Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

Lord William Wallace writes… Labour and the Liberal Democrats

Labour at Westminster is angry with the Liberal Democrats. They were – several Labour peers have insisted – moving slowly towards accepting that there would have to be a confirmatory referendum. And they felt that Boris Johnson would end up with no other way out than to accept such a referendum. And now, they complain, we have ‘given’ the Conservatives the election they want.

Don’t fall for this Labour narrative, if you hear it from a Labour activist near you. Their underlying fear is that they are in no state to win an early election, so the …

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Review: Official Secrets – and contemporary parallels

Go to see ‘Official Secrets’.  It will remind you of the hard choices Liberals have to make in swimming against the tide of the received wisdom of the public debate.  And it will remind you that we stuck out our necks, against the received wisdom of almost the entire media, both the main parties, and much expert opinion, in challenging the case for the Iraq war.

The film is about Katharine Gun, a GCHQ employee with doubts about the drift towards the invasion of Iraq, who leaks (to the Observer) a memo from the US National Security Agency requesting material on representatives of states on the UN Security Council that could be covertly used to pressure them into supporting the US motion to authorise the use of force against Saddam Hussein.  It follows the subsequent investigation, her arrest, the involvement of Liberty in her defence, and after a lengthy delay the government abandonment of her prosecution on the first day of the trial.  There is much detail on the pursuit of reliable counter-evidence to contest the government’s case, the interaction between journalists and lawyers in London and Washington, and the uncovering of information on how advice to our government on the legal case for intervention had been altered under pressure from the US Administration and No.10.  

It’s well constructed; it links the personal tensions and agonies with the wider political context.  Several well-known living people are portrayed – some more sympathetically than others.  Good triumphs in the end, after much skulduggery.

It’s easy to forget how risky we felt it to be at that time for us to contest the dominant narrative of weapons of mass destruction and a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qu’aida.  The film shows even the Observer editor and many of its senior staff resisting the plausibility of covert efforts to fix UN authorization and evidence being twisted.  I remember going with Ming Campbell  to a briefing, on ‘Privy Council terms’, from two very senior intelligence officials, and having afterwards to assess how far we had been persuaded by their presentation.  Charles Kennedy had to resist strong pressure from Blair’s government, and weigh up the costs of being attacked by most of the press against the case for refusing to accept the government’s rationale for war.   We stuck our necks out, without complete confidence that we knew what was happening; but our instincts proved right.

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Review: The Wolves in the Forest, tackling inequality in the 21st Century

The relationship between liberty and inequality is one of the central tensions in liberal philosophy – and one of the defining lines between economic and social liberalism.  So it’s highly appropriate that the Social Liberal Forum have published a collection of essays on this theme (edited by Paul Hindley and Gordon Lishman), taking its title from Lloyd George’s promise when presenting his ‘People’s Budget’ that there would be a time when ‘poverty…will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.’

Peter Hain contributes a sharply-worded essay on the Liberal Democrat record in the coalition, accusing us of abandoning the legacies of Keynes and Beveridge, though recognising that the previous Labour government had also failed to challenge the conventional wisdom of ‘mainstream economics’.  Other contributors reclaim Keynes, and Hobhouse, as major Liberal thinkers.  Paul Hindley insists that ‘individual liberty cannot exist without social justice’; and adds that the distinction between social democracy and social liberalism is that the latter are committed to spreading power as well as wealth.  Gordon Lishman reminds us that spreading power and status at work is also a long-held Liberal theme – badly neglected in recent years.  Robert Brown notes that a Liberal citizen community must be politically and economically inclusive: ‘People must feel they have a stake in society.’

Several contributions explore the different dimensions of inequality – from Britain’s sharp differences in regional prosperity to wide gaps in educational provision and social aspiration, to continuing inequalities for women and for ethnic minorities.  James Sandbach traces the differential impact of cuts in legal aid and access to justice on already-disadvantaged citizens; Chris Bowers argues that poorer people suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation.

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Lord William Wallace writes… Brexit endgame?

This feels like the endgame for Brexit – and quite possibly for Boris Johnson. Briefings in Sunday papers on how the prime minister will refuse to resign when Parliament next votes him down – remember, he hasn’t won a single vote yet – to force the Queen to dissolve Parliament and let him fight an election on the ‘betrayal’ of Brexit suggest that he doesn’t expect the latest negotiations to succeed, and doesn’t know how to evade the terms of the Benn ‘Surrender’ Act.

The tactical judgement of Johnson’s advisers is that they can win an election on these terms, …

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Lord William Wallace writes: How do we renew our battered democracy?

This is as huge a constitutional crisis as anyone could imagine. A Prime Minister without a parliamentary majority has attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by closing Parliament for all but the last two weeks before we are due to leave the EU, with or without a deal.

The Supreme Court has defended the sovereignty of Parliament against a Prime Minister who lacks a parliamentary majority. Lady Hale’s judgement was very firm: ‘the effect on the fundamental democracy of our country is extreme’. Parliamentary accountability – the continuing process of dialogue and scrutiny of government policy – is ‘at the heart …

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William Wallace writes: As seen from Westminster

Parliament is back – and humming with rumours of plots about hijacking the order paper, conversations with disillusioned Conservatives, and speculation about when the election will get under way.

Outside (on Tuesday afternoon, and into the evening) there are hundreds of demonstrators, the overwhelming majority of them opposed to Brexit.  The arrival of the Yorkshire for Europe group, marching behind a tuba down the middle of the road, was a highlight for me; but when I went out to greet them I found Devon for Europe flags, a piper playing the Ode to joy on his bagpipes, and sustained chanting of ‘Stop the Coup’ all round the media on Abingdon Green.

