Tuesday, September 30, 2014

#FACup Third Qualifying Round draw - it's a grudge match... at home

So, the road to the FA Cup proper is a little clearer now, after yesterday's draw at Wembley. And, it's a game with a bit of spice.

Last season, after the miracle that was the last game of the regular league season, when not only did Thurrock have to lose against Tilbury but Needham Market had to overturn a sizeable goal difference disadvantage against Chatham Town and both happened (the Marketmen won 7-1!), the play-off semi-final saw Needham Market travel to Witham Town.
Witham won 1-0 with an 88th minute winner, helped in part by the presence on the pitch of a loanee from Needham Market. It had been understood that there was in place a gentlemen's agreement that he wouldn't play, but Witham Town's management appear not to have understood the meaning of the word.
Manager Mark Morsley rather presciently noted in his review of last season;
I would say that I am glad that Witham Town achieved promotion; that means I will not have face them next season. Mind you the FA competitions have a habit of throwing up interesting games. 
It's certainly not an easy game, but it is a winnable one potentially, and given that there wasn't a harder fourth qualifying round draw possible than the Conference leaders last year, supporters can perhaps dream of a big day in early November.
Sadly, I won't be there, as I'll be in Lisbon, but I'll be following events on Twitter with interest and optimism...

George Osborne: paying peanuts and expecting not to get monkeys?

We will go on restraining public sector pay.
It was just one line in George Osborne's speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham yesterday, and it may have gone unnoticed by many out in the country, assuming that they were even paying attention to the speech itself. But, for public sector workers, it will have caused alarm and dismay in equal measure.

Years of pay freezes, or 1% paybill increases, and tens of thousands of job losses, combined with sizeable increases in contributions for smaller retirement pensions have seen earnings fall dramatically in real terms. An Executive Officer working for HM Revenue & Customs in London, for example, will have seen his or her salary increase from £29.272 in 2007/08 to £30,331 in 2013/14, an increase of 3.6%, or less than 0.6% year on year. That doesn't look good, but they will be paying an additional 3.85% in pension contributions. In other words, they are earning, in actual terms after pension contributions, marginally less than they were six years earlier.

These are, dare I remind you, gentle reader, the people who are expected to raise the funds to help meet the country's commitments, reduce the deficit and investigate all of those tax evaders who so exercise George.

Inflation over that period? 21%. You can see the problem. Indeed, the only consolation is courtesy of the Liberal Democrats, as the Personal Allowance, the amount that an individual can earn without deduction of income tax, has increased over the same period from £5,225 to £10,000. Alright, that hasn't earned any gratitude from the Civil Service trade unions, but since when was it likely that they would?

And, as the economy recovers, this steady deterioration in pay and conditions is beginning to have an effect. Last November, Accounting Web, which describes itself as the UK's largest community for accountants (I try not to recoil in horror...), noted that HMRC resignations were at their highest level since 2008/09.

There is, of course, a risk that those who resign are those most likely to find better pay and conditions elsewhere, but whilst HMRC continues to meet its targets, one cannot see the Treasury taking any action to improve pay competitiveness. After all, their pay scales are even worse, as Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the Permanent Secretary at HM Treasury, noted last year;
It’s frustrating for us to be some sort of feeder second division Belgian football team which provides really good people for Premier League teams like Chelsea and Manchester United.” Sir Nicholas said he had discussed the matter with the Bank of England’s Governor, Mark Carney who had been “very helpful”.
One really does wonder if we want the country to be run efficiently... 

John Redwood's mask slips - the freedom to choose is apparently a conditional one

There have always been those who have thought that John Redwood has come down to us from Mars, such is the dryness of his conservatism and his apparent lack of understanding that there are poor and vulnerable amongst us. I had always assumed that he just thought that people should take care of themselves and that, with enough effort, they too could be securely middle-class. A lack of empathy, if you like, but given the nature of his constituency, Wokingham, it was hardly going to cost him his seat.

But the revelation that he has warned companies about the perils of comment on the United Kingdom's future in Europe, especially in terms of supporting the retention of our membership of the European Union, is a sign that, yet again, when it comes to the notion of freedom, too many Conservatives take a conditional approach to it, i.e. you have the freedom to do anything they approve of.

Speaking to a fringe event, the Guardian reports that he said:
The only answer for all concerned is for big business to keep out and not express a corporate view.
and added:
If they don’t understand that now they will find those of us organising the ‘get out’ campaign will then make life difficult for them by making sure that their customers, their employees and their shareholders who disagree with them – and there will be a lot who disagree with them – will be expressing their views very forcefully and will be destabilising their corporate governance.
One notes his apparent assumption that big business will be predominantly in favour of staying in the European Union.

