Friday, 5 July 2019

Time for a radical centre alliance to save the planet

This post first appeared on Lib Dem Voice...

“We must be more than a political party or we will cease to be one,” said the great writer G. K. Chesterton, when he was a Liberal. “Time and again historic victory has come to a little party with big ideas: but can anyone conceive anything with a mark of death more on its brow than a little party with little ideas,”

I am writing about the man at the moment and I believe he was right, and especially perhaps in the first of the two sentences.

Nor are we such a little party these days, but the ideas we articulate in public are not yet big enough, and it is what I miss from our leadership election at the moment. Perhaps that is why Andrew Rawnsley claimed over the weekend that it was as dull as a bowl of tofu.

Beyond the resistance to Brexit – not really an idea so much as a rejection of one – there are only a couple; well, two: tackling climate change (Ed Davey) and embracing hi-tech (Jo Swinson). Both are short of the hows and whats that would make either of these big ideas – something to fill the spot for Brexit when it has either happened or finally not happened.

So here is mine, and it is entirely a practical one.

The recent polls put the four biggest parties practically neck and neck, around 20+ per cent. This is a highly dangerous position for the nation because it means, under our hopeless electoral system, that absolutely anything could happen.

I have been a member of the party for forty years last May. I’ve see us sweep up and down dreaming of one more heave. I know we shouldn’t get carried away. But it now seems to me – given the polls and the high ratings of the Greens, that it is now time to forge a one-off alliance of the radical centre for one election only: to save humanity from climate change.

I have little idea as yet whether either Anna Soubry or Sian Berry are likely to play ball or not – though I believe both are persuadable, on condition we prioritise getting their existing MPs back into Parliament and give them a clear run in 20-30 other seats.

I lived through the alliance with the SDP. I’m so aware that this is not straightforward, and that the kind of open primaries – open to the voting public in the other seats – are potentially expensive and unpopular amongst political parties.

I know there would have to be a system of appeals and there are other administrative issues about expressing alliances on ballot papers under existing electoral law.

I am also aware that ignorance about each other’s parties and policies get in the way of such alliances. But I don’t think any of these are insurmountable – and the prize is potentially huge. If you add together our poll ratings as they stand now, and it would put us well within spitting distance of the 30 per cent level when we could not just govern, but change UK politics forever.

But this is where Chesterton’s first sentence is important. None of this will happen unless Lib Dems, Greens and Tigs for Change are first working side by side on the ground, not just through More United, but at ward level – achieving things by campaigning about them in a way that is easier these days when Parliament is as finely balanced as it is now.

Only that can avoid the kind of projecting of our own peculiarities and intolerances onto other parties, the besetting sin of politicians, which so torpedoes working together for people.

The truth is that they are not that different from us. This will need to be an alliance forged locally, relationship by relationship. But if we can be more than a party and achieve that, I believe we can really grab power.

So Jo and Ed – what do you think?

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Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Watch out when the Conservative Party splits...

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

You can’t help noticing, looking back at the past century or so of UK political history, that a split in the Conservative Party can be extremely damaging to those who are entirely innocent of it.

Like now. Or like the period before the First World War, when the Conservatives were outrageously encouraging mutinies in Ulster against Liberal government plans for Irish home rule.

It is worth remembering who originally stoked the fires of the troubles that so beset Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards.

But there is a period of our recent history when conservatism was so fatally divided that we no longer talk about it - because the peril in which the nation was plunged in 1940 cut it short and obscured the divisions.

Yet there is no doubt that members of the UK establishment were determined in 1940 to make peace with Hitler – a prospect that was undermined when the BBC European Service took it upon itself to reject his final peace offer without reference to higher authority. They would have undoubtedly done so if it had not been for Winston Churchill snd his junior ministers.

I tell the peace offer story in my new book The Xanthe Schneider Enigma Files (published by Endeavour Quill), because – at the heart of the tale is the relationship between Xanthe, a young American crossword puzzle champion turned foreign correspondent and a former British minister who has defected to Berlin. British naval intelligence take the opportunity of asking her to keep an eye on him.

