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Monday, 19 February 2018

Wayne Casey

Jacqueline and I were shocked and deeply saddened  to hear yesterday that our friend Wayne Casey had died at such a tragically young age. Our thoughts are with Pauline, his family and friends.

I adored Wayne over many years and he was among the funniest and cleverest people I will ever know. I have rarely laughed harder than in his company and there was no better dinner companion. I often cite things that Wayne said to me in conversation and my thinking continues to be influenced by his observations about politics, history and life.

He was a man I turned to for advice on personal matters, and he was that rarest of things: someone whose assessments of other people combined sparkling wit with compassionate insight.

Wayne was also a superb public speaker and I can say with confidence that Barnet's council chamber will never again be the setting for speeches that are so killingly funny as Wayne's were. His mastery of political communication led the Lib Dems to storm the citadel of staunchly Tory Mill Hill, where he enjoyed huge support as a local councillor. His style and panache made the most boring of political issues and activities fun, and the prospect of his company was always an incentive to take part in things that might otherwise have been dauntingly dull. Certainly, the most fun I ever had politically was working with Wayne and others to elect Duncan Macdonald in the High Barnet by-election in 2005, when the Lib Dems came from third place to capture the safest of Tory council seats.

Wayne was always willing to criticise the Liberal Democrats and was at his funniest on that subject. His intellectual honesty led him to sniff out the cant and hypocrisy of many anti-Israel campaigners in his own party and beyond, and he was an active fighter against antisemitism. He was also utterly scathing about anything that involved the rancorous noise of blogs and social media, so I hope he wouldn't have minded this piece.

He was someone whose interests and enjoyments ranged far beyond mere politics. For some years, I knew that Christmas had begun when I had arrived at Wayne's home for wine and delicious snacks on Christmas Eve, an occasion always marked by the sparkling bonhomie that Wayne so often generated. With Wayne, one had the sort of conversations that characters have often in drama, but rarely in life. It was as if Josh Lyman from The West Wing had been merged with Dorothy Parker. It was also such an honour to be asked to serve as an usher at his wedding to Pauline in 2007.

It was Wayne who asked me in 2009 to stand as the Lib Dem Parliamentary candidate for Hendon at the 2010 General Election, when he was my agent. A glance at the figures from the previous election showed that, statistically, I had less chance of being elected MP for Hendon than I had of winning the National Lottery or being cast as James Bond. That was not the point. The point was that he knew that I would enjoy it and that having me as Parliamentary candidate would give him one less thing to worry about as he campaigned (sadly unsuccessfully) to re-elect Lib Dem councillors in Mill Hill in the local elections that were on the same day.  He was right, as I did enjoy it, as he had done when he was the Parliamentary candidate for Hendon himself - and he would have made a great MP had he been elected.

I saw less of Wayne most recently as he had been living in Northampton, but we had just recently been corresponding about meeting for a drink. I will always remember him as a tremendous friend and as an example of how to live my own life.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Leaving the Liberal Democrats

I could make this a longer piece, but I'm not going to. My Liberal Democrat party membership lapsed last month, at the end of a period in which my party had bombarded me with increasingly manic emails from the Reader's Digest playbook, saying how much the Lib Dems have "loved having me in our family", or ghastly words to that effect. To paraphrase Boston Legal, "It's not a family; it's a political party".

They say that the family that plays together, stays together, but - in Lib Dem terms - I'm not playing any more. To be a member of a political party is to proclaim that party as one's positive favourite among them all, and that is not how I feel about the Liberal Democrats (or any other party) at present. Are they even the party with which I disagree the least? Maybe. But I'm not sure.

There are many fine people in the Liberal Democrats; to paraphrase Danny Kaye (the actor, not Jacqueline's brother), "Some of my best parents are Liberal Democrats". I am proud to have campaigned as a Liberal Democrat candidate and am also proud of the record of the Coalition Government, which - thanks to Nick Clegg - was the best British government of my lifetime. I am filled with respect for my Lib Dem friends and I do think that Tim Farron is doing his best in appallingly difficult circumstances.