Now I am as wary of the voice of big business having undue influence on our body politic as anyone - I support campaign finance limits as one way of preventing a minority of voices dominating the way our nation is run - but the sort of ugly threat that John Redwood advocates is counter-productive (he would be the first to complain if they invested elsewhere due to the instability he promotes) and fundamentally anti-democratic.

Funny really, for, as he said on his own blog just over a year ago;
Democratic politics cannot survive without lots of good and well informed lobbying. Another way of describing that is “democratic debate”.
Change your mind, Mr Redwood?... 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Might this finally be the end of the English Party?

In a motion which runs to rather less than the character limit of a Tweet, the future of the English Party might be made to look something a bit less than secure on 8 November.

The motion reads as follows;

That the East of England Liberal Democrats become a state party on 1 January 2016.

It must be said that the East of England does have some constitutional form here, in that it moved from one-year terms for its Executive Committee to two-year terms a few years ago - it was my idea and Regional Representatives seem to like it.

The notes outlining the impact of, and reasoning behind, the motion are rather longer;
Section 2.1 of the Federal Party constitution allows for regional parties to become state parties and this is reflected in 15.1 of this region's constitution.
Becoming a state party allows this region to receive greater funding, employ more staff, provide more services directly to the local parties and remove a level of bureaucracy, the English Party, from members in this region.
As the time to convert to a state party cannot be done overnight the proposal would be to change in 2016 and complete all the pre-administration after the general election in the second half of 2015.

Frankly, as a long-term critic of the English Party, its insularity and its consistent failure in terms of openness and transparency, I'll be voting in favour of the motion, and it will be interesting to see if it is part of an organised attempt across a number of Regional Parties.

Gibraltar: a brief guide to the Rock

My first impressions of Gibraltar were not, to be honest, very good ones. We had grabbed dinner at a restaurant in Casemates Square which was pretty ordinary, with poor service and, on a walk through the town after sunset, I noted that Main Street seemed to be populated entirely by groups of young men somewhat the worse for drink. It was a mite intimidating, and seemingly under-policed.

However, Monday morning dawned bright and sunny, and we had a tour arranged by the Gibraltar Tourism Board to look forward to. Our guide, and driver, Ajessa collected us and showed us some of the sights, telling us a bit about Gibraltar and answering our questions. Europa Point, at the southern tip, is just fifteen miles from Morocco, and we talked about some of the challenges whilst we looked around.

And then, a flash of movement in the water below, and we noticed that there were dolphins leaping out of the water in pursuit of shoals of anchovies, close to the shoreline, so we stopped to watch them for a while. Given that the waters around Gibraltar are some of the busiest in the world, with huge tankers and container vessels passing through all the time, I hadn't expected such a sight.

No tour of Gibraltar would be complete without the Rock itself, with its siege tunnels and the incredible underground complex that was built to defend Gibraltar during World War II, and we were given a brief talk about the tunnels by one of the local guides, who turned out somewhat unexpectedly to be German.

There was time to meet a macaque, and a quick dash around the rest of the territory, before we were returned to our apartment with a rather better impression of gibraltar than we had started with.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Simon Wright - a reminder of why we should cut our MPs some slack sometimes

If you asked most Liberal Democrat members to name ten of our MPs off the top of their heads, some would be no surprise. The likes of Vince Cable, Nick Clegg and Charles Kennedy have name recognition that stretches far beyond the Party itself. If there is a local MP who has made an impression, they might be in the frame. However, we have a number of MPs who have, perhaps, slipped under the radar during the period since 2010.

It might be, in some quarters, seen as unfair to place Simon Wright in that category. He is a decent, hard working representative for the people of Norwich South, relatively young and not prone to eccentricity or controversy. So, when he was invited to be the guest speaker at Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats' first Annual Dinner, I wasn't expecting great passion.

I have known Simon and Ros (another of the splendid people in the party called Ros) for some time now, and like them both. Ros actually worked for the County Group here in Suffolk in 2001/02 and is part of a proper team - Simon may be the MP but Ros is just as important in terms of their effectiveness.

And after another very good dinner - our Social Organiser, Sheila Norris, never ceases to amaze - it was time for Simon to say a few words. He was, I must say, something of a revelation. Yes, he made the points about a stronger economy and fairer society, and about the mess we had inherited, but he talked with passion about the difficulties of compromise with the Conservatives, about struggling with the need to concede some things that the Conservatives badly want in order to make some of the gains that we, as Liberal Democrats, believe in, about the changes that our policies have wrought that will have a long-term benefit to our citizens - pension reform, pupil premium, infrastructure.

No, it isn't easy and it isn't popular in an age when people want immediate change and, even more unrealistically, immediate outcomes. But, in twenty or thirty years time, these changes will have made a lasting difference and improved the lives of people who need support to take control over their own lives.

