Tag Archives: referendums

Why does the Advertising Standards Authority regulate e-petition campaigns but not referendums?

It is great to see that the Advertising Standards Authority has cracked down on Paul Staines for misleading advertising as part of his campaign in support of his death penalty e-petition. It is not immediately clear however why the ASA feels it has a regulatory role here while it doesn’t have a role in regulating referendum adverts, on the basis of “freedom of speech”.

Election advertising is at least covered by legislation and the courts, something to which Miranda Grell and Phil Woolas can testify. With referendums however, it is a total free for all. At least in the case of elections however, the ASA does issue guidelines. In the case of the referendum, it refused to do even that.

So why does the ASA feel it doesn’t have a role here? As far as I can tell there is nothing in statute which prevents it from having a role and there is certainly no principled difference between regulating referendum and e-petition ads. Both are about influencing public policy; both are affected by freedom of speech.

What’s more, there is a question of significance. While a misleading advert to promote an e-petition might lead to a few extra signatures, it won’t change government policy. Influencing a referendum result with garbage, by contrast, has a significant impact on legislation and the government of the day. One could understand if the ASA had better things to do than to waste its time with Staines; it is harder to see how a referendum isn’t worth its time.

But perhaps it is Staines’ minnow status which is telling here. Cracking down on a small front organisation is pretty elementary; standing up to the combined Conservative establishment and Labour old guard is an altogether more daunting prospect. The decision is only explicable when you look at it in terms of expediency, but that doesn’t make it any more respectable.

Either way, regardless of what the next referendum happens to be on, this loophole in the law urgently needs sorting out. Because next time, it might be a referendum on the death penalty – in which case expect Stains and company to dredge out all the misleading nonsense they’ve just had their knuckles rapped over and worse.

The people have spoken. The eejits.

Actually, contrary to what the above headline might imply (I couldn’t resist), I’m actually quite sanguine about the Irish “no” vote on Thursday. I’m not at all convinced that Europe has been “saved” by the Irish or that the Lisbon Treaty was anything other than a moderate and sensible reform, but this latest chapter in EU reform has been farcical from beginning to end and I pray dearly that it will soon be over.

The fundamental problem is that, since the mid-eighties we have had one EU reforming treaty after another. As soon as one is out of the way, and often before, work on another has begun. It has been a case of not so much salami slice politics as cheese slab politics. It has alienated large numbers of pro-EU people and switched the vast majority of the European public off completely.

The result is a paradox whereby a minority of hardcore Euro-sceptics have been able to hold sway. They have no popular support – look at iwantareferendum‘s futile attempt to get even 46,000 supporters after spending millions of pounds over the past year. Yet when referendums are held in the most pro-EU countries – France, the Netherlands, Ireland – the “nos” hold sway. This isn’t opposition; this is alienation.

The solution then is obvious: have a moratorium on further EU reform, at least on anything that would require a treaty change, for at least a decade. That isn’t to say that a lot of the good things in the constitution couldn’t still go ahead. We could still have Council meetings in public. We could still give the Parliament a more central role in selecting the President. We could still operate the “yellow card” system and ensure that national parliaments are sent legislation in a more timely manner. We could still operate the system of Citizen’s Initiative. I struggle to believe that even the most swivel-eyed of Eurosceptic would oppose any of that (go on, surprise me…), and it would a lot to calm tensions.

Is there really anything this treaty would have achieved that a bit of self-restraint wouldn’t replicate? One of the main reasons why I supported the Constitution was that it would end France’s veto on the CAP, but the truth of the matter is there is nothing to stop France from voluntarily giving this up. Except, of course, the French. Frankly, if they were willing to give up the veto, they should be prepared to consider the fact that agribusiness subsidies no longer have a place in a planet which is currently suffering from mass starvation. Either way, if reforms are necessary then which ones will become apparent from attempting to implement the status quo rather than insisting that at all times EU governance must be perfect both in practice and in theory.

What we must oppose, strongly, is the appalling idea of a multi-speed Europe in which “Perfidious Ireland” is shut out of Club Class. Oddly, I find that my villain of the week is not Declan Ganley (back in Westminster to answer to his paymasters before the dust has even begun to settle in Dublin), but Will Hutton. What a vile piece of steaming crap he belched forth in the Observer this Sunday. Rather than make a single argument as to why the Constitution/Reform Treaty is so necessary, he actually called for Ireland to be given one last chance to get the “right” answer before being kicked out of the EU! If that is how Club Europe is to treat its members in future, send me my 51st State application form in the post tomorrow.

