How I will vote on Article 50...

In life, with voluntary relationships there is a clear line between the length of a relationship and the one’s attachment to it.  I have felt those 32 years acutely in the last few months as I have reflected on my own position with respect to the Liberal Democrats position on Brexit and the need for a second referendum.  But in arriving at my decision to vote against the Lib Dem position I feel that it is the fact that I am a Lib Dem – a pro-European to my core - that makes this the right thing to do.   

First, let me set out why the argument that we need a second referendum because people did not know the destination, is implausible.  People never know the destination of a course of action when they vote in a referendum – one can plausible argue that the Lib Dems, Labour or Tory voters who supported devolution for Scotland in 1998 could not have imagined an SNP government – in fact they had been told in terms that the voting system proposed for Scottish elections was designed expressly not to give any single party an overwhelming majority – yet that is precisely what they have got. 

Staying with the EU, in 1994 we were the first political party in this country to propose that the UK join the forthcoming single currency which was launched in 2001.  Had the UK joined on the back of a referendum, even with the best crystal ball, we could not have known that the Euro would be in such dire straits within its first decade.  The financial crisis, the Greek debt crisis and the woes of Spain, Portugal and Ireland could not, and were not, foreseen when we proposed repeatedly to give people their say.  People can only make a decision based on the information available when asked.  Last year there was reams of information – report after think-tank report and government papers – so the information was there for the public to see.  The Electoral Commission’s leaflet sent to every household in the land stated in stark terms ‘This is your decision.  The Government will implement what you decide’. 

Moreover, voting to make good the pledge in the Brexit referendum is the right thing for a Lib Dem to do.  Lib Dems have long argued specifically for an In-Out referendum. In February 2008, the Lib Dems tried to amend the passage of the Lisbon Treaty in the House of Commons by putting down an amendment for an In-Out referendum on the EU, whereas the other parties had promised referendums on the Lisbon Treaty and not delivered.  When it was not granted, they walked out of the Commons chamber in protest.

Again while in government we were responsible for the 2011 Referendum Act.  This law, now on the statute book, commits the UK to a referendum if any more significant powers or competencies are passed to the EU .… ever.  I am so convinced that the demands of EU integration will result in a UK referendum due to this act that as I was leading on this bill for the Lib Dems, I tried unsuccessfully to insert a ‘sunset’ clause so that the act would expire without renewal if a new government decided it was impractical.  It was folly to legislate to govern through periodic referendums or alternatively to hold the EU back from necessary steps to make changes they need to deepen integration. 

The point I am making is that our policy and practice have made us support and legislate for ‘In-Out’ or other EU measures to be put to the people.  The government have done that, but we now believe that people didn’t understand the implications so we should consult them again when we have a clearer idea.  There are several problems with this.  First, we won’t have a clearer idea of the most important thing – what the UK economy will look like - after leaving.  That will only become apparent in the next decade or more as the future relationship and new trade deals are in the longer-term future.  So the people will still not have a clear idea in two years.

But more importantly it will be so completely contradictory to what the EU, the other 27 countries envisage in terms of their understanding of A50 – that in effect that it is politically unrevokable.  There is no longer any possibility of a negotiation where the UK could go into the talks again with a set of demands on the proviso that if they are not good enough, we would have another referendum.  I say ‘again’ and ‘another’ as we have already done that. 

After the 2011 Referendum Act, David Cameron said in January 2013 that if the Conservatives won an election outright, they would negotiate a new settlement with the EU for the UK, and hold an In-Out referendum on that. So the EU has been living under the threat of a UK referendum since 2011.  The Tories won in 2015 and spent a year negotiating with the EU, securing what I think was a very good settlement.  However, we were not able to sell that to the people, and here we are.  The EU has seen the latest bout of UK inspired disruption for six years now, with a further two at least to go.   The idea that we can try the same thing again and again shows a profound misunderstanding of how the EU works, and ignorance of our partners’ patience and preoccupations.  They will not go into an A50 negotiation or give us any serious terms if they believe we will prolong the agony – theirs and ours, in the risk that we might have the same result.  In fact the contrary is likely to happen as there is already a view across the channel that what we were offered last year was too generous.  So to stop others from using the same ploy, we are like to lose some of our opt-outs and special exemptions.  To keep united, they need us to move on, so they can resolve the myriad problems confronting them and us. 

