Category Archives: Op-eds

Keeping hope alive

I was reading criticism of the dear leader the other day and thought without leaders to be critical about we really wouldn’t be a Liberal Party.  It’s understandable when we are down in the opinion polls oscillating between 5 and 7 per cent, but I wonder if we aren’t beating ourselves up over something we still haven’t fully come to terms with in order for us to put it right.

Firstly, how we went into and performed in Coalition has done far more damage to our brand than even the most pessimistic Clegg critics predicted. Unless, in the unlikely event, there’s a change in the electoral system, it may have put us back two, three or more decades.

Secondly, as a direct consequence, losing third party status in the Commons has made it near impossible to get back to the levels of broadcast and newspaper coverage we enjoyed before the Coalition. Making our own noise is all we have and internal criticism of whom a majority of members elected as leader doesn’t help when it isn’t justified.

Thirdly, no leader, whether currently among our MPs or from outside, can turn this round without grassroots campaigning on issues that unite rather than divide the electorate. For example, almost everyone loves our NHS, but few hold the same affection for the EU. Why hasn’t the NHS we helped create been first and foremost in our campaigning?

Fourthly, since the Coalition we have allowed ourselves to be framed by Brexit and minority interests and not by what the preamble to our constitution says we stand for. There are very few constituencies where this current perception can deliver seats, and bums on seats is what counts if you want political power in order to redistribute it.

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It’s a mistake to try to be ‘the party of carers’

Sir Ed Davey has repeatedly said that he wants the Liberal Democrats to be “the party of carers”. This is an admirable goal, drawing from his own lived experience as a carer for his mother as a child, and now for his disabled son.

However putting this front and centre, both in Sir Ed’s conference speech and in numerous media interviews, seems to be a serious strategic mistake.

This is not because the issue isn’t important. Carers are treated appallingly by the state and receive grossly inadequate support, if they get any at all. It is absolutely right to speak up for them and to have policies that help them.

But it is a mistake to make this our main message, because the public don’t vote for parties based on technical policy details. They don’t vote for skills wallets, social care reform policies or coffee cup taxes. Nor do they vote based on stances on carers, political reform or mental health provision.

It’s not that the public don’t think that issues like lifelong learning or reducing disposable coffee cup usage are worthy causes. It’s just that they don’t use such stances as guides on who to vote for. As our party president has pointed out in the past, people vote based on what are known as ‘valence’ issues: essentially, totemic issues which signal the “goodness” or “badness” of a party on key areas.

People judge the message a party sends out about its values on key topics like the NHS, or the economy, or Brexit, and then they assume that the detailed policies must be good or bad on that issue, and on associated issues, based on that initial judgement.

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Could Scottish Independence save the Scot Lib Dems?

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There’s no denying that the first 20 years of the 21st Century have hardly been auspicious for the Liberal Democrats in general and the Scot Lib Dems in particular. North of the Border the numbers of our elected representatives has been in rapid decline; in the period 2000 – 2020, numbers of our MSPs in the Scottish Parliament have dropped from 17 in the first Parliament to five now; at Westminster, in roughly the same timeframe, our MPs have reduced from 10 to four; whilst in Scotland’s local authorities the number of Lib Dem councillors has atrophied from 170 in 2003 to 67 today.

That’s an approximate reduction of two thirds overall which, however you might try to dress it up, cannot be celebrated as progress; quite the opposite. The reasons  why this might be so are many and varied and I have written about some of them before, so now is not the time to beat that particular drum again. Suffice to say that continuing to do more of the same, in terms of electioneering and campaigning, and expecting different results falls very neatly into Einstein’s definition of madness. Radical change in strategy and tactics is called for, and it can’t come a moment too soon.

What hope for the future, then? The prospects for the Holyrood elections next May – if Covid-19 allows them to take place – aren’t looking too rosy for the party. Multiple successive polls have put the party at between 6 – 8% or the projected vote, in many cases a lesser proportion than the Scottish Green party. Below the Greens for goodness sake! How are the mighty fallen. Most commentators predict a healthy majority for the SNP and their Green allies, although the only poll that matters is the election vote itself, and politics is a fickle mistress. We may be surprised yet.

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Domestic violence in Wales

November 25th is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Violence in the home has increased during Covid 19; contact during the lockdown period to Wales’ national helpline for women rose by 49% and call time trebled. During the national lockdown period, data from Counting Dead Women – a project that recalls the killing of women by men identified thirty-five murders with another twelve strongly suspected cases between March 23rd and the start of July.

Statistics in 2019 show that one in three women aged 16–59 will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime and that two women …

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The Late Late Toy Show – an Irish institution

This Friday, Christmas in Ireland will officially begin. The institution that is The Late Late Toy Show will be aired live on RTE One and internationally on the RTE Player.

