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Lib Dems – last chance saloon

By Angela Harbutt
May 20th, 2015 at 7:11 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Liberal Democrats

If Ms Jones vision for the Lib Dems was a bit too fruity for you, then here is an alternative item that may be of interest.

Julian Astle’s piece, which appeared in the Independent last week, is all together less humorous, but he makes some excellent points.

First he neatly encapsulates the entire problem with the disastrous 2015 General Election campaign…

“The proximate cause of the Liberal Democrats’ identity crisis was the decision to fight the election as centrists rather than liberals – a decision that the party leadership knew, deep down, risked leaving them with a functional and lifeless message, devoid of the sense of moral purpose and historic mission that made Clegg’s resignation speech his best of the campaign….

…In so far as this gave the party a reason to exist, it was to moderate the worst excesses of whichever party it might end up working with in government – a dismal offering. Not only did this tell voters nothing about the party’s own vision for the country, it actively undermined its claims to have one. If the Tories want to travel 10 miles to the right, and Labour 10 miles to the left, the logic of the Lib Dem position was that they were prepared to travel in either direction, but only for five miles.”

He also goes on to clinically dissect the reason for this ill-fated strategy

“…the underlying cause – and the one the party leadership candidates will try hard not to discuss in the coming weeks – is the unresolved battle between the party’s Right-leaning economic liberals and the Left-leaning social liberals about the true meaning of liberalism.”

But what of the future? Well, Julian argues that the “anti-austerity Left” has now become “the most crowded part of the political landscape” and, he argues, the Lib Dems have already burned their bridges back to that land…

“A party that has spent five years attacking the deficit with the Conservatives cannot credibly spend the next five denouncing “Tory cuts”.

So where next? It’s so simple. There is a large group of younger voters crying out for a party that represents them…

“rather than identifying either with the Left or the Right as the pre- and post- war generations did, and do, today’s young combine the social liberal views of the Left (secular, internationalist, concerned about the environment, relaxed about lifestyle choices and family structures) and the classical liberal views of the Right (in favour of balanced budgets, low taxation, conditional welfare, personal responsibility, individual choice and entrepreneurship) without seeing any contradiction between the two.

This increasingly educated, empowered, technologically savvy cohort is left cold by the conservatism of the Tory party and the collectivism of the Labour party. They are instinctive liberals. They just need a liberal party to vote for. “

Though I cannot, in any sense of the word be described as a young voter, that is where I am pretty much planted. It is one where many of my friends and occasional drinking-fellows (Lib Dem, UKIP and Conservative voters) to a smaller, or larger extent, are also at – economically free market, socially liberal (whatever that means these days).

Surely this is the best, the only, route for a sane Lib Dem party to take? And if they don’t act soon UKIP, the Conservatives (or some party yet to emerge) will move into this vacuum and the Lib Dems truly will be left defending the rights of the likes of Sebastien, Flounder, Flotsam and Jetsam and co, and little else.

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What is the truth behind the rise in strokes? Anyone?

By Angela Harbutt
May 12th, 2015 at 8:10 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in health

News channels are awash today with the latest horror story – that strokes have risen over past 15 years among working-age people.  Cue health “experts” and charity spokespeople of various guises rushing to the TV sofa’s to point accusing fingers at the Great British public’s failure to take enough exercise, and our consumption of too much sugar/salt/fat, to explain the rise.

Newspapers are also falling over themselves to tell us that the latest health crisis is all our own fault. This is the Daily Mail‘s lead paragraph:

“Strokes among middle-aged men have soared because of obesity and lack of exercise, experts said yesterday.”

“Their research shows the number of cases is up 46 per cent on 15 years ago. For women in the same 40s and 50s age group the rise is 30 per cent.”

Or this from the Independent (with obligatory photo of a couple of fat blokes):

“Sharp rise in strokes among people of working age leaves thousands devastated by disability”

“The Stroke Association said the increase was due to more unhealthy lifestyles”

Undoubtedly health choices have a part to play in preventing strokes, perhaps a significant part for all I know, but before we all give ourselves a stroke worrying about the latest health scare let’s just be aware of the facts.

