Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Not in front of the children

A week or so ago I referred to the 'quasi-religious zeal' of David Southall's defenders in the wake of his being struck off by the GMC. What I meant by this was the impression they gave that only they saw the true scale and evil of child abuse and that those who disagreed with them were heretics and unbelievers.

This impression is reinforced by this article by paediatrician Nigel Speight in Sunday's Observer in which he claims that his fellow paedistricians are now 'worried about participating in child abuse cases'.

However, it isn't the emotive language of the article that bothers me, so much as the name of the organisation Dr Speight belongs to: Professionals Against Child Abuse (Paca). There is something quite sinister about a group of people adopting such a name. For there is a subliminal message being given here - we are those professionals who are against child abuse. Other professionals - those outside our organisation - are, by implication, professionals indifferent to, or professionals in favour of child abuse.

Southall's defenders believe that there is a conspiracy to deny the existence of child abuse, and in naming their organisation thus, appear to believe also that there are those who do accept that child abuse happens but who don't care and are happy for it to continue.

Of course the reality is rather different. I have never heard anyone, professional or otherwise, express the view that child abuse, in whatever form, either doesn't really happen or is basicially all right. Indeed for anyone to say so would break a major social taboo. Child abuse is widely and rightly recognised as a great social evil of our time, and I doubt whether there is any professional person or public figure who is not against it.

It seems to be that the anguish Dr Speight and Co. feel about being pursued through the GMC by aggrieved parents, is pretty much a mirror image of the pain parents must feel if wrongly accused of harming their children by a paediatrician or other child protection professional.

Child abuse is a deeply emotive subject. The idea of children being harmed by adults who are supposed to be caring for them is a horrific one that rightly stirs people's deepest anxieties. But for that very reason, it is important that cases of suspected child abuse are invesitated thoroughly but dispassionately, with the aim of getting at the truth not pursuing a wider agenda.

Dr Speight comments that:

Professionals against Child Abuse (Paca), may be reluctant to participate in the child death review panels being set up to scrutinise all cases of child deaths.

If so this may be a good thing. For parents involved in such tragic cases are likely to feel concerned about a Paca member taking part in such a review. They will fear that because Paca professionals are on a mission to expose child abuse and believe that others are in denial about its existence, they are likely to have it in for them.

Mutal antagonism between parents and professionals is clearly not good for child protection. If parents feel that they are constantly under suspicion from doctors and social workers, while child protection professionals fear vendettas from aggrieved parents for raising legitimate concerns, the welfare of the child will get lost amid the bickering.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Toynbee vigilante

Thanks (or 'hat-tip' as I gather we bloggers have to say) to Liberal England for drawing my attention to this post at Blood and Treasure
on the evils of Polly Toynbee.

As a health precaution I have had to give up buying the Guardian on days when Toynbee writes. While it is disappointing to learn that her column is still appearing, it is reassuring to know that somebody is keeping watch.

With vigilantes like 'Blood and Treasure' about we may yet foil Toynbee's dastardly plan to make the state employ nannies
for every member of Britain's adult population.

Without a hint of irony...

...I now offer by own bit of praise for the great and the good.

Whoever wins the Lib Dem leadership election will quickly have to appoint their new front bench team. In the last couple of weeks I hears some TV pundit (sorry can't remember who or when) say that Vince Cable might be moved from the Treasury brief to enable him to 'concentrate on being deputy leader'.

I hope neither of the leadership candidates is contemplating this course of action. Deputy leader of itself is essentially a non-job, indeed it is simply deputising for the leader in the House of Commons, it's not even a whole-party role.

It may be that it is expedient for the defeated leadership candidate to be deputy, in addition to holding a major shadown cabinet brief. But what is absolutely clear is that Vince Cable should remain as treasury spokesman.

Fawning on film

Many years ago when I first came across the word 'sycophant' in print, I assumed it was pronounced 'psycho-phant'. Of course as soon as I had mispronounced it thus a couple of times in conversation, I learned my mistake.

But I have always thought my original pronunciation better, capturing as it does the obsessive compulsion that some people appear to feel to fawn over and toady to their superiors.

To see an example of what I mean, watch this excuciating YouTube video by Watford's ultra-loyalist, first Blairite, now Brownite, Labour MP.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Dick Taverne on GM food

I tuned into Sunday's Westminster Hour on Radio 4 to hear Richard Grayson's head-to-head with James Graham about the Lib Dem leadership. But interesting though that was, it wasn't the best item on the programme about a Lib Dem politician.

