Saturday, July 20, 2019

Electing the next Prime Minister (or not)


When the moment finally came, I found it unexpectedly profound. As I said in my previous post, the Conservative leadership election is historic- the first time that ordinary members of a political party in the UK have, in effect, chosen a Prime Minister.



I said then that I was uncomfortable with such a narrow and self-selected minority of the population having such an important choice - I would much rather (counter-intuitively) that it were restricted further to just the party's MPs in Parliament, who at least have a democratic mandate from a plurality of voters.

But for good or ill, a share of the decision had landed on my desk. It landed later than expected, due to issues with the party's membership records, but after some chasing, I had my ballot paper. What follows is an explanation of how I made my decision - I hope you will forgive the lengthy and perhaps self-indulgent consideration of the topic, but it raised some interesting dilemmas (and I am, after all, a political academic).

The delay in receiving my ballot had at least meant I had no option but to wait until after all the debates and hustings had concluded before voting - a good thing. It also gave me more time to consult people, including local people in Eltham South. I set up an online survey and asked local residents to tell me which of the candidates they preferred as Prime Minister. I felt strongly that I wanted to at least ask those who will be affected by the decision, and take some account of their views.

Just over 40 people responded - a small and of course unscientific sample of opinion - but an interesting indicator nonetheless.  The result was pretty clear, and perhaps rather surprising: 61% for Jeremy Hunt, and 39% for Boris Johnson.




So was that it? The people have spoken - Jeremy Hunt it is? Not quite. Although I wanted to hear from the local people I represent, an online poll of a few dozen was not exactly a robust test of public opinion on which I could definitively rely. There have, however, been national polls that point to a similar preference for Hunt amongst voters nationally. That is important when we're selecting a Prime Minister to appeal to the whole electorate, rather than just Conservative members. But polls are polls, and they still required me to make a judgement about whether I found them convincing.

Then there was the other democratic point - following the logic of my belief that elected MPs should hold the final say, should I not simply endorse the view of the parliamentary party, who voted by a clear majority for Boris Johnson? This is a particularly strong argument, and one which I found quite convincing. But should it outweigh all other considerations? And would that result have been the same had MPs not had in mind the fact the final say was with the wider membership? Again, it came back to a judgement call.

So I had two competing democratic arguments which pointed to different conclusions - one to Hunt, one to Johnson. And that was before I even got onto policy considerations and my own views of the merits of the competing candidates. On these fundamental points, my views were also mixed.

Neither candidate was my first choice. That dubious honour goes to my friend Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, who I have known for 20 years, and whose energetic leadership campaign I enthusiastically supported. He set out the need for the Conservative Party to offer an energetic, optimistic vision of the future, to deliver a sensible Brexit but not be defined by it, and to ensure we make a moderate One-Nation appeal to future generations. Amen to all that. It is a vital message, and one I know he will continue to champion. But as he has conceded, it was not what the Party seemed to want to hear right now.

Of the two finalists, Boris Johnson is the one I know best. I was in fact his first official policy adviser, as I covered the DCMS brief in the Conservative Research Department when he was appointed Shadow Arts Minister in 2004. I worked for him again when he was Shadow Minister for Higher Education and I was the Education Special Adviser. Our paths crossed occasionally whilst he was Mayor of London, and our relationship has remained friendly. He has shown genuine kindness towards me, and I like him. More than that, I believe from what I know of him that he is an instinctive social liberal and at heart a One-Nation Conservative. He is certainly not the caricature either he or his opponents sometimes portray, though it must be said he doesn't do himself any favours with ill-advised and indefensible remarks for which he is predictably (and often reasonably) attacked.

Jeremy Hunt I know less well personally, but I have been impressed by his performance during the campaign. He has shown more energy and humour than many would have expected, and I applauded his serious responses on a number of issues, particularly President Trump's attack on the British Ambassador and on ruling out prorogation of Parliament as a tactic to secure Brexit. I believe he is a serious and credible figure who would be a competent Prime Minister, although the argument that he simply represents a continuation of Theresa May's unsuccessful approach to getting a deal does weigh against him.

