Monday, 29 June 2015

Devolution and the Language of 'Power'

Politics is, or certainly should be, the business of trying to make the world a better place. People disagree about how best to do that, of course, but that is what it is all about - that is why people join political parties, go out campaigning, give their time and money to 'the cause', and ultimately become 'politicians' (or it certainly should be, and I think it mostly is).

However, that is quite clearly not the way it is seen by much of the wider public. There is a huge gulf of disconnect between people and 'politicians', and that is a disconnect that everyone involved in politics needs to be trying to address. It's by no means a simple issue, and there is no quick fix, but I do think we need to be better about the habitual, shorthand use of language that gives the wrong impression.

One thing that has long concerned my personally is the use of the word 'power'. It's something we hear a great deal of from politicians of all parties. In particular, it's a very common term used in the debate around devolution. I think it gives a very bad impression about how our elected representatives view their own position, and indeed may even be failing to remind some of our elected representatives what it is they have been elected to do (and how they should therefore act).

Now let me be clear on this. I am a Liberal. I do not believe that people are elected to 'wield power'. 'Power' only derives from, and entirely belongs to, 'the people' themselves, and they elect representatives merely to represent (the clue is in the name!), their interests and their opinions on how the country (or local area, or region) should best be administered and run. They do not, in my opinion, give them 'power' to use as they please, to serve themselves or to dominate and control the population. That is not the role of government, and that is not the role of politicians.

So let us stop using the language that suggests that it is. Instead of talking about 'power' and 'powers' all the time, taking 'power' from one set of politicians and giving it to another, devolving 'powers' from one institution to another, and so on, why don't we instead talk about 'responsibility' and 'responsibilities'.

To put it another way, let's look at a few definitions of the word 'Power' (from
"The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way"
"The capacity or ability to direct or influence the behaviour of others or the course of events"
"Political or social authority or control, especially that exercised by a government"

That is all about control and authority, without reference to accountability.

Now let's consider the word 'Responsibility':
"The state or fact of having a duty to deal with something or of having control over someone"
"The state or fact of being accountable or to blame for something"
"A moral obligation to behave correctly towards or in respect of"

Isn't that a much better word to use to describe what elected members, democratic institutions and governments are there to do? Of course they have the ability to do things, but they are 'responsible' for them - they are 'accountable' and 'to blame' if they don't do it well enough, and they can even be said to have a 'moral obligation'.

This might seem like a minor point of semantics, but I think it is an important one. Political parties shouldn't be seeking 'power' to act as they please, they should be seeking to take 'responsibility' for doing things. This is what they should be saying to the people, and this is what they should be constantly reminding themselves about.

Now of course some political parties and politicians might see things differently - they might actually regard elections as being a way of 'gaining power' over the lives of the people, but that isn't the way that we, as Liberals, should be thinking (and I don't believe that that is the way that Liberals are actually thinking). So let us Liberals lead the way in using the appropriate language to remind ourselves, everyone in politics, and most importantly the electorate that we don't believe that politics is about 'power', but that we believe instead that it is about 'responsibility'.

Let's ditch the word 'power' from our political dictionary altogether - instead of 'devolving power' let's talk about 'devolving responsibility'. Instead of governments being 'in power', let's talk about them 'having responsibility'. It's only a few, short additional syllables, but I do think it's quite an important issue. We need politics to re-connect with people, and people to reconnect with politics, and and we're never going to do that while we give an impression that politics is all about politicians being 'powerful' instead of being 'responsible'. Of course, many people and politicians understand that it is really just a habit of political shorthand, but I think we really need to break that habit.

People are, quite rightly, never likely to trust a politician who they think believes that being elected gives them the 'power' to rule over them like some kind of feudal Lord, engaged in their own private games of furthering themselves within the system and looking out from the battlements of their castles over the 'plebs' below. They want, I believe, to know that politicians understand that they have merely been given (temporary) 'responsibility' to try to improve the world for everyone, because with responsibility comes accountability and moral obligation.

So let's stop talking of 'power' and 'powers', and start using more appropriate language, especially when it comes to the issue of devolution.

Time for a Coherent Constitution

Much has been said by many about different bits of the UK's somewhat messy (to say the least!) constitution, the layers of government, the electoral system, and the various devolution settlements. It must be time for us to sit down and think about it properly in an adult way via some kind of 'convention' so that we can arrive at a lasting settlement and system that works for EVERYONE.

