The co-chairman of the Conservatives has denied describing party activists as “swivel-eyed loons” after rumours circulated on the internet that he had made the remarks.
Lord Andrew Feldman said he was taking legal advice after posters on Twitter implied he was the senior Tory quoted anonymously in several national newspapers.
The Tory made the remarks – in earshot of journalists – after being asked about the decision of 116 party MPs to defy the prime minister and vote in favour of an amendment regretting the absence of an EU referendum in the Queen’s speech.
The Conservative said: “It’s fine. There’s really no problem. The MPs just have to do it because the associations tell them to, and the associations are all mad, swivel-eyed loons.”
In a statement Feldman, who was a friend of David Cameron at Oxford University, said: “There is speculation on the internet and on Twitter that the senior Conservative party figure claimed to have made derogatory comments by the Times and the Telegraph is me.
“This is completely untrue. I would like to make it quite clear that I did not nor have ever described our associations in this way or in any similar manner. Nor do these alleged comments represent my view of our activists.
“On the contrary in the last eight years of working for the party, I have found them to be hard working, committed and reasonable people. They are without question the backbone of the party. I am very disappointed by the behaviour of the journalists involved, who have allowed rumour and innuendo to take hold by not putting these allegations to me before publication. I am taking legal advice.”
Feldman was at a dinner of the Conservative Friends of Pakistan on Wednesday at the Intercontinetal Hotel in Westminster where the remarks were belived to have been made.
Grant Shapps, the co-chairman of the Conservative party, defended his colleague. “He works very closely with the party volunteers. I believe him when he says that he did not say that about our fantastic volunteers,” he told the BBC, “We have seen these rumours flying around the internet, we have seen it with Lord McAlpine and Andrew Mitchell, both of whom were later in the clear.”
James Kirkup, the Telegraph journalist who reported the remarks, tweeted: “I have seen Lord Feldman’s statement. I stand by my story. Nothing more to say beyond this.”
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister supports Lord Feldman’s position. It is categorically untrue that anyone in Downing Street made the comments about the Conservative party associations and activists reported in the Times and the Telegraph.”
The Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, seized on the senior Tory’s remarks that Conservative MPs have to rebel against the leadership because they face pressure from hardline associations.
Farage, who knows the identity of the Tory, tweeted on Friday: “If you are a Conservative supporter who believes in Ukip ideas then your party hates you. Come and join us.”
Commenters on the Conservative Home blog on Saturday were unforgiving.
Sandy Jamieson wrote: “We activists are all ‘mad, swivel-eyed loons’. Of course we are – we elected David Cameron as Leader.”
Another poster, with the username Doppel1800, wrote: “The cliquey Cameroons are on a completely different planet which even their choice of insults betrays.”
Downing Street is under pressure because the Tory has been well known to the prime minister for many years. He or she is due to play a significant role in the party’s preparations for the general election. The Times, Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mirror, which all reported the remarks and who know the identity of the Tory, declined to name the senior member of the prime minister’s circle.
The publication of the remarks, which were made during the week that the prime minister was in the US, is particularly embarrassing for Cameron. They come after No 10 aides expressed fury with Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, who criticised the government for devoting so much time to gay marriage legislation.
Downing Street aides are relaxed about Tory MPs, including ministers, voicing opposition to gay marriage because it is a free vote. But they felt that the defence secretary crossed a line when he criticised No 10 for devoting so much parliamentary time to the issue. This was regarded as a deeply hostile act and fed suspicions that Hammond is looking to become chancellor in a post-Cameron government or even to make a play for the Tory leadership.
But No 10 has a more immediate crisis after it was revealed that Farage is planning to exploit the embarrassment when the Tory is named.
The Ukip leader is planning to say: “This person is an excellent recruiting sergeant for Ukip. If constituency chairman or district chairmen of the local Conservative associations feel uncomfortable, now is a good time to leave the party.
“These comments and Ken Clarke’s description of Ukip as clowns shows the contempt they have. They even hate their own side. There will be a warm pint of bitter awaiting those who come over.”
It was the weekend following my meeting with Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson that she went into anaphylactic shock at the Bishopbriggs Colossal Cake sale in Scotland. She had a severe reaction to a nutty cake. After a night in hospital, where she credits doctors with “saving her life”, she was back at work in the morning. Meeting her, you get the sense she doesn’t really believe in time off.