In the first of a series of features called 'stop the world' which focus on people with maverick views that challenge the consensus, it included an interview with Dick Taverne about his support for genetic modification technology, especially GM food. You can listen to it again here (it's about 45 minutes into the programme).

Taverne has already set up a pressure group Sense about Science to campaign on this and other issues and published an excellent book last year, The March of Unreason, which deals not only with GM, but also subjects such as alternative medicine and organic food.

I have long puzzled over why hostility to GM shoud have become such a totemic cause for environmental groups. My political mentor, Robert Pritchard, who was for many years head of the internationally-renowned Genetics Department at Leicester University, always championed GM technology as having not only social and economic benefits, but also environmental benefits.

So I was surprised when environmental organisations, whose campaigns I usually agreed with, came out so strongly against GM. In many ways, because of its potential benefits in reducing use of artificial chemicals and also of feeding the third world, they should have been its foremost champions.

My hunch is that it was a question of marketing priorities trumping environmental policy. Scare stories about 'frankenstein foods', tampering with nature and playing God were just too good opportunities to miss in terms of gaining publicity and raising funds. It is also a message that plays well to different audiences - the conservative with a small 'c', countryside-loving middle classes as well as the usual supporters of 'green' causes.

Of course the Lib Dems have for some time been the most anti-GM party, although the subject has featured less on conference agendas since Donnachadh McCarthy left. For some years it was debated almost annually at autumn conference in some form or other, with a small but plucky band including Sharon Bowles MEP, Tim Farron MP and one or two others raising their head above the parapet in a losing cause to defend the benefits of GM technology.

For my own part, this issue has certainly changed the way I regard environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. I am inclined to regard their pronouncements with rather more scepticism than before. In many ways their cynical treatment of this issue mirrors that of the multinationals they are so keen to criticise.

I am proud that in Dick Taverne, we have at least one Lib Dem who is taking a stand on this issue.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Wise words on Dr Southall

A wise and well-argued post from David Boyle. Perhaps the moral of the story is that there needs to be more understanding from all who work in 'caring' professions of the harm that can be caused by the unintended consequences of well-intentioned actions.

Beyond Rennardism: we need to win the battle of ideas, not just the fight for votes

Last weekend, I intended to write about Chris Rennard’s column in Liberal Democrat News, ‘Going beyond Rennard’, but real life intervened. James Graham’s post on the same subject reassures me that it’s not too late.

Having been a student at Leicester University in the mid-1980s when Chris was East Midlands Area Agent, I can claim to be an early disciple of and missionary for Rennardism. What I learned from Chris in Leicester about winning elections, I brought back to Watford and his techniques have been the basis of our success. Pretty much all the constituencies that have done well in the past two decades will owe him an immense debt.

But Chris’s genius is for electoral tactics and organisation, which is only part of a political party’s operation, and arguably should be subordinate to its wider political mission. If it has been the Lib Dems’ good fortune to have Chris’s immense election-winning skills, it has been our misfortune not to have someone of equivalent stature in charge of policy and political strategy. Mandelson and Co. remodelled the Labour party - not just its style of campaigning but its whole political approach. By contrast, Rennardism is about persuading people to ‘vote for us this time’, rather than to convert them to Liberalism.

As a result, at times it has seemed that the immediate needs of the next election campaign have driven our political narrative rather than the other way round. In my more cynical moments, I suspect that Scotland now has free care for the elderly and no tuition fees not because these are part of a distinctive Liberal approach to society, but because both made good subjects for target mailings and petitions.

The party has learned how to win votes, but needs to learn also how to win hearts and minds. It is noticeable that there are no national newspapers or serious magazines and journals that consistently support the Liberal Democrats. Indeed it is hard to imagine what a Lib-Dem supporting daily or weekly would look like, how it would differ from say The Guardian and the New Statesman (both of which tend to back Labour). It is hard to name a single public intellectual, serious broadsheet journalist or academic who is associated with the Lib Dems. It ought to be a source of shame that although decentralisation and localism are Liberal ideas, the best-known writers associated with the cause are Simon Jenkins, who far from supporting us recently called for the party to disband, and Tristram Hunt a wannabe Labour MP.

Of course, some will argue that such things don’t matter: ‘Eggheads are overrated, they only have one vote each like the rest of us and few people really decide which party to vote for on the basis of broadsheet op-ed pieces, let alone obscure academic monographs and the like’. Such a view is fine if we are simply in the business of coming up with the catchiest, most appealing sales pitch to persuade people to vote for the yellow team not the red or blue equivalent next time.

