Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Time to Say Goodbye - Notes on my Political 'Retirement'

The song was famously sung by Andrea Bocelli who happened to be a favourite of my late father Lance and it's probably as apt a heading to a blog post as any for what in many ways is a bittersweet juncture in my life.

Because after much reflection and deliberation, I decided some time ago that I would not be submitting my name for re-election to Ceredigion County Council and Cardigan Town Council in 2017.

Back in 2014, I wrote this blog post on the 10th anniversary of my election to local government which explored those tentative early steps and my progress as a Councillor in Cardigan.

As mentioned, there have been many highlights, be it at a town or ward level. But as I stated then, it's those personal stories of support that never make the papers that will live with me.
  • That 6 or so year involvement with a local resident and her housing traumas which finally materialised in her finding a new home just outside of town. She's now studying as a mature student and I'm very proud of her for moving forwards with her life despite the many knocks on the way.
  • Then there was the call from a desolate local resident who had suffered years of domestic abuse who found out, on his finally leaving the family home, that he had left in his wake, countless unpaid bills. This resulted in a Council Tax demand and the threat of a visit from bailiffs within the week to recoup the amount owed in furniture and fittings. I spent 4 hours of a Sunday evening listening to the horror story unfold in her front room. The fact that she technically lived the wrong side of the road from my ward did not matter. She had come to me and I had to help her. I vividly recall going to sleep that night feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders as I had never felt before. Here was a truly horrific case, the like of which I had never faced to that day or since. The next morning I called a senior officer in the Council's finance department in Aberystwyth and asked for the bailiffs to be called off and to agree a regular pay-back plan with her. With letters of support from the local Women's Aid, local chapels and the local food bank, this was thankfully achieved.
  • Finally, my final major piece of casework was thankfully resolved positively only last week when a year long support for two local residents finally saw them move into the home they had first been promised by Tai Ceredigion some 18 months earlier.
These are only the tip of the ice-berg and I can look back at countless cases of support offered or guidance given in the hope that my presence and involvement has brought about a positive end result or at the very least, given moral encouragement to the one in distress in the knowledge that they are not alone.

A Change is Gonna Come
Over the past year however, I have felt an increasing need to press 'pause' on this life of service.

My seat in the Council Chamber with name tag
Elected aged 21, I have effectively spent my entire adult life in the service of others. Whilst I have enjoyed the challenge and the opportunity to make a positive difference in people's lives in that time, I have now reached the point where I need to take a step back, reflect and gather breath. That doesn't mean that I'm suddenly going to disappear off the face of the planet! I'm looking forward to continuing in an active role in the community life of our town but with the time to concentrate on a few specific interests of mine.

For those worried that this means a lessening of my commitment to my Liberal family and the liberal cause, have no fear. To quote Tony Benn on his retirement from the House of Commons, he famously stated that:
"I now want more time to devote to politics and more freedom to do so".
I can understand fully his feelings when he wrote that comment. I want to devote more time to politics and to support those who wish to contribute in their own way to civic life. I specifically would like to see myself in a supporting role, supporting others who wish to do what I have done. I would like to use my experience to bring forward and support new and exciting candidates who wish to support the liberal cause by being community champions in their own right.

In this light, I'm delighted that in my wake, I'll be supporting excellent new candidates in Cardigan this spring. Elaine Evans is standing to replace me in Rhyd-Y-Fuwch ward and having started the 1,000 strong online petition to save Cardigan Library in its old location and with her passion for the town of her birth, she will be a great voice for her community. Likewise, Sian Maehrlein in Mwldan ward is another well known Cardigan character who wants to support her home community and will be a strong and confident voice for residents in the Council Chamber. Steve Greenhalgh meanwhile will continue as he did in 2012 by speaking up for residents in Teifi Ward with that cheeky smile and commitment to social justice and fairness that is the embodiment of his character. They will be joined by Yve O'Neill and Marilyn Farmer on the liberal campaign trail - two more women with firm opinions and a resolve to help those in need in our town.

Put it in Perspective
So the liberal fight in Cardigan goes on and indeed, with 5 out of 6 of our candidates being female, we are also striking a positive blow for better representation in local government.

All of this has sought to confirm my view as to the future.

That name tag in reverse...Goodbye
If nothing else, I've always prided myself on having a good sense of perspective and that, along with a keen self-awareness, has led me to realise that if I feel that I need a break to re-charge my batteries as is the case, then it is certainly best to stand back and to allow these new and keen candidates to come forward to take my place.

