Category Archives: Op-eds

Observations of an expat: Rooftop war

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The Chinese and the Indians are at it again. To be more precise the Chinese are at it. They are once again pushing at the disputed 2,100 mile Sino-Indian border.

This week 20 Indian soldiers died and tensions rose as Chinese soldiers attacked with sticks and stones. Tensions appear to have subsided – for now.

But why is a border high in the sparely-populated Himalayas of any interest to the rest of the world? For a start we are talking about the two most populous countries in the world. They are both nuclear powers. They have the largest and second largest conventional armies in the world.

There is also the problem that the headwaters of the strategic Indus River run through the disputed Ladakh Region.  The Chinese have become notorious for damming fast-moving Himalayan rivers for their hydroelectric power at the expense of downriver farmers and industrialists. Several southeast Asian nations will testify to the fact.

Ladakh also borders Tibet and has historic and cultural ties with the Buddhist country which is a constant thorn in Beijing’s side. Control of Ladakh would enable the Chinese to tighten their control over Lhasa. Pakistan could also be expected to exploit the situation to renew fighting in disputed Kashmir – now under Indian martial law.

China and India are world economic engines. A Sino-Indian War – especially in the midst of an economically disastrous pandemic – would join Brexit and American race wars in tipping the world into an even deeper economic abyss.

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Isolation diary: Rewriting history

Anyone who thinks that removing statues is rewriting history should ask who wrote the history in the first place.

I wrote that sentence on Facebook this morning, having already (editorial privilege) read Paul Reynolds’ excellent article, in which he discusses the very many omissions in the current teaching of history.

My own experience of history in school was dire. I hated it, not least because of the way it was taught. The teacher spent almost every lesson dictating notes which we duly wrote down in our notebooks and attempted to remember for exams. At the end of the third year in secondary school we had to choose between History or Geography, so I chose the latter. As a result I studied no history later than the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745, and because I changed schools I actually studied that twice.

So I left school with huge gaps in my knowledge of 19th and 20th century history. For example, I didn’t know anything about the origins of Liberalism in the UK until I started reading J S Mill and others for my Philosophy degree. I didn’t understand the causes of the two World Wars and hadn’t heard of the Holocaust. I was living through the independence of former British colonies but hadn’t learned the history that would have explained why they had been coloured red on the map. I was denied any understanding of the importance of prime sources, or of historical method, and I didn’t appreciate that records were always created by the literate elite.

Of course, over my life I have gradually pieced together a lot of information about that period but still wish I had had a more formal foundation. I learnt that the history of wars is always written by the victors, so is inevitably skewed. And today’s political interference in the curriculum in the UK has striking parallels with the airbrushing of history practised by autocratic regimes.

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Black Lives Matter; a new enlightenment?

In Lib Dem circles there has been much talk of the need for ‘better education’ as a necessary (but not sufficient) path to more enlightened social and governmental attitudes when it comes to race, perceptions of a colonial past, and ‘neo-colonial’ thinking.

This is very positive; but education enlightening students about what, precisely?

My proposition is that there are three areas where education will benefit from a bit of ‘light shedding’. Those are, in chronological order, the histories of BAME communities in the UK; colonial histories related to those parts of the world to which many communities in the UK are connected; and importantly, relevant global pre-colonial histories.

First, there are many surprising histories of BAME communities in the UK.

For example, in areas of East London such as Canning Town, there are many people descendant from Caribbean-origin soldiers and others returning from world wars on behalf of the British, that were given passage back to the UK but faced difficulties obtaining passage back to their home countries such as Jamaica and Trinidad.

The Windrush generation is another example, that should be better understood.

These histories, when explored, make the poor treatment of such communities by the British state all the more hard to accept.

Second, colonialism, theory and practice, has a special place in liberal-democratic thinking. Liberal-democratic ideas were forged hundreds of years ago in opposition to the European pro-colonial mercantilist view that the quantity of wealth in the world was fixed, and that one country could only become ‘rich’ at the expense of another. This gave a rationale for subjugation, war and slavery.

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Young Liberals

I wanted to write this article because I wanted to follow on and add a different view point into the mix about the Young Liberals. I have been encouraged to see many articles by folk who want the very best for the Young Liberals and the party. I feel though that there are a few things that I want to add.

