Friday, 28 August 2015

Lords Reform: The Never Ending Story

Time flies. It has been eight years since I last blogged about reforming the second chamber. On that time-scale I am a mere Johnny-come-lately. Reform of the Lords has been going on for over the past century, or rather talk over it. In real terms, very little has been achieved. The main problem with the issue is that those at the top of politics really enjoy wielding the power of patronage. As David Cameron has made clear by today's announcement of the appointment of forty five new peers, mainly Conservatives, the main purpose of the Lords is rewarding those loyal to the leadership.

 So why not just elect the second chamber? It is a popular idea. The Liberal Democrats have put forward plans for single-term elected Lords. Elected peers would not be eligible for reelection to the House and would serve for ten years. It is not a bad idea, as far as it goes, but an elected Lords does have flaws. The primacy of the House of Commons is based upon its democratic mandate. If the Lords are elected, they will have just has much of a mandate to block government bills as the Commons currently has. An elected Lord would be even more at the behest of the existing political parties, especially if they were not to serve a single term. The role of the Lords is to advise and amend bills that have passed through the Commons. While it is not an elected house, it is an elder house, giving time to reflect and change laws. Only rarely does the second house attempt to directly thwart the Commons but when they do, it is often for a very good reason. One that springs to mind is Tony Blair and Labour's attempt to introduce ninety six day detention without charge. That saw the Lords in full revolt.

 My original idea, back in 2001, was to take the selection of the Lords completely away from political patronage. New Labour attempted this with their so-called "People's Peers" but since the committee who carried out the selection was made up of the Great and The Good, most of those selected would have probably been in line for the privilege anyhow.

 Take the selection completely away from politics and privilege and have applicants selected by jury, called in exactly the same way that juries for trials are selected now. Each jury would serve three months, during which time they would sift through the applications. They would at, by the end of the process, have created a shortlist. The final choice from that list would be left to the next serving jury. Jurys would have the power to call applicants from the shortlist for interview, with questions put by a panel of judges. Naturally, an applicant would not have to appear if they chose not to. A jury's final choice would not have to be unanimous: a nine-to-three decision would be acceptable.

 Once selected, a new Lord would be free to decide upon a political affiliation or remain independent. A retirement age may be set - eighty as an upper limit perhaps, but a Lord would be free to retire from duty at any time. Other forms of patronage can stay with the politicians: knighthoods, gongs etc. They are nice but do not really matter. The Lords has real power and influence. Let it not be selected neither upon party fortunes nor on the current rotten power of privilege.

 Instead, let The Lords be selected impartially upon excellence.

Monday, 17 August 2015


On the news this morning Lariam (or mefloquine) is still being proscribed for British troops in malarial zones. Now malaria is a debilitating parasitic infection and I fully understand why the military are concerned that the service people are well protected. Some forms can be fatal. Malaria is no joke.

 Unfortunately for some, neither is Lariam. I started taking Lariam for a trip to Angola. "Great," I thought. "It is effective and I only have to take one tablet a week. Of course it is the way to go." It was not even a problem when the lucid dreams started. The first one, involving a house fire in which I saw my parents burn to death, didn't even freak me out. Perhaps it should have but I remained calm. The dreams continued but hey, I didn't get malaria. I returned home and, as one has to, I kept on taking the tablet for a couple of weeks. Within a month however I was back to West Africa and back on the Lariam.

 In a bar, I lost my temper completely with some woman and started to swear at her, much to the amusement of my colleagues. By the time I got home, I had been on Lariam for the majority of three months.

 One night my wife was talking to me about a vacation. I saw red and punched a hole in the bedroom wall, taking a massive gorge out of the plasterboard. This came from nowhere. Naturally it scared the hell out of the poor woman.

 My next job I was due to go offshore from Stavanger. In an airport hotel room, at about 04:45 hours, I start coughing. I cannot stop. By 05:30 hours the duty manager is knocking at my door and pretty soon an ambulance is called. The crash squad at the hospital cannot find anything wrong with me and I am asked whether I am on anything. The only thing I am on is Lariam.

 I am no expert and I do not know what Lariam does to the brain. I only know that the drug altered my behaviour and I would never take it again, unless it was confirmed that I had caught malaria and needed immediate treatment. If military personnel are being forced to take Lariam and are experiencing similar symptoms of anger and aggressiveness that I felt, then god help the people around them.

 On the news it was reported that the US is no longer giving Lariam to their special forces. It is easy to see why. I realise that my own experience is hearsay and is not scientific evidence. That does not take away from the reality that Lariam does affect the behaviour of some. If you are not one of those people and can take Lariam without ill-effect: crack on. My advice to those whose dreams have been altered though is to stop. The dreams are just the tip of an ugly, violent iceberg.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

State of Play

I haven't blogged politics since the election and for obvious reasons: it was a terrible, awful night for the Liberal Democrats.  This was not a personal shock: my aim in the election was to save the party's deposit for Edinburgh North and Leith and in this, I too failed.  It was therefore back to the day job on the Monday, but not before congratulating Deirdre Brock, the winning candidate from the SNP, on her victory.  Among the candidates ourselves in the constituency, there was little or no viciousness on a personal level.  While mine was indeed an uphill fight, I actually enjoyed bringing it to the SNP strongholds.  In terms of fighting injustice, warfare and poverty, there is much common ground.  It is just how we get there, especially the direction of our future in Scotland, that parts us.  My opposition to nationalism remains unaltered: it is a divisive philosophy.  We now have much more autonomy and if that evolves into independence, it should be allowed to naturally.  I want to see a Britain far more decentralised, democratic and accountable locally.  Scotland could be leading the way within the UK with such a model.  Instead, the issue of independence is being constantly forced by the SNP, often using the kind of negativity against others that they is all-to-ready to scream over when it is directed at themselves.  The SNP do not represent a change in the tone of politics that are practiced in the UK: just a continuation by other means.

