Archive: Iraq War

I was asked a question in the comments to the previous post by an “anonymous fan“. (A fan? Wowser.)

What do you make of the Lib Dems being in government and to what extent do you still support them?

I thought the question would be of wider interest, so I have decided to respond in a full blog post.

My previous three posts about the Liberal Democrats on this blog may give some clues as to how I feel. If you haven’t read them before I recommend you take a look:

Actually, just looking at those headlines tells a worse story than is actually the case.

I have supported the Liberal Democrats for a very long time — long before I could even vote. But I was only a member for a very short period of time — less than a year.

I joined the party mostly because of my involvement with the Dunfermline Liberal Democrats, which I did to keep myself out of trouble before I found myself a job. But I didn’t use my membership very much. I voted in the Mid Scotland and Fife list selection. But beyond that, the annual subscription would just have represented money down the drain in exchange for a flimsy membership card. My decision not to renew was driven by apathy and laziness, not anger.

Why I am at ease

I am not angry with the Liberal Democrats. In fact, I am sure I am much more at ease with the situation than many Lib Dem activists are — for several reasons.

Firstly, I voted for the Lib Dems in May fully expecting them to go into coalition with the Conservatives. Going by the opinion polls, the parties’ positions, what the leaders were saying, it seemed to be clearly the most likely option. I was quite surprised that most others seemed to think it was impossible to comprehend. So I didn’t have the same sense of shock that many others seemed to.

I didn’t believe that the Lib Dems were “Labour plus fluffy kittens, minus Iraq War“, as a lot of people seemed to think. I support the Lib Dems because they are a liberal party. This is the complete opposite of Labour’s core ideology, which is of big government and authoritarian encroachments on civil liberties.

In case you can’t tell, I despise Labour. The idea of them being in power right now chills me. They don’t even know what to say in opposition, never mind what to do in government.

So I am happy that the Lib Dems made the best choice in choosing to go into coalition with the Conservatives (not that Labour were ever interested in joining forces with the Lib Dems anyway). The Conservatives at least have a more liberal wing, which is lacking in Labour.

Of course, coalition government is not easy — but it’s not supposed to be. By its very nature it involves compromise, and not all of them are comfortable compromises to make. But this is the nature of the situation.

Damaged reputation is a blow to liberalism

The most painful aspect is the damage that has been done to the Lib Dems’ reputation, which makes it seem less likely that the party will do well in future. This is a big blow to liberalism.

Promises have been broken. But they always are, even in good economic times, even with a thumping majority. Just look at Labour. The SNP Scottish Government has managed it too, although they have the excuse of being a minority administration. The Lib Dems’ excuse is that they are in coalition.

Sadly, it seems like the political culture here is not yet mature enough to tolerate the idea of making compromises. That is a shame, as it is also a blow to the campaign for proportional representation, which faces a big moment in a couple of months.

In general, I feel quite sorry for Nick Clegg. I think he has done a reasonably good job in a no-win situation, and I haven’t found much to be angry about yet.

But I wouldn’t describe myself as a supporter of the Liberal Democrats. As I have said before, governments are to be opposed, not supported. It is quite right that the Lib Dems are scrutinised in government. Not all of the scrutiny has been fair in my view, but I am not about to push against the scrutiny.

A few days ago I wrote optimistically about the prospect of a coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Now that we have a coalition for real, I feel even more cheered.

Part of my argument in my earlier post was that there needs to be cultural change in politics. When I listened to the radio last night and heard David Cameron and Nick Clegg enthusing about the “new politics”, I felt like a major hurdle had been crossed. Of course, a lot of it is probably hollow rhetoric. But with the parties’ actions so far, they have shown that they can put aside party differences and constructively work together. This is — without a doubt — a great thing.

Is there enough action on the voting system?

Of course, it is not easy to stomach some of the things the Liberal Democrats have had to concede. For instance, I did not think a referendum on Alternative Vote represented radical enough electoral reform to secure agreement.

Another Liberal Democrat member I know was much more enthusiastic than me a few days ago. Believing that AV can be a staging post to proper electoral reform. I don’t like the idea of having to change the voting system several times if it is possible to make the right change once.

But we have to be pragmatic about it. On this issue, the Conservatives have given up a lot of ground. They have never shown any sign of being interested in moving from first past the post, but now they have opened the door that may let it happen. I’m sure if I was a Conservative, I would be feeling much more pain over this than I am as a Liberal Democrat.

The cabinet

All-in-all, I think the Liberal Democrats have done very well out of this deal. They have just 16% of the MPs, but have secured a lot of power. I was surprised that they have ended up with five cabinet seats, even though none of them (with the exception of Deputy PM) are particularly big posts.

In fact, the way the Lib Dem cabinet posts have been handed out seems to be more about convenience. They couldn’t credibly leave Vince Cable out, but making him Business Secretary keeps him at arms length from the George Osborne’s plans for economic policy.

Giving a Lib Dems the Energy and Climate Change job is also quite convenient for both parties. The Conservatives can be associated with green policies while being able to explain it away to grass roots members who may not agree with action on climate change.

And isn’t it useful to be able to give a Liberal Democrat the role of Scottish Secretary? With one move, the Conservatives have insulated themselves from accusations that the government doesn’t represent Scotland.

On the Conservative side, the picture is very mixed from my point of view. The party’s “good guys” (chiefly Kenneth Clarke and William Hague) are outweighed by the more dislikeable element (George Osborne, Liam Fox, etc.).There has already been criticism for the appointment of Theresa May as Equalities Minister. This is an odd choice for a party that is trying to avoid its “nasty party” image!

Policy

On policy, too, my feelings are mixed.

I am delighted with the political reforms, that have been proposed. It looks like reform of the House of Lords — using proportional representation no less! — may finally happen, along with a reduction in the number of MPs and the ability to “sack” corrupt MPs.

Political reform was one area where Labour did well in its early days in 1997, but it had long run out of steam and dithered on making reforms that have become overdue. The agreements in this area made by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats offer a lot of promise in my view.