If the Lib Dem amendment passes, the Government would be better advised not to trigger A50 at all.  Perhaps that is what the country needs, but it is not what it wants.  I for one will vote on some of the amendments I think the A50 act needs, like ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of the terms and a final vote.  But I do not intend to go for another referendum after another negotiation.   We may be in danger of exhausting what goodwill exists on both sides.   So in sorrow, I will be going into another lobby from my political family after decades together, but my heart will be with them, even if my head guides me otherwise.

Why Britain needs the Armed Forces Deployment Act

The UK needs a law that governs the role of parliament in deciding on the deployment of armed forces. The current situation, in which the Prime Minister has full prerogative to go to war but choses to consult parliament is no longer fit for purpose.

The recent publication of the Chilcot Inquiry report into the Iraq war lays bare the problems that we currently face with regard to how military deployments are decided. The report goes into painstaking detail about how the country was misled with regard to the 2003 intervention, by a combination of faulty intelligence and political spin. Former PM Tony Blair may have taken ‘full responsibility’ for the decision to go to war but his half-hearted expressions of regret over the consequences this has had have done little to restore public trust in the political establishment. The 179 members of the armed forces that lost their lives in Iraq as well as their families deserve better.

We cannot undo the events of the past but it is within our powers to change the way the country decides on future matters of war and peace. On 8 July 2016 I moved a bill that would formalize the role of the House of Commons in authorizing the government to commit the armed forces to military action. We already have an unwritten convention, first introduced by Tony Blair, that Parliament should be involved in taking such decisions. Parliament has since been consulted on deployment in Libya and against so-called Islamic State in Iraq/Syria, but not in other cases where considerable loss of life has occurred (e.g. expansion of mission in Afghanistan to Helmand). However, it remains the constitutional position that the Prime Minister acts under royal prerogative and that the involvement of parliament remains at his or her discretion, without any formal rules governing decision-making.

Several political leaders and experts have now called for the formalization of this process. At the time of the Libya intervention the then Foreign Secretary William Hague made his commitment in March 2011 that the Government would move to ‘enshrine in law for the future the necessity of consulting Parliament on military action’ [Official Report, Commons, 21/3/11; col. 799]. In evidence to various parliamentary committees, many expert witnesses supported the principle of legally defining the authority of parliament in this area. It is time that we acted on this advice.

Several questions have been raised about the proposed Armed Forces Deployment Bill. None of them represent serious objections, however:

  • Would we be able to define when we face a situation of ‘armed conflict’? New technological advances such as unmanned or autonomous weapons systems are said to blur the line between war and other forms of conflict. However, as Professor Michael Clarke (RUSI) have stated, ‘death and destruction’ are usually good indicators of military conflict. In the numerous legislative acts that have been passed on counter-terrorism measures, the same question of how to define ‘terrorism’ has arisen, and yet we have been able to come up with workable definitions. We should be able to do the same in the case of war.
  • Would the act lead to tie up the military in increased legal action, thereby constraining the ability to act on the ground? As witnesses to the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee argued, courts themselves do not support an expansive interpretation of the legal constraints on military operation. Similarly, in two recent court cases concerning military operations judges considered that such matters were non-justiciable.
  • Would the act lead to interference with military’s operational decisions? I don’t think so. In the past, Parliament has questioned the government about lack of adequate support for the troops but has never concerned itself with questions of operational decision-making. In fact, Clause 3 of the proposed Act clearly defines emergency situations in which the PM would not need to seek the approval of Parliament and where the public disclosure of information would not jeopardize military operations.

The time has clearly come for the authority to go to war to be defined in a legislative act that establishes the principle of the need for Parliament’s approval except in exceptional circumstances. If there is one lesson from the Chilcot Inquiry, then it is this: when it comes to committing British soldiers to military operations abroad, and thus putting their lives at risk, full deliberation and formal decision-making powers involving Parliament are needed. 