Our purpose has to be more than that. The Liberal Democrats should be about better public services, more responsive to people, locally accountable. We should be defending citizens from an overweening, bullying state. We should strive to show that it is possible to defend our citizens without jettisoning civil liberties. More contentiously, perhaps, our aim should be to show that it is possible to have progressive, but not nannyish government. To achieve these things, we have to create an intellectual climate where there is a critical mass of support for a distinctively Liberal Democrat approach.

Chris concluded his article by saying that ‘we have to inspire the country with our vision’, but then emphasises that ‘our message must be explained in terms of the tangible benefits of our policies to the people whose votes we seek’. To my mind this both misses the point about the criticisms that are made of his approach and attempts to re-fight an argument that is already won.

We are already pretty good at the latter. I think that pretty much everyone involved in Lib Dem campaigning anywhere that we are serious about winning understands that we have to make our campaigning persuasive to our potential voters, that long tracts about constitutional reform are a no-no in election addresses. The point is that we are rather less good at explaining and inspiring people with our vision, and we need to spend more time doing so. For the Liberal Democrats in a future government to make a real difference we need to win the battle for ideas as well as the fight for votes.

The voice of a true conservative

Writing in this week's New Statesman the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton (he writes the wine column, the Staggers hasn't been taken over by Tories) refers to Christmas as a time when:

the house is awash with plastic rubbish from the appalling new China - it combines capitalist consumerism, communist dictatorship and ecological vandalism in a unique synthesis of the worst aspects of modernity.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Quasi-religious zeal of Southall's defenders will make children and parents suffer

David Southall’s absence of remorse and continued faith in his own rightness in the wake of being struck off by the GMC is an example of ‘noble cause corruption’. Indeed I detect a quasi-religious faith at work in the way David Southall defends his approach to child protection. Interviewed on yesterday’s Today programme, he seemed unwilling and unable to engage with the evidence against him or the arguments of his critics.

The impression I got from the interview was reinforced by the letter in his defence from 38 paediatricians that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian. The authors state that:

There is a determined campaign to deny the existence and reality of child abuse in all its forms, led by a small group, aided and abetted by some journalists and politicians.

This claim by the letter’s signatories seems to me wrong in itself and sinister in its attempt to smear anyone who disagrees with their view of child protection.

I can’t claim any expertise in child protection. But having a passing interest in miscarriages of justice and having read the work of at least some of those who write about such issues, I have never come across anybody who denies that child abuse happens and indeed is a serious problem in modern society.

Authors and journalists such as Richard Webster and Bob Woffinden, and politicians such as John Hemming and Claire Curtis-Thomas, campaign on behalf of those who they believe have been wrongly accused of child abuse. Often they are at pains to stress that child abuse itself is very real and even point out that false accusations are likely to make it harder in the long run to tackle genuine instances of abuse.

So why do the authors of the Guardian letter make the accusation? After all, no one would accuse those who are campaigning on behalf of Barry George in the Jill Dando case of ‘denying the existence of murder’ or being apologists for murderers.

It seems to me that through a combination of professional and moral hubris, David Southall and his defenders have made their own views about child abuse a matter of faith rather than evidence. They believe that they are dealing an evil so widespread that it requires them to act with missionary zeal to proclaim what they believe about the prevalence of harm done by parents to their children. In this worldview evidence counts for very little. It is a battle between true believers and heretics or ‘deniers’.

If the views of the 38 paediatricians are typical of the profession, then from beginning of children’s lives, parents and doctors, whose care is essential to their wellbeing, are working in an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. The dangers of this are obvious: that families will be destroyed through false allegations (something that itself has devastating consequences for children’s wellbeing); that innocent parents of sick children will not seek medical help for fear of being accused of harming them; and that with resources wasted on harassing the innocent, the genuinely guilty will not be discovered in time.

It is worth remarking at this point that in the last couple of weeks, new evidence has emerged questioning the murder conviction of one childminder, while another has been convicted of manslaughter, despite protesting her innocence, and a ‘Sally Clark’-style campaign is already under way on her behalf. In each case expert witnesses were key to the conviction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

When did choice become a dirty word for Liberals?

This exchange (posting and comment) at Jo's Jottings highlights the (to me) strange reluctance of at least some Liberals to endorse the idea of choice in public services.

I joined the Liberal Party in 1985, as a result of reading Jo Grimond's journalism, which demonstrated a sophiticated understanding and critique of Thatcherism. I was a bit surprised to find that few of the Liberals I met agreed with Grimond and most seemed to share Labour's knee-jerk reaction against and refusal to engage with what was happening in British politics during the 1980s.