The Liberal Democrats have lost big time on foreign policy though. My views on immigration are probably even more liberal than what the party had outlined in its manifesto. But it is clear that this issue, along with the party’s stance on the euro and Europe in general, is a big electoral liability for the Lib Dems. As such, it is no surprise that the Lib Dems have had to drop its policies here. It’s disappointing, but understandable.

Nor am I very happy that the Conservative proposal to give tax breaks to married couples has been given the go-ahead.

Civil liberties — the great area of agreement

But while some of the Conservatives’ social policies still seem a bit antiquated, they offer a great deal of hope on the issue of civil liberties. At last, the relentless assault on civil liberties will be reversed by the new government.

The attitude towards civil liberties is central to the Lib Dems’ ideology, and crucially it is also an area in which the Conservatives have good form. This is one of the core reasons why I favour the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition. At long last, we have a liberal government. The Conservatives can help deliver a genuinely liberal agenda in a way that Labour simply don’t know how.

What’s to hate about the Tories?

While the Conservative party still generate a lot of anger among some, it’s not clear to me just why. Thatcher is 20-year-old news, and no-one holds Labour to account for Michael Foot’s policies.

I think the left must realise because you hear the shrieks of “poll tax” much less often than you did even just a couple of years ago. I have found it very interesting that time and again people instead bring up fox hunting. Admittedly, this is sometimes in a light-hearted way. But it has clearly become the new lazy way of criticising the Conservatives.

Is fox hunting really the worst thing about the Conservatives today? If so, I see no reason to worry too much. It’s an odd issue to get worked up about. If you are worried about a few dead foxes, why don’t thousands of dead Iraqis matter so much?

Let’s be fair. Labour have had their time, and it was not pretty for a liberal. It has been 13 years. Let’s at least give the Conservatives a chance.

Overall: a tentative thumbs up

There’s no doubt about it — there be dragons, potentially. Both sides will have plenty to disagree with, and a lot of it is difficult to swallow.

But this is the way coalitions work. We see coalitions work like this in democracies around the world, and they have worked in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I am delighted at the grown-up way in which the political parties have handled the situation. Although some voters clearly have a bit to go, this bodes well for the idea that this country truly is ready for positive political reform. A “new politics” gets the thumbs-up from me — but time will tell whether it can last.

Most of all, it pleases greatly me to see a liberal — big ‘L’ and small ‘l’ — government. It already feels like a breath of fresh air.

No doubt, election night was a very disappointing one for me. I was involved in the Liberal Democrat campaign in Dunfermline, and I attended the count.

There was disappointment in Dunfermline — but we always expected it to be very difficult to hang on there. So while it was very disappointing to lose in Dunfermline, I was, in a way, braced for it.

The national story was, however, different. I first heard news about the exit poll at about 22.10. I was crestfallen, but hoped that the poll was wrong. By the time I emerged from the count just after 2am, it was clear that nationally the picture was pretty bleak for the Liberal Democrats.

It was a real blow given that there was so much to be hopeful about during the campaign. Even though the Lib Dems had clearly fallen back to third place in the opinion polls in the last week of the campaign, it was still a very strong third place in comparison to what the Lib Dems will have been expecting before the first televised Prime Ministerial debate.

Even taking into account the perverse voting system used in Westminster elections, I thought a good result would be more than 80 seats, and I was expecting some sort of gain at the very least. For the Lib Dems to actually lose seats absolutely shocked me.

Voters have crude tools to send out complex messages

It is clear that lots of people voted for complicated tactical reasons on polling day. From what I have heard, it was clear on the doorsteps in Dunfermline on Thursday that even hard Lib Dems were switching to Labour on the last day.

Even among voters for whom the Lib Dems are their first choice, it seems as though waking up on Thursday with David Cameron’s posh face on the front page all of the Conservative-supporting newspapers calibrated people’s minds back to the old-fashioned mindset that an election is a two-way contest between the Conservatives and Labour.

That is why the opinion polls in the run-up to the general election came out with such a different message to the final exit poll. Essentially the polls ask two different questions. When you are asked about the general election before polling day, you tend to think of it in more abstract terms. People think about their genuine favourite.

But for some people standing in the polling station holding the stubby pencil under the spotlight, it all seems a bit different. Voters aren’t stupid. They know that the voting system really makes the contest a fight between Labour and the Conservatives. So many people were voting on the issue of who they disliked least between David Cameron and Gordon Brown, rather than who was their favourite candidate on the ballot paper.

That is certainly what happened in Dunfermline and West Fife. Labour’s leaflets made much of the fact that the general election was a contest between Labour and the Conservatives. Despite the personal popularity of Willie Rennie, the SNP’s voters shifted en masse to Labour.

Willie Rennie’s share of the vote went down only slightly, from 35.8% to 35.1% on a much higher turnout. But the SNP collapsed — going from 21.0% in 2006 to just 10.6% on Thursday. Nationalists switched to Labour to send an anti-Tory message.

It seems as though the picture was the same across the country, with tactical voting winning out. The swings were all over the shop across the country, as voters attempted to send out a complex message with only the crude tool of the inadequate first past the post voting system available to them.

Electoral reform must now be at the top of the agenda

This is why electoral reform is essential. It is not just about the fact that the parties’ share of the seats bears little relation to the share of the votes. It is that it fundamentally alters the behaviour of voters, forcing them to vote for what they don’t want more than what they do want. Voters must at least be given the opportunity to express more than one preference.

It is no surprise that the big story of the day has been about the demonstrations for electoral reform. With a result like this, and a hung parliament, there has never been a better chance to change the voting system. It now must be the top priority. We must not allow it to be swept under the carpet once again, as Labour did in 1997.

But there are bigger hurdles to negotiate than just the voting system. It has become clear to me in the past couple of days that major cultural change is also required.

Many people have a poisonous obsession with “strong government”. Strong government is not what is needed. In fact, strong government is dangerous government. For some reason, the idea that someone can just push through their policies without having to seek the agreement of others is not really on. Why cross-party support is supposed to be a bad thing is beyond me.

Clegg correct to consider Conservative coalition

Then we come to the hoo-ha over the potential that the Lib Dems might reach an agreement with the Conservatives. I find it most odd that Liberal Democrat voters, who are in favour of some form of proportional representation, should be getting into a flap about this.

