Let’s Stay Together

It’ll be a surprise to virtually no-one that I’m voting to remain in the European Union today. I’ve been vocal in my intentions since long before this horrendous European Referendum campaign began and I make no pretensions to be anything other than pro-European. However, less than a decade ago I couldn’t have imagined describing myself as European. I was vehemently anti-EU and the arguments that the Leave campaign have repeatedly brought up about EU membership reducing the UK’s sovereignty and control over its own destiny are ones I made regularly. So what changed?

Put simply I was put in a position where I had no choice but to engage with the EU, to understand its policies and it’s processes. When I started my career a big part of my role revolved around understanding EU policies on business support, research and innovation; working on EU-funded projects; and writing bids for European funding. My instinctive antipathy for the EU was eroded over time by familiarity with how the EU worked and a deeper understanding of how the UK benefited from our membership. I don’t think that benefit is purely financial either – although you’ll be hard pressed to find a town in the UK that hasn’t benefited from EU money in some way given that the EU invests significantly in infrastructure, particularly in deprived parts of the UK, in a way that successive British governments have failed to do.

The benefits of the UK being a fully involved member of the EU far outweigh the financial though. Put simply we achieve far more through collaboration, cooperation and engagement than we would be able to as a country alone, even as an EEA member. As an EU member the UK influences policy in Brussels every day. Anyone arguing that we don’t do this enough should be looking at our shockingly low levels of engagement with European Parliament Elections – low turnout and low enthusiasm in these elections has produced a cohort of MEPs who don’t believe in the EU and don’t work to represent Britain’s best interests in Brussels. You simply cannot claim that the EU is undemocratic when as a country the UK overwhelmingly refuses to engage with the democratic processes that are already in place.

The ability to collaborate easily across borders, to operate businesses across national boundaries, to pool the knowledge of the best and brightest minds in Europe is, to my mind, the absolute best thing about the EU. Our universities and scientists are widely recognised as being world leading, the UK undoubtedly punches above its weight on all measures of scientific excellence. This is not an accident, UK science has always been at the forefront of discovery but I seriously doubt we could continue to retain this position in an increasingly globalised world without the scientific collaborations EU membership facilitates. Many of the UK’s major employers are European or global companies employing thousands upon thousands of people in this country because our EU membership facilitates access to the single market and because our research base is phenomenally successful at engaging with the European research and innovation base.

I don’t apologise for being pro-European, I’m not a reluctant European but I recognise that many are. And I’m not an idiot – the EU is not perfect by a long shot but then what organisation is? Big organisations require big bureaucracies to function whether they be governments or privately owned organisations. I used to be a small-state Conservative, I’m now a small-state Liberal Democrat – heavy-duty bureaucracy isn’t a thing I have a natural love for. The EU, certainly in terms of research funding has made efforts to reduce bureaucracy, but it certainly could and should be more efficient. But I don’t think an excess of bureaucracy is a surprise in an organisation the size of the EU and certainly not a reason to turn our backs on the European project.

I understand that the world is changing rapidly and that these changes are terrifying, particularly if you live in a community where high levels of immigration combined with savage cuts to public services have made life harder. The temptation to blame everything that’s bad in this country on strangers coming into your community is overwhelming and incredibly human – we’re hard-wired to see those we perceive as “other” as a threat. If immigration is your overwhelming concern I can see why you might consider voting to leave the EU and I accept that whatever I say about the benefits of EU membership is unlikely to change your mind.

But if you’re on the fence or unsure which way to vote please think about all that the European Union has achieved in the last half a century. Not least among these achievements is fact that we’ve seen over 7 decades of peace in a continent that was at war for over a thousand years. The UK was instrumental in setting up some of the core mechanisms that have created a peaceful Europe and I think turning our back on the close relationships we’ve developed over the past 70 years would be bad for the UK, bad for Europe, and bad for the world.

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Five Years Later

I think this might be the first general election in which I’ve not voted Conservative. It is, of course, only my third general election as a voter but still. I do always try to examine my voting decisions because the concept of voting for someone just because they’re “your party”, regardless of policies, is bizarre. I don’t think my political opinions have changed that profoundly since 2010 but aligning those to a specific party this time has been harder.

This election has been strange. I’ve been much less engaged than I was in 2010, I think I only watched one debate – if you don’t count the Scottish Leaders’ Debate I saw in Glasgow last week. Generally all the choices available have felt uninspiring, there’s no-one who feels like they can really offer the kind of change I’d like to see. It also seems unlikely that anyone’s likely to have much of a mandate to do anything radical.