That, for me, is the big problem with current and most often discussed settlements - they aren't for EVERYONE in the UK. There's this system for Scotland, that system for Wales, another for London, and maybe some more for other big cities. I don't think that's really the best way to go about devolving government - I don't buy the whole 'let's have a local referendum on devolving responsibility to this particular city' thing. What about rural areas, for example? We have a system in which some places will deal with their own healthcare and education, and others will have it dealt with by Westminster. We have a massive democratic deficit developing across England in particular, and that isn't healthy for any of us - as well as causing general confusion about what applies where, it breeds resentment among those who don't have devolution in their area. Frankly, it's all a bit of a shambles.

What I think we need is a single coherent constitutional system that applies equally across the UK - a proper federal system that sees everyone having the same kind of governmental structure. Devolution for everyone - good Liberal localism in action, and for every citizen to participate. So how could such a system work? Be warned - this is where I will get into a lengthy personal muse! It's not meant as a final answer to the situation, but just a set of my thoughts about general directions that could be considered. It may take some time, but it is a complicated issue to address!

To start with, let's define that everything applies equally across the UK as it should, and that one system will be implemented for everyone (a brief note about Northern Ireland here - there are specific circumstances surrounding the way in which it is governed, and I certainly wouldn't want to upset any apple-carts there. Any change there would obviously have to be carefully managed with due care and attention to the specific issues, though that doesn't mean nothing can change at all, especially in the context of UK-wide change). So how many levels of 'government' should there be? Obviously I think we need to be both localist and internationalist in our outlook, and work out the appropriate issues to be dealt with at the appropriate level, as close to 'the people' as practically possible.

I'm going to suggest 4 levels of elected government is sufficient, and any more becomes wasteful - European, UK, National/Regional and Unitary Local. I will deal with each of these in turn, but there's actually not too much to say about the European level other than that the current system desperately needs democratic reform!

You'll have noticed straight away, I guess, that I've swept away the idea of separate 'County' and 'Town' type councils in favour of a single unified local government structure (broadly along the lines of what we have in Wales). I think the confusion of who does what between those two levels is an unnecessary distraction, allows potential for conflict and even 'passing the buck' on a regular basis, and creates an unnecessary cost. Indeed, I'm going further, and suggesting we get rid of all of those 'Parish', 'District' and similar councils - while I don't deny that some of them do good things, they create a democratic and practical deficit for those places that do not have them. For example, one Unitary Authority in Wales decided not to pay for Christmas Lights in their two main towns in 2014 - one had a Town Council that sorted out lights, one did not so had none. That is not as frivolous an issue as it sounds, since such things attract shoppers that are important to the local economy, but it's just one small example of what can happen.

So how do we deal with the things those smaller councils used to do? It's actually quite simple, in my opinion - we create an electoral system using multi-member council wards with 5 members in each ward (in every area across the UK, so some may be large enough to cover multiple villages in rural areas and so on), and give those elected members collective direct control over a 'Ward Budget'. We really don't need a whole extra layer of elected members, with associated costs, to fulfil those functions - I think 5 elected members (with the support of a central administrative section) should really be enough to provide a democratic decision-making process in consultation with local people, and it makes those members more directly and obviously accountable to their local electorate for what goes on locally. It also means that they are a direct part of the democratic process in determining the budget allocation for wards, so there is no longer such a danger of one council trying to pass responsibilities to lower councils without guaranteed attached budgets, and so on (as we sometimes see in a climate of difficult financial times with regard to things like public toilets, for example). And yes, I do think that Councillors should be paid for their services - not a huge wage, but enough that they can be realistically able to do such an important job on a full time basis.