Let’s not forget that Ireland has steered every other treaty through a referendum up until Nice with nary a problem. According to Hutton’s logic, that is only explainable if you work on the basis that Amsterdam, Maastricht and the Single European Act were the sort of treaties that “Hitler and Mussolini” would approve of. Shouldn’t we consider the fact that Ireland is having increasing problems getting such treaties past its public as a warning sign?

If a canary drops dead at the bottom of a mineshaft, you don’t insist the miners should keep digging on the basis that it is only very little compared to the strapping lads working on the coal seam. You get them out of there as quickly as possible. The reflexive reaction of too many pro-Europeans to want to shoot the messengers just demonstrates why a cooling off period is so necessary. Instead of continuing to bash their collective heads into a brick wall, it is time the leaders of the EU got on with the job of governing.

The referendum question

I have to admit to remaining of the view that if the Lib Dems are in favour of a referendum on our continued membership of the EU, which we apparently are, then if that option looks as if it will get nowhere (which it does) we should be supporting the next best option, a referendum on the Reform Treaty. The fact that we’ve consistently failed to enthuse the public about the EU should not be a reason for refusing to face the music.

But if I don’t quite get Clegg’s line, Cameron’s line is even more inconsistent. Why this fig leaf about a referendum? If the Tories are opposed to the Reform Treaty, which when you read between the lines they clearly are, then why not simply say so? Why push for a national referendum, at great public expense, when a simple no vote in Parliament would save us all a lot of time and money?

It is pure oppositionism – opposing the government for the sake of opposition. The purpose of a referendum in this context (since it isn’t citizen-initiated) is to ratify a decision of Parliament; but if Parliament doesn’t make that decision then we don’t require a referendum.

The Tories have always been the opponents of referendums. They now present themselves as champions, but look a little closer. With the Reform Treaty, they are seeking to give the public a vote on an issue that they oppose and calculate the public do to. With their proposals over council tax, they will only permit a public vote if a local authority exceeds a “trigger threshold” (or as it is currently known, a cap) set by the (Tory) government. Referendums have their place as a way to hold the government of the day to account; but when they are used by government to simply make themselves look popular they are a blatant abuse of taxpayer’s money. It is the politics of Napoleon or indeed Nazi Germany.

There are two ways you can arguably use referendums legitimately – to ratify a constitutional change or at the behest of a significant proportion of the public. You might oppose both uses of referendums, but the dangers inherent of allowing governments to pick and choose as it suits them must surely be worse? Even the much maligned Hugo Chavez doesn’t do that.

You might be uncomfortable with the thick authoritarian streak running through Labour, but Cameron’s weakness for despotism is potentially far worse.

even less EXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 2)

I meant to get this finished on Wednesday but I went to a meeting at the Telegraph offices to hear the usual suspects talk about political blogging instead – yet again I was the only Lib Dem in the village. The only one who didn’t seem enamoured with the Power Of The Blog was Alex Hilton who did a good presentation about what a blog through the medium of handing out newspapers in which he basically said that the best bloggers are infectious.

Oh, and before I get any more comments, blog posts or emails, I do now know what the word amanuensis means now. Sheesh! Is my face red. But I digress.

Overcoming the media narrative

My turn at last. After asking a cheeky question about whether herding politicians was closer to herding economists or journalists (answer: I haven’t been given the job yet; ask me after I’ve been elected!), I got onto more weighty matters. Journalists tell stories and the story they seem to have already decided upon if Chris gets elected is of those perfidious Liberal Democrats, having been given a golden opportunity to elect a great messiah in the form of Nick Clegg, out of their perversity instead opted for a greying economist who is unable to communicate. This isn’t my view, but it certainly seems to be the story that certain journalists seem intent on telling, and having seen Ming Campbell try and fail to escape the media preconceptions I’m concerned that Chris won’t be able to either.

Chris’ response was to point out that journalism has an “inbuilt balancing mechanism” – if a lot of people take one point of view then a lot of others will turn around and rubbish it. He cited Jackie Ashley’s column this week arguing against “pretty boys” leading political parties.