It is the job of the Irish emigrant to explain to her non-Irish friends exactly what the appeal of The Toy Show is. Why do grown adults drop everything to get the goodies in, get settled in for the evening and pretend that they are children again? Why does Ireland stop for this one night, and in this Covid world we currently live in, why is the Irish Government desperately working to set out the exit plan from lockdown in time for The Toy Show? What is it about this magical Toy Show that brings grown adults to their knees?

The Late Late Toy Show began as a segment on toys on The Late Late Show back in 1976. The legendary broadcaster, Gay Byrne, saw the appeal of this segment and grew it into a fully-fledged dedicated programme once a year. If you’re of a certain age, you will remember the cheesy children from various stage schools singing and dancing, you might remember the precocious children showing off the toys they were to demonstrate or you might remember the delightfully entertaining children who could not but put a smile on your face. The Toy Show is warm television viewing with a heart. The key to its success is its values – an expectation of what childhood should be like putting family at the core of it.

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“How many children will die?” is the question we should be asking on international aid.

Just half a decade after the Coalition enshrined 0.7% of GDP spending to go to international aid into law, the Conservative government looks set to rip it out this week.

Given Johnson’s penchant for populism and his Chancellor’s desire to get public spending back to pre-Covid levels, it is not surprising to see international aid attacked so passionately and so disproportionately. ‘Foreign aid’ has long been the whipping body of the right-wing press, Nigel Farage, and the Tax-Payers Alliance.

Much like the European Union and freedom of movement, international aid has gone largely undefended. Whilst we see obvious merit in funding …

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Is it safe to come out now?

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With the certification of Michigan’s 16 electoral votes yesterday, Donald Trump finally bowed to the inevitable and signalled his administration to co-operate with the incoming transitional team of Joe Biden.

No concession though, you’ll note.

John T Bennett, Washington Bureau chief of the Independent writes today:

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Now is not the time for a return to austerity

This week it looks likely that the Chancellor will announce a freeze on public sector pay and cuts to the foreign aid budget. There are also murmurings of more harsh spending cuts and tax rises on the way. If Sunak and the Tories are planning on a return to austerity then this would be a huge mistake, and the Liberal Democrats should oppose it.

There is no urgent need to cut spending or raise taxes right now. Borrowing is currently extremely cheap, and bond yields are likely going to remain low for a while. Even in the event that interest rates do start to rise, we can take the opportunity while costs are low now to borrow over a longer period of time, in fact we’re already borrowing over longer terms than any other OECD country so it’ll be a while before we have to start paying most of this debt back.

In these conditions policy makers can afford to be less constrained than they were in the past. There has never been a better time for some new ideas, and to build back better.

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The new war in Ethiopia. The first step towards peace is understanding the conflict.

For many LDV readers, Ethiopia is associated with arid land, drought and terrible famine; made famous in the 1980s by Bob Geldorf and ‘Live Aid’.

The recent resurgence of civil conflict, mass fatalities and the exodus of 200,000 refugees into Sudan, seems inexplicable for the casual British observer. Is there a well-founded explanation?

Some perceptions have to be undone. More than 90% of the 100m population live in the green, fertile west of the country. Most of Ethiopia’s cities are modern and the capital, Addis, has a hi-tech urban rail system and glitzy shopping centres. Ethiopia has recently experienced high economic growth, and is a favoured investment location for Chinese and Western investors. The new Prime Minister won the Nobel peace prize for his rapprochement with breakaway Eritrea. So what’s the problem ?

Modern Ethiopia was largely created as an ‘empire’ by conquest in the late 19th Century under Emperor Menelik II, from what is now Addis Ababa, up to World War 1, with the support of Italy.

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Forty years in the making

Liberal democracy is in crisis, particularly in the UK and the USA. In the UK we are perhaps bemused at how we could have come to elect such a corrupt, cronyistic and incompetent government, and in the USA there is much debate over how the Trump lump has not gone away despite four years of Trump’s Twitter tantrums.

There is a tendency to view this as a short term phenomenon – what went wrong four years ago, six years ago, even ten years ago. In my view this has been coming for forty years. It has not been inevitable but, during the neoliberal period (roughly from the 80s till today), social forces and personal decision making have moved us steadily towards the situation we now find ourselves in.

In a nutshell, the elevation to power of Thatcher and Reagan marked the start of what was seen to be a move towards freedom, opening up societies all over the world to the liberating forces of the market. This had two sides, globalisation, an ineluctable social force beyond the power of individuals to affect, and the strategy of global elites both old and new, to use globalisation to create new wealth and power for themselves. They have been very successful. So it turned out to be a move towards freedom for some, but by no means all. The elites used liberalism as their watchword, while ignoring the principle of liberalism that their freedom is only valid in so far as it does not compromise other people’s freedom.