He talked about the conundrum whereby our opponents charge us with having gone into coalition simply to gain control of the levers of power, as though that isn't exactly what they want - "I am altruistic, you want control, they are crazed with a lust for power", if you will. He acknowledged that going into government at such a time of economic turbulence was likely to be bad for the Party politically, but that it was the right and only thing to do in 2010.

It was a very good speech, and if there are any Local Parties in East Anglia who are looking for a guest speaker, he would be a very worthy choice.

We then moved to questions, and local members quizzed him on school meals, Iraq and devolution, amongst other subjects. SImon gave detailed, articulate answers which demonstrated that he gives a great deal of thought to these issues but is honest enough to admit when something is in a field where he is relatively unfamiliar - his background in teaching makes him especially interested in education.

So, all in all, it was a rather good evening, and I went home, with a raffle prize in my hands, thinking that I had somewhat underestimated Simon. He is a thoughtful person, who suffers from the reservations that we all do about working with the Conservatives but understands that the price of pluralism is compromise, and I guess that he is not alone amongst the Parliamentary Parties, both in the Commons and in the Lords. But, as someone vulnerable to the currents of electoral politics, he has much more to consider, and it cannot be easy.

For the rest of us, with our ability to take a position and to express our outrage or unhappiness away from serious public scrutiny, it is hard to realise exactly how lonely it can be, having to make a judgement about how much to let the Conservatives have without abandoning one's principles whilst taking flak from all sides. We owe our MPs a little bit of trust and faith sometimes, and in a Party which seems to me to be less tolerant than it was before 2010, perhaps we should reflect a little before we rush to condemn...

#FACup, Second Qualifying Round - Boris Johnson, your boys took one hell of a beating... eventually

The two teams shake hands before the match,
Marketmen in red, Tigers in orange and black,
funnily enough
So, three o'clock came, and Needham Market kicked off towards the new Les Ward stand, filled with home supporters anticipating most of the action to be at that end of the pitch. And, for ten minutes, London Tigers barely ventured out of their own half as the Marketmen pressed hard, creating, but not taking, two decent chances. It was, surely, only a matter of time before they broke through.

And then, all of a sudden, with thirteen minutes gone, the Tigers struck with a slick move and a good header. Could it be that the underdogs had struck first? Fortunately, an offside flag came to the rescue, but the warning was there, and Needham responded swiftly. A raking crossfield pass by Chris Hogg, a first time cross from Darryl Coakley and Sam Newson's bullet header powered into the back of the net.

15' - Needham Market 1 London Tigers 0

It looked to me as though the Tigers' heads dropped, and whilst the traffic wasn't one way any more, they didn't look threatening as Needham pushed on in search of the second. They were nearly caught on the break though, as another attacking move broke down, and Ian Westlake had to commit a very cynical foul to prevent a breakaway and a likely one-on-one with the home keeper. Thankfully, as he was well inside his own half, a yellow card sufficed.

The Tigers' defence had looked suspect throughout, and when a bouncing ball in their box caused panic, Ryan Crisp took advantage and chipped over the keeper and into the net.

45' - Needham Market 2 London Tigers 0

Half time came, and as the sun shone, it looked as though Needham simply had to keep it tight, not do anything rash, and a place in the Third Qualifying Round was theirs. And it didn't take long to confirm that impression. Another neat move, involving two of Needham's former professionals, Kem Izzet and Ian Westlake, ended in a neat ball to Ryan Crisp who chipped the keeper once agian.

47' - Needham Market 3 London Tigers 0

Manager Mark Morsley withdrew Ian Westlake, presumably to save him for key league fixtures to come, introducing Ace Howell, a young black product of the club's academy, and hero of the First Qualifying Round game against Cambridge City. Quick, skilful, but perhaps not quite physically robust enough yet, his pace was likely to be a threat as the underdogs tired, as if they didn't have trouble enough.

With half an hour to go, it was time for super striker Sam Newson to be brought off, and his replacement was Ace's brother Lemell, making his debut. Chris Hogg, formerly of Hibernian and Ipswich Town, had gone off in the sixth-eighth minute, and it was all beginning to drift though until an unnecessary free kick was given on the edge of the box, and the Tigers captain, Terence Cariba, stepped up and curled it sweetly into the bottom corner.

72' - Needham Market 3 London Tigers 1

It surely didn't matter though, did it? Needham still looked comfortable but the Tigers' tails were up and, after some comedy defending, Ayoub Amellal nipped in to beat Shaun Phillips from close range.

