Category Archives: Op-eds

Vision 2021 – a radical manifesto for a changing world

As you grow older you see things differently. Way back in 2003 as the new Chair of Tim Farron’s Campaign Committee I thought that, before we started campaigning, we should set out a few areas like education, health and housing where we needed some clear thinking. Though Tim was reluctant, we pulled together a few sensible people and we talked the issues through.

It is probably a good time for some more clear thinking now.

Where to begin? Well let us start with the most pressing problem facing mankind – that of global warming. Last year I thought the problem was insoluble but now I believe it can and will be solved though there will be more casualties and unnecessary costs if we do not get on with it.

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Finally, success helping low paid people working for Merton Council

For the last 9 years Merton Lib Dems have been campaigning to help some of the poorest paid and hardest working people in our community – those who  look after people who need care.

We started 9 years ago with a question from a member of the public – me – at a Council meeting about the Council paying its staff the London Living Wage (LLW).   The answer was that it would cost £275k and would cause all sorts of difficulties.

A few months later  the Council announced that it had decided to pay all staff at least the LLW: the many difficulties to doing this had disappeared and the cost reduced to £47k.

That didn’t cover those working for Merton’s contractors though and in particular those working in social care. Mary-Jane Jeanes – then the sole Liberal Democrat councillor – proposed a motion that asked for Merton to commit to paying the staff of contractors the LLW and to commit to become a Living Wage Employer.

It was voted down by the Labour Group.

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Vaccine passports – good, bad or indifferent?

I was challenged by one of our readers, having opined on the Shamima Begum situation, to apply a similar logic to the question of vaccine passports and whether or not they should be mandatory. And I suppose that my answer is a fairly straightforward one – that they shouldn’t be made mandatory.

That’s the simple answer. A more complete answer is rather longer.

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a sense that politicians, and the Government in particular, are following public opinion rather than taking a lead. And I suspect that, with regard to a vaccine passport, public opinion is going to determine how much they impinge on day to day life.

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Defending Liberalism from the culture warriors

‘Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Strengthen it. Renew it.’ President Biden said that in his virtual address to the Munich Security Conference last week. He was talking explicitly about threats to Democracy across the world, but implicitly also about the threats within the United States. We should worry that liberal Democracy, open society and constitutional government are not to be taken for granted in Britain, either.

None of us should under-estimate the extent to which the US Republican Right has effectively colonised the Conservative Party. Our right-wing media takes its cue from American campaigns – on culture, free markets, ‘family values’, suspicion of government as such. Tory MPs interact with US politicians and think-tankers far more than with conservatives across the Channel. Funds flow into the UK from right-wing US foundations, companies and lobbies, supporting similar groups and promoting like-minded causes over here. The denigration of liberalism that grips the American right is echoed in London seminars on ‘post liberalism and endless attacks on Britain’s allegedly ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ – by well-connected and well-paid Conservative intellectuals who live in London themselves.

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Undercover policing – the status quo is a danger to political rights

The Liberal Democrats should be commended for their principled opposition to The Covert Human Intelligence Sources (criminal conduct) Bill, which is better known as the “spycops” bill. Yet, they have much work to do in securing the civil liberties of their fellow citizens. What has gone on with undercover policing for decades is a threat to hard won political liberty and social progress. Liberals have to learn lessons of undercover policing gone wrong from the Undercover Policing Inquiry.

With all due respect to Baron Paddick, who wrote the article The ‘spy powers’ bill is a step too far, he needs to realize the status quo of undercover operations is toxic, as far as the police go. He wrote:

if all this legislation did was to provide legal authority for the police and security services to authorize informants, when necessary to commit crime, it would maintain the status quo and the Liberal Democrats would have no argument for it.

Liberals need to consider how zealous efforts by undercover police officers could cause people to act criminally, in cases they ordinarily would not have. Considering the case of animal rights activist Geoff Sheppard, he claims then-undercover Metropolitan Police Officer, Matt Rayner (not his real name) asked him to show him how to make an incendiary device. Sheppard received a four year sentence for possession of a shotgun, ammunition, and material to make an incendiary device.