At the same time there has been a steady corrosion of community and democratic values, partly because the new markets require it (they don’t work without precarious labour) and partly because of media elites who found that telling lies worked, and political elites who did not care to confront them. People sold on consumer capitalism found easy answers to all the ills in their lives in the lies told them by the media. Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Dacre, among others, spent decades preparing the British public for the Brexit lie. They have succeeded in making many people’s lives precarious and hoodwinking them into blaming others for that.

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Covid-19 is not the only malaise

This week the East Lothian Party held our AGM via Zoom and even before the event we knew we had a problem. The Convenor, me as Vice Convenor, our Treasurer and our Secretary had given notice that we were not prepared to stand again.

The three long time office bearers felt they had done their bit but two of them also shared my disillusionment, as a relatively new member, with the policies, direction and leadership of the Scottish Party.

We were aware that with these resignations the East Lothian Party would fold, so I wrote to our membership of over 100 asking for volunteers who might step in to avoid the crisis. No-one stepped forward. I view that fact as evidence of a wider ennui in the membership, requiring the re-invigoration of fresh policies and passion from the top.
Trying to give a lead in a very small way, the East Lothian Executive suggested moderating the party’s outright opposition to a second Scottish Referendum under any circumstances. The amendment we moved at the autumn conference would have done that without actively promoting a referendum and certainly not backing independence. That nod to democracy, we felt, would set us apart from the Tory and Labour positions.

Perhaps predictably, the leadership succeeded in persuading conference to reject the amendment by, we thought, employing a highly misleading portrayal of its intentions. Nonetheless, approximately 18% of attendees backed the amendment

In addressing conference, I had reminded members of the adage usually attributed to Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” That’s what we think the party is doing and if that isn’t bad enough, it’s not even doing it very well.

A few days ago, Boris Johnson was reported as dismissing devolution as a disaster and Tony Blair’s biggest mistake. The story surfaced overnight on Wednesday but the Scotsman, and many other titles had time to report it. Radio 4’s “Today” programme headlined the story and featured several Tories struggling to defend the PM, making up what they thought he meant. One of them, Malcolm Rifkind, let slip that there is now no doubt that the future of the UK must be a Federal one.

What a gift!

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How bullying casts a long shadow…a post updated with reflections on Priti Patel and Dominic Cummings

It is ten years since I first wrote this, and I share it every year during Anti-Bullying Week. I could write something else, but it took some emotional energy to write the first time and I’m not really up for putting myself through that again. 

Let’s not put up with anyone being treated like this, whether at school, in the workplace or within politics. It’s important that anyone in any sort of leadership role in any organisation has the skills to recognise and intervene to stop bullying and support those affected by it. It casts a very long shadow and destroys lives. Its costs are massive in terms of wellbeing. Also, if you are bothered about the money and the economy, happier people are more productive.  It’s entirely preventable and we should do all we can to eradicate it.

It is ironic that I share this during this year’s anti bullying week a day after a Prime Minister defends a Cabinet Minister who has been found to have broken the Ministerial Code in the way that she treated her civil servants:

My advice is that the home secretary has not consistently met the high standards required by the Ministerial Code of treating her civil servants with consideration and respect.

Her approach on occasions has amounted to behaviour that can be described as bullying in terms of the impact felt by individuals.

I think the report is quite lenient on her, almost justifying shouting and swearing at officials. There is no circumstance in which that is ever justifiable in a workplace. The idea that she gets off because nobody raised it with her in the Home Office is utterly ridiculous. It takes some courage to raise these issues with the person in charge who shouts and swears at you. 

By all accounts, the way the recently departed Dominic Cummings treated people was even worse than the allegations against Patel. This Government has so far been fuelled by bullying. A toxic culture in which people are working in an atmosphere of fear and loathing is never going to be conducive to getting stuff done well. And this is actually costing lives. You can’t perform well if you are constantly fearful and anxious about the behaviour of an individual. You can’t effectively challenge their thinking and ideas. When you are making decisions that are a matter of life and death for many people, you need to make sure that they are properly thought through. A wise person I know says that the most important person in the room is the person who disagrees with you, because their input helps make your performance better. 

If staff in any workplace wake up with that same nausea that I faced when I was bullied, it saps energy that they could be putting into their work. And that is entirely the fault of the bully. 

We have a Prime Minister who clearly doesn’t get the impact of bullying in the workplace, and who is prepared to overlook the most egregious instances of it. 

Priti Patel should have been sacked. Dominic Cummings’ behaviour as Michael Gove’s Special Adviser at Education should have  meant that he never got over the door of Downing Street. 

It is incredibly worrying that the person in charge is willing to let this sort of unforgivable behaviour pass. The example that sets to other employers is extremely unhelpful, to say the least. 

And now on to that 10 year old piece.