Myanmar’s Road to Democracy: the 2015 Elections

Originally published Feb 2016 in Interlib: Journal of the Liberal International British Group

In November 2014, I visited Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy in Myanmar in order to explore how UK Lib Dems might assist NLD in their forthcoming elections. At the time it was evident that they would do very well as the groundswell of public sentiment was supportive of her, but it was thrilling to see a year later that NLD had secured an absolute majority in winning 80% of contested seats. This was the first general election Aung San fought since her 1990 victory which the Junta promptly

annulled, imprisoning her and numerous members of her party. This time, since the 8th November victory both sides have been locked in private negotiations. Earlier this week, on 1st February Myanmar opened its new parliament, swearing in the new speaker Win Myint, an NLD MP close to Aung, and the deputy speaker T Khun Myat, an army-affiliated Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) member. However, the government will not be formed until the end of March when the new president takes over from Thein Sein. Candidates for the presidency have yet to be announced.

This election is the high-water mark of the very gradual process of liberalisation that the Junta has pursued since it started the process with a referendum on a new constitution, elections in 2010, the release of political prisoners (including figures from the 1988 student demonstrations, monks who participated in the 2007 protests and ethnic minority activists). It also decriminalised gatherings of more than 5 people, legalised labour unions, allowed private ownership of the press, signed ceasefires with several armed ethnic groups, and released Aung San release from house arrest. They subsequently allowed her to enter parlia- ment as an MP in a by-election in 2012, setting in place a process which continues to bring about a transformation of Myanmar’s politics.

The western response to the reforms has been cautiously positive. In April 2012 the EU lifted its remaining trade, economic and individual sanctions - except those on arms sales. While the US took similar action in September 2012. But Burma’s reforms have not been without flaws, or backtracking; sectarianism is still present, and the enormous popularity of Aung San may, in the long term, prove problematic, particularly due to as the lack of an evident successor.

EU Observers for the 2015 election were generally positive about the vote itself commenting on the “generally well-run polling process” and respect for the secrecy of the ballot and “nearly entirely peaceful” election campaign, and the subsequent reaction of the Junta has been promisingly conciliatory. This was against a backdrop of a worsening pre-election environment in 2014 when the then UN Special Rapporteur for Burma reported “worrying signs of possible backtracking” including “intimidation, harassment, attacks, arrests and prosecution of journalists for reporting on issues deemed too sensitive or critical of those in power” and April 2015 saw multiple newspapers displaying black front pages in protest against the imprisonment and harassment of journalists.

But will the democratic aspirations of the Burmese people be met through the incremental moves to date? Significant constitutional hurdles remain. Twenty-five per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for army nominees, and it retains a veto over constitutional change, and as well as control of the key portfolios of interior, defence and border affairs. Moreover, the ban on the President having a foreign spouse or children was designed expressly to deny Aung San the top job. There are, nevertheless signs for optimism. Last June a vote in Myanmar's parliament failed to remove the army's veto. But given the large number of votes in the secret ballot in favour of removing the veto suggests that numerous USDP MPs voted for the change, indicating a loosening of the Army’s grip on the party. Similarly, comments by army chief General Min Aung Hlaing that “I think the current government cannot fulfil people’s desires. Now that people have selected a person who they think can fulfil their needs, the next thing is for the elected person to fulfil their desires”. He was coy about whether he personally expected to see Aung San as president merely stating that “the parliament must discuss any amendment to the constitution. I am not directly responsible for that”. But these remarks themselves are an advance. After all, who would have guessed 8 years ago that Burma would look like this?