It seems like a straightforward equation. If you want proportional representation, you expect to need coalitions to form a government (or have a minority government). This means potentially having to work with parties that you may not agree with. It’s called compromise. We need to be grown up enough to accept it.

In this instance, it has always been made clear by Nick Clegg that he would talk first to the party that had the most seats in the House of Commons. That is the Conservative party, and it is right that he should explore the option.

The alternative option of propping up Gordon Brown, a deeply unpopular Prime Minister whose party made significant losses on Thursday, would in turn expose the Lib Dems to accusations of being undemocratic. It would also make them deeply unpopular among non-Labour voters.

Not only that, but the arithmetic doesn’t really add up. Labour plus the Lib Dems wouldn’t have enough seats, so you need to throw in some other parties too. There is talk about bringing in the SNP and Plaid Cymru and other yet smaller parties. But it seems like some desperate scraping of the rusty barrel.

Liberal Democrats — and the electorate as a whole — should be mature about this situation. True, the Lib Dems should not just join up with the Tories unless they make significant concessions — and electoral reform must be at the very top of the agenda. But the option should always be considered.

Otherwise, the Lib Dems risk becoming a mere appendage of the Labour party. That is what has happened in the Scottish Parliament, with the result that they have become completely impotent; an electoral irrelevance. If you think the Lib Dems should only ever consider talking to Labour, then you would probably be better off joining the Labour party. The Lib Dems need to be brave and flex their muscles, otherwise they will become Labour’s lapdog.

The Liberal Democrats is not just a “left wing” party. It is a liberal party. But Labour has a fundamentally illiberal ideology. While there are many areas of agreement between the two parties, Labour is also the party of ID cards, illegal wars, points-based immigration systems and biometic anal probes (I may have made one of those up).

While it is true that the Conservatives can happily outpace Labour in an authoritarianism competition, the Conservative party does at least have a liberal wing, the sort which simply does not exist in the Labour party. So a liberal party should not be frightened of teaming up with the Tories, as long as their more authoritarian elements can be reined in.

While it is clear that the Conservatives are the one party in Westminster most opposed to electoral reform, they are at least principled in their opposition. Labour changes its mind based on its self-interest. If they genuinely wanted to change the voting system, they had 13 years in which to do it — but they didn’t.

Labour’s “support” for electoral reform is hollow and opportunistic. Lallands Peat Worrier makes the point that a big fat zero of Labour’s MSPs supported the idea of using proportional representation for Westminster elections when the Scottish Parliament voted on the issue just a few weeks ago.

This is a big opportunity to make electoral reform actually happen and to make the potential of a government led by the nasty party significantly less nasty. If nothing else, Lib Dem supporters should be much more open to it — if only to prove the point that coalitions can work after all. It just requires the maturity to let it happen.

If you haven’t read my previous post explaining what I’m trying to do here, feel free to take a look.

In this post I will set out the thinking behind my views on Scottish independence.

For what it’s worth, I think within a couple of decades the idea of the independent nation state will almost be completely alien. In a lot of ways, it already is. In an increasingly globalised world, countries are increasingly defined not in terms of their own peculiar characteristics but in terms of their relationships with other countries.

For instance, we think of countries as being members of transnational organisations. Countries are usually members of organisations such as the EU, Nato, the UN, the Commonwealth, any number of free trade blocs, special relationships… I could go on.

I have never heard it suggested that the SNP, or supporters of independence as a whole, would wish to do away with Scotland’s membership and / or use of such transnational institutions and agreements (though I’m aware that the SNP is opposed to membership of Nato — just making the point that it’s not the principle of such institutions that the SNP objects to). Nor should they. But unquestionably each of these in some way limits the independence of any country that signs up to it.

So what makes these institutions good (or at least tolerable) while Westminster is so bad? What I struggle to understand about the independence supporter’s position is why there is seemingly no part for Westminster to play in any plans for Scotland’s future.

To bring us back on to common ground, I should point out that my views are almost certainly driven by the same motivations that drive the feelings behind support for independence. Notably this would be the principle of subsidiarity, which means that decisions should be taken at as local a level as feasibly possible. As such, I would support an extension of the Scottish Parliament’s powers in many areas.

But it seems to me unreal to believe that there can be no role for Westminster; that there should be no reserved matters. One thing that is pretty neat about the UK is that most of it is made up of Great Britain, a relatively conveniently-sized island. It is certainly not too big to be adequately governed. It would seem quite silly not to take advantage of this geographical reality.

There are surely areas where the economies of scale trump subsidiarity. Foreign policy and defence might be one area, although I understand that many supporters of independence would find this difficult to swallow after the Iraq War (though a lot of people in the rest of the UK find the Iraq War difficult to swallow as well.)

National disasters could be another area. For instance, the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak which affected both Scotland and England with Cumbria, right on the border, especially hit hard. In such a crisis situation, if the government had to place certain restrictions, or even emergency legislation had to be passed, it would be more efficient (and less costly) for there to be just one government involved rather than have to set up meetings so that you could get multiple governments to agree to a solution.

I’m not saying that it would be impossible for multiple governments to agree. But it would surely be efficient enough to make it worthwhile for there to be a UK-wide system in place. And having two governments involved would only double the chances of there being a cock-up, there is the danger that there will be crossed wires and so forth.

Of course, we are in a bit of a crisis at the moment. Alex Salmond has made much about what an independent Scotland maybe might have possibly been able to achieve. This is mostly fantasy talk though, because we have no way of knowing how an independent Scotland would have coped (meanwhile one of an independent Scotland’s blueprints, Iceland, is facing quite acute difficulty at the moment — sorry for straying off the fluffy consensus-seeking territory there!). I suspect Salmond is only using the crisis to advocate independence, but as leader of the SNP that’s his job.

But there has been plenty of hand-wringing among commentators about how difficult it has been to get world leaders to agree on the best way to tackle this global crisis. What if some kind of major crisis hit the former members of the UK and the leaders got into a stalemate? You can say we have that in this globalised world anyway and there’s nothing we can do about it. But creating even more failure points is hardly a constructive way to approach this.