On Brexit, there is in truth not much to choose between the two candidates' stated positions - both say they will renegotiate the withdrawal agreement but are prepared to leave with no deal if they cannot. Both these propositions are fraught with difficulty, to say the least, and all of the structural and political problems that thwarted Theresa May will apply just as much to her successor. Which of them is more likely to succeed? Boris is more likely to convince the EU he's serious about No-Deal and to then win over the hardliners of the ERG to accept a compromise, whilst Jeremy Hunt is more likely to have the goodwill to negotiate a finely-balanced solution to the border and to win over Labour MPs to get it through parliament. But neither would find it easy.

There is a case to be made that a Boris Johnson premiership is simply the logical outcome of the EU referendum in 2016. Having won it as the most prominent public face of Vote Leave, he should now take responsibility for delivering on the promises made, or take the blame for failing to do so. Politically, too, there is a need for the Conservative Party to sort this mess out, and get Brexit done. We have tried three years of patient, relentlessly sensible negotiation with a dutiful, unshowy leader, and it hasn't worked. Arguably, it is time to shake things up. Perhaps the Conservative Party, through its intransigence and increasingly dogmatic obsession, has contrived to devise the only equation to which the answer is Boris Johnson in Number 10.

That was the case that came closest to convincing me, and I still believe it may turn out to hold some truth. Certainly, I don't fear a Johnson premiership in anything like the way I shudder at the idea of a Corbyn one. It might be muddled and at times chaotic, but we'd cope. It could even surprise people, if Boris applies his considerable energy and intellect to championing progressive policy solutions that revitalise modern Conservatism. With his ability to command attention and convey a sense of optimism, that could be a formidable combination.
Boris on a visit to Eltham in 2010

But ultimately, I couldn't accept this argument as enough. Theresa May was unsuccessful in selling her deal, but I believe she was basically right, and those who opposed her were wrong. The argument "We tried being reasonable, now let's try being unreasonable" is a difficult one for any pragmatic Conservative to swallow. The refusal of the Johnson campaign to rule out proroguing parliament, and the "Do or die" rhetoric make me profoundly uneasy. Perhaps it will get it done, but if not, we could be heading for a damaging no-deal or a disastrous general election.   

My assessment is that Jeremy Hunt stands more chance of getting some kind of modified deal through parliament. There may not be as much drama as with Boris, but I think he could finish the job Theresa May started, and we can move on. There are also those national polls suggesting he has potentially greater appeal to the wider electorate, who we urgently need to win back to the cause of modern Conservatism.

So, all things considered, my own judgement aligned with the responses to my local survey. Yes, Boris is still overwhelmingly likely to win - and the personally and politically smart thing for me to do would have been to find a way to declare for him. I'm genuinely sad that I couldn't. It remained a finely-balanced judgement, and I have the utmost respect for friends and colleagues who sincerely came to a different conclusion. But after pacing for some time around Woolwich Town Hall - a place in which I am well used to being in the minority- I resolved to have the courage of my convictions. I cast my vote for Jeremy Hunt.

An obligatory serious pose for a serious decision.


Monday, July 01, 2019

Who should be our next PM? Help me choose

In just three weeks we are due to have a new Prime Minister, with Theresa May standing down and the Conservative Party in the process of electing a new leader.  I will shortly receive a ballot paper for that election - but most of my friends and neighbours will not. As a member of the party, I am one of only around 160,000 people who will have a vote.


What is taking place is actually an historic first for our political system: Never before has the ordinary party membership in effect chosen a Prime Minister. Until 1997, the choice of leader for the party of government has always been in the hands of its elected MPs in Parliament. When the Prime Minister changed between General Elections, it was MPs who chose them - as happened with James Callaghan in 1976 and John Major in 1990.