Her energy is infectious – it’s partly the speed she talks at and the fact that you believe her when she insists she chose this job, this life, purely because she wanted to change the world. We first met when she was chairing a body-image inquiry, but I’ve followed her career for a while, the way you do sometimes – a face you look out for in the paper, a voice you trust on Question Time. She fascinates me, I think, because we’re the same age, and interested in the same things, but live our lives so differently. It is also because she’s a youngish, noisy feminist, like me and my friends, but one that exists in parliament, a foreign country. The call’s coming from inside the House.
One of the reasons she interests me is because so many of her campaigns are accessible – things you don’t need a working knowledge of financial markets to engage with – but this has led to criticism in the past. When, as junior minister for women and equalities, she announced her body-image campaign, a Guardian interview questioned her decision to concentrate on such a “soft, fuzzy” issue and asked whether her time might be better spent addressing women’s unemployment and benefit cuts. I could see the point – I was quietly cynical about the effect of her campaigns for kite marks on adverts stating whether the images had been manipulated (I always think of that Tina Fey quote: “Photoshop itself is not evil. Just like Italian salad dressing is not inherently evil, until you rub it all over a desperate young actress and stick her on the cover of Maxim“) and I was curious to see what impact the government could have on a problem such as body image, one that really has no clear solution. But meeting her a year on, I realise the aim of this campaign was not solely to solve this problem, but that it was just one part of her larger work – to change the culture entirely.
This is one of the things she discussed (after a noted media silence) following the sexual harassment allegations against her colleague, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard. As minister for women, it became clear she had been aware of allegations for some time but refused to comment while the party was carrying out its own investigations. “It’s not just a problem in politics,” she said eventually in a conference speech. “The year is 2013, but society is stuck in the past.” She stressed that a fairer society is only possible if “we challenge the casual culture where men are dominant by default”.
I really want her to tell me the story here – I want to know what happened, what she knew, and how she felt, but she can’t, or she won’t. She refers me to her conference speech, and this is how it is. I realise that this is one of the places I differ from a politician. I’d be tempted to spill.
Now 33, Swinson started young. In 2005 she was elected MP for her hometown, East Dunbartonshire, and became the “baby of the House”, the first-ever MP to be born in the 1980s. “My mum used to send me cuttings from the local paper about people who’d got married as a kind of ‘hint hint’. But then there was one cutting about my home seat’s boundary changes, and how it might be good for the Liberal Democrats, and I knew this was an opportunity.” Although she first drew attention for her youth, she continued to rise through the party because of her initiative. And then, after five years as an opposition MP, in 2010 she became a government minister.
We’re sitting in her office at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, a building that appears half-built – signs for toilets take you to unfinished rooms. We both take a sip of water.
Does it feel different being a Liberal Democrat now? “Now?” Now that people are more… critical? She takes a rare pause. “Well, we still have our social events, with the raffles that never seem to end. There’s a lot that continues. And it’s not like we were used to having fantastic poll ratings anyway. Before, people had a vague idea of the Liberal Democrats, and put their own views on to what we might be – there were a lot of people voting for us as a party of protest, and being in government, that doesn’t happen now. But in many people’s minds there was a general nice but fluffy image of the Liberal Democrats. And that’s different now. It’s sharpened up.”
One of only seven female Lib Dem MPs (22% of MPs in Westminster are women), Swinson talks a lot about the problem of representation, and yet there’s a weariness to the conversation. There’s been much written about the lack of women in parliament – a recent Vogue feature by Ann Treneman was peppered with eye-drying facts, such as: there are more MPs named John than women in total. Yvette Cooper pointed out that in 1997 the Palace of Westminster had a shooting range but no creche. Again, Swinson discusses the need for a change in culture. “And then also cultural barriers, when people don’t see role models like themselves in science…” I interrupt – “Or politics?” “Mmm, or media, or the lobby at Westminster, where it’s massively male, both in government and in the journalists reporting on what’s going on.”
But how does change happen? Acknowledging that these problems exist is not enough. “The piece of legislation that I’m so excited and delighted to be doing is shared parental leave.” She’s helped push through a system that will allow new parents to choose how they share a year’s worth of leave after the birth of their child. ”And changing that legislation is a really good example of how we’re not going to change culture overnight, but how the government has a role to make sure the structures in place reflect modern living.”
Treneman says she suspects men are drawn to politics for its power, whereas women are attracted by the opportunity to make a difference. Does Swinson think a male MP would have fought so hard for this legislation? She sighs, and I blush. “I’m a massive feminist,” she says, gesticulating precisely, eye contact unfaltering, “but I think it’s a little unfair on the other sex saying they’re not in it to change the world.”