Next we need to look at the 'Regional' part of the structure. We have models in Wales, Scotland and London to look at (and it is logical for those 'Regions' to remain as they are), but if we are applying devolution across the UK we need to look more closely at the sharing of responsibilities between those bodies and Westminster (if Westminster is where the UK government remains - I think there is a strong case for it not doing so, but that's a slightly separate issue). If each region is responsible for its own Education system, for example, what does the UK parliament have to do with Education any more? I think the answer to that is that it should set the basic rules and standards that the Regional governments have to adhere to - children should be educated to age XX, for example, and should reach certain defined standards in certain core subjects, and so on. Since it sets those standards, it should also be responsible for carrying out assessment exercises to ensure they are met (so we no longer have the nonsense of a government inspecting itself to ensure it has reached its own standards, even via a quasi-autonomous body, which has so much 'conflict of interest' potential). We can extend the same principles to all areas of policy (apart from issues like defence, which clearly needs to be done at a UK level) - the UK parliament merely sets rules, standards and guidelines within which the Regional parliaments need to operate.

As another example, we can consider Income Tax. Regional parliaments will be spending most of the money, so should have responsibility for raising it - responsibility breeds accountability, and accountability is vitally important. Of course a set amount will need to go to the UK parliament, but there's no reason for it to set the overall rates. Again it can set the overall rules, though - instead of 'Tax Varying', we're now talking about a UK parliament that sets possible bands (eg. Band A Income Tax can be charged at a starting threshold between £X and £Y, and be of a rate between a% and b%, and so on) rather than actual rates. So to sum up, overall, now we have reached a point where the UK parliament is responsible only for setting the basic guidelines and standards (in 'home' policy areas), and Regional parliaments are responsible for setting policies within those guidelines in order to meet those basic standards (along with any other standards they want to set for their own areas in non-UK-defined policy areas). Now we are beginning to get a basic definition of what these different institutions exist for, and a general picture of how their responsibilities are divided.

So how big should the 'Regions' be, and how many elected members should each have? I'm not about to define precise numbers, but we already have 'Regions' with populations from about 3 million up to about 10 million or so, and these seem like reasonable 'minimum and maximum' levels to set. As far as possible, they should be divided according to 'natural boundaries', of course, and each Region should have a number of representatives in some way proportional to their population. Every region will have exactly the same responsibilities, though - it doesn't make sense to do things any other way (and as far as 'some regions want it some don't' goes, one UK-wide referendum could be used to make a decision whether to implement such a change for everybody, since half-measures and a mixed system simply won't work effectively - it would leave Westminster with a frankly silly set of mixed responsibilities for different places!).

So on to Westminster. Now it would only have responsibility for 'home' policies in the sense of setting the basic groundrules, and they shouldn't need to be changed significantly too often. It still has responsibility for 'foreign' issues, of course, aside from those quite rightly being dealt with at a European level, so it does still need to exist and have enough members to function. It will have considerably less to do, though, so it should need considerably less members (again I'm not going to try to define a specific number, though). The members of its primary chamber should be elected by some system of Proportional Representation - that is the ONLY way of ensuring that it is properly democratically accountable, in my opinion. There are various systems that can be used, but personally I always favour ones that maintain some link between members and constituents at a reasonably 'local' level.

That brings me on the the second chamber. I must confess I'm a huge fan of second chambers. The current House of Lords is not a great set up - it does some very good work as a 'Revising and Advising' chamber (which is what it should be doing), but the current system of appointments is a mess. I am, perhaps surprisingly, not going to advocate a directly elected chamber, though, in the context of the kind of overall structure I'm suggesting here - that could potentially present a 'democratic threat' to the primary chamber, and that's not healthy. It would also mean an extra set of elections, and elections cost money. Rather, I'm suggesting that it should be a 'Chamber of the Regions', with members appointed by (and accountable to) their parties in the Regional parliaments, proportionally allocated according to the number of members a party has in the regional institutions (and proportional to the populations of each region). Regional elections already have different outcomes to UK elections, especially if they are 'mid-term', and that could be reflected in a UK second chamber - members would be appointed for 'terms' that are different to the primary chamber, and could be removed or reappointed by their Regional parties. There have to be clear and strict limits to its ability to 'defeat' the primary chamber, though, as with the current 'Parliament Act' (but possibly more so) - it can Advise, it can Revise, it can Suggest, but it can't be allowed either to try to overrule or to try to delay and filibuster in order to frustrate the expressed will of the primary chamber (filibustering is another issue that badly needs to be addressed in our system in some way!). It's members shouldn't be able to hold governmental office any longer (because they are not directly accountable to the electorate in the same way as primary chamber members), but should be able to serve on parliamentary committees to help keep the chambers working together in harmony.