Since then, both Labour and the Conservatives have involved their ordinary members in the process. Labour did so from 1981, and the Conservatives from 1997 - both whilst the party was in opposition. Since then, there have been just two occasions when a leadership change has taken place in government. In 2007, Gordon Brown was the only properly nominated candidate, so no election took place, and he became Prime Minister with 88% support from his MPs. Then in 2016, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom were put onto the final ballot for Conservative members. But after Mrs Leadsom withdrew, Theresa May was declared elected. She, too, had a majority of support from her MPs, with 60% support (a record high in Conservative parliamentary leadership elections.)

So, assuming neither Mr Hunt nor Mr Johnson withdraws from the current contest, and assuming Her Majesty The Queen is advised that the winner of the Conservative leadership election is best placed to command a majority in the Commons (tricky with a hung parliament, but still the most likely outcome), Conservative grassroots members will be the first members of the public to effectively nominate an individual as Prime Minister.

Aside from a lesson in political and constitutional history (sorry, it's my day job), what is the point of this post? Well, firstly, I am somewhat uncomfortable with the process. It seems to me wrong in a parliamentary democracy based on a (parliamentary) party system that MPs should not maintain the final say on who should become Prime Minister. We elect MPs to parliament, and the party with a majority of those MPs (or able to command such a majority) has the right to form a government. If that party changes its leader, it seems right to me that democratically elected MPs should have that responsibility.

As an ordinary member of the Conservative Party, I am not democratically accountable for my choice. My right to help select the next Prime Minister stems purely from the £25 a year I pay to the Party. Of the 13.6 million people who voted for Conservative MPs at the last General Election, just over one per cent of us are now asked to select who should lead those MPs and form the government. As I say, that makes me uncomfortable, both from a democratic and a political point of view.

So the choice weighs heavily on me. We are not simply choosing a leader, we are selecting a Prime Minister to serve the whole country. Every member will use their own judgement to make their choice in their own way, but before doing so myself, I also want to hear from voters who don't have a direct say. I may not be accountable as a party member, but I am an elected representative, and as a Councillor I am accountable to around 10,000 voters in Eltham South ward. I want a leader who can command their support, and who will serve their interests.

So - if you live in Eltham South, tell me what you think! Not just which of the two candidates you prefer, but the issues you think are most important to the decision. Is it just about Brexit? What kind of Brexit? Should the candidates commit to pledges on tax? Schools? The NHS? Other issues?

You can fill out a survey by clicking: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/3QBFT3G. Responses will be treated in confidence, though if you want to contact me directly, please do so by emailing me at eltham@nigelfletcher.org

The feedback I receive is only likely to be a small sample of opinion, but it will allow me to make a more informed choice. It is, after all, one that will affect us all.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Politics must go on - but let us make it kinder


Today, the campaigns have been suspended, and politics is in mourning.  The horrific murder of Jo Cox MP stunned Westminster and brought the frenetic circus of referendum activity to a sudden halt.  As tributes are paid to a genuinely respected and much-loved colleague, wife and mother, politicians from all parties and both sides of the EU debate are united in sorrow and sympathy. Differences are set aside.

This will not last.  After a respectful pause, the campaigns will start up again.  With less than a week to go until polling day, there is a big decision to be made on the EU, and politics must go on.  After that, there will be other campaigns, other elections.  Despite this brutal attack our democracy endures, and politicians will go on working hard to fight for the causes they believe in and to serve those they represent, as Jo Cox did.  That is only right. 

But perhaps we can use this pause in political hostilities to reflect more deeply.  Already, in the aftermath of the tragedy, we have seen a wave of sympathy and appreciation directed at MPs in general for the work that they do.  The hashtag #ThankYourMP became a trend on Twitter, as people took the opportunity to express a gratitude too rarely seen nowadays for those in public life, who are more often denigrated, insulted and abused.  