But the “culture”. We return to the culture. She’s spoken out against quotas, so I’m interested in her solution to the lack of women in the House of Commons. “I think we need the right solution for the right problem,” she says opaquely. “And it might not be the same for every party. So if there is sexism in the selection process then maybe you do need quotas. But in our party, the problem was far too few women candidates coming forward for seats.” She says they’re making progress with a leadership programme, encouraging people from under-represented backgrounds to become MPs, but it all comes back to “wider issues around the voting system, and challenges around getting equality within politics”.
Before I leave, I want to find out exactly how it feels to be fighting this fight for women from within a system of men. And more importantly, perhaps, how it feels to have to discuss it so regularly. That weariness was telling. Is it helpful to point out the struggles within parliament, or does it get irritating?
“Let’s put it this way,” she smiles tightly. “I’ll love it when we get to the stage that people don’t even think to ask. Because that’ll be a sign that we’ve got to the stage where the culture is one that’s properly diverse. And with those questions my fear is: do we put women off?” Do we?
“It can be unhelpful when we focus on how male dominated it is. How awful the culture is. I fear that message sometimes, that it’s still a dreadful place. It puts women off – they think they won’t be comfortable here. When in fact it’s much better than it used to be.”
It’s this sluggish move forward she’s particularly making me aware of – first the acknowledgement that there’s a problem, and then the investigation into what brought us to this point, and then, finally, the slow fight, whether against sexual harassment at work or negative body image. Since the body-image inquiry, the marketing director of Boots says that what was acceptable 18 months ago in terms of manipulating and “airbrushing” images is not acceptable now, and I believe her. A politician’s life moves fast, I realise, but the changes they make can feel excruciatingly slow. “The debate is changing,” Swinson says, “because people want it to change.”
Outside, clusters of men walk in suits at speed, and tourists take sly photographs of two in bowler hats. Yet Swinson insists that change is really happening. “There are stories about women MPs pre-1997 that shock me. ‘Melon’ gestures in the chamber when a woman got up to speak? That’s unacceptable these days. It has changed. So I hope women will consider a life in politics. We need women, you see. We need them.”
After more than four decades of a failed war on drugs, calls for a change in strategy are growing louder by the day. In Latin America, the debate is positively deafening. Statesmen from Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Uruguay are taking the lead for transformations in their own drug regime, which has set a strong dynamic of change across the region and around the world. Their discussion has expanded to the US, where public opinion toward regulation is also changing.
For the first time, the majority of Americans support regulated cannabis for adult consumption. Nowhere has this support been more evident than in Colorado and Washington, states that recently approved new bills to this effect. This shift in public opinion presents a direct challenge to the US federal law, but also to the United Nations drug conventions and the international drug policy regime.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, building on the call for a paradigm shift formulated by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, has called loudly for precisely these kinds of changes since 2011. Twenty global leaders have highlighted the devastating consequences of repressive drug policies on people, governance and economies not just in Latin America, but around the world.
Our flagship report – War on Drugs – sets out two main recommendations: (i) replace the criminalisation of drug use with a public health approach, and (ii) experiment with models of legal regulation designed to undermine the power of organised crime. By brokering a genuinely global conversation on drug policy reform, we broke a century-old taboo.
A new unexpected voice was added to the debate on drug policy reform. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) José Miguel Insulza presented Colombian President Santos with the findings of a much anticipated report on alternative scenarios for drug control and regulation for the Americas. The study itself was originally the idea of Santos and endorsed by all heads of American states at the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Cartagena.
The OAS-backed study proposes four possible scenarios for future drug policy reflecting an emerging consensus across Latin America. Fortunately, none of the scenarios call for the status quo. Most experts endorse the first three scenarios – the shift from repressive approaches to ones that privilege citizen security, the experimentation with different approaches to regulating illegal drugs, and the strengthening of community resilience. Obviously, all serious leaders agree that the fourth scenario, the threat of creating narco-states, is to be avoided at all costs. Taken together, the report represents the first comprehensive treatment of drug policy reform from a multilateral organisation.
The OAS study sets out complementary, rather than mutually excluding paths. They are based on the realistic expectation that demand for psychoactive substances will continue to exist over the coming decade and that only a small proportion of users will become dependent. In fact, many states are already decriminalising drug use and experimenting with cannabis regulation, while also investing in harm reduction programmes including the medical supply of harder drugs. Rather than causing problems as predicted by their critics, they are generating positive and measurable results.