I’ve been procrastinating like anything to avoid writing this post because although I know the events I’m going to describe took place a long time ago, they cast a long shadow. Their stranglehold on my life is long gone, but the memories are not. I might have teased my sister for posting something inane on my Facebook wall a while ago when she has important work she needs to do, but how would I know if I hadn’t similarly been wasting time.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about writing this post for a very long time, but now is probably the right time. When Stephen wrote so movingly about how his experiences of homophobic bullying had almost led him to the brink of suicide, I thought about telling my story too. His account of standing on the breakwater as a 17 year old brought vividly to my mind those dark occasions I’d stood far above the sea and contemplated jumping as a young teenager myself. I wasn’t bullied for homophobic reasons. In fact, it was made very clear to me that no man, woman or even beast would ever find me attractive.

The bullying started in earnest when I went to secondary school. I was in a very dark place as a 12 year old. This isn’t the right place to explain why but when I experienced those feelings again in later life, the doctor called it Depression. To add to that, we’d moved so I was far away from the emotional bedrocks my wonderful grannies provided. I was vulnerable, alone and, let’s be honest, not very likeable. I certainly didn’t like myself much anyway.

During the first three years of high school, I was primarily known by two names, neither of which had been given to me by my parents. In English one day in first year, we were taking it in turns to read out a scene from a play. I couldn’t for the life of me tell you what it was but as fate would have it, the line I had to read was “I want a yak.” Quick as a flash, the boy in front of me yelled out “I always thought you were one……” Cue the entire class, including the teacher, to collapse in laughter. That spread like wildfire, and before long it became my name to the entire pupil body.

If we’d had Google images then, I might have discovered pretty quickly that yaks are really kind of cute, but I never really saw it that way at the time and I really don’t think that the name was an affectionate one.

The other name came from the fact that, yes, I do have weird eyes. For that reason, people would hiss like a cat when they saw me coming, and spit out “Cat’s Eyes” as I passed.

I’m sure that doesn’t sound like much, but when you hear one or other of those things round every corner every day, you do feel less than human.

I became adept at varying my route to and from school to try to avoid the bullies who were there to pull my hair, or steal my stuff or point, or laugh, or kick or trip me up. They liked to mix it up a bit so I never really knew what I was walking into. I know it’s all quite low level, but it wore me down. I lived in perpetual fear and carrying that around everywhere was exhausting.

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No woman is an island

It seems fitting that this year on 21 November we celebrate #AskHerToStand Day at the same time as Kamala Harris makes history as the first female Vice President elect in the USA.

Whilst the world and our lives have changed so dramatically since our own Parliamentary Election 12 months ago, for me the memories are still very fresh (or is it raw?) as I remember my experience as a first-time candidate.

Deciding to stand wasn’t an easy decision – not only was I standing for election for the first time in the middle of a very wet, cold winter, but I was changing jobs and in the early stages of pregnancy with my second child. I had to weigh up the physical and emotional demands that come with growing a human alongside my desire to stand up for the issues I believe in.

In truth, this isn’t something men have to deal with – even when they do have young families, it isn’t quite the same physical impact and Mummy Guilt is pretty powerful at the best of times! Early on, I enlisted the support of my family, who helped in numerous ways – from cooking meals and doing nursery pick-ups to delivering leaflets and being my test audience for hustings. My partner rallied me when I was feeling unsure or overwhelmed and stepped in to take on my share of our domestic life. It left me feeling loved and incredibly lucky.

My experience is neatly captured in this short documentary, following my eager enthusiasm and the ups and downs of a winter election where the national picture is going against you.

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Reflections on the Transgender Day of Remembrance

Cross posted from the Scottish Lib Dems website

A few years ago, I took a trip to London with some young people. 

They had the choice of any West End musical we could get cheap tickets for on the Saturday night. 

They chose instead to go to a vigil remembering victims of hate crimes . 

So, instead of being in a warm theatre, we spent several hours in rain and freezing cold. It was an incredibly moving  event. The most sombre part was when the names of people who had lost their lives was read out. 

Each one of these names was a human being with hopes, interests, emotions, ambitions. All they wanted to do was get on with their lives in peace. Those lives were cut short because of prejudice and hatred.

A year or so after that trip to London, one of those young people came out as transgender. They were only too well aware of the sort of prejudice they faced if they revealed their true self. To do so in those circumstances takes incredible courage. 

Fortunately, they had supportive family and friends and are now doing very well.

November 20th is the Transgender Day of Remembrance when we remember transgender people across the world who have been murdered because of who they are. This year, the number is 350, not far off one person every single day. 

For several years now, trans and non binary people in this country have been constantly marginalised, the target of well-funded misinformation.

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Observations of an expat: Ethiopia

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Ethiopian Nobel peace prize winner Abiy Ahmed is planning—hoping with fingers and toes crossed—for a speedy and decisive end to his dispute with the rebel province of Tigray.

If his hopes are unrealised than it will have severe and widespread repercussions in the second most populous county in Africa, the strategic Horn of Africa and beyond.