He went on to talk about Tony Blair, a politician who was always very good at presentation but incapable at delivery. By contrast, he suggested that what the public want is a party that is more about substance than style and who they can rely upon to deliver.

Alex Wilcock intervened and asked another supplemental, suggesting that another part of the media’s narrative about Chris is that he is rich, a former journalist and a politician from Brussels and this is at odds with his exhortation for the party to be anti-establishment.

Chris’ answer was to state that being anti-establishment (anti-establishmentarian?) is a frame of mind. Being establishment means ultimately being concerned more about running things and not rocking the boat. Looking at it from a business perspective, he argued, all successful businessmen are in one sense “anti-establisment” – Bill Gates taking on IBM being a good example.

Being anti-establishment is ultimately being about wanting change; the Lib Dems must be the little boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes.

My view: he answered Alex’s question better than mine, and subsequently to a large degree addressed by concerns. He spoke with passion and articulately. Frankly this was the answer I wanted to hear and although I remain concerned that in the short term the party would be pillioried in the press for electing Chris and thus making the “wrong” decision, he has the wherewithal to address that swiftly and effectively.

The Tax Question

Richard asked the simple question: is it time we started saying it’s time to start cutting taxes?

Chris certainly agreed that the time has come to state that taxes should not increase further, and that as things moved on the case for tax cuts may increase. But ultimately, he asserted, this issue is more counter-productive than any other.

The debate which has been waged between Labour and the Tories over tax and spend over the last forty years has been set against a background in which taxation has by and large hovered at around 40%, give or take a bit.

The real debate, Chris argued, is about accountability rather than the level of taxation; that means decentralisation. And it is on this issue that the Lib Dems stand head and shoulders above the other two parties.

My response: a good, clear, succinct answer that turns the question around back onto firm Lib Dem turf. This was clearly a question that Chris has been asked a lot!

Drugs Policy

Jonny asked what, in practical terms, Chris would spell out a Lib Dem policy on drugs.

Chris answered that drugs policy should be based on scientific advice and that the present categorisation system should be reformed. Secondly, he said that we must take a more medical view on people addicted to hard drugs and that they should be able to access treatment rather than being forced to steal. Ultimately however, he didn’t go down the libertarian line of legalising all drugs although he respected that as a legitimate position to take, on the basis that he feels that drug users do fail the “harm principle” – tearing apart families and communities.

Jonny intervened, pointing out that although Chris was saying that policy should be based on medical advice, that would mean politicians following the advice not individuals themselves; how does that square with a commitment to decentralisation? Chris’ response was to reiterate that drug use can harm others, to which Jonny pointed out that the same could be said of alcohol.

Chris’ answer to that was to point out that alcohol has become socially accepted, for better or worse, in the way that the use of other drugs has not. He conceded that we need to rethink our approach to alcohol and ensure that people are aware of the dangers, particularly since the price of alcohol has been dropping as a percentage of real income (an issue that cannot easily be addressed due to how easy it is to avoid excise duties these days), but that ultimately it must be dealt with seperately from other drugs.

My view: a very wishy-washy answer I’m afraid. Didn’t address the issue of cannabis and other soft drugs at all. His justification for treating alcohol differently was completely at odds to his previous statement about basing drugs policy solely on scientific evidence. I’m afraid he didn’t appear to have thought through this answer at all.

Still, if he’d called for ecstasy to be legalised you can bet it would have been splashed all over the newspapers by now. From what I’ve seen, Nick Clegg’s answer would have been no different. This is a third rail issue and until it loses some of its poison (to mix a metaphor), politicians in their position will be wary of engaging with the issue in a meaningful manner. At least his monarchy answer was more robust however.

The EU Reform Treaty

Paul Walter asked whether, assuming the Lib Dems’ proposal for a referendum on EU membership was defeated in the House of Commons, the party should vote against the Conservative amendment calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty.

Chris’ answer was yes. His argument is that because the UK has been so successful in negotiating opt-outs for itself, blocking the treaty now – and thus depriving the other member states of a treaty they support – would be “totally dishonest”. But he restated the Ming Campbell line of a referendum on EU membership on the basis that this would a ex post facto way of ratifying the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty which had a profoundly greater impact on British sovereignty.