I may have won 6 elections out of 6 in my local government political career to date, but that's no reason to keep on standing just for the sake of it. I'd rather stand down now whilst I'm still ahead with people asking 'why now?' than hang on as so many do to the refrains of 'him again?'

It was Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States who said in his memoirs of the reasoning for his surprise decision not to run for re-election in 1928 that:
"The Presidential office takes a heavy toll of those who occupy it and those who are dear to them. While we should not refuse to spend and be spent in the service of our country, it is hazardous to attempt what we feel is beyond our strength to accomplish".
Ceredigion County Council is not the United States of America and its HQ at Penmorfa, Aberaeron is certainly not the White House! But when I read these words whilst reading up on the American Presidents during my last trip to America back in the autumn, the words struck home.

The opportunity to re-charge the batteries may give me renewed energy in due course to stand for elected office once more in the future or the freedom from the responsibilities that come with the role may become a newly found friend that I may not wish to relinquish. I do not know. The future is just that. It is an untold story that has yet to be written.

But for now, in the present, I feel that having spent virtually my entire adult life in the service of others, like Coolidge, I sense that now is the time to reflect and accept that the tank is empty and that I feel as if I have given everything that I have to give in elected office.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Good Night
So it's time to say adieu and I know I'm going to miss it. Terribly.

The ability to help others is something that no money can buy. The change that can be positively made from local government, even in times of tighter budgets, can never be underestimated. For those who wish to do good, being elected as a Councillor gives a fantastic opportunity to do so and to put back into the community.

But then, help and support can take many forms and I will seek to continue to do my bit for my community, just from a different angle. Dare I say it, but from a different 'perspective'.

So this isn't the end. It's merely the completion of one chapter and the beginning of another.

The last 13 years have been a roller-coaster ride and if I had my time, would I ride it again? You bloody bet I would!

Monday, 13 March 2017

RIP the UK of GB & NI (1922-2019)

So it has been a historic day. The 13th March 2017. The day everything changed. Forever.

The day when the House of Lords caved in and allowed Theresa May to trigger Article 50 within days and also the day when Nicola Sturgeon called for a 2nd Scottish independence referendum within 24 months.

Of course, the two are inextricably linked. Had England and Wales not voted for Brexit in as much number as they did to overturn the Remain majority in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Sturgeon wouldn't have been handed the 'game-changer' that gave her the moral right to call a 2nd referendum so soon after the first. I have to say it, she's right to do so.

So Theresa May and those who wanted 'their country back' will get it. That country however won't be 'Great Britain', it will be 'Little England with Wales on the side'.

Good luck to Scotland as it moves inexorably towards independence. As for Northern Ireland? I think it's time that they seriously look to unite with our fellow Celtic cousins south of the border - as difficult as that will understandably be for so many in the communities of the north.

So yes, 13th March 2017 is a historic day.

I don't say this with any pleasure. As a Federalist, I have believed in the strength of the Union of nations that has made up the United Kingdom. But the loss of our place at the heart of the European Union, for those of us who are internationalist to our bones, is a monumental blow. For those who live in Northern Ireland and Scotland who will see their country ripped out of the EU against the collective will of their own nations, it is a critical moment from which there is no turning back.

A Historian's Perspective
As I say, it is with great sorrow that I accept that these coming truths to be self-evident. I do so as a historian, with an eye to the past as a lesson for the future.

Many who voted for Brexit will not have realised the consequences of their actions. They will not have voted Brexit because they wanted to see the break-up of the Union. But their decision will result directly in that final destruction of the Union as we know it today and have known it for the past century. To not accept this fact is to be wholly condescending to the individual cultural and national identities that make up the Union. It is also to be deluded.

The decision made on the 23rd June 2016 changed everything. But dependant on the Government's precise response to that narrow 'Leave' victory, the Union could've been salvaged. But by pursuing a 'Harsh Brexit' that will see us leave the single market, a Tory Government, that bastion of Unionist sentiment, has set in train a domino-effect that has gathered momentum to destroy all that it cherishes. It if wasn't so sad, it would be amusing.

Efforts to put a brake on the process by at least giving the people who voted for the departure to have the final say on the destination once the full picture is known, failed today in Parliament.

So Theresa May will now invoke Article 50 and Scotland will seek to wriggle out of the ensuing mess that will follow.

So yes, 13th March 2017 is a historic day. It's the day that marks the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

May the last one to leave the UK, please turn out the lights.

RIP the UK (1922-2019)

Monday, 6 February 2017

An International Family - 4 Years of Family History Research

Over four years of family history research has re-enforced to me how we are all one global, single community.