It is in short, a story about cryptography and American press people in Berlin in 1940, Athens and then Berne in 1941. It’s a good read, especially because three of the characters are Alan Turing, Ian Fleming and Ludwig Wittgenstein...

Why don't we remember these divisions, which are rather unfairly focused on Lord Halifax in the recent film? Because of the bizarre forgetfulness in which the UK establishment wraps itself afterwards, when they close ranks and celebrate the new mythology.

Which is another way of saying – beware what Conservatives will do when they get desperate.

You can read more about Xanthe Schneider here.

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Thursday, 6 June 2019

Breaking the rules to break the news of D-Day


Noel Newsome was director of European broadcasts at the BBC European Service from 1939-44, one of the few who knew the secret date for D-Day. He was in many ways the architect of the BBC;s international reputation for truth - believing that truth was a potential weapon of war. This led him into constant struggles with the authorities, which he described in his newly-published memoirs, Giant at Bush HouseHere he describes getting the news about D-Day out there...

"I had received my D-Day briefing. In the first week of June, the tides in the English Channel would be right for the great venture, and would remain so for about 36 hours. Provided the weather was all right for the air assault, the airborne landings and the sea borne invasion, the operation would take place during the night of June 4. Declarations by the supreme commander, Eisenhower, and by Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle, were all prepared and recorded in advance for transmission directly the SHAEF communiqué announcing the landings was issued. This was timed for 10am on June 5 and strict instructions were given that no mention should be made of the invasion having begun until then.

All that night, I stayed in my office listening to the ceaseless drone of our aircraft heading for the continent. Early next morning, I got the news that rough weather in the Channel had prevented the assault. It had to be the next night or indefinite postponement. And we were still awaiting the arrival of the ‘V’ weapons. A nerve-wracking day passed and then another sleepless night, with the ‘planes again droning away across the city. Would it happen this time?

Soon after dawn, we began to receive flashes from the monitoring services and the news agencies, saying that the German news service was reporting Allied landings in Normandy and in the Calais area. We had every reason to believe that the reports of the Normandy landings must be correct, but believed that those of attacks in the Calais area were false, as we knew of no plans for landings there. But if these were false, might not those of the Normandy assault also be untrue? Might they have been put out by the Germans to enable them to claim, if bad weather had again prevented the invasion, that we had been repulsed?

My instructions were to wait for the SHAEF communiqué, not due for many hours even if landings had begun. On the other hand, our broadcasting services had built their reputation on the speed, as well as the accuracy, of their news. My own overpowering instinct as a newspaperman was to report the news from whatever source as soon as I got it.

Half-an-hour passed and German reports of Allied landings continued to come in thick and fast. I took the bull by the horns and ordered that we should start transmitting the German reports, with a statement that there was no confirmation of these in Allied quarters. Meanwhile, I took immediate steps to check the true position with SHAEF. This was not easy. Perhaps naturally, SHAEF was in a state of high excitement and it was impossible to get a clear telephone line for some time.

Eventually, I got through and secured confirmation that the invasion was on, that we were ashore in Normandy, and that a feint attack had been made in the Pas de Calais to sow confusion in the German defence. This was a great relief. Obviously, we could help the feint to achieve its purpose if we continued to relay German reports about the Calais attack as if confirming them. This we did...."

Read more in Noel Newsome's memoir of the war, published by the Real Press in paperback and on kindle.

