...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 2614 (again): Man of the Moment: the Full Interview Write-Up

Wednesday, continued…

You can't deny Mr Ed's passion for his job, that's for sure, and he is like a bubbling source of positive energy. He's certainly got the CHARISMA and he's already making waves, though he's never been afraid of being a BIG NOISE.

He DID insist that the SHENANIGANS with the Deputy Speaker were entirely SPONTANEOUS.

Certainly, other members of the Parliamentary Party had joined him in the chamber in order to lend their support, but it was not "planned" to the extent that he'd woken up that morning expecting to be kicked out of the House by teatime.

He and Mr David Howarth had worked HARD for the last six weeks, working with the House Clerks, to come up with an amendment that was acceptable. He GENUINELY thought that it had a good chance of being selected and so was GENUINELY fuming when it was rejected, seemingly out of hand, and wanted some answers.

Having been let back in to the House of Commons, he was clearly making up for lost time and voting in all the divisions on the Lisbon Treaty. This kept him busy until WAY after the time that we had set to meet, but he VERY GENEROUSLY more than made up for this by staying on late and answering lots of questions for us. He also took us to the House of Lords Club bar for refreshment – and, before we get accusations of UNDERAGE ELEPHANTS, I stuck to nibbling the PEANUTS (although there may have been something wrong with Mr Gavin's APPLE JUICE!).

I asked Mr James of Wigwam Blog to kick off, because of what he had written the day before about seizing the opportunity to put pressure on the government. We could threaten to change our vote and support a referendum on JUST the Lisbon Treaty, as a PRINCIPLED protest over being denied the debate on a PROPER referendum on EVERYTHING that would have been the Constitution.

Mr Ed interrupted to say that the government were seeming pretty CONFIDENT that they were the ones "holding all the shots" could get the Treaty passed without any help from us – looking at the number of Labour rebels at the Second Reading stage, there just weren't enough to make a difference even if we DID switch to supporting the Conservatories.

He then firmly rejected Mr James's approach, saying that it would make us look OPPORTUNIST.

His argument is that we have consistently said that we will support this Treaty, and that is because it is not CONSTITUTIONAL in nature, unlike the Maastricht Treaty when we DID say that there should be a referendum, but like the Nice and Amsterdam Treaties when we didn't.

Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon together are AMENDING Treaties that tweak the structures of the EU and so are different from Maastricht… and indeed from the Constitution (which would have bundled Maastricht up together with the others, and the Treaty of Rome and so should have a Referendum).

Mr James obviously disagrees, and has said so in his diary here.

Personally, I can see Mr James's point, but it would also be very GALLING to have to support the Conservatories when – apparently, allegedly – it is THEY who have been twisting the Speakers arm to drop our amendment because they don't want to have to support it.

And I think that Mr Ed is right that it would certainly look bad if we changed our stance now – having had to take all the PAIN of accusations that we went back on support for a referendum, it would be a bit silly to open ourselves to accusations that we went back on opposition to it too. WE would look all over the shop!

The next question was form Mr Jonny, who asked how we can balance respect for other cultures against our Liberal Principles like a belief in Universal Human Rights.

This, said Mr Ed, is the MOST difficult question for Liberals in Foreign policy, and we must always be questioning ourselves. We must strive to avoid the mistake of the past: imperialism, rolling in and taking over. Equally we must avoid the mistake of the Monkey-in-Chief: crusading around the place to impose ideas of what is "right".

Instead, we need to make the case as DEMOCRATS, arguing our cause from first principles.

And it can be very hard. Mr Ed talked of his own experiences at election time, going to the Kingston Mosque and holding an election meeting there. For most people it was an ordinary meeting, but there was a small group of, mostly, young men who refused to accept the whole business of the election. "You don't make our laws," they said, "Mr Allah makes our laws."

That is when it becomes difficult, making your case to people who refuse to listen at all.

Mr Gavin, who answered my open invitation on Lib Dem Voice to join our panel, asked about Human Rights too, in a way, talking about Uganda where the government has recently managed to make a peace deal with the Lord's Resistance Army, the conditions of which include war crimes only being tried in Uganda and not at the International Criminal Court. It appears that the ICC may not be willing to let the matter drop, though. Which, asked Mr Gavin, would you choose: justice or peace?

It's a difficult dilemma, admitted Mr Ed thoughtfully, before deciding that in the end you had to choose PEACE, because that led to a "greater" justice – the justice of FEWER people getting exploded in the first place.

There is much to be learned from successful transitions, like the experience of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. International organisations have GOT to be SENSITIVE to what is happening "on the ground". The best solutions, the only solutions really, have to come from within.

These matters are never black and white, though. There are some people – naming no names – who have done some pretty UNSPEAKABLE things in the Ugandan conflict. Maybe, in due course, they should be brought to trial.

But then Mr Ed told us about the HARDEST thing that he has had to do as an MP which was to vote to grant AMNESTIES to IRA murderers – not "terrorists", he said, they ARE "murderers". But sometimes you have to swallow hard and think about that "greater justice".

