Saturday, July 7, 2007

Shirley Williams' letter to Liberal Democrat News readers

The Liberal Democrat News is well worth subscribing to - a snip at 62 pence an issue. Here is a sample of why it is a great read - here is a letter from Shirley Williams to Liberal Democrat News readers in this week's issue:

Dear Fellow Liberal Democrat,

You and I have worked together for the Liberal Democrats over the past 25 years. So you, more than anyone, deserve an explanation of what is happening with regard to Liberal Democrat peers being asked to advise the new government of Gordon Brown.

Paddy Ashdown, our former leader, was invited to join the government as Minister for Northern Ireland, a Cabinet position. He rightly refused. To accept a Cabinet position would mean being bound by collective responsibility for the government's programme. That is what happens in a coalition government, but a coalition government is based on a programme for government agreed in advance between the parties taking part. This happened in Scotland when the Liberal Democrats joined in a coalition government with the Labour party.

There is no coalition between our party and the new government. Ming Campbell said as much, when he stated last week that no Liberal Democrat peer or MP would be joining the government.

Being an adviser on a particular subject is different. It does not mean the loss of the adviser's independence or freedom to criticise government policy. Outside advisers are not bound by collective responsibility to the government, and do not need to take the Labour Whip.

Is there a good reason for Gordon Brown inviting people from other parties or none to act as advisers? Yes: some issues of vital importance to the British people require a long-term consensus if they are to be satisfactorily resolved. Good examples of this are constitutional reform, which should never be imposed by government on Parliament, and the role of the key voluntary sector in public services.

Anthony Lester, who persuaded the Blair government to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into British Law in 1998 and Julia Neuberger, who chaired the Independent Commission on the future of volunteering, have the expertise to make important contributions to building a consensus here.

The other set of issues where advice from outside the government may be useful are the big global issues, like climate change, terrorism and nuclear proliferation, issues that cannot be tackled by national government on their own. It is on the last of these issues that I have been asked to act as an adviser. As soon as I was invited, I did of course consult Ming Campbell and Tom McNally to make sure they were willing for me to accept.

I have been for several years now a member of the Board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative which is based in Washington DC. NTI builds on the bipartisan Nunn-Lugar initiative which, after the end of the Cold War, de-activated over 6,000 nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. It now works to make secure nuclear, biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction. I am the only Briton on the NTI board.

In acting as an adviser on this critical issue, I would not want to be paid, nor would my colleagues, and would retain full independence. I would expect to be taken seriously, and would be free to state my own position if the government decided not to take it. I hope my party colleagues will be happy with my decision.

Liberal Democrat News

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