It's incredible when you scratch under the surface just a small amount, to find so many long-lost, far-flung connections around the world all with roots back to the same place.

A Pembrokeshire Base
I've been very lucky in my research in that I am based in Pembrokeshire where I can trace both my immediate paternal and maternal lines all the way back to the late 1700s at the very least.

Mine is a very 'Pembrokeshire' family on all sides with all 4 grandparents, all 8 great-grandparents and 14 of 16 great-great-grandparents buried in the county. The only missing pair are Thomas and Jane Davies who are buried in Treorchy Cemetery - I'm fortunate that their daughter Elizabeth decided to move back from the rush to coal in the valleys back to her homeland where she married David Cole. Had she not, I wouldn't be here today telling their story!

Going back another generation and again, all of those 32 ggg-grandparents that I have found are buried in Pembrokeshire apart from 1 ggg-grandfather who is buried in Glyncorrwg high up above Maesteg.

A handful of lines can be taken back centuries earlier on the back of old research carried out over many years by others and which is well documented. The Pictons of Pembrokeshire is a classic example. The current crop of researchers in many ways are standing upon the shoulders of the giants who went before and have given us so much information to work with. Our job is to add to that store of information for future generations.

An International Family
So I am very fortunate in having very firm foundations from which to explore more widely those lines off my direct branch that moved away from the county of their birth to start a new life abroad,

There is a significant family presence in Australia from various lines going back generations and links also to South Africa. There is still the much vaunted but unsubstantiated links to Patagonia in the middle of the 19th century. That is one 'lost-line' of my gg-grandfather's siblings from Brynberian that I would dearly like to discover.

Or did these 'black sheep' of the family not go to Patagonia after all but to North America?

I don't know, but if they did, they were in a long line of family lines that crossed the pond looking for a better life.

Many emigrated to find better employment in the burgeoning American coalmines after the coal industry in Pembrokeshire began to grind to a halt at the same time as the boom in the south Wales valleys.

But whether it was the coal of other issues that brought movement, move they did and over 4 years I have found a wealth of lines living throughout that great nation. With my global membership of Ancestry.co.uk I've been able to track down a lot information on these various lines and having vaguely made an effort at keeping all of this information in order, decided to put together a map to visualise that movement. It was greatly revealing.

Descendants in America
This map shows that from my research to date, I am confident that I have tracked down blood relatives who lived and died in at least 23 of the 50 states.

The biggest concentration focus on Kansas in the heart of America where at least 3 distinctly separate lines in my heritage converged. The same could be said for New York and Pennsylvania states. Though of all of my lines, it is the very well researched Picton line of my gggg-grandmother Elizabeth mentioned earlier in this post which has spread across great swathes of that enormous land mass.

But of course it's easy for it to have done so because we know so much about this particular family. What if as much was known about all the other lines in my family story? If only! No doubt that map would almost be full!

But then that's the frustration and in equal measure, great joy of family research - it never ends! As one door closes, so many more open. It is a never ending story.

So I shall continue to uncover that story. There is so much more to be told.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Thank You, Mr President

I don't believe that I remember the Presidency of George H.W. Bush.

I was 10 and a bit when he lost the 1992 election and handed over the Presidency the following January to Bill Clinton.

Before the World Became Important
It's odd but 1992 was a year when I seemed to become aware of a world outside of my own happy bubble at Hungerford Farm, Loveston in south Pembrokeshire. I became aware of football (and 25 years later am still saddled with being an Aston Villa fan). I became aware of F1 and delighted in roaring home Nigel Mansell to his only World Championship win that year (though I do have vague memories of the dismay as his efforts at the tail end of the previous season petered out).

I'd also become aware of politics. The 1992 General Election for this then 9 year old and the battle between Major and Kinnock loomed large that spring. But the downfall of Margaret Thatcher less than 18 months earlier in 1990? No memory. The first Iraq war of 1991? No recollection. Even by 1992, the world of international politics had yet to infiltrate my mind.

Bill Clinton
But things were to change. I began to realise that I had political instincts and a natural interest in the world at large, as well as local affairs, during my time in secondary school. As it happens, that 7 year period between 1993-2000 ran almost in direct parallel with the Presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.

Cheeky Bill
This of course was also the era of 'Blair' in his prime. Both got on well as they sought to forge a '3rd way' in politics. My socially liberal conscience was becoming ever clearer to me but it was also evident that I was no New, Old or any kind of Labourite. No, I was firmly a liberal and by my days studying A-Levels between 1998-2000, I was aware that I was specifically, a Liberal Democrat.

