Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Shock and Awe - Confessions of an Anti-War Campaigner

It's hard to imagine it is 10 years since that fateful day we found ourselves dragged into an immoral, illegal, unjust war. Last night I was in the Palace of Westminster for a Defence Working Group meeting - reflecting on that day, 10 years earlier, when myself and three friends had sat through the debate which sealed the fate of thousands.

Yas, Avais, Sharon and I had got tickets through our local MP Patrick Hall and found ourselves on the front row in the gallery, directly above the Lib Dem benches. I had been distraught at what was happening and had been agonising about what I could possibly do to protest. I'd looked into the possibility of absailing into the chamber to make my point - but had been persuaded that wasn't the safest thing to do. Instead, Yas suggested we took red paint in to make our point. Both being somewhat 'well-endowed' we concealed bags of red powder paint in our bras and nervously awaited an opportunity to make our point. 

Anyone who listened to that debate will agree there were some magnificent speeches, not least by John McDonnell. So magnificent was his indeed that Sharon couldn't help but respond by standing up, holding onto the railings and shouting down into the chamber "I absolutely agree with everything that gentleman has said. The British people don't believe your lies......' As many in the public gallery and then chamber broke into spontaneous applause the men in white tights rushed over and carried her away. The men in white tights then came and surrounded Yas, Avais and myself - warning us that if we continued applauding we too would be removed. It was at that point Yas whispered to me "I'm chickening out. I've got 14 unpaid parking tickets and I don't want to get arrested!" I thought long and hard about what to do - this was shortly after the anthrax incidents and I 
confess, the sensible side of my nature got the better of me - not least because I was sitting directly above Simon Hughes' and it wasn't him I was angry with! But however ill advised such a demonstration may have been, it merely showed just how utterly powerless most of us felt in the face of such blatant lies and deceit.

For me the most disturbing memory of that evening was seeing Blair and Straw laughing and patting each other on the back at the end of the debate. Even if they genuinely believed they were right, the fact that they had just condemned so many Iraqi and British sons and daughters to certain death I felt called for a rather more solemn response. My later encounter with John Reid rather reinforced my view that parliament had been well and truly hoodwinked.

As we sat up waiting for operation 'Shock and Awe' I exchanged emails with my pal who was defence correspondent for the Telegraph at the time. 'If he's got them (WMD) why isn't he using them?' I asked. 'He's waiting til they get to Bhagdad' was his reply.

As soon as news broke that the attack had begun Sharon and I met in the middle of 
Bedford with the black crepe ribbons we had prepared to tie round the lamp posts as a mark of our horror at what had happened. As a councillor at the time I managed to get a 
debate - but sadly couldn't persuade the Mayor to agree to fly the flags at half mast. We had an active STWC group in Bedford so were able to arrange a number of demonstrations and meetings. 

Before the war started I found myself in a spot of bother at work (I was a Youth Service Manager at the time) since I had passed on an email about student action to Richard Angell (now of Progress) who was the regional officer for the Youth Parliament at the time. He had passed it on to the local MYPs one of whom had shown his head teacher. The fact that my name was on it (I was Weerasirie at the time so immediately identifiable) lead to the local press being involved and my boss threatening me with a disciplinary - not helped when my then 16 year old daughter lead her whole school out in protest - er.....with a name like Weerasirie it was rather obvious we were related! But I was immensely proud of her when the following week, along with her pal Amber, she spoke at the People's Assembly - thus began an interest in challenging injustice that has lasted to this day. 

Ten years on I am surprised at how little attention this anniversary has attracted. Yesterday on Today we heard from one of our ex servicemen who is still suffering from PTSD and is homeless. We haven't even been able to properly care for our own let alone the countless thousands still suffering in Iraq because of a war conducted on a false prospectus. 

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

What the Lib Dem's Stand For. My response to Alex Wilcock's Meme

Never knowingly one to shirk a challenge I was delighted to get an email from Alex Wilcock inviting me to join his Meme restating what we as a party stand for. I am someone who constantly quotes the preamble to our constitution – and have only just returned from speaking at an International Women’s Week event, where I quoted it to explain why I am a member and to underline the importance of matching political allegiance with personal values. 

I didn’t have a lot to argue with about what Alex has already said. The challenge though it seems to me, is saying something which doesn’t turn out to be a truism. Trying to incorporate the Ryan Cotzee shorthand of “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” is slightly problematic for me, to use that old test, would anyone sign up to the opposite – “Weaker Economy, Less Fair Society”? Fair can be a bit of a weasel word in so many ways which is why I appreciate the preamble because it actually explains what we have in mind. After all, many Tories think fairness is about getting rid of inheritance tax and cutting benefits to the most vulnerable. 

Like Alex I love the line “no-one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” which underpins everything I believe, along with our commitment to equality. This brings me to the issue many of us are struggling with at the moment – it is no good having a statement of beliefs if it isn’t reflected in our values, and no good claiming to hold core values if they aren’t reflected in our actions. That is what should define us, that is what should determine our priorities. 

So if I were to try and encapsulate the essence of who we are and what we stand for it would be this. 

We believe that everyone should have the opportunity to thrive and make their most of their lives, free to do as they choose so long as it doesn’t harm others, free from those obstacles that prevent them from enjoying their lives such as poor health, discrimination, injustice, living in poverty or fear. We believe that the state’s role in this is three-fold. Firstly to be a safety net, protecting us by providing public services such as the health, fire and police services, the welfare state, adequate regulation to protect us as consumers, employees and employers, access to justice whoever you are. Secondly to provide a ladder – through education and other opportunities to develop our full potential. Thirdly by ensuring the right infra-structure is in place, through for example road and transport networks, housing, or the right environment for business to develop. That is why as Liberal Democrats we are committed to policies that achieve those ends, that ensure those with the most contribute more, recognising that a fairer, more equal society is good for all of us. 

And now I’d like to hand over the baton to the following: