Sunday, 19 June 2016

My country right or wrong

Watching St George’s flag bedecked England football fans singing the national anthem as they fought with French police and Russian hooligans, the aphorism “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” never seemed more apt. Three weeks earlier I visited the same shops and bars now being laid waste, and was met with courtesy and kindness. I wonder what reception I would receive now …

Why is it that accident of birth should lead some to believe absolutely – so much so that it was worth fighting for – that our country is superior to all others? It’s undoubtedly true that in many spheres – technological innovation is one – we punch superbly far above our weight. Yet, despite our ability to create wealth, poverty is rife and inequality causes division – a cause for shame.

Some may argue that “My country right or wrong” for long served us well. Without pride in the flag and unquestioning obedience, would tens of thousands of our young men have gone the fields of Flanders a century ago, certain of the terrible fate that awaited them? Their courage was not alcohol or drug-fuelled but based on an unflinching sense of duty.

Had they stripped away the layers of patriotism, those men might have seen they were instead being asked to fight for less noble causes, less worth dying for – resources, trade, space. These have lead to a thousand of years of conflict on mainland Europe.

Yet the last 70 years have seen uninterrupted peace in Western Europe. The fates of nation-states are so intricately entwined, cooperation, learning, sharing, trading has replaced sending thousands to slaughter.


Let’s celebrate what is best about England but acknowledge the value of working closely with our European neighbours and vote to remain in the EU on 23 June.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

The Case for Bremain

In the debate around EU and sovereignty, it is one of the great ironies that those who were arguing during the Scottish independence referendum debate that Scotland could retain its sovereignty even if it remained part of the United (Kingdom) are the same people now arguing that the UK cannot retain its sovereignty if it remains part of the (European) Union. They also argued that Scotland could not possibly survive economically on its own – yet believe that a UK outside the EU is perfectly viable. What is certain is that a UK vote to withdraw from Europe will see the end of the UK: Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU far outweighs its wish to remain in the UK.

The Brexiters’ loss of sovereignty argument is similarly incoherent. Those who argue that we have ‘given away’ our sovereignty to the EU in the same breath argue that in one bound we can be free – all it takes is the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, and the UK is no longer ruled by the Eurocrats. Well, you can’t have it both ways – either sovereignty has been given away or it has not. In fact, the UK Parliament has been and always will be sovereign. All that has happened is that the Parliament we elect has chosen, for the time being, for certain purposes, and for our greater good, to ‘share’ sovereignty with another body – also elected by us and staffed by our own bureaucrats. At any moment – today or tomorrow – Parliament could repeal the 1972 Act and sovereignty would once again rest solely in the UK Parliament. In no sense is this the total and irredeemable surrender of power some would have you believe.

I remain very firmly of the belief that we should remain within the EU, albeit an EU that has been reformed, and which prioritise local self-reliance rather than unsustainable economics of free trade and growth. I support Bremain for the following reasons:
  • Jobs 3.5 million British jobs are directly linked to British membership of the EU’s single market – 1 in 10 British jobs.
  • Exports & investment The EU buys over 50% of UK exports (54% of goods, 40% of services). Over 300,000 British companies and 74% of British exporters operate in other EU markets. American and Asian EU firms build factories in Britain because it is in the single market.
  • Trade The EU negotiates trade agreements with the rest of the world. Outside the EU Britain would have to renegotiate trade deals alone. While the EU is the world’s largest market, a UK outside the EU would not be a high priority for other counties to negotiate a trade deal.
  • Consumer clout British families enjoy lower mobile phone roaming charges, lower credit card fees, cheaper flights and proper compensation when flights are delayed or cancelled. These sorts of benefits could not be achieved by Britain alone.
  • Power to curb the multinationals The EU has taken on multinational giants like Microsoft, Samsung and Toshiba for unfair competition. The UK would not be able to do this alone.
  • Freedom to work and study abroad – and easy travel 1.4 million British people live abroad in the EU. More than 14,500 UK students took part in the European Union’s Erasmus student exchange scheme in 2012-13. Driving licences issued in the UK are valid throughout the EU.
  • Clean environment Through commonly agreed EU standards, national governments have achieved improvements to the quality of air, rivers and beaches. Good for Britain and good for Britons holidaying or living abroad!
  • Peace and democracy The EU has helped secure peace among previously warring western European nations. It helped to consolidate democracy in Spain, Portugal, Greece and former Soviet bloc countries and helped preserve peace in the Balkans since the end of the Balkans War. With the UN it now plays a leading role in conflict prevention, peacekeeping and democracy building.
  • Equal pay and non-discrimination Equal pay for men and women is enshrined in EU law, as are bans on discrimination by age, race or sexual orientation. This benefits Britain and British people who live in other EU countries.
  • Influence in the world As 28 democracies, and as the world’s biggest market, we are strong when we work together. Britain is represented in many international organisations in joint EU delegations – giving Britain more influence than it would have alone. The EU has played a major role in climate, world trade and development. If we were not part of the EU we would have no influence over its laws but if we wanted to continue to trade with the EU we would have to implement its rules. Norway withdrew from the EU 40 years ago, but still enacts three-quarters of its legislation, with no say over the content of those laws.
  • Cutting red tape Common rules for the common market make it unnecessary to have 28 sets of national regulations.
  • Fighting crime The European Arrest Warrant replaced long extradition procedures and enables the UK to extradite criminals wanted in other EU countries, and bring to justice criminals wanted in the UK who are hiding in other EU countries. Eurojust helps UK authorities work with other EU countries’ to tackle international organised crime such as drug smuggling, people trafficking and money laundering.
  • Research funding The UK is the second largest beneficiary of EU research funds, and the British Government expects future EU research funding to constitute a vital source of income for our world-leading universities and companies.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

What Price Charity?