As I said, I'm a fan of second chambers. There has been much talk of increasing the number of Assembly members in Wales, for example, but I actually tend to think, under this kind of proposed system, that a second chamber would be more useful. Again, like Westminster, it could be an 'Advise and Revise' body comprised of representatives from the parties in Unitary Authorities, appointed proportionally according to their local election results and accountable to their local parties (not the Regional parliamentary 'whips'). What this kind of system gives, for both Regions and the UK, is two chambers of different make up, changing at different times, accountable in different ways, and a very good practical level of communication and interaction between different levels of government (though with one chamber having clear practical 'supremacy').

So, in most areas of policy, we have a UK-level parliament broadly dealing with 'Groundrules' and a Regional-level parliament dealing broadly with 'Policy' - so what does the Local level of government do? Well, its remit should, I think, be effectively one of 'Implementation'. Gong back to the example of education, where the UK set the basics and the region set the policies of meeting those basics and deciding on other standards for regions, it is locally that the schools should actually be run, and they should be run by that relevant democratically accountable institution. The same extends to other areas of 'Groundrules' and 'Policy' - the UK decides what needs to be done in general terms, the Region decides the specifics and general policies for doing it and the local authority (in some policy areas in conjunction with their 'Ward Committees') decides how it can best be implemented in their area. Clear definitions of general roles for the different democratic institutions dealing with all policy areas, rather than saying that this policy area is 'devolved' and this one is not, while this other one is 'partially devolved'. And all of it is universal across the whole of the UK - a coherent system so that everyone knows who is responsible for what in their own, and every other, part of the UK, and everyone knows what accountability lies with which bunch of politicians.

That last point is an important one - at the moment we have UK General Elections partly fought on, for example, Health issues that are little to do with the provision of Health in Wales or Scotland (aside from the 'Barnet consequential' issues, which is not exactly the most transparent of things!). It's just confusing, and fudges the issue of why people should vote for different parties, and who they might want to vote for on which issues and when. Funding of the regions is an issue to be addressed, of course, and a new formula would be needed to address the budget for each Regional government - that is partly dealt with by having local taxation responsibility, of course, but let's not pretend that a new, needs-based kind of funding formula isn't long overdue anyway!

That then leaves us with elections to the various bodies, which can be defined on a rotating basis (and we can get away from the nonsense of 'partial local elections' where bits of councils are elected at different times, too!). for example, Year 1 (the one the UK doesn't directly control!) is the European Elections, Year 2 is the Regional, Year 3 is a year off, Year 4 is UK Parliament and year 5 is councils - all institutions having fixed 5 year terms, and 4 out of 5 years having an election (in mid May, I would suggest, so there's always a year between elections). It should be noted that the second chambers would be appointed at a different time from the primary chambers (UK in year 2, Regional in year 5).

Oh, one more thought on the democratisation of the European Union - by now you know I like second chambers, appointed proportionally via the make up of the 'next institution down', so to speak. Yes, I would favour that as a useful thing for Europe - a second chamber comprised of 5 year term appointments made by parties according to the make up of national parliaments, taking and 'advise and revise' role for the primary chamber of the parliament on behalf of their countries (and directly accountable to the parties in their national parliaments).  One benefit of this system (at all levels) as I see it is that parties that do well in one institution's elections get an element of representation in the 'next institution up', even if they don't do so well in elections to that institution's primary chamber (as sometimes happens - Plaid Cymru, for example, do  considerably better in Welsh Assembly elections than they do in UK parliament elections, though the different electoral systems are partly to blame for that) - I think that could be very useful in ensuring that all views are properly heard. Such a system for Europe could help us to pull away from the current governmental model of a pretty much unaccountable Commission and a constant roadblock of national governments acting in their own short-term home electoral interests.

So there we have it - my thoughts on the kind of direction we should be looking to go in - 4 layers of elected government for everyone, each layer with its own defined role and responsibilities across all relevant policy areas. Yes, I realise that this is more of an essay than a 'blog', strictly speaking, but that's the way things are likely to go with me trying to write stuff down! I've never claimed 'brevity' as one of my overwhelming virtues! There are many more issues surrounding the system to consider and explore, of course, and I'm not claiming to know everything (or even anything, necessarily!), it's just a personal musing on how I think things could be done for others to consider or ignore as they see fit. Some elements might be a little controversial, I guess, but that's personal views for you!