He went on to point out that the party that has real problems over Europe is the Conservatives. David Cameron knows that he daren’t be drawn on the subject of whether he would call a referendum after Lisbon had been ratified because he knows he would either have to go down the messy route of renegotiation or support a referendum on EU membership which will split the Conservative Party top to bottom.

Alex intervened again at the point asking Chris whether he would support a referendum if a million people signed a petition calling for a referendum on the Reform Treaty given Chris’ support for a People’s Veto.

After a digression about the People’s Veto itself (preaching to the choir on this one), Chris’ answer was that if the People’s Veto was in place then such a referendum would have to happen but that his personal position remains to hold a referendum on the wider issue of membership.

My view: While I’ve argued extensively on this blog against this position (although I’m ultimately really not that fussed about the policy for holding a referendum on EU membership), I have to admit that Chris has a really strong argument here. If Ming had given a robust answer like this back in September, there would have been much less fallout. Once again I’m drawn to the fact that on a number of issues Chris has a clearly thought out, consistent answer. I might not wholly go along with it, but I can’t dismiss it. He could even change my mind. That’s a powerful skill.

Raising the Profile of Local Government

Mary asked what Chris would do to raise the profile of local government, particularly within the party.

Chris’ answer was simple: give them more power and control over public services.

He emphasised the number of Lib Dem group leaders that were supporting his campaign, suggesting that they did so because they respected his commitment to local government. He pledged to promote the party’s success in local government and pointed out that the party needed a strong local base to get MPs elected.

My view: not much new or of substance here.

The Elephant Question

Finally Richard asked whether the Bird of Liberty should be replaced by the elephant. After a bit of waffle, Chris answered by asking how the “Elephant of Liberty” managed to become such a preeminent part of the Liberal Democrats when his relatives in the United States are associated with the forces of darkness.

My view: a good ad lib there.

OVERALL: What mainly impressed me was the comprehensiveness and clarity of most of Chris’ answers. He managed to keep the waffle and evasiveness down to a minimum. I didn’t like his drugs answer but that is even less of a decisive factor for me than Trident. By contrast the way he handled the monarchy question and the question about the EU referendum was astute and to the point.

The most significant factor for me about this interview is that it massively reduced my fears about what would happen if we elected the candidate of whom the media did not approve. For all his criticisms for being too cerebral and lacking the popular touch, Chris demonstrated an ability to sell himself in a warm and passionate manner. Voting for him feels like a much less risky thing to do after this interview than it did beforehand.

I regret that we didn’t ask him about the wisdom of making Trident such a central issue, about Nick Clegg’s valid criticisms about the way we approach the environment and about how we can convince the public about the Lib Dem approach to law and order. Hopefully there is still time to have these issues addressed.

Direct Democracy in Australia

I will simply note Jeremy Hargreaves‘ and Paul Walters‘ recent articles on Ming’s opposition to holding a referendum for now as I don’t have time to fillet them at the mo.

Meanwhile however, via Direct Democracy, I note that the Lib Dems’ sister party in Australia – the Democrats – are calling for citizen-initiated referendums at the moment. Senator Andrew Murray writes:

While recognising that Australia is a representative democracy and supporting what that entails, I support direct democracy in defined circumstances because it promotes popular engagement with the political process on questions of public importance, particularly in matters that affect people immediately and specifically.

Increasingly we need to recognise that local people are best served when they are able to determine what happens in their own backyard, whether it is the placement of a pulp mill, the location of a nuclear power plant, or the amalgamation of their local council with another.

Embarrassingly for us, he goes on to quote David Cameron approvingly, as if he is the leading the vanguard of democratic reform in the UK. In truth, even the relatively radical Direct Democracy group are fairly cautious when it comes to citizen initiated referendums, and Cameron doesn’t even go that far. The fact that he finds common cause with Cameron is partly to embarrass Cameron’s fellow (small-c) conservative John Howard, but its is nonetheless embarrassing (for me, at least) that the Lib Dems are unable to say to them “us too!”

Why Ming is quackers about the EU referendum

looney tunes – rabbit fire

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You can forget Tom and Jerry. For me, the best cartoon double act of all time is Bugs and Daffy.

The thing is, I’ve always had a soft spot for the underdogduck. It’s not that I have anything against transvestites you understand, but I always found Bugs to be unbearably smug and utterly cynical, appealing to Elmer’s worst nature.