I am going to let you all into a little secret – the Young Liberals are far from perfect. But I will say that everyone who holds a position in YL is trying their best even though we don’t get it right all of the time. Let’s review the last year of Young Liberals activity:

  • Multiple Young Liberals used YL’s Young & Winning fund to help win their seats during the 2019 locals.
  • Viral videos during the European elections with over 20K views on one video alone.
  • Most well attended Young Liberals Conference with new attendees counting for 1/2 of the total attendance.
  • New style guide so good the London Mayoral campaign adopted it.
  • Hosted LYMEC (European Liberal Youth) Conference.
  • Had to deal with the abysmal General election campaign.
  • Elected young members onto Federal Policy Committee, Federal Conference Committee, English Council Executive as well as a host of other YL sympathetic candidates.
  • Increased our grant from the English Party by £4,000.
  • All our delegates present at the English Council.
  • Rolled out a new accreditation scheme.
  • Recently we have held weekly webinars giving our members direct access to our MPs.
  • We were also gearing up to distribute Young and Winning grants to a diverse range of young candidates including women, BAME and LGBT candidates.
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No time to rejoin

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By campaigning to immediately re-join the European Union, one would be campaigning for the destruction of the Liberal Democrats as a major political party in the UK.

This is not to say membership of the EU should not be an ideal to progress towards in the long term. The EU continues to be an opportunity for the UK to participate in something larger than itself. I still hold ardent faith in the ‘European Project’.

Problems arise with an immediate return to the EU for many reasons, not least of all electorally. A majority of the UK are exhausted by Brexit, preferring to draw a line under it, and having just experienced a referendum and two general elections, one can see why. Adopting re-join as a policy would alienate millions of liberally-minded people, who would otherwise vote Lib Dem, purely because sentiment towards the EU overrides any other issue in British politics today.

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The crude reality of independence and the renewal of federalism

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Hopefully come 2021 we will be in a position to hold elections again, which must mean a return of focus to our message in Scotland. What’s our message and why is it both unique and important for the people of Scotland?

In 1992, James Carville was a strategist in the successful Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. Carville hung a sign in Bill Clinton’s Little Rock campaign headquarters that read:

  1. Change vs. more of the same
  2. The economy, stupid
  3. Don’t forget health care

We know fine well where both the SNP and Conservatives stand in their message going into next year’s election, it’s a straight fight between IndyRef2 and Unionism. The Scottish Liberal Democrats can cut through all that white noise by sticking to Carville’s sign.

In 2014, independence campaigners failed because they couldn’t produce a clear and credible economic narrative. I find little evidence to suggest that narrative has found new ground, in fact quite the opposite. There is a crude reality for IndyRef2 supporters and it’s the price of crude oil.

In 2014 the price of crude oil was over $110 per barrel and was the economic basis for the ‘White Paper for Scotland’. At the beginning of this year that price fell by a half and then stabilised at roughly $60 per barrel; the industry itself survived on a round of deep cost cutting and slashing employment in the North Sea on a large scale.

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Strategic objectives June 2020

Our election review concluded – we lacked vision, relevance and strategy in 2019. In this context, I want to return to Michael Kitching’s piece (“However beautiful the strategy you should occasionally look at the results” – Op-Eds April 25th). He makes several important points arguing that we need a greater focus on delivery and more effectiveness in execution. But most importantly, he argues for clear long term strategic objectives. As he points out, a framework for allocating resources to constituencies is not a strategic objective; it is tactics. Stopping Brexit was not a long term strategic objective for the party; it was a policy (albeit a good and extremely important one) with a limited shelf life.

Our key strategic objectives need to be consistent for 10- 20 years. They, alongside our values, structure and guide all decision making. They cannot be given up because someone else moves onto the territory. They should not be the kind of objective which becomes outdated either because no-one any longer wants it, or because it relates to something that has already happened.

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Isolation diary: Musings on The Salisbury Poisonings

Much has already been written about the contemporary relevance of the BBC mini-series The Salisbury Poisonings which ended yesterday and is now available on i-Player. Although written and produced before anyone had ever heard of the coronavirus, the way in which the public emergency in Salisbury was handled two years ago has some uncanny parallels with the events of this year.

I was struck by one simple fact – the operation was headed by the Director of Public Health for Wiltshire, Tracy Daszkiewicz. She, in fact, was the main focus for the dramatic retelling of the story, and it is clear that her timely actions and highly professional approach to the problem prevented many people from dying from Novichok poisoning.

Directors of Public Health are in a unique position to track and trace major health emergencies. But, during this coronavirus emergency their very specific skills and local knowledge were sidelined by the Government.

