Category Archives: Politics

The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Identity from a map is never a good starting point

Humans have long pondered what makes up our identity. Recent research shows moral characteristics are more important than memories. Some of us emphasise our individual identities, some our collective ones. Whatever the various aspects that make up our identity, as the defining feature of who we are, having one that is clear and strong is important.

David Brooks writes that “Strong identities can come only when people are embedded in a rich social fabric.” He cites new work looking at “separability amid situatedness” as a way to enhance social connections. The thinking: in an increasingly fragmented world, where individuality is prized above solidarity, we want the ability to go off and do our own thing but still feel connected to community.

The Economist has also analysed the decline of social democracy in Europe, identifying a precipitous drop in support for the parties of class solidarity since 2005. It blames four issues: “[the left’s] own success, structural change in the economy, a reduced fear of political extremes and the decline of monolithic class groups.”

Taken together, these trends point to a reorganising of social identities. Yet, at the same time, national identities remain strong. Indeed, as part of that reduced fear of political extremes, they are becoming stronger for some. Donald Trump’s message that borders can be closed and Americans can be protected as Americans has won him many votes. Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Viktor Orban, all define their political philosophy around a national identity.

Yet, defining oneself around national identity is dangerous. For one, defining a national identity is messy. Gordon Brown once tried to promote a British identity. The core of his argument was that a defence of liberty ran throughout British history as a “golden thread.” Britons were indifferent. His campaign failed. Some will argue that British identity is nothing more than a flag and a Queen, that English and Scottish and Welsh identities are more meaningful to people.

A bigger danger is the ability of national identity to become a harbinger of doom. It requires a closing of minds, a dehumanising of the other.

One hundred years ago, the Easter Rising marked the apogee of a particular Irish identity: romantic but bloody. It is an identity with which Ireland has long struggled. Those rebels would have disagreed with Brown. For them and many others around the globe, Britishness equated oppression, not liberty. But their actions in April 1916 have defined an Irish identity that still sits uncomfortably with many on the island.

For some the actions of 1916 are a point of pride, a moment that launched a path towards independence. Some ask “Why would anyone in Ireland not be proud of the Easter Rising?” Others ask how is it possible to be proud of such a violent birth, especially one that has spawned so much division on so small an island?

At its heart, the Rising, and the expression of national identity, cemented a them and us mentality. “The British” included the neighbours of the rebels. They too were fathers and brothers and sons. They too were mothers and sisters and daughters. Britain’s reaction to the Rising ensured the marytyrdom of its leaders. It produced a retrospective democratic mandate in the 1918 General Election. But the violence of the Rising is what produced a negative definition of Irishness and from which dissident republicans continue to claim an intellectual inheritance.

The real danger in all of this is the ease with which identity becomes nothing more than a label.

Three issues come to the fore. First, our identity should be thoughtful and considered. The country in which we are born is an accident. My identity should be something I choose, and spend considerable time in the choosing. It is not something automatic. Such roads are lazy.

Secondly, old identities are breaking down. In an increasingly mobile world, the Trumps and Le Pens, bemoan a world where Dublin has more in common with Copenhagen than Castleblaney. They rail against difference, against otherness, and cloak themselves in a flag believing that only people who do likewise can be right.

Third, identities should be more than labels. I am more than one thing. If we are to have pride in our own identity then how can we believe it is right to stereotype, to denigrate, to discriminate based on one aspect of someone’s identity? Death and untold unhappiness have been the result of arbitrary lines on a map or the symbols hung in a building. The issue is not confined to national or religious identities. All group identities are ultimately about them and us.

So, identity should come from within. It should be what we choose in life. Everyone should have the right to freely express their identity. But, imagine a world where that wasn’t constrained by labels or by lines on a map.

