Category Archives: Society

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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Ruth Davidson and the power of change

Ruth Davidson doesn’t shy away from a fight. In 2011, at just 32, she became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. For almost two decades the Tories have been an afterthought in Scottish politics. They’ve had one MP since 2001 and averaged the middle teens in numbers of seats in the Scottish Parliament until earlier this year. In May the party won 31 seats. Much of the credit lies with Davidson. It is only fitting that her party’s electoral performance has made her Leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Davidson was in Belfast recently to deliver the annual Amnesty International Pride Lecture. Displaying undoubted charisma on stage, that intangible quality that politicians crave, she swept her audience along with her. They were an audience largely receptive to her message. But the qualities that have made Davidson talked about as a potential national figure for the Conservatives were all too apparent.

For some people, changing minds and attitudes is about believing they are right and the other side is just wrong. The problem, of course, is that the other side believes the same thing. The result is predictable. Davidson’s speech struck a chord for offering an alternative way to change minds: make it personal, be positive, and stop beating people over the head.

Her message has particular resonance in Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, the region’s civic conversations become stuck in issues relating to the past. While coffee shops and rooftop bars have replaced bombs and bullets, some things change more slowly. Belfast’s politics are still shaped by religion and by the conflicts of 800-years. Abortion is still illegal, bars still close at 1am, gay people still cannot marry.

A former broadcast journalist, Davidson knows the importance of language and imagery. Speaking about the campaign for same-sex marriage, she talked about herself, her faith, her family, and her identity. She made the abstract personal. It was a masterclass in securing social change. In a place obsessed by labels and identity, Davidson spoke of being a “practicing Christian…a protestant…a Unionist…engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”. She positively spoke about how equal marriage doesn’t divide communities but is simply “about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else”.

Much of the opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland comes from protestant churches and Unionists, those who favour being part of the UK. Davidson deployed her own faith and identity as a protestant, Presbyterian and Unionist to say that “Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion, but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society”.

But underlying everything Davidson spoke about was a confidence that change happens when the time is right. The first challenge for those who want change is to make the time right. For those who want it, change doesn’t come quickly enough, while for those opposed it often happens all too fast. Demographic change around the world has made equal marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. In Northern Ireland 70% of people are in favour; amongst 16-34 year olds that figure is 85%, dropping to 47% in favour amongst over 65s. It is a pattern borne out across the West, but it does not mean simply waiting for the fait accompli.

That Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay people cannot marry is a quirk of local politics. It is a victim of legislative chicanery rather than sweeping public opposition: petitions of concern, whereby cross-community majorities are needed, have been deployed in the local assembly on five occasions. A simple majority of assembly members voted in favour of equal marriage in November 2015 but only four Unionists voted for the measure. The Bill failed.

Making the time right means engaging with people who think differently. Some people will always fear change, even if time is not on their side. For some in Northern Ireland, equal marriage is a change which their fundamental beliefs cannot accommodate. For others, their opposition is about fearing that their world will be changed irrevocably. Breaking down that fear is the responsibility of anyone who wants to secure social change of any kind. It is about a reality where both sides respect their right to disagree but accept their responsibilities to wider society.

Ruth Davidson highlighted the example of Trevor Lunn. An assembly member who previously voted against equal marriage, Lunn changed his vote last November after listening to constituents. Lunn happened to be in the audience for her lecture. When asked afterwards if he was happy to be there, he replied simply, “yes, I’m comfortable here”. That’s what change sounds like.  

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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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What’s wrong with marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy?

A decade ago, I visited the Castro in San Francisco. Long considered one of the heartlands of the gay community in the US, I was intrigued to visit the area. Before going to the US I had acknowledged my sexuality, but had yet to accept it as reality. Something about being somewhere new meant that acceptance came while I was living in Miami. I still remember telling one of my closest friends that I’m gay at a party in one of her friend’s houses. Her reaction: “Oh, we just thought you were European.”

My over-riding feeling as I wandered through the Castro, a feeling that I can vividly recall ten years on, was that I was in a bubble. I even remember turning a corner and sensing, abruptly and definitively, that I had left the bubble.

Part of my reaction against the bubble of the Castro stems from not understanding why anyone would choose to separate themselves from the rest of society. I want to play a role in society at large, not separate myself from it. I want to be considered a person with my own identity, not pigeon-holed into a sub-community simply because of whom I sleep with.

People using the word queer evokes the same reaction. The political reason for reappropriating queer from the bigots is well established. It’s just not one that I buy. It was born from a climate of fear and oppression. Its continued, and growing, use speaks to a lack of confidence.

I don’t see the need to build an identity around my sexuality. Queer theory is about advancing a non-binary worldview. But it speaks more to the argument of non-heterosexual people as ‘alternative’ or ‘not normal’ than in arguing for a non-binary worldview. The world is non-binary, so the best way of reinforcing that is by living our lives in a way that expresses our self-identity.