Daffy on the other hand, despite always ending up on the business end of a shotgun, has a sort of everymanfauna appeal. Sure, he loses his temper every once and a while. Sure, you always know he’s onto a loser. Sure, he can be a conniving little sod at times. And yes, he is often the agent of his own downfall. But you can’t help but sympathise with the guy.

Why am I mentioning all this on a blog post about the EU referendum? Well, because those classic Bugs-Daffy-Fudd cartoons remind me a lot of the level of debate surrounding the EU. Elmer is the voter, Bugs is the Eurosceptics and Daffy is the Europhiles. Depressingly, Bugs always gets the better of Daffy. Daffy meanwhile never seems to realise he’s onto a loser playing Bugs’ game and never changes tac (except for when he tries to be clever and ends up being hoist on his own petard). All too often, the debate degenerates into the equivalent of “Rabbit season! Duck season! Rabbit season! Duck season!” At no point does Daffy sit Elmer (who is a vegetarian for God’s sake!) down and attempt to reason with him. No wonder the voter often ends up losing his rag and gunning for both sides of the debate.

Sadly for the Lib Dems, Ming Campbell has now done the equivalent of wearing a Daffy-style “shoot me now!” sign. In an interview with the FT, he’s leapt to Gordon Brown’s defence arguing that a referendum on the EU Reforming Treaty is “not necessary“:

Lib Dem support for a poll could even have threatened Mr Brown’s Commons majority on the issue and piled on the pressure for a vote that many believe the prime minister would lose.

But Sir Menzies, a “pro-European”, told the Financial Times the new EU reform treaty was “sufficiently different” from the original constitution to avoid the need for a plebiscite. He said the only case for a public vote would be on a much broader “in or out” question about Britain’s membership of the EU, to prompt a serious national debate on Europe.

However, such a question is unlikely to be put by any government in the near future. “My judgment is a referendum is not necessary on this document,” he said in an interview ahead of next week’s Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. “But if we were to have a referendum, then it is worth considering a more fundamental referendum, in a sense of being in or out.”

A formal decision on the party’s position will be taken after Mr Brown signs a final treaty text at an EU summit in Lisbon next month, but few believe it will differ greatly from the draft agreed in Brussels in June.

What depresses me most about this statement is that he has chosen to parrot the government line that the reforming treaty is “sufficiently different” from the constitutional treaty to not warrant a referendum. Stung by sneering about “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” from the sceptics, many pro-Europeans have adopted the tactic of giving the treaty rabbit ears and pretending it is of another genus completely.

This will not do. Just because the UK doesn’t have a document called “the constitution” it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have one. In lieu of a single document called “the constitution” (or even “the constitutional treaty”), the EU still has a constitution: it is the collected treaties since Rome. The debate gets even more stupendous when Europhiles insist that is can’t possibly be a constitution because it doesn’t refer to a flag or a national anthem. That leaves the US constitution a bit fucked, doesn’t it?

Europhiles could go around calling the sceptics’ bluff, pointing out that we already have a constitution which by opposing this reform, they in effect support. Instead, they seem to be dedicated to playing the sceptics game. I don’t understand it.

What’s worse, exactly the same thing happened in the 90s. The Eurosceptics started muttering darkly about “federalism” and the Europhiles promptly started denying that they had any federalist leanings; you could be forgiven for thinking they misheard “pederast”. Federalism is a perfectly sensible system of government. So sensible in fact that the self-same Little Englanders who purport to hate it so much at an EU level are now demanding a federal UK (of course, they want a woefully lopsided federation, but that is for another debate). Federalism in an EU context means, among other things, a way of finally reforming dreadful inter-governmental nonsenses such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. Eurosceptics like to emphasise how much they hate such things, yet seem to hate even more the prospect of reforming them.

Another example of the sceptics nonsense: they constantly go on about the EU undermining Parliamentary sovereignty, yet they demand a referendum. Fact: referendums undermine Parliamentary sovereignty. If our Parliamentary system is so perfect, how come it has lead to this situation occurring? They manage to simultaneously despise the government and call for it to be trusted to look after our best interests. They claim to defend democracy while insisting our voices should be drowned out by governments at a trans-national level.