At one point in the series, Tracy Daszkiewicz is challenged by a civil servant who has been sent down from Whitehall. Tracy had just learnt how Nick Bailey, who was the first police officer to enter the Skripal’s home, had become infected by the nerve agent, in spite of wearing protective clothing.  Spots of Novichok were found throughout the house; it was only when the police viewed bodycam photos of the initial search that they realised that they had been put there by Nick himself, and that he had picked it up from the handle of the front door. They concluded that the Skripals must have got it on their skin from the door handle as well. Tracy’s response to this information was to track Nick’s movements afterwards, and as a result she recommended the immediate closure of the local police station so it could be isolated and examined for contamination.

At that point the Government official intervened and over-ruled her, on the grounds that closing a police station would cause public panic. Parts of the building were then tested whilst normal activity was going on elsewhere, and, as Tracy predicted, traces of Novichok were found. The police station was closed and the Government adviser was sent packing.

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Building back better

After Covid-19, we all must rise to the UN challenge to ‘build back better’. The impacts of the pandemic and the lockdown have accelerated changes that had been predicted would take decades to happen. We all have a new appreciation for housing, outdoor spaces, community services and the welfare state. The uncongested streets, cleaner air and slower pace of life have hopefully served as a sign that we could do things differently.

The planning system has a critical role in making the ‘new normal’ a better one. The government’s policy statement in March, perhaps due to its timing (written at the beginning of lockdown), seems to miss the public mood. For its laudable commitments on brownfield regeneration, infrastructure first and better design, government thinking on planning continues to be based on the Conservative obsession with home ownership. For sure, home ownership should be more accessible, and I acknowledge the pledges on affordable housing, social housing and the rental sector. Unfortunately, I think the statement missed the need for the planning system to take a more holistic approach – fulfilling the right to decent housing, making liveable places and delivering sustainable growth with wellbeing and tackling the climate emergency at its heart.

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The Greatest Story Never Told

As we enter the start of the Liberal Democrat leadership contest, we confront the question again of what direction the new leader will take the party. We ask, what will be their platform? Their vision? Who are we going to appeal to? What issues are we going to champion? What is the policy that will reverse our fortunes?

With the quick turnover of leaders since the resignation of Nick Clegg, we have never come up with any lasting answers to the big questions, and that’s because we are missing the point. Our biggest failing is thinking that we are missing one great policy that will overturn centuries of two-party rule, or that by opposing everything an awful Tory government is doing we can somehow break through electorally. Policies change from election to election and do not last, and by opposing everything, no one knows what you positively stand for.

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Why good statues of slaves must replace the bad

Statues, as David Olusoga reminds us, are but a distraction from the real issues of race inequality, we as a nation and as a party must change.

But, but, but… They remain a very visual presence in places where people congregate. As an insular Londoner, I have been well aware of the long and principled campaign to remove the bronze Colson, the man who branded his properties on their chests.

How, then can any Liberal Democrat want to continue celebrating such ogres?

Reasons for removing or pulling down statues of slave traders and owners vary greatly. Some deserve a dunking, like Colson. Others, displayed in places of leaning with full histories attached, as history is should represent the truth, whole and inclusive.

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With this leadership election, let’s draw a line under the Coalition forever

As a Liberal Democrat candidate at the last General Election, I found myself working out answers to the inevitable questions which I knew would come about the Coalition Government. The questions that all Liberal Democrats have had to contend with in debates, on doorsteps and across the media since the Clegg-Cameron press conference in the Downing Street Rose Garden in 2010.

I write this as someone who broadly supported the Coalition, while not being blind to its faults. I worked as an intern for a Lib Dem MP during the middle of the Coalition, and I was inspired to sign up as a Party member by Nick Clegg’s resignation speech; an act which came not out of any pleasure at his standing down, but out of the realisation that the Lib Dems’ electoral failure was leaving a gaping hole in British politics.

Since then my view of the Coalition has been mainly that I think we did some good things, that many Lib Dems can be proud of. However, rightly or wrongly, we have not been judged kindly for this period, and I believe that it is time to move on. Rather than continually look back at the past, it is time to take the present by two hands and look to the future. This is not a judgement on what happened during the Coalition; it is a rallying cry for us all to move forward together.