The Remainers are a happier crowd than the minority of Brexiters, which makes a definite impression on those who come in and out of Westminster: threats, shouted claims of conspiracy, placards reading ‘Traitors in Parliament’ don’t win wavering hearts and minds.

Inside it’s impossible to say what will happen from one hour to the next.  We have welcomed Philip Lee crossing the floor to become the sixteenth Liberal Democrat MP in this Parliament – and wonder if there may yet be one or two more to follow in the days that remain before prorogation.  The Prime Minister looked rattled at times in answering questions on the G7 Statement on Tuesday afternoon: more like the stand-up comic that he should have been than the statesman that he aspires to become. I’ve talked in the corridors with MPs and peers of both the ‘old’ parties, who are as consumed by the situation as everyone else.  I found one Conservative I knew and liked struggling between his conscience and his loyalty to his party.  I was happily surprised to find a Labour MP already thinking about some form of informal arrangements at local or regjonal level if it comes to an early election.

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Lord William Wallace writes….Boris Johnson think rules don’t apply to him

We now face a really nasty government, hell-bent on leaving the EU without a deal.  What Boris Johnson described only weeks ago as ‘a million-to-one chance’ has now become the central planning assumption for No.10.  Johnson’s airy language about a rapid re-negotiation has evaporated; he has refused to visit even Dublin, and has made no effort to talk directly to prime ministers he casually offended when he was foreign secretary. He is focussing instead on blaming the EU for refusing to accept the UK’s demand to drop the ‘Irish backstop’, even though the British government has no alternative workable proposals on how to manage the Irish border after Brexit.  He and his advisers calculate that, in a slickly-presented election campaign, enough British voters might blame foreigners to carry this right-wing version of Conservatism back into office, without looking too closely at its own contradictions.

On top of this, our new government is threatening a constitutional crisis.  Briefings by No.10 staffers remind journalists that the expectation that a Prime Minister will resign in the event of losing a vote of no confidence ‘is only a convention’.  The British constitution is built on conventions, and on the expectation that honourable politicians will observe them. But Boris Johnson is not an honourable politician.  On resigning from Theresa May’s government, he broke several clauses of the ministerial code: the Daily Telegraph announced he would be resuming his handsomely-paid column three days after he resigned, in defiance of the code’s requirements to wait a month before accepting other posts, to consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before doing so, and not to announce the move until the committee had pronounced.  As an Etonian master commented, Boris Johnson does not think that rules need apply to him – even constitutional rules.

This is a Vote Leave government, not a Conservative one.  The appointment of Dominic Cummings as chief of staff, and the recruitment of special advisers from the 2016 campaign team and from the clutch of interconnected right-wing think-tanks grouped around the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, makes its ideological direction clear.  During the Vote Leave campaign several Conservative MPs tried to remove Cummings and Matthew Elliott (previously the director of the Taxpayers Alliance) as campaign directors: they saw off the plotters successfully.  Cummings despises most politicians – including Ian Duncan Smith, whom he served as director of strategy for 9 months before resigning, labelling the then-Conservative leader ‘incompetent’.  He has referred to the European Research Group of MPs as ‘useful idiots’, and no doubt considers the opportunists in the Cabinet who have hung onto Johnson’s coat-tails – Matthew Hancock, Grant Shapps, Amber Rudd – to be worse than that.

Close ideological and financial links with the libertarian right within the USA are evident.  Liz Truss, the former Young Liberal who has now embraced free market libertarianism, spent part of her ministerial visit to Washington last week with the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, learning about deregulation and tax cutting strategies.  Ministers are flowing to North America, rather than to our European neighbours, for consultations on future relationships.  Matthew Elliott has joined the Treasury as special adviser to Sajid Javid – who once claimed that Ayn Rand, the American philosopher of selfish individualism, was his favourite author.

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Lord William Wallace writes….Money, money, money

Liberal Democrats achieve remarkable successes on the foundation of determined campaigning, enthusiasm, and passionate promotion of liberal values.  But money also matters.  And shortage of money, compared to Labour and (above all) the Conservatives, is one of the major obstacles to a political breakthrough.

Last year our federal party raised £6.2m, and spent £6.5m.  That meant some painful cuts in staffing, as well as missed opportunities in media projection, campaigning, and organisation.  Those who complain in commenting on Lib Dem Voice postings that our media team are failing to make the most of our rise in the polls do not know how small our media team is at present, and how wonderfully effective they are for their size.  We could do with a larger leader’s office, a larger policy development team, and a much larger team of regional and field organisers to help and support local activists in their campaigns.  But all that requires money.

Press reports on problems within the Labour Party’s headquarters have noted that Labour has over 400 HQ staff.  Lib Dems currently have 60, working flat out to support the party throughout the country, to service our members, and not least to make sure that we fulfil all our legal obligations as a regulated political organisation.  

Labour had significantly expanded its paid staff between 2016 and 2018, and also doubled the size of its leader’s office – partly on the back of the impressive surge in party membership, which (as reported to the Electoral Commission ) brought in £26m in fees in 2017.  This was still, however, less than a third of its total income.  Fundraising and donations, most importantly from trade unions, brought in £25m, public support for its role as a major opposition party (‘Short’ and ‘Cranborne’ money) brought in £8.5m, and conferences and other events contributed most of the rest.  The slump in Labour’s membership in 2018-19, together with a decline in donations, has now left the party with a widening gap between increased spending and declining income.