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Free speech should never be an option

Dissidents in the Soviet bloc fought for many freedoms between 1945 and the end of the 1980s. None was more important than the freedom to say or write what they wanted. They understood that free speech is the conduit to other freedoms. Without it oppression becomes the norm, and fear takes hold. Dissent, criticism and open debate are necessary in strong and mature societies. Yet, it appears as though people are increasingly unwilling to engage in debate. Instead, the default option is to shut down dissenting or contrary voices.

The conflict in Gaza elicits strong passions. These passions are shaped by whether Israel or Hamas is viewed as the aggressor. There will likely never be agreement on the roots of the conflict or the ‘truth’ of particular actions. But there is a difference between debating the roots of a conflict and the merits of policy. The former is for historians whilst the latter can be deadly.

Israelis are overwhelmingly in favour of government policy: nine in ten support the strategy and tactics of the Israeli Defence Forces. But there are critics. People such as Gideon Levy, and the organisation B’tselem. Many have been vilified and attacked for questioning the war in Gaza. Peace rallies have been openly attacked and abused for undermining national unity. Outside Israel, those critical of how it has waged war on Hamas are often accused of anti-Semitism. There has been a deplorable and unforgivable rise in attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, especially in Europe. Anti-Semitism, however, should not be conflated with criticism of Israeli policy; to do so risks shutting down debate.

Some voices are particularly ugly. George Galloway, an MP, is one such ugly voice. He recently declared his Bradford constituency “an Israel-free zone.” With opinions on most topics, and a knack for stoking controversy, Galloway is much in demand as a pundit and speaker. He is due to speak soon in Belfast. A city councillor from the Democratic Unionist Party tried to prevent Galloway from speaking in Council owned property. He failed. The publicity around the incident has ensured a sold-out ‘show’.

That competing voices are undervalued, whether in Israel, Northern Ireland, Egypt or the US, is dangerous. Three reasons are feeding this danger.

First, the public is less engaged in the big issues of the world. An obsession with the banal crowds out the meaningful. Policy debates, such as they are, are not about substance but about process. And even when a celebrity’s latest irrelevancy is not the main headline, any engagement is myopic: people listen to, watch, or read media that express a view of the world with which they already agree. Those who express a different viewpoint are dismissed.

Second, it is a cliché to say that social media is to blame, but it undoubtedly feeds the symptoms by being reductive. 140 characters does not allow for a nuanced discussion. Its reactive nature feeds emotions.

Third, and perhaps most significantly, emotion trumps logic. Public debate and discussion regularly degenerate into who is right and wrong rather than an objective working out of solutions.

Fundamentally, the vilification of critics of Israel’s policy or the DUP’s stance in calling for George Galloway to be prevented from speaking demonstrates a lack of confidence. Rather than challenging the content there is a desire to shut down the voices.

But free speech is of absolute importance. Rather than seeking to shut down or intimidate dissent, a mature and confident society should encourage it. That includes voices we think are vile and abhorrent, like Galloway, or those we think are questioning national unity. There are those who will say that it is not possible to have a mature debate with Galloway. That may be so. His views are repugnant and verge on being racist. He is a demagogue, unwilling to engage in reasonable debate. But it is still incumbent on society to let him have his say. Otherwise, one day, someone might tell you or me what we can or cannot say.

Therein lies a dilemma. How do we challenge people who abuse the responsibilities that come with the right of free speech? The answer is not to silence voices. That is the tactic of dictators. Instead, those voices need challenged on the content and substance of what they say. To do so requires an engaged citizenry, sharp minds, and a confidence in one’s views that is rooted in logic, not tribalism or emotion. Rather than use emotion as an argument, it should be deployed as a tactic.

Above all, heed the advice of my A-level politics teacher to read things that you disagree with on a regular basis. It mitigates against lazy thinking. Critically, it highlights the most difficult issue for those who hold strong beliefs whilst illustrating the surest sign of a mature society: that values or principles do not have to change but differing opinions must be debated and discussed with openness and tolerance. 