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Isolation diary: Living near a theme park

Last week I wrote about the joys of living near a zoo. Over 30 years ago it was transformed in a theme park, Chessington World of Adventures, and became part of The Tussauds Group of tourist attractions (now Merlin Entertainments). The name of the area where I live is now synonymous with thrill rides, an animal park and above all, with clogged roads in the summer. In 2018 it attracted 1.67 million visitors.

Although the park is only a mile or so from the M25, the access roads, whichever route is taken, pass through residential areas. In the summer months local people like us know exactly how to avoid the traffic, but it often involves long detours. And those who live in Malden Rushett (which still lies within Greater London) have a real problem as the cars build up along the only road through their village. After a quiet few months, that disruption will start again this Thursday when the park opens for Zoo Days, and get worse on 4th July when the whole park re-opens.

Right at the beginning, the Council laid down some ground rules, which still apply today.

First, the site is set in the Outer London Green Belt, so the Council identified the build envelope, and no buildings were allowed outside that boundary. The park has got round that a bit by grazing giraffes and oryx on the Green Belt, somewhat to the surprise of the neighbouring horses, and then applying to install buildings to support animal husbandry (and by pure co-incidence, of course, a safari ride).  They have also squeezed in two resort hotels within the envelope, which offer some resources for the local community, such as a gym, indoor pool and function rooms.

Second, substantial planting on site became a requirement, and today visitors are surprised at how green it is.

Third, no construction was allowed to appear above the tree line. As a result, the park is almost invisible from the road and nearby houses, and the trees form a noise barrier as well. I do remember one planning application for a rollercoaster that we turned down. The ride would have risen well above the surrounding trees, and the park tried to justify it on noise grounds – apparently, people only start screaming when they are one third of the way down and behind the trees.

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Weaker for Scotland!

In 2015 while an election agent in my hometown of Inverclyde, I watched while Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP swept the board with one clear simple mantra: Stronger for Scotland. Five years on from that election and thirteen years into SNP government that’s simply untrue. The SNP have been weak, ineffective and downright scandalous in it’s handling of affairs in Scotland.

I’ve sat by and watched while Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government receive praise from their supporters for it’s handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. The reality is it’s been an absolute disaster and this slopey shouldered, pass-the-buck attitude of ‘Well we did a bit better than the Tories’ is just simply not good enough.

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Responses to an anonymous Young Liberal – how to unlock the transformative power of the branches

We were surprised by the response of Young Liberals (YL) to a recent article by “Anonymous Young Liberal”. While much of the reaction was measured and accepting, we felt responses to the article along the lines of ‘it’s too difficult’ were inappropriate. We were both broadly sympathetic with the article and now is the time to think about what YL can do to better stimulate branches.

Damayanti:
I have been South Central YL Chair for over a year now. I started the role planning improvements that would make the job easier for both me and my successors. Chief amongst these was the creation of a YL mailing list for my 40 local parties, writing a guide to boost youth membership for them and working with them to produce bespoke membership strategies.

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This is a key moment in history – we must support all the oppressed and victimised

I have felt numb over the past few weeks, shocked that police could act in the way they did in the United States, but then worried as the Black Lives Matter debate took hold in the United Kingdom. Not worried about the protests – it is our democratic right to protest and question, even during a pandemic. But I was worried about what this would mean for the wider equality debate.

I am an openly homosexual white man, I state that because I am well aware of my privilege, my social scorecard only reducing when people realise that I am more effeminate and then gay. I have known ignorance and bigotry for most of my adult life, and, yes, it does still exist within our Liberal Democrat party.

I grew up with Section 28 wrapped around my neck, preventing holistic age-appropriate sexual education to take place, but, more importantly, protection from educators in my school environment. I felt constantly worried and sometimes terrified about going into school, with my teachers unable to discuss the root of my feelings. I remained ‘closeted’ until I went to university in 1999. However, I still struggled and only embraced myself after I turned 20. I am proud of who I am and what I am – something that still, to this day, many in the LGBT-plus community struggle with.

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Isolation diary: Exploring my family history

Am I descended from a slave owner?

That uncomfortable question was prompted by the current debate over Black Lives Matter, and specifically by an article by Catherine Bennett in the Observer yesterday. She has been researching the hereditary peers in the House of Lords and checking the sources of their wealth against the database of slave ownership constructed by University College London.

The database identifies anyone who was connected with the slave trade in Great Britain or the British colonies, and records the amounts given in compensation when slavery ended. The deal which resulted in slave owners receiving eye-wateringly large sums in compensation for the loss of their slaves, while the slaves received nothing, is one of the huge shameful blots on our nation’s conscience.