Edited to add: I've added some more detail on Second Chambers in the context of this discussion here.

My musical taste - an older musing!

This is something I wrote about 6 years ago. Since I've now got a blog, though it's a personal thing and really nothing to do with politics at all, I thought I might as well add it in here!

‘If music be the food of love...’, I’m always hungry!

For many years, as a lifelong self-confessed and utterly incurable musical obsessive, I have searched for something to describe and quantify my own musical taste. It ranges through many genres, and includes forms of music that seem to some to be totally disassociated to the point of incompatibility, and yet to me they all seem perfectly coherently bound together by a common thread. I have struggled to find a way of describing this thread, and how and why it runs through all the different genres of music that lift my soul and excite me.

I have never seen why being a passionate lover of the most extreme forms of heavy metal is considered to be something ‘different’ to being a passionate lover of ‘classical’ orchestral music, or grand opera, or light operetta, or choral music, or the more obscure forms of ‘space’ and ‘progressive’ rock, or folk or jazz, or any of the other forms of music I love deeply. I find them all bound together as one.

Of course, I realise there are many differences of form and instrumentation but to me the function and functionality is the same. The varying manipulations of harmony, texture, rhythm and so on between these forms seem to me linked in a way that doesn’t seem so exhibited in some other forms of music, such as the more ‘radio friendly’ forms of ‘pop’ and ‘dance’ music.

It’s not that I have anything against the ‘radio friendly’ as such (it’s not a longing to appear ‘different’ or ‘uncommercialised’ – that would be simple enough to explain!) but it just leaves me dissatisfied and unfulfilled in some way that I find hard to quantify in terms which can be described to others. Yes, there is some element of disliking ‘formulaic’ ‘music by numbers’ and ‘computerised’ music, as much ‘pop’ certainly is, but it goes much deeper than that. I can almost guarantee that if music is regularly on mainstream radio, it will be music that I don’t like particularly. Even though it may seem pleasant enough, and may produced by fine musicians, it is almost certain to be music that just doesn’t ‘get me’ on the ‘emotional’ and ‘spiritual’ level.

I’ve never been able to fully get that across to people who question why I like all these ‘different’ things and see them as ‘one’. Finally, however, I think I may have the answer.

‘If music be the food of love...’, I need to be fully satisfied. I need a full meal of many courses, with many different elements and flavour combinations to tantalise and excite my pallet. I need different textures blended together to fill my mouth with many different feels. I need my meal to include the sweet, sour, bitter and salty, as well as to contain blends of different fragrances to give me a full sensory experience throughout. I need to be assaulted by different sensations, ‘unpleasant’ as well as ‘pleasant’ – I don’t want things that are always easy to consume. I want to be actively involved in the whole process of consumption, carefully feeling my way through all of
the different the textures, flavours, seasonings, spices and so on. I want to have to work to fully appreciate both the constructive elements and the end result. I don’t feel satisfied ‘emotionally’ and ‘spiritually’ by the simplistic, the easy to produce or the easy to consume.

This sort of satisfaction I can derive from a Beethoven Symphony as I feel my way through all of the different ‘flavours’ within each movement, listening over and over until I ‘understand’ emotional (though not necessarily on a technical level) interactions between the different notes, sounds and textures of the orchestration. I can get it from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta as the harmony vocals twist around each other and the orchestra, particularly in the choral sections. I can also derive it from a Between the Buried and Me album of extreme heavy metal in exactly the same way, although the sounds being used are very different (and, I guess, offensive to the ears of some). Likewise, I can get it from a Gong album of obscure 1970’s ‘space’ music, or an early Genesis album, or an album of traditional Celtic or English folk music, or a Led Zeppelin album or a Jaco Pastorius album of modern jazz.

In these forms of music, you aren’t just expecting to hear a tune sung by a singer with a backing band – sometimes there might be tune, sometimes there might not. Sometimes there might be a tune, but not necessarily vocal – there may be vocals, but in extreme heavy metal as in grand opera, the singer’s voice may be being used as a part of the overall texture of the music while the melody is played out elsewhere. There is an endless variety of structural, rhythmical, harmonic and textural possibilities within each individual piece as it ranges through its different moods before reaching its conclusion. To me, these forms of music are the same in their effect. Despite their obvious differences to many, once you go beyond the simplistic definitions of what instruments are being played, ‘emotionally’ and ‘spiritually’ to me they are essentially the same ‘sort’ of music.