The OAS and countries across Latin America are positively contributing to the breaking of the taboo that blocked for so long the debate on more humane and efficient drug policy. It is time that governments around the world are allowed to responsibly experiment with regulation models that are tailored to their realities and local needs. The leadership demonstrated by President Santos and the OAS secretary general is welcomed. But the report is just the start – leaders across the Americas need to take this study seriously and consider how their own policies can be improved. In doing so, they will be breaking the vicious cycle of violence, corruption, and overcrowded prisons and will put people’s health and security first.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso
former president of Brazil, chair
former president of Colombia
former president of Chile
George P. Shultz
former Secretary of State, United States, honorary chair
former Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board
former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, President of the International Crisis Group
former president of Mexico
Sir Edward Garnier QC, Conservative MP for Harborough and solicitor general 2010-12
In Chris Huhne’s case, his career in the House of Commons is finished. That is not to say that his ability to contribute to politics outside Parliament (or in other areas) is over. There is plenty that he can do – but he can’t do it from the Commons. And this is not to say that an MP who is convicted of a criminal offence will under all circumstances be unable to return to the Commons.
Technically if an MP is sentenced to less than 12 months there is no compulsion to resign – it’s only when the sentence is indefinite or for more than one year that the seat becomes vacant – but in reality the constituency party, and local and national public opinion, will make it impossible for them to stay. It’s the trust thing. There could be circumstances where the criminal offence did not involve persistent lying, financial dishonesty or a gross breach of trust. Causing death by careless driving is perhaps an example of a serious offence with terrible if different consequences for the victim and defendant that, although it led to a prison sentence, might not make a return to the Commons impossible.
Chris Huhne is a highly talented man. From now on he must deploy those talents outside Parliament.
Yvonne Roberts, chief leader writer of the Observer
It seems a touch unfair that Chris Huhne’s punishment should continue beyond his time in jail. Supposing, in an ideal world, Huhne did find a constituency willing to give him a second chance, would this not be a milestone for rehabilitation? Would it not mean he would redouble his efforts, in the spotlight, to stay on the right side of the law? In addition, one of the main failings of Westminster is its lack of diversity, experience and humility. An ex-offender who, Icarus-like, joins his former colleagues with distinctly singed wings, might bring a much needed different perspective to proceedings in the House. And, given Huhne’s apparent vanity, an added selling point would be his probable determination to make the most of his USP – his time inside.
EG: The court has imposed the sentence but that does not mean that the law-abiding public should pretend that nothing has happened once the sentence is completed. I may forgive the burglar; I may want to see him learn to get off drugs, to learn to read, to be rehabilitated and get a job but that does not mean I must have him to stay in my house. Fairness is an easy word to use but what’s fair about having a persistent, convicted liar as your MP? One can feel personally sorry for Chris Huhne but no one forced him to lie and to continue lying and in doing so cause untold misery to his family and vast expense to the taxpayer in resisting what he must have known was the inevitable.
I am not saying he should be prevented by law from standing for election but common sense tells me that the Liberal Democrats, despite their many eccentricities, are unlikely to want him as their public face at a general election attracting attention to his past misdeeds. It would simply confirm their lack of judgment in so many ways. But assuming they lost their political radar he would be unable to talk about anything but his crime. If he wants to make an effort to stay on the right side of the law, why not do so out of the spotlight, doing good and doing it quietly?
Parliament may lack diversity in terms of gender balance but I am not sure we need jailbirds to add a new dimension to those who make our laws. If his USP is his time inside, let him use it to help other, less fortunate ex-offenders. My friend Jonathan Aitken had a similar fall from the front rank of politics and government and now does nothing but good – but not in Parliament. Life moves on; Mr Huhne should look forward, not back to where his ambitions became warped and criminalised, and that’s what I suspect he wants to do.
YR: I don’t feel at all sorry for Chris Huhne who, as you say, lied, behaved immaturely, cost us taxpayers dearly both in the pursuit of justice and at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, and generally behaved as an individual who has yet to earn the trust he has dissipated. But, as poll after poll tells us, sadly that does not place him that far apart from some of his former colleagues. At least Huhne’s flaws are no longer camouflaged. Of course, there are many MPs who, like you, have served the electorate diligently and honourably, and that needs greater recognition and respect – but it is undeniable that there is an escalating disconnect that risks making parliamentary democracy a minority interest.
Of course, the media would pursue Huhne as the ex-offender but only for a time. What you seem to be advocating is what might be called the Profumo penalty. A fall from grace followed by 30 years of Establishment exile. Instead, what the House lacks, on right and left, is someone who is robust and realistic about the need to radically change the penal system because it costs too much and achieves too little – a reoffending rate of 45% for women. Republicans in the US have woken up to the fact – Huhne could utilise what parliamentary skills he has to advocate for systemic change. Turning the lives of individuals around, he can leave for his spare time.