Troubled by this I asked my new 'Radical Liberal' friends what exactly it was that kept them out of the Labour party. Well, they explained, although we hate the Tories as much as Labour do, Labour are patrician, controlling and corporatist in their approach to public services. We want to empower the citizen and give them more control. They pointed to the way Liberals in Liverpool had encouraged self-build housing co-operatives and had worked with the voluntary sector to provide new homes. They contrasted this with Labour's attachment to monolithic council estates and their general wish to see people perpetually dependent on and grateful to the council.

Strangely, though, as soon as Labour began to embrace the voluntary sector, consultation, citizen engagement and the notion of choice in public services, some Liberals turned against and disowned such ideas and began to adopt Labour-style paternalism.

For that reason I found the re-launch of the Beveridge Group earlier this year a depressing event - because the speeches seemed more an uncritical defence of the public service ethic and public sector professionals than an attempt to empower citizens and give them more say in how services are delivered. In response to my (admittedly rather pointed) question asking whether the group was not a bit patrician and Fabian in its approach, Paul Holmes accused me of not wanting there to be a group promoting social liberalism in the party.

But his comment missed the point. My problem with the Beveridge Group and other 'anti-choice' Lib Dems is not that they support social liberalism, but that they don't.

Let me give you some advice

Following Nicholas Blincoe's unpleasant and unfunny attack on Chris Huhne, and the controversy over whether he is an advisor to Clegg, Jonathan Calder asks whether he can be considered a 'former volunteer adviser to Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy', having occasionally written jokes for them.

Goodness knows what qualifies someone to style themselves an 'adviser'. I remember that the journalist Paul Johnson often claimed to have 'advised Margaret Thatcher on trade union reform', as thought the two of them had crushed Arthur Scargill together, unaided. Yet Johnson is mentioned only once in Thatcher's memoirs, suggesting his role was not quite as great as he likes to think.

Most strange of all was the period when the late Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, then leader of the Lib Dem Peers, allowed himself to be described as an adviser to Tony Blair, who was then leader of the Labour party. So a parliamentary leader of one party was acting as adviser to the leader of another when the two organisations were not in alliance or coalition. A very odd business indeed.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Atkins, Irving and Griffin at the Oxford Freak Circus

It says it all about the Oxford Union's ridiculous 'debate' that one of the participants should be Mad Ann Atkins of Thought for the Day notoriety.

I recall Atkin's indulgent comments towards Irving on TFTD after his richly deserved (OK, I shouldn't believe people should go to gaol for Holocaust denial, but Irving had it coming to him) imprisonment in Austria.

Atkins' comments on Radio 4 just now were typically barmy, bizarrely accusing demonstrators of hypocrisy and saying they were more offensive than Irving.

Absurd woman, nasty man, great shame that Evan Harris dignified this freak show with his presence.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Deborah Lipstadt on the Oxford Union

Deborah Lipstadt, whose free speech David Irving so notoriously tried to suppress, explains why it is simplistic to imagine that either he or Nick Griffin will be 'crushed in debate' at the Oxford Union.

A pedant writes...

I can't resist correcting Martin Bright on a point of fact in the aformentioned interview with Huhne.

He writes that 'in the two elections held in the 1960s, the Liberal vote collapsed to around two million, and the Parliamentary party was almost wiped out.'

This just isn't so. In fact the two elections held in the 1960s, saw the Liberals increase their number of seats for the first time in a generation, from seven to nine in 1964 and then to 12 in 1966. The two million plus votes achieved in 1966 was considerably higher than in the elections of 1951, '55 or '59.

Martin Bright may be thinking of the 1970 election, when the party did indeed see its vote share and number of seats collapse. But to regard 1970 as being part of the 1960s would be a different order of pedantry.

Chris Huhne in the New Statesman

The Staggers' political editor Martin Bright interviews Chris Huhne in this week's issue.

One curiousity is the statement that Huhne 'has been a New Statesman reader all his adult life'.

If true, this means that he managed to read the magazine between 1978 (after Anthony Howard resigned as editor) and the late 1980s, during which time it was pretty much unreadable. The magazine was obsessed by politics, peddled a very narrow leftist line and was devoid of humour (the saintly Arthur Marshall was sacked as a columnist). I remember finding it a battle to read even a single article, never mind the whole magazine.