Last week, Worcester witnessed an increasingly rare spectacle: the public taking to the streets to highlight an issue of great concern. Nearly 200 of us took part in the StandUp4Care rally (https://www.facebook.com/Standupforcare/). With the county council’s budget cut by over £50m in the last two years, social care has been hit hard. Cuts to the public health budget announced recently will further significantly reduce services and support for people suffering domestic abuse, homelessness and drug or alcohol addiction. Osborne’s Autumn statement will exacerbate an already grim picture; the response of local MPs is one of compliant complacency.

Those who marched were made up of ordinary people from all backgrounds united by a desire to say that our most vulnerable can take no more. But while it was gratifying that so many were determined to take part, what really struck those of us organising the rally was just how difficult it has become to engage the charitable sector.

Charities in this country have a fantastic tradition not only of helping those most in need, but in drawing the attention of our political “masters” to their plight. One thinks of past hard-hitting campaigns from the likes of Barnardo’s and Shelter. But now charities have become cowed, frightened of appearing to be critical of government.

As government “rolls back the state”, requiring the voluntary sector to take on services that used to be undertaken by paid professionals (but with much reduced funding), charities compete with eachother for government contracts. Ever more reliant on such funding, they are no longer prepared even to nibble, let alone bite, the hand that now feeds it.

What a neat trick the government has pulled off: service provision on the cheap and a voluntary sector that no longer feels able to speak out for those who need their advocacy most.

Never have the words of Peter Finch in Network been so relevant: “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.”


Wednesday, 30 September 2015

StandUp4Care



If the treatment of our most vulnerable is an indication of how civilised a society we are, then I fear we are returning to the Stone Age. A report produced by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services warns that tens of thousands will face reduced help with basic tasks such as washing, dressing and eating as more than £1bn is cut from social care services for older and disabled people in England over the next year. Tragically, despite rising demand driven by an ageing population, fewer people will qualify for state-funded care while those who continue to receive a service may have to accept lower levels of support and a worse quality of life. The quality and reliability of local services will also suffer as a consequence of turmoil in the private care sector caused partly by an ongoing council freeze on fees, undermining attempts to maintain a “caring, compassionate and trained workforce”.

Funding to Worcestershire County Council has been cut by over £50m in the last two years. As the largest council budget, social care – personal care and social support services to children or adults in need or at risk, or adults with needs arising from illness, disability, old age or poverty – has been hit hard. 

To those of us fortunate enough not to have personal experience of mental ill health, a learning or physical disability, or simply getting older and more frail these are just meaningless numbers. For adults, children and young people dependent on the support of social care and health services these cuts mean the difference between merely surviving and having a reasonable quality of life

That is why I have joined the campaign, Stand Up 4 Care, to highlight the need for these care and support services to be protected. Please join us. (#StandUp4Care, Twitter and Facebook)

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Threat of Extremism



It was once said that “Freedom of speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose which expressions to authorise and which to prevent.” I was reminded of this during a recent debate at the District Council on its revised safeguarding policy.

The policy does an excellent job of tackling the increasingly complex and developing landscape in relation to the council’s safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable children and adults. The well-publicised failings of councils such as Rotherham have highlighted how easy it has become – especially when government has become so fragmented – for appalling abuses to go undetected. 

But within this draft was a very curious recommendation with no obvious connection to safeguarding. It would oblige local authorities to ensure “publicly-owned premises are not used to disseminate extremist views”. Schools are to be put under a similar obligation.

It’s easy to believe in freedom of speech for those with whom we agree. A mark of a truly liberal society is one that extends those same freedoms to those with whom we would profoundly disagree. To challenge repugnant ideologies, they must be heard and tackled head on with reasoned argument. Those with long memories will remember the Thatcher government’s ban on broadcasting Sinn Fein representatives. It made this country a laughing stock and strengthened worldwide support for the Republican cause.  

We should not take on those guilty of illiberalism using their same tools of oppression. We should not seek to silence those who oppose the right to freedom of speech.  

The proposal is ill thought-out. What is “extremism”? A lazy shortcut to describe those whose views fall outside the “conventional”, but in no way threaten? I have in the past used public premises to call for the renationalisation of the railways – a policy supported by 70% of Britons. Our MP – now a government minister – branded this an “extreme” left-wing proposal. Does that make me an extremist? Am I to be silenced?!

As our government hurtles headlong towards mass surveillance (a policy from which even the US government now resile) and abandoning the Human Rights Act with no clear idea of what is to replace it, we should be careful of so easily giving up hard-won freedoms.