Thursday, January 12, 2017

Nick Tyrone - taking hyperbole to an epoch-defining low...

It is not often that I am moved to criticise a fellow Liberal Democrat blogger. Generally speaking, if I join in, you've probably stretched the envelope of acceptable behaviour or attacked someone I love. However, on this occasion, I'm making an exception.

In his 'interesting' posting on the ALDE Group's entanglement with the Five Star Movement, he describes the decision of the Parliamentary Group to reject the proposed entry of the Beppe Grillo led group as 'an epoch defining act of stupidity'. One might argue as to whether it was the right call or not, and there are arguments either way, but come now, Nick, epoch defining to reject a party that has no clear philosophical basis except whatever Beppe thinks when he gets up in the morning? Methinks one protests too much.

And whilst Nick claims to spent time around ALDE and other European liberal parties, and I have no reason to doubt that, he may not be talking to the people I talk to as a member of the ALDE Party Council. I am more than aware of the accusations of fake news generation that whirl around M5S, and of their views regarding the Euro and the future of NATO. Indeed, the proposed deal included a provision that their MEPs would be members of the ALDE Group but not bound by its whip, something which smacks of a 'marriage of convenience'.

Perhaps there was a prospect of a coming together of M5S and European liberal forces leading to an evolution of the former into a genuinely liberal party, and perhaps such an evolution will take place eventually. Personally, I've seen too many personality driven parties disintegrate once the key personality quits or implodes to be that confident, but one learns not to presume anything - something doubly true when considering Italian politics.

But there is no point admitting one dubiously liberal grouping only to lose a number of established ones in protest. ALDE is already a coming together of social liberal and economic liberal parties whose shared objectives outweigh the disagreements. Adding M5S to the mix would be one step too far for a number of them.

So, encourage M5S down a path towards a genuinely liberal grouping in Italy with an informal agreement to work together on issues where the agenda is a shared one by all means and, if they demonstrate that there is a potential place for them amongst the Liberal family, then fine, let's talk about some more formal relationship. But until then, the idea that you invite people to be the flag bearers for liberalism who oppose some of its core tenets for political advantage isn't an epoch defining act of stupidity, it's a demonstration that a political party has to maintain some core principles, lest it forget why it exists in the first place.

And finally, Nick suggests that, in his time spent around ALDE and other European liberal parties, the one thing he noticed again and again is a lack of understanding about how politics basically works. I disagree, obviously, because I'm one of those stupid European liberals he so disparagingly refers to. I might find myself wondering just how successful Nick's brand of politics is, given that there are seven ALDE Prime Ministers, and five Liberal Commissioners, and that the number of Nick Tyrones in government is how many exactly?

But he's entitled to his opinion and I'm entitled to mine. And I think that Nick needs, on some future occasion, to come to an ALDE Party Congress and meet some of the people I meet and talk to them. But as he loathes them - his words, not mine - I'm not sure that a meeting of minds is very likely. Perhaps becoming a member of the Five Star Movement and trying to influence them towards liberalism from the inside might be more palatable to him than spending time with his fellow liberals?

Monday, January 09, 2017

One moment, there were stars, the next... ALDE decide to walk on the mild side...

Well, that was quick, wasn't it? No sooner had Italy's Five Star Movement decided to proceed with applying to join the ALDE group in the European Parliament than the latter chosen not to accept them.

In retrospect, it feels like the right move. Whilst the proposed deal seemed to address a number of issues of mutual agreement, the unreliability of M5S and their, at best, unorthodox view of how media ethics should be applied, represented some serious red flags.

It was an interesting proposal though, with the two sides intended to commit to the promotion of policies such as the simplification of the Brussels bureaucracy, resolving the immigration emergency via a system of permanent relocation, the promotion of the green economy and the development of the digital economy together with more job opportunities. There wasn't too much there to concern the liberal family.

However, the lack of adherence to a Group whip was somewhat troubling, implying that ALDE were a flag of convenience serving to give M5S a route to greater influence within the European Parliament.

It would have potentially tied M5S to a position of being in favour of the European Union, some progress from their stance hitherto, and there is an argument which suggests that bringing the populists into the mainstream acts to defang them of their less appealing views. Some might argue though that, if you lie down with dogs, you risk getting fleas.

A brief discussion amongst members of the Federal International Relations Committee exposed some significant reservations, and the news that the deal had collapsed met with some approval when news broke just as the meeting was coming to an end this afternoon. It will indeed be interesting to see what the ALDE Party make of events, when they meet in Ljubljana in early June.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Unlikely but strangely likely? The Five Star Movement abandon UKIP for liberalism?

Today's news that Beppe Grillo, the leader of Italy's Five Star Movement (M5S), has called an online vote on his recommendation that they leave the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) Group and switch to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE) is something of a bolt out of a clear blue sky. There had, after all, been no suggestion that such a move was being contemplated, and to move from being aligned with UKIP to being aligned with the Liberal Democrats is a bit of a plot twist.