So that is, in brief, the thinking behind my view on the constitution — how I see powers being distributed between Westminster and Holyrood. I’m delighted to see that Adopted Domain has already written his take on this, and I think our viewpoints are quite similar. A good start!

Now that there has been some time to allow the result of the Glasgow East by-election, I feel like posting some thoughts that are less drunken and kneejerk than my previous post. Originally this was going to be one post, but I ended up blabbing for almost 3,000 words so I have split this into three separate posts which will appear one-by-one over the coming days.

First of all, I’ve spotted a few people south of the border wondering about the impact of the result on the union. For instance, Jennie at The Yorkeshire Gob, Jonathan Calder at Liberal England.

I might be on my own here, but my impression is that people in Scotland simply are not asking that same question. I must say that, as far as I can see it, the Glasgow East by-election result could hardly mean less for the union. Although the SNP are proud — and rightly so — of their victory last week, the reality is that this was much more of a Labour loss than an SNP win. Deep down, I think the SNP know that too.

I read (or heard, I can’t remember) a good analysis of Labour’s current woes. I have completely forgotten where I saw this, but the analysis was this. While the people of England and Wales have fallen out of love with Gordon Brown, the people of Scotland have fallen out of love of the Labour Party.

As regular readers may remember, I have from time to time been quite exasperated at how much people (perhaps particularly people south of the border) are still prepared to give the Labour Party the benefit of the doubt time and time again. I think now I understand why. The Labour Party in Scotland acts differently to the Labour Party in the rest of the UK. It’s certainly perceived differently.

Here in Scotland, voters smell the stench of corruption in the Labour Party. When you bear this in mind, as Holyrood Watcher points out, it’s not so difficult to understand why Labour lost in Glasgow East.

It is not just financial wrongdoings either — it’s a sense that Labour took its core voters for granted. There is a mega mega backlash against Labour in its core constituencies in Scotland.

Take my part of the world, Fife, as an example. Until recently, Fife was completely red apart from in the slightly more rural north-eastern part where Menzies Campbell enjoys a healthy majority.

That changed in 2006 when the Liberal Democrats took the Dunfermline and West Fife seat in a by-election, overturning a significant Labour majority. That was an election that Labour shouldn’t really have lost. But the loss was just blamed on Iraq, or whatever, and people shrugged their shoulders and carried on.

Then last year in the Scottish Parliamentary elections the SNP pulled off a surprise by winning Fife Central. It wasn’t the safest of Labour seats, but it was still a sign that Fife wasn’t quite the Labour heartland it used to be.

That was in the Scottish Parliamentary election. But if I remember correctly, the SNP are fairly confident that they will win the roughly corresponding Westminster constituency of Glenrothes. I have relatives in Glenrothes and apparently there is a lot of support for the SNP there.

Assuming the Lib Dems cling on to their two other seats in Fife, that would leave Labour with just one seat in Fife — Gordon Brown’s in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, where I live. Given the massive unpopularity of Gordon Brown at the moment, any “halo effect” there might have been will probably have vanished, and who is to say that the SNP cannot win here? Come the Westminster election I am planning to vote for the SNP to get rid of Labour.

And here is the thing. The SNP can probably count on much of its support for this reason. It is an anti-Labour thing rather than a pro-SNP thing. That can be seen from the fact that (according to my line of events anyway — your mileage may vary!) the ball was started rolling by the Lib Dems.

For a while I thought that the significant anti-Labour vote would mean that whichever party was in the best position to beat Labour in a particular constituency would grab the votes. Come the Scottish Parliamentary election it didn’t quite work out that way and the only real beneficiaries were the SNP.

I guess in the end the Lib Dems were unable to gain in the same way for a number of reasons. First of all, the media coverage made the election into a Labour vs. SNP battle pretty early on. Also, the Lib Dems did not run a great campaign from what I could see, and I never thought Nicol Stephen was up to much as leader.

Also, the Lib Dems were tainted by association. It was difficult for them to capitalise on the anti-Labour vote when they were having to spend the election campaign defending their record as part of a coalition partnership with Labour. That’s why the SNP capitalised on the Labour backlash and the Lib Dems didn’t.

Erk. I had a big pile of things I wanted to write about. But a lack of time and a mild bout of blog depression have meant I haven’t been updating. I didn’t realise my last post was as long ago as last Wednesday, but there we go.

Anyway, before I can get motivated enough to write something decent, I thought I’d mention an interesting article I read in last week’s Economist. It touches on a similar topic recently covered on this blog — student apathy.

In addition to the idea that students are politically motivated in general, there is also a stereotype that most of them tend to be left-wing. The statistics in The Economist‘s article then make for very interesting reading.

In 2004–2005 the Liberal Democrats were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most popular party among students. What’s surprising is the fact that they apparently had the support of over 50% of students! Amazing. Of course, that period saw them at the height of their powers due to their stance on the hugely unpopular Iraq War. Since then, in a reflection of the wider trend, support for the Lib Dems has fallen a fair amount.

That probably correlates a lot with my political views. Back in 2004–2005 I was quite an ardent supporter of the Lib Dems. Now I am more lukewarm.

What is also perhaps surprising is that Labour’s support has not decreased all that much. Even though Labour are limping around, the long-term trend among students is more topsy-turvy and the fall certainly isn’t as dramatic as the Lib Dems’. Nevertheless, fallen they have.

So the Conservatives now apparently have the support of 45% of students. Interesting. The Economist has been having a bit of fun and games with this. “A man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, whereas one who is still a socialist at 40 has no head” — so are today’s students heartless?

I suppose one obvious response to this would be to say that Labour are not socialists. But nor are the Conservatives. You would expect a surge in support for the Greens or another far-left party (SSP / Respect / what-have-you). But the Tories?

I think the answer lies more in this:

For today’s young rebels in search of a cause, the Left is the establishment: an 18-year-old starting university this autumn will have been just seven when Labour came to power.

Students are not disproportionately left-wing in my view. If they were, then they aren’t now. I think most people my age are pretty weary of socialism because a basic reading of its history should tell you to be weary of it. In my highly unscientific and no doubt prejudicial straw poll that I have conducted in my head, many of the most left-wing people at university were also the ones who probably had the highest incomes.

