by derekdeedman on 28 May, 2015
By The Voice | Wed 27th May 2015 – 6:34 pm
The Liberal Democrats worked hard to ensure that the coalition government’s agenda had a clear thread of liberalism running through it – from the priority we gave to mental health and the green agenda, to creating the pupil premium and protecting our civil liberties.
So it is dispiriting – if pretty unsurprising – to see how quickly, instead of building on those achievements, the new Conservative Government is turning its back on that liberal stance.
The human rights we hold dear, our right to privacy in an online age, our future as an open-minded, outward-looking country, are all hanging in the balance again because of the measures announced today.
It is clear, too, that the previous Government’s commitment to fairness is also weakened.
There was little in today’s speech to help the poorest and the most vulnerable; not enough to improve social care; and no plan to build the Garden cities and 300,000 new homes a year our young people need for the future.
And we will see in a few short weeks, when the Chancellor unveils his Emergency Budget, if he intends to follow through with the £12bn in welfare cuts he has promised that will hit the poorest and the weakest in our society.
That budget, not this Queen’s Speech, will be the moment we can judge whether the Conservative belief in One Nation is for real.
My party’s parliamentary presence may be much reduced in size, but our mission is clearer than ever.
As we did in the Coalition Government, we will fight any attempt to weaken the fundamental rights of our citizens – whether it is those enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and our own Human Rights Act, or those threatened by a turbo-charged Snoopers’ Charter.
We will stand up for the poorest and the most vulnerable.
And we will always defend a Britain that is at its best when it is open-hearted, open-minded and outward-looking.
Of course, I welcome those measures that build on the work we did together in coalition.
The expansion of childcare is a good thing – though the Government will need to do a lot more to help working parents with the crippling costs of childcare once their parental leave ends but before the Government’s scheme for three year olds begins.
And, of course, I welcome the Government’s continued commitment to raising the personal allowance, started by Liberal Democrats in Government, although I’m not sure what kind of comment it is on the Government’s confidence in itself if it feels the need to pass a law for a tax change it can implement anyway.
With so much at stake, the United Kingdom needs a Prime Minister who is absolutely clear about what he wants and why he wants it.
But instead, this must be the first time in living memory that a country’s citizens are being asked to support the outcome of a renegotiation on a matter of such importance to its place in the world without the government of the day setting out in this House what it wants to achieve.
And because we do not know what the government considers a successful negotiation, we do not know for sure which side the Prime Minister will take in a referendum.
That is a precarious position from which to persuade millions of people in a referendum who are indifferent or sceptical about the European Union.
Imagine the circumstances in which the referendum is likely to be held:
Years of denigration of everything the EU does, followed by months of interminable wrangling over this renegotiation, with a divided cabinet and a Prime Minister who still appears ambivalent about our role in Europe.
In recent days I sense a slight swagger in the Government’s confidence that it will secure a good deal in the EU and then go on to win the referendum.
But having witnessed two referenda spin off in entirely unpredicted directions in recent years, I would strongly counsel against any complacency.
So my advice to the government is this:
Pursue your renegotiation with the EU, but spell out exactly what you hope to achieve, so that people understand the choice that’s in front of them.
Be careful not to string it out so long that there is not enough time to make the wider case to the British public.
And above all, remember that the referendum will be won through conviction, not ambivalence. Ambivalence will not succeed in a negotiation and it will absolutely not win a referendum.
The benchmark for reform must be what is in the long-term interest of the United Kingdom, not the short-term interest of the Conservative Party. One thing we already know is that whatever deal the Prime Minister agrees will not satisfy significant parts of his own party.
That is why he must not overstate what he can deliver.
And, when the moment of truth comes and the Prime Minister presents his deal to the country, he must advocate it with real conviction and make a clear and unambiguous argument in favour of our membership of the European Union, warts and all.
Because, in the end, there is no surrogate for a full throated and sustained advocacy of Britain’s continued membership of a European club which, while undoubtedly imperfect, allows us to tackle crime, address climate change and provide jobs and economic security in a globalised world in a way we never could on our own.
Without clear leadership there’s no guarantee that a referendum on such a contentious subject can easily be won.
It is clear that this Government has been elected, above all else, because English voters did not believe a combination of Labour and the SNP would be good for our country or our economy.
It was a divisive campaign – a victory of fear over hope.
The greatest risk now is that the rise of nationalism and the politics of grievance cause the fractures in our United Kingdom to grow until we splinter entirely.
The warning lights of a full-blown constitutional crisis are flashing.
Yet it is telling that this Queen’s speech contains a plan to weaken our human rights but not to strengthen our constitution.
The Conservatives are understandably cock-a-hoop at their victory, yet they achieved a parliamentary majority with just 37% of the vote.
The SNP has very nearly turned Scotland into a one party state on 50% of the vote – a position of disproportionate power they will no doubt use to further the case for the break-up of our union.
4m people cast a vote for UKIP and more than a million for the Greens, and yet they return to parliament with just one MP each.
And my party has just eight MPs when under a proportional system we would have 51.
I learned the hard way of the difficulties of reforming our creaking political system.
But surely no one needs any more evidence that our British constitution is well past its sell by date?
The general election result may have delivered the Conservatives a majority in parliament but it has left them in charge at a time of great political fragility.
The Prime Minister is quite rightly proud that five years ago, after an uncertain election result, he was able to swallow his pride, act boldly and put the national interest first.
He has an opportunity to do so again now.
If the Government wants to keep our country united – to truly act in the interests of One Nation – then now is the time for him to act in a big and bold way to reform our constitution, our institutions and address the rising tide of nationalism.
Yet all we’ve heard today is a self-absorbed plan to replace one bill of rights with another weaker one, some fiddling with Parliamentary Standing Orders and a welcome but insufficient commitment to devolution to the North.
This sort of piecemeal tinkering does not go nearly far enough.
The time has come for a major, cross-party Constitutional Convention, to find a new federal settlement in which power is devolved to our nations, our regions, our cities and our people.
This Parliament could be the one that creates a new settlement for our country.
This Parliament could be the one that saves our union and renews our democracy.
That should be the legacy enshrined in this Queen’s Speech.Leave a comment