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How a one-trick pony shuts down an entire government

In one “West Wing” episode, a group of fictional Belarussian officials gather to write a new constitution for their country. Intent on following the model of the US constitution, Toby Ziegler, the fictional White House Director of Communications, implores them to do otherwise. His country’s governing system is, he says, a “recipe for constitutional breakdown.”

Today, almost 800,000 federal employees in the US will not show up to work. One million more – those considered essential – will show up but not get paid for the work they do. Constitutional breakdown, namely an inability of the Republican House and Democratic Senate to agree a budget, is now a firm part of the American political lexicon.

Every year, Congress must pass a budget to make sure that the federal government continues to operate at financial year end. Yet, for the nineteenth year in a row, Congress has failed to pass the following year’s budget in time. In seventeen of the nineteen years, short-term bills have kept the government’s doors open while longer-term negotiations continue. But not this year.

The sticking point is an effort by the Republican Party to couple defunding of the Affordable Care Act withpassage of the 2013/14 budget. Health care reform was championed by President Obama. It is despised by many Republicans but is also considered the signature achievement of Obama’s Presidency.

But in holding the country to ransom over this issue, Republicans ignore three realities of American politics and face political ignominy.

The last government shut-down, in 1996, also came when a group of fiery conservatives locked horns with a weakened Democratic President. Republicans lost that fight, and Bill Clinton won an easy re-election.

This year’s gamble has even higher stakes. In sixteen days the country will run out of money, not just to pay for government services but to pay its debts. Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the US will default on its borrowings for the first time in history.

In continuing to fight the battles of 2010, Republicans are trying to roll back the clock. Critically, they ignore that age old advice to pick your battles. The fight over Obamacare is now about emotion, not public policy. It passed Congress three years ago, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012, and the man responsible for its passage was convincingly re-elected less than twelve months ago. Despite all this, Republicans have attempted to repeal the law forty times since its passage.

Many Republicans argue that the US Government is too big and that health care reform will mean more spending. Being mostly regulations, the Affordable Care Act has little to do with the federal budget. That is about paying for those things which Congress has already agreed to fund, not about trying to reverse something that the minority party was unable to prevent from becoming law. Bob Woodward, a journalist with many years of experience in Washington, declared on Sunday that the GOP is trying to blackmail the President.

It is no coincidence that the last nineteen years have been marked by a period of divided government and heightened partisanship. One blog study found that Congress now suffers from the highest levels of partisanship since the late nineteenth century. But the US Constitution is based on compromise. Divided government is built into the system.

The GOP’s second fault is failing to recognise the world they inhabit. They may control the House of Representatives, but Democrats control the Senate and White House. No one gets everything they want in this situation. Both parties have been attempting to blame the other for the lack of compromise, but the GOP has become a one-trick pony. It has a myopic fixation with Obamacare.

Republicans argue that they have sent three continuing resolutions to the Senate which would have prevented a shut-down. Despite Democratic opposition to delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act, all three resolutions contain provisions to do just that. Without them, government offices likely would have stayed open.

In 1996, a Republican Speaker led the charge; now, a sixth of the Republican caucus leads the Speaker. Successful parties need effective leaders as well as ideas. Obamacare might be unpopular, but it is a reality. Instead of adjusting to that reality, John Boehner, the House Speaker, has allowed 40 GOP Congressmen, the Tea Partiers, to ransom the country and dictate Republican positions on budget negotiations.

Ideological posturing might work in the short-term. Senator Ted Cruz is touted as a future GOP Presidential candidate, his standing boosted by a 21 hour speech on the evils of Obamacare. That he was reprimanded by a fellow GOP Senator, Bob Corker, shows that some Republicans know the party is in dangerous territory. With a sixteen day window to prevent default the entire United States is in dangerous territory.

The Economist’s correspondent predicted, before Tuesday’s shut-down, that because a default is unprecedented, “it is probable that both sides will avoid triggering one.” But few things are probable when ideological purity becomes more important than funding a government.