Just as for those who grew up in the 1980s the Conservatives were the establishment party not to be trusted, today’s youngsters are growing up with a deep, deep resentment towards the Labour party. These days it is almost certainly cooler to be a Conservative supporter than a Labour supporter. And given Labour’s record in government, who can blame students for thinking so?

As a side-effect, if it finally means the world will finally be rid of those deeply hypocritical Che Guevara t-shirts, then thank goodness for that!

It is often said that the most despised people in the country are journalists and estate agents. And while these people sometimes are indeed prize toss pots, there are two other professions that I despise above all others. Actors and politicians. Thing is, acting and being a politician is essentially the same job. They’re not wrong when they say politics is showbusiness for ugly people. Both aspire to earn money by spending their life being insincere. You can’t admire that.

But unlike many, I cannot bring myself to hate Boris Johnson in particular. That’s not because LOL I like his funnee hair and he is a legernd. (I do find it amusing, though, that people will — without a trace of irony — cite this article and others by the (admittedly excellent) Charlie Brooker saying “LOL! CHARLIE BROOKER IS A LEGEND!” It’s all a bit Dan Ashcroft if you ask me. But never mind.)

No, the real reason I don’t hate Boris Johnson is because I can’t stand politicians full stop. To single out one person the way some single out Boris Johnson seems incredibly unfair to me. And the reaction among some people to his election as London Mayor has left me in despair about the state of political discourse right now.

So I was glad to see the balance redressed somewhat by the excellent Nosemonkey yesterday. I was beginning to think I was the only one who couldn’t understand why so many people were queuing up to pour effluent on the man.

It is slightly dangerous territory for me to be talking about London politics. Everything I wrote here applies. But I have been spurred into blogging about this for two reasons. One is that the position of London Mayor is pretty much the only major directly elected post in the country and its effects inevitably reverberate around the country. The second is that the debate itself merits comment because it reflects the shoddy standard of political discourse in the UK as a whole.

I will refrain from commenting too much on the policies of either candidate. I know too little about the policies and obviously my opinions could well be different were I actually a Londoner. But I would probably have reluctantly voted for Brian Paddick. I would probably not have allocated my second preference. Choosing between Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson is a bit like choosing between shit and shite. Forced at gunpoint however, I would plump for Johnson.

I have, after all, voted for him before. A couple of years ago Boris Johnson stood in the election to become Rector of Edinburgh University. He was an early favourite, but then that shady coalition of Labour / Green / People and Planet / whatever in EUSA went on the offensive to produce a highly negative campaign based on Boris Johnson’s support for tuition fees.

The students, being self-interested, rational utility maximisers, decided to vote against the possibility of being seen to favour tuition fees. I voted on principle against this subsidy for the middle class.

Today we have the completely anonymous Mark Ballard as our Rector. Don’t know who Mark Ballard is? Don’t blame you. He used to be a Green MSP but was such a nonentity that he was voted out last year. As such, a genuine nobody is Rector of Edinburgh University. The guy we could have had is now Mayor of London. (Even Magnus Linklater would have been better. I actually met him while he was campaigning and he seemed rather pleasant.)

It is true that Boris Johnson is a bit of a clown. But I don’t see why this is necessarily a barrier to being in public office. People always drone on about how boring politicians are. They complain about bland inoffensive leaders — Blairs, Camerons, Cleggs and the like — who silence independent thinkers or anyone who could be seen as a loose cannon. They despise those Milliblands et al. who climb the greasy pole, toe the party line and so on. And quite rightly.

But then when someone who is charismatic, who is an independent thinker, who will not toe the party line comes along, apparently he is unfit for office. You can’t have it both ways.

Plus, the notion that over a million Londoners voted for Boris Johnson “just for a laugh” is highly patronising. I am pretty misanthropic, but even my hatred for the electorate does not stoop this low. I do not doubt that some people voted for Johnson on this basis, but to put his victory down to this phenomenon alone is surely wide of the mark. It makes you look petulant.

Also, I surely need not say that voting against Boris Johnson because he is a character is every bit as pathetic as voting for him for that reason. Yet, as far as I can tell, it is the number one reason why people have been so averse to a Johnson victory. It is also odd that people should complain about Johnson for being famous for being maverick, only to vote for Ken Livingston who… is famous for being a maverick.

To say that because Boris is a bumbler when he talks means that he will be a bumbler in control of London is pathetic. Political leaders don’t “run” anything — that’s the job of the civil service and what have you. Boris Johnson won’t be sitting in front of a real-life game of Sim City. Political leaders are public figureheads who canvass opinion, bring ideas to the table and direct policy and they are only one (albeit prominent) branch in a large tree. I see nothing in Boris Johnson’s character that will prohibit him from doing this job just fine.

And being a clown is, at least, a whole lot better than being malicious. Because that is what Livingstone is. While the character assassinations of Boris Johnson are ten a penny, people on the left tend to be an awful lot more quiet about Livingstone’s many failings. His inexplicable inability to simply apologise to Oliver Finegold for his drunken remarks; his failure to distance himself from homophobic Islamist Yusuf al-Qaradawi; his hokey-cokey in-out-in-out, I’m not running, yes I am but as an independent, then I’ll rejoin the Labour party, shake it all about. Don’t forget also that he rushed to the door like a yapping dog with its tail wagging to make excuses for the brutal shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes.

Of course, Boris Johnson is not just a clown. He is a toff. And he is a Tory. Booooo!

Well, all I can say to that is, grow up. This is just the most pathetic way to discuss politics. If you have to resort to invoking the days of Thatcher to persuade people not to vote Conservative, you must be scraping the barrel. Yet it is a staple of British political discourse.

The Labour Government could go round the country literally raping everyone. When someone calls them up on it, you can be sure the Government will turn round and splutter, “Ah yes — but the Tories brought you the POLL TAX. Booooo!” And the sheep on the left will be won over. They will hi-5 each other for what they see as an excellent sucker-punch (which is in fact a tired, over-used, irrelevant line), hiss at the Tories and let the Labour Government get back to raping everyone again.