My day job rushed at me upon my return and the result was I spend the next couple of months on a Russian vessel in the north-east Pacific Ocean.  In truth, I was too busy for much time to reflect.  Communications were also rather patchy and so it was that I went into a kind of political purdah.

Safe to say that, upon my return, the Conservatives are now to be seen in there true colours: nasty, small-minded, intolerant and indifferent to those in need.  One had hoped that Cameron was a bigger, more decent person, but his rhetoric over the "swarms" of immigrants proved otherwise.  It is clear that the word "refugee" has now fallen out of the media's dictionary.  Let me remind them of the definition:

Refugee: a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

Yes, there are others but the bulk of the people are coming from war zones and are fleeing conflict.  They have often done that instead of picking up a gun and fighting, in which case the media would be giving them other labels: militia, fighter, terrorist, ISIS.  Most of these people don't want to be here: they want to be at home and at peace.  They cannot be while the Middle East continues to be flooded with weapons and equipment.  Anybody suggesting banning arms exports to the entire region?  Didn't think so.

From one kind of destruction to another: the Labour leadership race.  I have been unfortunate enough to hear Andy "business-as-usual" Burnham on the BBC lately.  That guy seems to represent all that is worst in New Labour.  In case one needs a reminder, here is what I wrote about New Labour during the Clash of the Millibands, the last time Labour was choosing a leader:

New Labour was effectively a post-modern response to politics, agreeing with the likes of Francis Fukuyama who had proclaimed the End of History, the victory of capitalism and the never-ending reign of globalisation.  Blair and Brown modelled themselves rulers of this Brave New World, post-modernisers to the core.  History was reduced to a series of rival dialogues, each of equal or no value and therefore tradition meant nothing.  The unwritten constitution of the United Kingdom, built up for 300 years after the Glorious Revolution, based upon earlier civil wars and the Magna Carta, were worthless in the 21st. Century.  Civil rights were meaningless and the power of the Courts eroded.  Hence New Labour’s love of identity cards and the super-databases behind them; they agreed with Sir Humphrey that in order to decide what the government needed to know, they needed to know everything.   The process of government suffered likewise, with Cabinet meetings reduced to listening to the Word of the Dear Leader and real policy being decided on the sofa with an inner cabal.  Senior civil servants were replaced with political appointments, advisors ensuring that the civil service remained “on message”.  While Paris glittered after its spring clean, London got the Millennium Dome.  Gold, that old-fashioned economic mainstay was sold off at under $400 an ounce.  Social mobility actually decreased during the thirteen years of Labour.  But worst of all was the Labour leadership’s willingness to follow the USA into bloody and illegal wars.  Labour became like Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who after drinking the troll’s brew grew to be like an onion: all layers and no heart; a being so empty of morality that not even the Devil wanted his worthless soul.

Harsh words but since the take over of the party by Blair and Brown, Labour turned away from socialism which, as far as my simple brain understands it, was the whole point.  Burnham comes across as a totally vacuous individual: addicted to soundbites and policies by polling.  Yvette Cooper is a lot more solid and substantial individual but of course she too is closely connected with the New Labour project.

So we come to Jeremy Corbyn, who seems to be a sincere and pleasant old lefty.  There is nothing wrong with that: collectively the left are the best critics of existing systems.  It is just that more often than not, the suggested fixes bring worse outcomes.  The point is though that in order for Britain, or any other western democracy, to function properly, a good, decent and sincere left wing is needed.  I think Corbyn represents that and while I would not vote for many of his policies, one can see why others will.  I would say to Labour, whoever wins, that they should now be sincere about getting rid of the first-past-the-post voting system.  If AV is good enough to select your leader, why can't the rest of us use it to vote for our representatives at Westminster?

The Liberal Democrats had our own leadership elections are Nick Clegg resigned.  Tim Farron represents a shift away from the economic right and looks more to the social liberal traditions.  I wish Tim well and he has my support.  I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to Nick though.  When he came up to Aberdeen, seeking to be leader of the party, he told us that he would get us into government within two elections.  He delivered it in one.

After that, of course, we screwed it up with the bloody tuition fees fiasco.  The Liberal Democrats did a lot of decent things in government but the electorate, with justification, punished us for breaking our word.  Eight MPs were the outcome but I am wryly amused to be reading so many obituaries for the party.  Liberalism represents a series of ideas that if one subscribes to them, one becomes a liberal: not a socialist nor a conservative nor even a nationalist.  The people who joined us after the election know this and Tim is the right person to get our values back out there.  Sure, he flew straight into hostile flak about his religious beliefs.  Liberals though do not dictate how others live nor what religious beliefs they should or should not hold.  It is all about bringing out the best in the individual while accepting that none of us are perfect.

In short, liberals live-and-let-live.