Catherine Bennett was naming and shaming the descendants of those beneficiaries who still sit in the House of Lords. Now I think she is going down entirely the wrong track here. It is a total anachronism that we still have 92 hereditary peers sitting in a chamber of Government – they should be removed as soon as possible – but attacking them because of their ancestors’ ill-gotten gains is a dubious way to go about it.

One reason for saying that is because many of us could, potentially, track our family tree back to people involved in slavery. Some of us could even today be benefiting from the wealth they accrued through their business ventures and specifically through the compensation. What should we do if we discover such unwelcome roots?

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The Johnson Government and democracy

Today’s Conservatives have a very crude idea of democracy, and no concept of local democracy at all. Those who watched the government’s daily press conference on June 11th will have heard Matt Hancock appeal to British citizens to do their ‘civic duty’ by observing their government’s latest revision of the rules for social distancing. He then went on to welcome the new test and tracing system, and thank Serco and Sitel for the part they had played in setting it up.

I had watched successive scientists commenting on the days before about the unavoidably local basis of …

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Covid-19 and Brexit: a lethal combination

Deaths from coronavirus dominate the news, but behind the headlines other sources of mortality are taking their toll.

This has been the case from shortly after the start of the lockdown, but is becoming more evident. If we look for instance at the figures for week ending 3rd April, there were 3475 deaths from covid-19 in England and Wales, but a total of 6082 excess deaths from all causes, compared to the five year average for that week. Contributory causes to these excess deaths probably include delayed cancer and stroke treatments, failure to seek necessary treatment for fear of attending hospital, …

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A new direction for the Social Liberal Forum – A Liberal “Think and Do” tank

When Ian Kearns joined us from Labour in 2018, he gave a barnstormer of a speech at the Brighton conference that year explaining why. Here’s a reminder:

Now Ian has taken up the post of Director of the Social Liberal Forum.

In a post on their website, he sets out his vision for the role of the SLF website:

Over coming months and years we will set out and campaign for a vision of a Citizen’s Britain where what matters is not a person’s race, religion, gender or sexuality but the content of their character. A country where every human life has equal worth and where all are equal before the law. We will campaign to create a country where individuals take power at every level and use it to shape a better life for themselves, their families and their communities. We will challenge the remote, over-centralised, and unresponsive British state and the massive accumulations of unaccountable private wealth and power that sustain an unjust status quo. We will chart a course to the next renaissance and to a society and government not only of the people and for the people but by the people.

It is our belief that only such an approach can restore trust in our institutions, create the conditions for much needed fundamental reform, build resilience in our communities and provide the opportunity for mass flourishing that our citizens deserve and our planet so badly needs.

And these are just some of the things he has in mind:

We will build and host a set of liberal networks across science, technology, business, academia, the media, law, engineering, the arts and politics. By drawing on their expertise and via a series of events, publications, consultations with members and exercises in participatory democracy, we will analyse, host virtual and physical debates on, and develop liberal solutions to the biggest questions of our time.

We will pursue an era of great reform so as to decentralise the British state and usher in an era of community power. We will campaign for fair votes. We will campaign to re-engineer our cities and towns so they become the sustainable urban centres upon which our survival is going to depend. And we will campaign to replace our crony and oligopolistic economy with a new economy of the common good, where everyone has a stake and where we ask not what we can do for capitalism but what capitalism can do for us.

We will go wherever the debate takes us, and not shirk big or uncomfortable questions or talk only to ourselves. To build a liberalism that is future ready, we will think through and articulate an electorally viable ‘build back better’ strategy in the era of COVID-19; study and learn how to beat the populists; work to extend the social reach of truth and to tackle fake news; build and promote liberal technologies in the age of AI; grapple with the profound challenges of a shifting geopolitical landscape; and combine the articulation of a liberal form of patriotism with a passionate defence of the very idea of international community.

And a resounding call to action – we are the people we’ve been waiting for:

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Isolation diary: Opening the shops

I expect many of you are looking forward to going shopping for something other than food this week. Sadly I won’t be joining you because people who are shielding are not supposed to go into shops at all. We are limited to having a short walk for exercise, or attending a medical appointment, but I have been pondering on what I will do once those restrictions are lifted.