I am in little position to comment on how bad Margaret Thatcher’s government was because I am too young to remember anything substantial of it. But it seems to me as though Thatcher is vilified mostly for ushering in some changes that were no doubt difficult to take at the time but which were necessary in the long run. Socialism is a discredited ideology — almost the entire history of the twentieth century should tell you this. Almost every other comparable country has gone through a similar process. Besides, Labour has done little to reverse this, so to turn to them while blaming Thatcher is hollow.

Even if I am wrong on this, you must realise that invoking Thatcher will not cut it much longer. For one thing, this stuff happened twenty or thirty years ago. Many voters (like myself) now do not even remember that far back, and politics and the Conservative Party are operating in very different environments now. It’s not fair on today’s Conservatives to punish them for the actions of the previous generation, and it takes the people with whom you are debating for mugs to crudely reduce everything to this. And it makes you look like a tosser as well.

The thing is, the Conservatives may have the Poll Tax (from twenty years ago). But Labour have the Iraq War (with goodness knows how many people killed) from this decade. There was their bullying approach to the media that went along with the Iraq War in this decade. They have created a climate of fear and general suspicion of anyone with “Mongolian eyes”, leading to at least one unnecessary death in this decade. They have turned this country into the most spied-upon in the world in this decade. They have begun to construct the database state, with all the security risks that entails, along with the hopelessly expensive ID cards in this decade.

They have abolished the 10p income tax rate. That would be bad enough from the Conservatives, but for a “Labour” government it shows a scandalous disregard for the concept of the progressive tax system. Labour have treated the voters with utter contempt, taking their position in power for granted.

Although I have moved on to the more general point about the standard of political discourse, this is related to the recent Mayoral contest. You could argue that all that has nothing to do with Ken Livingstone. But he helped legitimise all this by re-joining the Labour Party at the height of Tony Blair’s courtship with George Bush.

With all of this blood on their hands, with their power-grabbing, and their utter contempt for civil liberties, what is it that keeps them in power? The best response is “Maggie stole my milk… in 1970″? Get real. This approach has literally allowed the Labour Government to get away with murder. Why should I be prepared to give this Labour mob another chance?

You could argue that whatever Labour do, the Conservatives must always be worse because they are more “right wing”. But this argument does not cut it either. For one thing, it is precisely this approach that allows Labour to get away with all of this. The left just shrug their shoulders and mumble, “could be worse”. The Conservatives, on the other hand, are scrutinised for slightest bawhair of a possibility that they might infringe on people’s liberties. I am certain that the Conservatives would never have been allowed to get away with the Iraq War, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, ID cards and you name it in the way that Labour have been. This alone is reason enough to vote Labour out.

Furthermore, to expect the Labour Party to take a liberal approach is asking too much of them. Their traditional ideology is not liberalism, contrary to what some might tell you. It is socialism. Say what you like about the Conservatives, but at least they have a liberal wing in their party. With Labour you just get one kind of authoritarianism or another.

As for the argument that Boris Johnson will not be a good leader because he is a toff, that is just nonsensical bigotry of the highest order. Being of a certain social class should be not a barrier to holding office. After all, Boris Johnson did not choose his father.

Anyone who knows me will know that I am not rich in the slightest. But if I happened to have been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I would like to think that I would not be subjected to this kind of bigotry. Justin in the comments at Nosemonkey’s says,

I tell you what, I will [get over the class prejudice] if they will. You obviously haven’t been swimming in some of the Tory cesspits I have in the last few months.

I am not a “party identifier” — at least not between Labour and the Conservatives. I was brought up by SNP-supporting parents. As I grew up I drifted towards the Liberal Democrats. From this position, I see a great deal more “snide remarks, personal attacks and class prejudice” from Labour supporters than I do from Conservative supporters. In fact, it is one of the things that has ultimately turned me completely off the Labour Party over the past few years.

I obviously haven’t been swimming in Justin’s Tory cesspits either. But if anyone can find me an example of someone saying that you should not vote for someone because they are too working class to do their job properly, I would happily accept defeat on this point. But I have never heard it said. But to complain that someone is too posh is par for the course.

Besides, to attack the Conservatives for being full of toffs misses the fact that plenty of Labour members are also toffs. Tony Blair isn’t exactly a miner. And the stuff about Gordon Brown being from a working class area only tells half the story. I have lived almost all my life in that same working class area, and people round here know that he was a privileged son of the manse who got special treatment during his education. So it’s vote Tory, get a toff; vote Labour, get a toff. Not that this should matter in the slightest of course.

To bring all of this back to where I started, remember that I am not a supporter of Boris Johnson. My point is that Boris Johnson as Mayor of London is not remotely as offensive as some people are making out.

This is a personal view, but I would never vote for someone seeking a third term unless they were exceptionally appealing. But the third term is when the rot sets in, if it didn’t during the second term. That’s when power gets to their heads. That’s when they lose touch of reality. In this light, a change is not all that bad.

Believe it or not, Labour do not have a divine right to power. Even Scotland, with all of its Labour rotten boroughs in the west, realised this last year. Just like in London, “the enemy” got in instead. While you may argue that the SNP are not Tories, they are nonetheless loathsome. But guess what. Scotland didn’t implode one year ago when they were elected. In fact, the SNP administration is a breath of fresh air, and it’s certainly a lot better than the prospect of a third Labour-dominated Executive. I don’t see why Boris Johnson should be different.

Of course, he could very well be a disaster. But the point is that candidates shouldn’t be judged on their background, their hairstyle or the colour of their rosette. They should be judged on their policies and their record. I’ve skim-read Boris Johnson’s manifesto and I have not seen anything particularly offensive and I see nothing that disqualifies him in my mind. Even if people do disagree with Johnson’s policies, this is fair enough — but I didn’t hear any of it. I just heard about his posh accent.

I am greatly saddened by the nature of the debate and the sheer hypocrisy that so many people are showing. Too many people are making terrible excuses for a disastrous Labour government. I blame these people for the road this country is headed down.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Maybe I am asking too much. But any notion I had before that political ideologies are formed, debated and voted for on the basis of rational, intelligent thought have been shattered this week. What Geoffrey Brennan and Loren Lomasky said was true after all. Voting for a political party is just like supporting a football team for some people, with accident of birth and plain old prejudice at the basis of their support. I’d prefer it if these people could leave their childish desire to be part of a tribe in the football ground rather than in the ballot box where they are controlling my life.