78' - Needham Market 3 London Tigers 2

Surely, Needham weren't going to throw away a three-goal lead at home against a team from a lower league? But, for a few moments, it looked decidedly likely as a team stripped of key players was going to crack under the pressure as jitters spread amongst the home supporters.

And then, relief. Ace Howell's cross, brother Lemell's delicate touch and to the delight of friends and family of the Howell brothers sitting in front of me, the ball nestled in the back of the net.

86' - Needham Market 4 London Tigers 2

That was it, but there was still time for Ace Howell to burst through, his pace leaving the defender for dead, before threading the ball past the somewhat immobile keeper and inside the left-hand post.

87' - Needham Market 5 London Tigers 2

The last few moments negotiated safely, the final whistle blew and thoughts of the next round could begin. Elsewhere, Brightlingsea Regent had equalised against Harlow Town, leaving Needham Market level on points at the top of Ryman League Division One North, so a good day all round.

I wonder who we'll get in the next round?...

#FACup, Second Qualifying Round - setting the scene as the Cup dream returns to Mid Suffolk

After my day out last season, sponsoring a home game of our local Ryman League, Division One North, football team - Needham Market FC - I had intended to take in a few more games this year. Sadly, our busy schedule combined with the fact that, when we were at home, Needham Market weren't, has meant that it hadn't been possible until yesterday. However, having got back from Gibraltar on Friday evening, I was able to go to yesterday's big FA Cup game at Bloomfields.

Last year, the Marketmen made it to the Fourth Qualifying Round for the first time ever, just one game short of a dream tie against a Football League side, but drew the worst possible opponent, Cambridge United, then top of the Conference and flying high - technically the highest ranked team in the competition at that stage. And, whilst it was at home, the three division gulf between the two sides made it feel like Mission Impossible. However, in front of a crowd of nearly 1,800 at Bloomfields, they came within ten minutes of holding on for a replay, in one of the town's biggest ever days.

This year, Soham Town Rangers were dispatched in the Preliminary Round, before Cambridge City of the Southern League's Premier Division (a division above Needham Market's) were vanquished on their own pitch in the First Qualifying Round. The reward for beating a higher-ranked side was what looked like a rather kinder draw in the next round.

London Tigers are a team that brings back some very distant memories. The very first game of competitive football that I ever saw was between Kingsbury Town and Farnham Town in 1972, and, having been brought up in Kingsbury, I always looked out for their results out of a vague sense of nostalgia. A few years ago, they merged with London Tigers to form Kingsbury London Tigers, which didn't really feel the same. It got worse when the Tigers decided to move to Greenford in West London, leaving the Silver Jubilee Park ground, and Kingsbury, without a football team to call its own.

It would be fair to say that, even allowing for the fact that I support the home side, I wasn't exactly minded to have much sympathy for the visitors. I had even less when it became known that their Honorary Patron is one Boris "Whiff Whaff" Johnson...

Who'd be a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary candidate, eh?

In my spare time I have, for many years, performed the role of Returning Officer for Local Parties across the South East and, latterly, East of England. The job has seldom been glamorous, there are rarely hordes of candidates to consider - even in the good times - and there are inevitably seats where a candidate is parachuted in late in the day.

This year, however, it has been particularly trying in some ways for, whilst the quality of applicants has remained high, the quantity has become troublingly low. In some parts of the country, advertisements have gone unanswered and Local Parties who rely on having a PPC as a focus for their campaigning are having to make other arrangements.

In truth, though, we've never had a vast pool of wannabe Parliamentary candidates, even at the best of times, and heaven knows, these aren't them. And, with less to be optimistic about, it is harder to persuade candidates to come forward and commit to months, maybe years, of hard work in the run-up to a General Election. I can't blame them, personally.

Our main rivals don't appear to have such difficulties. Conservatives and Labour can offer safe seats, or career progression through relatively hopeless seats, in a way that we simply can't, or have the advantage of such strongly held views in hopeless areas that a candidate can be found. UKIP, because I only feel it right to (at least for the meantime) treat them as one of four major parties in England, have the passion of what they see as a great crusade to attract candidates.

Liberal Democrats, being the sort of people who think about such things have a degree of dispassion, are therefore less likely to be swept up in a burning desire to be a candidate. Often, in my experience, they consider it as something to be slotted into the rest of their lives and, given the likely costs - emotional, physical and financial - opt out. It appears, on the face of it, that you require a particularly single-minded focus in order to win a seat for the Liberal Democrats, a point that has often been noted in the past.

Ironically, that apparent requirement for borderline fanaticism acts as a disincentive for candidature, as we Liberal Democrats don't really do that - it isn't part of our DNA. The fact that it isn't entirely true is beside the point. Yes, a candidate in a winnable seat will have to work hard, very hard indeed, and they might not gain much, if any, reward at the end of it, but most of us always knew that anyway.