I hate the anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric peddled by UKIP, the Conservatives and (to some extent) Labour which has definitely been a defining point in choosing who to vote for. I’m a lot more pro-European than I’ve ever been before and I can’t see anti-immigration rhetoric as anything other than racism in a fancy hat. In addition, I don’t think the Conservatives have done enough to protect the poor and vulnerable in our society. Whilst I still think that some level of austerity/rebalancing of the economy was necessary it’s clear to me that too much of that burden has fallen on the people who have the least. In terms of social issues I probably align more with the Greens than anyone else but economically I can’t contemplate voting for them. So I’ve come full circle to the party I voted for the first time I ever cast a vote – the Liberal Democrats. Let the hung parliament chaos commence!

P.S. One last point on stereotypes. I’m not voting Conservative and unless they change their tune I’m unlikely to do so in the future but I’ll never subscribe to the “all Tories are evil” doctrine perpetuated by so many people I know. Firstly, evil is such a strong word – I would really hesitate to use it of anyone. There are caring, compassionate Conservatives just as there are unpleasant members of the Labour party.  Judge people on their individual merits, not a lazy out-of-date political stereotypes.

The Curious Case of David Laws

Whilst not in any way condoning David Laws’ misclaiming of expenses there are several things that have really angered me about the “revelations” of the past few days.

The first is the Telegraph’s choice of timing, something which becomes even more questionable having seen their apparent headline for tomorrow about Danny Alexander. After all, the Telegraph first exposed what it claimed was the whole expenses scandal – albeit drip by drip – last summer. If the abuse of the rules made by David Laws was so deeply venal and shocking that it deserved his resignation then surely this should have been exposed then? And if the Telegraph genuinely felt it needed to play party politics with the story, rather than act “in the public interest”, then surely it had the perfect opportunity to do so during the election campaign. This approach, whilst it would have been pretty grubby, would have effectively torpedoed the Liberal Democrats claim to the moral high ground. As the most right wing of the broadsheets and the traditional mouthpiece of the Tory right such an action would have been in their interest, bringing the election nearer to a normal two-way fight between Labour and the Conservatives – much more likely to deliver a Conservative majority. However, the fact that the Telegraph have sat on this until now suggests something more subtle going on. This is clearly an attempt to weaken the coalition, to work towards bringing down the government whilst the economic pain is still fresh and before it has a chance to enact any really radical social reform. A general election under these circumstances would only benefit one party – and it’s not the Conservatives.

The other thing that upsets me about David Laws’ situation is that he clearly got caught between obeying the rules and exposing his personal circumstances. Britain tends to see itself as a liberal (small L) society but attitudes to homosexuality are mixed at best. Given that consensual gay sex was only legalised in 1967 and the distinction between straight and gay relationships was only removed in law in 2004 this is I suppose hardly surprising. It is therefore possible to understand why a man such as David Laws would choose to keep his sexual orientation a secret and why to protect the public persona he had created he would make an error of judgement such as this. It’s very easy to scoff and say “well this isn’t about his sexuality – he cheated the taxpayer” but I can imagine very well the circumstances in which you would do anything to protect the people you love from pain. Of all the expenses stories that have circulated feverishly over the past year this is the one I find it genuinely hard to be indignant about – but ironically the one that may ultimately have the biggest impact on the country over the coming months and years.

A Little Bit of Pomp & Ceremony

I should probably start this post off by clarifying that I am, generally, a fan of the British Monarchy. I’m not sure I’d institute a hereditary monarchy if I was starting a new country from scratch and there are a lot of members of the Royal Family whom I think are a waste of space but as an institution the monarchy is a *good thing* – at least in my eyes.

Thus the State Opening of Parliament will always be one of those occasions that fills me with joy – I love a Crown, a ridiculously long train and an archaic ceremony with a strange fervour. I suspect this comes from the fact that as a historian by inclination very old things will always appeal… However today wasn’t really about the past – it was about the future, about the still shiny and new Coalition government telling us in a bit more detail what they plan to do over the months and years to come. It marks the start of a certain amount of returning to reality in UK politics…

So what do I think of the Coalition now the dust has had two weeks to settle? To be honest it all still seems  bit unreal – according to folklore hung parliaments are supposed to bring inertia and bickering not a general love-in and rapid action. I admit to having had my own assumptions well and truly challenged – although at least I didn’t make a party political broadcast about the dangers of the Hung Parliament party (a piece of wit David C must be regretting even more than *that joke* about Nick Clegg)… How I thought other countries coped I have no idea!