I promised brevity, so I shall get to the point: the final straw. It came some weeks ago, since when other straws have accumulated, but I am now about to clutch at the straw that I originally had in mind. It was, not to beat about the bush, this: It beggars belief that a person accused of sharing an article about "Jewish power" should be defended on the following grounds:

"Having reviewed your complaint, our view is that an opinion can be controversial – and even offensive – but still fall short of being racist.
"We are a liberal party that places immense value on freedom of speech…That includes the freedom to criticise in the strongest terms the actions of states and governments and the causal effects of their policies… Any desire not to offend also needs to be balanced against the right to criticise in the strongest terms the actions of states and governments."
Yet it is in such grounds that one of the Lib Dems' innumerable committees has defended a party member (who sits in Parliament) who has been accused of sharing such an article. Talk of "Jewish power" has nothing at all to do with "the right to criticise in the strongest terms the actions of states and governments". Any committee that does not understand this lacks the intellectual rigour, nous and sensitivity to do its job properly. There is no point trying to use such committees to achieve anything constructive. They are dancing round the mulberry bush in ever-decreasing circles.

This committee demonstrates the sort of muddled thinking that sadly got the Liberal Democrats where they are today. They can, of course, do what they like - but they can do it without me. Although it now turns out that I have a month after my membership lapses in which I can renew it after all - surely rendering my (former) party a cross between the Hotel California and the Village in The Prisoner - I shall not be doing so.
I write here in a personal capacity.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

My vote tomorrow

Do you like living in this country? I do. It's where I'm from, and I like it. Not that I couldn't quite happily live in many other countries and like them too, but the UK is a technologically advanced liberal democracy with a dynamic economy, strong public services and incredible arts, culture and restaurants.

Unlike those people (on the Left and on the Right) who I used to meet when knocking on doors politically who thought that the country had gone to the dogs and who automatically assumed that I agreed with them, I actually like some aspects of the modern world. They make me happy. I like the choice of wines in my supermarket, the variety of series on my TV and the EHIC in my wallet.

I look at those and other things and see that they have been achieved by the UK as a member of the EU, which has a single market that was actually designed on British lines by the Tory Lord Cockfield, and signed into UK law by Margaret Thatcher in the Single European Act. I have yet to be exposed to a single argument that has persuaded me that our country would be better off outside the EU and outside the single market - and, by the way, we'll still be "in Europe" if we leave the EU. A referendum can't alter geography. It's not about "leaving Europe", it's about potentially leaving the EU (and we'd still be in the Council of Europe - and still subject to the European Court of Human Rights - even if we left the EU).

I don't want to leave the EU. Just as I don't want to leave NATO, the Commonwealth or the UN, either. We gain immeasurably from being in these transnational bodies. So, every Commonwealth citizen living in the UK gets to vote in our elections. That's crazy, but it's not enough to make me want to leave. So, NATO's commanders can order British troops around without consulting our government, which is why France stayed out of full NATO membership. That infringes our sovereignty, but I still want to be in NATO. The UN Human Rights Council is ruled by human rights abusers, but I don't seriously want us to leave the UN. The UK has an unelected house of Parliament, which is an affront to our democracy, but I don't want London to leave the UK.

Don't believe half of what you hear about the EU. It's not true that its books haven't been audited. It is true that it has a lower level of corruption than do many other institutions, including many British institutions. It is no more true that all 500 million EU citizens are going to move to Britain than it is true that all 60 million British citizens are going to move to London. Millions of EU citizens live in the UK. More than a million UK citizens live elsewhere in the EU. That's part of having a successful, open market economy. People from other EU countries who live in the UK pay more in taxes than they take in benefits, etc. I have not in any way been personally inconvenienced by immigration from elsewhere in the EU. I have not been personally affected by a single EU regulation that has caused me any problems. Can you name one that has actually affected you? So I see no reason for the UK to leave the EU. I shall vote Remain.

When the Leave campaign suggested Albania's free trade deal with the EU as a model for the UK, that country's leader wrote an article in The Times saying: "You must be joking. We're trying to get into the EU. Our arrangement is terrible compared to yours." The EU and its single market, bringing together so many countries to trade together without tariffs, is a wonder of the modern world. We have more clout as a major member of this economic superpower than we ever would alone. We are part of the group known informally as EU5 (us, France, Spain, Germany and Italy), the major countries that, in reality, set the pace on EU decision-making. It would be lunacy to throw this away for no good reason, causing short-term economic chaos and political disruption that would paralyse the system (and don't say I didn't warn you if you vote Leave and this happens).

Yes, we would presumably flourish in the long term either in the EU or out of it, but I want us to be a civilised European country that values something other than the bottom dollar, rather than the harsh, Devil-take-the-hindmost countries that some among the Brexiteers want us to be.