On the other hand, those more ‘radio friendly’ musical works tend to be a nice melody (and they can be very nice melodies, though almost invariably vocal) with an instrumental accompaniment, a repetitive rhythmical beat, and little else. There are no subtleties, no interwoven textures, no real changes of dynamic or pace, and no creative structural forms. It’s mostly ‘verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, verse, chorus, end’ – a few short minutes of something quite nice, but nothing more (and ‘extended mixes’ tend to be just the same thing played for longer, which is nothing short of torture!). To me, this is musical ‘junk food’ – burgers, sweets, chocolate and cream cakes. Nice enough now and again as a snack, but not the ‘real deal’, and not satisfying on a deeper emotional level.

Don’t get me wrong – I like a bit of ‘junk food’ now and again like anybody else, but I couldn’t live on it! I have to have a meal that satisfies me fully on every level, and on a regular basis. I need my main diet to be a varied collection of different courses and meals, all with their own subtleties and blends of flavour, fragrance and texture. The music I like provides me with that, despite the fact that many others seem to find it difficult to comprehend how I can slip seamlessly from Schubert to Slipknot without seeing an essential difference between them.

That, whether it makes sense to others or not, is why my musical taste is what it is, and isn’t what it isn’t.

Dog 'attacks' and the media

So today, just a day after starting  my blog, I find myself with something to say!

It's about this news story:

"Girl aged 7 hospitalised following dog attack in Montrose Avenue, Welling

The youngster was taken to hospital with bite injuries after an Alaskan Malamute attacked her yesterday afternoon (June 25).
Police were called to a residential address in Montrose Avenue at around 4.50pm to reports of a young girl attacked by a dog.
The seven-year-old, who is expected to make a full recovery from her non-life threatening injuries, was taken to a south London hospital for treatment.
The dog- an Alaskan Malamute - has been seized by officers.
Officials from the Met's Status Dog Unit are investigating and no arrests have been made."

All sounds like a nasty, vicious attack from an aggressive dog, right?

Not necessarily!

Every time a bite incident is reported, it is reported as an 'attack', and indeed it may well be recorded as such by the police. There are, however, many reasons that a dog may bite, and they may be nothing to do with 'aggression'. A dog cannot tell a child 'I'm to hot and tired to play', for example, or say 'What on earth was that' if a child lands heavily on them while they are asleep. A 'snap' can be nothing more than a 'get off me' reaction - a single bite, used as part of their normal language and communication (and I've seen that happen from the most gentle and loving of dogs when put momentarily in the wrong circumstances), quite possibly not even intended to actually 'connect'. Now obviously dog owners have a responsibility to train and socialise their dogs to try to avoid such issues, but also a responsibility to ensure that they aren't put in a position where such incidents might occur. That also means training their children, understanding the reactions and body language of their dog to know when it is stressed or uncomfortable with a situation (or when it is too hot, for example, and just wants to be left alone - a possible issue with an Alaskan Malamute on a hot day), and so on.

Even then, it can only take a moment for something to go wrong, and a single snap or bite from a powerful animal (as any reasonable sized dog is) can easily require some 'hospital treatment', especially for a child, even if it's just a stitch or two, or just a precautionary injection. That still doesn't make it an 'attack', though - that's an entirely different behavioural phenomenon.

It's a very common issue in reporting and recording of incidents, and also a very dangerous one. We will never begin to deal with the issues of genuine aggressive attacks while we fail to fully consider the evidence of incidents - the full context, the previous behaviour of the dog and relationship with the 'victim', and so on. It makes a nonsense of the whole issue if we just assume that every incident of any kind is an 'attack' due to 'aggression', or if we report it as such in a way that makes people think 'it was just a nasty dog' or 'it just 'turned'' (dogs don't just 'turn', unless there is a serious health issue such as a brain tumour that changes their behaviour - that's just rubbish peddled when someone has failed to understand their behaviour and the signs leading up to an incident).

It is impossible to address an issue that isn't actually being understood!

