Saturday, 17 June 2017

Goodbye, Tim Farron, and thanks for the fish…

I voted for Tim Farron to become leader of the Liberal Democrats. He seemed – and still seems - less stuffy, more of the future, more on the left, and more committed to the poor, the vulnerable and those ground down by society than his rival, Norman Lamb and other senior Liberals, who nevertheless had many estimable qualities.

Under Tim, change seemed possible and transformation a necessity. At the time, Labour appeared to be going nowhere and whatever the merits of Jeremy Corbyn’s current manifesto, there was, and still is, the question as to how effective he would be at implementing it. The Tories, even with Ruth Davidson whom I admire, were beyond the pale: I would have had to hold my nose, squeeze my lips and stop my ears to vote for them, and that is without even thinking about Theresa May, or even David-come-back-all-is-forgiven-Cameron. The SNP only cared about Scotland, with Nicola Sturgeon like a demented terrier perpetually snapping at everyone’s ankles. The Greens had an excellent leader in Caroline Lucas and a good one in Patrick Harvie, but beyond that offered nothing much beyond what the Lib Dems themselves were offering – and in Scotland, they just seemed to be a sidekick of the Nationalists (pace my family, please don’t kill me…).

I was lucky to hear Tim speak a couple of times and he came across as utterly sincere and, indeed, passionate in his vision for a more equal Britain, a more caring Britain, a more open Britain – a more liberal Britain. And under his leadership, the Liberal Democrats produced the best, and most forward-looking, manifesto of any party’s, and a properly costed one at that.

So why didn’t they win more seats? And why was the writing on the wall for Tim Farron even before he eventually resigned?

Well, let’s get tuition fees and the Coalition out of the way first. I was shocked by the Coalition and many voters just could not forgive the Liberals for it. And yet, the Liberals were responsible for some of the genuinely significant achievements of that Parliament, though they were never credited with them, or with anything else they did at the time. The Pupil Premium, which succeeded in improving the educational achievements of many children in England’s schools, was one such policy. The commitment in legislation to 0.7% of the budget for international aid was another. However, they were unsuccessful in holding back the Tories’ austerity measures and, horror of horrors, they went back on their promise about tuition fees.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am of the generation which paid no such fees, and I am not a supporter of them. However, there is, and should be, a debate about the funding of higher education. Scotland managed to abolish tuition fees by making other sectors of education pay. Council budgets were hammered, which, given eight years of frozen council taxes, affected school education. Our children are reaping the results even now, as I write. One hundred and fifty thousand (yes, 150,000) places on further education courses were slashed.

However, none of these issues pertained to Tim Farron in particular. It was Nick Clegg who paid the price.

Tim Farron, however, presided over the decision to offer the country a second referendum on leaving the European Union, specifically on the terms of the Brexit deal. He and the Liberal party - and I - are proud Europeans, indeed internationalists, and want to remain so. In no other election are the unsuccessful parties expected just to disband and go home. No, you go on fighting for what you believe in, in the hope that you will eventually bring people round to your way of thinking, win the argument and manage to change things. None of this Ukippy ‘you lost, get over it’.

It was clear that the decision to leave the EU was a disastrous one, taken without most voters having any clear idea of the range of embedded and valued aspects of British society which would be irrevocably damaged. The impact on the next generation is likely to be devastating. Nevertheless, the British people seem to have forgotten all that. They have either moved on from Brexit, or have shrugged their shoulders and accepted that the situation is hopeless. Yet it isn’t. We haven’t left yet. There is a lot still to fight for. Perhaps the Liberals’ decision should have been to fight on, not bother people by threatening yet another vote. I think it’s pretty obvious that we’ve all had enough of voting, not just Brenda of Bristol.

But, in the end, it was none of these issues which brought an end to Tim’s leadership. It was the fact that he himself – not the Liberals’ policies – became the story, and in particular, his stance on the thorny questions of homosexuality and abortion. Now he didn’t choose that, and no other leader was asked such questions. They were thrust upon him by interviewer after interviewer, leader writer after leader writer, and not just in the tabloids but in the liberal press. We have seen it all before and we will see it all again, when some other hapless victim gets caught before the headlights.

There has never been any doubt that Tim Farron genuinely believed that society should refrain from legislating on personal issues such as these, and let people make their own choices. However, that wasn’t what was interesting to the public. They and the media wanted to look into his heart and dissect his soul. In this day and age, they threw terms like ‘sin’ at him, in order to make him squirm. And he didn’t deal well with it. He should have stated his political position, which is the standard Liberal position, and told them fairly and squarely to mind their own business about his spiritual life.