The strange thing is, when they entered into a grouping with UKIP in the first place, it seemed like an odd choice. After all, the five stars represent public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, access to the Internet and environmentalism - not exactly things that you would associate with Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. As an avowedly populist party though, they didn't appear to sit entirely comfortably anywhere, and given that the European Parliament tends to favour a coming together of national delegations into groups, and UKIP were sorely in need of allies, perhaps a loose arrangement with UKIP suited both parties nicely. And loose apears to be the right word, given the claims that the M5S only voted with UKIP about 20% of the time.

There is nothing amongst their five core priorities that jars with the ALDE platform, and their enthusiasm for direct democracy and e-democracy hardly rules out closer working.

So, if members of the Movement, voting online, accept the recommendation, one presumes that talks will commence regarding the transfer from EFDD to ALDE, albeit that it seems unlikely that some discussions haven't already taken place. It may be a bit ragged - there are already suggestions that some of their seventeen MEPs are less than entirely keen - but it would reduce UKIP's influence in the Parliament and make ALDE the third largest group in the Parliament once again.

What this doesn't necessarily mean is that the M5S will be joining the ALDE Party - the ALDE Parliamentary Group is somewhat larger than the ALDE Party, consisting as it does of members of the ALDE Party, the European Democratic Party plus the odd independent.

There is undoubtedly a space for a liberal party in Italian politics. Whether or not the Five Star Movement is that party is still to become clear, but they do at least offer a potential starting point...

Saturday, January 07, 2017

A little light reading for the International Relations Committee...

I am not really a policy wonk. Yes, I take an interest in it, but I am increasingly of the view that, in an ever more fast-moving world, a coherent philosophy is possibly more useful than an ultra-detailed manifesto.

And so, this weekend, I and my fellow Federal International Relations Committee members are preparing for a meeting on Monday to consider the draft Liberal Manifesto, due to be adopted in the Liberal International Congress in Andorra in May. The manifesto has been circulated, a document designed to define how liberalism will face the world in the coming years. That looks like a big ask to me.

So, what do I think, prior to reading the document? Well, here are some of the things that I'll be looking for...

Government as enabler - as a liberal, I feel that government is there to enable people to improve themselves and to live the life of their choice, balancing the freedom of individuals against the needs of the communities they inhabit. In other words, not a free-for-all, but a means of protecting the citizen from those who would deny opportunities and freedoms.

That's a bit technical, but then liberalism is about competing complexities and finding ways to referee them.

Collaboration across state borders - it may be that we're seeing the death throes of the sovereign nation state. In truth, nations aren't sovereign in the old sense, able to define their own destiny in the way that they once could. There are too many inter-dependencies, too many ways in which the acts of one nation impinge or impact on the affairs of another. Finding ways to bring countries together to solve solutions, ways that allow for transparency, accountability and citizen involvement, should be at the forefront of a new liberal agenda.

Free and fair trade - I believe in a global economy, and as someone with links to the developing world, I want to see the benefits of a market economy spread to the world's poorest. That may mean an acknowledgement that, in relative terms, we in the West are going to be poorer or, more accurately, less rich. We may be better off than we were, but the likelihood is that poorer countries could grow faster than we do.

Those are just three of the things that, I think, matter. And yes, issues like migration will be a factor - it couldn't be otherwise - but I think that they represent three pillars that you could build a manifesto around.

We'll see what my colleagues think in less than forty-eight hours...

Friday, January 06, 2017

Hot tubs by the lake, fireworks on the green...

New Year's Day, and with our afternoon and evening already committed, we needed something to occupy our morning. And so it was that we made our way back to Interlaken Ost station to board the Lucerne-Interlaken Express - our destination, Brienz.

Brienz sits as the eastern end of the Brienzersee, one of the two lakes that lie either side of Interlaken, and the Zentralbahn runs along the northern edge of the lake, providing some scenic views across the water to the mountains beyond.  It isn't a big place, but the setting is attractive and it offered an opportunity to walk along the lakeshore.

And there, we discovered something unexpected - a clutch of hot tubs and saunas, set up for public use, as part of a winter event, "Hot Pot Brienz". Now I'm not sure if I'd have the courage to use an outdoor hot tub when it's below freezing, but clearly the locals are up for it.

The rest of the lake promenade is rather pretty, but we had more pampering planned, so it was back to Interlaken for us. The afternoon was spent with more spa activity, courtesy of Ariane, before a buffet dinner and the evening's big excitement, a serious firework display.

Interlaken isn't as big a town as I had expected, so the crowd gathered for the display did lead me to suspect that we might be in for a treat. We weren't let down, as the sky was filled with explosions of colour for nearly half an hour as an enthusiastic crowd sipped gluhwein and the town was as lively as I had rather expected it to be on New Year's Eve.

We wandered back to our hotel, swept along by a well-organised crowd, to get some sleep for our last day...

Thursday, January 05, 2017

It's only a revolution if the people support it, otherwise it's just a reactionary coup...

One of the most worrying trends in recent politics is the rise of the demagogue in Western politics. It led to Brexit, and saw Donald Trump win the Presidency. Here in Britain though, it appears to be being usurped by a small bunch of highly influential ideologues.