Broadly, I still like the Coalition a lot – the Programme for Goverment issued last week set out a policy framework that seemed to capture the best bits of both parties and it is clear that a lot of work has gone (and continues to go) into making this partnership work. The almost lightening speed with which the £6 billion of spending cuts for this financial year have been identified is the exact opposite of inertia. It feels like the entire country has been put on a new server and suddenly you realise how much the old server was slowing you down.

The phrase “in the national interest” has been supremely overused over the past few weeks but it genuinely feels like that is how the Conservative and Lib Dem front bench teams are trying to govern – and that’s what we need. The Eurozone is in meltdown, war appears to be looming between North and South Korea – this is really no time for prevaricating or party political points scoring. The next few years, maybe even the whole of the next five years, are going to be tough – but I have this quiet sense that we might just come out the other side ok.

Election Reflection: Part Two

I was freakishly excited about the election results last Thursday – I fully intended to stay up until about 5am when a result became clear, drink a lot of wine and then sleep in on Friday. After all there’s always a result in UK elections, all those opinion polls couldn’t possibly be right about a hung parliament…

The first sign that this was different was the exit poll at 10pm which predicted a hung parliament and, despite the BBC harking back to 1992, I knew the polling was likely to be much more accurate. The night went on and there was still no sign of anything resembling a clear result by about 3am – lots of talk of recounts, “odd” results and the BBC presenters getting increasingly het up about queues of people outside polling stations (what happened with that by the way?!). 5am came and went without a result, David Dimbleby and Professor Vernon Bogdanor were harking back to 1974 and none of the party leaders looked particularly happy. The dog thought I’d gone mad when I fell asleep on the sofa and I then woke up to my mother coming into the room at 6.30am to see what had happened.

The answer appeared to be nothing! The Conservatives had done very well but no outright majority seemed likely – 326 seemed an impossible target – and by about 7.30am on Friday morning it literally was. We had the first hung parliament since 1974 and I’d finally found a vocation for historians as pundits on election shows (the BBC had had at least 5 on by this point). I was still on the sofa in last nights clothes but instead of removal vans in Downing Street there was just a procession of sleep-deprived politicians and reporters trying to work out exactly what was supposed to happen next. Gordon Brown couldn’t resign, David Cameron couldn’t form a government and Nick Clegg just appeared close to tears that Lib Dem popularity hadn’t translated into more votes or seats.

Thus began my six day addiction to the BBC News channel, Radio 4 and any other source of news… Friday was first Nick Clegg’s announcement that the Lib Dems would first talk to the Conservatives – which I welcomed but never thought anything would seriously come of, particularly as Labour were wildly talking up a progressive alliance of the left. Then came David Cameron’s address on Friday afternoon which was impressively wide-ranging in its offer to the Lib Dems as partners in a coalition.

The two parties seemed massively unlikely bedfellows – I had a long debate via twitter with the lovely @DaughterOfLir about the ins and outs of a deal – finally concluding that one would be nice but that the Conservative right were just too barmy for it to be a realistic proposition! Particularly given the rumblings of discontent emanating from the direction of Lord Tebbit and Lord Ashdown… Then came the news that discussions between the two official negotiating teams were “going well” throughout Sunday and Monday – I had a bit more hope but the Twitterverse was aghast at the idea!

We all got a little more familiar with the internal workings of the Liberal Democrats and their now infamous “triple lock”. Conservative backbenchers grumbled covertly to journalists. Flashmobs invaded Westminster demanding PR. The SNP started shouting very loudly about the Conservatives having no writ in Scotland (it was at about this juncture I began to support Scottish independence). Journalists looked increasingly desparate for a story, reporting on the delivery of pizza to the Lib Dem HQ. In short the world appeared to have gone mad…

Then on Monday night Gordon Brown resigned and announced that negotiations for a Lib-Lab coalition were officially opening. Given that I’d waited for Brown to go for three long years and fully expected him to be dragged out of Downing Street kicking and screaming – which in the end was very uncharitable of me – it was a surprisingly depressing moment. On Tuesday I woke up to the dulcet tones of Alan Johnson talking up Labour’s ambition for a “progressive alliance”, apparently being fully supported by Paddy Ashdown and the SNP. Doom appeared imminent…