My first priority will be to go back into the supermarkets. Online ordering has been essential, but nothing beats going round and being inspired by products on offer. Although we keep a list of things we need to buy online each week, we always seem to miss something and then have to wait another week before it can be replenished. Last week it was fruit juice, and before that, heaven help us, chocolate.

Apart from food and household items, we have bought very few things in the last three months. I have purchased one item of clothing, and that was because my favourite label was offering a 50% discount – and I couldn’t let that pass, could I? (I am still wait for my Lost Stock parcel). I tend to go barefoot in the house, and just slip into a battered pair of Birkenstocks that I keep by the back door to wear in the garden. I have only worn shoes four times since we went into isolation, so I certainly don’t need new shoes at the moment.

Will my broader shopping habits change? When eventually I do need to buy shoes I will have no choice but to go into town. I have slightly odd shaped feet so I always have to try shoes on and can’t order online. And I normally want to try clothes on as well, although I understand that at the moment changing rooms are shut. Also, there is no way of finding a new perfume that I like without spraying it on my skin.

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The will of the people, the “Right to Die.”

This is the last of a series of three posts about the right to die, end of life care and its legislation. The first post can be seen here and the second one can be seen here.

Since we all are going to die and see loved ones die, everyone has a vested interest in the country’s approach to death in the 21st century. Many believe that choosing the manner and timing of your own death is a fundamental human right. 80-90 per cent of the UK’s population believes assisted dying should be legalised for those suffering from terminal illnesses, and this is a view held equally strongly by those with “left wing” or “right wing” views.

The Liberal Democrats have long supported legislation on the “Right to Die”, but the gap between our elected politicians as a whole and the public is huge. The last attempt at legislation to legalise assistance for those who are terminally ill and likely to die within six months, was defeated in the House of Commons by 212 votes.

Some of the concerns MPs have are around vulnerable people. People who may feel under pressure to end their lives so as not to be a burden to family, caregivers or a society short of resources, or that people may not have been adequately supported and so may make an ill informed decision. But when peoples fears are addressed and adequate support put in place the request of someone to end their life may not be made again, and in most cases it is “possible to achieve a dignified and peaceful death.”

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The Football Lads Alliance doesn’t represent football fans, so don’t judge us by their thuggishness

I had a troubling experience yesterday. A thing I love came under attack for being racist, or at the very least, associated with racism.  I’m talking about the football community.  It’s not a new attack, but it gave me pause for thought on how we communicate with one another – particularly those on the liberal side of politics.

Before we begin, I need to state that were this an article about the racists responding to Black Lives Matter then they’d feel the full force of my keyboard. Their views are abhorrent and have no place in our society. But I’m interested in a specific part of the debate that emerged: the conflation of the racist thugs with football.

I regard myself as part of the broader progressive movement.  I support the Black Lives Matter cause, I campaign on equality and the environment.  Among the people I’ve watched football with are socialists, moderates, one nation types, liberals, greens and people who don’t care at all about politics. Nobody I go to football with has ever said anything remotely bigoted or racist in my presence.  However, I have heard a handful of racist comments made by other people in football grounds.  Every one of them was a disgrace.  I’ve reported people to stewards and spoken to perpetrators too.

So when I saw a stream of tweets damning the racist protestors in London as ‘angry football lads’  with ‘nothing better to do’ I bristled.  The fact that the idiots causing trouble call themselves the Football Lads Alliance means nothing. It’s just another cover title for the nasty far right, which is again using the game as a recruiting ground for hatred.  Let’s not be fooled by them – they don’t represent football fans and they never will.

But I’m not under any illusions: there are racist people who watch football.  Of course that’s true.  And there are historic problems with racism in football that persist today.  But when I saw the accusations lazily conflating football fan culture with racism, as if the two were synonymous in 2020, I felt a very visceral response.  I was affronted.  I was insulted.  I was angry.  Somebody even made a bizarre analogy asking whether the WI would riot!  I’m sure there haven’t been WI riots, though my experience of talking to women in the WI demographic suggests that a significant minority of people who might be eligible to join the group have some troubling opinions on race matters – just like the tiny minority of football fans who go to racist marches or commit hate crimes in football grounds.  But that doesn’t mean I’d argue that older women are racist, so nor should others argue that football fan culture is synonymous with racism.