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Monday, 3 June 2019

The radical centre: a ten-point summary


This first appeared on the Radix blog:
“What people want in this country is action and not too much talk.” Rory Stewart
What is the radical centre? This is suddenly a more important question than it was, now that Chuka Umanna has linked the future of his Change UK party to this idea, and – even more – since Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart has embraced the phrase. So has the Lib Dem presidential hopeful Richard Kemp.
I should also explain that the idea is at the heart of Radix, which means that we have at least a claim to have been thinking about it for some time.
Part of the urgency for an answer is the rise of Nigel Farage, emblazoned across the front of the Sunday Express yesterday, boasting that he was going to “smash the system … like Trump”.
The problem here, from a radical centrist point of view, is not his animus towards the ‘system’ – we clearly need to change it, starting with the economic system – it is that smashing it without any idea how to rebuild it is precisely how we got into our current mess. This also appears to be the Trump way, dispensing with his ideologues and smashing a new bit according to what he felt like that morning.
So is it possible to counter a Trump-style populism with something popular – an ideology to tackle an anti-ideology?
One way is what the Greeks called a ‘Via Negativa’, describing the radical centre by what it is not. It isn’t a compromise between right and left. It doesn’t include a sprinkling of traditional Toryism (the birthright to power) and a sprinkling of traditional Labourism (distrust of pretty much everyone).
So what is it? Here are ten ways to start thinking about it.
1. A new economics. It means new approach to the economy, aware that our current economic institutions are centralising power and wealth – and taking it away from the enterprising wealth-creators of the future.
2. Action not endless discussion. Rory Stewart is good on this, explaining how our political culture has produced this kind of sclerosis which disapproves of doing things. There is an implicit critique of bloodless bureaucracy here, and running governments by data alone.
3. An anti-ideological ideology. It means a refusal to only act in accordance with ideology, rather as Michael Heseltine is best known for – his development corporations, borrowing a legal form that had been in turn borrowed for the new towns set up by the Attlee government in 1946.
4. Participative and clear-sighted, understanding the way the world really is, not how it is supposed to be – a view you can only really get when your government is participative at every level. The American writer Mark Satin says, in his book Radical Middle, that it isn’t a view of the right or the left side of the road but “a view of the whole road”.
5. A positive, human and humane future. That implies it understands clearly the threat to humanity posed by climate change and is prepared to act accordingly.
6. The devolution of political power. Radical centrists believe in people. That leads them to devolve power, aware that the sclerosis that so threatens us is partly to do with extreme centralisation.
7. The devolution of economic power. Radical centrists believe in the free market, but in its original sense not its modern one. It recognises that the concentration of wealth and power are not an unfortunate consequence of a free market – they are the opposite of it. If the rich and powerful can no longer be challenged by the small and powerless, then there is no market any more.
8. What is best in people. The radical centre celebrates our humanity, ingenuity, heroism and care for each other. We do so in the face of the fear encouraged by the other side, aware that either will simply recreate itself and create its own momentum. This is not a matter of events: people felt proud of themselves after the London Bridge terror attack because the Metropolitan Police commissioner encouraged them to do so.
9. Inclusive. This hardly needs saying, but it does require unpacking. Because the radical centre seems to me to regard politically correct language as a method by which those who are angriest exclude those less confident than themselves from public debate. That is certainly the effect it has.
10. Prepared to reform our failing institutions, even if they are beloved of the Left – the NHS needs serious attention if it is going to survive – by going beyond the infuriating impasse created by the British obsession with market privatisation.
Is this liberalism? It is true that it might be incorporated into liberalism more easily than other ideologies, but that may be because liberalism is older, more amorphous and more paradoxical than the others. It is also true that the radical centre draws from various ideologies – but it refuses to be limited by them either.
But then there is another paradox at the heart of the radical centre. It is an ideology in its own right, defending some of the trappings of traditional democracy. Yet is is also aware that this is one moment in human history when traditional ideology urgently needs to be set aside.
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Monday, 29 April 2019

"So the climate's killing us, but at least we got to work on time!"

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

I have written elsewhere about the uplifting effect that the Metropolitan Police commissioner has had on UK public life. So I am sorry to see her criticised by the stodgiest corners of the UK chattering class for her peaceable approach to the Climate Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in Easter Week.

I felt very much the reverse. I am not sure of the effectiveness of demonstrations of any kind, having learned about campaigning at the feet of the great Des Wilson (“Yes, I know you are making them think,” he used to say to campaigners determined to stop the traffic, “and I can tell you exactly what they’re thinking”).

But equally, the Extinction demonstrators won me around with their good humour, their sense of theatre and their creativity – and by the lack of masks and angry shouting or brain-free socialist sloganising.

Most of all, I felt inspired by the films of the police dancing gently to the beat or testing out the skateboards.

How many other nations, I ask myself, would allow this kind of cameraderie? It is in fact part of the glory of the nation we belong to that we are blessed with this kind of policing. So thank you, Cressida Dick. Keep up the innovative work.