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Standing with Myanmar – Military rule and the struggle for democracy in Myanmar

History appears to be repeating itself in Myanmar with the military unwilling to relinquish control. Will thousands be killed again, as massive numbers of people nationwide protest in the streets and are engaged in civil disobedience?

Following independence from British colonial rule in 1948, disagreements amongst political elites, the civil wars with ethnic-based groups and anxieties over communist influence led to General Ne Win forming a caretaker government in 1958. An election was held in 1960, but when minority groups pushed for a loose federal structure, which were seen by the military as separatist movements, General Ne Win took over in a coup d’état.

Since then, for the next 30 years, Myanmar was ruled by the military. In 1974, a new Constitution was established and a one-party system was adopted, whereby military officers resigned and governed through the Burma Socialist Programme Party. Protests were held against military rule throughout the 1960s and 1970s, which were crushed, culminating in a major unrest and widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988. Thousands were killed. Martial law was declared in 1989 and Burma was renamed Myanmar.

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The Shamima Begum case – why liberals should be defending her rights, if not her freedom

I ought to start by expressing the view that, regardless of what Shamima Begum has, or has not, done, I have little sympathy for her. And, for all the suggestions that she was groomed, or that she was too young to understand what she was doing, Liberal Democrat policy is to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to fourteen from its current level of ten years of age. If she has committed an offence punishable under law, then she should be tried and, if found guilty, sentenced appropriately.

But the Government are arguing something rather different. They suggest that her citizenship can be taken away from her because she is “a bad person” and a threat to national security. That may be true, but the United Kingdom is also a signatory to the 1961 UN Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Article 8 of the 1961 Convention outlines how and when a State may withdraw nationality, opening with the sentence;

A Contracting State shall not deprive a person of its nationality if such deprivation would render him stateless.

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Tom Arms’ World Review – 28 February

President Joe Biden must have mixed feelings about the public’s continued fascination with the Donald Trump story. On the one hand it is a distraction from his own agenda. And on the other, it allows him to move forward quickly and efficiently while attention is largely engaged elsewhere. He is doing the latter. This weekend Biden will celebrate 50 million covid-19 vaccinations, putting his administration well ahead of the target 100 million jabs in 100 days. He is also expected to shortly push through Congress a third major pandemic spending package. This one is worth $1.9 trillion and will focus on the poor minorities and women. The only part of the deal which has won Republican approval is $110 billion for business support. Meanwhile, Trump’s problems continue to make headlines. The biggest is that the US Supreme Court has refused the ex-president’s appeal to block a subpoena to obtain Trump’s tax records for the past ten years. Cyrus Vance Jr., the South Manhattan District Attorney leading the charge, believes that the records will reveal massive fraud involving taxes, bank dealings and insurance. Trump has denounced the investigation as part of the continuing “deep state” “witch hunt” and is keeping the Republican spotlight shining on him with a keynote speech this Sunday at a meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) In Orlando, Florida. His strongest Senate supporter, Lindsey Graham, said Trump “is going to dominate the Republican Party for years to come.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson must have mixed feelings about the coronavirus pandemic. More than 100,000 deaths, a locked-down economy and a crippling debt is bad news. But at least it is deflecting public attention away from his disastrous Brexit deal. The biggest problems this week have been predicted and predictable—fishing and Northern Ireland. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy which made British waters part of a larger European lake open to all EU fishermen was one of the main reasons for Brexit. The problem is that the deal Boris Johnson has struck with Brussels has possibly worsened the plight of the British fishermen. At the root of the issue is the fact that the fish that are caught in British waters appeal to European palates and those netted in European seas appeal to hungry Brits. And because of various quota and hygiene regulations now in place it is becoming difficult to impossible to land fish in each other’s ports. Then there is Northern Ireland with the new trading border in the Irish Sea. This is to keep open the border between the northern and southern halves of the island of Ireland and, hopefully, avoid a return to “The Troubles” of the last quarter of the 20th century. But this means import and export controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. The British government has responded by proposing that the uncontrolled period of trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain be extended to 2023. That is unacceptable to Dublin and Brussels. Any restrictions in trade links between Northern Ireland and the British mainland are unacceptable to the protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who want the current Northern Ireland Protocol jettisoned and a hard border drawn between Eire and Northern Ireland. This, of course, would torpedo the Good Friday Agreement and re-open the prospect of a return to intercommunal fighting.