First, it was experts. They're all biased, because they didn't agree that Brexit was the greatest thing since sliced bread. How very dare they suggest that things are complex, and that it might not be so easy, or beneficial to cut ourselves adrift from the largest single trading bloc in the world? The answer, discredit them, as the likes of Michael Gove chose to do.

By the way, what has happened to Michael since he lost his leadership bid? Has stabbing his former friends in the back caused him to lose the plot, for his use of Twitter is not that of someone behaving entirely rationally? But I digress...

By discrediting experts, the field is left open for any opinionated person with access to a media platform to make any claim they like, knowing that it will have to be given credence by repetition through an unquestioning media (yes, I'm looking at the BBC!).

And that credibility leads to influence.

But our system of government has checks and balances, through an independent judiciary and a neutral Civil Service. Well, they've got to go, haven't they? First, attack the right of the judiciary to determine what the law is (Iain Duncan-Smith, for ignominious example), leaving it to our merry band of opinionated ideologues again to define what they can get away with under the cover of leadership privilege.

And they then need a Civil Service which is unwaveringly committed to the Project. There's no need for balanced advice, or for experience, if the cause is so right, so glorious. Thus, pick new people, people who will do what they are told unquestioningly.

In such ways is our Government undermined. The cost is to our rights and freedoms, the protections from an over-mighty state in the hands of extremists. For I'm afraid that that's what the likes of Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith presage, and it isn't a country for liberals or the powerless. Because, at the end of the day, it's all about taking back control, taking back control from the people and putting it in the hands of the ideologues.

That never ends well...

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The perils of spa treatments, as explained by a bureaucrat...

Nakedness, the province of the buff and lithe, and those who intend to defy convention. Not necessarily for me then, you might think and, for the most part, you'd be right. After all, I like the human species, and too much exposure to this rather out of shape (albeit less so currently) bureaucrat is unlikely to add much to the sum of human art.

However, I do like my spas, and have over the years taken advantage of them for emergency, and not so emergency, pampering opportunities. The catch is that they're all different. Today, I turn my mind to the bit that causes more hassle than any other, i.e. what is it that you wear in the spa?

I've just come back from German-speaking Switzerland, having taken a bit of a rest cure. For a slightly repressed Brit, the presence of a 'naked zone' in the spa was something of a surprise. But that came as nothing when I suddenly realised that you're not only expected to be naked, but that there was no separate facility by gender. Yes, you're expected to be naked with other people, potentially of a different gender. Strangers, no less!

Over the years, I've found that the Germanic and Scandinavian countries tend to the view that wearing swimwear in the sauna, for example, is unhygienic. You are, after all, supposed to sweat, not something that goes well with clothing of any sort. For your massage treatment, nakedness is de rigeur - your masseur/masseuse is trained in draping, whereby most of you is covered by a towel whilst they work on the bit that is exposed. And they've probably seen most things over the years...

Once you've got used to it, you can relax and go with the flow, although I acknowledge that it isn't for everyone. But the experience is meant to be enjoyable, right?

In Britain, the idea that you might be naked in anything other than a changing room environment is looked upon with something akin to horror - it's that repressed thing again. What it does mean is that you need to pack swimwear for the UK, and for other Anglo-Saxon countries. And as for other countries, well, it depends on the influences locally. I've been offered tiny paper underwear in New Zealand and Poland (not designed for the more portly figure, let me tell you).

And so I've learned to ask the simple question when enquiring about a spa, "textile or non-textile?". It does tend to save a lot of embarrassment in the long run, and you can pack accordingly...

The dinner jacket gets another airing...

I am not the suit wearing type - traditionally, I do not look good in suits due to the minor detail that I'm carrying far too much weight to look anything other than vaguely uncomfortable. However, as the weight has come off, I've revisited that a bit.

Who is this glamorous stranger?
Simultaneously, I've found myself doing a few more formal black tie events - Needham Market's Barrandov Opera, for example. And when the opportunity came to attend a gala dinner at our hotel on New Year's Eve, I grabbed the chance to give the old dinner jacket an airing.

There was one catch - my weight loss means that my dinner jacket, and the matching trousers, were a bit on the big side. Rummaging through my wardrobe, in the area invisibly marked "if you think that you'll find anything here that fits...", I discovered my old, but still perfectly wearable dinner jacket, from my slimmer days, and that it fit rather well. Replacement trousers weren't a problem either.

And so, after our adventures in Grindlewald, we returned to the hotel in good time to change for dinner. First up was a champagne reception as, despite my diet, it seemed a shame to eschew a glass or two, especially as we did, if I say so myself, brush up quite well...

And as for this even more
glamorous stranger...
An excellent meal followed, courtesy of the hotel's rather good chef, with a decent bottle of Sauvignon Vaudois (I always like to try local wines, and you aren't likely to go far wrong in a good hotel...). The company of my lovely wife, who is looking more lovely by the day, I must say, was the final adornment to a fine evening.

We're not necessarily huge New Year's Eve people, and having discovered that, in Interlaken at least, not much happens on the night itself, I left Ros for a little while and went for a post-dinner stroll in a cold, and almost deserted town. It seems that the locals save themselves for New Year's Day itself and, at 10.30 on New Year's Eve, there was no sign of life.

So, one asks, what happened the next day?...