Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Ed Davey – the hardest question

Last week, I was privileged to be able to interview Ed Davey, Lib Dem Shadow Foreign Secretary, alongside James Graham, Gavin Whenman, Meral Ece, James Schneider, Linda Jack and Millennium Elephant.

In typical final-year student style, I’ve left it quite late to write up my report, not unreasonably judging that my essay on Erich Kästner was a slightly more urgent priority.

In the meantime, a diplomatic row complicated enough to give the Foreign Office a headache has broken out amongst Lib Dem bloggers. Nich Starling has problems with the way the bloggers’ interviews are arranged; Alex Wilcock has problems with Nich Starling’s behaviour; Iain Dale sits back and titters. I’m not at all keen to add fuel to the fire, and won’t pass comment, but it’d be wrong to blog about the Ed Davey interview without at least drawing attention to the spat it’s generated. People can look at the posts in question and draw their own conclusions.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs (and I’ll keep my opinions on this private), it’s depressing to see Lib Dem bloggers at each other’s throats. The blogosphere suffers enough as it is from allegations of being petty, personal and self-obsessed. We’re at our best when we manage to have our disagreements in a civilised way, and when we concentrate on politics rather than on each other. Sometimes, I’m afraid, that means holding back and staying calm, even when you feel that somebody richly deserves to have their spleen massaged with a heavy rolling pin.

Coincidentally, that’s more or less exactly what Ed Davey said at the interview, when Gavin asked him – with reference to Uganda – whether he preferred justice to peace. For the recently-appointed foreign affairs spokesman, sometimes it’s necessary to put justice to one side for the greater good. He spoke passionately about the Northern Ireland peace process: one of the hardest things he’d had to do as an MP was to vote for an amnesty for “terrorists – no, murderers”. It “stuck in [his] throat” as he walked through the lobby, having to let them get away with cold-blooded killing – but he could rationalise it to himself because the lives that would be lost, if the peace process failed, would be an even greater injustice.

Gavin’s question was in fact a follow-up to one of my own. I asked Ed how he could balance respect for other people’s cultures – not ramming Western values down the throats of the Arab world, for example – against concepts like universal human rights. To what extent should we let countries like Iran do things their own way, and to what extent should we be prepared to stand up and say: no, some of our values are objectively better than yours?

Ed didn’t have a comprehensive answer to this, but he was open enough to say that he was still grappling with the issues. He called it the “most difficult philosophical question for liberal democrats”, and I agree entirely. He did point out, quite fairly, that engaging in illegal wars in the name of democracy doesn’t do anything to help us find the balance.

It’s a question which fascinates me, and which I haven’t completely resolved in my own mind either. At a student political meeting last autumn, I chatted to Tory (and former SDP) MP John Horam about this. He argued that in many cases, there’s not much we can do to influence the internal affairs of sovereign countries. According to Horam, we can often do more good by turning a blind eye towards human rights abuses in the short term, and trying to influence things slowly over a longer period.

That argument would square very well with Ed’s answer to Gavin’s question. If the main aim is to do as much net good as possible, then presumably we can justify being polite to abusive regimes if that allows us to improve things in the long term? It’s uncomfortable territory for Lib Dems, and needs more thought – but Ed’s position on the IRA amnesty may just begin to suggest an answer.

Of course, the question also highlights the major difference in perspective between a party of government and a party of opposition. When you’re running the country, or likely to take over after the next election, you’re constrained by all the realities of diplomacy. When you’re the third party, albeit a third party with serious ambitions, you have a much freer reign to say what you think, safe in the knowledge that you won’t start a major international incident that will cost innocent lives.

One thing that was especially noteworthy, throughout the answers to all the questions, was Ed’s caution, his tendency to talk in generalities, and his polished, measured delivery. This wasn’t a chat amongst Lib Dem activists in a pub (well, the House of Lords bar) – it was a press interview, and Ed treated my dictaphone like a loaded gun, just as he’d have done for any journalist. He didn’t relax his guard just because we were on the same side as him.

To my mind, that says something quite positive about the Lib Dem blogging scene. The frontbenchers don’t see us as a mouthpiece or as a convenient way of disseminating the party line – we’re regarded as independently-minded commentators who examine the MPs sympathetically but critically, and are prepared to challenge them where we disagree. That can only be a good thing.

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