But while the elections have delivered some gains, there is still unfinished business. Voting was cancelled in parts of Shan and Kachin areas due to on-going fighting, large swathes of the Muslim population of Myanmar were disenfranchised and parties, including the NLD, declined to field Muslim candidates. Promisingly the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army who hadn’t signed previous ceasefire agreements are now open to negotiation with the NLD government. And Aung San has stated that a peace process will be one of the central tasks of the new government. Disappointingly, she has retained a low profile on the ongoing Rohingya issue in Rakhine state. This predominantly Muslim group have been subject to consistent violence, forcible displacement and internment by Buddhist extremists and government forces. When I pressed her on her silence on the Rohingya at our meeting, she retreated to very general statements about the need for peace, and politics being ‘the art of the possible’. She told the BBC that Buddhist fear was borne of “a perception that global Muslim power is very great” denying that the events themselves constituted ethnic cleansing, commenting “I think there are many, many Buddhists who have also left the country for various reasons”. This quiescence may be borne of pragmatic considerations about not antagonising the Junta, or the mainly Buddhist electorate, but given the election result her judgment appears to have been vindicated. The mix of ethnic, religious and identity conflict in Myanmar makes democratic change even more challenging in her book. This may not enthuse her liberal critics, but the Burmese people seem content to see graduated change after a 25 years of authoritarianism.

A longer term concern for NLD is the role of Aung San herself. Her age (she is 70), the absence of any obvious successors and the lack of internal democracy within the NLD all point to future weaknesses. The sacking of Thein Lwin from the NLD’s auxiliary Central Committee due to his support for student protests which she opposed, and non-selection of prominent activists from the’88-generation of political protestors caused controversy among some in Burma. Since the death of Win Tin, a close aide of her, there has been less to counterbalance Aung’s magnetic personality.

Aung San’s recent statements that the elected president of Myanmar “will have no authority, and will act in accordance with the decisions of the party ... because in any democratic country, it’s the leader of the winning party that becomes the leader of the government” and that she will be “above the president” all point to the lack of internal strategy about how to deal with the Presidency issue. The more the NLD becomes a vehicle for Aung San’s personal charisma the less resilient it may be in the face of her decline or demise. Myanmar, one of the poorest nations in Asia, has a potentially bright future ahead, but it deserves a pluralistic democracy to go with it. The question is how long it will take before that form of democracy becomes the norm.

Kishwer Falkner and Natasha Rachman

Western stance affects Asian attitude on Saudis - Letter to the FT

Originally Published in the FT, 17 January 2016

Sir, Victor Mallet is right to identify the tacit tolerance of Muslim extremism by governments in South Asia, and particularly Pakistan, as dangerous (Comment, January 14). He is also correct in identifying Saudi Arabia’s pernicious influence in promoting Islamism in Asia as manifested in its most intolerant strain, Wahhabism.

However, the crucial factor unaddressed in his piece is the status of Saudi Arabia in the west, through which we send mixed signals about our own tolerance for extremist Islam. Take the case of Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in 2014. I was told by the government in the Lords Chamber last week that it was elected uncontested on an Asian ticket to the UNHRC. It would seem curious that no Asian country felt able to contest the election for Asian leadership at the UN, and indeed that the west did not do more to prevent the election of that country — informed suggestions are that western countries supported the Saudi nomination.

Moreover, when Pakistan’s parliament unusually refused to join in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, its government came under significant pressure, including the threat of withdrawal of aid from Saudi Arabia.

That the Saudis are feted in Washington and London is noted in Asia and makes it all the more difficult for Asian Muslim governments to stand up to their bullying, most recently seen in Saudi pressure on them to line up against Iran.

The gender gap at the top of the UN, and what to do about it

The last glass ceiling is still in place.  The United Nations will be 70 this year and it has never had a female Secretary-General.  2016 could be the year that a breakthrough might happen, but it won’t unless the Europeans mobilise to prevent another stich up. 

Glass ceilings are smashing all over the place.  Hillary Clinton is likely to be the Democrat’s Presidential candidate in 2016, and hey, she might even become the most important woman in the world.  On a slightly less powerful level (unless you’re Greek) the IMF has its first female head.  Even the EU can be described as being run by a woman given Angela Merkel’s authority in Europe.    Across the world two dozen or so countries have female heads – even Muslim countries, like Pakistan and Bangladesh have been led by women.

But the world’s guardian of international peace and security – the one club which can more or less order invasions of 188 countries and penalise others through sanctions if they are not permanent members of the Security Council (which are the USA, China, Russia, France and the UK) has never had a female head.