As has so often been pointed out, with the exception of Euronihilists such as UKIP they have no Plan C. They don’t offer any solution for what the EU should do if this reforming treaty were to fall. They don’t have a meaningful contribution to make at all.

So why have they been allowed to dominate the public debate for so long? Simple: pure cowardice on the part of the pro European movement. Stung by the disastrous debacle that was Britain in Europe which, among other things, lead to the virtual demise of the European Movement (the organisation), they have become utterly petrified of calling the sceptics’ bluff. They have come to regard the public as the mob – a dangerous rabble that politicians need to protect “us” from. In fairness to them, we are to understand that they have launched a “Coalition for the Reform Treaty” but they are so disdainful of the public that they haven’t even bothered with a website.

People like Andrew Duff are quick to point out the complexity of the treaty and how impossible it would be for the general public to deliberate on it. Surely, if it cannot be explained in layman’s terms, it is pretty much indefensible? Indeed, don’t we expect the public to deliberate between party manifestos? What’s simple about that? In any case, what magical qualities do our MPs have that enables them to make the decision on our behalf?

One of my favourite anecdotes is that in the run up to the Danish referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, a research company did a poll which revealed that the average member of the public knew more about the content of the treaty than the typical non-specialist MP. Give people a say and, generally speaking, they take the trouble to inform themselves.

In a sense, Ming is correct: it may well be more useful and meaningful to have a referendum on EU membership than on this reforming treaty and if that is what he had called for yesterday, I wouldn’t have a problem. But even here he hedged his bets.

My own view is that while a referendum on EU membership may be preferable (although Jonathan Calder makes some interesting arguments against), it won’t fly. That being the case, given the choice between a referendum on the treaty and no referendum at all, I say go for the referendum. From my perspective there is no down side: either the public approves the treaty, or it doesn’t. If you’re a democrat and a Europhile there is a Plan C: the sort of meaningful public debate we were promised when the constitutional treaty was first mooted and never got (maybe then George Monbiot can get his wish). From a tactical Lib Dem position it is a no-brainer as well: either Brown will hold firm and we can be holier than thou, or he’ll capitulate and we’ll look like we forced him into it.

Either way, the bottom line must be that if the European project is to be sustainable, it is crucial that the political class carries the public along with it. Every time they pretend they can bypass the public on this, they cause long term damage and further alienation. Treat the public like children and they will behave like children. Treat them with respect and they may just start listening to you. Ultimately, as I wrote on Lib Dem Voice on Sunday, you are either “drawbridge up” or “drawbridge down”. If you believe the public are incapable of making a correct decision without politicians intervening, then it isn’t just referendums you ought to be questioning; its elections as well.

A referendum on this single treaty won’t solve everything. It may be that we just need to take a hit so the public, denied a voice for so long, can vent its frustrations once and for all. If we have a referendum though, we will no longer be able to simply indulge in arguing semantics. I would like to be on the side which argues for giving national parliaments a greater say on EU policy, for an EU citizens’ initiative and for reform of the CAP and CFP. Wouldn’t you? What’s stopping us?

The sad answer to that last question is Ming Campbell. If it looks like a lame duck and quacks like a lame duck…?

Nuff respec’ to:

…with apologies to any I might have missed.

Simon Jenkins: how many points can one person miss?

I suspect that one of the things that most irks Simon Jenkins is that despite the fact that he clearly loathes the Lib Dems, so many of us have a grudging affection for the old git (okay, not all of us). Maybe we’ll end up killing him with kindness. His article in the Guardian today is a real shame because while the first half is dreadfully woolly headed hack journalism, he does actually have an important point to make.

Okay, first the dreadful hack stuff:

Ask a Liberal Democrat what he or she is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes.

Ask the member of any political party in the abstract what they are for and you will get platitudes. Clause 4 is one long list of platitudes. The Conservative Party’s Big Brain Oliver Letwin got enormous publicity for his speech yesterday that sought to define his party with lots of platitudes.

The “what are the Lib Dems for?” rhetorical question is a peculiar one because it would appear that we are the only party who are required to answer it. In truth, all parties struggle to develop meaningful narratives and definitions. At best, parties can only articulate their principles with the broadest of brushes. When Letwin claims that the Conservatives are essentially a pragmatic party, the fact remains that all mainstream parties are fundamentally a mixture of pragmatism and ideology. The precise balance at any one time varies depending on a whole range of factors. That doesn’t make his point wrong – Labour and the Lib Dems are broadly more idealistic than the Tories – but it does suggest that no crude delineation will ever be sufficient.