There is certainly a problem of a lack of respect for our MPs and those derided as 'the political classes'.  Michael Deacon of the Telegraph, a Parliamentary sketch-writer whose job is to poke fun at them, has written a commendable piece arguing that the demonisation has gone too far.  As he writes: 

'Public discourse about politicians is becoming ugly. It’s one thing to be critical of a specific MP’s language, or their actions, or a party’s policies. But it’s quite another to wish a plague on all their houses, to snort that they’re “all the same”, that they’re “only in it for themselves”. I’m tired of hearing about “the elites” and “the establishment”, “the bubble” and “the political class”, nasty little phrases that dehumanise the individual, encourage brainless paranoia, poison us with suspicion – and provoke some to hate. We aren’t ruled by a cabal of the evil, greedy and callous. We’re served by human beings who make mistakes, and get no end of grief even when they don’t.'

Amen to that.  What is too often lacking is a sense of perspective, and generosity of spirit.  Of course MPs make mistakes - they are human, after all.  And of course they often take decisions with which we will fundamentally and passionately disagree- that is their job, and is in the nature of politics.  We get to pass judgement in the ballot box at election time, and enjoy freedom of speech to debate and argue with them between elections.  We can do so vociferously and with feeling.  But is it really necessary to impugn their personal motives, call them liars and cheats, and claim they are acting from cynical and selfish motives?  Does that help encourage other good people to enter public service?

So yes, we should be more appreciative of our MPs and other elected representatives, and the fact the vast majority of them are dedicated, hard-working people trying to do their best in an often impossibly difficult job. I hope the outpouring of such a sentiment in the wake of yesterday's dreadful tragedy might have some lasting impact on how people think about their politicians.

But being more appreciative of our politicians as voters is just one part of this.  Those of us engaged in politics ourselves have a responsibility to be more respectful of each other, too.  There is far too much personal vitriol and nastiness in our current discourse, which has troubled me for some time. Two years ago I wrote a blogpost here about the need for us all to try and be a bit kinder to each other in general.  Some would say it was naive piece of simplistic sentiment, but I stand by it more today than ever.  As I wrote then:

'Passions inevitably rise high in politics - as they should on issues of importance where deeply-held convictions are at stake.  But even fundamental disagreements don't have to spill over into personal animosity.  There are too many people in politics willing to demonise their opponents and slur their motives, rather than their policy.  "Tory scum";  "Evil socialists" - derogatory prejudice that we would abhor if based on religion or ethnicity are tolerated too often in the underlying culture of political discourse.  The main parties' messaging can too often slip into personal attack mode, refusing to concede an opponent could possibly be well-meaning if their favoured solutions differs from their own.'

As politicians we need to consider how personal abuse undermines our own claim for the respect of others.  Is it surprising that voters resort to calling us liars and selfish cheats if that is what they hear us say of each other?  The EU referendum campaign had already become an unpleasant mud-slinging contest that has debased the currency of debate on both sides, as even one battle-hardened former colleague of mine has eloquently written.     

Negativity begets negativity in a downward spiral towards ever-greater mutual distrust, and hatred.  If we feed it as politicians or as voters, we will reap the backlash in the form of increasing division in society and rising extremism of all sorts.  Yesterday, just hours before Jo Cox was attacked, Nigel Farage stood before a repulsively crude anti-immigrant poster that was roundly condemned as racist and akin to Nazi propaganda of the 1930s.  That should have no place in mainstream debate, whatever your view on the EU - but nor should it tempt us into intemperate abuse of the many decent Leave supporters.

We need to break the cycle of negativity.  In his unbearably moving statement yesterday, Jo Cox's husband Brendan wrote of how he thought she would want people to react to her death.  He said her wish would be 'that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her.'  To do that, we should start by draining the vitriol and poison from our politics.  