More particularly, the use of queer and gay are not interchangeable to me because I don’t see my sexuality as deviant or alternative. Being gay is not queer.

Justin Torres, in a piece celebrating Derek Jarman’s life, sneers at the “new gay ideals of ‘marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy.’” He conflates Jarman’s anti-establishment credentials with him being a gay man and asks “if Jarman’s passionate vision, and the example of his life, might offer something refreshingly vivid, alternative, wild, and necessary for our queer future”. His argument boils down to ‘being gay means being alternative and wild.’

Jarman’s alternative outlook is used by Torres as a stick with which to beat the millions of gay people who want what is pejoratively referred to as a ‘heteronormative’ lifestyle. Torres bemoans a dilution of gay identity, ignoring that the gay identity he writes about is but one interpretation of gayness.

Tim Murphy, writing in Out’s January edition, asks the bizarre question of whether men who choose to have monogamous relationships are “depriving themselves of a perk of being gay”. Many gay people reject the perception that all we want in life is the next guy; that works for some, just as it works for some straight people. The historic or cultural perception of gay identity, that it is based on promiscuity, ignores the reality that heteronormative behaviour amongst gay people was not an option for generations.

Some things stay constant, but many things evolve. Torres makes the ‘traditional values’ argument for a gay identity that many gay people reject. Hankering after an identity that is rooted in saunas and cottaging and animalistic tribes is as sad as Rick Santorum hankering after an idealised 1950s America or Nigel Farage dreaming wistfully of a Britain that no longer exists. Identity changes.

Justin Torres is not alone in seeking to protect a separate gay community. But the starting point that such a community is based on being alternative or wild is entirely false. The fact that my gay peers and I love and sleep with members of the same sex is about the only thing that unites many of us. An attempt to define a gay community today is as futile as trying to identify a straight community.

And what’s wrong with wanting a stable, committed relationship with someone on whom you can depend? It may not be for everyone. Torres’s idealised ‘queer’ lifestyle, epitomised by Derek Jarman, is not for everyone. But the attitude expressed by some gay people towards those who want stability and commitment is simply unpleasant.

The desire for committed love may be an ideal, but who is Justin Torres or Tim Murphy to sneer at or criticise people who want that ideal? And who really wants their identity to be summarised in a pithy and sepia-tinted view of gay as queer? Being gay may have lost some of its cutting-edge value by becoming mainstream, but the diversity that exists amongst gay people simply reinforces that it’s not something around which to build a collective identity.

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Gay rights in Russia and the Olympics: a boycott isn’t the answer

Ugly pictures of a young man, beaten and bloody, have emerged from Russia in recent weeks. Terrified, he is surrounded by shaven-headed men, gloating at their work. In May, it was reported that a 23-year old man was horrifically tortured and killed in the city of Volgograd.

Their offence is to be gay in Russia. Homosexuality was banned in the 1920s. Gays were regularly made scapegoats for the country’s ills. Though legalised in 1993, Russian society is fiercely homophobic. The country also has a reputation for thuggish behaviour. It is home to large numbers of far-right supporters, and Russian democracy is of the autocratic flavour.

Many blame the surge in homophobic attacks in the country on the June passage of a law banning public discussion of homosexuality. Purportedly, it is to protect children. The real impetus is the political insecurity of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. A shaky re-election in 2012 has led him to shore up support with the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church.

Last week, Stephen Fry, the actor and broadcaster, focused international attention on the matter. In an open letter to political and Olympic leaders, he called for “An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics.” He compared the situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia today with that facing Jews in Germany ahead of the 1936 Olympics. Echoing history, Fry declared that Russia was “making scapegoats of gay people.” He demanded that the Olympics be held anywhere but in Sochi.

Putin championed Russia’s Winter Olympics bid as a demonstration of the country’s international muscle. Yet, as China discovered ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008, hosting the Olympics highlights both the strengths and the shortcomings of a host country.

If not a new location for the Games, argued some, then at least a boycott. Some gay rights organisations backed calls for a boycott. Others, including gay athletes, suggested that a boycott would be ineffective; the aim, they argued, should be to improve the situation for gays and lesbians in Russia. All Out, an international gay-rights advocacy group, handed over a petition with 320,000 signatures to the IOC calling for the laws to be repealed.

Calls for the Games to be moved ignore reality while calls for a boycott are misguided. Olympic Games are a small industry, with billions of dollars at stake. Long legal battles would follow should the IOC not honour its contract with 2014 hosts, Sochi, a sleepy city almost as close to Tehran as to Moscow.

And the simple fact is that boycotts rarely work. The last Olympics on Russian soil, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, were boycotted by sixty-five countries. A response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it had no impact on Soviet foreign policy. The only tangible outcome: a reverse boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by Soviet-bloc countries.