EG: The House of Commons is not full of saints but nor is it a den of thieves. Transparency is like carbolic soap.
You clearly have not had the opportunity to read my paper, written in 2007 when I was shadow prisons minister, called Prisons With a Purpose. It called for a rehabilitation revolution and measures to cut down the economically wasteful and immoral reoffending rates. Far too many adult and teenage prisoners leave custody and then commit further crimes because they are illiterate, drug addicts or mentally ill when they go inside, and illiterate, drug addicts or mentally ill when they come out.
Chris Huhne is one of the exceptions to this stereotype and is intellectually and physically robust enough not to be damaged by his experiences as a prisoner. Most short-term prisoners get no help on release and fall back into the hopeless downward spiral of crime and drug abuse. I made the same points again in the Queen’s Speech debate on 9 May.
This is about to change. Chris Huhne need not be a new Profumo but a new Huhne.
YR: Indeed, I have read your paper and applaud much of it. However, I wish I had your faith that the current system is going to change. I have been involved with the charity Women in Prison, of which I am a trustee, for almost 30 years and have witnessed a repeated pattern of timid steps forward (brave Corston proposals) followed by a lunge back as politicians appeal to some of the electorate’s more primitive instincts. The four pillars to which you refer in Prisons With a Purpose – punishment, rehabilitation, work for offenders and reparation – are essential. But many magistrates, too, need re-education; alternatives to prison matter. Yet, as you will know, women with children are still being locked up for weeks for trivial offences.
If you have time, do look at the work that Women in Prison does for those coming out of prison, which will be hampered by the coalition’s intent on payment by results, contracts the large private companies are hoovering up, although they have less experience of how much sustained support many former offenders require. At the same time, projects to prevent offending are being drastically cut. Where is the economic sense in that? Or the justice?
Huhne, remodelled or otherwise, has had a (brief) personal experience that could be a powerful political motivator. Let’s wait and watch.
European governments and the Obama administration are this weekend studying a “gamechanging” report on global drugs policy that is being seen in some quarters as the beginning of the end for blanket prohibition.
Publication of the Organisation of American States (OAS) review, commissioned at last year’s Cartagena Summit of the Americas attended by Barack Obama, reflects growing dissatisfaction among Latin American countries with the current global policy on illicit drugs. It spells out the effects of the policy on many countries and examines what the global drugs trade will look like if the status quo continues. It notes how rapidly countries’ unilateral drugs policies are evolving, while at the same time there is a growing consensus over the human costs of the trade. “Growing media attention regarding this phenomenon in many countries, including on social media, reflects a world in which there is far greater awareness of the violence and suffering associated with the drug problem,” José Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the OAS, says in a foreword to the review. “We also enjoy a much better grasp of the human and social costs not only of drug use but also of the production and transit of controlled substances.”
Insulza describes the report, which examines a number of ways to reform the current pro-prohibition position, as the start of “a long-awaited discussion”, one that experts say puts Europe and North America on notice that the current situation will change, with or without them. Latin American leaders have complained bitterly that western countries, whose citizens consume the drugs, fail to appreciate the damage of the trade. In one scenario envisaged in the report, a number of South American countries would break with the prohibition line and decide that they will no longer deploy law enforcement and the army against drug cartels, having concluded that the human costs of the “war on drugs” is too high.
The west’s responsibility to reshape global drugs policy will be emphasised in three weeks when Juan Manuel Santos Calderón, the president of Colombia, who initiated the review, arrives in Britain. His visit is part of a programme to push for changes in global policy that will lead up to a special UN general assembly in 2016 when the scenarios of the OAS are expected to have a significant influence.
Experts described the publication of the review as a historic moment. “This report represents the most high-level discussion about drug policy reform ever undertaken, and shows tremendous leadership from Latin America on the global debate,” said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Foundation’s Global Drug Policy Program, which has described its publication as a “game-changer”.
“It was particularly important to hear president Santos invite the states of Europe to contribute toward envisioning a better international drug policy. These reports inspire a conversation on drug policy that has been long overdue.”
The report represents the first time any significant multilateral agency has outlined serious alternatives to prohibition, including legal market regulation or reform of the UN drug conventions.
“While leaders have talked about moving from criminalisation to public health in drug policy, punitive, abstinence-only approaches have still predominated, even in the health sphere,” said Daniel Wolfe, director of the Open Society Foundation’s International Harm Reduction Program. “These scenarios offer a chance for leaders to replace indiscriminate detention and rights’ abuses with approaches that distinguish between users and traffickers, and offer the community-based health services that work best for those in need.”