The Conservatives are more like a centralised campaigning organisation than a membership-based party.  They declared an income from membership subscriptions in 2017 of only £835,000: that’s a little more than £6 per member on their estimated membership.  They received more in legacies than that.  But the bulk of their income comes from major donors: a total of £30m in donations in 2017, much of it in five- or six-figure sums from a few hundred individuals.  J. C. Bamford, the excavator company chaired by Lord Bamford, is one of its largest donors, giving £1.5m in the three months before the 2017 election.  Labour analysis shows that a high proportion of major Conservative donors are hedge fund managers; others include wealthy Russians, and Middle Eastern millionaires, with homes in London.  EC figures show that the Conservatives received £7.5m between October and December 2018 from 230 donors: more than our entire income last year.

The Brexit Party is a limited company controlled by Nigel Farage.  It reports £2.75m in online donations (each below £500, thus not reportable to the EC) through PayPal in the first half of 2019, as well as several larger donations – including £200,000 from Jeremy Hosking, a City financier who finances a number of right-wing causes.  The Financial Times on July 26th reported that Farage  has just launched ‘World4Brexit’ at an event in New York, attended by leading figures on the hard right of US politics (Peter Thiel, the CEO of PayPal, is a supporter).  Farage is already attacking the Electoral Commission for querying his fund-raising methods, claiming ‘an Establishment stitch-up.’

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Lord William Wallace writes…How do we beat the libertarian, populist right?

Could you envisage putting together ‘an informal alliance of the centre left’ in the (highly possible) run-up to a general election this autumn?  The phrase comes from Labour’s David Blunkett, setting out the case for attempting this in the Mail on Sunday (July 14th). He argues that we face the threat of a parallel informal alliance between the Brexit Party and a Johnson-led Conservative Party, with the Brexit Party not standing in seats held by right-wing Tory Brexiters and focussing their money and efforts on Remain-supporting Labour, LibDem, and nationalist constituencies (and any surviving Conservative Remainers).  This would threaten a landslide of seats won, despite a majority of votes distributed among contending left of centre parties. 

In our cruelly unforgiving electoral system, a campaign in which four parties (now including Farage’s Brexit Party) capture 20-25% of votes each, with Greens and nationalists splintering votes further, could see many seats won on less than 30% of votes cast.  If the Brexit Party were to put up candidates in only selected seats, with an informal alliance with right-wing Tories not to oppose them, it could produce disproportionate gains for those who want not only a hard break with the EU but also to cut taxes and welfare further and shrink the state, while their competing opponents collected wasted votes in separate piles.  Blunkett’s ‘killer fact’ is that, at least on the evidence of recent polling, the combination of Conservative and Brexit support adds up to around 45%, whereas Labour, LibDems and Greens together add up to 47%.

In the surreal atmosphere of current Westminster politics, party loyalties are already crumbling.  One Conservative MP told me the other day, with apparent pride, that his children were now voting Liberal Democrat; one Labour MP did her best to persuade me that the Liberal Democrats had a real chance of winning the two neighbouring seats to her own constituency, and should concentrate their efforts on those rather than her own.  When the Conservatives are polling below 30%, and with Labour falling in some polls below 20%, it concentrates minds.  

We too must adjust our perspectives.  Fighting a Johnson-led Conservative Party and a Corbyn-led Labour Party, we can raise our sights beyond the 60-odd seats we thought we might regain.  One of Labour’s long-term pollsters has just declared support for the LibDems on the grounds, amongst others, that we could well emerge from a messy election as the largest party, with 200 or more seats.  But that still leaves 450 seats we might not be able to win.  What should we do in these?

Any form of cross-party alliance negotiated from the top would be impossibly difficult – whatever David Blunkett might propose.  Labour’s National Executive would never countenance such an arrangement, let alone the ‘common platform’ that Blunkett thinks should underpin it.  My response to Blunkett’s proposal, posted on the ‘Left Foot Forward’ website, has attracted more purist denials and anti-LibDem comments than supporters.  It’s hard enough to negotiate constituency priorities with the Greens: their target seats and high local memberships overlap with ours, so it’s hard for either to give way.  And in many cities and industrial towns, Liberal Democrats are the major opposition to Labour, with hostility on both sides and hopes that we will take seats off them  In Scotland and Wales strong nationalist parties make for further complications – though note that Plaid Cymru has stood down in our favour in Brecon and Radnor, alongside the Greens.

Iain Brodie Browne and I opened a discussion on cooperation with other parties at the Social Liberal Forum conference on July 20th.  Responses varied according to how existential a threat to Britain’s social contract and future prosperity the election of a hard right Tory/Brexit Party majority would present.  Those who see this threat as overriding loyalty to different parties argued that we have to try to strike bargains with other parties and with independents, however difficult it may be.

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Lord William Wallace writes…Fighting for liberal values

Putin has paid us a compliment.  He’s defined politics as a conflict over values, with liberal values as the enemy that authoritarian regimes like his define themselves against.  He’s full-throated in defending autocracy against democracy: government by diktat, authoritarian leader as father figure, leaning on nationalist myths and ‘traditional’ values for legitimacy. A regime underpinned by force, disguising huge gaps between the privileged rich, close to power, and the poor.  Viktor Orban (in Hungary) and other rising authoritarians haven’t yet gone quite so far: he defines his style of government as ‘illiberal democracy’, retaining some of the outer structures of popular participation while bringing media, universities, and much of the economy under state control.

Many 19th century liberals were optimistic about progress and education leading almost inevitably to enlightenment, tolerance of diversity and minorities, the rule of law and an open society.  The 20th century taught liberals that these achievements can never be taken for granted, and have to be promoted and defended by every generation.  And that’s not an easy task: it’s a complicated argument to defend minorities and minority rights, to talk about the importance of law and political processes, when much of the population is more concerned about economic insecurity and more attracted by the easy promises of charismatic populists.