The Stroke Association study these headlines refer to, states that in 2000 there were around 4,260 hospital admissions for strokes among men aged between 40 and 54 in England, compared to 6,221 in 2014. For woman the figures are 3,529 in 2000, to 4,604 in 2014.

Over a similar period, the UK population has grown by over 5 million – and, according to the ONS  (since 2001) “there have been high levels of net inward migration, adding to the population at younger working ages”. I don’t have the precise numbers for England (rather than the UK) nor the increased numbers of men aged 40 to 54 living in England today compared with 15 years ago but the chances are they have risen since 2000. What matters is the % of the 40-54 year olds experiencing strokes today vs 2000, not the rise in absolute number of strokes surely?

I can’t help but wonder why the percentage changes have not been reported?

Lost in the story is also the fact that “hospital admission practice” (mentioned in passing in the press release) is also having an impact on the rise in numbers. Have we got better at diagnosing strokes over the last 15 years (probably)? Could that also account for some of the rise?

We should also note that the causes of strokes are many and various. The BBC managed to find two young stroke victims on its web site, one was a 34 year old whose stroke was caused by a (previously undiagnosed) heart condition and the second was a “very fit” (49 year old), who was “in the gym six days a week”, “ate healthily”, but had (again undiagnosed) high blood pressure. Neither of those men appear to had a stroke as a result of their lifestyle choices – far from it.

But does the BBC lunchtime news talk about either the population growth or indeed, the possible improvement in diagnosis as possible reasons for the “rise”? Does it bother to alert the “fit and healthy” that they may still be at risk of stroke even if they have a perfect diet and  take regular exercise? (eg according to the Stroke AssociationSouth Asian and black people in the UK are also at increased risk of stroke. Although the reasons for this are not completely understood, we do know that black people are twice as likely to have a stroke compared to white people and that black and South Asian people also tend to have strokes at a younger age than white people.”)

No. Nor any mention of the fact that if you have had (often undiagnosed) TIAs (mini strokes) you are at high risk; likewise you are at higher risk if there is a family history of strokes.

The tack taken by the Stroke Association and health journalists across the board is nothing less than irresponsible. The data extracted from the NHS by the Stroke Association shows a snap shot of the number of strokes occurring amongst those of a certain age in England and nothing more. The headlines/soundbites from them creates an impression that the sole cause of the “rise” in strokes amongst 40-54 year olds is “lifestyle choices”.  That is nothing more than a hypothesis/best guess/hobby horse from the health spokespeople. It is not only not backed up by any evidence presented in its press release or elsewhere, it runs the risk of leading to stigmatization of those suffering from strokes (“it’s their fault”) and creates a false sense of security among the fit and healthy – but otherwise vulnerable groups – that they are low risk or risk free.

It also displays, yet again, sheer laziness from the so-called journalists. When I spoke to the BBC after the lunch time news edition to put some questions to them; why they had shown the rise in strokes in absolute terms and had not factored in population growth in the last 15 years; whether there was any evidence to show if diagnosis had improved; and whether they had figures showing the percentage of stroke victims defined as obese, it was quite clear they had not even considered these points. Indeed they started off by trying to tell me that they thought the figures had taken into account population growth.

By the Six O’clock news, the BBC had added a line to its report stating the increase in the number of strokes “can’t be accounted for by population growth and by changes in the way strokes are treated. Experts say obesity and sedentary lifestyles are to blame.” But that was as far as they were willing, or able, to go.

Where is the journalism from the media? All they seem to have done, by and large, is to have taken the Stroke Association press release and top and tailed it with a “personal story” and/or a sound bite from a “health expert”.  More importantly, where is the responsibility from the the Stroke Association to provide the UK population with factually accurate, evidence-based information? Why have they stooped to shock tactics?

Still it seems to fit the agreed current narrative of the health lobby that “lifestyle” is the root of all our health problems. And “health journalists” seem to happily gobble up and spew back out whatever froth they are fed. They have ceased to be the fifth estate, examining the validity of the claims made. They have become the mouthpieces for their friends and colleagues working in health. They may as well just give health campaign groups their login and password and go sit on a beach.