In a statement, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which campaigns for changes in drug laws and is supported by the former presidents of several South American states, said that publication of the review would break “the taboo that blocked for so long the debate on more humane and efficient drug policy”. The Commission said that it was “time that governments around the world are allowed to responsibly experiment with regulation models that are tailored to their realities and local need”.
■ The open letter from the Global Commission on Drug Policy is signed by George P Shultz, the former US secretary of state; Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the US federal reserve, and the former presidents of Mexico, Chile and Colombia
Farage was hounded out of Edinburgh city centre on Thursday by protesters. He was forced to take refuge under police protection in the Canon’s Gait pub when around 50 demonstrators broke up a press conference, hurling abuse at him.
On Friday morning, Farage told BBC Good Morning Scotland: “If this is the face of Scottish nationalism, it’s a pretty ugly picture. The anger, the hatred, the shouting, the snarling, the swearing was all linked in to a desire for the union jack to be burnt.”
He challenged Scottish first minister Salmond to condemn their actions.
But the Scottish National party leader told the BBC: “This is a man who doesn’t like getting challenged because when the obnoxious views of his party are put to him then his bubble deflates very quickly and that is what we saw in his panicky interview this morning.”
The SNP said Farage had “lost the plot” by alleging the demonstrators were representative of Scottish nationalism or the wider independence movement, while Salmond said Farage was over-exaggerating the demonstration’s significance.
Asked about Farage ending the radio interview, Salmond told the BBC: “We are dealing with someone who actually says on radio that the BBC are part of a hate campaign against him. Now it would be a great mistake to take somebody with that mentality with any degree of seriousness.”
Salmond added: “Yes we will have a political debate and discourse in a proper way in Scotland. We can frankly do without Ukip, who dislike everybody and know absolutely nothing about Scotland.”
When asked if he condemned the demonstration against Farage, the first minister said: “If there’s been any law-breaking – and that’s yet to be established – then obviously we condemn that, as we always do in Scotland, but you’ve got to get things into context.
“A student demonstration isn’t the Dreyfus trial.”
The controversy escalated on Friday morning after Farage slammed the phone down on a BBC Scotland radio interviewer who challenged him on Ukip’s political support in Scotland, and accused the BBC of being “hateful” and “insulting”.
Liam O’Hare, the Radical Independence Edinburgh organiser, denied his group were fascist or racist. “We’re absolutely not. The people who demonstrated yesterday were internationalist.
“We opposed Nigel Farage coming because we believe in a society that welcomes immigrants, that welcomes people from all walks of life, wherever they come from, but doesn’t welcome racists like Nigel Farage.”
The Ukip leader insisted he would return to Scotland to continue campaigning for the party’s candidate, Otto Inglis, in the Aberdeen Donside byelection for the Scottish parliament on 20 June.
Ukip has no elected representatives in Scotland. Its best election showing came at the 2009 European parliamentary elections when it saved its deposit by securing 5.2% of the vote: at Scottish and UK elections, it earns less than 1% of the vote and has no significant presence in Scottish politics.
The government has insisted it was still optimistic about plans to build a series of nuclear power stations despite expectations that EDF would delay its timetable for a new reactor at Hinkley Point and concerns that China was losing interest in being a co-investor.
“The UK’s new nuclear programme is advancing positively with three projects currently being taken forward by NNB GenCo [EDF], NuGen and Horizon Nuclear Power,” said the energy minister, Michael Fallon, in response to a select committee report.
“We are confident that we will see investment in the context of the government’s policy on no public subsidies for new nuclear.”
He added that negotiations were continuing over a “strike price” – or guaranteed minimum price for electricity generated. EDF, which wants a 40-year guarantee, said it remained optimistic that it could tie up a deal with ministers before long.
On Friday, the construction trade paper Building quoted industry sources as saying that EDF did not expect to take a final investment decision on Hinkley in Somerset until September at the earliest.
The firm, 80% of which is owned by the French state, had originally talked about concluding negotiations by the end of 2012. That was later extended to the first quarter of 2013. Delays have traditionally dogged nuclear energy projects but are particularly worrisome in this case because Britain faces a potential energy capacity crisis within five years.
An EDF spokeswoman declined to comment on the latest speculation, saying. “I am not going to make up dates. Others might have their own views but we have nothing else to add.”
A major slip in the Somerset timetable was one of the reasons British Gas owner Centrica pulled out of its original plans to invest in Hinkley alongside EDF, which the British company highlighted at its annual general meeting on Monday.
