Thursday, 28 March 2013

Cuckoos in the nest

There’s more than one cuckoo in my LibDem nest and I very much regret that Nick Clegg and cohorts, thought it reasonable or indeed 'liberal/Liberal', to whip his MPs into voting in favour of legislation that is nothing of the sort. I am, of course, referring to the Secret Courts fiasco.

I understand there were 'rebels' who did not take the same view as Nick Clegg - and happily, my father, Lord Avebury, founding member the All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group was amongst them, along with 28 other Members of the Upper House.
However, whilst compromises may have been necessary in the exercise of power and co-operation within the Coalition, these should not include compromises of fundamental Liberal/liberal principles and values.
I do recognise that there have been LibDem successes in the Coalition, and yet we have done little to distinguish ourselves in the eyes of the general public, and at the same time, we are seriously in danger of asking our membership for one compromise too much.
Somewhere and somehow, our core values and principles appear to have become eroded, and our Parliamentarians are failing to hear the voices of its membership (and Conference).

As a Party, we should value our heritage as this surely tells us about our present and our future. Some of us can just about remember a time when our elected representatives were still admired and respected, including former leader, Jo Grimondunder whose tenure as MP for Orkney and Shetland the first post-war Liberal revival took place. The Party doubled the number of seats, and won a number of by-elections including that of my father, Eric, at Orpington in 1962.
According to the Liberal Democrat History Group, "Grimond's leadership of the Liberal Party from 1956-67 made a difference not just to the fortunes of his party but to British politics, helping to end the two-party mould into which Britain had seemed to settle".
This is the position we, as a Party, are again experiencing. So it is perhaps appropriate we should look back at our historical roots. Grimond was popular for speaking out, and raising issues that many politicians of  his day, did not. In his book, "The Liberal Challenge",
he addresses head on, the fundamental "philosophy and faith upon which Liberal policy is based", and the kind of society we might aspire to be. 
I am aware that, in order to win both the confidence and votes of the Electorate, our policies and purpose must be clear, credible and costed - as well as distinctly 'Liberal'. In striving to be popular and electable, it is the loss of such Liberal values that I fear. In coalition, it seems we are bound at the hip to the Tories, having to participate in the introduction of measures of necessity and austerity. But, I would argue, that doesn't mean we have to leave behind our principles and values at the door of No.10. 
There are some in our Party who accuse those of us concerned with these most fundamental principles of human rights, to be “fairweather’. It is true I have only been a Member of the Party a mere 37 years, and that I yearn to feel once again proud of being a Liberal. And I long for a Party leader who says: “We cannot vote in favour of this because it’s illiberal and is detrimental to our Society and our values”.  
As a Party with very limited funds at our disposal, ( beholden neither to corporate interests nor Union muscle), we have always had difficulty in communicating and explaining our policies and values to the electorate. And now, with a golden opportunity and platform to do so, we just keep screwing up - either because we are seen to be promoting a Tory agenda, or because the behaviour and ethics of some of our MPs and Peers is what attracts the media's attention.  
What I'd like to see is a 're-branding' our Party (with reformers at the helm). Maybe we should call ourselves 'The New Liberals' with a manifesto containing promises and policies that put our core values and philosophy at its heart. Of course, the last time we undertook such an exercise (remember the SDP/Alliance merger in 1989?) it ended pretty disastrously for the Party in my view. Although we did get the wonderful Shirley Williams as a result. But we are in a new century and our politics and policies must be ‘fit-for-purpose’, and the test is: Are our Parliamentarians successfully adhering to and promoting the soul of our Party?
I think, to return to our old friend, Jo Grimond, maybe what the Party needs right now is a true "reformer"; someone that can - and will - be successful in promoting the cause of democracy. Thus far, it seems to me that in Government we have mostly failed miserably on this count,  the AV Referendum and reform of the House of Lords come to mind.
And, of course, it's not just the issue of Secret Courts that concerns those of us who feel strongly about the maintenance, protection and promotion of human rights, and the direction of the Party. There is also the issue of legal aid, and a system of justice that is fair to all. 
We cannot expect or rely on a hostile media to explain our position on human rights. And results from the late-night horse-trading following the Leveson Inquiry are still to be tested. 
My loyalty to this Party is, I know, partially inherited, but I have always felt comfortable in this political space. I do not, however, wish to share my nest with a cuckoo!