After that, I took the opportunity to ask a LIGHTER question about the American Elections because they are jolly fun and hopefully involve less DEATH! How would things be different under a Barry O presidency or a Hillary-Billary presidency or even an Oven-Chip presidency, I asked? And what would our policy be to reflect that?

Encouraging us to read his piece in the New Statesperkin, Mr Ed told us that saw PROMISING SIGNS in America, and not just from the candidates still in the race, but also from the US ESTABLISHMENT. They have realised that the Monkey-in-Chief's era was a total disaster, and are ready to learn form that, he said.

All of the candidates are talking about the need to move away from UNILATERALISM, and towards the use of "soft power" – cooperation and agreements.

As Liberals we have GOT to welcome that.

He also risked SATIRE rolling over in its grave by mentioning a letter in the New York Times signed by Dr Henry "Strangelove" Kissinger (and Mr George Shultz and Mr Sam Nunn – not, said Mr Ed – the most notorious "doves" in American), saying that it was time to seek a vision of a nuclear-free future.

Liberal Democrats have got to say a big "Yes Please!" to a real prospect of disarmament. And Mr Ed was hoping to meet some of the people making the running on this at a conference in the near future.

He wasn't going to get carried away; America still isn't going to go far enough on tackling climate change; they're still not going to sign up to the International Criminal Court. (After all, it would be too too embarrassing to have the Monkey-in-Chief hauled away in chains… fun though.)

He touched briefly on the character of the lead candidates – and perhaps tellingly, it was about Senator Oven-Chip and Senator Barry O that he spoke. Sorry, Hillary-Billary!

On Mr Over-Chip (and here's a tip: Mr Ed is planning to make some rather more considered remarks later this year), he says that the jury is still out. He's a man of great experience, and not always in step with the, er, less forgiving wing of his party. But he's not always going to be on our side of the argument either, and let's face is he IS a Replutocrat.

Barry O, on the other fluffy foot, is NOT the messiah. We shouldn't get caught up in the great American LOVE-IN. But still, an American President who COULD go to Kenya… "…wouldn't that be great!" said Mr Ed.

Our next newcomer, Mr James Schneider, followed on by asking about world trade, and how both Mr Barry O and Ms Hillary-Billary have been getting more PROTECTIONIST.

Mr Ed talked about his trip to America – where, incidentally, he'd been to press the interests of his constituent still then caught in Guantanamo Bay – and how he'd talked to some of the policymakers on US trade. They were – disappointingly – not really bothered about the Dohar Round of World Trade talks; "incredibly uninterested" is how Mr Ed described them, instead being more concerned with bilateral agreements, e.g. with Korea and of course China.

He came away disappointed. From our point of view, the Dohar Round has the potential to be the "Development Round" and to really sort out the trade in agriculture. That requires the full engagement of the EU, he said, and that brought us back to more discussion of the Lisbon treaty which, Mr James reminded us, should – finally – let us sort out the Common Agricultural Policy.

Returning to America, Mr Ed explained that there are what he called "complicated cleavages" in the US electorate over trade. For example, the Christian Right – never normally fluffy bedfellows for us! – might be open to an appeal to help those in poverty.

He admitted to a sigh of relief that Mr John Edwards, the MOST protectionist candidate, was out of the race for the White House. Whatever his other qualities, he'd have been a DISASTER for trade.

The GOOD news, though, is that he doesn't see the remaining candidates as being nearly so bad, nor is it likely that the debate between them, or between them and Senator Oven-Chip, is likely to ratchet up the rhetoric. (Mr Schneider might disagree though, since he suggested that the candidates were competing to be toughest on NAFTA.)

Moving on to Ms Linda, she asked about the Middle East conflict and, in particular, about Israel and their treatment of Palestinians in Gaza. No other nation could get away with behaving like this, she suggested (cough cough, er, Russia in Chechnya): what risks would we take for peace in this region?

Mr Ed got serious. WE must be a campaigning party, it is true, he said, and he was one of the first to push the "we should be the 'anti-establishment party Party'" line.

But we have also got to be RESPONSIBLE. We have to behave like we are FIT to get into government, so that we WILL get into government. And we must take care not to make a bad situation worse.

"People on the other side of the planet would lack humility if they were to dictate what is right and what is wrong."

Ms Linda pressed the point that Israel has broken the convention on Human Rights, shouldn't we at least think about suspending their association with the European Union?

While certainly not ruling out looking at the issues, Mr Ed reminded us that Federal Conference passed a motion last year, a good and balanced motion supported by both Friends of Israel and Friends of Palestine, and that he intended to be guided by the party policy on this.

Our last fresh face, was Ms Merel Ece; she spoke to Mr Ed about Turkey, of where Martin Kettle recently said there is no more interesting country in Europe.

Why doesn’t the West give more recognition to how far Turkey has come, asked Ms Merel? Very kind! No mention of how much she treated Ed?