This is not of course the point of view peddled by a cowed BBC or the Murdoch press, who are clearly the kinds of people who may say, when the climate overwhelms us – ah well, at least I got to work on time. The Times in the first few days did not even bother to find a spokesperson to quote.

Some of the most pompous (I name no names) you can read about in more detail in Richard Black’s brilliant history of climate change contrarianism Denied – which might explain why they are now just confining themselves to being pompous about demonstrators.

So would I prefer to live in the kind of country where the police recognise that people need sometimes to express their ignored points of view – and will travel with toddlers half way across the nation to do so – or one, like France, so quick to wheel out the water cannon and pepper spray? I know which one I prefer.

Nor has it served us badly. Why was there no revolution in the UK during the General Strike in 1926, for example? Because the police and the pickets would insist on playing football together. No doubt the Sunday Times would have preferred to give them a few baton rounds for the inconvenience.

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Monday, 8 April 2019

A sad story of Liberalism

This blog post was first published on the Radix site...

I found myself in agreement with Norman Lamb last week that his party (and mine) was in danger of becoming an equally irresponsible version of the European Research Group on the Remainer side.

What I did find unexpected was how much agreement and symathy there was for his position in the comments below the line on Lib Dem Voice.

I also have huge sympathy with him because I feel what he must feel, this terrible sense of guilt and alienated disappointment that I find myself so out of kilter with the party I have been a member of for four decades.

I also feel a sense of huge frustration for another reason, looking back more than a century since the last time the ruling Conservatives fractured over trade policy. In the early years of the century, Joseph Chamberlain's ideas about 'imperial preference' - whether we should have as close a trading relationship with Europe as we did with the empire or not - split the Tories from top to bottom.

It was this dispute where one cabinet minister famously confided that he had nailed is colours "firmly to the fence".

What was different from today is that there was an effective Liberal opposition under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was able to engineer the Liberal landslide of 1906 as a result - which gave us old age pensions and the People's Budget and much else besides.

This is what I find frustrating. That Campbell-Bannerman's successors could have developed the kind of rheortic that could speak for the nation as a whole, beyond the old labels of Remainer and Leaver and could provide people with just a glimmer of hope.

I fear it may now be too late.

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Monday, 1 April 2019

It may be time to see the bright side of Brexit

Let me categorise myself to start with. I voted remain in 2016, though armed only with the conviction that - if Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage wanted something - it probably made sense to vote the other way.

As we appear (at least as I write this on Sunday evening) to be hurtling out of the European Union
without a deal, I found some of my more emotional remainer friends saying it was time to embrace it.

That might be putting it a little strongly, but I have a feeling they are right. There is certainly good sense in avoiding the fixation and despar involved in going over a political cliff - if only to avoid giving the other side the satisfaction. It may in fact be time to look on the bright side, and here are a few of these...

Bright side #1. The multinationals will shun us. The City of London will shrink. Most of my remainer friends believe that both have been pretty impoverishing for the UK and the climate. So this would at least mean they can stop tweeting horrified reactions to the demise of Honda in Swindon.

Bright side #2.We will simply have to train the so-called underclass to do the tasks we have seemed unable to do for outrsleves, from picking vegetables to being doctors. And to pay them enough.

Bright side #3. We have at least the basis for healing some of the deep divisions in UK life. Not all of them by any means, but we can't survive on the current basis, especially since none of the political parties seem willing or able to generate a narrative that can supercede them.

Bright side #4. If it doesn't work, we can blame John Redwood for everything that goes wrong for the next 20 years or so.

Bright side #5. Radicals across Europe have seen our plight and their funders are busily funding community organisig at the grassroots. Which is at least a basis for rebuilding. Or so I am told.

Bright side #6. By foregoing the prospect of a second referendum, we will at least avoid the possibility of holding another one every time the polls switch back either way, and so on ad nauseum. This seems to me the main argument against a People's Vote.

Some of this is clearly a little tongue in cheek - but which bits? Is is obvious?

Get a free copy of my medieval Brexit thriller The Remains of the Way on pdf when you sign up for the newsletter of The Real Press. 

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