I don't care, by the way, that my taxes are used to fund EU-wide projects that benefit people outside the UK. That is a price worth paying to make the whole thing work for countries including ours, and given how economically successful we have been in the EU, I am happy for my taxes to be spent in this way.

I write here in a personal capacity.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Nick Clegg's very strong rebuttal of David Ward's "stupid" tweets

Crass. Stupid. Offensive. Insensitive. Just four of the words that UK Deputy Prime Minister and Liberal Democrat Leader Nick Clegg has used to describe some comments made on Twitter by one of my party's MPs, David Ward. I completely agree with Nick Clegg's unambiguous condemnation of the tweets concerned and I cannot think of a time when an MP (Lib Dem or otherwise) has been so clearly, strongly rebuked by the leader of his or her own party. Party leaders simply do not usually speak in such terms about their own MPs and Mr Clegg's words contrast with the deafening silence with which David Cameron and Ed Miliband have greeted some equally stupid things that have been said on similar topics by the odd (sometimes very odd) Conservative or Labour MP in the past. I applaud Mr Clegg for his comments. 

Saturday, 10 January 2015

A petition for all Lib Dems to sign


Date: Sat, 10 Jan 2015 20:11:13 +0000
To: <>
Subject: Matthew, thanks for taking action!

Amnesty International logo

Dear Matthew

Thank you for taking action today. Together, our words can help get justice for Raif Badawi. Raif is one of 12 people and communities we're focusing on as part of Write for Rights, our global letter-writing campaign. Right now, their human rights are under attack. We need your support to make change happen – read their stories and take action today.

Thank you for signing "Saudi Arabia: Release blogger Raif Badawi"

Please forward this email to a friend

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes after starting a website for social and political debate – demand his release today.

Please share this action on Facebook and Twitter. Facebook Twitter

Amnesty International
International Secretariat

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London, WC1X 0DW
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Copyright © 2015 Amnesty International, All rights reserved.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Nick Clegg's Chanukah Reception

On Thursday, I had the immense privilege of attending UK Deputy Prime Minister (and Liberal Democrat Leader) Nick Clegg's Chanukah reception at Admiralty House. It was a lovely occasion, on which Nick Clegg made a speech that touched upon some genuinely interesting themes, so here is a video - the speech begins about four minutes in, after the nice bit with the children singing, the rabbi, and the candles being lit (and the first minute or two of that first bit has less than perfect sound). 

Saturday, 20 December 2014

I love the BBC, but...

I am passionately pro-BBC (and the licence fee) and I am not a party to the cheesy cynicism of those right-wing campaigners who are convinced that the corporation is endemically anti-Israel. It isn't. Nor is it improperly pro-Israel, as alleged by some of the sillier elements on the pro-Palestinian left.

But when I see the headline "Israel launches Gaza air strike", I despair - because the story actually begins: "Israeli aircraft have bombed a site in Gaza, in the first such action since the declaration of a truce in August. The air strike was carried out on a Hamas facility in response to a rocket fired earlier from Gaza, a statement from the Israeli military said."

This is on the digital teletext on the red button on BBC TV, and as I used to actually write news stories for the teletext on the BBC World channel, I can say that I would have headlined the story "Israeli air strike follows Gaza rocket fire" and would have written:

"Israeli aircraft have bombed an alleged Hamas facility in Gaza in response to a missile reportedly fired into Israel earlier from Gaza, a statement from the Israeli military said. This is the first such exchange of fire between Hamas and Israel to be reported since the declaration of a truce in August."

My version makes it clear that the Israelis are claiming that Hamas acted and Israel reacted; the BBC's version reports that the Israelis acted and points out that it was the first such Israeli action since the truce started - without explicitly saying that it was a Hamas missile that appears to have triggered this latest chain of events, and allowing the reader to infer that Israel started this latest escalation of hostilities, when the reality is that if Hamas had not fired its missile, then none of this would have happened today and you wouldn't be reading this post now, as I would never have written it.

In terms of news, the BBC seems to think that the story is: "Why has Israel bombed a site in Gaza?"; I would argue that the story actually is: "What is Hamas hoping to gain by firing missiles at Israel again in the middle of a truce - and what will the Israeli response be?"

Some explanations for how and why various news organisations can get the Israel story wrong were offered in this very interesting piece here: