Chris Garratt, Chair of Lib Dems in Luxembourg, RIP

It is with much sadness that I have to report the death of Chris Garratt, Chair, leading spirit of Liberal Democrats in Luxembourg and anti-Brexit campaigner.  Thanks to his active involvement, particularly with the local Scout movement, Chris was widely known and appreciated in the English speaking community in Luxembourg.  In the UK, he would have made a natural councillor.

For much of his life Chris had been a pro business and industry, socially responsible, EU positive Conservative.  Given the political drift of the past decades, it is hardly surprising that he became increasingly disenchanted with the Conservatives and increasingly an advocate for Liberalism, however the political watershed for Chris was the Brexit vote of 2016 was a political watershed for Chris.  Appalled by the result and politicians who had incited and exploited xenophobia in the campaign, Chris was determined to raise his voice in protest. 

Thanks largely to Chris’s organisational and motivating drive, he re-established and led a branch of UK Liberal Democrats in Luxembourg, with the express aim of providing a political voice for others whose lives have been hurt by an act of folly by the UK government.  Chris cared for his country of birth, for Europe and for Luxembourg, his country of residence.  It mattered to him that opportunities that had been open to people both sides of the channel were at a casual stroke, denied to young people.

Not long after re-establishing a local branch of Lib Dems in Luxembourg, Chris had to undergo debilitating operations to combat a life threatening illness, despite this he fought back to regain his strength.  It is a great testament to his character that Chris devoted his last years doing what he could to hold the Brexiters to account; rather than just moan about the mendacity and political corruption of the Brexit blinkered Tories, he tried to do something constructive and concrete about it.

Lib Dems need to trust the Scots to manage their trading relationships

The SNP continue to dominate in Scotland; the Salmond affair has had little to no effect; pro independence parties look on course for a majority in Holyrood.  Any appearance of ‘Bozo’ Johnson, his every utterance is a boost for Nicola Sturgeon.  With Keir Starmer’s vow of silence on Brexit, the two largest UK parties are gifting the SNP with an open goal, which Nicola Sturgeon accepts with alacrity.

While Northern Ireland, which voted against Brexit remains both part of the UK and in the EU Single Market, Scotland, which as a country overwhelmingly rejected Brexit, is compelled to endure the harsh restrictions of a Brexit it never wanted and is not even what Brexiters had promised.

Where are the Liberal Democrats in all this?  Struggling at something like 6%, Liberal Democrats in Scotland might seem to have the appearance of an endangered species, however whilst Lib Dems support federalism, there is a lack of substance for the scope of federalism. Ming Campbell, who has been asked by the party to update the policy on federalism, has written, arguing for “a partnership with proper separation of powers among the four nations”, that the “objective is a system of government which allows for the expression of different identities and builds additional influence and strength with co-operation and common purpose; which embraces joint action when necessary and enhances effectiveness; decentralisation of power where practicable and desirable”.  OK up to a point, but no reference to the dominant issue of the fallout from Johnson’s dogmatic Brexit.

Liberal Democrats need to be more blunt: Scotland has its own government, but in many areas it has no competence and is effectively excluded from any influence.  Lib Dems, with a long history of support for devolution, federalism and above all for the principle of self-determination, need to express faith in the Scots’ ability to manage their own affairs; this should include management of economics, of industry and relations with near neighbours.

It is no longer to sustainable to claim that membership of the Single Market and Customs Union is unthinkable or impracticable while still part of the UK.  Northern Ireland has set the precedent and is readjusting to an economy that is increasingly reliant on distribution to and from the Republic.  Why cannot the Scots choose the same?  At the very least the Scots merit the right to choose for themselves to weigh up advantages and disadvantages irrespective of the independence question.  In many ways Scotland would benefit from incorporation in the Single Market; moreover, Ireland, the Republic and the North could benefit too.  Sure there would be border problems, but we should not assume ab initio they cannot be managed.  Some in the EU/EEA might demur at such a proposal, but others would not: the Scots should at least have the right to ask.

It is not even certain that a devolved Northern Ireland and Scotland could not also be EU members.  Within the EU, we do know there is increased sympathy for the position of the Scots.  Barbara Lippert, an expert in EU enlargement and director of research at the Berlin German Institute for International and Security Affairs, has described Brexit as a “gamechanger” for many in Europe and there would now be “broad openness” to a Scotland becoming part of the EU. In terms of membership criteria “Scotland will look like a bright spot” she comments, “I think it will be top of the list of candidates, maybe together with Iceland and other EFTA countries” and would not be put “in the same basket” as Western Balkan states looking to join the EU.