It never appealed to me - putting aside the nature of my other commitments - as I just couldn't muster the dedication and, now that I am exposed to the life of my Parliamentarian, albeit through the eyes of my wife, the life of an MP appears even less attractive, as a number of 2010 entrants to the Commons have already decided.

So, perhaps we need to look at this as a learning experience for the 2020 General Election, exploring ways in which candidates can have a better experience, finding more efficient ways of campaigning, and enabling a more diverse pool of potential candidates - something for our Presidential candidates to think about, might I suggest?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A quick flit across the Schengen border...

It is very pleasant to take a morning stroll when you're in a new place. It helps with orientation, blows away the cobwebs, and allows you to get a feel for the place.

So, whilst Ros is off on a dolphin safari - the waters around Gibraltar are full of them - I've gone for a walk around the market... in La Linea de la Concepción (don't worry, I have my passport!). Here, a Valladares can go relatively unnoticed, which is nice, and on a sunny day as this one is, it is nice to just potter around, drink coffee and such like.

Walking towards the Gibraltar/Spain border from the Spanish side...
The journey here is interesting in itself. Head north up Winston Churchill Avenue, crossing the runway of the airport as you do so - yes, Gibraltar is that small - before you get to the border. You walk through the Spanish customs point, unmolested, and no one asks for your passport. Indeed, there doesn't appear to be anyone whose job it is to do so (so much for Fortress Schengen then...). And there you are, in Spain - it couldn't be easier, really.

La Linea is, unexpectedly, quite a bustling place, with its pedestrian precinct full of pavement cafés and shopping opportunities. And, unlike Gibraltar, where every third shop appears to be selling cheap cigarettes and alcohol - there is a huge duty differential between the two sides of the border - La Linea feels somewhat more 'real'.

In fairness, that shouldn't be taken as being a criticism of Gibraltar, which has begun to grow on me little by little, but it is, like other small enclaves, slightly difficult to get your head around.

But, I guess, I ought to head back to the Rock, with its fish and chips, its Marks and Spencer and the apes...

Adios, amigos!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Race for the Party Presidency: what do I think of the show so far?

So, we're back to four candidates again with the emergence of Daisy Cooper as a new contender. So, has anything changed?

Well, we now don't appear to have a BAME candidate, which is a pity, especially if they had something different to offer other than just diversity - it isn't enough in my mind to be something, you have to be able to offer a perspective, or experience, or a strategic vision that resonates with the needs of the Party, perceived or actual.

We now, however, still only have female candidates - not a problem from my perspective, but interesting nonetheless, given the tendency of men to run for vacancies because. That full stop is deliberate, by the way.

My observations, thus far, are as follows;
  • Reform is in the air, following the fallout after the disciplinary actions relating to accusations against Chris Rennard. Interestingly, Party Presidents have no direct role in terms of disciplinary procedure, as their role is federal, as opposed to the state levels where disciplinary rules are decided upon. They do have, as James Graham so wisely noted, soft power but is a promise of action one that any candidate can actually deliver upon?
  • There are few signs of organised team-based campaigning that I can see yet, with the exception of Daisy Cooper, the most recent entrant in the race. You do need a team to multiply the effectiveness of a campaign, especially if, like Daisy, you might not have already established resonance with armchair members across the country.
  • The social media "war" is beginning to hot up. Sal has a relatively established Twitter presence, whilst Liz is relatively new to it but making an impression already with her campaigning across the country. Daisy has something of a reputation for using social media, having used it very effectively in her campaign in Suffolk Coastal for the 2010 General Election. It may be me, but Linda hasn't yet gotten into her stride, although she's no stranger to blogging and other social media.
  • There is a greater tendency for bloggers to ask the candidates questions and publish the results - I tried it myself at an early stage but never did get replies from two of the then four candidates, one of whom subsequently withdrew, despite a commitment from all four to do so. The questions, drawn from a range of perspectives, have elicited some interesting, and enlightening, answers, and have offered candidates an opportunity to rehearse positions before exposure to a wider audience.
  • The dilemmas potentially facing a newly-elected Party President in 2015 do not appear to have drawn much comment yet. What the role of the President might be, given the range of possible outcomes, is yet to be articulated in anything other than  the most general of terms, so if any candidate has given thought to what they might do in the event of a leadership contest, or a coalition offer, I am yet to be made aware of it.
As I indicated at the outset of the campaign, I'm intent on remaining neutral and plan to only make a decision one way or the other late in the day - I will be voting, of course. And, as someone with a unique perspective on the Party Presidency, I shall be intrigued to see how the expressions from the four candidates coincide with, or differ from, my impression as to the requirements of the task ahead of the winner.