So yes, the campaign busses will roll again, and politics will go on.  Slogans will be exchanged, and arguments made.  But before that happens, let us pause to reflect on how we treat each other, as politicians and voters. Let us remember how the brutal murder of an honourable and good-hearted politician made us feel.  And let us resolve to be kinder.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The Cameron decade: A tale of two speeches


I knew it would be good - I just didn't think it would be that good. The Prime Minister had a fairly easy task today - the first Conservative leader to win a majority in 23 years, with a result that was actually an unprecedented achievement for a Prime Minister, he was always guaranteed a pretty warm reaction from the party in the hall. And with a Labour opposition having fled to the fringes of British politics, even a moderately good speech would have been lauded in comparison to that given by Jeremy Corbyn last week.
So David Cameron would have been excused some triumphalism today - wallowing in his unexpected victory, whilst throwing some red meat to traditional Conservatives and veering right to win easy applause. He not only resisted the temptation- he did the precise opposite.

When your opponents have vacated the moderate centre-ground, you can do one of two things: Follow suit by heading in the opposite direction, or seize that ground for yourself. He chose the latter, and then some.  Where he could have played it safe, he redoubled his efforts to challenge the party and broaden its appeal.

It would be easy to say his audacious land-grab was calculated and opportunistic. It was. But it was also authentically Cameron. He really does mean it.  Ten years ago, I worked for the then Shadow Education Secretary, and was with him in Blackpool as he put the finishing touches to his first major speech to the Party Conference.  Today's speech was the natural development of the man who stood up then to make his bid for the leadership and proclaimed:

'Some say that we should move to the right. I say that will turn us into a fringe party, never able to challenge for government again. I don't want to let that happen to this party. Do you?'

He spoke of a new generation of people taking on the world, and looked to the future, promising:

'We can be that new generation, changing our party to change our country. It will be an incredible journey. I want you to come with me. We'll be tested - and challenged. But we'll never give up. We'll never turn back. So let the message go out from this conference: a modern, compassionate conservatism is right for our times, right for our party and right for our country.'

The party did come with him - slowly, and often sceptically, but it did. When he fell short of a majority in 2010, they grumbled, but kept faith. When he introduced equal marriage, protected the NHS budget and international aid, some harumphed, but the fuss soon died down.   And as he promised, he didn't turn back.  So today he was able to say, with some justification:

'Ten years ago, I stood on a stage just like this one and said if we changed our party we could change our country. We’ve done that – together. I didn’t campaign on the NHS alone – you joined me.
It wasn’t just me who put social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission – we all did.'


That was the historical background, and it was gratifying for those of us who consider ourselves Tory modernisers to hear that vindication, and his unapologetic pride in his progressive achievements. But it was only the beginning. The rest of the speech today brought wave after wave of renewed, centrist ambition. He reclaimed the mantle of 'One Nation', declared his determination to deal with deep-rooted social problems, deal with the housing shortage, launch an 'all-out assault on poverty', reform prisons and improve social mobility.  

But the most striking and powerful section was on equality.  It bears reading in full: 

'We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally.  Think about it like this:  Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a British Muslim if he walks down the street and is abused for his faith.  Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a black person constantly stopped and searched by the police because of the colour of their skin. 

'Opportunity doesn’t mean much to a gay person rejected for a job because of the person they love.  It doesn’t mean much to a disabled person prevented from doing what they’re good at because of who they are. I’m a dad of two daughters – opportunity won’t mean anything to them if they grow up in a country where they get paid less because of their gender rather than how good they are at their work.

'The point is this: you can’t have true opportunity without real equality.  And I want our party to get this right.  Yes us, the party of the fair chance; the party of the equal shot.  The party that doesn’t care where you come from, but only where you’re going.  Us, the Conservatives - I want us to end discrimination and finish the fight for real equality in our country today.'


The conference delegates rose and applauded.  It was quite a moment - and along with the rest of today's speech, a potent symbol of how Cameron has genuinely led his party, rather than followed it.  

Ten years ago, a plucky outsider stood before a defeated party and told them to choose the difficult path of modernisation and reform instead of retreating to their comfort zone.  Today, a victorious Prime Minister stood before his party and his country and left them in no doubt he is sticking to that path.  He was right to do so, and they should trust him again. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

The ‘sweetest victory’ in history?