Prime Minister Abiy and the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) have been at loggerheads since he took over the premiership two years ago.  Up until then the TPLF had held the reins of power in Addis Ababa. Corruption, human rights abuses and a long war with Eritrea pushed them into an unwelcome political wilderness.

The problem is complicated by Ethiopia’s complex ethnic mix of 80 different groups speaking 86 languages. In an attempt to hold these competing factions together the 1995 constitution established a loose federation of nine ethnically-based states; each with the right of self-determination up to the right of secession. The constitution was a TPLF creation.

The TPLF-constructed constitution does not, however, fit in with Abiy’s vision of a unitary modern democratic state. He booted the TPLF out of the ruling coalition and formed a national political party, the People’s Prosperity. Then, to add insult to injury, Abiy used the excuse of the coronavirus pandemic to postpone elections due last August.

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Great idea – but show us how we’ll get there!

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Here we go again! Boris Johnson announces a ‘world-beating’ programme to make Britain the environmental envy of the world. The usual suspects line up to say it’s too little too late, and the whole thing blows over in a couple of days, at least as a news story. But dig a little deeper and it’s not hard to identify what needs to happen to make Boris’s bluster into a plan that can really make a difference.

Let’s focus on the headline announcement: the intention to withdraw all new petrol and diesel cars from sale in the UK from 2030. Yes, numerically that puts us ahead of every country except Norway (which was first out of the blocks on massive investment in electric vehicles) so it sounds good, but on its own it’s meaningless. We’re back into that territory we were in at the election where all parties took part in auctions to see who could say they’d get Britain to net zero carbon emissions earliest – the dates garnered all the media attention, with little heed paid to whether the policies that underpinned them would actually deliver.

So it is with ending new internal combustion engines by 2030. The aspiration is great, though hardly ahead of the game when we consider the urgent need to cut climate emissions. But given that petrols and diesels still make up around 90% of new car sales in the UK, it’s a very tall order to stop all new sales within 10 years, so the key lies in whether there’s a plan – a roadmap if you like – to get us to zero-sales by 2030.

The short answer is that there is, but it’s already hopelessly behind the clock. The EU has a plan to increase e-car sales, and it’s currently being transposed into British law for the post-Brexit era. But the EU’s law is inadequate, and the British transposition is even weaker.

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Optimism, hope and trying not to be Scrooge

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I’m not channelling Ebenezer Scrooge but at one level Christmas is the last thing we should be worrying about at the moment. Yet it drips through media headlines almost on a daily basis. I’m not against bank holidays although many people have had too much in the way of non-working days this year. I suspect I am irritated because Christmas has been put firmly in a political context this year.

Our Prime Minister seems to think he has a supreme obligation to cheer people up while blithely unaware of how much he is capable of depressing us. He does apologise, of course, but he apologises for the wrong things. Managing a country in the midst of a pandemic should not be about saying “I’m sorry but we are all going to have to do the right thing”.

Unsurprisingly I am not against Christian festivals! However for those who see Christmas as a high point for affirming one strand of religious faith there are good models to remember. Easter was for the most part done differently this year. Mosque leaders should be commended for their discipline and messaging during Eid. We should be taking seriously the possibility of the same pattern being required over the Christmas season.

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Can we break open the chumocracy?

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Recent news reports suggesting that the “chumocracy” currently running Britain has enriched its personal contacts during the Covid-pandemic by handing out lucrative procurement contracts worth millions is a tell-tale sign of a self-entitled political elite acting like a law unto itself. This sickening self-aggrandisement is a reflection of a political system that lacks transparency and accountability – issues Liberals have long campaigned on. In the 21st century, why do we still have a political system that permits a small, well-connected elite to act as if the country’s riches are its own? Is it due to our political system or our education system? Are those issues inseparable? Fortunately, our neighbour’s politics show how things can be done differently.

In 2012 I moved to the Netherlands to study. 2012 was a tumultuous year for Dutch politics, the Dutch coalition government had collapsed in April and fresh elections were held just two weeks after I arrived in September. Keen to show a commitment to my new host country, I used to watch the news every night with my Dutch flatmates. I didn’t understand much but learnt enough to match faces with names. This was made easier by the location of my campus, just a stone’s throw away from the Dutch parliament.

It became very clear, very quickly that there was less distance between the Dutch public and their politicians than there is in the U.K. This transparency was characterised by the Binnenhof – a 13th century square that houses the Prime Minister’s office, among other government departments. Like Westminster, the Binnenhof is one of the oldest Parliament buildings still in use. However, unlike Westminster, you can walk right through it. Passers-by, tourists and students would shuttle through, occasionally stopping to gawk at the Ministers arriving in their cars.

It was easy to accidentally bump into Dutch politicians. One lunch break I found myself queuing for a cheese sandwich alongside Diederik Samson, then leader of the Dutch Labour party. The Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, was even easier to track down, he had a favourite café where he could often be found sipping a coffee and reading the newspaper. I think I’m proud of the fact that I was one of the only students on my course not to have asked him for a selfie.