Scroll down to the comments on the above article and you find this:
"I am the older sister of the girl who got "attacked", and I was there when it all happened. My dog did not attack her. If you knew the dog personally, you'd understand that she was a loyal dog. If anything, she was tired and stressed from the weather. Of course, Alaskan Malamute's may look intimidating, but you do not know the whole story. If you are going to publish things about my family, I would like you to ask us permission first as well as knowing the whole story. I had no clue it was on the news. Not because I'm not old enough, but because nobody had asked for our permission. The information is absolutely incorrect; especially about her age. It's disgraceful. Do not exaggerate anything that will make things look more shocking for your news story; it's our personal business. If it was a vicious attack, she would be in life-threatening conditions.
Me and my family expect an apology. This is NOT acceptable."

There are genuine issues of public safety related to irresponsible or ignorant dog ownership, but we need to do much better at considering incidents according to their own individual circumstances if we are ever going to begin to try to solve them. Simplistic 'black and white' thinking just leads to knee-jerk reactions, continuing ignorance and, ultimately, bad law-making and bad law as we have in the Dangerous Dogs Act (I'll say more about that specifically elsewhere at some point).

Now I'm not going to attempt to judge exactly what happened in this case - I have no knowledge of the dog or the family involved, and I wasn't there (and I also, of course, have no idea whether the above comment on the story is genuine or not). That's the point, though - we don't have any kind of contextual evidence on which to base a judgement of what happened. We need, as a society, to do do much better at considering evidence before we leap to conclusions about 'attacks', 'aggression' and 'dangerous dogs'.

(Note - the dog pictured here is not related to the incident - he's mine!)

Starting at the beginning - Liberalism

Deciding exactly where to start a shiny new blog when you have lots of random things to say is never going to be easy. I thought the most logical place to begin is with the very basics of Liberalism itself, what it means to me, and why I consider myself to be a 'Liberal' (and why, therefore, I am a Liberal Democrat).

Now I'm not about to go into a long academic exercise of different definitions of the term - there are plenty of places to find such things, and they won't always agree on every detail. This is about how I see it. Working backwards, in a sense, let's start with the opening sentence from the preamble to the constitution of the Liberal Democrats (the one which appears on Lib Dem membership cards):

"The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."

That's a pretty reasonable way to sum things up - for me it's all about 'Liberty' and 'Freedom', and everything else comes from that.

Many people seem to misunderstand 'Liberalism' in all kinds of ways, and see it as something 'wishy-washy', 'in the middle' or 'neither left nor right'. Partly that is down to us liberals not explaining ourselves terribly well over the years, and part of it is down to the simplistic 'left versus right' political model beloved by political commentators and media outlets. It doesn't give a true picture of what it's all about, though.

To put it bluntly, I believe that everyone has the right to be free to do what they want and be who they want, as long as they don't screw that right up for anyone else. They have the right to be 'different', either by birth and circumstances, or simply by choice. There are 'nature versus nurture' arguments in some quarters, for example, about homosexuality - whether it is something 'genetic' or something 'environmental' (and some even say it can/should be 'cured'). To me it really doesn't matter - it fundamentally doesn't matter 'why' someone is what they are, they should be free to be what they are anyway! A black person is born looking 'black', but a 'goth' has made a personal decision to look as they do - are the rights of one more or less important than the other? To me, no! It doesn't matter why they are 'different' - they should be free and accepted just the same. Freedom necessarily has to come with acceptance (acceptance, not just 'tolerance') and diversity - a society cannot be free of people are only free to 'conform'. There is no freedom without choice, and there is therefore no freedom without acceptance of the choices made by others. There can be no freedom without diversity, and diversity necessarily has to mean equality for everyone.

Diversity is a good thing - it enriches our lives and our society, and it is a visible demonstration of our own freedom. Nobody has a 'right' to be 'offended' just because someone else has made a choice that they wouldn't have made themselves. At the same time nobody has the right to go out of their way to specifically and deliberately offend others because they don't agree with their choices. Everyone must be equal in their rights to be who they are without discrimination or harassment from others. These are universal principles that apply to everything - race, religion, disability, lifestyle, sexuality, culture, subculture, clothing, etc., etc..