Until the wider health lobby (in which we must include journalists as well as campaign groups) gets off this bandwagon and starts giving people the full facts however dull, rather than the spin that suits their beliefs or grabs the headlines, we should simply ignore everything they say. As an increasing number of people are clearly doing already. And government must start to consider whether health authorities should, in the interests of Public Health, continue to outsource it’s services to charities that persist in playing fast and loose with the facts.

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Time for the Lib Dems to put the amateurs out to pasture

By Angela Harbutt
May 10th, 2015 at 2:00 pm | Comments Off on Time for the Lib Dems to put the amateurs out to pasture | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Following the “evisceration” of the Lib Dem parliamentary party on Thursday, will the Lib Dems finally wake up and smell the coffee?

Losing some 47 seats in the House of Commons and somewhere in the region of 350 deposits, on May 7th, was not an accident. It was not a “price paid for being in coalition” – particularly when the entire South West was lost to a party to the right of them. It was not the “brutal tactics of the Conservatives” – they simply fought an excellent campaign – and won. Did Lib Dems really expect Lynton Crosby to back off in the South West because the Lib Dems had been good eggs in 2010? Of course not. It was not a price paid for the tuition fees debacle. It was certainly not the “unfairness of the voting system” (we presumably knew that before we started) and it was definitely not a lack of media coverage or the “biased” media coverage (the much-loved “all the media hate us” hobby horse of the party).

It was the total and utter failure of the Lib Dems to offer anything interesting or compelling to the country.

It was a shambles of a campaign. And it was a total and utter failure of Nick Clegg to make the necessary changes to the party, its structure and its personnel over the last 5 years that made such a disastrous campaign inevitable.

Let me be clear; I know Nick is a good man. He is an excellent media performer (as he showed yet again during the General Election). He is also a brave and honourable man. Had he not been prepared to drag the party into the 2010 coalition, the country would not just be on its knees right now it would be on the floor. I hope that history will recognise this contribution, because it was truly noble and magnificent.

But for all the bravery he showed for the sake of the country, he was a coward when it came to taking tough decisions for the sake of the party.

He did nothing to modernise the ludicrous archaic committee structure of the Liberal Democrats (too many groups with lots of power and prestige but no accountability). You can hardly make a cup of tea in the Lib Dems without half a dozen committees getting involved. It probably has more rules than it has members.

This is no way for a political party to operate in the 21st century. Take just one example. Why on earth did Nick allow the perpetuation of the wholly undemocratic conference elite (those who have been awarded a magic “voting card” by some local party ) deciding party policy rather than, oh I don’t know, those who actually have been elected by the voters? If the idea of accountable MPs determining policy was a step too far, at the very least we should have moved to a democratic “one member one vote” system by now. Why no change?  Of course the answer is probably that Nick didn’t want to take on the 29 person Federal Policy Committee and the 20+ person Federal Conference committee (and possibly several other committees I have never heard of) who would undoubtedly have fought tooth and nail to protect their power base. But that should not have stopped him from doing it.

Likewise, he did nothing to end the spectre of hapless amateur hangers-on at the top of the Lib Dem hierarchy surrounding the leader like a ring of steel; getting their kicks from “being important”, hoarding information, and lauding it over everyone else – hopelessly out of their depth and too self-obsessed or too stupid to know the limitations of their own abilities.

You might have thought that Nick would learn from the omnishambles of the “YES to Fairer Votes” (Yes to AV) campaign – possibly the most disastrous campaign ever witnessed by mankind (up until the General Election of 2015 that is). For the 2011 AV campaign he appointed his mate John Sharkey  to head up the fight. Sharkey, you will recall, was the bungling strategist in charge of the lacklustre 2010 election campaign which was saved single-handedly by Nick’s own performance at the TV debates (not helped by the hapless Sharkey apparently leaving his secret TV debates notes in the back of a cab).

Yet come 2015 Nick does the same thing again, appointing his patron and friend Paddy Ashdown as Campaign Chair and Olly Grender (ex everything in the Lib Dems) as Deputy Chair. It was like YES to AV all over again – a total misallocation of resources, and silly gimmicks (a manifesto launch in a nightclub where the sound fails) failing to cover up the lack of any coherent proposition to the electorate.