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Turkey’s future looks like its past: dominated by one man

There are few calm places in İstanbul. The waterfront bustles; Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu heave with a mass of tourists. Then, as if walking through a secret door, the city’s main post office shimmers and shines on a quiet street near the Spice Bazaar. Perhaps my memory deceives me. Still, I reminisce about the quiet that enveloped the decorative late-Ottoman era building and carried through to the whispers of the cool, imposing interior.

High above the counter is a big portrait of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. By big, I mean big. It dominates the three-storey rotunda, just as Kemal’s legacy continues to dominate the country.

Staring up at the country’s founder, he staring back whilst I waited in line, my feelings of calm and serenity suddenly vanished. It was five days into my first visit to İstanbul, a place I fell in love with easily. But Atatürk’s lofty position suddenly made me angry.

The reverence afforded to Atatürk is slightly unsettling. It reached the point where I felt constrained in what I could feel. Standing in the stillness of İstanbul’s Sirkeci post office, I realised that the veneration of Turkey’s first President compromises the country’s future.

Turkey is a country in which, at 9:05 on the morning of each November 10th, everyone stops to observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of Atatürk. It is an offence to criticise the ‘Father of the Turks’ or to question his vision for the country he founded from the skeletal remains of the Ottoman Empire.

Veneration of a powerful political figure is not dangerous. But the absence of freedom to question that veneration, and the absence of open debate over the present and future of the country will impact how Turkey changes.

The accepted view is that Kemal’s vision was perfect. Modern and progressive in the 1920s for its secularism and rejection of tradition, it has become rigid in its inherent ethnic nationalism. In 1982, the army enacted a constitution to defend Atatürk’s vision. It defines citizens only as Turks. It bans education in languages other than Turkish. It allows no place for difference. Kurds resent this, waging a war for independence from Turkey for over thirty years.

A new Constitution is being developed. Critically, it will loosen the current constitution’s ethnic basis. Kurds will be permitted to speak and teach in their own language. This has been interpreted as the crucial issue that brought about a recent ceasefire.

Replacing the constitution is dramatic by itself; that it might drive a peaceful agreement between Ankara and the Kurdish PKK, after 35,000 deaths, is cause for celebration. Yet, a worry remains.

Another proposed change is the introduction of a directly elected President. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister since 2002, is the man guiding the new constitution. Mr Erdoğan would like to be the next President, and probably will be the next President. Many worried about his roots in Islamism when he first came to power. What, they asked, would this mean for Turkey’s secularism? The result is largely symbolic change, such as the first headscarf wearing First Lady.

It is Mr Erdoğan’s personality and governing style that presents the worry for Turkey’s future. He has authoritarian desires, including seeking greater political control of the judiciary. He has sought to curtail the big and powerful military. Not bad in itself – the Chief of Staff still doesn’t answer to a civilian – but the tactics of mass arrests of generals has raised eyebrows. He is revered amongst working-class Turks. Like Atatürk, it seems as though Erdoğan wants to mould Turkey in his own image. And he does not like dissent; Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world.

Turkey’s emergence as a 21st Century economic and regional power is now accepted as a foregone conclusion. Projections from the OECD suggest that it will be the world’s seventh fastest growing economy to 2060; this is a country in which the average length of schooling in 1970 was just two years.

That Turkey is changing is passé. What it is becoming is the real question. İstanbul is, once again, a world city, bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games. Residents underline changing attitudes towards minorities. But the country’s wealth is concentrated around the city; the rest of Turkey is still largely poor and rural. It is a socially conservative place. The number of foreign born residents in the country is tiny.

I can imagine few better things than working by the Bosphorus and wandering the streets of Galata.  My hope is that the future Turkey does not follow the path of the old Turkey. The new constitution must not simply be a vehicle for Mr Erdogan’s desires. It must allow people to question without fear. One man cannot dominate the country’s path for the next century.

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Thatcher, decency and criticism

Street parties were held across the UK this week. Spontaneous affairs, they were also long in the planning. Those who gathered in various cities felt that the appropriate way to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher was to dance in the streets.