 In America though, it was a simple case of Democrat Vs Republican and my increasingly burgeoning interest in national and international politics and the beating liberal heart that was growing within me meant that as far as American politics was concerned, I would comfortably ally myself to those old Donkeys as opposed to those great Elephants.

The Monica Lewinsky scandal of course rocked Clinton's Presidency in the latter years and yet by the end, it didn't harm his personality. He had overseen a benign economic decade in American history and his down to earth persona seemed to chime with that relaxed 90s vibe.

Al Gore, no...George W. Bush!
I was in my opening term in Aberystwyth University and specifically, in the Pantycelyn computer room when the November 2000 Presidential election night results were coming through.

Of course, it was all dependent on Florida. One of the networks called it for Al Gore. Delight! The Presidency was his and Clinton's liberally sympathetic, centrist agenda would continue! But no, of course those hanging chards had other ideas and the Supreme Court would eventually hand Florida to George Bush Jnr despite his having won less of the popular vote than Al Gore.

Oh dear Dubya
Despair wasn't the word but of course worse would follow. Not so much the invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11 but the invasion of Iraq in 2003, without UN international support, rocked me to the core. I was delighted that my own party leader Charles Kennedy was so clear in his opposition at that time.

So when the 2004 election came around, I was desperate that a new JFK would knock Bush Jnr out of the White House after just one term, just like his father. I recall being at home in the Preseli Hills that November evening with my one and to date, only bout of tonsillitis. I was there by the Rayburn all night knowing that whichever of Bush or Kerry won two of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, would win the election.

Kerry took Pennsylvania but Bush took Ohio and once again, that there Florida for 4 more years with Dick Cheney ever ominously there in his shadows as Vice-President.

It was a depressing 8 years for a liberal internationalist like myself  to live through but hindsight being what it is, was it really all that? Probably yes. But time may just tell.

Barack Obama
In those early primaries, I planted my own support in the Obama camp from the off. I wasn't convinced by Hillary at the time though that would change, but in that young Senator for Illinois, there was a vision and a passion and enthusiasm that was infectious.

Happy Days!
The sheer joy I felt at his election in the fall of 2008 wasn't just because of what he could bring to the plate but also as a direct result of the release from those 8 years under Dubya. Allied with Obama's victory was the Democratic sweep of Congress which meant that in those first two years of office, he made the sweeping changes to America's healthcare system with the Affordable Care Act that was so desperately needed.

But of course the backlash and the emergence of the Tea Party that came from 'Obamacare' would cast a shadow over the remaining 8 years of his Presidency. Much has been said about the lack of progress that Obama made with his domestic agenda. But following the mid-term elections of 2010, it is possible to make the case that he faced the most aggressive Congress ever set against an incumbent President.

What chance did he have against such an insurmountable system of checks-and-balances that is fundamental to the American constitution?

But he left so much more than a disappointing domestic legacy. He brought America back in from the cold and into the international arena with a measured, sensible tone that had been so lacking under the Presidency of the previous incumbent. The gravitas and sense of intellectualism that Obama brought to the podium when he spoke was a breath of fresh air. You could see when he spoke and when he hesitated momentarily to ponder a reply to a question that he was thinking deeply about what he was about to say. Not a sound-bite, but a carefully analysed and considered response to yet another complex and intricate problem facing his administration, his country and our world.

His Nobel Peace Prize was premature. It was clearly given in the belief that he meant well with what he said. Of that there can be no doubt. But as much as we desire positive change, such are the ways of diplomacy, it never was so easy in reality and on issues like conflict in the Middle East, we are possibly falling further back from the idea of a sustainable two state solution than we were in 2008. But if that is the case, the blame can not be placed at Obama's door - but at that of Benjamin Netanyahu.

Thank You Mr President
His Presidency has not been all that he or we liberals had hoped. Those days of wild optimism in late 2008 were probably akin to those of early May 1997 back here in the UK. Maybe we should've known better. Life is never that straightforward as there are always the conflicting interests of conservative forces seeking to hold back the change that is always needed.

Progressivism Vs Conservatism will always be the big battle in contemporary politics.

But despite these trials and tribulations, Barack Hussein Obama and his worthy Vice President Joe Biden and fabulous First Lady Michelle, showed the way to those like myself that optimism, intellect and a liberal, progressive agenda can be pursued with humour, compassion and kindness.

Whatever the future may bring, I thank Obama and his administration over the past 8 years for proving that good can be done in the world...if only you will it.

God Bless the 44th President of these United States.