And, ironically, those beliefs of his, those qualities, that commitment which I have so admired, came straight out of his Christian belief. Perhaps we should see him as the contemporary Charles Kingsley of social reform, all muscular Christianity (though not after one glance at his boyish profile). 

Now Tim Farron's belief is not my belief, nor am I a great admirer of Evangelical Christianity. Indeed, I believe he, and the church to which he belongs, is misguided about such matters as homosexuality and abortion. But then, that’s me. So what. I have no more right to impose my more liberal religious beliefs on him than he would have to impose his more traditional beliefs on me. And I don’t think that as a political leader that is what he would have tried to do.

The whole debate makes me weary. I am tired of particular denominations, or strands of church belief and practice, being treated by society and the media as if they are mainstream Christianity. Christianity is two thousand years old. Even Christianity has moved with the times. Most Christians do not expect people to follow the cultural mores of Roman Palestine. Most Anglican/Episcopalians, most Scottish Presbyterians, most Methodists have, over the years, become more accepting of difference, more humane in their attitudes, more understanding of what really matters in their faith, more intelligent in their interpretation of Biblical teaching, than society would give them credit for - indeed, more so than many non-religious members of society themselves. After all, modern Christians are far better educated than their forebears, for one thing. And modern atheists like Richard Dawkins can be just as bigoted as mediaeval Christians.

The Roman Catholic Church too, under Pope Francis, has become much more understanding of the pressures and challenges to which people are subject, having at the same time been confronted by their clerics’ own frailties and transgressions, let alone the temptations we are all subject to. And please do not interpret this statement as my personal conviction that homosexuality and abortion are ‘temptations’. That is not what I believe.

So what do I believe about the issues which so vexed Tim Farron’s interviewers? I certainly don’t believe that Almighty God, surrounded by the suffering of Syrian and other refugees, by Ebola, Aids and malaria, by the distressing circumstances of so many children’s lives, by the horror of concentration camps and the disgracefulness and shame of the Grenfell fire, really cares tuppence about who goes to bed with whom.

Oh, but the traditionalists say, what about Old Testament teaching, what about the rules of Leviticus, what about the great grumbler St Paul? The Bible 'bans' homosexuality!

I say, what about the rest of Leviticus? It also advocates slavery, the rape of young girls and the humiliation of women. For goodness sake, Leviticus doesn’t even allow men to shave or women to cut their hair! And as for its rules about kitchens and cooking!

Furthermore, almost the whole of the Old Testament could be seen a justification for ethnic cleansing, the impact of which we can observe in Palestine even today. The Old Testament was written three thousand years ago, by ordinary fallible human beings responding to the challenges of the context in which they lived and drawing on ancient oral traditions. Some of the writers had more insight than others of their time, much of the language is glorious and expresses great truths about the human condition, but it is not a recipe book for living your life, not the sexual equivalent of the Highway Code. It is a set of Guidelines, and I don’t believe anyone inspects how well you implement them, let alone Jesus of Nazareth.

And abortion? A more thorny issue, I accept. I absolutely believe that women have the right to choose, the right to manage their reproductive lives. I don’t believe that abortion is wrong, though it is a very serious decision with many potential effects, not all of them physical. I do know that choosing abortion may be one of the most difficult decisions a woman may make. I do not know if I would make that decision myself. A lot would depend on the circumstances. I certainly don't think that it is a choice that other people can make for you. 

Now, Tim Farron may have felt it was wrong, as do many Christians from a range of denominations. However, he believed absolutely in the woman's right to choose. And that is what matters. Are we really going to force everyone to hold the same views? Being a Liberal means accepting difference. I would have thought that being a Christian meant that too.

We have moved on over the last three thousand years. Society has moved on. One of the reasons that Jesus Christ was so threatening to so many of his contemporaries is that he himself had moved on from the kind of beliefs and religious behaviour which were embedded in Jewish society of the time. Remember: ‘let him without sin cast the first stone’? How challenging is that!

Christ gave us two laws only: love God and love your neighbour. They’re difficult enough for me, and I guess Tim Farron thinks the same.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

A general election post mortem

It has been rather strange watching the British election from afar. We have been away from home for three weeks now and I myself will be away for a couple of weeks more. These days, of course, that doesn't mean that one is entirely cut off from world events. Wifi and television mean that we are almost as much in touch as if at home, though we are, fortunately perhaps, rather more distanced from the sturm und drang of the actual proceedings. Indeed, we were even able to watch the results coming in in real time, given the time difference here in Canada.

So, what do we make of it all?

Well, despite the melodrama of some of the posts winging through my Facebook feed, we ourselves are reasonably pleased, though various factors combine to undermine each of the positives.