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Observations of an Ex Pat: Biden and the Middle East

Big changes coming up in America’s Middle East policy and they won’t all be universally applauded. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Iraq and Israel are already feeling the difference.

This week’s American attack on Syrian-based and Iranian-backed militias may on the surface seem like a continuation of the Trump Era’s unilateralist shoot-from-the-hip America first and only policy. But an examination of the press statement that followed the retaliatory action indicates otherwise.

The Pentagon went out of its way to thank the Iraqi government for its intelligence input and stressed the strike was only conducted after “full consultations” with its “partners and allies.”

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Malcolm Bruce writes…Whither Scottish Nationalism

The tectonic plates of Scottish politics are on the move again.

When Labour dominated politics in Scotland they were often lazy, arrogant, bullying and complacent and looked after their own. Sufficiently like the mafia to be caricatured as COSLA NOSTRA.

Labour lost its way and initially Liberal Democrats picked up ground. However, free of any obvious ideological positioning the SNP were able to move into Labour territory.

Now less than a generation later, the SNP have become the Scottish establishment and acquired an even more venal, more incompetent yet downright arrogant, complacent and nasty braggadocio.

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Derek Barrie dies at 77

The Lib Dems lost a much loved friend, mentor, agent and campaigner yesterday.  Derek Barrie gave six decades of service to this party and the Liberals before it. What he didn’t know about campaigning simply wasn’t worth knowing. As recently as the 2019 election, the advice that he gave was a valuable part of Wendy Chamberlain’s election as MP for North East Fife.

He had become increasingly frail in recent years, but he died quite suddenly having been admitted to hospital last weekend.

He was a brilliant friend to me and we worked so well together back in the early 2000s when I was Scottish Campaigns and Candidates Convener and he was the Party’s Chief of Staff. Together with then MSP Iain Smith, we ran the ground campaign in the 2005 election and jokingly took all the credit for our party’s best General Election performance which saw us gain Danny Alexander and Jo Swinson as MPs.

Later that year, he and I ran the Livingston by-election campaign after Robin Cook died, maintaining our vote with candidate Charles Dundas and stopping the SNP from gaining the sort of momentum that might have given them the Dunfermline by-election.

For years our Campaigns and Candidates meetings would start in the Haymarket Bar across the road from Scottish Lib Dem HQ with dinner and usually some wine before we went back across the road to do the business.

There are not very many people I would let introduce me as the Wicked Witch of West Lothian, though I replied that he should never forget that I could turn him into a toad at any moment. To me, he was Grumps.  When we adapted the English candidate approval system for Scotland in 2002, we had to get a lot of people approved very quickly. This we did over many weekends with a wonderful team of assessors and facilitators. Obviously it was all very professional, but we had a huge amount of fun with the role playing exercises. Derek, John Lawrie and George Grubb often had Rae Grant and I in tears of laughter. There was one notorious time when Rae was laughing so much she had to leave the room.

But all this was pretty late in Derek’s career. He started out as the candidate for East Fife in the 1966 General Election. I think this was the one where he didn’t have a phone in his house and would call his agent from a phone box at pre-arranged times. He came fourth  back then, but in the 70s, a determined group of campaigners, led by Derek, decided they were going to win the seat. It took more than a decade of slog, but they did it when Menzies Campbell was elected at the third attempt, having gained 10% in 1979 and 14% in 1983. They turned the local party into a formidable campaigning machine and it has gone from strength to strength.

Derek was the first Liberal Councillor elected in North East Fife in 1977 and went on to lead the Council.

After he retired from paid party work in 2009 we used to meet up at Conferences and for long lunches where we would reminisce and put the world to rights.

He remained an active part of North East Fife’s campaigning machine, though, and served for several years as clerk to the Scottish Executive where he continued to be a fount of wisdom. He was secretary of ASLDC until a couple of years ago and had become the organisation’s Honorary President.

