Random Thoughts #1

My brain is often visited by thoughts of a random nature. Whether sparked by something I’ve read, a conversation I’ve had, or just from idle day dreaming. Quite often these thoughts are generated from something found on the Internet. Occasionally these thoughts are interesting enough, at least in my opinion, to be shared.

I want to update this blog more regularly than I do but often find it difficult to find the time to write full articles. So I am going to try out putting some of these random thoughts, and the links that have triggered them, into a regular post. My “Random Thoughts” post will be weekly, sent early on Friday morning, and will consist of links to other websites alongside a short piece of commentary.

In short, something of an old fashioned web log. I don’t claim that my random thoughts are original!

So here is the first, of what I hope to be an ongoing series, of my “Random Thoughts”.

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Life with Lord Ashdown is no Werther’s Originals advert from The Independent

Great interview that resonates with the essential Paddiness of Paddy Ashdown. Loved the bit about the competitive ski races with his grandson and definitely an Apple not a Windows man.

Chris Huhne on the economics of low carbon from Liberal Democrat Voice

“I’ve been concentrating recently on the economic, rather than the environmental, case for the transformation to a low-carbon economy. And it’s a compelling one”. It becomes more and more apparent that a key part of making the coalition government a success is how far we can push the agenda of ‘green led’ economic growth.

Do e-books spell the end of lending libraries?

I was pleased to see Luton’s libraries getting a mention in this report from the BBC’s Click technology programme on the future of libraries. Luton librarian Fiona Marriot  is interviewed about half way through.

Time for the Liberal Democrats to stop looking like Tories

Jonathan Calder on Liberal England is concerned that through the use of “aqua” the Liberal Democrats appear to be turning blue.  He illustrates his point with a rather familiar graphic.

Reflecting on the 2011 Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Sheffield

The Sheffield conference shows that the Liberal Democrats are starting to find their feet as a party of government.

I spent the weekend in Sheffield attending the Liberal Democrats spring conference. As usual the conference generated an awful lot of things that I wanted to write about and comment upon alongside ensuring that it was almost impossible to do so at the time. So it is afterwards that I can sit down and try to work out what it all means. First is an attempt to sum up what it means for the Liberal Democrats as a whole.

The Sunday morning debate on party strategy, positioning and priorities included the approval of an amendment promoted by Evan Harris and Chris White which called on the party to develop new procedures and ways of working for the development and agreement of party policy. With its talk of consultation, committees, reviews and reporting back the amendment may not appear to be very exciting and perhaps only to be of relevance to those obsessed with procedure. But there was some real raw politics going on here.

Behind the amendment was the recognition that the party needs to change the way it makes and discusses policy so as to fit with the challenges of being in government. The motivation was to ensure that activists, conference, and the party membership as a whole remain influential as the agenda of the coalition government development and we move beyond those policies negotiated in the coalition agreement.

Reflecting back on the events of the last few days I felt that this amendment was to some extent symbolic of what this year’s spring conference was about. Since entering the coalition the Liberal Democrats have been on new and unfamiliar territory. The party leadership, the parliamentary party, officials and staff, councillors and campaigners, and members of kinds find that they have to adjust to a set of circumstances that are very new to them. Each in their different ways are having to find new methods of thinking, talking and acting in order to deal with the different dynamics of being in government. Ones that are very different from the familiar, and possibly more comfortable, dynamics of opposition and protest.

Back at last year’s autumn conference in Liverpool the mood was one of a slightly nervous celebration mixed with a level of uncertainty about what it all meant. The unofficial slogan for that conference should have been “WTF”.

A few months later and the party appears to be working through its confusion. We are getting down to the practical business of adjusting to life as part of the coalition. I saw several examples of this over the weekend. Having the strategy debate in the first place was a healthy recognition of this need for adjustment. It was also a much better and more focused debate than the rather woolly discussion on party strategy we had at the Liverpool conference.

So the lesson that I take from the Sheffield conference is that collectively the Liberal Democrats are starting to find their feet as a party of government. We are discovering the new ways of doing things we need to adopt to make it work.

As someone whose greatest concerns for my party have focused around, not the policies and decisions of government, but the party’s capacity and approach to the business of politics, I find this enormously reassuring.