So with the UN turning 70 this year, will we see a female head in 2016 when Ban Ki-moon’s term ends?  Not unless the EU states become more assertive in their attempt to change the system of selection, and that needs to happen now. 

The procedure for selection is that any member state can nominate an individual and the Security Council, which has the five permanent members plus ten other states, makes a decision though process of elimination. Their choice is then offered to the General Assembly who accepts the nominee.   If one of the contenders (who are usually half a dozen or so), attract a veto from any of the P5 members of the Security Council, they can’t go forward.  However, a winning candidate needs only nine of the fifteen states to vote for them, as long as the P5 do not veto.  What actually happens is that the P5 members shift their position according to how the other ten non-permanent members are likely to swing, so the next session of the UN which begins in late September will be pivotal to the outcome.  Expect a lot of horse trading. 

So why has no woman been in the frame in the past?  Very simply, the candidate is expected to be a senior figure from their country who is no longer in office, a big ask as senior women in politics have only become a recent phenomenon.  The likes of Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Cathy Ashton, Edith Cresson (former French PM for those who don’t remember her unmemorable tenure) or Christine Lagarde, cannot count as the P5 states don’t themselves put up a candidate as a rule.  So the field of female candidates has been fairly thin on the ground till the last decade or so, and since the Secretary General usually serves for two five-year terms there really hasn’t been an opportunity till now.

But this time there is a wealth of female talent from across the world.  There is a former female Heads from the Eastern European countries, two heads of UN agencies (UNESCO and UNDP) who are female, and several senior EU Commissioners as well as one or two senior individuals from the UN itself, without even taking into account other prominent women politicians from wider afield.

But the election system is still a stich up:  First, there is the regional ‘buggins turn’.  So you get one or two candidates from each region of the world.  On that basis, given that the last four have been Latin America (Perez de Cuellar) Middle East (Boutros Ghali), Africa (Kofi Annan) Asia (Ban Ki-moon), it seems that it is probably Europe’s turn.  Hence the importance of the Europeans getting together to push the boat out for a female head.  One problem is that the weird way that UN draws its regional map means that countries like Australia and New Zealand get cast as ‘Western European or Other’ meaning that the pool of candidates can include them on the Europe ticket. The ‘regional’ quota is nonsense.  On my map of the world, Boutros Ghali and Annan both came from Africa, so after Ban Ki-moon if we get an Australian on a European ticket (Kevin Rudd is in the frame) then it will clearly a job hogged by Asia-Pacific for 20 years by the time that tenure ends. 

There are other problems with the UN selection system. Two five-year terms of office are too long.  If you can’t fix a war or other major problem in 5 years, then a reformed system should give you one terms of seven years max.  That would allow for a more capable Secretary –General to come in faster.    

And the voting system which is so arbitrary is clearly inadequate.  The P5 have paralysed attempts to solve too many problems due to their geo-political interests.  Their votes should not cast an absolute veto, but perhaps should be weighted to have more clout than the non-P5 but not absolute power which leads to their favouring the ‘lowest common denominator’ candidate.  The then is the issue of the other ten countries which will have schmoozed their regional partners to get on the SC in an appointment year (2015-16).  They will have made all sorts of promises to their supporters in the region, and will therefore back the candidate ‘for’ their region, rather than the best one for the job.  Does this sound a little like … FIFA.  Well the analogy is tempting. 

So what is needed is a more transparent system through a selection panel and evidence sessions with the five leading candidates.  Even if the SC has the final say, let them not hide behind anonymity when the world gets stuck with an ineffective leader.  But those who want to break this glass ceiling can’t sit idly by.  We need to mobilise our governments to actively build a bloc to support a woman from the EU, or indeed any other region if she is capable.  The point is that we can only change the system if the EU works together, and then to use that clout to push others in a similar direction. 

As I write there are at least five wars going on – some in their fifth year, yet the UN is absent from any serious attempts at peace-making.  We also know that it will be a slate of five men (the P5 heads) who will select the next incumbent, from a slate of 5-6 men, unless we do something about it.  International peace and security is too important to let this continue this way.

posted 3 June 2015