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Scots need hope for a progressive United Kingdom

Boris Johnson has clearly demonstrated this week that he is a severe threat to Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. Liberal Democrats need to consider any strategy which can give Scots a vision of a progressive United Kingdom freed from Boris Johnson’s “leadership”.

This is a speech I intended to deliver at Scottish conference last month, and I dearly hope this course can be seriously considered and deployed in good time to positively affect our performance in elections next May.

“I am deeply worried about Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. I see polls showing support for Independence at 58%. I see within those polls that younger generations support Independence at a rate close to 4 to 1.

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Why you should think of trying to become a Liberal Democrat Councillor

London Region have recently been running a series of Zoom calls for people who are thinking of running for their Council in the 2022 elections. I have taken part in a couple of these and it has made me think about what I enjoy being a Councillor and why I would recommend others think about doing so.

I have been a Councillor for the Dundonald Ward in Merton since May 2018 – the ward runs from Wimbledon to Raynes Park along the railway line and it is characterised by terraced houses occupied by middle class professional families many of whom are from the EU. It won’t be a surprise that it voted strongly for Remain.

It’s a great place to knock on doors and talk to people – particularly in the daytime (I am retired) when a surprising number of people even before the lockdown work from home and often have more time to chat. I have had fascinating conversations about PG Wodehouse, the merits of working for different French banks and the details of train operations on the District Line. People occasionally even want to talk about politics!

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Help me pile pressure on Royal Mail to offer free post for care homes

Times have never been tougher, and this Christmas will be one of the most challenging yet. We’ve got to come together like never before. That means reaching out and staying connected with the most vulnerable and isolated members of our community.

It would be heartbreaking if family members or friends in care homes went without love this Christmas.

Earlier this year, An Post—Ireland’s postal service—announced it would carry letters, large envelopes, packets and parcels up to 2Kg addressed to residents in nursing homes, residential accommodation in the mental health or disability sectors and convalescent homes for free until 31st January 2021.

It’s a wonderful gesture that will support families and loved ones living in care homes, who have been so terribly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

That’s why I wrote to Royal Mail last month and asked them to follow An Post’s lead and offer free postage to and from care homes in the UK.

The Royal Mail’s role in response to the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be understated. Their staff have battled through in the toughest of times with professionalism and dedication.

By October, they had already handled more letters and parcels than they did in the whole of 2019—and the peak Christmas period for 2020 is only just beginning.

But with the national lockdown reimposed, and evidence suggesting that restrictions could be in place until the New Year, this is one small way to ensure that no one is left behind this winter.

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Economic planning, obesity, and lessons from Japan

Whilst many have discussed obesity as a national health problem, this framing ignores the curtailing of individual liberty that obesity produces; from the limits it often imposes on everyday activity to wide-ranging health risks and even potentially shortened lifespans. This framing is probably why the substance of obesity discourse revolves around how this often agency limiting phenomena is supposed to be ameliorated by limiting agency. 

As a Liberal whose BMI straddles the line between overweight and obese, I think that obesity reduction policies should be based on expanding the agency of people, rather than curtailing it through Pigouvian taxes or even outright fat shaming.

This can be achieved by learning from the successes of other countries, primarily Japan. According to the 2017 OECD report the rate of obesity in Japan was 3.7% among people aged 15 years and older, whilst in contrast, the OECD average was 19.5% and that figure stood at 26.9% in the UK.

What explains this low rate of obesity? 

More regular exercise? 

About 25% of Britons age over 16 are classed as “physically inactive” as of 2017/18 whilst at the same time over 40% of Japanese people (aged 18 and over) admit they don’t exercise or take part in sports activity.

A lack of poverty?

As of 2017, 15.7% of Japanese people lived on 50% of median household income or less, compared to 11.9% of people in the UK. 

So, what is going here?

A good answer comes in the form of a YouTube video by an American expat living in Japan. As a person who has lived in two different societies, he provides a unique perspective on Japanese and American diets and a beautifully simple thesis for Japan’s lack of obesity; Japanese people have access to cheap, varied and convenient healthy food in a way Americans (or indeed Britons) don’t.

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Observations of an expat: 2024

There are few certainties in American politics at the moment, but I think we can say (with fingers and toes crossed) that Donald Trump has lost the presidential election; Joe Biden will be inaugurated on 20 January 2021 and Trump will leave the White House (one way or another) on or about the same day.

But what will the obese, orange-faced narcissist with the bouffant hair style do once he has exited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Well, he will be 74 years old. He could simply retire to Mar-a-Lago and work on his golf handicap. He doesn’t have to worry about money. In addition to the billions of which he constantly boasts, Trump will receive an ex-president’s pension of $207,800; free healthcare; a staff and Secret Service protection.