When he walked back through the front door of 10 Downing Street a week ago, David Cameron walked straight into the political history books.  A cliché?  Perhaps - but in this case, a deserved one. Whatever else he does in his remaining term as Prime Minister, the fact he has secured such a term at all is an achievement no-one can take away from him.  As the dust settles and the political drama moves on, it is worth considering for a moment just how historic a feat this was.


Yes, he is the first Conservative leader to win a majority in 23 years, and on Tuesday chaired the first all-Conservative cabinet since 1997.  Yes, the 11.3 million votes he secured was more than any leader has won since Tony Blair’s landslide in 1997 (more than Mr Blair got in 2001 or 2005, and of course, more than Mr Cameron himself won in 2010).  But that is just scratching the surface.  Many comparisons have been made with 1992 - but of course John Major’s victory then, though impressive, was on a reduced vote share and number of seats.  Some have mentioned the year 1983 as the last time a sitting Prime Minister won an election whilst increasing their parliamentary seat tally.  But Mrs Thatcher did that whilst seeing the Conservative share of the vote decline slightly – and it was the Labour Party’s weakness and loss of votes to the SDP/Liberal Alliance which gave her a landslide in terms of seats.

So we go back further – to Harold Wilson in October 1974, when he increased the Labour Party’s share of the vote and number of seats, to win a narrow majority.  But this was not after a full term in office - he had only been back in Number 10 since February that year, when an indecisive election had led him to form a minority government.  Back we go to 1966, when, again, Wilson had increased Labour’s vote share and number of seats.  But as with 1974, this was an opportunistic ‘cut and run’ election with Wilson consolidating his position after less than eighteen months in power.

Another year mentioned by commentators over the last week has been 1955 – when Anthony Eden won a Conservative majority with an increase in share of the vote and seats.  But he was a new Prime Minister, having taken over from Churchill only weeks earlier.   To find a Prime Minister who improved their position after serving a full term in office we have to go back to Lord Salisbury, who won a higher vote share in 1900 than he had in 1895.  But this resulted in a reduced number of seats.

I have tracked back through every previous General Election, trying to find a parallel for what David Cameron achieved last Thursday. I thought maybe Lord Liverpool’s result in 1826 might be the nearest approximation - but as that was before the Great Reform Act, the vast majority of the population had no vote and only 29 per cent of seats were even contested. So that and previous elections cannot reasonably be said to be at all comparable in terms of a democratic mandate and vote share.  

So I was left with post-1832 history, when the electoral franchise began to be extended and the concept of the popular vote started to mean anything.  We should really only compare elections since 1918, when the vote was extended to women and the property requirement was dropped, but stick with me – I was trying to find any sort of parallel.   And here’s the thing:  There isn't one.  Not one.  Either the incumbent’s vote share decreased, or they fell short of a majority, or they hadn't served a full term - even if we are generous and count a ‘full term’ as four years, rather than the statutory five (or seven, prior to 1911).  What we saw last week simply hasn't been done before.

During the 2015 General Election campaign we heard interventions from a couple of successful former Prime Ministers:  Tony Blair – the only Labour leader to win three successive majorities, and whose 1997 landslide was the most seats ever won by his party; and John Major, who in 1992 won for the Conservatives the most votes – over 14 million – that any Prime Minister has secured, before or since.  

To those records we can now add that of David Cameron:  The first and only Prime Minister to have managed, after a full term in office, to win the popular vote and a parliamentary majority with an increased vote share and increased number of seats.  The 'sweetest victory' indeed.  History is written by the winners, they say- but sometimes the winning writes its own history. 

Friday, January 09, 2015

"Je suis Charlie" - Unless I choose not to be.

I've thought a lot about whether to blog on the subject of the brutal murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and the police officers who tried to protect them.  A crime such as that is so obviously evil that there doesn't seem much more to say than to just condemn it outright.  But the specifics of this latest terrorist outrage, being such a direct attack on freedom of expression, have provoked much emotive and thoughtful commentary on the complex issues of freedom, religion and fear.  I may not be adding much to that debate, but it prompted me to examine my own reaction.