Several countries share Russia’s attitudes on homosexuality and would be unlikely to join a boycott over gay rights. And, rather than provoking positive change for gays and lesbians, the more likely response is a hardening of attitudes. Putin would use it to his advantage. Boycotting Sochi over gay rights in specific also raises the question of why no boycott of Beijing over human rights in general?

Several gay Olympians rejected a call for gay athletes to boycott the Games. A self-imposed boycott by gay athletes would do nothing but deny them the opportunity to participate in the Games. It smacks of defeatism. It isstyle over substance.

Public opinion in the West aims to pressure Olympic sponsors and the IOC into challenging discrimination. But, instead of strategic cul-de-sacs, those who seek change in Russia should be calling for action that can make a difference.

Changing attitudes, and laws, takes time. It requires focused and dedicated effort, and it requires working with people. Barriers are dismantledand discrimination is challenged through personal contact. The lack of openly gay role models is a problem in Russia.

The IOC says that gay athletes will be protected from the anti-propaganda laws during the Olympics. It should test that. Every gay athlete willing to travel to Russia between now and February should do so, armed with a rainbow flag. They should embark on a programme of educational visits to Chabarovsk, Tolyatti, Petrozavodsk and to as many other cities outside of Moscow and Sochi as possible. And it should be organised by the IOC and Olympic sponsors.

That gay athletes will be immune from discriminatory laws during the Olympics is not enough. It belittles the everyday situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia. As Fry noted, Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter states that the IOC must “Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” Here is an opportunity to turn the often soaring rhetoric of international sports into making a real difference to people’s lives.

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The terror of Boston and the reality of goodbye

I remember standing in my grandmother’s kitchen and seeing her cry. I was a teenager, probably about 17 or 18, and I was struck dumb. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. Her eldest son, my uncle Sean, had just left to return to his home in Australia. I asked granny why she was crying, still not able to comprehend the fact that my grandmother was crying. Sighing, then breathing deeply, she looked for a handkerchief and said, “I’m just sad because I’ve seen Sean for the last time.”

Suddenly I felt like an intruder. But still I mumbled something like “You don’t know that, Granny. He’ll be back some day.” She smiled dolefully, her usually twinkling eyes wet with tears, and said, “Sean will be back some day, but I won’t be here. That was my last goodbye to Sean.” Sean did come back, and Granny wasn’t there.

It is a truism to say that none of us know when we say our last goodbye. Every night, before going to bed, I make sure to say good night to my boyfriend. I make sure to tell him that I love him every single time I leave the house. Maybe it is a subconscious reflection of my experience. Maybe it is why I insist we speak at least once a day when we are apart.

We all know what it feels like to lose someone; grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. If we love, we will feel loss. We will, one day, say a final goodbye. The certainty with which we all face that prospect is tempered by the joy of living and loving.

Those people killed in two bombs at the end of Boston’s marathon did not know that they had uttered their last goodbye. What they did know was that they were heading off to run a race, possibly having raised thousands of dollars for charity. Or they were out enjoying the festive atmosphere on a public holiday, possibly supporting friends and family running in the race.

They include an 8-year old boy. He was waiting, with his mother and sister, to cheer his dad across the finish line. Both his mother and sister were seriously injured in the bomb. None of them knew they had said their last goodbye to Martin. That the world has said goodbye to someone so young, in such a violent way, should not surprise us. It happens around the world with depressing regularity. It happens in Syria, in Gaza, in Mexico. It happens on the playgrounds of Pakistan’s schools, and it happens daily on the streets of America’s cities.

None of them get to say goodbye; whether to family, friends, or the world in general. The loss of children so young, barely having said hello to the world, seems to have such little impact on us. We become caught up in whether what happened in Boston was or was not terrorism. We get caught up in assigning blame. We are lucky if we remember, but for a fleeting moment, that the people who died have said their last goodbye.

Many people have highlighted that dozens of people were killed, yesterday, in car bombs in Iraq. That news did not dominate the rolling ticker tapes on 24 hour news channels. Perhaps it is because such news no longer shocks. The bombing of a marathon does. Perhaps it is because, as others have suggested, we simply have a greater affinity with people in the West than people in the East.

Perhaps it is also because we become desensitised by news that brings the same stories week after week. We all know someone who has run a marathon. We can relate to the presence of being there, of understanding the motivation of someone setting out to run 26 miles in order to raise money for charity. We bear witness to the effort that runners put into training. We know that the end of a marathon is not supposed to look like how Boylston Street looked like yesterday.

How we define what happened in Boston seems rather moot. Terrorism may or may not have a political end, but terror does not need one. If, as seems likely, the explosions were the result of calculation and not accident, then they were designed to terrorise. Commentators and politicians will parse their words, and they will debate the semantics of acts of terror versus terrorism. Even Lord West, former Security Minister in the UK, appeared on ‘The World Tonight’ and permitted the possibility that what happened in Boston was not necessarily terrorism.

For the families of those killed, the semantics matter little; they will bring no comfort, no solace nor no more understanding. The reality remains that their loved ones have said their last goodbye.

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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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