Derek had been married to Lesley for more than 50 years. They were such a team and he so appreciated her sacrifices for the Lib Dem cause. My husband said this morning that Derek never forgot the campaign widows and widowers who held the fort while their other halves were out working for the party from dawn till well after dusk. Our love and thoughts are with Lesley now.

These are just a few random thoughts and memories from over 20 years of working with Derek. I’m sure many of you will have your own, so please add them in the comments.

On Facebook, people have been paying tribute and their words are repeated here with their permission.

Sheila Ritchie, Scottish Party Convener

Derek has been friend, mentor, campaigner, rock. It was typical of him that, on hearing I was to be Convenor, he summoned me- there is no other way of expressing it- and gave me my orders.

I cannot tell you how much I will miss his wisdom and counsel, but much more, his fellowship and humour.

North East Fife 2019 campaign manager Kevin Lang

Very sad. I learned so much from this man when it comes to campaigning (don’t forget, it’s all about PIG)
I ran a committee room from his house in North East Fife at the 2019 General Election. Even then, and looking frail, he was so engaged and excited about the election and the prospect of winning the seat back.

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Assessing GCSEs and A Levels

So, clarity at last about the assessment of GCSEs, A Levels and vocational qualifications in England this summer.

You would have thought that, after the algorithm chaos last summer, consultations about 2021 grading would have begun as soon as we went into the second lockdown at the end of October. By that point it would have been clear that students working towards GCSEs and A Levels in 2021 were going to be seriously affected by the disruptions spread over two school years.

In fact, that is exactly what did happen in Wales, where Lib Dem Education Minister, Kirsty Williams, announced in November that external terminal exams would not be held for the current cohort. Instead teacher assessments would be used, although these could include some assessments which would be externally set and marked. Scotland and Northern Ireland also announced their plans some weeks ago.

Back in England the consultation did not begin until this year, and it is only today that decisions have been unveiled. In the Commons today Gavin Williamson announced that grades will be allocated according to teacher assessments. The assessments will be based on what students have been taught, not by what they missed, and will take a variety of formats.

I welcome this outcome – I have been saying for a long time that the learning of the current students in Years 11 and 13 will be much more severely compromised than those in the year ahead of them, bad as that was. But I do not welcome the timing – the Government has piled further stress on students by leaving this announcement so late. And the stress affects teachers as well; they have been having to revise programmes of learning on the hoof. They now have to rapidly develop assessment procedures at the time when they are fully stretched in preparing for the return of all pupils on 8th March.

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A universal bank account

Not everyone can open a bank account. A bank will only offer you an account if they think they will make money out of it, and they do that when you have an overdraft on which they can charge interest or a substantial balance which they can lend on. Poor people with poor credit histories aren’t allowed overdrafts and don’t have large balances.

Not having a bank account is one of many ways that being poor can cost you money. It also costs everyone who does business with you money, and that includes the government.

Almost everyone, however, does have at least one account with the government. It’s not a bank account, but it could be.

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Global Vaccine Equity

Vaccines Without Borders
Vaccines are the most effective way out of the pandemic. However, there won’t be enough supply to vaccinate the world’s population until 2023 or 2024. That’s why I joined NOW! (@NOW4humanity) to pressure vaccine manufacturers such as Moderna, AstraZeneca, Pfizer to allow other companies to develop its COVID-19 vaccine and have #VaccinesWithoutBorders.

But this is not enough. All companies must follow suit.

Oxford, Valneva, Novavax and CureVac, are now working with the Government to produce the vaccines in the UK. Johnson & Johnson have applied to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for emergency use listing to deliver doses to poor and middle-income countries. A Sussex-based company has begun developing a coronavirus vaccine in pill form, and trials have already started.

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Review: Charles Kennedy: A good man speaking

As Paul highlighted earlier, a major new documentary on the life and career of Charles Kennedy will be broadcast tonight on BBC Alba.

There is much to love in this programme. I have to say it brought a fair few of my emotions out to play – from the joy of hearing about his tactics at psyching out the opposition in school debating competitions and the fun of his election campaigns, to the anger at his treatment in his later years and the sadness of losing him way too soon.