Britain, like many other countries, has made enormous advances in recognising liberal values over the past fifty years – in opportunities and rights for women, in attitudes to ethnic diversity and to sexual and gender diversity.  But the populist appeal to ‘traditional values’ blows a dog whistle against all this.  Populist attacks on ‘elites’, often described as ‘liberal elites’, dismiss reasoned debate in favour of gut feelings.  Michael Gove’s attack on ‘experts’ was an encouragement to the public to follow their guts and stop listening to reason or detailed argument; his efforts to return the teaching of history to ‘the national story’ would have pleased Putin.  Boris Johnson’s campaign is becoming more illiberal by the day. His dismissal of his own party’s reasoned policy on the sugar tax is a classic example of an appeal to prejudice against enlightened self-interest.

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William Wallace writes: Opportunity for Lib Dems as Labour and Conservatives crumble

It’s going to be even more confusing in the next few weeks and months.  Last Sunday Philip Hammond stated clearly that it’s no longer practical for the UK to leave the EU on October 31st, given the further delays caused by the pause for a Conservative leadership election.  A majority has then to be recreated for some sort of agreement, a bill has to pass through the Commons and the Lords, and preparations for implementation by an over-stretched civil service have to be completed.

Michael Gove has now followed Hammond, suggesting that October 31st may not be a hard and fast deadline.  The passion with which other candidates for the Conservative leadership are now pledging that they will produce a rabbit out of the hat and have everything ready in time, come what may, also suggests their anxiety that this is becoming more and more difficult to manage.  

You will have noticed wilder suggestions (from Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and others) that Parliament might somehow be bypassed, that a new Prime Minister would use prerogative powers to prorogue Parliament and let the UK leave without an agreement or a legal framework: executive sovereignty overriding parliamentary sovereignty, flatly contradicting the rhetoric of the Leave campaign.

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Some good news for the Liberal Democrats from Lord Ashcroft

Lord Ashcroft, nowadays a relatively detached observer of British politics, usefully spends some of the money he used to give to the Conservative Party on opinion polling.  He has just published his post-voting analysis of the European elections – and it has some encouraging information for Liberal Democrats.

‘The biggest single chunk of Lib Dem support in the European elections came from 2017 Labour voters (37%), with 31% coming from previous Lib Dems and 24% coming from 2017 Conservatives.’

52% of Conservatives who had switched to voting for the Brexit Party said that they intend to stay with the Brexit Party at the next general election; while…

‘Conservatives who switched to the Lib Dems say they are even more likely to stay put: 61% now say they will vote Lib Dem again at the general election, with only 22% saying they expect to return to the Tories. Overall, only 43% of 2017 Conservative voters who turned out in the European elections say they will vote Tory at the next general election.’

‘Half of Labour-Brexit Party switchers said they expected to stay with their new party at the next general election, with only just a quarter saying they expect to go back to Labour. Just over half (51%) of Labour-Lib Dem switchers currently say they will stay with the Lib Dems. Just over half (56%) of 2017 Labour voters say they will back Jeremy Corbyn’s party for Westminster.’

He doesn’t provide a breakdown of respondents by age, social class or education; and he doesn’t provide comparably detailed information on voters who switched to the Greens, which would have been useful.  But this gives us some useful targets to go for: to hold onto our new voters, through continuing contact, and through getting across to them where we stand on policies other than on Brexit.  

Our leadership campaign should help us to get other policies across, as the media (at last) give us more coverage for a contest likely to be far more constructive and less bloody than the parallel Conservative race.  Both Ed Davey and Jo Swinson have done well in post-European election media comments, and we can hope for more media attention as the other two parties’ agonised arguments over what went wrong spill over.  

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We have to defend open debate and democratic government against fears of dark forces and betrayal

Embed from Getty Images

Most of us never see most of the social media that feeds conspiracy theories about the European Union. As we have all learned, the algorithms operate to feed back to consumers stories that confirm their existing views, not challenge them. When the wilder beliefs filter through into letters to newspapers, the deepest prejudices have often been removed.

A letter in the Yorkshire Post last week, for example, warned of the threat of German domination, and referred to the re-emergence of ‘militarism in Germany’. Anyone who follows German military expenditure will know that German forces are under-equipped and poorly trained, suffer from a budget allocation much smaller than the UK spends on defence, and are rarely deployed. But the anti-Brexit blogosphere, taking its cue from the Bruges Group and other sources, has latched onto German calls for a ‘European army’ – an ill-defined concept that enables them to avoid hard questions about national defence and strategic priorities – and mispresented it as a wicked German plot to conquer us all.

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What should we be campaigning for in the European elections?

So we are almost definitely going to fight the European elections – independently, or in some form of coordination with other Remain-committed parties. But what – beyond ‘Remain’ – should we put forward in our campaign?

First and foremost, we have to make the case for continuing British participation in managing relations among European governments, warts and all. We should not risk getting bogged down in discussions about how to ‘reform’ and improve Europe’s current institutions. They don’t work very well – but neither do our national political institutions, and they work much better than any other international institutions (think WTO, UN) so far created.

Our neighbours across the Channel are our closest partners in almost every way: they are our most important trading partners, they share our democratic values (with some backsliding, but then there’s some of that within the UK as well), they are vital to Britain’s safety and security. Liam Fox may argue that Australia and New Zealand are emotionally much close to Britain than the Netherlands and France – but they are much further away, and much smaller, and we can maintain close relations with them as well as our European neighbours.

Brexiters like Mark Francois wallow in the myths of Britain standing alone in World War Two while those on the other side of the Channel collapsed ‘and we saved them’. We need to go for that myth wherever we hear it. The largest contingent of foreign pilots in the Battle of Britain was from Poland; there were also many Belgian pilots, then and throughout the war. The idea that we can pull Britain away from countries which have been entangled in British history since Roman times, and follow the Trump Administration in the USA and maybe also the Russian government, is absurd.

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Time for higher taxes!

Calling for higher taxation used to be one of the deepest taboos in British politics. When I was drafting the 1997 Liberal Democrat manifesto, under Paddy Ashdown’s firm direction, I can recall a Labour acquaintance (we were actively talking to Labour then, since they were not sure they would win an outright majority when the election came) telling me that ‘you must be mad; no-one will ever vote to pay more’. The promise of a penny on income tax to increase funding for education turned out to be a vote-winner for us; but New Labour never dared to commit to …

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“To govern is to choose”

One of the first aphorisms I learned when studying history and politics was: ‘To govern is to choose’. It was Pierre Mendes-France’s maxim when Premier of France in 1954-5, cutting through the morass of postponed decisions left by weak coalition governments and negotiating the withdrawal of French troops form Indo-China. Good government means taking decisions, even when they are hard decisions.

Which underlines how appallingly incompetent Britain’s current government is. It has raised the art of postponing decisions to an art form. If it could postpone presenting Parliament with a clear choice on Brexit until the afternoon of March 29th, it …

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Tribalism and party splits

Extraordinary circumstances force us to address hard questions. And the situation in British politics at the beginning of 2019 is the most extraordinary I can recall since I joined the Liberal Party 59 years ago. Both major parties are bitterly divided, with some long-term members talking almost openly of leaving for some other group. Neither of their leaders commands popular respect. Normal government has almost ground to a standstill, with ministers and officials overwhelmed by the uncertainties of Brexit. Either or both Labour and the Tories may find MPs, Councillors and activists splitting away.

Which raises, for …

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William Wallace writes…A way to bring our national community together

I am a man of the people. You are part of the metropolitan liberal elite. They are enemies of the people, citizens of nowhere.

That’s the populist self-characterization that more and more right-wing politicians are now making. It’s an easy appeal to the ‘ordinary’ person against the sophisticated, over-educated and privileged. It works very well even when wielded by old Etonian Oxbridge graduates like Boris Johnson, or former city traders like Nigel Farage. The terms ‘elite’ and ‘establishment’ are elided, and blended with ‘liberal’, into a hostile image of people who claim superiority because of their expertise and knowledge, against those who prefer instinct and ‘common sense’.

There was a wonderful example of the genre in the Daily Telegraph of November 23rd, a letter under the headline “This ‘No Brexit deal’ by the political elite treats the majority who voted Leave with disdain” – signed by 15 Conservative peers, eight of them hereditary, three of them with peerages dating from the 17th century or earlier. If these are men of the people, I’m the king of Scotland. There was another in the Sun on Sunday, on November 25th, from Lord Digby Jones, one of the most self-important members of the House of Lords: ‘the British people – as if they needed further confirmation after what has gone on over the past few months – have been let down by the political class and the establishment elite.’ We should ridicule such claims whenever we see them.

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William Wallace writes….Britain’s security depends on our co-operation with others

Remembering the First World War is a very immediate emotion for me.  I was the youngest child of a late family.  My father had been born in 1899.  He joined up in mid-1917, and went out in a reinforcement draft to the Highland Division on the Western front in late March 1918, just as the great German attack got under way.  As others died and he survived he rapidly rose from lance-corporal to staff sergeant.  When at last in his 80s he began to talk about his experiences, he told me that at one point he was second in command of the remnants of his battalion, since only one officer was left.  When he told me what he had been through, I wondered if he was exaggerating.  Now that I have read the histories of the Highland Division and of the Gordon Highlanders in the First World War, and checked the place-names he gave me against these records, I know that it was as awful as he said.

But I want to focus on how well we have commemorated the centenary of the first global war, and what lessons we should take from this for the approach to future commemorations, including those for the centenary of the Second World War in 20 years’ time.  I was on the government’s Advisory Group for the Commemoration of World War One from the beginning.  I saw the early exchanges in Whitehall about the approach to take, and I was the first British minister to talk to the German foreign office about how we might work with them to remember together

History, as we all know, is a constant battle over preferred narratives.  As a nation, the British are deeply divided, even confused, about which historical narratives we prefer.  I recall seeing an early memorandum to the then-Prime Minister, in  – it must have been – 2012 which stated that ‘we must ensure, in our approach to the commemoration of World War One, that we do not give support to the myth that European integration is the outcome of the two world wars.’   

The stated purpose of the UK Government’s approach to commemoration of the centenary was educational.  We achieved that aim in engaging our younger generations in discovering the histories of their local communities, and the impact of the loss of life on families throughout Britain.  We have done very well in symbolizing reconciliation with Germany, from the 2014 shared ceremony in St. Symphorien and the shared concerts with the Bundestag Choir in Westminster Hall to the participation of President Steinmeier in the ceremonies of next weekend.  But we have failed in educating them about the wider context of the war, of the extent to which British forces depended on the contributions of allies and of imperial troops.

I recall entering a bookshop in the Yorkshire Dales two years ago, one as well-stocked with volumes on the two world wars as on steam trains and Yorkshire traditions, to find the owner arguing with a visitor about Brexit.  ‘After all, we beat the Germans in two world wars’, he said.  That is, after all, one of the widely-held counter-myths of British history, one propounded by Margaret Thatcher among many others: that Britain stood alone, in two world wars.   I tentatively answered that we’d had a lot of help from others, most of all from the Americans, in both wars – to be challenged that so far as he knew the Americans had not been involved in World War One.

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Lord William Wallace writes…Heading towards a real crisis?

When I first read a commentator in a serious newspaper saying, in the early summer, that the UK was heading towards a potential political and constitutional crisis, of the sort that we have not faced for a century, I thought that was an exaggeration.  Now I’m not so sure.  In the course of the next few weeks, if the Prime Minister’s attempts to achieve a deal to leave the EU which will at once satisfy enough members of her party, appeal to a number of Labour MPs as well, keep the DUP on board, and not provoke a run on the pound and a slump in business confidence, collapse, with less than six months to go before the UK is due to leave, British politics – and the British economy – will be in unknown territory.

The atmosphere in Westminster is surreal.  I ran into two senior Conservatives with whom I have worked this week, both of whom remarked bitterly to me about the behaviour of colleagues within their own party.  Confusion, bitter rivalries, and for some despair, grip many MPs within the Labour Party as well.  Neither House is busy; legislation is thin, while we all wait for the government to send us the weight of bills and statutory instruments needed to arrive at an orderly transition at the end of March.  It’s now almost too late to manage that without emergency sessions and extended sittings.  Even the  trade bill, which has been through the Commons and had its second reading in the Lords, is now stalled until some clarity emerges on what sort of future relationship it needs to cover.  And behind that stretches a succession of bills and statutory instruments, promised for last Spring and postponed by the government’s own failure to agree.

The government statement on Tuesday, as Parliament returned, talked of a possible ‘delay between the end of the implementation period and the entry into force of the treaty on our future relationship.’  That suggests that the current uncertainty, which is leading banks and companies to start moving investment and staff out of Britain, could lead after the 21-month transition period, to a void without an agreed framework. Most trade experts say that it will take 3-5 years to negotiate a treaty which will then require ratification by 27 EU states as well as the UK.  The battle within the Conservatives about whether any ‘temporary’ arrangements should be strictly time-limited is about what happens in 2021, with the ideologues determined that we drop out of current arrangements then, and the pragmatists within the government (yes, there are still a few) recognising that our economy – and our security and foreign policy – need certainty about some continuing framework.

Meanwhile, panic preparations are underway to prepare for a ‘No Deal’ outcome, which begins to look quite possible.  You will have heard of the start of work on lorry parks stretching back for Dover – for up to 10,000 lorries, potentially tying up a significant part of the freight transport fleet.  Stories from Whitehall say that officials are being pulled out of their regular duties into emergency teams to prepare for a No Deal scenario.  Across the water, the DUP is threatening to bring down the government, while the SNP is preparing to campaign for a second independence referendum if the UK crashes out of the EU – which they would probably win. The possibility that the UK might break up, with Northern Ireland opinion moving towards favouring unification with Dublin and Scotland going it alone, looks real.

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William Wallace writes…We need to challenge Conservatives on Tax cuts

Right-wing Conservatives like Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are calling again for tax cuts to ‘free’ the economy.  It’s always popular to call for tax cuts, so long as you don’t link them to spending cuts; so it’s a priority for Liberal Democrats to link the two, and point out that the Brexiteers’ agenda is also one that shrinks the state further, and enforces continuing cuts in the NHS, social care, children’s services – the entire welfare state – education, bus services, even police and prisons.

And the Brexiteers have a problem.  They promised, of course, that they could spend £350m a week more on the NHS – a promise given by a campaign master-minded by Matthew Elliott, founder and first director of the Taxpayers Alliance, a lobby/think-tank dedicated to cutting state tax and spending.  He had used the same cynical ploy in leading the campaign against the Alternative Vote, arguing that the cost of the referendum and the new system could better have been spent on the NHS: knowing that this would appeal to hesitant voters, but not intending that any more money should be spent.  

Their problem is that the narrow majority that voted for Brexit were, and remain, deeply divided on public spending.  One of Lord Ashcroft’s latest polls, intended to inform the Conservative Party conference, warns that roughly half of those who still support Brexit support further cuts in spending and tax, while half – the less well-off, the ‘left behind’ and the ‘just about managing’ – want an end to austerity.  Pushing through Brexit, with a resulting fall in tax revenue on top of the corporate tax reductions right-wing think tanks are calling for, would force yet another squeeze on public services of all types – and would lose the Conservatives the working class support they think they have won.

Boris Johnson’s Conservative conference speech relied on the ‘Laffer Curve’ to square the circle: the assertion that cutting corporate taxes will increase revenue, as companies and their owners are freed to increase investment, create more jobs, and spur faster economic growth.  The record of successive Republican Administrations in the USA has shown that this does not work.  The second Bush Administration cut taxes without managing parallel cuts in spending, leaving the Clinton Administration to struggle with the accumulated deficit it inherited.

Behind this commitment to continuing cuts lies a deep antagonism to the public sector and to those who work in it, and an insistence that private provision always works better than public.  Teachers, they argue, are overpaid and underworked, civil self-interested and intrinsically inefficient bureaucrats.  But never a word from the libertarian lobby about rent-seeking executives in the private sector, or examples of corporate failure or corruption in the provision of services.  And it’s corporate taxes they want to cut deeply, more than personal taxation.

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Immigration White Paper

Before a mass of Liberal voices condemns the party’s immigration paper and the related motion for party conference, we need to reflect on two underlying issues: first, that global population growth, combined with weak states and intermittent conflicts across the developing world, and exacerbated by climate change, mean that migration to richer and safer countries is becoming one of the most intractable issues democratic nations will face over the next generation; second, that the white working class in Britain (above all, in England) have real grievances, which we cannot dismiss, and which are partly – though only partly – associated with immigration.