So to answer Jenkins’ question with an inevitable platitude, the Lib Dems are about freedom. We might disagree from time to time about how much emphasis to put on economic, social and political freedoms. Occasionally – like all other parties – we may lose the plot entirely; we certainly have a problem persuading certain people at the top of the party to talk about such things. Similarly, Labour are ‘for’ social justice, the Tories are ‘for’ continuity and the status quo. If anything they have been less consistent over the past two decades than we have.

In Scotland the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, has decided it would be inappropriate to maintain Labour in power yet has told Alex Salmond’s nationalists he will not coalesce with him. He cannot tolerate a referendum on independence. That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd. Nor was Salmond demanding support for independence, merely for a vote on it. Under PR there is a majoritarian argument against almost any controversial decision. So what do the Lib Dems fear? Instead they have exchanged responsibility without power for power without responsibility, and are retiring to carp from the backbenches. They will smoke potency but not inhale.

Here, Jenkins gets very confused as this paragraph directly contradicts his later assertion that we shouldn’t have anything to do with coalitions in the first place. But to answer his point (which is being made in lots of other places at the moment I notice), Nicol Stephen is correct to hold out against an independence resolution because that is what his party has just been elected on a platform on. You can guarantee that the same voices denouncing us for not going into coalition with the SNP on this basis would be just as shrilly condemning us if he had done so (indeed Jenkins’ article does read as if he wrote it before the party ruled out coalition thus requiring him to shoehorn in an alternative reason for having a dig).

Why are we any more spoilers on this issue than Labour or the Tories? If a vote on independence is such a trivial matter, why isn’t Annabel Goldie not being denounced for not cuddling up to Salmond equally? The biggest crime that Stephen (and, for that matter, Mike German) seem to be guilty of is not fulfilling what other people have judged is our preformatted role as kingmakers.

It would be ludicrous to go into a government where most of the cabinet was looking at every issue through an independence referendum prism. One of the things I have repeatedly tried to point out on this blog over the last few weeks is that separatism is not a simple matter: it will have an impact on every single policy issue and will potentially have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I’m all for Citizens’ Initiatives, and I’m surprised that the SNP have not yet called the Lib Dems’ bluff by calling them to support a Bill for a general Initiative & Referendum system, but for independence to happen you need an executive fully committed to pushing it through in fine detail. It isn’t ‘just a vote’ for the simple reason that, despite Salmond’s assertion, independence is not reversible.

Frankly, it would be foolhardy for any government that doesn’t enjoy a majority to attempt it, as I suspect the Scots are about to witness. Refusing to pander to the SNP’s dogmatism isn’t ‘undemocratic’ – it is simple, old-fashioned, common sense.

I don’t entirely disagree with Jenkins however, although I really don’t understand why he feels it only applies to the Lib Dems:

Lib Dems claim a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. To this end, France and the US directly elect presidents, governors and mayors. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.

It is true that the Lib Dems have no policy to decouple the executive from the legislature and are unlikely to adopt one in the foreseeable future. I would even agree with Jenkins that it would be nice if we did so. But is this really a criticism of the Lib Dems? Labour and the Tories are hopelessly confused on this point as well, it’s just that they work on the opposite misapprehension that the electoral system should be about electing an executive-by-proxy (the worst thing about this is that first past the post can’t even guarantee such an outcome – look at Canada where hung parliaments are now the norm). Don’t expect to see Cameron or Brown calling for full separation of powers any time soon.

In fact, the Lib Dems do at least acknowledge the problem. We have a longstanding commitment to reduce the payroll vote in the Commons and the Lords. We fight to promote the independence of Parliament and don’t use the whip in anything like the heavy-handed way Labour and the Tories do. I suspect there are more people in the Lib Dems who support full separation than there are in the other two parties combined.

In short then, Jenkins is attacking the Lib Dems for being both kingmakers and refusing to be kingmakers, for supporting a constitutional situation supported by all UK parties and for failing to define ourselves any better than any other party. Deadline or no deadline, he really ought to be able to do better than this.