"Well, we would if we were asked more often," was Mr Ed's reply. He was fascinated by the recent suggestion of re-examining in a modern context the Muslim Hadith (the teachings of the words and deeds of the Prophet) and clearly enthusiastic about the idea for Turkey joining the EU, it would be "fantastic" he said.

He also talked about the hopes for a positive outcome from the elections in Cyprus, and renewed hopes for a lasting peace, hope that would be impossible without the support of Europe – and he mentioned how Union President Manuel Baroso was quick off the blocks to say "we're with you all the way" to the people of Cyprus.

We touched upon the Turkish army operations in Northern Iraq, and that people seemed satisfied to take the Turkish government's word that they were ONLY pursuing a "police action" and not mounting a full scale invasion! Mr Merel suggested that some of the media coverage has not been entirely impartial, but Mr Ed reminded her that when BOTH sides are calling the coverage biased, it probably means that the press are doing their job.

Having been once round the table, Mr James had another go, this time looking at one detail of the Lisbon treaty, which is that it gives the power to ratify the Commission President to the European Parliament for the first time. Wouldn't this mean that political groupings, the EPP say, might soon be campaigning on a "Presidential Platform" to support a particular candidate?

Now personally I think that Mr James is reading a bit TOO MUCH into this clause. As Mr Ed pointed out, the Parliament has the power to agree to, not to NONIMATE the President. Or more accurately ONE of the PRESIDENTS of Europe, since the Union has managed to give itself THREE.

But Mr Ed was strongly against any idea of making a "back-door elected President". If we want an elected President then we should TELL people that's what we want and go out and convince them of it. Not that Mr Ed HIMSELF was convinced!

And even if he wasn't against doing it on principle, why – he said – go out of your way to give ammunition to the "Euro Nutters". They almost never have a point; the danger is in making it look like they've actually got one?

Quickly, I jumped in, producing a "write-in" question from my Daddy Alex (who had given up his place this time to let new people have a go!). Daddy asked: how do we connect our foreign policy (where we are often seen as GOOD) to our campaigning which is the most localist of all Parties.

Mr Ed said it was a good question! (Go Daddy!)

He had TWO answers.

The first way is to find an issue that RESONATES, one that appeals to people across the board. The obvious example is of course the Iraq War, but we cannot – and don't plan to – trade on that forever.

That's why his team are working to bring forward new issues, for example a campaign for divestment from the government of Sudan (over the whole Darfur business). In fact he would have been hoping to sign off on a pack of campaigning material on that very issue if he hadn't been talking to us.

There is also the urgent menace of the totally unregulated private military security companies. Pop fact: Halliburton and other Iraq contractors employ the largest private army in the world.

These security firms are outside of almost anybody's laws and totally out of control.

Okay, you might not think those are quite the BIGGEST issues, but then he brought up the subject of worldwide disarmament that he had mentioned previously. Now THAT would be a good thing for us to get behind: working together to get rid of the threat of the BOMB is a GOOD ideal for a Liberal Party.

Mr Ed's second answer was also very Liberal. In most constituencies now there are large groups with a heritage in other countries and other parts of the world. We need to meet with those communities and take an interest in THEIR interest. We need to have the knowledge and the philosophical background to be able to talk to them, and we need to be BOTHERED to find out more about their concerns.

Ms Merel mentioned the Olympics in China, and Mr Ed said that just after Mr Spielberg made his announcement he'd had the luck to be at a conference where a speaker from Amnesty said that they would much rather there WASN'T any boycott of the games because it was going to be much easier to put PRESSURE for reform on China once all the cameras were right there pointing.

Our last question came from Mr Jonny: isn't it depressing that there has to be a Friends of Israel AND a Friends of Palestine; Britain, with good relations with both Jewish and Muslim communities, should be a good place to hold the debate, so isn't it depressing that that debate is so polarised?

These debates are polarised because of the pain and anguish that both sides have suffered, both sides have grievances, and it goes back a long long time.

But once you get over the first hurdle, once you have – and he DID say this – "Clinton-esque 'felt their pain'," then most people recognise a need for reconciliation.

Our job is to seize on that recognition, working from the bottom up as well as the top down, to find the language and make the pressure for change and understanding.

It is no good trying to impose a "this is the right thing" solution: it won't get anywhere. We'd only be serving our own selfish interests, to make ourselves feel "better".

It's frustrating, and it takes time, but it's what diplomats do day in day out, and it's the only way.

Finally, rather than finish on a sombre note, Ms Linda pulled out a SURPRISE PRESENT – yes, it was that "I'm Hot!" badge! It was her reward for his sticking to his guns in the chamber the day before. And she made him wear it for the group photo.

Over the interview, the themes of Mr Ed's foreign policy become clearer: pragmatic, cautious diplomacy, avoiding the imposed solution, but optimistic that there are many ways in which the world is getting better, and ways in which we can help that happen.

True, he is still learning on the job, and occasionally a little cautious of committing to anything in advance of thinking pretty hard about it. But that is what diplomacy is like.

As he said to us: "if peace was easy they'd have done it yesterday".

Good luck with the HARD QUESTIONS, Mr Ed!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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