Yes, much of the resentment unskilled people in England feel against incomers is unjustified and misdirected.  That doesn’t mean that we should ignore it: politics, sadly, is as much about emotion as about reasoned argument.   However, we can’t reassure them merely by saying that they are mistaken, or ill-informed.  We have to address those grievances, by campaigning for policies that answer them.

The Leave campaign, aided and abetted by Migration Watch and the right-wing media, managed to present the challenge of immigration as coming from the European continent, triggered by EU free movement rules. In reality, migration from other EU countries has never accounted for the majority of arrivals in the UK in any year, despite the surge after east European nations joined.  The real ‘Project Fear’ in the Referendum campaign was the suggestion that the entire population of Romania and Bulgaria would move to Britain, and that 70 million Turks would follow.  The population of the EU-28, in total, is 500 million.  However, the population of Africa has grown by 500 million over the past 30 years, and current expectations are that it will double again over the next 25-30 years. Across the Middle East and South Asia, birth-rates remain high – closely linked to the subordinate position of women and their limited access to education.

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Brexit: It isn’t all over yet – not by a long way!

Several comments on LibDem Voice last week argued that we’re all too late to stop Brexit: ‘it’s a done deal.’  Except that it’s not: we have a government that still has no clear idea of what future economic relationship it wants to have with the EU after we leave, and no coherent proposals for managing our future borders with the EU.  9 months from the date on which the UK is committed to leaving, Theresa May is holding together a divided Cabinet by endlessly postponing hard decisions that would trigger resignations from one side or another. The odds are rising on a political crisis towards the end of this year, as hard Brexiteers call for Britain to crash out of the EU without a deal, the Prime Minister promotes a formal exit which will leave us still following EU rules for an extended transition period (‘Brexit in Name Only’, or BRINO), and business protests that they lack any guarantees about future rules to encourage investment in Britain.

Remember what No.10 was saying about the timetable a year ago?  To manage an orderly exit, we would negotiate a package of measures with the EU by June 2018, to be agreed at the June EU Council.  That would allow time for the necessary legislation in the UK, and ratification both here and in other EU states, to be completed before March 29th next year.  We are now reaching the June European Council, after months in which David Davis has assured us that the negotiations ‘are making good progress’, and find that there is no package and little attention to Brexit on the agenda. Number 10 is now briefing the media that there may be ‘serious’ negotiations at the October European Council, but that agreement on key issues may be postponed until December.

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Why you should go to Lewisham this weekend

Helen and I spent Tuesday evening canvassing in Lewisham. We met the friendliest reception we have had on doorsteps for a long time, from people who remarked that everyone assumes that Lewisham is a safe Labour seat and no party then seems to care about the voters. We were the first canvassers they had seen so far, in this hurried by-election, rushed ahead by Labour to do its best to prevent any other party from mounting an effective campaign, with polling day on June 14th. So, if you can carve out an afternoon or evening, better still a whole day, and are within travelling distance, do your best to go to Lewisham!

Since Parliament is treading water at present while the government struggles to come up with some coherent policies on Brexit, groups of LibDem peers have been travelling down to help with the campaign. You travel to Lee station, 15 minutes from London Bridge towards Dartford; our campaign headquarters is a 5-minute walk from there: 19 Leegate Centre, London SE12 8SS, just off Burnt Ash Road. They turned us round fast and efficiently when we arrived, and sent us out with a good briefing to use on the doorstep. If needed, contact [email protected] or phone 07384 525159. If you bring a large party I’m sure they would appreciate warning of your arrival.

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We need to talk about tax

The developing consensus that the NHS needs more money, and that there is nowhere else for that to come from except increased taxation, shows that there are some things that voters may well be willing to pay more for in order to get better-quality service.  But we need, also, to recognise how strong the anti-tax lobby in this country is, and how difficult it will be to shift popular perceptions that others should pay more, but we deserve lower taxes ourselves.

Liberal Democrats beat themselves up about their collaboration in the coalition’s austerity programme.  Our mistake was not to mount a stronger argument in 2010 for funding a higher proportion of the adjustment through tax increases rather than cuts.

But we ought to recognise that all three parties have collaborated in the myth that decent public services could be provided without higher and more progressive taxation.

Margaret Thatcher set the tone, financing public services partly through the windfall revenues from North Sea oil – instead of establishing a sovereign wealth fund as the Norwegians did –  and partly through selling off state assets to fund current spending (‘selling off the family silver’, as the elderly Harold Macmillan had remarked).

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Migration and the liberal dilemma

The Spring conference will be discussing migration policy in Southport, on the basis of a carefully-written consultation paper. This is a particularly difficult topic for Liberals. Almost all of us would prefer to live in a world in which borders were open, and immigrants and refugees were welcomed. But global population growth, combined with state collapse, civil conflict and climate change, are combining to create a rising flow of migrants – driven both by political disorder and economic deprivation – towards the safe and prosperous countries of Western Europe. Many of them are trafficked on their …

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Lord William Wallace writes…Britain’s deepening political confusion

Anyone who thinks that they know what British politics will look like in 3 months’ time is a fool.  The opinion polls, it is true, have hardly moved since last year’s general election; most voters, it seems, have been disengaged since then.  But among the parties, things are moving, in a very confused and uncertain fashion.

