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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

(written in December 2011 and published in the European magazine in January 2012)

Who would have predicted this time last year that Britain’s relationship with the European Union, normally the preserve of only the most enthusiastic Europhiles and most hardened eurosceptics would feature as one of the most high profile debates of the year at the end of 2011?

Suddenly, the general public is starting to care greatly about this now explosive issue, which could potentially cause a problem for those parties and their leaders who had not given it a whole lot of thought before the last election.

So, how do Britain’s political parties differ on their official positions on the EU? Here, we will examine the websites of the Conservatives, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats, as the three leading parties in the UK today, along with the UK Independence Party, whose vocal commitment to withdrawal from the EU has resonated well with the general public in successive elections to the European Parliament as well as recent opinion polls.

A logical place to start is with the party already responsible for managing Britain’s relationship with the rest of the EU – the Conservatives. They may depend on the coalition with the Liberal Democrats to govern, but David Cameron proved who calls the shots on Europe at December’s now infamous summit.

Their website clearly states that the official position of the Conservative party is to remain an active member of the European Union, but not sanction the transfer of any additional powers without the explicit consent of the public through a referendum. Recent opinion polls suggest, therefore, that a Conservative Britain would refuse to commit itself to continued integration, raising questions over its membership of the EU altogether.

However, the Conservatives’ website also clearly states their belief that Britain’s membership of the EU is essential to effectively responding to the global challenges of international competitiveness, climate change, and poverty. The real question therefore is which is more important to the Prime Minister and his party: working with EU member states and institutions to meet those challenges or honouring their promise to the British people; and what would they do if these two priorities came into direct conflict? Unfortunately, the website doesn’t have an answer to that one.

David Cameron’s response to the Eurozone crisis has done little to clarify matters either. On the one hand, he has consistently called for more decisive action to resolve the crisis, stating that: the stability of the euro is vital to the recovery of the British economy; resolving the crisis requires the ability to make swift decisions; and the current process of every decision being signed off by 27 separate parliaments isn’t working. However, it is also the unequivocal position of Her Majesty’s Government that as far as the UK is concerned: the Eurozone crisis is not our problem; further EU integration is a threat to parliamentary sovereignty; so all future treaties must be approved both by Parliament and by referendum.

Interestingly, the position of the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, bears a far closer resemblance to that of the official opposition, the Labour party, in so far as it is possible to discern a specific position that is. It would be far more accurate to say that when it comes to the EU, both agree with each other on the value of our membership of the EU and both disagree with the policies pursued by the Conservative party.

In spite of Labour’s best efforts to hide the fact they hold any position on the EU whatsoever by making no mention of it on their website, Ed Miliband’s condemnation of David Cameron’s veto remains there for all to see. A little more digging will also unveil a recent speech by shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, on the future on Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours, 90% of which is naturally spent re-examining the last 40 years of government policy, conveniently leaving a mere paragraph or two to outline his own vision going forward.

What is left are a series of commitments to: preventing the emergence of a two speed Europe, increasing access to the single market, retaining the social chapter, and increasing co-operation between member states on security policy for the region. All this, Alexander insists, can be achieved within the remit of existing treaties alone, an implicit pledge to match the Tories’ refusal to transfer any new powers to Brussels.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Conservatives, do have a specific section of their website (this has since been removed) devoted to explaining their position, but that is where the similarities end. Indeed this section mostly contains a long list of examples of how our membership of the EU benefits the UK that can basically be described as Labour+. They go into a little more detail though, citing: stricter regulation of the banks, a clampdown on tax evasion, the pursuit of renewable energy, and the defence of the European Arrest Warrant. The closest they come to a policy, since dropping their pledge to take Britain into the Euro, is calling for the UK’s energy supplies to be sourced solely from within the EU and the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Unfortunately, they stop short of saying if the Union in its current form is adequately equipped to achieve these goals and, if not; under what circumstances they would permit deeper integration in pursuit of them. I guess we’ll have to put that down to editorial oversight for now.

This brings us to the UK Independence Party, more commonly known as UKIP. Perhaps the most ironic thing about their website is that all four pages of their stated policies are so inextricably linked to their commitment to withdraw from the EU that it contains no formal policy on Britain’s membership of the EU itself. Comb through the four pages though and it’s easy enough to identify their key pledges. These include: a referendum on leaving the EU, the establishment of a commission to decide which EU regulations to keep and which ones to abolish, and the replacement of VAT with a local sales tax.

It goes without saying that if policy #1 backfires, #2 and #3 automatically become null and void -or do they? Indeed, the very existence of the party itself seems to be something of a paradox as of course if they actually got their way and successfully led the UK out the EU they would have little reason not to disband.

Perhaps the oddest thing about UKIP though is their strategy of pursuing their ultimate goal by getting elected to the European Parliament. To be sure, participating in the elections is a good way of raising their profile on a relevant issue. It is also politically expedient for a party that has so far failed to make any impact in a national election. What makes less sense is their decision to actually take their seats in the European Parliament, and accept the taxpayer funded salaries and perks that come with them, despite refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the parliament itself. Their defence of this is that they use their presence and their salaries to team up with like-minded euro-sceptics and punch above their weight. Power to them, but once again the paradox strikes as any success they enjoyed would only serve to prove that it is possible to exercise meaningful influence and advance the national interest from inside the EU, fatally undermining one of their most central arguments for withdrawal. Never mind, I guess it’s the thought that counts.