Reactions to Nick Clegg’s speech on multiculturalism

Most of the media coverage of Nick Clegg’s speech on multiculturalism in Luton last week, which I blogged about here, has focused on the differences with David Cameron’s speech on the same subject a month ago. They variously describe it as a break or split within the coalition, or Clegg “taking on” or distancing himself from Cameron, and The Sun, in a typically restrained manner, talks of a “race war” between the two men.

One interesting titbit from John Rentoul is that he understands that the speech “was drafted by, or with a lot of help from, Richard Reeves, recently of Demos”.

In a post on Liberal Democrat Voice, ‘Nick Clegg – demonstrating what he’s for‘, my friend Linda Jack wrote about her reaction to Nick’s visit to Luton;

“I have to say that having read his speech and then heard him speak last night I was reminded of what I so admire about Nick.”

As part of his speech Nick Clegg made reference to a research report by the Searchlight Educational Trust. This report, Fear and Hope, has some challenging things to say to all political parties. One of the most interesting responses to the speech that I have come across was from one of the authors of that report, Anthony Painter, on the Labour Uncut blog; ‘Multiculturalism: a nice piece about Nick Clegg‘.

“David Cameron erected the straw man of “state multiculturalism”, which doesn’t exist in anything other than the popular mythology of 1980s municipalism. Nick Clegg knocked it down and instead made a cogent case for a diverse but not divided version of multiculturalism built around strong and shared values.”

Luton Borough Council attempts to rewrite history

A fortnight ago Luton Borough Council issued a press release that included a blatant attempt to rewrite history.

Al-right, they weren’t attempting to claim that it was Harold who won the Battle of Hastings, that Henry VIII was a loyal and faithful husband, or that Genghis Khan was a meek and mild mannered sort of chap. It was a much more minor matter of limited local interest, but it was extremely irritating to members of Luton Liberal Democrats.

The main purpose of the press release was to announce that work will soon begin on improvements to the public space outside the front of the Town Hall around the war memorial. This is, obviously, good news and I welcome it. However, the press release included this line;

“Work in the Town Hall Square will begin in mid-March and see new paving to complement that used during the regeneration of St George’s Square two years ago.”

And a quote from Labour councillor Roy Davis who says;

“We initially wanted to enhance the Town Hall Square at the same time as our award-winning regeneration of St George’s Square two years ago. Then it was decided to wait until the £20 million extension to The Mall had been completed first.”

The press release couldn’t be clearer – the regeneration of St George’s Square was completed in 2009.

Except that it wasn’t.

The truth is that the plans to completely rebuild St. George’s Square were first drawn up by the then Liberal Democrat administration in October 2004. Money was found from the Government’s Liveability fund, the European Regional Development Fund, and the Council’s own resources. Work was started early in 2006. I remember that the project did overrun a little but it was finished in time for an official opening early in 2007 and certainly ready to be used for Luton’s first Summer Festival later that year.

Now there have been quite a lot of changes in staff in the LBC press office since the Square was completed in 2007. So it is very possible that whoever issued this press release wasn’t around at the time. Yet to get the completion date of one of the town’s most significant regeneration projects wrong by a whole two years is very sloppy. A little fact checking wouldn’t go amiss.

Yet what I find extraordinary is the quote from Cllr Davis which repeats the error of the date of the opening of the new square as he most definitely was around at the time. I know this because I remember him making frequent criticisms of the project and how the Liberal Democrat administration were managing it. Although I don’t think he went quite as far as the current Labour leader of the council Hazel Simmons who once said at a meeting of the council that she “preferred the old square”.

It is true that a decision was taken that the area around the front of the Town Hall should be renewed in the same style as the Square, and that since any work done then would almost certainly have been damaged by the construction of the new extension to the The Mall shopping centre it was decided that this part of the project should be delayed until the extension was complete. What Cllr Davis fails to mention though is that the “We” who wanted to enhance the Town Hall Square at the same time as St George’s Square but decided to wait until the extension to The Mall had been completed was the 2003-2007 Liberal Democrat administration.