The Conservative Party is in the most extraordinary position.  Here is a party which had over a million members when I was a Young Liberal, which does not challenge the statement that its individual membership is now around 70,000.  It is sustained by large donors, mostly from the financial sector but with some prominent businessmen, which give the central party the funds to manage campaigns from the centre – as we learned, to our cost, in the last two elections, as centrally-funded mailings poured into LibDem target seats.  And it is politically supported – and pulled to the right – by a number of highly effective think tanks, many of them substantially funded by offshore donors and foreign sympathisers. (The advantage of contributing funds to think tanks which promote right-wing ideas, offshore donors are told, is that they remain anonymous and avoid the checks the Electoral Commission requires on party donations.)  The Legatum Institute is openly funded by a Dubai-based New Zealander; the Taxpayers’ Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs, and most other Conservative-oriented think tanks do not declare their sources of income.  The right-wing media, above all the Telegraph and the Mail, provide a direct link to older voters, though they do not reach many of the younger generation who read news on line.  These papers combine with think tanks like Civitas to denigrate the BBC as ‘biased’, meaning that it puts out a range of opinions that are beyond Conservative control.  

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William Wallace writes: Stopping Brexit isn’t enough – we have to help the left behind

Larry Elliott in the Guardian the other day declared that the Remainers don’t have any answers to the problems of the Left Behind in Britain.  He didn’t bother to claim that the Leavers had any answer either.  Their commitment to deregulation (with abolition of the Working Time Directive one of their first targets) will hit marginal workers in insecure jobs; their hopes of cutting public spending will increase the gap between rich and poor and starve education and health of resources.

But what do those of us who support Remain offer the Left Behind?  Remember that the highest votes for the Leave campaign came in England’s declining industrial towns, and in the county and seaside towns that have also lost out from economic and social transformation.  Middlesborough, Skegness, Canvey Island and Wisbech all returned over 80% of votes to leave.  It was easy for the Leave campaign to encourage them to blame the globalised ‘liberal elite’ for their woes; they have lost out from globalization, and feel patronised and neglected.  Some of their grievances are justified; others are not.  The selling off of social housing and the incursion of private landlords into what were once Council housing estates is not a consequence of European rules or of immigration.  But the loss of the stable employment that their parents and grandparents had IS a consequence of open frontiers and technological change, and successive governments of all parties have failed to invest enough – in education and training, in housing, in infrastructure, in supporting the growth of new local entrepreneurs – to spread the prosperity of the South-East and the metropolitan cities across the rest of the country.

Liberal Democrat peers tackled these issues in a working party over the past year, the report of which is attached here.  We have submitted a resolution for the Spring conference to take the debate within the party further.  Our analysis, and our proposals, cut across several policy areas.  Greater investment in education and training, from pre-school to further education, is central.  Long-term finance for local start-ups, of the sort that the British Business Bank was intended to provide but which also needs nurturing at regional and local level, is essential.  A revival of social housing is urgent.  Most difficult of all, we have to find a way of rebuilding political trust: a revival of local democracy within communities that feel abandoned by all parties and agencies of government, and that see politics as a game conducted by well-off and well-educated people in London.

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Campaigning for higher and fairer taxes?

We need to talk about tax. The IMF’s annual report on the UK economy recommends that taxes should be raised, in order to reduce the deficit further without cutting public investment and services. Philip Hammond, it is reported, would like to do so; but he is opposed by the ideological (and Eurosceptic) right of his own party, and by the influential group of free market think tanks who were cheerleaders for the Brexit campaign.

The Taxpayers Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs have repeatedly argued that it’s impossible to raise more than …

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William Wallace writes….What’s Brexit really all about?

At the consultation meeting the Lords Party held at our Bournemouth conference, the strongest plea that came from round the table discussing Brexit was for more information on what is happening.  We will take that back to the wider parliamentary party and our small and overworked group of researchers, and see what more we can do.  There are some really good papers from Nick Clegg’s advisory group on the party’s web site, which explore the underlying issues; but the politics of the negotiations are moving and changing almost every week, and I guess that campaigners want usable material to respond to that.  So meanwhile, here are some initial suggestions on how best to play the issues in different places.

The most important shift in the Brexit debate over the summer has been from general principle to detail, as negotiations get under way, and as the deadline of March 2019 begins to loom.  Boris Johnson’s Telegraph article was a denial of where we are – sweeping aside the difficult questions about HOW we manage a mutually-advantageous relationship with the EU after we leave, to argue that those who say Britain will suffer if we don’t get an agreement are talking the country down, and that a close external association with the EU will make the UK ‘a vassal state’, in ‘a national humiliation.’  This, we must all repeat vigorously, is Brexit denial, like climate change denial: refusing to admit the detailed evidence that there are problems to resolve.  The detail matters, we must insist against the ideological sceptics: crashing out without a deal will cause chaos in the UK economy, cost jobs, and endanger standards.

Let’s take the issue of border controls. 2.6 million trucks pass through Dover every year, five times as many as when the Single Market started in 1992.  They spend an average of 2 minutes each passing the border.  If this extended to 20 minutes each (the fastest one estimate suggests they could be cleared outside the customs union), the queues would soon stretch along the M20, supermarket shelves would empty (1/3 of our food is imported from the EU) and assembly lines would grind to a halt (Honda’s Swindon plant alone depends on 350 truck-loads of components a day coming through Dover). Revenue and Customs are trying to introduce a new computer system, but that may not have the capacity to cope with the number of transactions required outside the customs union, and in any case may well not be ready by March 2019.  Estimates of additional customs staff needed by then are in the thousands; but recruitment has not yet begun.  And Boris doesn’t think we need a transition arrangement after that date?

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  • User Avatarfrankie 15th Dec - 2:10am
    A party of just you then David, all the yellow book leaders have left for greener pastures. Tis sad for you but true.
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    Our increased membership has drawn a large number of remain fanatics into the party who, with Getting Brexit Done, will now melt away. I see...
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