We are delighted that the Tories did far worse than they and their media supporters expected. It would have been much better, of course, if they had done even worse and had been completely unable to form any sort of government. Their chosen partner, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is one of the most bigoted in British politics. Its members are sectarian, associated with a known terrorist group, homophobic, climate change deniers and opposed to the rights of women to manage their own reproductive lives. Arlene Clark, their leader, has refused to resign during an investigation into a corruption scandal.

Throughout the election period, the Tory leader, Theresa May, repeated inane tropes and seemed to think that her past as a 'vicar's daughter' outweighed the inhumanity of her attitudes to migration, to those seeking asylum and to those families from other countries already living here. Presented as a 'safe pair of hands' there was far less to Theresa May than met the eye. As Emperors with no clothes go, she retained a fine pair of shoes for kicking those who are already down. Her unnecessary election cost £130 million which could have been used to make a positive difference to people's lives.

We are pleased that Labour did far better than predicted, despite all the weight of the propaganda hurled against them and their leader Jeremy Corbyn. We were particularly pleased by Ian Murray's survival in Edinburgh South, with a notably increased majority. He is a good man. Labour is back as a major force in British politics, as it should be.

We did not vote Labour, but found nothing in its manifesto with which we fundamentally disagreed. Indeed, we would have signed up to it ourselves: it represented the kind of ideals in which we ourselves believe, though implementation would always have been an issue. We parted company with Labour in 2015 during the nasty infighting not just in the national party but also within the Scottish one. I have already written about that, so am not going to repeat what I wrote then.

We were disappointed with Jeremy Corbyn's lukewarm support for the European Union (EU) during the Referendum and very angry indeed when he supported the Tories in the vote on Article 50. He imposed the whip on his MPs, the majority of whom, like 63% of Labour voters, supported remaining in the EU. I am still not sure whether he and his party can be trusted to provide strong opposition to the Tories in their pursuit of Brexit. The left wing of the Labour party has never been particularly supportive of Europe despite their party having had a proud international history. However, interestingly the Labour party gained several of its new seats in Remain areas, which bodes well. Lets hope the party rises to this challenge.

We are pleased that the Liberal Democrats, for whom we did vote, have doubled the number of seats they hold. In Scotland, they took Edinburgh West, East Dunbartonshire and Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The Liberals' support for internationalism is particularly important to us, as are the values in their motto: 'open, tolerant and united'. These are principles in which we wholeheartedly believe.

However, the Lib Dems did not do as well as we would have liked. Almost certainly that is because they pinned their colours to the mast over the desirablity of resuming membership of the EU. We supported them in that. Sadly, many people in Britain now seem to have resigned themselves to exit from the EU, whatever the positions they may have taken up during the Referendum. Other important issues such as action against austerity and support for the NHS seem to have taken precedence in people's minds. Important though these issues are, the impact of Brexit is likely to be devastating for communities up and down the country.

We are very sorry that Nick Clegg lost his seat. He knows more about Europe than any other politician in Britain. He is able, knowledgeable and persuasive. We are also sorry for Sarah Olney in Richmond Park, which returned the unpleasant Zac Goldsmith who ran a racist campaign against Sadiq Khan during the mayoral election in London. We are particularly sorry for Elizabeth Richie in North East Fife, who lost to the SNP candidate by two votes. Terribly galling.

We are delighted that UKIP did badly. We understand that some erstwhile UKIP supporters voted Labour, which may provide that party with a problem in the future. However most of them voted Tory, taking that party even further to the right.

We are sorry that there is now no middle ground at all in Northern Irish politics, MPs being drawn only from Sinn Fein or the DUP.

What about Scotland, however? What do we think about the way things worked out here?

Well, it will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that we were absolutely delighted that the Scottish National Party (SNP) lost so many seats, 21 in all. Most of those seats had been won in the 2015 election. At the time, the SNP were really scraping the barrel and many of their candidates were poorly prepared, appeared parochial in terms of their experience of national and international politics and often bordered on the inarticulate. Some of them were reputed to not even have been party members at the time of their election. However, other SNP victims of this election were more impressive figures: John Nicolson is slick and personable, as is the one-time Tory Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh. Angus Robertson is able and articulate, though he was becoming increasingly pompous in manner at Westminster.

However, there was one scalp, one delicious Portillo moment which made this awful election almost worthwhile just on its own: Alex Salmond lost his seat. That arrrogant and posturing self-publicist has fallen. Years ago, we used to enjoy watching Salmond in action: he was witty and clever, and ran circles around his opponents. Recently, however, he has become soured and embittered. It was Salmond who set the tone of the terrible 2014 Independence Referendum. While those who voted Yes praised the revival of political dialogue, those of us who voted No had a completely different experience. Nasty memes and posts from nationalist propaganda websites contaminated my newsfeed, denigrating those with opposing views. Salmond's own inability to accept defeat gracefully poisoned the aftermath and contributed to the continuing nastiness of the discourse thereafter.