And if you want proof positive that the amateurs in charge at the top of the 2015 campaign were living in la-la land right up to the end,  then look no further than Paddy’s assertion that it had been “a wonderful campaign” on May 6th and Grender’s preposterous tweet on May 7th in response to the “I’ll eat my hat” gaff:

“@campbellclaret will eat his kilt, @paddyashdown will eat his hat …… right now I’d settle for a sandwich #GE2015”.

Did these people have absolutely no idea what was going on, even that late in the game?

And that is the problem with the Lib Dems. It is the plaything of too many amateurs and wannabes – whether they prance around at the various committees feeling self important (with all the power and none of the accountability), wander around on stage at conference admiring their own images on the TV and grinning whenever they “take a lump” out of the leadership, or head up disastrous self-indulgent campaigns, for which they all too rarely face the consequences.

Nick has stood down as leader, but what of Olly Grender and Lord Ashdown? They have, presumably, been automatically stood down now the campaign is done. So what do they do – just move on and go back to writing books or popping up on the odd TV programme? I trust they will never be put anywhere near the Lib Dem levers of power ever again. And, that the time for appointing amateurs is well and truly over.

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Lib Dem Leadership – surely it’s sorted?

By Angela Harbutt
May 10th, 2015 at 11:01 am | Comments Off on Lib Dem Leadership – surely it’s sorted? | Posted in Leadership, Liberal Democrats, Uncategorized

So the discussions on who might be the next Lib Dem leader have already begun. Tim Farron has not ruled himself out, whilst Greg Mulholland has apparently. Not sure about Norman Lamb, but the bookies think he is in with a shout. Mind you, given the numbers, they probably all are (in with a shout that is).

Lib Dem Party President, Sal Brinton, has already written to all Lib Dem members (Friday) telling them that “The Federal Executive meets for the first time tomorrow afternoon to consider the timescales” for the leadership election.

Just to be clear, 28 or so Lib Dems will have sat down in a room somewhere yesterday to work out the “leadership election” process. This may sound ridiculous to outsiders (for crying out loud there are only 7 MPs in the running!) but not to those, like the usually sane Lib Dem Mark Pack, who think this is deadly serious. He has already called for  a “properly contested leadership contest, not a coronation“.

Why? Because “A contest triggers debate and a chance of collectively learning the lessons“. Hmmm…. what the Lib Dems need is yet another post-mortem on why it all went wrong. I don’t think so.

It really doesn’t appear to occur to any of them that this constant navel-gazing which is sending them backwards, not forwards. What did the Lib Dems learn from the lame 2010 GE campaign, the 2011 AV campaign, the (several) Rennard inquiries; the 2014 European elections; the various local council elections? Nothing it would seem, given that the 2015 General Election campaign was every bit as bad as the ludicrous “Yes to Fairer Votes” campaign.

[The truth of the matter is that the Lib Dems never learn, collectively or otherwise, the lessons of any particular failure because they don’t really want to hear the answer – but more of that later today]

Returning to the Leadership Election….

If the remaining eight MPs (assuming they all stay Lib Dems) had anything about them they would dispense with the now meaningless Lib Dem rule book  (which states that any leadership candidate needs 10% of MPs to back them (!) plus the backing of at least 200 party members from at least 20 different local parties). They would  have sat down already and agreed amongst themselves who it will be –  and announced it.

The leader, with the total support of all 8 MPs, would also then tell the 28 person Federal Executive, the 29 person Federal Policy Committee, the 20+ person Federal Conference committee and any other committee found occasionally lurking in the bowels of Lib Dem HQ that in swift order all the current policies/rules books/committees etc will all be put under immediate review with a view to (a) disbanding or (b) drastic pruning. If the Federal party want a conference they can have one, but it won’t be where policy is made. Policy will be made by the 8 accountable MPs, on a system of their own devising, and, in the interests of democracy, put to the membership on a “one member one vote” basis annually. In the Autumn of 2015 the first set of proposals will be put to the membership (on the “one member on vote” system) and include a question on satisfaction with the leader. The rest the leader will sort as he goes on.

I am sure this suggestion will make many Lib Dem’s toes curl at the very idea of by-passing the FE , and making the Federal Policy Committee all but redundant, but surely their time and effort can be redeployed rebuilding the membership of the party. What the remaining Lib Dem MPs – and indeed the wider party membership – surely don’t need is 10 or so committee members for every one MP?

