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Monday, 29 November 2010

Jeffrey Archer is right

"Jeffrey Archer is right" - not words that are likely to endear me to many Liberal Democrats. He spoke on today's Daily Politics about the petition presented by 100 failed Lib Dem candidates about tuition fees. I am one of around 600 failed Lib Dem candidates from the General Election, around 100 of whom (or a mere one in six) have signed this petition, and I most certainly did not sign. What Lord Archer says, among other things, is that the Liberal Democrats have got a leader who is trying his best to make the coalition work and these candidates should be supporting that leader instead of "making a lot of noise" - hear, hear! He also says that the important words are "failed to get elected" and he's right - these candidates, and I, could, instead of petitioning each other, get together and write a book called How to Lose Elections for all we know about how to succeed in politics. The Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams, who was our Higher Education Spokesperson before the General Election, was really interesting on this on The World At One today (about seventeen minutes, forty seconds in). Of course, I received an email asking me to sign this petition; here, from 4 November, is my reply:
Thanks. I fully appreciate the strong feelings that colleagues have on this. I am very angry about Labour’s having introduced tuition fees and I fully supported our manifesto commitment to abolish fees over time; I did sign the pledge to vote against a rise in fees if elected (I obviously wasn’t elected!). However, I will not be signing this peition, as I am a loyal supporter of our party’s elected leadership and of the Coalition; implicit in the Coalition is the need for both parties to compromise on things that they would dearly like to do, including tuition fees. As a party, the process by which we entered into the coalition was a democratic one, with overwhelming votes in favour of going in. The Coalition Agreement guarantees that our MPs do not have to vote in favour of a rise in tuition fees, but are instead allowed to abstain – sounds reasonable to me. This situation is politically difficult for our party. I ask: does this petition make it easier, or harder, for our party to manage that difficult situation? If the latter, then why would any Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate wish to get involved? We have ample ways of discussing these matters internally, without publicly petitioning our MPs, etc. If everyone objects publicly every time the Coalition does something that we do not like, then how will the Coalition be sustained? And we need the Coalition for the good of the country, at a time of economic crisis. They used to say that loyalty was the Tories’ secret weapon – perhaps we Lib Dems should borrow that weapon from them? If I thought that this petition, or any other public campaigning, was actually likely to lead to a change in Government policy on tuition fees, I might support it, but since it definitely won’t achieve such a change, I believe that it will do nothing other than generate damaging headlines for our party.

I would add that the rise to tuition fees is only one part of a package of Coalition measures being proposed in response to the Browne Report. The Report is being published today and I have not read it yet. Has anybody? Surely a rise in fees, however regrettable, is only one element. What if the salary threshold at which loans become re-payable rises from £15,000 to £21,000? What if the pool of people who qualify not to pay fees in the first place is expanded, so that more people are again eligible for free tuition? What if more is done, as part of this package, to encourage universities to take more students from poorer households? Would such measures as those not mean that, overall, the situation for students has improved under the Coalition compared to the situation under Labour, despite a rise in tuition fees? And to the argument that we have betrayed our voters – well, a lot of voters in my constituency were motivated by a desire for a change of government from Labour (they’ve got that), a proper effort to cut government debt so that we can have a lasting economic recovery (they’ve certainly got that) and a Government that finally included Lib Dem Ministers, influencing what the Government does (and they’ve certainly got that). So I am proud that our party is in government, delivering on so many of its pledges (even if tuition fees have to rise). I keep meeting members of the general public who are so impressed by what we are doing in government – their impression of our party has become more favourable, not less, as a result of the Coalition. Perhaps things are different in student circles, but in the wider community, our party’s stock has arguably risen, not fallen – because, after so many decades in the wilderness, we are now finally participating in government again, and a lot of people like what they see of Vince Cable, Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and our other highly impressive ministers. That is certainly the case in my part of London, which is as much “the real world” as anywhere else in Britain.

Letter in The Independent about kosher/halal slaughter

I've just discovered that I had a letter in last Tuesday's Independent about kosher/halal meat production, responding to this absurd exercise in sixth-form debating by Johann Hari. My letter as published reads:
I support the right of Jews and Muslims to practise kosher and halal slaughter. I also oppose the "frightening rise in real bigotry against Muslims and Jews". According to Johann Hari, I am being inconsistent, as "the only consistent position is to oppose viciousness against these minorities, and to oppose viciousness by these minorities".
Mr Hari is thus equating kosher- and halal-meat production with the actions of a thug who beats up Jews or burns down mosques. So law-abiding communities of British people, slaughtering animals under the supervision of the same welfare authorities that supervise secular meat production, are to be considered on a par with violent extremists who hate Jews and Muslims? This is as grotesque as to equate someone who eats a factory-farmed Christmas turkey with someone who mugs old ladies. 

