Opinion: Subtly different

The Liberal Democrat Autumn Conference this year was subtly different from all others I have attended.

Being part of the Coalition of course meant a larger UK and international press contingent, and a greater diplomatic representation from around the globe. Lib Dem ministers talked of the problems of persuading their Conservative colleagues of the benefits of key Lib Dem policies and approaches, as well as the more general problems of working with the slippery inflexibilities of government administration.

However by far the more significant difference was for me something unseen, almost unconscious. It affected every conversation, every fringe meeting, and the terminology of every Conference speech. It was the focus on practical implementation issues in government. This changed the language. There was much talk about how one policy affected another (interdependencies, in the jargon) and the extent to which officials needed to be pushed by politicians to take into account policies from other departments which affected them. Many spoke of potential unintended consequences of policy decisions. ‘Overcoming obstacles to reform’ was emphasised more than stratospheric rhetoric.

There was a measure of enthusiasm for my motion on conflicts-of-interest in UK government procurement, which rose to the surface at a fringe meeting on the Defence Review. A former civil servant in the MoD at the heart of procurement controversies (eg helicopter purchasing) spoke in his new role at the top of Finnmechannica and pretty much challenged the audience to buy helicopters better than his. I was collared by attendees afterwards about the obvious problems in implementation of better civil service rules, given the vigorously assertive exclamations of the arms supplier’s new representative.

In co-presenting the Party’s new International Development policy review to Conference, it was easy to see that the traditional internationalism of the Liberal Democrats was alive and kicking. Much of the debate however was again about implementation issues, and there was implicit but clear mistrust of civil servants in implementing policy.

Apart from these two Conference speeches I had three memorable highlights. One was to hear Lord Ashdown for the first time follow almost to the letter the path-to-peace strategy for Afghanistan I have been promoting for two years, and which formed the basis of a complex motion I drove through to Conference last year in the wake of strenuous resistance from many quarters. The second was being able to introduce an old friend, Sam Rainsy the leader of the opposition in increasingly oppressive Cambodia, to the new (Lib Dem) Foreign Office minister responsible for SE Asia, Jeremy Browne MP. Recently Mr Rainsy has been sentenced in absentia to 15 years prison for, inter alia, raising corruption issues in the Cambodian National Assembly. Thirdly, I listened carefully to talks by Vince Cable, Ed Davey and Tim Razzal (all Ministers in BIS) on the vital ‘economic growth’ strategy for the real economy, and realised how worryingly fragmented, lacking in themes and cross-governmental drive, the UK’s growth strategy is. It was agreed that I would forward some papers on the topic.

My best social occasion of the Conference was a wonderful dinner with the Iraqi Kurdish delegation – lively, well informed and full of humour, they are an impressive team.

I suspect Conference will be even better next year.

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This entry was posted in Conference and Op-eds.

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