Those of us who were involved in this project at the time are extremely proud of what we achieved for our town. The new Square has been a huge improvement and thoroughly deserves the awards it has received. So you can understand that it can piss you off somewhat when others attempt to take the credit.

We did complain and it appears the version of the press release on the Council’s website has now been rewritten – resulting in some rather clunky sentences.

It was common in Russia under soviet communism for history books to be rewritten to portray a story that was more palatable to those in power. Now I am not sure whether I really want to compare myself with Trotsky, but since this press release was issued I think I may have got an inkling of how he felt when he was airbrushed out of all those photographs.

Why Nick Clegg is right on multiculturalism (or how the Deputy Prime Minister came to Luton to agree with me)

When, last month, David Cameron made his speech in Munich that was critical of ‘state multiculturalism’ on the same day that the EDL were marching in Luton I was upset. Not only because I shared the feeling with many others that the timing and the nature of that speech was something of an added insult to a community struggling with a very  difficult set of circumstances, but also because the speech itself was so wrongheaded and unintelligent.

I wrote my critique of that speech here in this post; ‘Cameron is wrong: multiculturalism has worked’.

What I didn’t say at the time was that I was also a little upset at the lack of a real response to Cameron’s speech from the Liberal Democrats. I wished for a strong refutation of the ‘multiculturalism has failed’ argument from a liberal perspective from a senior member of the party.

Well yesterday my wish was granted. And in a big way!

In a speech yesterday Nick Clegg gave a defence of multiculturalism and set out the principles of a strongly liberal approach to tackling extremism. Unlike David Cameron’s Munich speech, it was intelligent, well constructed and demonstrated a proper understanding of the issues. It was also politically very clever.

Plus, not only did the Deputy Prime Minister come to Luton to make it, the speech was delivered in the Chaul End Community Centre in my ward!

You can read Nick Clegg’s speech here: ‘An Open, Confident Society: The Application of Muscular Liberalism in a Multicultural Society

It was obviously felt by the party leadership to be inappropriate to immediately respond to Cameron’s speech, but I am glad that there was recognition that a Liberal Democrat response was needed. And yesterday’s speech was clearly Clegg’s response to Cameron’s views on multiculturalism.

Coalition government and Cabinet collective responsibility imposes constraints on how you do these things. So Clegg made great efforts to say that he agreed with Cameron. He, sadly, even felt it necessary to adopt that awful phrase ‘muscular liberalism’. Before going on to set out arguments that, by implication, exposed several ways in which Cameron had got things wrong. I felt that Clegg was often saying in the speech “I agree with David, and this is what he really meant”. A clever technique of disagreeing while appearing to agree.

I was also pleased to note that many of the points that Clegg made, accidently I’m sure, echoed some of the things that I wrote were wrong with Cameron’s argument.

I wrote that at “the heart of the stupidity of [Cameron’s] speech is that it seeks to confuse the complex bundle of issues that is extremism, radicalisation, and home grown terrorist activity with the more general issue of community cohesion”. So I was pleased when Nick said;

“But it is also crucially important to maintain a clear distinction between initiatives aimed at combating extremism and those focused on the broader task of community cohesion.”

While Cameron had dangerously bundled these two things up together, Clegg demonstrated a clear understanding of the difference. As a result his arguments were far more coherent and much better grounded in reality.

More subtle was the distinction between the different approaches that the two speeches take towards the whole “muscular liberalism” thing. When David Cameron used the phrase he seemed to be concerned with ideas of British identity and the imposition of a set of “shared values” on groups within society. When Nick Clegg used the phrase he, in a typically liberal manner, emphasised the importance of engaging in argument and debate.

“Liberalism is not a passive, inert approach to politics. It requires engagement, assertion. Muscular liberals flex their muscles in open argument. There is nothing relativist about liberalism.

If we are truly confident about the strength of our liberal values we should be confident about their ability to defeat the inferior arguments of our opponents.”

This shows a real instinctive difference between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. They say; “we insist that you agree with this”. We say; “we will persuade you to agree with this”.

Critical to the speech was the difference in approach to multiculturalism.