Please someone tell me commonsense will, finally, prevail.

 

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What if Nick Clegg loses his seat at the election?

By Angela Harbutt
February 26th, 2015 at 1:48 pm | 7 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

I read an interesting article on Nick Barlow’s blog a few days ago, posing the question, “What if Nick Clegg loses his seat at the election”.

In the natural order of things, the Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party, the RT Hon Sir Malcolm Bruce MP would become “acting leader” until the party could set up and run a full leadership contest.  But the problem, staring us all in the face is that Malcolm is standing down at this election. Come May 8th, the Lib Dems may well not have a Leader or a Deputy Leader.

In light of the Deputy Leader’s decision not to stand for re-election, it is a question I too have been considering in recent weeks. After all, Nick’s Sheffield Hallam seat is by no means “safe” and the distinct possibility of yet another coalition of some sort looms large, given the current polling figures. Like Nick Barlow, I have no idea if the Leader will lose his seat, nor indeed do I have perfect insight into how the political landscape will look come May 8th. It is entirely possible, given the lamentable state of the Labour Party and the utterly appalling personal ratings of its hapless leader, that the Conservative Party will, in the weeks to come, surge ahead and end up with a clear (if small) majority.

Nick Barlow and I are not alone. Earlier this month, Matthew Norman wrote in the Independent that (a) “it is likelier than ever that the Liberal Democrats will retain the balance of power, even with a massively shrunken parliamentary presence” and (b) ” there is a serious chance that the Lord Haw-Haw of tuition fees will lose his student-laden seat.” He too asked the inevitable question. If Nick does lose his seat

“who will enter coalition talks as Lib Dem interim leader, and how might that person be chosen?”

Just in case people think that the Lib Dems are total idiots, the Lib Dems have an appointed 2015 negotiating team, for better or worse, consisting of Danny Alexander MP, Steve Webb MP, Lynne Featherstone MP, David Laws MP and Baroness Sal Brinton (President of the British Liberal Democrats). Of course, 4 of the 5 negotiators are MPs seeking re-election. Come May 8th it may be that 2 or 3 of these are likewise searching for new lines of work. Can a negotiating team really go into battle with 4 out of 5 of them now outside of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party? Well that kind of depends on the strength of the leader.

So the question we must address is who does this team report to? Who will be the Leader if Nick does lose Sheffield Hallam?

Nick Barlow suggests a kind of Lib Demmy coup d’état – whereby those Lib Dem MPs still standing, meet up pretty pronto (Friday) and quickly elect a leader (or “acting leader”) amongst themselves, with the Federal Executive meeting a day later (Saturday) to “authorise” the Parliamentary Party’s choice. He argues, quite reasonably, that this procedure could be adopted in a case where force majeure applies (misplacing both your Leader and Deputy Leader does surely count as force majeure).

I don’t agree with Nick Barlow’s proposal. Sure, I reckon that all Lib Dem MPs can (and probably will) congregate in one place on Friday 8th – but whether they can agree on a new leader in a matter of minutes or hours is another issue all together. And please NO NO NO to getting the Federal Executive to “authorise” anything!

But at least Nick Barlow has the cojones to put forward an idea.

Think about it. Imagine a scenario where, in the wee small hours of May 8th, it becomes clear that the Conservatives are going to be 20 seats short of the finishing post. David Cameron surely gets onto the phone to Nick and asks if the Lib Dems are willing to open negotiations of some kind. In Nick Barlow’s scenario Nick will have to say “sorry Dave, I lost my seat. I reckon that by teatime the Parliamentary Party should have elected a new interim leader – fingers crossed – but I don’t know who that will be – do you mind hanging on for a while whilst they sort things out. Good luck, someone will get back to you”.

Later that day, and after much wrangling, an Acting Leader is selected by the Parliamentary Party – but wait, the Lib Dems still can’t open negotiations because the Federal Executive haven’t endorsed it yet!