Friends from school, university, family and politics recall the events that shaped him and the reasoning behind his key decisions. Among the interviewees are his brother-in-law and  friend James Gurling, Catherine MacLeod, a colleague at BBC Highland who was later Alastair Darling’s Special Adviser when he was Chancellor, Jim Wallace and Celia Munro, one of the stalwarts of the Liberal Democrats in Ross-shire and wife of Charles’ mentor John Farquhar Munro. Enjoy this trailer.

The programme has some rarely seen gems, like a clip of him broadcasting during his short BBC Radio Highland internship in the early 80s.

Charles always thought of himself as a Highlander first. The programme shows the influence of the Highlands on his actions and thinking throughout his life, including  opposing the war in Iraq, on which he was ultimately proven right.

But just 8 months after an election in which we won our highest ever number of MPs, Charles was ousted as leader. It was not an edifying moment in our history and I am sure that many of us have wondered what might have been if another way through the challenges of that time could have been found.

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Trying to be the voice of carers is no good without a strategy

If I am honest, I am only just hanging on as a member.

I was desperate for Layla Moran to win the Leadership election. With her modern day articulation of Charles Kennedy’s ‘The Future of Politics’ – the book which persuaded me to join the Party in 2002. She was unsullied by the Coalition years; she was the fresh, engaging face that I wanted (and still want) for the Party.

I went to ground after the Leadership election. Trying to be a good member. Trying not to be too critical of the new Leader. But with months on top of a year’s …

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Fairer Share and local government finance

It was very disappointing that a motion calling for a Proportional Property Tax (PPT) to replace Council Tax, Stamp Duty Land Tax and “Bedroom Tax” was rejected for debate a second time at this Spring Conference 2021. It represents a big step towards Land Value Taxation (LVT), which ALTER helped Sir Vince Cable retain within the last three Tax Commission policy papers – all passed overwhelmingly. It has a much greater chance of gaining cross-party support than LVT. Under this Government, it might even see the Statute Book, since most support seems to come from “Red Wall” Tory MPs in hard-up northern regions.

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Tom Arms on Republican Party divisions

The Republican Party is splitting. On one side you have the populists of ex-president Donald Trump and on the other you have the Grand Old Party (GOP) of Senator Mitch McConnell. Trump, of course, lost the election which he claims he won by a landslide. However, he has kept his base intact by continuing to feed them a diet of lies and conspiracy theories.

Mitch McConnell is the leader of the Senate Republicans who has proved himself a master of hunting with the hounds and running with the hare by voting to acquit Trump while at the same time branding him …

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The word “truth” is being hijacked by fake news conspiracy theorists who claim their dark ideas are light

There have been too many victims of Covid-19. People for whom coronavirus was the primary cause of death. Many others whose death was accelerated or whose recovery from other diseases was cancelled through catching Covid.

Truth has been a victim too. Conspiracy theorists and populists have been promoting a distorted review of reality. Uncertainty, crisis and threat have always been fertile grounds for conspiracy theories. But has never been so important to get the truth right.

A “truthpaper” is currently been pushed through doors around the country. Truth? Not in my book.

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Observations of an Ex Pat: Consequences of a Princess

The sad case of Dubai’s Princess Latifa threatens widespread repercussions which could impact on Dubai’s economy and relations with the West.

Dubai and the tri-emirate United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a key member, plays an outsized role in Middle East politics. It maintains close relations with the UK and US and took the lead recently in recognising Israel to block annexation of the West Bank. Its small but effective military has earned the UAE the sobriquet “Little Sparta.”

After a BBC Panorama highlighted the princess’s plight, the UN demanded proof that Latifa was still alive. So far, the only word from the Dubai government is that she “is being cared for at home”.

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Defending parish councils and standing up for local government

Parish councils are often largely ignored in the scheme of things. However, the recent antics of Handforth Parish Council have enabled many people to view what goes on in their name in the local council chamber. It has sadly shone a less than favourable light on the more unsavoury goings on in some parish council meetings, which, believe me, are not that untypical.