Sam Laidlaw, Centrica’s chief executive, told shareholders: “Not only had the cost increased but also the schedule had lengthened very considerably. So instead of taking four to five years to build, EDF were telling us that it was going to take nine to 10 years to build. That is a long time to be writing out a cheque for this project.”
EDF has been struggling with its own soaring £30bn debt levels and delays at its key project in France. The group opened talks with the Chinese as an alternative co-investor and earlier this month signed a formal co-operation deal with China Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding Company. But City sources working for the Chinese told the Guardian they thought it very unlikely they would participate.
“Money is no object but the Chinese have pulled back on nuclear in Britain. They realise they do not have sufficient know-how to pass the UK regulators but do not want to be just a passive investor,” said one investment banker.
Never mind the stupid EU referendum, there were some truly regrettable things about the Queen’s Speech: chiefly, the proposals to tackle benefit and healthcare “tourism” (modern Conservatives use this previously bland word, used for simply exploring foreign countries, as a euphemism for deliberate exploitation. Who knows where tourism tourism will stand, once this mucky debate is over?)
There are classic arguments against the whole premise. EU and non-EU migrants combined cost the NHS only £7m; their cost is far smaller than their number, proportionally, because they are younger, on average, than indigenous Britons; they are less likely to be ill and they are less likely to have started a family.
But a subtlety has been missed, which is the assumption that EU migrants, specifically Polish people (as the largest single group) are coming from a third-rate health service of their own to a first-rate one of ours. This is, apparently, not the case; indeed, many Polish immigrants will go to some lengths to avoid NHS “tourism”, up to and including paying for their care.
Since 2007, private Polish medical centres have sprung up all over the UK; there are at least 20 in London, they exist in Manchester, Reading, Bristol and Glasgow. Nobody collects a database of them, but wherever there’s a Polish community, there’s a private clinic.
Ewa Rybol, 27, is the practice manager at Tooting Medical Centre. “We get Canary Wharf Polish here. They’re developing their career here, they probably work in a bank. But we also have people who do simple jobs, waitressing, building, cleaning.” The dermatologist at the practice (who wished to remain anonymous) agreed: “90% of the people I see don’t make a lot of money, but they are still willing to pay, even when they speak good English.”
The language barrier is usually raised first, when people are asked why they’d go private, but I think that’s out of politeness. Certainly Alicja, 25, who paid £60 to see a dermatologist in Tooting for her eczema, sounded less than plausible when she explained: “I wasn’t sure that I would be able to understand a GP. Medical language can be quite specific.” (her English was perfect).
The dermatologist elaborated: “I wouldn’t want to make a generalisation, but where language isn’t a problem, there is sometimes disappointment. GPs don’t refer people to specialists. There must be a reason for that, and I guess it’s economical.”
Piotr Miklewski, a 29-year-old practice manager from PMC in Ealing, said: “There is this stereotype that the UK prescribes paracetamol for everything.”
Wiki, 29, who broke her rib ice-skating, said: “And they don’t x-ray you. In Poland, you would always be x-rayed for a broken rib in case it was endangering your lung”. She added, “The doctor told me to take a paracetamol”.
Miklewski said the differences between the two health systems, Poland’s and the UK’s, were most noticeable when it came to pregnancy. “In the UK, you don’t do the ultrasound scans until a certain age of the pregnancy, which we do almost from the very beginning.
This is one of the things that mainly drives people to go to see our gynaecologist. They can expect to have a scan from the very first moment that it is required.”
Theresa Drzewiecka, 55, is a nurse at the Tooting practice, and said that people also saw her because they were confident of her training. “They think maybe if you go and get a blood test from an inexperienced nurse, it will hurt. If you see a Polish nurse, you know it won’t hurt” (in Poland, they train for five years and then have three to four years’ apprenticeship; this is somewhat longer than the three-year degree course it takes in the UK).
Many people bring up waiting times, both for a doctor’s appointment – “you can wait a week for an appointment,” Alicja said, “you would never wait more than a day in Poland”.
And there is much more acquiescence in Poland to the idea of paying for some things but not others.
You can see this from the clinics themselves. In Tooting, it is certainly sprucer than the local GP’s surgery – more like a beautician than a doctor – but it doesn’t look like Harley Street and there is none of the thick-carpeted hush that bankrupts you. “We have really nice prices,” the receptionist, 28-year-old Marta Baczewska says. “English customers come in here as well, when they hear about us.”
Personally speaking, I would never knock the NHS for its paracetamol name, the reputation it has for never referring anybody, never prescribing antibiotics, never scanning anyone and trying not to waste x-rays. It makes us sound thrifty and stoic.