Regardless, we should consider ourselves fortunate to have four candidates with differing perspectives of the role, and with a range of experiences to offer.

Let the contest continue!...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Tallinn it as it is, on the geopolitical frontline...

It has been remiss of me not to report on our visit to Estonia, and now that I have a bit of time at my disposal, I really feel obliged to remedy that oversight...

With Sweden, Åland and Finland behind us, it was time for the last leg of our journey, starting with an admittedly slightly tedious ferry crossing, courtesy of Viking Line. For Ros, it was a trip into the unknown, although I had been before, some years earlier. However, this time, we were not alone, as an old friend was already planning for our arrival.

Regular visitors to Lib Dem Blogs will be familiar with Cicero's Songs, a blog which, in my humble opinion, offers a uniquely liberal perspective on life in what the Russians see as their 'sphere of influence', i.e. an independent country which they think they can bully and get away with it. James, its author, is extremely well-connected, erudite and rather a lot of fun, and having heard that we were coming to town, had generously offered to show us around. 

The entrance to the Hotel Telegraaf
Having taken the precaution of booking into a rather nice hotel, the Hotel Telegraaf - the headquarters of the Estonian telegraph service when the First Republic was formed - we were ready to go.

A stroll around the Old Town was the first order of business, with its cobbled streets, medieval architecture and general loveliness, as we talked politics, Europe and of how Estonia 'works'. Given the debate about the viability of an independent Scotland, the fact that Estonia, with a population of about 1.3 million, punches well above its weight on the international stage is a reminder that, if you are willing to work collaboratively and take pride in your achievements, size is less important than will.

It was a valuable reminder that a belief in a national identity need not be insular, that sovereignty can be pooled without necessarily giving away what makes you a people, and that politics can engage rather than repel.

The Old Town itself, and especially Toompea, or Castle Hill, is insanely wonderful, in a not quite gingerbread, rather human way. The walls have survived mostly untouched, money is being spent on refurbishment - much of it now done - and the shops filled with interesting things. It is also, for the more financially savvy, much cheaper than Scandinavia, with restaurant prices for some really excellent food very approachable.

It looked like we were going to rather enjoy Tallinn...

The secret, I'm told, is in being somewhere else...

I'm a great believer in the concept of somewhere else. As an Englishman with a rather quirky backstory - I was born here, unlike either parent - and a deep and abiding suspicion of nationalism - who is it, exactly, that you're against? - I hold firmly to a view that you only really appreciate your nation's strengths and weaknesses by comparing it with other places.

My country right or wrong? Well, not really, but it's still my country... and yours... and probably theirs too, even if they might be a bit of an embarrassment in civilised circles.

And so, it is necessary to visit other cultures, other places, to get a clearer understanding of where England fits into an increasingly interdependent world. Fortunately, I like to travel, have a natural inquisitiveness and an inability to focus on something for too long. I am also fortunate enough to have means - not vast, or unlimited, but sufficient to allow me to go to new places as opportunities arise.

However, today I am going somewhere slightly unusual, in that it is supposedly an image of a Britain perhaps thought to be lost. Gibraltar, it would be fair to say, is not somewhere that I might have thought of going, but after Ros took part in a debate on Gibraltar in the Lords earlier this year, the government there invited her to visit. As it seemed like a good opportunity to fact find on the ground, as it were, we decided to go - at our own expense.

So, wish me luck on my mission to find out why the apes are, how living in a small enclave is, and if Gibraltar and Spain can ever rub along. I promise to report back...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Devolution: now that we've found love, what are we gonna do with it?

So, Scotland having voted to remain in the Union but with an understanding that there will be greater devolution to their Parliament, we can now move on to what it means for the rest of us.

Luckily, as a Liberal Democrat, I understand and accept the logic of devolution, of subsidiarity and federalism, which is that things will be different in different places, with a greater priority placed on X in Y, as opposed to Z. And, frankly, assuming that we can annex the Waveney Valley and North Essex, and make Ros our constitutional monarch, the notion of a free Suffolk is a strangely alluring one...

But, seriously, the Scots, the Welsh, and even the Northern Irish have it fairly easy, in that their boundaries are clearly defined, and they have an established tier of governance. For the English, however, it isn't necessarily as simple.

England is big, disproportionately so by comparison with the other constituent nations, making the conflict between it, and a federal United Kingdom, potentially debilitating. And yet, can English regions be credibly treated as being on a par with Scotland, for example? Indeed, can you design English regions that would encompass everyone and retain a sense of attachment in their residents?

In other federal states, such as the United States, Germany and India, there is no such dominant single element, so there is little help there to be had, and we will have to come up with an answer that enables Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to feel that they have a real state in a federal union, yet prevents the English from feeling as though they are being constrained or otherwise taken advantage of.