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Isolation diary: Telling the story of ‘Amazing Grace’

The tune of Amazing Grace has been running through my head all week. We have been singing it with the Great British Home Chorus, along with We Shall Overcome, as a tribute to Black Lives Matter. At least I think that is why Gareth Malone chose the song, assuming that it is a gospel song which can trace its origins back to black churches in the Southern States. Nothing he said suggested that he knew the real story behind the lyrics.

As far as the music is concerned, he referred to “this traditional American melody”, and indeed the beautiful tune we use today is called New Britain and was already in use in churches across America before it was matched with the words in 1835. Its name implies that it may have had origins in Britain, but I can’t find any definitive roots in my exhaustive searches through Wikipedia.

Once the lyric and tune had combined to give the song we all know today, it became very popular across all Christian traditions, although it works particularly well in gospel style. But I wonder how many people who sing it today appreciate the poignancy of the text.

The shocking thing is that John Newton, who wrote the original words, was a slave trader.

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An opportunity to reset end of life care

This is the second of a series of three posts about the right to die, end of life care and its legislation. The first post can be seen here.

Many rapid changes were made to prevent the NHS’s urgent services being swamped by Covid-19. Whilst we wait for population immunity- preferably through a successful vaccine – and hope there is no second wave, the NHS now has to adjust to the new normal. The NHS needs to start to deliver the routine care, the scans, the operations and cancer care that are now backlogged. This will require new ways of working and thinking or prolonged rationing of services will be a reality. There is now a real need and opportunity to reset how we manage Health and Social Care.

Now is the time to be thinking of end of life care, as even amidst the sad news of the thousands of care home deaths and the concerns raised about Covid-19 and Do Not Resuscitate orders, there was one silver lining – the importance of talking about death, advanced care planning and end of life care was brought sharply into focus.

UK end of life care, in parts, is exceptional. But many do not get the care they need, and live in fear. Services are patchy, disjointed, and not available all the time. This is unsurprising given that state funding of hospice care is woeful and that when any one part of a complex web of inter-related services struggles, patients and service users easily fall through the gaps. When Jeremy Hunt, posted his slightly sinister tweet “Every older person should die with dignity and respect…” he did have a point.

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Wera Hobhouse: “Let go of the coalition once and for all”

I’ve launched my new campaign video today: we need a new direction, it’s time to let go of the coalition.

I was a councillor in Rochdale during the coalition — I saw its impact. But for our party, it has meant almost irreparable devastation. More than 2,500 councillors and 49 MPs were wiped out and it rocked the very foundations our party was built on.

It’s not to say that the coalition was all bad – equal marriage and pupil premium are just two of the many life-changing ideas implemented by Lib Dems – but some serious mistakes were made. We have acknowledged that – now it is time to well and truly move on.

The Liberal Democrats are not halfway between the Conservatives and Labour. We are a progressive, centre-left party, and we must fight for our values and beliefs from there.

We need a new direction; we must let go of the coalition and aspirations to return. We must get back to our liberal roots, serving our local communities, which is what we have always done best.

That’s where I will take the Liberal Democrats as leader.

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A longer read for the weekend: Where now for the Lib Dems?

The Liberal Democrats find themselves lost at sea, rudderless, without sail or paddle, and devoid of compass. Famously, Odysseus spent ten years afloat after the Siege of Troy – “long adrift on shipless oceans”, as Tim Buckley sang in Song To The Siren – but there’s every chance that the Lib Dems will spend much longer than a decade wandering the political oceans if they don’t sort themselves out, and quickly.

Of course, the party does realise it’s in trouble post its catastrophic performance in the December 2019 General Election, and Baroness Thornhill’s after action review has addressed some of the perceived problems. To be fair, her review pulled few punches but arguably is a bit light on solutions or suggestions for radical change. I have no intention of going through her paper point for point and leave it to you to read it should you choose to so do, but I would recommend it.

It’s an old army saying that there are no bad regiments, just bad commanding officers, and this adage probably applies to political parties too. Thornhill notes that Jo Swinson’s short period of leadership was pretty disastrous overall, leaving the party with only 11 MPs at Westminster and she losing her seat and resigning shortly thereafter.  Personally, I don’t blame Jo Swinson – I voted for her in the leadership election – but with hindsight she was probably too young, too inexperienced and perhaps too naïve to be leader of a political party. And she was either completely stubborn or very badly advised by those around her, of which more later. Suffice to say that whoever thought “Jo for Prime Minister” was a good idea needs their head examined.