The cheesy line goes, “if you don’t vote, you get the politicians you deserve.” Well, it’s not true. Politicians can’t do anything without votes. But if you vote for someone because they are the “least worst” or because “at least they’re not the Tories”, then you do get the politicians you deserve. My anger stems from the fact that I do not deserve these politicians.

Update: I’ve written a second post on this topic. I hope this concisely clarifies my intentions with this post. I also respond to the feedback.

It was my turn to write this week’s Scottish Roundup (nominations always welcome of course, even if it’s nothing to do with politics). I keep an eye on the Scottish blogs throughout the week in preparation, and towards the end of the week it became pretty clear that one particular wee stooshie had to be covered.

Labour blogger Kezia Dugdale has been involved in a campaign called Scotland for Obama. SNP blogger Calum Cashley was none too impressed. Then a number of other bloggers — SNP supporters among them — decided to take Calum Cashley to task.

I have to confess that I’m not a great fan of Calum Cashley’s blog. To me, it seems unnecessarily confrontational, negative, sarcastic and maybe even a bit boorish. It’s certainly not the sort of thing that would persuade me to vote for him come election time. But despite the response to his most recent post, in this instance I’m probably more inclined to agree with Cashley.

Maybe it’s just a reflection of my increasingly anti-political or apolitical (certainly in terms of party politics) viewpoint (I will consider the roots of this in a future post if I can get round to it). But there is something about the amount of attention that the US Presidential election receives that rubs me up the wrong way a bit. It’s not that I don’t recognise that the position of US President isn’t an incredibly powerful one. But political campaigns in general are starting to really get my goat.

Mostly, it is the implication that a campaign like Scotland for Obama will make a difference. It just comes across as a bit attention seeking. “Look at me and look at how much I care!”

I am pretty sceptical of most political campaigning. Of course, I have my views. But I have never joined a club, I’ve never gone on a demonstration and I’ve never worn any political t-shirts. This is because I know it will make next to no difference.

Come election time, of course, I love it. I stay up all night to watch the results. It’s great fun to cheer on the good guys and boo the baddies. As Jeff says in the tagline to his blog, “Elections – Probably the Best Spectator Sport in the World”. But beyond that, what does political campaigning mean?

Do I need to go on a rally to prove how much I care? Not really. Will the Scotland for Obama campaign make a jot of difference to the outcome of the election? I hardly think so. In fact, as Calum Cashley rightly points out, if enough Americans find out that those pinko Europeans are campaigning in Obama’s favour, if anything it will probably have a negative effect.

I am not sure it’s my position to tell Americans how to vote anyway. I know it has been pointed out in the posts I have linked to above that Scotland for Obama is not intended to tell Americans how to vote. But the point still stands.

Imagine if the boot was on another foot. What if somewhere in America a group of people gathered to express their support for, say, David Cameron. What would you think of it? I would think they were the most enormous fools. I would roll my eyes. I might ignore them. But it would more likely make me even less inclined to vote for Cameron.

The thing is that our viewpoint is unquestionably altered by the fact that we don’t live in America. The issues, the agenda and the political climate are completely different over there.

I know that whenever I have heard visiting foreign students express an opinion about Scottish politics (there is no shortage of this in the Edinburgh Uni politics department) it has often been the most ill-informed bum drizzle. You can’t blame them for that. They cannot possibly have as good a feel for the issues as someone like me who has barely set foot out of Scotland. They are projecting their views on American (or whatever) politics onto a map of Scotland. But it’s a square peg in a round hole.

I recognise that the same phenomenon would occur in reverse. In deference to this, I mostly keep my viewpoints on other countries’ politics to myself. I have my own opinions, of course. I do care what goes on in other countries. But you wouldn’t find me going around the place wearing an Obama badge or anything like that.

I have done a few of those online quizzes that tell you which candidate you should vote for. The results are here and here. When I did those quizzes though, there were a number of questions that I didn’t have the first clue about. In some cases I had not even heard of the issues and I couldn’t possibly have an opinion on them.

The same even applies when you’re in the same country. When I tried out Vote Match London about a quarter of the questions were about issues that I had never heard of, and half of the questions I had no opinion on whatsoever. For what it’s worth, it told me that I should vote for Boris Johnson. Would I vote for Boris Johnson if I was an actual Londoner? I simply don’t know because I’m not a Londoner.

And here is the thing. I am sure that London does not need my help to elect their Mayor. Equally, the USA does not need to hear my views on the Presidential campaign. An argument against this has been put forward by Political Dissuasion:

Would you criticise me for organising a rally against Robert Mugabe’s treatment of the people of Zimbabwe, where people are dying, starving and being jailed for actions and rights that you and I take take for granted?

There is quite a noticeable difference between the USA and Zimbabwe. One of them is democratic and the other is not. For all of its faults, at least in the USA there is a reasonable expectation of free speech, a reasonably free press, reasonably free markets and so on. None of this exists in Zimbabwe. So the people of Zimbabwe need international support so much more. Even then, I would limit myself to saying that I think Zimbabwe should be freer. Once they have the “rights that you and I take for granted”, I am sure they will be able to conduct their own affairs without the help of the likes of me.

The USA needs no help in this regard. They have their freedoms that they take for granted. If I were to stick my nose in, I would most likely be batted away. And if an American sticks his nose into my country’s politics, I would bat him away as well.

There is the other argument that US politics affects us all, which I suppose is true to an extent. But does it really affect us? I have my doubts. The likely winners of the election are much of a muchness. People like to pluck out the Iraq War as an example of how much American politics affects us, but these people forget that most Democrats were all for invading Iraq at the time as well!

Incidentally, I do have an opinion on the US Presidential candidates. As it happens, I favour Barack Obama. But I don’t pretend that this is based on any nuanced policy view. It is based on the fact that John McCain is a baad, baad Republican and that Hilary Clinton is a screeching maniac. Honestly, Clinton drives me nuts. She is like that teacher you could hear giving someone a row from the opposite end of the corridor.

