(Still catching up with my posts . . . )
For a few minutes on Monday, the principles of open debate and free speech at the Liberal Democrat conference were directly threatened. Not by Tory boys or Labour thugs, but by a green protester with a pair of handcuffs.
Here’s the background. I chaired a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem conference climate clinic, organised by Greenpeace, Christian Aid and others. It was called Coal or Renewables? A Moral Choice. The backdrop to the meeting was E.On’s plan to go ahead with building a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, in Kent. As well as Ross Finnie, former Scottish environment minister, there were speakers from Greenpeace, the IPPR, Worcester Bosch and, of course, E.On.
For the first half hour or so, things went smoothly and predictably enough, apart from a shonky audio system and the presence of a guy dressed up as a polar bear. That was fine by me, but I was worried that he might overheat.
Then we got to question time and to no one’s surprise, it was clear that nearly all of the audience was opposed to Kingsnorth. It was a good discussion though. And then, well . . . here’s what the Independent’s Pandora column had to say on Tuesday:
"Bucking the theory that the Liberal Democrats' Conference is one long snoozeathon, comes news of a delightful altercation in Bournemouth yesterday.
"The stand-off occurred during a Christian Aid debate being chaired by the MP [sic] Neil Stockley entitled: Coal or Renewables? A Moral Choice. As the panel prepared to take questions, one shouty activist emerged from the crowd and slapped a pair of handcuffs on E.ON's director of energy policy, Sarah Vaughan.""She said she was arresting her for crimes against humanity," I'm told. "She just stood there for about 10 minutes until Stockley threatened to call it a day. This poor woman from E.ON was quite shaken up.""
They got it mostly right but, as I recall, the whole episode lasted just a few minutes. Also, the woman with the cuffs (I think) asked the audience for its opinion of whether they should be unlocked. The dismayed and annoyed audience was clear that they should Off they went and we carried on.
During the conference and since, I’ve had a lot of questions and a few jokes about what happened. But there was a serious question of principle involved here. I seem to remember telling the handcuff wielder that we are a liberal party and that we don’t do things that way at our conferences; we couldn’t carry on the discussion so long as a panel speaker was being intimidated in that way.
Fortunately, very few Liberal Democrats have disagreed with me. In case you do, just think about it . . . should our fringe debates come down to who can handcuff whom? Should we let discussion of the serious issues around energy policy and the climate crisis be reduced to this sort of stunt, manipulated this way? As democrats, can we afford to discourage speakers from organisations whose views we disagree with from coming to fringes at Lib Dem conferences? And what would we say if a speaker from, say, Liberty or Greenpeace was treated that way at a Tory or Labour conference?
That’s why liberals don’t do politics by taking direct against individuals (aka bullying), however strongly we feel about the climate crisis and the other people’s conceptions of morality.
So yes . . . viva liberal principles – all of them!