From more than two decades of experience, I recognise three types of local council, the Proactive, the Reactive and the Inactive. The Proactive Council has members who can think outside the box, are prepared to exercise the full powers afforded them by central government and are not afraid to raise their Precept above inflation to provide services.

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Waiting for the all clear

It’s great news that our wonderful NHS staff and volunteers are storming forward with the UK’s vaccination programme. Still, I worry about people being lulled into a false sense of security once they have had their first and even second jab.

Most of us will have had, or be getting, the AstraZeneca (Oxford) vaccine. It has an efficacy rate of 70 percent compared to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s 95 percent. These efficacy rates are based on the trials and mark the difference between those who had the vaccine and those who had a placebo (a solution that wasn’t the vaccine). If there’s no difference between the vaccine and placebo groups, the efficacy is zero. If none of those who became sick had been vaccinated, the efficacy is 100 percent.

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The Home Office and EU Settled Status Scheme

I am sure that most of us, who know, work with or have friends and family members from Europe, heard of so called EU pre-settled or settled status scheme. The scheme is crucial and it ensures that all Europeans living in the UK can continue to receive the same entitlements they had until the transition period ended at the end of December 2020.

The Home Office has published this week (week ending 14th February) the latest data in relation to the EU Settled Status Scheme. It is encouraging to see that such a significant number of EU nationals have already submitted their applications. It is fair to say that overall, the process is relatively simple and straightforward.

The figures show that, up to the end of January 2021: 5.06 million applications were received, 4.68 million applications were processed. Across the UK, 4.57 million applications were received from England, 252,400 applications from Scotland, 83,800 applications from Wales and 81,800 received from Northern Ireland. 2,497,600 (53%) were granted settled status and 2,039,800 (44%) were granted pre-settled status, thus showing more than 4.5 million grants of status.

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Two ways the Liberal Democrats stood up for people who have to quarantine in hotels

This time tomorrow, anyone arriving into

the UK from certain countries, and from any country into Scotland, will have to undergo ten days of mandatory quarantine in a hotel, an experience for which they will be charged £1,750.

I get that these measures are necessary. We do need to make sure that we limit the spread of new variants of Covid-19.

My issue, to be honest, is that I don’t think we should be charging for this if we think it is necessary to save lives. It’s arguable that it should have been done months ago. Typically both governments are acting too late and are being less than competent about the details of the implementation.

And we most especially shouldn’t be charging people who can’t afford it. If you are in a minimum wage job and a parent or a sibling dies or becomes seriously ill abroad, you are going to want to, in some cases need to, be with your family, to look after them. You should not be prevented from doing so because you can’t afford the cost of the quarantine.

The Scottish Government’s transport minister Michael Matheson announced on Tuesday that there would be a welfare fund to help people who couldn’t afford the cost of this quarantine.

But with less than 24 hours to go, we have scant details of what form this will take, how people will apply for it and how much they will get. Will it meet the whole cost or not?

Willie Rennie called on the Scottish Government to get its act together on this:

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Tom Arms’ World Review 14 February 2021

One of the current international ironies is that Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are on trial at the same time. The two men have one of the closest personal relationships on the world stage—dating back to the 1980s when Netanyahu was in New York as Israel’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Now he is on trial at the same time as his American buddy for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In true Trumpian style, Netanyahu claims that the trial is a “coup to oust a sitting Israeli Prime Minister.” The trial takes place in the middle of Israel’s fourth general election campaign in four years and is expected to be in full swing when voters troop to the polls on 23 March. It will have an impact. But possibly a more important factor will be the role of Israel’s Orthodox Jewish parties who have been a mainstay of successive Netanyahu coalitions. Orthodox Jews are making themselves unpopular by defying the government’s lockdown restrictions. Many are also refusing to participate in Israel’s world beating vaccination programme. This is creating a backlash against Orthodox Jewish parties. Coupled with his trial, this could bring an end to Netanyahu’s long stranglehold on Israel’s premiership at the same time as his American friend’s career is heading towards the toilet bowl.