Previously, I had quoted the words of Sunder Katwala who made the point that the debate over multiculturalism has in recent years become something of a dialogue of the deaf “largely because critics and defenders of multiculturalism are mostly talking about starkly different ideas.” Nick Clegg echoed this in the speech;

“We have to be clear what we mean here. Where multiculturalism is held to mean more segregation, other communities leading parallel lives, it is clearly wrong. For me, multiculturalism has to seen as a process by which people respect and communicate with each other, rather than build walls between each other. Welcoming diversity but resisting division: that’s the kind of multiculturalism of an open, confident society.”

In short this enabled Clegg to in effect say; when David Cameron uses a stupid definition of multiculturalism that makes it a bad thing then, of course, I agree with him – but as sensible liberals we know that, using the proper definition, multiculturalism is a good thing.

One of the more troubling aspects of Cameron’s Munich speech was its exclusive concentration on Muslim extremism. It was this that generated a lot of the angry reaction. Not least in Luton where at the time we were dealing with extremism of a non-Muslim, indeed overtly anti-Muslim, kind. I am glad to say that Clegg did not make that mistake. Indeed he went out of his way to stress the importance of tackling extremism of all kinds. He also had the insight that, as we have seen in Luton, different forms of extremism can feed and develop off each other.

“There are nationalistic or racist extremists, like the members of the English Defence League, or the BNP. There are black extremists like the Nation of Islam. There are Muslim extremists like the members of Islam 4 UK. Very often these groups have a symbiotic relationship with each other, maintained by the media: extremist Muslim groups giving birth to extremist white hate groups, and vice versa.

My point is this. We need a perfect symmetry in our response to crime and violent extremism. Bigots are bigots, whatever the colour of their skin. Criminals are criminals, whatever their political beliefs. Terrorists are terrorists, whatever their religion.

This means that those of us who want to live in a liberal society must confront hateful views and practices regardless of who expresses them. The Government is committed to tackling hate crimes against any group – gay people, Jews, women, black people or Muslims.”

Finally, I was really pleased and very grateful that Nick also went out of his way to highlight the good work that Luton is doing on these issues. While choosing Luton as his venue puts the spotlight again on the town he was keen to help put the other positive side of the story of “Luton and extremism”.

“I hope today to draw attention to a different Luton; Luton as the home of some of the most vibrant campaigns against racism, extremism and Islamophobia.

In particular I would like to thank the members of the Luton Commission on Community Cohesion, which is a superb example of the way in which a community can work together. The town has remained true to its original vision of ‘sticking together’, working across age, religious and ethnic boundaries to promote a tolerant, strong, vibrant community. That is why I think Luton is the perfect place to set out my vision for an open, confident Britain.”

The symbolism of choosing Luton and the recognition by, at least some parts of, the most senior levels of national government of the challenges the town is facing and the work that is being done to meet them that this implies should not be underestimated.

As you can tell, not only was I delighted to be able to welcome Nick to the part of Luton I represent, I was really pleased with the substance and the political message of the speech as well.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

In praise of archaeology

On Monday evening (28 February 2011) I attended the first of a series of public lectures organised by the University of Bedfordshire. The topic was archaeology and we had two fascinating presentations.

The first was from Wesley Keir of Albion Archaeology who described the discoveries made on the site of the University’s new Campus Centre. As part of the building work archaeological investigations were carried out on the western edge of the site of the medieval castle next to St Mary’s Church. What was uncovered included part of the medieval moat, the post holes of a timber framed building in the castle grounds, and part of a later children’s cemetery.

When I think about Luton’s history I tend to think of industrial development and growth in the 19th and 20th centuries, so it was good to be reminded that the town has a much older history. In particular, I enjoyed learning a little about the career of the Anglo-Norman soldier and adventurer Falkes de Breaute and his connections with the town and the rest of Bedfordshire.

The second talk was from Mark Horton, who is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Bristol, but is better known as one of the team of presenters on the BBC’s programme Coast. His very engaging presentation focussed on how archaeology can be relevant to the modern world.

I’ve always been an advocate of the importance of history. The argument that through understanding the past we can better understand the present and plan for the future is one I strongly believe in. Yet all those who seek to tell histories are influenced to a greater or lesser extent by the culture they inhabit and the preoccupations of the time. What archaeology can do, as many of the examples that Mark Horton used in his talk showed, is provide physical evidence that can confirm or challenge those histories.