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Michael Moore's speech to Board of Deputies

The Board of Deputies of British Jews is celebrating its 250th anniversary as the representative body of the Anglo-Jewish community. Amongst the celebrations was a special meeting on Sunday 21 November, with a speaker from each of the three main parties. The Liberal Democrats were represented by one of our Cabinet Ministers, Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, who gave the following well-received speech:

Mr President, distinguished guests, it is a great pleasure to be here today on behalf of the Liberal Democrats on this very happy occasion.

Before I talk about this momentous anniversary, I want to mention another reason why today is special.

As many of you will know, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, AJEX, is today conducting its 76th annual ceremony and parade at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. I saw the preparations myself as I walked past earlier this morning.

That event is an opportunity to remember the service of thousands of Jewish men and women in the British forces, including those who fell in battle.

Were it not for their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of so many other British service personnel, we would not be free to celebrate here today. They must never be forgotten.

250 years – a quarter of a millennium – is a landmark anniversary for any organisation. I congratulate you.

The Board is a shining example of how a faith group can represent itself. Your history is a very distinguished one, mirroring that of Britain’s Jewish community over the equivalent period.

It’s fascinating to look back to 1760 and to consider the great battles for Jewish emancipation which still lay ahead. I wonder how many people beyond this hall know about the struggle for Jewish civil rights in this country?

How many outside this gathering know that Jewish MPs were elected, but then forbidden to take their seats because they were not Christians? Or that Benjamin Disraeli, as a Jew, could only become Prime Minister because he had converted to Christianity?

Actually, when I look at this history, I am pleased at how much my party figures in it.

Those first Jewish MPs, who won the battle to take their seats in the 1850s, David Salomon and Lionel de Rothschild, were elected as Liberals. The first openly Jewish Cabinet Minister was another Liberal, Herbert Samuel, later our party leader in the 1930s.

On a more contemporary note, I am delighted by the announcement that Monroe Palmer will be joining me and my colleagues in Parliament. His election to the peerage is proper recognition of his years of service to the Jewish community and the wider community he represents in Barnet.

I am very proud of this Jewish Liberal history. And as Scottish Secretary, I am proud for other reasons.

When Edward I shamefully expelled the Jews in 1290, they were forced out of England – but not from Scotland.
Edward’s cruel hand did not extend north of the border. Indeed, we Scots showed what we thought of Edward I at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297.
So Jews were never expelled from Scotland.

Sadly, there are not many other European countries that can make such a claim.

Of course, there have been instances of anti-Semitism in Scotland down the centuries and regrettably it still happens today. I am not at all complacent and I condemn all acts of anti-Semitism, wherever they occur.

Having taken a moment to reflect on Scottish Jewish history, which is a proud chapter in the history of the wider British Jewish community, I am grateful for your indulgence.

Across the UK, since 1760, the Board has been present – sometimes as a witness, sometimes as a participant – through all the great events that have affected Jewish people in Britain and worldwide.

Amidst them all – from the Napoleonic Wars to the creation of the State of Israel, from the Industrial Revolution to the development of the Internet – one tragedy stands out, and that is the Holocaust.

Nobody can consider Jewish history without recalling the genocide of so many millions of Jews and others. Even on such a happy occasion as this 250th anniversary, the Holocaust still casts a shadow.

It is right that we remember, and I applaud the work of groups like the Holocaust Educational Trust and the Board itself for the ongoing work in Holocaust remembrance.

Mercifully, Britain, with the tragic exception of the Channel Islands, was spared the horrors of Nazi occupation.

The Board played a pivotal role in the two world wars and the tumultuous events surrounding Britain’s Palestine Mandate.

The story makes compelling reading – the sacrifice of Jewish servicemen in the British forces, the arrival of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, the creation of the State of Israel.

But there’s something else to be remembered in the British Jewish history of the last 250 years.

It’s the smaller, human story of a community living its life – going about its daily business, recorded in ledgers of births, marriages and deaths. The reality of a healthy community - bringing up families, worshipping in synagogues, building schools.

In a way, perhaps, that’s the main story of the British Jewish community. With the Board ever-present in a leadership role, helping the community to practise its faith in peace, freedom and security.