OK, you say, but we have a negotiating team that can get to work on Friday morning. No they can’t. If Nick has lost his seat, he can’t send them in, and without a leader they have no authority. No leader (Labour or Conservative) worth his salt is going to agree that his party sits down with what amounts to a random bunch of “Lib Dem folks”, of which only one or two are actual members of the Parliamentary Party. The Conservatives may as well approach 20 individual Lib Dem MPs one by one and see if they can get to the magic 20 or so required.

In this option, at best the world is put on hold whilst the Lib Dems scramble around “trying to find a leader” and are rightfully ridiculed by the media, rival political parties and the wider public as they do so. At worst the Lib Dems are by-passed as Mr Cameron sees if another solution is available in short order – one that perhaps involves the DUP/UKIP (and maybe a handful of Lib Dem MPs with the courage of their convictions to get on with it).

Taking into account how the real world operates (something I know many Lib Dems are loathed to do), I would like to offer up two further options if Nick loses his seat.

Option 1. Retain the elected Lib Dem leader – Nick Clegg- as acting leader during the course of any coalition negotiations and see the party through until a new leader and deputy leader can be found by due process. After all it will be his negotiating team (or what’s left of them) who may have to go into battle with the Conservatives or Labour, and who knows better the ins and outs of the system than him? Ok, it may break half a dozen Lib Dem constitutional clauses, but if this is a case where force majeure applies, I don’t think keeping Nick in charge has any less validity than a proposing to exclude the entire membership from the process. (See how Ed Miliband likes that one!). By the way, I reckon (though I am not a constitutional expert) that until either David Cameron or Ed Miliband goes to the Queen, Nick Clegg is still the Deputy Prime Minister of this country. But correct me if I am wrong.

Option 2. My preferred option. Technically the full title of the Deputy Leader is the “Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons” and is elected only by the Parliamentary Party (the MPs – no Federal Executive or other committee “authorisation” required). And yes, that person would become the “acting leader” in the event that the current leader was indisposed.

There is nothing to stop the Lib Dem MPs electing a new Deputy Leader at any point. Would it not make sense for the MPs to get together sooner rather than later to elect a new Deputy Leader? Someone who is likely to hold their seat; Norman Lamb, Tim Farron, or Alistair Carmichael, for example. (If these guys don’t get re-elected the “negotiating committee” will be the entirety of the remaining Lib Dem MPs).

OK OK I get that the media would have a field day if this was seen as a panic measure by the Lib Dems to find possible stand-in for Nick in the dying days of the election campaign. But it need not be managed that haphazardly. The lovely Malcolm Bruce can make this happen all by himself.

If Malcolm should independently decide to stand down as Deputy Leader, say as, or just before, Parliament rises (end of March), the Lib Dems would have no choice but to elect a new Deputy Leader. This can be quick and easy and, providing MPs elect someone with a darned good chance of retaining their seat, all would surely be peachy? This person then has a good few weeks – not hours – to prep him or herself on what may be required in the event that Nick does lose his seat and one of the two main parties come calling. I am sure there would still be some cat-calling in the media – but this could be easily answered, and everyone would move on.

Whether you like one of my options or Nick Barlow’s option, at least they are options. The question we should all be asking, I think, is why on earth the Lib Dem hierarchy seems not to have tackled this before now? The Lib Dems have more committees than you can shake a stick at – surely one of them should have come up with a solution?  It is not like we haven’t known for some time that the Deputy Leader is stepping down, or that Nick may lose his seat.

The inevitable response to this question from within the Lib Dems has been to say “Please, please don’t let’s waste time on all this, just get out and deliver some leaflets or do phone canvassing“. Like Nick Barlow I find “the ‘don’t think, just deliver leaflets’ mantra” ridiculous. It is exactly why this party is dying on its feet.

Because this issue DOES matter. The leader, or acting leader, of the Lib Dems may well be in a position to determine who the next Prime Minister of this country will be. If that is not important, what is? A great many voters, me included, want to know which one of two people will be charge of any possible negotiations BEFORE they vote, not after. And we certainly want to be reassured that a vote for the Lib Dems is not a vote for chaos on May 8th as they rush around trying to find someone take charge.

If Liberal Democrat Party can’t tell us what its plans are to solve this relatively simple problem – worse, by its silence, show that it has no plan, why should anyone trust them to be part of any government?

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