What is completely unforgivable, though, is that the party has yet to elect a replacement leader and will not do so until August at the earliest. I am well aware of the arguments put forward in favour of this timescale but I’m afraid they just don’t wash. A new leader should have been in place within a fortnight, and that the party hierarchy thought, and still thinks, that an eight month hiatus is acceptable beggars belief, interim leaders notwithstanding. No serious, competent organisation in any of the private, public or voluntary sectors would deem this acceptable.

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UK visa costs will turn away those we need most

It still pains me to admit it, but the reality is sinking in fast: free movement is coming to an end.

Liberal Democrats (and others) fought a valiant fight, but the results of last year’s general election made the majority’s views crystal clear. No more free movement, tougher immigration controls.

So, after a series of delays, the Government’s Immigration Bill – the legislation that will legally put an end to free movement – is making its way through Parliament as we speak. With it will come a whole raft of immigration rule changes, the most well-known being the flagship ‘Australian-style’ points-based visa system.

The pandemic has rightly fuelled a heated debate around the impact this new system will have on those shamefully labelled as “unskilled” workers – our friends and neighbours who help teach our children, treat our sick and look after our elderly. It’s right that as a party the Liberal Democrats continue to stand up for these people, and the Prime Minister’s U-turn over payment of the NHS surcharge for frontline health workers was a good first step in the right direction.

But what about those who, on paper, we see as being at the front of the queue?

Around one third of academic staff working in our higher education sector come from abroad, and over half of those from elsewhere in the EU. But as things stand, the sheer cost and burden of entering the UK threatens to turn away the scientists, researchers and innovators who make an invaluable contribution to our national health and wellbeing. And it will be other countries that benefit from their knowledge and expertise.

Credit where credit is due, the Government has worked with the science sector and others to develop the new ‘Global Talent’ visa category that allows talented and promising individuals in specific research and innovation sectors to work in the UK for up to five years without restrictions such as a sponsor, language tests or a minimum salary threshold.

But the upfront cost of obtaining one of these visas can total more than £2600, compared to around £300 for a similar visa in France, £250 in the US and £0 in Japan. If, god forbid, you want to move here with your spouse or children, those costs skyrocket further.

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After the statues – what next ? A Liberal way forward

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I have been sharing my experiences as a black Briton with my white friends. It has shown me that we need to educate our country on our past. We must develop our history curriculum and widen the outlook of our galleries and museums.

While it took a century to move from landowners voting to universal suffrage, in our digital age, change should be much swifter. We are an evolutionary not a revolutionary country. The Colston statue incident has shown us how the failure of democratic action results in the use of force.

As Liberals and Democrats, we should be proud that our country is all colours and religions and of no faith at all. The question is, how do we explain to all Britons how we got here? As Gary Younge pointed out in The Guardian, America’s sins are on show as they happened within her borders. In Britain’s case they happened mainly abroad, however the template was made in Ireland. Colonial Ireland with its plantations and dehumanising of the native population was a model that we exported to America. Discrimination is a legacy of a Christian nation justifying inhumane treatment with the pseudo science of race classification.

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Isolation diary: Going to the dentist

I had a real adventure today – unlikely as it may seem, it was a visit to the dentist.

Back in April a crown dislodged itself, leaving me with a rather poor bite on one side of my mouth. I knew that dental treatment under lockdown was strictly limited to emergencies, so I kept the crown safe and waited. I didn’t attempt a repair myself, as some people have done.

At the time, local dentists were, I think, able to prescribe painkillers and antibiotics remotely but, for understandable reasons, were unable to work on teeth directly. Regional Urgent Dental Care hubs were set up but they could only do extractions. Drilling was considered too dangerous.

My biggest fear over the past few months has been that I would develop the kind of toothache that takes over every thought in my head. The last time it happened was about a year ago when a tooth became infected. I sat up for the whole night, moving from one painful minute to the next, just waiting for the 9am appointment. I had never been so pleased to see my dentist.

I thought it was happening again to me three weeks ago when I developed toothache in a molar on the other side of my mouth. It only hurt after eating, and then only for a few minutes, but it was pretty painful. With both sides of my mouth compromised I found it quite difficult to eat, and the steak I had bought had to be stored in the freezer. Paracetemol before each meal did the trick.

Then we heard – oh joy – that dentists would be re-opening on 8th June. I phoned my dental practice, explaining that it wasn’t an emergency but that I would appreciate an appointment at some point. By this week, somewhat to my embarrassment, the molar had calmed down, but the crown was still, of course, not in place.

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