Tuesday then appeared to have taken some kind of drugs – Malcolm Rifkind appeared on the BBC accusing the Lib Dems of cheating on the Tory party, everyone agreed that a decision needed to be made today or the world would end and the Lib-Lab talks foundered. Dave and Nick had a secret second date in the House of Commons and the rumour mill picked up frenetic pace despite the fact that the people making the decisions were locked up in the Cabinet Office. When I left work at 5pm breathless reports of bags being loaded into vans at the back of Downing Street and Lord Mandelson leaving in a black mood were circulating. By 7.30pm Gordon Brown was resigning for the second time in two days and the Queen was on the verge of inviting David Cameron to form a government, apparently in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. I then stayed up until after midnight to wait for the Lib Dems to push the deal through their triple lock system.

Today, Wednesday 12th May 2010, I woke up to the first non-Labour government in 13 years and to the first peacetime coalition government in 81 years. I’m still slightly stunned but somehow incredibly hopeful for this brave new dawn. Lots of people have told me that you can’t be a liberal conservative, it’s a contradiction in terms – but that’s probably the way I’d best define my own politics. Now it appears the government is this very impossible thing and I am so hopeful, for the first time in a decade, for the future of the UK…

Onwards and upwards!

Election Reflection – Part One

I’ve been following both the General Election campaign and the negotiations for a coalition government pretty breathlessly – which has earned me the title of political correspondent at work as well as some less desirable nicknames!

It’s not my first general election as a voter – I voted in vain against the Blair government in 2005 – but it is the first election I could participate in where there was a real and growing sense that change could happen. However, I dreaded until about an hour ago that real change wouldn’t actually happen – a change I didn’t even think possible until last Friday. To a certain extent we won’t know that anything has changed for months, even years but to me the events of the 7th – 11th May 2010 already seem momentous.

I should probably clarify my own politics a bit more here – I don’t claim to have foreseen a Conservative-Liberal coalition or that I would have voted for one had it been on offer last Thursday. I think the coalition has the potential to do tremendous good for the country but that’s a position I’ve arrived at very recently indeed!

I come from a traditionally Labour-voting community in North Wales – my grandfather once claimed that Wrexham would elect a cow if you stuck a red rosette on it – but not from a particularly Labour household. I remember my parents admiring Margaret Thatcher and whilst Tony Blair taking office in 1997 is a moment embedded in my memory I don’t recall it bringing any scenes of wild joy at home (I was only 11). Personally, I’ve always been interested in politics but quite often from a historical perspective – I studied history at uni – and have struggled sometimes to find a political “tribe”. After all Welsh girls don’t vote Tory do they?!

Except this Welsh girl did and does, at least for the time being… I’ve watched David Cameron change the Conservative Party over the past 4 years and I hoped, prayed and voted for a Conservative Government with a mandate that would allow him to change this country. It was always an outside hope – opinion polls consistently pointed to the result we eventually got, a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party – but I truly believed it was the only way the UK could move forward. Maybe that’s the trouble with being a historian, you get a bit too wedded to the status quo because it is “historical” and not always because it’s the best way of doing things!

Also, given Labour and Liberal noises throughout the election campaign, I can probably be forgiven for attaching virtually no value to Nick Clegg saying that he’d support whichever party gained a majority of votes and seats. The “Anti-Tory” voices were everywhere – much as I love Twitter there’s been some very nasty abuse doing the rounds for anyone who even thought of voting Conservative – and a so-called “progressive coalition of the left” seemed by far the most likely outcome of any split vote. Plus “my” party have their own faults – Cameron’s done well but there are still some hard-line right wingers hanging about (Lord Tebbit I’m looking at you) – so Lib Dem support for the Conservatives seemed about as likely as hell freezing over. I kind of felt that was a shame – I’ve always had a soft spot for the Liberals – but at the end of the day I felt I had to pick a party and I chose the Conservatives.

I did that for a number of well-thought out policy reasons not just because I like David Cameron and think his wife’s pretty… Firstly and fundamentally, I’m not a socialist in even the most moderate sense – socially liberal yes, but I’m a strong believer in capitalism, enterprise and a small state. Secondly, I’m mildly eurosceptic – I believe we get a lot of benefits from membership of the EU but the single currency and other aspects of European federalism just don’t stack up in my head. Finally, I believe in a welfare state that supports its citizens when times are hard but encourages them to be pro-active as often as possible. So I read policies, watched debates and reaffirmed my pro-Conservative leanings. Then I put my X in the box last Thursday and sat back to watch the results – half in hope and half in fear.