This belief is not the same as 'Libertarianism', though - where 'Libertarianism' (and Conservative-style 'Neo-liberalism') fall down is that they fail to appreciate that society is not equal to start off with. People are do not currently have equal opportunity to make their way in the world without prejudice or disadvantage due to choices or circumstances. This is where the 'no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity' is so vital - in order for people to be truly free, we have to address not only prejudice but inequality of opportunity. If those things are not addressed effectively, freedom becomes the preserve of the few rich and powerful at the top who can be perpetually 'looking after their own' - they have the effective freedom to deny freedom (socially and economically) to the rest of society.

Of course, governments need to exist to have a role in doing that, but that doesn't mean that governments are there to dictate to 'their people' - quite the opposite, in fact. They exist to enhance and protect freedom and equality of opportunity, socially and economically, for everyone in society. That's significantly different from the 'equality of outcome' aims at the heart of socialism - it's not about enforced redistribution of wealth, but about ensuring that a framework exists that allows everyone to succeed according to their own efforts and talents, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. They also, of course, need to involve people actively in decision-making as closely as possible at all 'levels' - the freedom to be actively involved in making decisions is an important one.

That basic principle of 'Liberty' that underpins Liberalism is key to understanding what Liberals stand for. In UK politics, on the one hand there are those who just want to leave things alone so that those who have the power and money (often themselves) keep the power and money. On the other there are those who think that the government (comprised of themselves) should be interfering directly in the economy and lives of the population to impose their own ideas of 'fairness' based on making sure that those who previously had power and money have it taken away and redistributed. In the middle, if you like (though I try to shy away from 'centrist' descriptions, because they aren't usually very helpful!) exists a group who just want to make sure that the government only interferes as much as it has to to ensure that everyone is free and equal.

Both 'left' and 'right' inevitably tend towards governmental authoritarianism - one 'side' because they believe that they know best how to distribute everything for everyone, and the other because they think that those who traditionally had authority are best placed to continue to have it. Hence over the last century or so the UK has been on an ever-increasing spiral of centralisation, to the point where we now hear talk of issues such as 'ID Cards' and massive government communication snooping from both 'sides', as if those things are somehow necessary and reasonable to 'protect us'. Liberalism is what is needed to break that up and give governmental 'authority' and responsibility to the people themselves as active participants in society, and Liberalism is what recognises that we shouldn't be living our lives in fear of different choices, diversity and 'the others' to the point where we willingly sacrifice our own freedom to our government.

'Policy' is effectively the manifestation of ideology in the context of current reality. In practical policy terms, there can be some broad agreement between Liberals and others on 'both sides' about specific social or economic measures, but that doesn't mean that the underlying ideologies are the same, or that principles are being 'abandoned' by policy compromise to find practical solutions that can be broadly supported by multiple parties (because they fulfil the practical requirements to further the ideology of both, though perhaps for slightly different reasons). This often seems to be misunderstood.

To summarise, as I said for me it's really all about that 'Freedom'. It's all about people being allowed to make their own choices for their own lives, and having those choices accepted and respected by everyone else. It's all about not having to 'conform', or having to suffer discrimination or prejudice on the basis of being 'different' from someone else. It's about equality and diversity being seen not only as positives, but actually as essential to a functional society that works for everyone. It's about everyone having the opportunity to make their way in the world according to their own choices, not being limited by either their circumstances or the prejudices of others. It's about government being nothing more than the instrument of the people to ensure their continued freedom and enhance their equality of opportunity, and about the people having the freedom to be involved in the decision-making process through an effective system of democracy that both represents the majority and protects the freedoms of 'minorities'.

Everyone is part of a 'minority'. Everyone! Absolutely everyone! Nobody is the same - we are all individuals ("I'm not" - sorry, couldn't resist that!). 'Majority' is necessarily a fallacious concept in a free society - everyone makes their own individual choices and has their own individual circumstances and attributes. That is diversity, and that is a wonderful thing that needs to be enhanced and protected through freedom. That requires not only public acknowledgement but government action, and that is why I am a member of a political party that shares those ideals - the only such party in UK politics.


(Note - The picture of a castle was chosen to represent both government authoritarianism and enforced social conformation, the very opposite of 'Liberalism'. Castles, of which there are many in Wales, are, of course, fine and fascinating structures, but they stand as a very visible reminder of just how completely strength and power can be abused, and how important it is for us to constantly seek to enhance and protect our Rights and Freedom)