick Taylor “You deserted Yorkshire for the far North”.

    Nah, Mick. Still pop down to see close relatives, watch the mighty HTAFC, and keep an eye out for Tony’s BPA when I can. You can take the bloke out of Yorkshire but you can’t take Yorkshire out of the bloke.

    Having said that, mighty impressed with most of the Scots I know, though most of them aren’t as impressed as they used to be with the modern LDs.

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