This offers a real challenge to politicians, especially Westminster ones, most of whom were elected to exercise power, rather than to give it away. If the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament are to be mirrored in England, what is the purpose of Westminster as it is currently constituted? Indeed, whisper it quietly, where does the House of Lords, elected or otherwise, fit in?

If Westminster is to become the home of a federal Parliament, how many representatives do you need, and what are they for? Is London the right place for the English Parliament, and do you need regional and sub-regional tiers? You could, for example, offer a choice between regions and counties, so East Anglia might emerge as an administrative tier, or Suffolk might take on extra powers.

Six months ago, this would have seemed entirely esoteric, and a debate for constitution geeks. Now, everyone has a stake in this even if they don't really understand it. But, it's a debate that is firmly on the turf of Liberal Democrats, and we have an opportunity to make the case that we've been rehearsing for decades. A federal Britain in a federal Europe - what's there not to like?...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Scotland: and if the world were to come to an end tomorrow...

It is, I am reminded, now less than twelve hours until Scottish voters start to stream into polling stations in order to determine their future, which is nice, when you think about it. Or not, depending upon your persuasion.

In my case, I've tried to drum up some enthusiasm... and, for the most part, failed to do so. I've observed the passion, indeed the venom, of a campaign in which neither side has offered a genuinely credible vision worthy of a nation with increasing bemusement. On one hand, the Yes campaign has either wished away virtually all of the difficult questions or, worse yet, viciously attacked anyone who has the audacity to ask them, whilst the No campaign has veered from fearmongering to promising what appears to be the Earth if only Scots will stay in the Union, something which leads me to wonder what the rest of us might think about such largesse.

I have been inundated with requests to call voters north of the border - as if my accent would more good than harm - or give money, or sign letters saying how much I want the Scots to stay, all of which I have studiously ignored. It is, I think, none of my business, even though I am technically half-Scot myself (my mother was born in Keith, about halfway between Aberdeen and Inverness). I don't feel particularly Scottish, even though I could play football for them, and don't have a desperate sense that there is a part of me that yearns to be part of that nation.

No, if a majority of the Scottish electorate don't want to be part of the Union, then so be it. All I ask is that both sides understand that their behaviour during the campaign comes with consequences, regardless of whether they win or lose.

For the Yes campaign, who have promised a land flowing with milk and honey, the challenge of negotiating a settlement (note that I don't insert the word 'equitable' - no deal will be seen as such, regardless of the facts) with the very people they have so unpleasant about and to will be an interesting one. Doubtless anything that goes wrong after independence will be blamed on Westminster by the ultras, but they shouldn't expect the rUK negotiators to quietly roll over - the remaining nations will expect, nay demand, a robust approach.

And as for the No campaign, promises of more powers for Scotland within the framework of the United Kingdom mean more devolution of power for the rest of us, in other words, federalism. You can really see the Conservatives pressing for that, can't you? And as for the centralising control freakery tendency that lead the Labour Party, the very notion of giving away power to others would probably bring them out in hives. At least Liberal Democrat policy has always called for subsidiarity and the handing back of power to individuals and communities, even if some of my colleagues give an impression of being far more in favour of the theory than the actuality.

No, I'll save my passion, and my energy, for what happens next, whatever that may be. I'm a liberal, and what I care about is what is and what might be, rather than fret about missed opportunities and what might have been. For, regardless of the result tomorrow, we are likely to be waking up on Friday morning on a country that has changed forever...

Thursday, September 11, 2014

ALDE: doing good, one small policy proposal at a time...

I am, as a politician (and I use that term in its loosest possible sense), a gradualist at heart. Perhaps it is the slightly diffident bureaucrat in me that shies away from big, spontaneous gestures, or a lack of a specialism that offers the required expertise, that prevents me from proposing big ideas, but I do flatter myself that, when it comes to the mechanics of implementation, I have an eye for implications. And today, that came in useful.

We were discussing membership structure proposals at today's meeting of the ALDE Financial Advisory Committee - naturally, I cannot discuss specifics as everything is still at the proposal stage, and the relevant bodies are yet to be informed - but as we discussed them, and the implications, it dawned on me that they presented an opportunity to reach out to those parties who, for various reasons, find it hard to pay affiliation fees and therefore opt for a more limited form of membership.

And so, I offered up a suggestion which, I hope, will make it easier for smaller parties, from places where politics is difficult, to engage with the rest of us. It does involve some expenditure on the part of the ALDE Party, but I see it as an investment in building a bigger, more diverse, European liberal family, and, given the support of the Treasurer and, I believe, the Secretariat, it is a decided possibility.