So what does all this tell us about the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU? All parties, except for UKIP, see clear benefits to our continued membership, but are undecided about the costs. Once more political expediency dictates that whichever party holds office take the credit for success and shift the blame for failure. So, benefits are a testament to Britain’s ability to work with its European neighbours and costs are billed as a power grab by ‘Brussels’, that monolithic symbol invoked by governments reluctant to admit they plan to obey a law they helped create. How much attention a party pays to each is a good indicator of where they stand, so at one end of the spectrum, UKIP dwells solely on the costs of membership, while the Liberal Democrats’ policy is essentially a list of all its benefits.

The advantage of what initially comes across as chronic indecisiveness across the three parties most likely to be in the driving seat over the next ten to fifteen years is the flexibility it allows each of them to make decisions on a case by case basis. However, should events overtake us as circumstances push the EU closer to realising their aspiration of ever closer union, they’ll need to come up with a long term vision of the role they want Britain to play, if any at all. I look forward to reviewing each party’s updated website when that time eventually comes.

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Do we, as free individuals, have the right to die? The answer is not clear. The law as it stands says that it is no longer a crime to commit or attempt suicide by our own hand. It also now says that friends and family who help us to die, when we no longer have the means to take our own lives, are unlikely to face prosecution. However, if we ask a medical professional to help us because our loved ones refuse, are we breaking the law?

Until last week, the answer to that question appeared to be an unequivocal yes. However, a high court ruling that granted a paralysed man facing this exact dilemma the right to consult with legal practitioners of assisted suicide, such as Dignitas in Switzerland, in order to prepare his case for legally permitting it here and identifying an individual willing to help him take his own life, has turned this conventional wisdom on its head and reopened the right to die debate yet again.

The question we must now confront as a liberal democratic society is whether we should have the right to die. Reading the heart-rendering interview with the man in question, identified only as Martin, who uses a computer to communicate as he cannot speak, it is hard not to come to the same conclusion as his wife: that while we may have no wish to directly help him end his own life ourselves, we have no right to stand in his way should he find someone who will,

What forces me to rethink this position is the assumption made by the able-bodied masses that his life is automatically not worth living because of his condition as demonstrated by the public’s reaction to the case of Frances Inglis, the woman convicted of murdering her brain damaged son in 2010. Despite the assurances from her son’s doctors that he would emerge from his coma, she decided that his life was not worth living, due to the level of brain damage he had sustained and that a mercy killing was in his best interest. While she was rightly convicted of murder, her case attracted an outpouring of public sympathy and comparisons with Kay Gilderdale, who in the same year had pleaded guilty to reluctantly assisting the suicide of her long-suffering daughter after an excruiciating battle with ME. 

Such prejudice overlooks the fact that for every Martin there  is a Marini McNeilly, whom I myself had the privilege of meeting two years ago, and whose continued optimism and zest for life are  both humbling and inspiring. The evidence too suggests that she is not alone. However, the real reason I could not support a law that permits assisted suicide is the effect it would have on those who do not even have a voice at all. Frequently derided as the slippery slope argument, it is not without merit.

In 1996, a groundbreaking study by Dr Keith Andrews found that 43% of vegetative state (awake but not aware) patients, out of a sample group of 40, had been misdiagnosed and were simply slow to recover with some just as conscious as Martin or Marini, but merely unable to communicate, including one man who had been confined to a nursing home for 8 years before the mistake was realised. 

Yet, despite the drastic improvement in the quality of treatment and rehabilitation for such people in the intervening 16 years, the misdiagnosis rate has failed to significantly improve, partly because the mainstream medical profession has yet to embrace the most modern methods of detecting awareness in locked-in patients and partly because it is far cheaper for a Primary Care Trust to send a patient diagnosed as Vegetative to a nursing home than to a specialist centre to receive the care they so desperately need. Furthermore, considering that relatives and doctors already have the authority to terminate life-support for patients deemed to have no hope of recovery, the conclusion that fully conscious individuals are at risk of being involuntarily euthanised is both disturbing and inescapable.

Any change in the law should benefit the most disadvantaged before it benefits anyone else and I fail to see how legalising assisted suicide, especially against the backdrop of modern attitudes to terminal illness and disability, would do anything other than place the misdiagnosed 43% at even greater risk. The real question facing lawmakers, therefore, is not should we have the right to die, but whether such a demand is equal to the right to life for society’s most vulnerable members, to which there is surely only one answer.

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There is something about the great British train, both underground and overground, that makes it the ideal setting to showcase the best and worst features of society, like a window into soul of the nation. The video of ‘that woman’ hurling racist abuse at one of her fellow passengers on a London tram last month, for example, has to date been viewed over 120,000 times and the culprit arrested and charged with racially aggravated harrassment. FYI, I would definitely put this into the worst features category just in case you were wondering.

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