There are other reasons, which I covered here. I really dislike the tone of Clinton’s campaign. You can just tell that she came into the campaign thinking she had a divine right to be President. The message of experience is total bunk. Her sumtotal of experience is limited to being married to a former President. Big wow.

At least Obama’s message is more positive. But here is another area where I agree with Calum Cashley. If the American public buys into all of the hope rhetoric, it is lining itself up for disappointment. We have seen this in Britain in the 1990s. Labour pulled off the exact same trick. “I’m here to save you from those awful conservatives!” Well we all know how that turned out.

The truth is harsher. No matter who you vote for, the government gets in. I’d love to see Barack Obama usher in a new era of hope for America. But if he actually does it I’ll eat my hat.

All of that said, I don’t criticise Kezia Dugdale or anyone else for getting involved in Scotland for Obama. It is a harmless campaign and if the people involved get a buzz out of participating then that is all good. We are all adults living in a democracy. By the same token, Calum Cashley is perfectly entitled to chip in, and I don’t think the points he made were as awful as some people are making out.

The Liberal Democrats are pretty much the only political party I would consider voting for (well, I voted for everyone by Labour in the local elections in May because I was feeling particularly anti-Labour at the time, but you know what I mean). So the change in leadership is of interest to me.

In years gone by I would have described myself as a supporter of the Lib Dems. I guess I still am. But I’ve not been quite as enthused over the past year or so.

I’m not exactly sure what this is down to. Menzies Campbell’s time as leader of the federal party? Nicol Stephen’s rather rudderless leadership of the Scottish Lib Dems? My increasingly apathetic stance towards party politics? A bit of all three I guess. It will be interesting to see if Nick Clegg can get me to sit up.

The leadership campaign has yet again highlighted the dire nature of political discourse at the moment.

I have already seen two people interpreting the close result as evidence that the Lib Dems are deeply divided. The result was indeed impressively close, but I don’t see what that has to do with anything. Any leadership election that doesn’t see one candidate getting 100% of the votes is evidence of a divided party. It doesn’t mean anything.

All of the parties have well known divisions anyway. Blairites and Brownites in Labour, Eurosceptics in the Conservatives, gradualists and fundamentalists in the SNP. You wouldn’t expect anything else. No doubt a truly undivided party would soon enough find itself being criticised for being filled with flip-flopping robotic career politicians.

The alternative to having a leadership election is to have a coronation. In that case, everyone would throw stones at the Lib Dems for not having a leadership election. Plus, from what I gather, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne are actually rather similar ideologically. On this basis, you’d expect a close election.

Also, the bad side of the media is never too far away when it comes to the Lib Dems. There is an interesting post at The Yorksher Gob (via MatGB) on why it was a mistake to elect Nick Clegg. He was the media’s favourite, which means they can’t wait to crucify him.

It wouldn’t surprise me if some of those predictions come to fruition. The media has an agenda against the Liberal Democrats for some reason — probably because having a third party just makes issues so damn difficult to simplify everything into their favoured ‘he says’, ‘she says’ format.

They spent years disseminating innuendos and speculations about Charles Kennedy’s drink problem. Then when the Lib Dems finally got rid of him? All of a sudden Charles Kennedy was the best leader since sliced bread, his colleagues knifed him in the back, the Lib Dems were the nasty party.

Before he became Lib Dem leader, Menzies Campbell was a well-respected ‘elder statesman’ figure. When he became leader? He was a dithering old pensioner who was practically unable to string a sentence together. Oh, and when they got rid of him on the back of relentless media criticism, once again the Lib Dems were the nasty party, unfaithful and disloyal.

It makes me despair. Tony Blair can dangerously erode our civil liberties and engage in an illegal, unjustified war that kills tens of thousands. Yet how is he presented by the media? Magical untouchable Teflon Tony! Meanwhile, Menzies Campbell was hounded out for being old.

I came across another of those political quizzes. This one matches you up with the US Presidential candidates. It’s quite smart.

You can choose which topics you’re interested in by distributing 20 points among 14 categories. I gave one point to each category then bumped up a few areas where I feel strongest. It then gives you a set of questions based on those topics.

Once you’ve answered them, it ranks the Presidential candidates in order of similarity. You can go right into each question and see how each of the candidates would answer each question, with all kinds of quotes, voting records and suchlike to back it up.

Of course, it’s not very fair for me to be waxing lyrical about American politics. I have never set foot in the country, and chances are I could have different views on American political issues if I actually lived there. A lot of these are very US-centric questions rather than the big ideological picture.

Still, it is interesting to learn a bit more about the candidates. The names we all see are Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani. Sometimes John McCain. It’s not often you hear of any of the others. But it’s important to learn about them.

I remember at around this stage of the last US Presidential election we were discussing the Democratic candidates in our modern studies class. Trying to work out which of the candidates were the most important, our teacher immediately scored off John Kerry because he was a no-hoper! (In retrospect, she was actually probably right.)

Anyway, the quiz. The candidate who comes out as most similar to me is someone I’ve never heard of before — Mike Gravel. We are 81% similar, with very similar views on drugs, civil liberties, gay rights, crime and punishment, abortion, environment and immigration. But we have dissimilar views on social security and economics.

Second is someone else I’ve never heard of — Christopher Dodd, with 75%. We are different on social security and very different on economics. Dennis Kucinich also has 75%, but we disagree on taxes and budget, social security and economics.

Of the big guns, Barack Obama is fourth with 74% (different on taxes and budget, social security and very different on crime and punishment (Obama supports the death penalty)). Hillary Clinton is 66% similar (different views on taxes and budget, drugs, social security and very different on crime and punishment).

All of the Democratic candidates score more highly than the Republican candidates. The top Republican candidate for me is Ron Paul — 9th with 61%. We have very similar views on drugs, civil liberties and crime and punishment, but very different views on immigration, health care and abortion.

Rudy Giuliani only comes out 13th with 47%. We have very similar views on environment and gun control, but very different views on gay rights, Iraq and foreign policy, health care, civil liberties, drugs and crime and punishment.

My least similar is my namesake, Duncan Hunter. We are only 30% similar, with similar views on social security (and even that is only because neither of us has an opinion on it).

Via Blah Blah Flowers.