Rather than join in with Starmer and Johnson telling Scotland to put up with it and shut up, thereby consigning Scotland to the rule of English nationalists, Liberal Democrats should advocate the right to self-determination, for Scots to manage their own affairs without having to leave the UK.

Ed or Layla?

As the Lib Dem leadership campaign comes to a close, has it become easier to choose between Ed and Layla? – In short not particularly; online hustings have been repetitive, both in style and content, failing to provide probing cross examination that is needed to put putative leaders sufficiently on the spot.  Too often we had the same 2 minute sound bites without any follow up.  For Layla, as the less seasoned politician this has been particularly detrimental and for whoever becomes leader potentially problematic. For better leaders we need to improve the selection process.

In terms of political direction, by closely shadowed each other’s policies, both have eliminated significant differences; this too has had the unfortunate effect of taking the wind out of hustings.  Instead, Ed has been stressing competence and experience, whereas Layla has presented herself as a new broom.  Accordingly, Layla has been keener to stress ideas, but compared to Ed has appeared to be shorter on depth, nevertheless I think she has improved over the course of the campaign. 

Neither Ed not Layla have impressed on the consequences of Brexit.  Ostensibly both want to maintain our enhanced membership, yet by studiously down playing Brexit and the prospect of impending damage to the UK, they have offered little for many who are considering to renew their subscriptions, seemingly unconcerned at the risk of an etiolating membership.  Wera Hobhouse who would surely have argued strongly for keeping the UK in the Single Market was sorely missed in these debates.  Given the Corbyn legacy of complicity with Brexit, it is understandable why Labour under Starmer should be muted, but I cannot see why Liberal Democrats should follow suit; why cannot we proclaim, as Brexiters once did that it is madness to leave the Single Market? 

In campaigns of this sort there is a danger of choosing a leader for the previous election in which Labour under Corbyn often put more effort in attacking us than they did the Conservatives. It is already clear that Starmer is preparing the ground to present Labour as a party for government.  The strategy is to present himself as the adult in the room in contrast to a rag bag of adolescent or even infantile Tory mediocrities.  We have to complement this strategy, we too need to be seen as dependable grown-ups.  Ed’s experience gives him the advantage, but the question mark is whether he would be able to cut through.  I have seen some claim that Layla has charisma, but this is not something I recognise, I do not see her effortlessly exuding authority, perhaps I see too much of the deputy school head that she would have become. 

Some see Ed’s Coalition experience as a disadvantage, however in this campaign he has done well to present it as his advantage, stressing significant successes he scored in government.  At the last election Labour led an attack on Jo Swinson’s participation in the Coalition.  I think she handled it badly, at worst her response to questions of the form ‘- won’t you agree the Lib Dems were rubbish’ could be summarised as ‘ – yes, but now we are sorry’.  Although I do not think that Labour, under Starmer, will labour the coalition to the same extent, I do fear that Layla would be more inclined to make a similar mistake.

Both spoke of the need to project a more distinctive account of modern Liberalism and Liberal values, but struggled to articulate the basis of Liberalism: from Ed, as a former student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics, I had expected a more informed account, though Layla was less convincing; her story of weighing up policies as a then non-political student and deciding she was a Liberal Democrat hardly inspired conviction. 

By tradition, on taking office a copy of JS Mill’s On Liberty is presented to the President of the Liberal democrats, it would be as well if this courtesy were extended to the leadership.  Perhaps the leader might consider emulating Jo Grimond who annually reread the tract.  Whoever does win the leadership will need to carve out a clear Liberal niche; he or she would do well to forge strong links with successful Liberal parties that are leading or involved in governments around the world such as Canada, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Estonia.  The leader is in for a tough ride and is unlikely to benefit from much of a honeymoon period, the oft cited 6% in opinion polls could prove a hostage to fortune.

In last year’s contest, knowing the result was in the bag for Jo, I voted for Ed largely because I felt he did not deserve to lose too badly.  I did however welcome a younger image and a female leader. This time the result is not such a forgone conclusion. I wish both, but particularly Layla, had been more probingly tested and, though I could be persuaded to vote for Layla if I were convinced that she would attract many younger voters, I may well stick with Ed as the better known and more dependable option.