Thatcher was a polarising figure. It is said that no one is indifferent in their view of the woman or of what she represented. People either loved or loathed her. Supporters say she put the “Great” back into Great Britain. Some critics long claimed that they would dance on her grave.

But being an opponent of the politician, or a critic of her political views, does not mean that decency should be forgotten. Some commentators compared Margaret Thatcher with the Nazis. Think about that for a moment.

Much is made of her ignorance of the plight of ordinary people. Unions speak of the devastation wrought on families when pits closed or when jobs were lost through privatisation. Thatcher, they say, was heartless.

Such criticism confuses the abstract with the personal. Owen Jones writes of Thatcherism as a “national catastrophe.” The current economic crisis results from Thatcherism having “wiped out the country’s industrial base in favour of a deregulated financial sector.” She didn’t fix the economy because it didn’t need fixed: “Britain’s most sustained period of growth and increasing living standards were the three decades after the war, with their high taxes on the rich, strong trade unions and state interventionism.”

That all sounds wonderful, but ignores basic truths. The country’s industrial base was on its knees. Three decades of growth after the war were premised on an explosion of consumer growth, changing lifestyles and a growing population. Growth, already stalling, screeched to a halt with the 1973 oil crisis. By 1978, much like today, the economy needed structural change. Thatcher recognised this, and she delivered.

John Rentoul stole my thunder by writing that Thatcher was “a necessary Prime Minister.” The economic reforms of the 1980s would have happened. Many Southern European countries are paying now for having delayed them for 30 years. The vitriol towards her stems from the social impact of these reforms; by carrying them out with such speed and verve, huge swathes of the country were devastated. Individualism is king today. If there was such a thing as society in 1983, it is a lesser thing in 2013.

Ken Livingstone, on the night of her death, blamed Thatcher personally for the nefarious effects of neo-liberal economics across all of the West. She may have dominated her party and country, but she was not the only champion of such policies. Has Livingstone never heard of Ronald Reagan?

The Left likely does not intend the compliment of attributing the West’s embrace of free market economics and individualism to Margaret Thatcher alone. It was Neil Kinnock, Labour leader during much of the 1980s, who pointed out that the humiliation of the Left was ably aided by the stupidity and arrogance of the Left. No fingers pointing at Arthur Scargill.

It is entirely fair to say, as several more moderate voices have said (including, surprisingly to me, Russell Brand), that many of her policies were either distasteful or downright immoral. Perhaps most appalling of all was her objection to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, paralleled by her support for Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. And Tories wonder where the nasty label came from.

Which brings us back to those street parties. Writing in the Guardian on Monday, Glenn Greenwald made the argument that because she was a public figure, criticism of Lady Thatcher should not be silenced: “[A] demand for respectful silence…is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power.”

No one suggested that criticism of such a controversial figure should be silenced. People simply expect it to be respectful. Greenwald writes, much like a 16-year old with no argument would assert on a GCSE History paper, that Americans’ views of Ronald Reagan continue to be shaped by the “week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence.” Pity those people whose entire world view is shaped by a week of historic reflection.

Pity those people who, railing against the mean-ness that Thatcherism engendered, express glee in her death. Pity those people who cannot channel their anger into advocating for a more beneficial capitalism. Pity those people, like Owen Jones, who miss the point completely in calling for a workers’ revolt.

The world has moved on from 1945, and from 1974 and 1984. The ease with which we communicate and travel means we are all better off today; both possible because of Thatcher’s reforms. Those who abhor Thatcher need to argue for a more social Britain, with more social equity and more community. Dancing on anyone’s grave does not advance that task.

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Leveson, the Lib Dems, and press freedoms

By lunch-time tomorrow, Lord Leveson’s report on press standards will be public. Downing Street continues to insist that the Prime Minister has not taken a firm decision on how to proceed with the report’s recommendations. The straws in the wind suggest otherwise. Most senior Conservatives, Michael Gove and William Hague among them, have been vocal in rejecting statutory regulation. Some Tories do support a firmer legal framework that would introduce statutory regulation for the press. But the bulk of support within the party is for an approach that stops short of legislation whilst moving the industry away from self-regulation.