In response to the attack, many have posted examples of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons as an act of defiance.  I genuinely admired that sentiment, and the sight of Londoners gathering in Trafalgar Square in a spontaneous show of solidarity was profoundly moving.  I would have been there too if I could.  But though I used the "#JeSuisCharlie" hashtag and expressed my support, I chose not to retweet or share any cartoons myself.  Why not?  I've thought a lot about that, and I think I understand my hesitancy. It wasn't just fear (to which Dan Hodges boldly confessed in his own case), but perhaps also a sense of not wanting to be provoked to do something I wouldn't normally do.

Of course, the whole point of an act of defiance (or tribute) is that it is symbolic.  You may never have heard of the magazine or seen its cartoons, but by reposting them, you are making an important point: Violence will not stop us from expressing ourselves.  That is a noble idea.  But as I've seen several people noting in the days since the attack, Charlie Hebdo's cartoons were notably crude and offensive, and would be judged by many (not just pseudo-religious killers) to be in bad taste.  From those I've seen, they're not the sort of thing I would "Like" or share on social media in ordinary times.

Call me a wimp, but I generally flinch from things which are clearly designed to offend others in a provocative way, as the most biting satire inevitably does.  Just as with a shockingly rude comment or tasteless joke, it provokes in me a sharp intake of breath and a muttered "that's not very nice."   I often say I wish people could be a bit nicer to each other in politics, and I apply that to life generally. But, crucially, I also believe emphatically in freedom of expression.

I accept that freedom of expression means the freedom to offend me, and anyone else.  The freedom to write rude things about people, and to draw crude cartoons of them is the same as my freedom to inhale deeply and say I think that's a bit much, or that I don't find it very funny.  I believe freedom of expression should be used responsibly, and in a way that shows respect for others.  But the fact others can choose to disregard such restraint is how I know I am free.

For example, I find much partisan political debate puerile, depressing, and personally unkind.  I roll my eyes and deplore a lot of the behaviour at Prime Minister's Questions.  But I would never argue that the weekly circus be abolished.   The fact the leader of our country can be taunted, mocked and insulted to his face by our elected representatives every week is symbolically important.  It's not pretty to watch, but the fact it happens should reassure us.

In the same way, the fact a magazine like Charlie Hebdo can exist is more important than whether we happen to approve of its content.  This is hardly an original or complicated thought, and is often summed up in the phrase wrongly attributed to Voltaire:  "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."  Wednesday's murderous attack demonstrated the potency of those words in a chillingly literal way. particularly when one of the policemen killed was revealed to be a Muslim, who gave his life defending the right of others to mock his religion.

The question of whether news organisations and people in general should now unite in reproducing the cartoons is not simple.  There is plainly the very real fear that doing so places yet more people in danger of attack.  And there might also be a suspicion that we are to some extent being manipulated by the terrorists into doing just that, to provide them with as perverted a justification for their next atrocity as they have used for the last.  But we should also ask ourselves how we would respond if the attack had been on, say, the offices and staff of a pornographic magazine.  Would we feel obliged to demonstrate our defiance by sharing graphic images?  I suspect not, but our defence of their freedom of expression in the face of violent intimidation should be as strong.

To me, declaring "Je suis Charlie" is not to agree with the editorial line for which the magazine stands.  It represents the fact that if I wanted, I or anyone else could express myself as they do.  I choose not to. But that's freedom.
 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Happy Ex-mas

So here it is - Merry Christmas to all my regular readers.  Not that I have regular readers, mainly due to the absurdly large gap between posts on this blog.  But I'm determined not to apologise for that, having said I would merely be posting as and when I felt moved to do so.  And I feel so moved now, as the Christmas break begins (for me, at least - apologies if you've still got another couple of days to go.  Oh, dammit, there's an apology. Sorry.)