Johnson Lies in Luxembourg

More lies from Johnson.  Johnson has, yet again, done a runner to evade facing scrutiny from the international press.

To be clear stories that Johnson would have been drowned out by a vociferously noisy demonstration are risible.  I was there.  The press conference took place in a garden by the Ministère d’État closed behind railings to the public.  The police had placed further barriers to increase the distance; by London standards the demonstration was modest, only amplified by a sizeable number of photographers.  Radio Television Luxembourg, covering the event had asked people to be quiet during the press conference.  Johnson simply scooted off to give a hand-picked interview on his own terms. The press conference went on without him, and from outside the ministry garden we listened to Xavier Bettel; Johnson’s absence told its own story.Ministère d'Etat

The pretext of a noisy demonstration is yet another Johnson lie.  With Johnson, trust amongst European leaders could not be lower, not only has Johnson no proposals, but his clumsy attempts to run rough shod over Parliament and his own MPs makes parliamentary ratification of any proposals more far-fetched than ever.  Xavier Bettel harbours no illusions of Johnson’s self-fulfilling cul-de-sac and seems to have a clearer perception of the situation than Johnson himself.  Xavier Bettel will have been straight forward with Johnson.  Johnson could not face a press conference in which his lies and misrepresentations would have been directly contradicted.

Johnson is playing to a home gallery of a narrowing sect of doctrinaire Brexiters; there is no sign he had anything to offer; Johnson wants to be seen to be making an effort, Barnier, Juncker and Bettel are being treated with cynical contempt.  Johnson’s transparent vacuity was plain for all to see.
Invisible bozo

Johnson in a Ditch

bozo ditchGiven Johnson’s indolent and ham-fisted ineptitude as Foreign Secretary, his incompetence and folly as Prime Minister should not be the surprise that it is.  Johnson has done nothing other than play to the gallery during the recess.  His bluster rings hollow to many in the UK, and no one on the continent is impressed.  He shuts down parliament without MPs’ agreement for his own convenience, precipitating a revolt, which leads him to jettison his dwindling majority.

Splits in the Tory Party sorely gape more than ever, but Johnson has achieved unity amongst the disparate opposition, bringing into law a bill that instructs the Prime Minister to request a further extension to Article 50 in the event that no agreement is forthcoming.  As the Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole deftly remarked, Johnson “can be trusted only to be untrustworthy”.

Small wonder that parliament rejected the clumsy bid to stifle the bill by asking it to back a new election.

Johnson has dug the ditch that he would rather die in than recoil from the self-defeating chaos and damage of leaving the EU without an agreement.

More Maoist than Corbyn, Brexiter zealots have embraced chaos and destruction in pursuit of ideology.  Small wonder long standing Conservatives demurred.

The question is what next?  We know worse is to come but what?  Johnson has snookered himself and acts of desperation are rumoured.  Johnson could attempt to force an early election by proposing a vote of no confidence in his own government.  Opposition parties would not be able to stop this, but Johnson would have to bank on opposition parties failing to agree on a new temporary government as well as suffer the indignity of having to express no confidence in himself.

Even so Liberal Democrats must be prepared.  Corbyn might dig in is heels and insist on leading an interim government.  Given that he is no less incompetent and as blinkered as Johnson, this would be very difficult.  The principle we have to insist on is that the interim PM must not be a candidate for the position in the long term.

It has been suggested Johnson could simply resign with the suggestion that the Queen might then ask Corbyn to form a new government.  But this would be unprecedented.  Normally a PM resigns when a new government is ready.  If a PM died in office, presumably the person who deputises for him would take over, in this case I think this is Dominic Raab.  May be the whole cabinet would have to resign, but even so if hypothetically the whole cabinet were somehow wiped out, I still do not think that the monarch would look for a replacement from a smaller Party, so I do not know how such an unprecedented event might work out.

Finally, with his trademark untrustworthiness, Johnson could resuscitate May’s Withdrawal Agreement (he has voted for it before, after all), drop the DUP, who can no longer provide a majority, recast the border for the backstop in the Irish Sea and hope that strong arm tactics on Tory Brexit zealots together with some votes mustered from Labour would be enough to pass the agreement.  Whether he could get Brexit extremists to accept this, is, however, very doubtful.

Johnson is in his ditch: with nowhere else to go he might as well keep on digging.