That scenario, however, seems unlikely, Donald Trump is the ultimate illustration of power as an aphrodisiac. He thrives in the limelight and wilts in the shade. Donald Trump will want to continue as disrupter-in-chief outside elected office.

To do so, requires money.  This may attract him back to his property roots and a global real estate empire. It badly needs attention as most of his investments are in leisure and travel-related property which has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

But the problem with a return to real estate is that the Trump brand has been tarnished. While he was a rising star and then president everyone wanted to do business with him or his family. Doing business with a defeated and petulant president who is a right-wing ideologue would be too much of a political statement for most businessmen.

Another possibility is the media mogul route, either with his own television network, or, in tandem with an existing conservative platform. It he goes the latter route the most likely partner is the ultra-right wing One America News Network. Fox has been ruled out after they unceremoniously ditched him on election night.

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Our party can seize on the spirit of the times

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Liberalism’s answer to populism, I believe, is to give people what they really want, not what the forked tongues of populism tell them they want. Hopefully in the USA a majority has now chosen a President to give them what they really want.

But here in Britain we still have a populist Prime Minister with his inadequate government. There is still Lockdown, winter weather and seasonal colds and ‘flu yet to come – and the looming problems of Brexit, with or without a last-minute trade deal, before most of us can expect to share in a new vaccine.

There is some comfort in the government’s U-turn on providing vouchers for free school meals in each holiday, and in the continuation of the furlough scheme till March. We have been surprised at seeing a Tory government abandon their previous obsession with running down the Deficit, instead increasing it vastly, to save jobs and livelihoods and retain some spending power in the economy.

Yet this coming winter is likely to be a hard one, with many working-age people poorer if they have been on furlough, and especially if they have been made unemployed and are struggling to find a new job or restart their self-employment business. What will the government do then?

We know the Tory instinct will be to put up taxes – not to affect the wealthiest much, naturally, but to ask most people to contribute more. And among them, the millions of people now on welfare benefits will be expected to tighten their belts and ask no more than they can get now, inadequate as that is to prevent people falling into poverty.

However, the tide is turning. The British Social Attitudes Survey new annual report shows that the hardening of views on social security of the last few years has started to go into reverse. Their survey reveals attitudes have changed and this year more members of the public agree with the statement, ‘benefits are too low and cause hardship’ than last year. And fewer believe that ‘benefits are too high and discourage work’. This survey was conducted between July and October last year, so its findings are likely to be even more affirmed this year, when since March the number of people receiving Universal Credit has doubled to six million.

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Vaccine breakthrough takes our eye off the ball

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Forgive me if I seem the pre-Christmas Scrooge, but I can’t get as excited as everyone else at the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that has sent share prices rocketing (or falling) and a member of Sage saying we’ll be back to normal by the spring. I feel we are in danger of taking our eye off the ball.

The tendency when any of us are faced with a big problem is to see if we can solve it with minimum effort. It’s understandable; our lives are fairly full, so problems are irritants. But sometimes a problem requires a structural rethink, demanding root and branch reform rather than just tinkering with a failing element of the whole.

Issues like Covid-19 and climate change are problems that demand root and branch reform of the way the world does business, yet we are treating them like irritants. With climate change, we know our lifestyles are warming the planet to dangerous levels, yet we cling to the hope that some technology – like electric cars or planes running on biofuels – can be invented to stop us having to confront how we live and allow us to go back with a clear conscience to the life we know.

It’s the same with Covid. Although we don’t know for certain what caused it, the most likely explanation is our breaking down the barriers between the human and animal realms, to the point where bats, pangolins and perhaps even mink mingle with humans and cause a highly contagious killer virus. We need to look at our global lifestyle and re-establish that barrier, among other things through eating less meat and leaving forests intact – measures that will also help in the fight against climate change.

Yet instead, we hope for the magic wand of technology in the form of a vaccine. To me, it has long felt like lazy journalism or lazy politics to throw in the half-sentence “until we have a vaccine” to any thought about the coronavirus. It’s as if we don’t want to face up to the need to address the fundamental failings in our modus vivendi, and that can be dangerous.

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Labour Progressive?

I keep hearing siren party voices yet again hankering after a “progressive alliance” against the Conservatives. I firmly agree with John Pardoe’s adage of old that “a hatred of the Conservative party is the beginning of political wisdom”, but I fear that the very idea of the Labour party being “progressive” is, frankly, risible. It is one of the besetting chimeras of Liberals to have a dream that one day the Labour party will change. No-one who has challenged Labour in its industrial fiefs will succumb to such a fanciful concept. Labour believes in hegemony and control, and it has done since its early days. Once Ramsay Macdonald had negotiated the 1903 Pact with the gullible Herbert Gladstone and established a parliamentary foothold of thirty MPs, it then pursued its myopic single party aim without deviation. It prefers to be in opposition and to lose than to share any power. There is no better example than the first Labour government of 1924 which preferred to fall and to go into the electoral wilderness than to have even a minimal co-operation with the Liberals. Even in 2010, there was no possibility of a Lib-Lab coalition once Douglas Alexander had stated that they under no circumstances would they co-operate with the Scottish Nationalists.