Labour leader, Ed Milliband is calling for Leveson’s findings to be implemented without knowing exactly what the report will recommend. Tensions do exist within the Labour Party on the matter, with former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, gathering support for a letter opposing increased regulation. Despite this, the party appears to generally favour bringing the industry to task.

Of particular concern to government sources is the very real prospect of Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, supporting a different approach from that of his coalition partners. Lib Dem sources are clear that the party favours stronger legal regulation for the press. There is little doubt that, should the Tories and Lib Dems fail to agree a common approach, a serious clash between the government parties is looming.

That the Liberal Democrats are so freely supporting a tougher regulatory framework is something of a surprise. Few could ignore the egregious abuses carried out by some journalists and newspapers. The public and political revulsion at press malfeasance is why the Leveson inquiry was established. But the party that espouses liberal belief should surely be arguing for maintaining freedom of the press to as great an extent as possible. Instead, having abandoned bandwagons for principles earlier in this Parliament, the Lib Dems now appear to be be abandoning principles to hop on the latest bandwagon.

It is difficult to conceive of another European liberal party calling for constraints on a free press. Germany’s Free Democrats, Denmark’s Venstre, or Sweden’s Centre Party all look like an uncomfortable fit for a party calling for more state control of the press. Yet that is exactly what the Liberal Democrats are likely to be advocating by tomorrow afternoon.

Some senior party members, as highlighted in today’s Financial Times, recognise that the future will be more nuanced than that which Mr Clegg and Mr Miliband appear to desire. John Hemming, a Lib Dem MP is quoted in the FT as saying ““Nick Clegg has made a mistake in nailing his colours to the Leveson mast without knowing which way the ship is sailing.”

The winds do appear to be blowing in a prevailing direction. Most people expect Lord Justice Leveson to recommend some form of statutory regulation. A ‘pre-proposal’ from Lord Black, a former Director of the Press Complaints Commission, recognises that the current system requires change but rejects new legislation. No one disagrees that change is needed. The shape of that change is what will define press freedom in the UK for generations.

Suggestions that statutory regulation would empower the Mugabes and Assads of this world to enact tighter state control of the press under cover of ‘Britain is doing it’ are overblown. Tyrants need no empowerment, nor no fig leaves of cover to take whatever actions they want. Instead, there is a strange dynamic at work when a party that traces its roots to one of the West’s classical liberal forces supports the erosion of a fundamental tenet of liberal belief. Freedom of the press is no guarantee of a democratic society. But a democratic society that undermines press freedom in any way undermines the values on which it is based.

Some will argue that newspapers and journalists bear responsiblity for any future statutory regulation. This argument is false. Newspapers and journalists have seriously, perhaps irrevocably, damaged their standing in British society. Leveson uncovered not only press-hacking but corruption and other criminal acts. It is crucial that we remember all of the actions uncovered were criminal. Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson must yet defend themselves in a court of law.

That the industry’s attitude allowed media ethics – and common decency – to be so contemptuously ignored by some, will need to be addressed. Regulation will not do that. All industries suffer from the actions of selfish or compromised people. Regulation of the banking sector has not prevented selfish or unpleasant attitudes from taking hold. Yet the press needs to be able to investigate and act in a way that will question, and upset, politicians. And the press plays a more critical role in democracy and civic life than banks.

Instead of beating the popular drums for short-term revenge, the Liberal Democrats should be advocating the virtues of freedom of speech and freedom of the press. To do anything else tramples on its liberal heritage. We can recognise that the press has to change. We can even blame journalists and newspaper editors for bringing us to this point. If we end up with statutory regulation, it will be because politicians have introduced it. And because the party that should be defending an open and free society, will, most likely, be at the forefront of undermining it.

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