Joe Biden also has a long and generally friendly connection with Netanyahu. The difference is that it is linked to his years as a senator and vice-president and is based more on national interests than personal ties. Those national interests are likely to mean that the US embassy remains in Jerusalem and that the US continues to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Biden will also build on the diplomatic recognition of Israel by key Arab states. However, there will be differences. Israel was a prime mover behind Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran Nuclear Accord. Biden is trying to revive it. Trump cut off US aid to the Palestinians. Biden restored it. Biden has said he supports the “two-state solution”. The Kushner Plan attempted to kill it. On top of that, President Biden has served notice on Saudi Arabia that it will take a closer look at its human rights policies and withdraw support for its genocidal wall against the Yemeni Houthis. Saudi Arabia is Israel’s closest secret ally in the Arab world. However, there may be military-oriented economic constraints on Biden’s human rights-focused policy towards the Saudis. The US is the world’s largest exporter of weapons with sales totalling $47.2 billion in 2020. Their biggest customer by far is Saudi Arabia. Despite overwhelming evidence, Trump refused to accept that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi because, he said, it would jeopardise arms sales to Riyadh.

President Biden’s foreign policy focus shifted to China this week with this first presidential phone call with Xi Jinping. He spent three hours haranguing the Chinese leader about Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Uighurs in Xinjiang. His emphasis was on human rights violations. Xi was unhappy. The issue of human rights, he maintained, was an internal Chinese matter, and the US had no right to interfere in China’s domestic affairs. The plight of the Muslim Uighurs is receiving increasing international attention. Britain’s Liberal Democratic Party has called for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics because of what they call a genocide in Xinjiang. The Johnson government has so far rejected the proposal. But it might find more fertile ground in Washington. It would be ironic if it went ahead. The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics heralded the return of China to world affairs. A boycott in 2022 could mark the falling of a new bamboo curtain.

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Data strategy and digital identity

The Conservative Government promised to produce a White Paper on its ‘National Data Strategy’ before the end of 2020 – one of the many initiatives shelved or delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.  But digital issues offer both enormous economic benefits and considerable social and political risks, and technological innovation is opening up new advantages and dangers as time passes.  

Now that the UK has left the EU, there are divided opinions within our government about staying close to its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or loosening its restrictions to make it easier for security services to investigate and entrepreneurs to innovate.  So Liberal Democrat data scientists are looking at the issues raised and providing (much needed and welcome) advice to our parliamentary party.

Rob Davidson and an informal group associated with ALDES (the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists) have prepared a note on Digital Identity.  The current debate is far removed from the old concept of a national Identity Card, centrally-run by the government.  Many of us have had to prove identity, producing our driver’s licenses to prove our age, rattling off our NIC numbers, even paying notaries for verified copies of our passports to satisfy bank queries: using government-issued identifiers to satisfy private demands.  Poorer people don’t have passports, and a declining number now have driving licenses, so find it harder to prove age, credit or status.  

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Scotland beat Wales in thrilling Maraphone clash

As I write, Scotland are playing Wales in the Six Nations at Murrayfield. As I write, Scotland are ahead by 17-3. I don’t know much about rugby but this seems unusual to me. Let’s hope we can hold on to that lead for however long a rugby match lasts.

However, an earlier clash between the two countries brought an assured victory for the Scots. The Welsh and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have spent the day tussling on the phone lines before kick off in a battle to see who could make the most phone calls to voters.

It’s all been great fun. Both leaders pumped up the rivalry, visiting each others’ phone banks Willie Rennie announced to the Zoom Room that the Welsh dragon behind him reminded him of me. I’ve never been so proud.

Jane Dodds almost got away with starting to sing a 14 verse traditional Welsh song to distract us from our work.

And Ed Davey showed up too! For an equal amount of time to both teams so as not to show any favouritism. He seemed to enjoy himself.

There really has never been a better time to make phone calls for the party. People seem genuinely happy to hear from us and are happy to share their concerns. We’ve noticed this both where we have elected representatives and where we haven’t.

Canvassing in a Zoom room is great because it spurs you on to do more, you can have a bit of a laugh with it. If you’re at home sitting there with Connect open, you can feel very alone. It is nice to have others to share your canvassing anecdotes with.