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November Report from the President

I should start with a word of thanks – in fact, many words of thanks – to Kirsty Williams. She has announced that she will be standing down at the Welsh Senedd elections next May. As such a successful education minister in Wales, she is a daily demonstration of the difference that Liberal Democrats in power make. A consistently powerful voice for liberalism through all her many years of service, she has made such a big difference to so many lives. Thank you, Kirsty.

We need to get many more people like Kirsty elected in future. As the Thornhill Review

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We must stand ready to act if Trump tantrums risk tipping Afghanistan into chaos

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President Trump’s ‘termination’ of Defense Secretary Mark Esper should come as no surprise (given the terminator’s temperament – and that’s before his convincing defeat at the hands of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris). Because Secretary Esper was ready to resign in the event of his Commander-in-Chief’s electoral victory. He’d already written the letter.

His reasons why seem clear enough. Having ordered his troops back to base, he made public his refusal to condone even the possibility of their deployment on the streets of D.C., least of all to gas peaceful protestors for a photo opportunity outside of a church whose Bishop denounced the abhorrent abuse of power that had enabled it. President-elect Biden has drawn upon his faith – whatever your own beliefs – several times since his election, citing phrases of the powerful book that President Trump wielded as a prop so disgracefully.

But President Trump’s reason for sacking Esper now seems less clear. Most assume petty vengeance, a President affecting what little power he has left to ‘take out’ those who dared oppose him. A sign he is still President, in his own mind, by yielding his authority, perhaps. Or worst, an indication he plans to fulfil a campaign promise and is in full preparation for a 2024 campaign. To ‘End the Endless Wars’. Bring the troops home. An impossible prospect, at present, that would leave the future President Biden in a bind. To reverse, or abandon the region?

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A century since the birth of Roy Jenkins

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The 11th of November is the 100th anniversary of the birth of a political giant who helped form the modern Liberal Democrat party.

Roy Jenkins made a huge political impact, firstly within the Labour party as a reforming Home Secretary in the 1960s bringing in reforming legislation on decriminalising homosexuality, modernising divorce laws, and liberalising censorship laws. Then as one of the four founding members of the SDP that was to merge with the Liberals to form the Liberal Democrats.

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Heartbreaking report on the effects of housing insecurity on children

The Children’s Society has produced a report, Moving always Moving, on the effects of housing insecurity on children.

What does that actually mean in practice?

For the purpose of this report we define it in a way that most closely reflects the experiences of relevant participants, and there are three main elements to the way we conceptualise it: with reference to multiple moves, to those moves being involuntary, forced or reactive, and to those moves being related to poverty.

When I was Scottish Housing Spokesperson, every Christmas we would do a freedom of information request on the number of children in temporary accommodation at that time of year. Imagine what that must be like, not having your things around you, not knowing whether you might have to move at a moment’s notice and often being accommodated away from your support network and friends.

The effect of this on  physical and mental health, behaviour and educational attainment is profound:

It is clear that however it is labelled, poverty-related housing insecurity is associated with potential harm to children in terms of physical

and psychological health, health behaviours, risk-taking, ‘delinquent’ behaviour, emotional and social well- being, and education. The vast majority of the literature that paints this overall picture is quantitative. While statistical analyses are crucial to understanding the prevalence of broad trends and the strength of their effects, they are necessarily limited in terms of the depth of understanding they can enable about the lived reality of housing insecurity experienced over time.

If you are living in private rented accommodation, your landlord may decide to sell up for all sorts of reasons meaning you have to find somewhere else to live. If you have pets, it can be really difficult to find another private let and social housing is so difficult to get.  I spoke to someone who had had to move twice within ten months because of landlords selling up. And moving is not cheap, even in the best of circumstances. If you are living in poverty, the costs associated with constant moves are even more damaging and impact on your ability to provide even the basics.

Some of the stories in the report are absolutely heartbreaking.

All the moving that Tiffany had done, and in particular this latest move far from the things that structured her everyday life, affected her. It meant that currently she had a really long journey between ‘home’ and school, which in turn meant that she had relocated herself outside of her nominal home a temporary two bedroom flat where she had been placed with her mum) for more than half the week. It also meant that she felt stuck at school, unhappy
but trapped because moving schools would require knowing where home was.

Tiffany also felt a certain tension around where it was she belonged – she didn’t feel a strong attachment to her new area and still identified strongly with the place where she had lived before, but she knew it wasn’t really hers to call home anymore. When we asked if she was hoping to move again, she responded by talking about her mum – about how her mum was going to be moved because her current place was only temporary and they could move her at any time –
and she absented herself from the narrative completely, suggesting a lack of attachment to the area where she now officially lived (albeit temporarily).

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