As I said, it isn't a big thing, but it is the ability to make a contribution which makes my position as a member of ALDE's Council so worthwhile - a place where process and careful analysis take precedence over grand politics and the expression of ideas.

What that means is that, unlike my usual diffident approach to elections - it would be nice to win, but it isn't the be all and end all - this one is different. I would really like to be re-elected this year to another two-year term, so I'll be campaigning somewhat harder than I have in the past, on a platform of vorsprung durch verwaltung - progress through administration.

You see, I believe that political parties have a duty to run themselves efficiently, as their internal workings are a window into the way they believe politics should be done. They should also wear their principles on their sleeves, because if they don't, why should a voter have any faith that, in power, they would be true to them?

It is that spirit that I bring to my work, and whilst virtue is apparently its own reward, the recognition that re-election represents would be even better...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

And so, another journey to the home of the Salamander...

It is that time of year again, when your correspondent travels abroad to carry out the solemn duty of advising European liberalism as to its moral and ethical responsibilities in terms of internal financial management.

I enjoy my membership of ALDE's Financial Advisory Committee, in that it allows me to be helpful - at least to a certain extent - in a field I understand, and yet remain relatively non-political. Our role - the Committee has seven members - is to examine the financial aspects of ALDE Party activity, suggest ways to progress its objectives and act as, if you like, a back-up conscience for both the Bureau and the Secretariat.

You note that I don't claim that we are the conscience, as I have every confidence in both the Bureau and the Secretariat to behave appropriately. However, sometimes, an external perspective, not involved in the day to day necessities and obligations of running a political party, is useful and, I hope, valuable. We are, by our relative separation from the professional staff and leadership, able to ask questions the answers to which may seem obvious to an insider but, to an outsider, might smack of "but that's how we've always done it".

My colleagues, Boris, Hans, Luca, Monica and Roman, bring different experiences to the table, and different perspectives, which is useful because there are as many ways of doing things as there are countries in the European Union, and issues that might pass unmentioned in one country might be problematic in another. For example, accepting a particular source of sponsorship may generate issues in, say Italy, that cause no problems in Sweden.

We do have a new member this time, as there is a new LYMEC (Liberal Youth Movement of the European Community) Treasurer to be introduced and welcomed, replacing Anne, whose input was always helpful.

So, wish me luck, as I'm kind of doing this for you - because financial probity matters to everyone in civil society...

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Scotland: you gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together?

If the polls are to be believed, the margin between those intending to vote 'yes' to independence in the Autumn, and those intending to vote 'no' has shrunk towards the margin of error. And whilst I'm not a defeatist, and I'd really not want to see the Scots go, I could hardly complain if they did.

I'll set aside the impact of Scotland reclaiming its independence on the rest of the United Kingdom - it's mostly conjecture and there'll be a queue of people writing about it before very long - and look at the decision itself.

As a liberal, I believe in self-determination and devolution of power, and I suppose that there can be no clearer declaration of that than the desire for nationhood. And yes, the concept of a sovereign state is somewhat different in our modern, inter-connected world than it might once have been, but it is still one that stirs the blood. So, if the Scots want it, they should have it.

It must be for Scots to take responsibility for their actions though, to weigh up the modern day equivalent of the 'cost in blood and treasure' of breaking away, and it is for those in positions of authority to talk through the issues in a manner that treats the people as adults, with hearts and minds, which is why the debate that is currently taking place looks like such a shambles, with its utter disregard for the significant areas of doubt and uncertainty that exist on currencies, European Union membership and finance to name but three.

And nationhood is not, and should not be, conditional - the "we'll keep all the good bits of our old relationship" argument - because they aren't yours to promise, they're for others to offer, should they be so inclined.

There will be a price to pay for newly independent Scots, as my friend Cicero has already noted. Can the Scottish economy sustain the calls upon it that currently exist, let alone the promises that Alex Salmond has showered upon wavering voters? How painful will the transition phase be? How much will it cost to create a civil service to administer the new nation - diplomatic corps, tax authority etc. - and to build the support systems that they require?

Of course, one thing that emerging nations have not had to think much about is the view of the financial markets in a global economy, and yesterday's selling of Scottish companies (and the pound too) is a reminder that no country, no matter how passionate it is, is truly independent anyway unless it is to become a hermit nation, not a prospect that is likely or credible for Scotland.

So, despite the pleas from my friends and my party to fight to keep the Union together, I'll be remaining on the sidelines, conscious that the debate for Scotland's future appears to be an unsafe place for those with an open, questioning mind but without a direct stake in the outcome.

I have only one thing to add, and that's a reminder. Any decision, especially one as big as this, comes with a proviso, that the winners accept the consequences of their actions, and honour their commitments. And that goes as much for the 'No' campaign as it does for the 'Yes' one...