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The Liberal case for a Universal Basic Income

Following the economic downturn of COVID-19, a renewed interest has emerged in the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This development has been visible on the UK political scene, with 170 MPs and Lords calling for an “Emergency UBI” in the wake of the first national lockdown.

In practice, a UBI would give every citizen a guaranteed weekly government payment to supplement their main earnings. In effect, it would provide those hit hardest by the COVID recession with a baseline economic security; “a basic income floor”, as Prospect puts it.

In being an expansion of the welfare state, advocacy of a UBI tends to be more common on the ideological left. Indeed, it was the leftist Green Party who advocated such a scheme in the UK’s last General Election, in proposing that every citizen receive a minimum of £89 per week by 2025.

But should the UBIs appeal be limited to those on the left, or can it find favour with a broader demographic? It is true that the concept has received support from contemporary figures across the political spectrum, with noteworthy examples including the free market economist Milton Friedman, the left-leaning economist Thomas Piketty, and the former US President Barack Obama.

It is my belief that the introduction of a UBI is a cause which all liberals should get behind. With its potential to facilitate greater individual freedom and economic opportunity, as well as an enhanced sense of social justice, I believe it aligns fully with modern liberal values.

It has long been understood by liberals that freedom from economic deprivation is as vital a consideration as freedom from physical harm. If a person is deprived the necessities of living, they can hardly be free to pursue a productive, prosperous life. It is for this reason that liberals uphold the need for a sufficiently sized government safety net. But with recent years witnessing a continual rise in the UK poverty levels, as seen in the upsurge in food bank usage, it would appear undeniable that the country’s current safety net is deficient in its size and outcomes.

Such a predicament is set to be compounded by the economic downtown inflicted by COVID-19. According to the Office of Budgetary Responsibility, as many as 3.5 million UK residents could find themselves unemployed in 2021. Such economic wounds would no doubt be deepened by the country’s ever-rising wealth gap, with this a major issue prior to the pandemic.

Liberals must be prepared to call on the Conservative Government to undertake swift, bold action fuelled by an openness to new approaches. Simply papering over the cracks will not do; the system needs significant reform and expansion, justifying the addition of a UBI to ensure the basic living costs of every citizen can be met.

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Observations of an expat: America on trial

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Donald Trump is on trial in the US Senate. The Republican Party is on trial. America is on trial. The likely verdicts are: Not Guilty, Guilty and Guilty.

This will undermine democratic values and the rule of law which underpins it. This is bad for America and bad for the world. The United States is more than a nation. It is also an idealised aspiration.

Trump is accused of inciting an insurrection. He is alleged to have provoked a mob to attack Capitol Hill in order to reverse an election in direct contravention his oath to “preserve and protect  the constitution.”

Prosecutors (aka House Managers) from the House of Representatives have laid before America’s senators what Republicans admit is a “compelling” case against the ex-president. But the smart betting is that they will still vote to acquit the president.

Trump did more than give an incendiary speech on 6 January. His crime was committed over several months. Before the election he prepared the ground for insurrection by claiming – without any evidence – that the mail-in voting system would result in massive fraud.

Then, as the vote went against him, Trump attempted to stop the count in key states. When the result was clear he refused to concede defeat and challenged the vote in 86 different court cases. He lost all but one. Trump still refused to concede and repeatedly tweeted the fraudulent lie that he was the victim of fraud.

He tried to bully Georgia’s top election official into fabricating 11,780 votes in that key state. He failed. Increasingly desperate, Trump demanded that Vice President Mike Pence reject the Electoral College vote when Congress convened on 6 January to certify the results. Pence refused. His oath to defend the constitution was more important than winning an election.

Trump now summoned his supporters – which included violent right-wing militia groups – to a Washington rally on 6 January while Congress met in its certification session.  The president exhorted them to “fight like Hell” to “Stop the Steal” and to “march up Pennsylvania Avenue” to Capitol Hill. His personal attorney Rudy Giuliani said it was time for “trial by combat.”

The mob acted as instructed.  They broke into the icon of American democracy and demanded the death of Vice President Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Five people died and 140 Capitol Hill policemen were injured.

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