In the months running up to last week's general election, the tone of the SNP, particularly that of Nicola Sturgeon, became more strident. I regretted this. When Salmond stepped down, I had looked forward to Sturgeon taking over the role of First Minister as I thought she would be a less divisive figure, one who would be more able to bring the people of Scotland together post-referendum. I thought it would be good to have a strong woman at the helm. However, her belligerance and constant recriminations against anyone except the ruling party at Holyrood for anything which hasn't worked out in Scotland became extremely tiresome. Blame 'Westminister', blame 'London', blame the 'metropolitan elite' - all proxy terms for 'English'. Never ever blame decisions made in Scotland.

Although Sturgeon herself was not standing in the general election as she serves in the Holyrood Parliament, she was high profile in the campaign. The tone of the narrative became increasingly embittered as she presented the election as the next step towards a second independence referendum. Kezia Dugdale, Labour's Scottish leader, accused Sturgeon with considerable justice of being 'a broken record' about independence. That accusation chimed with a lot of people. We ourselves had got to the stage where we thought that we might not want to continue to live in Scotland if the SNP continued in power. Their relatively poor performance last week at least enables us to delay that decision for a bit.

Although most nationalists I know have learned the lessons of 2014 and were considerably more restrained on social media than during the referendum, a few continued to circulate quite vicious memes and posts. I 'unfriended' a longstanding friend over a meme which included the words 'English' and 'fascist' in the same statement, something I virtually never do as I like to keep a track of what people are saying, particularly those whose views differ from my own. Immediately my Facebook feed became enjoyable to read again.

So much for the Nationalists, then. What about the Tories in Scotland?

Well, while the Tories in England had a torrid time, those in Scotland significantly increased their seats. Now, I am going to say something which many of my Scottish friends are going to be appalled about. I don't actually subscribe to the narrative about 'toxic Tories'. Ruth Davidson is a persuasive, able and indeed charismatic leader of the Tories in Scotland. Her fellow MPs and MSPs are a slightly different breed from their English equivalents. They may sometimes be bland and wooden (think of the 'vegetables' from Spitting Image), but they are not 'toxic'. Think of David Mundell, a decent man, if somewhat uninspiring.

I think it is no bad thing that the Tories have won half a dozen seats in Scotland. It was exceedingly unlikely that Labour or the LibDems on their own could damage the SNP sufficiently to hobble them. However, in these particular constituencies, the Tories could. Nationalism is a pernicious doctrine, one that subscribes to the notion that some countries are 'better' than others and hence that some people have more value than others. It is the opposite of internationalism. Nationalism is the petty narrowmindedness of 'what's best for Scotland'. Thank goodness that some people voted Tory to stop it in its tracks. The effect of that, however, was to give the Westminster Tory party seats which just saved their skin.

And as for the cries currently going out from people who mostly live in the west of Scotland that Tory success in Scotland is a travesty, that Scotland 'never' votes Tory, that is bunkum. The seats which the Tories won this time have been Tory in the past, sometimes for years on end. It is a sign of how little such activists know about the rest of their own country that they don't know this. They are unaware of the traditional voting preferences in the Highlands, the north east of Scotland and the Borders. And not just rural areas. Have they forgotten Malcolm Rifkind of the south of Edinburgh (definitely not toxic), Teddy Taylor the popular MP from Cathcart or even Alex Douglas Home, Prime Minister of Great Britain?

Instead of blaming these new Scottish Tory voters for the miseries of the poor, these people should start asking themselves what it is about nationalism that so appalls other people in their country that they will vote for the party that will provide the strongest opposition.

All that is left to say is to mention our own constituency, Edinburgh East. Here we have one of the best of the SNP MPs, the able and reasonable Tommy Sheppard, who won the seat for the second time as expected. However, one of those opposing him was a young Liberal Democrat, Tristan Gray, who got our votes. We were most impressed by Tristan, and not just because of his party allegiance. He is knowledgeable, articulate and argues his case well. He should go far in politics. In Edinburgh East he cut his teeth in a difficult constituency as all would-be MPs have to do. Tristan worked hard and had a good election.

So that's it, then. We have nothing more to say. We will sit and watch the car crash that is the Conservative Party at Westminster. We will watch both the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats go from strength to strength, if they play the long game calmly and continue to put the people of this country first. If Labour eventually regain power, we hope they will use it well. And we hope that over the next few years we will watch the Scottish Nationalists slide towards oblivion taking their resentments and grievances with them.