But if we think people are travelling here to make the most of our health service, we’re dreaming.
What I used to say, until 4 March this year, was that I did not expect Scottish independence to happen in autumn next year. I think the figures already looked a bit dismal, but I was certain it would happen in my lifetime.
Of course, now it looks as though my lifetime won’t extend until autumn next year. So my neat comparison has kind of fallen by the wayside. Nevertheless, I would still hope that in the unlikely event I live as long as my dad – who died when he was 91 – then I shall die in an independent Scotland on the best possible terms with its big English neighbour.
The difference between the Scottish and the English, which I guess we have to put down to cultural differences (though of course it could be something in the water) are sufficient and long-term enough that this effective divorce between Scotland and England makes sense for both parties.
It makes the most sense for the Scots because, as the junior partner, we are much more aware of the differences (looking at the reception which Nigel Farage received in Edinburgh recently, compared to the surge in support for Ukip in England, you might wish to characterise it as a generosity of spirit in the Celts, matched by a meanness of spirit in some, but not all, English people). It is also about politics, in the sense that the difference in demeanour between the English and the Scots simply cannot be accounted for in a kind of winner-takes-all situation, where the English are always the winners – because you guys are 10 times as many.
The system we have at the moment does not reflect the way Scots really feel. It does sometimes come down to very specific issues: I’ve talked to a number of Scottish writers in particular, and we all felt that we would vote for independence purely never to be part of any more unnecessary illegal, immoral wars.
The question of independence only really became germane with the end of one-nation Conservatism and the Labour party stopping being the Labour party when it became New Labour and pro-privatisation. A lot of Scots would vote for nationalism just to save our already semi-independent version of the National Health Service.
I don’t think my feelings have intensified since I’ve been so involved with the NHS due to my illness – that feeling was always there – but it has certainly brought it home to me, at an individual level, how much we rely on it.
• Iain Banks is a multi-award-winning Scottish author. In April he announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the gall bladder.
A prominent Tory supporter of gay marriage accused fellow Conservative MPs of attempting to “derail” the bill on Thursday as David Cameron struggles to maintain control of his party ahead of a series of votes on same sex marriage in the Commons next week.
As George Osborne leads an unofficial operation to keep opposition to the bill below 50% of the party’s MPs, Mike Freer said opponents were tabling a “superficially attractive” amendment that could undermine the bill.
The MP for Finchley and Golders Green, who is in a civil partnership and who told Tory opponents of the bill earlier this year that they were asking him to “stand apart and to join a separate queue”, spoke out after a group of Tories expressed confidence that they will succeed in amending the bill to grant civil partnerships to heterosexual couples.
Freer warned this could undermine the bill. He told the Guardian: “I think the original amendment to extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples is superficially attractive. But there are some practical difficulties about how this would be implemented. Maria Miller [the culture secretary] has been quite right to say there is a valid point but we need to look at it in a bit of time to see how civil partnerships bed down post equal marriage.
“There is always a danger that some people who are moving some of the amendments are not seeking to be helpful but actually seeking to derail the bill and hiding behind superficial ‘helpfulness’. That is why Maria Miller has been very careful and cautious in saying: ‘You have raised some interesting points and perhaps we do need to look at this but this isn’t the right bill to do it. Let’s see what happens after the bill passes and come back once we have seen how things pan out’.”
Tim Loughton, the former Tory children’s minister who has tabled the amendment, rejected the idea that he is trying to scupper the bill. Loughton, who voted against the marriage (same sex couples) bill during the first commons debate in February, told the Guardian: “It is absolutely not a wrecking amendment. It is getting a huge amount of support from people who are passionately in favour of the bill. They clearly wouldn’t be supporting it if they thought it was a wrecking amendment. This whole business of having to delay and consult doesn’t hold water – they have already done that consultation.”
One Tory said that the Labour party, which strongly backs the bill, is hoping to find ways of undermining David Cameron by backing the Loughton amendment. The source said: “The Labour party is trying to cause maximum embarrassment for the Tories. They see the way to do that is to say it is a free vote but encourage their troops to vote in favour of the amendment.”
Tory divisions over the bill were highlighted when Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, criticised Downing Street for wasting parliamentary time on the issue and angering vast numbers of people. Speaking on BBC1′s Question Time he said there was no huge demand for same-sex marriage.
Downing Street said that Hammond was entitled to speak out because MPs will have a free vote. But it is understood that in private George Osborne has been lobbying on behalf of the change because two thirds of the government whips’ office are opposed to the bill. These include Nicki Morgan who is the whip for Miller’s culture department.