In effect one of the things that archaeology does is to keep historians honest.

A preview of the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference in Sheffield

In eleven days time Liberal Democrats from across the country, including myself, will be gathering in Sheffield for the Party’s Spring Conference. I thought I’d preview what we will be discussing.

In the main hall

I would hope to be in the hall for the debate on the new policy paper on the voluntary sector early on the Saturday morning. Later that morning is the first of the potentially controversial items as conference debates a motion that attempts to bring Liberal Democrat policy in line with the approach to the NHS announced by the coalition government. Although myself I am not expecting it, if there is going to be a big policy row at conference this is where it is going to be.

In the afternoon we have a policy paper on youth justice and the latest in what seems to be a regular series of debates on the diversity of our candidates and MP’s.  This latter item is conference putting into action recommendations from the report written by the newly ennobled Sal Brinton on this issue. The main part of which is the creation of a ‘Leadership Programme’.  While this debate does have the potential for people to get exercised, I hope conference does the sensible thing and endorses the proposals.

Also on Saturday afternoon will be a question and answer session with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. I am not expecting Clegg to have any difficulties with this session, he does this sort of thing very well, but the topics and tone of the questions asked could be an interesting indicator of the temperature of the party.

Sunday morning begins with reports from the Liberal Democrat parliamentary parties. While these reports usually go through without incident there is the potential for some pointed questions about our record in government so far. It will be interesting to see if anyone takes that opportunity.

This is followed by a debate on party strategy. A few journalists have declared this to be controversial. Mainly because the motion includes the lines;

“The Liberal Democrats will fight the next General Election in Great Britain as an independent party without any pacts or agreements with any other party…”

But in reality I expect this to go through with very little fuss. There are some interesting things going on this motion, not least the request to conference to endorse the Federal Executive’s five key strategic goals, and I may write more about it in details if I get the chance.

The final business of conference, at around Sunday lunch time, will be Nick Clegg’s speech.

While last year’s spring conference speech was in the run up to the General Election and had to make the Liberal Democrat’s pitch to the voters, and his speech to last year’s Autumn conference was about steadying the party’s nerves as we adjusted to the coalition, I don’t think there is anything that Clegg has to do in this speech. There is no obvious requirement, so he gets to choose what to do with it. I wonder what use he will make of it.

Pick of the fringe

I know it is the spring conference, not the main autumn one, but even so I think the fringe programme looks a little light. We are in government after all.

This is exacerbated by the fact that as is usual for Spring many of the fringe meetings double as the Annual General Meetings for various party groups.  However, there are some opportunities to put questions to Liberal Democrat ministers.

At Saturday lunch time you get “your chance to question the Business Secretary” as the Social Liberal Forum present Vince Cable MP talking about on post-18 education. A chance to pick over the bones of the tuition fees issue with the man responsible.

Those who have been following the developing tensions between the national government and local government parts of the Lib Dem family might be interested in the event organised by Centre Forum and the LGA Liberal Democrat Group. The Liberal Democrat minister in the Department of Communities and Local Government, Andrew Stunell MP, goes head to head with the leader of the Lib Dems on the Local Government Association, Cllr Richard Kemp.

The early part of Saturday evening seems to be the time for introspection and weighing up the party’s prospects. You can chose from CentreForum’s “Breakthrough or breakdown?” with Chris Huhne MP and Professor Paul Whitely from the University of Essex or the Social Liberal Forum event with journalist David Aaronovitch that is asking how the party should demonstrate its differences from the Tories. Maybe Party President Tim Farron MP has the answers to those questions, as he is jumping between these two meetings.

Indeed Tim Farron is the most popular speaker on the fringe programme with his name down for several fringe meetings. Also popular is the previous Party President Ros Scott and former MP Dr Evan Harris who pop up a couple of times each.

Chris Huhne MP also has a second outing, this time in his role as Minister for Energy and Climate Change, as he is the key speaker at a Green Liberal Democrats fringe on energy market reform, later in the evening.

My plans are the Liberal Democrat History Group meeting on Lord’s reform on Friday evening, local government at Saturday lunch time, and, depending on my mood, wandering into the Glee Club late that evening.

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