And the history of British Jews is all the more remarkable when one considers the history of Jewish immigration.

From the Cromwellian re-admission in 1656, to the arrival of many Eastern European Jews in the late 19th century, the British Jewish story is one of successful integration of migrant communities.

The bustling Jewish East End which, I am told, gave Britain its first fish and chip shops; the pioneering efforts of children of immigrants in the arts, in business, in the sciences and in sport. This is one of the great success stories of British immigration.

Jewish people remaining proudly, openly, distinctively Jewish, while also being entirely British. Another achievement of which the community and the Board can be deeply proud.
But there has been a darker side to the community’s history.
One must not exaggerate the importance of anti-Semitism in the British Jewish experience – but one must not downplay its significance, either.

Anti-Semitism is an ugly prejudice, aptly called “the longest hatred”. There is no acceptable level of such prejudice, especially when it leads to violent hate crimes. It is intolerable. It must always be opposed.

The Liberal Democrats and the Coalition Government are committed to working with the Board and the Community Security Trust to fight anti-Semitism here and abroad.

When it comes to the ongoing debate about Israel and the Palestinians, feelings frequently run high.

Israel has every right to defend itself against the threats that it constantly faces.

As the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, recently said: “Israel’s right to thrive in peace and security is non-negotiable for Liberal Democrats”.
Whatever reasonable criticisms some people may have of Israeli Government actions – such criticisms can never justify hostility towards British Jews.

There can be no justification for the sheer hatred expressed towards Jews by some of Israel’s more extreme critics.

Across the globe, Jewish communities have been the target of terrorist attacks. This remains a concern in the UK.

I hope you will be assured that the Government understands this threat and the fears it raises, as do the counter-terrorism authorities.
But neither anti-Semitism nor the terror threat defines the lives of Jews in Britain today.

It is self-evident to say the British Jewish community is thriving, vibrant and deeply integrated into this country’s life.

An array of schools, voluntary organisations, synagogues and a charitable sector that contributes so very much to our national life, are testimony to this.

Alongside this, the Board continues to exercise the leadership role that has defined its purpose for 250 years.

It’s a democratic, representative body, speaking for a broad spread of our highly diverse Jewish communities.

As a Minister in the Government of the United Kingdom, I not only congratulate the Board, but also thank you. Thank you for all that you do to represent the British Jewish community to government.

The Board is an organisation of which British Jews should be very proud.
I wish you a very happy 250th birthday.

I hope that you shall continue to play such a valuable and constructive role for many more years to come.

Friday, 19 November 2010

A new voice for Barnet in Parliament

I always knew, when canvassing for Monroe Palmer as the Liberal candidate for Hendon South in 1987, that it would eventually, as our stickers said, be "Palmer for Parliament", and I was right - as Monroe is on the list of new life peers announced today. I congratulate Monroe, his wife Susette and the whole family, as I could not be more pleased that Monroe is now going to the Lib Dem benches in the House of Lords. He will make an excellent Parliamentarian, as will the other Liberal Democrats named as peers today. Monroe is a seasoned Barnet councillor, so he will be a strong voice for our borough in Parliament.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Simon Jenkins on political reality

I commend this excellent piece by Simon Jenkins in today's Guardian. I don't agree with what he says about the Liberal Democrats' prospects at the next General Election, but I strongly agree with the advice that he offers to the vocal minority of Lib Dem activists who are critical of the Coalition. His points are bluntly put and none the worse for that! Definitely worth reading.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Video: Nick Clegg's speech to Friends of Israel lunch

Here is a video of Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's excellent speech to a lunch organised by Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel on Wednesday. For more on this speech, here is the Jewish Chronicle's report on it.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Student fees - seven key facts

Under the Coalition Government's proposals:

1. All students will repay less per month under this Government’s policy than they currently pay.

2. The lowest-earning 25% of graduates will repay less under this Government’s policy than they do now.

3. The top-earning 30% of graduates will pay back more than they borrow and are likely to pay more than double the bottom 20% of earners.

4. Over half a million students will be eligible for more non-repayable grants for living costs than they get now.

5. Almost one million students will be eligible for more overall maintenance support than they get now.

6. Part-time students will no longer have to pay up-front fees, benefiting up to 200,000 per year.

7. There will be an extra £150m for a new National Scholarship Programme for students from poorer backgrounds and we will introduce tough new sanctions for universities who fail to improve their access to students from such backgrounds.