Having revived this blog in the summer in the wake of my electoral defeat, and been rather gratified by the response my musings on that subject evoked, I thought I should return briefly to the subject here - I mean, why change a winning (or losing) formula?  So at risk of sounding tiresomely self-indulgent, here goes.

After been ejected from the Town Hall, this is the first Christmas since 2004 that I haven't been a Councillor.  More pointedly, it's my first as an ex-Councillor.  This has had a number of noticeable effects, I've discovered.  Towards the end of November I instinctively began to do my Christmas planning, to sort out which local events, parties and meetings I would need to fit in around this busy time.  Carol services at various local churches, festive markets and celebrations around the Borough - and of course there was the extensive Christmas card list to tackle... it took a little while for it to dawn on me that things are different this year.

Put bluntly, that's not my job any more.  Carol services and Christmas markets are great fun, but as a local representative it feels like a duty -albeit a pleasant one- to get round to as many as possible.  Like the classic Vicar of Dibley episode, you accept all invitations and end up rushing from one event to another to show your face, meet people, thank them for their efforts and show your support for community groups and charities (and, of course, to get lots of photos to put on Twitter charting your festive marathon of mince-pie eating in the public interest).  It's what local politicians do - and rightly so.  But I'm not one of them any more.

So I shelved Operation Goodwill to All and embraced a different approach.  Instead of having to cross-reference committee meeting dates with the local "what's on" pages, I was able to start with family and friends - those who have too often in the last decade found themselves fitted in around other commitments.  So at the start of December I headed off to Cambridge to stay with a college friend I haven't seen in a while - then spent a lovely long weekend at a country house in Suffolk with a large group of old friends for our now-traditional early festive celebration.  Unlike in previous years, I didn't arrive late, or spend any time fretting about the events I "ought" to have been at. I just enjoyed their company.

This week, I returned to the south coast for a friend's funeral.  It was heart-wrenchingly sad, but I was glad to be able to drop everything to attend, without having to cancel other arrangements or send apologies.  And instead of rushing back to London, I was able to spend a couple of days with my parents.  This weekend I'm going to a number of birthday and Christmas celebrations that in previous years might have been squeezed out or foreshortened by Councillorial duties.  Then on Monday I'm setting off for a family Christmas earlier than I might otherwise have done.

So it has been somewhat liberating, and a welcome chance to catch up properly with people who are important to me.  But I would be lying if I said I didn't also miss the festive round of civic engagements, and the feeling of having a formal role in my community.  Since May, despite still being very interested in local politics, I've resisted any temptation to go along and watch Council meetings from the public gallery, not wanting to haunt the chamber in which I no longer have a seat. Part of me felt the same about community events I used to attend -  isn't it a bit sad to keep turning up at things now I'm a has-been?

That, I realised, was the wrong way of looking at it.  I'd lost an election, not been sent into exile.  I'm still a local resident, I'm fortunate enough to own my flat in the heart of my old ward, and I still enjoy living here in Eltham.  I'm also (party politics of its leadership aside) immensely proud of the Royal Borough of Greenwich:  it's a beautiful place to live, with lots of wonderful things to do, and full of friends and acquaintances I've met over the years.  Why on earth wouldn't I continue going to local events?

And so I have:  the Summer Fayre at Well Hall Pleasaunce, Medieval Jousting at Eltham Palace, the Tall Ships Regatta, Eltham Lights Up - and many others.  The only differences are that I'm now going to them purely because I want to, and that I don't feel a politician's urgent need to have my photograph taken to prove I was there (now, any selfies are just for fun - or regular Facebook vanity).

No longer having any civic obligation, I've been gratified to find that many of the things with which I filled my diary as a Councillor were genuine pleasures.  So it is at Christmas, too.  Local festive events are pleasant, and reinforce that warm feeling of being part of a community, whether you have a formal role in it or not.  So whilst I've rebalanced my diary in favour of loved ones this Christmas, I'll still find time for a few local celebrations too.  Just not ALL of them.