So if Huhne managed to read the New Statesmen throughout the 1980s, this feat demonstrates reserves of fortitute and stamina that will certainly serve him well if he does become Lib Dem leader.

On a different tack, I think his line that 'I'm very pleased Nick's now aligned with me', is disingenuous and cheap.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Now I can vote for Clegg with enthusiasm and confidence

I came away from the St Albans hustings reassured and impressed by Nick Clegg, so that I can now vote for him with enthusiasm and confidence.

Unsurprisingly, what clinched it for me was the replies the candidates gave to my own question. This ran something like as follows:

Some Liberal Democrats appear to regard the idea of choice in public services as a stalking horse for neo-Thatcherism. Do we really have to choose between more power for local councils or more power for individuals or can we support both.

The question reflects my own frustration about the party’s internal debate on public services. On the one hand we have Paul Holmes and the Beveridge Group who seem more concerned with defending public sector professionals than articulating a liberal vision (whether social, radical or economic) for improving public services. On the other, the likes of David Laws and Jeremy Browne appear to want to by-pass local democratic structures altogether, advocating an approach that sounds liberating but which will in practice be centralist and unaccountable.

(I didn’t take verbatim notes, am paraphrasing the answers from memory, so apologise in advance if I get any of this wrong.)

Huhne’s answer was to say that although choice should never be a dirty word for Liberal Democrats, there were areas of public service where the market was not appropriate and the idea of choice sometimes an illusion – for example secondary transfer in London in the light of the Greenwich judgment. Once again he praised Denmark and said that although a small country it had decentralised public services. It would then be up to local decision-makers to decide how services would be delivered – for example whether to involve private sector providers.

Clegg said that he wanted to put the word choice to one side, because it had become tainted. He then said that the party must be unambiguously dentralising, devolving decision-making down to local level and there was no doubt about his commitment to that. However, he stressed that we must be on the side of the people accessing the services. For them bureaucrats in town halls can appear much the same as Whitehall bureaucrats, so there was no point in decentralising power unless people felt that something had changed for them, that services were more responsive and people were more in control. He cited the example from Wigan mentioned on Question Time about giving a parent control over their disabled child’s travel to school budget.

For me, while neither response contained anything that I would actually disagree with, Chris’s answer was B+, but Nick’s a straight ‘A’. It showed an awareness that decentralisation is not just about processes, but about outcomes and that fundamentally we must be on the side of the people. It reinforces my view of Nick’s intellectual confidence in Liberalism as an ideology. To be fair to Huhne, starting out as the underdog, he has had to put some ideological distance between himself and Clegg. Although Charles Anglin is right that Huhne’s campaign has at times appeared to ‘pander to every statist hobby horse it could find’, I am sure that Huhne is closer to Clegg than to Paul Holmes. I will be more than happy to support Chris if he wins.

However, it would be perverse if I didn’t vote for the candidate who most clearly articulates my view of Liberalism. I had cause to doubt because of my concern over Nick’s performance on Question Time and disappointment with elements of his campaign. Of course a hustings meeting cannot assuage those particular doubts. But it can and has, especially when considered alongside the bloggers’ breakfast’‘ reports convinced me that Clegg’s political approach, his commitment and passion are simply too good an opportunity to miss. Huhne might in some ways be a safer choice, but Clegg has the potential not just to win more seats for the party but to lead a Liberal political and intellectual renaissance in Britain. How can I not vote for that?

Shameful, wrong and nothing to do with free speech

Sometimes the cleverest people can also in their own way be the stupidest. I suppose that it the lesson to be learned from the childish and irresponsible decision of the members of the Oxford Union to invite the author and holocaust denier David Irving and BNP leader Nick Griffin to speak in a Union debate.

Let’s be clear from the start, this is not a question of free speech. Griffin and Irving are entitled to express their views within the laws of the land. The point is whether an organisation such as the Oxford Union should be giving them a platform to do so. Oxford is one of Britain’s elite universities, and although I confess to ignorance of its precise constitutional position, the Oxford Union is linked in most people’s minds with the university. It is also Britain’s best-known student debating chamber. There must be some assumption, therefore, that those invited to address its debates have things to say that are worth hearing, that will somehow stimulate the intellects of our supposedly best and brightest young people. It is ludicrous to imagine that this is the case with either Irving or Griffin, absurd to imagine that they have something useful to contribute to a debate about free speech.

Among Irving’s best-known recent activities was an attempt to prevent a legitimate scholar from exercising her right to free speech. He is a proven liar and charlatan, who adopts the trappings of genuine scholarship to falsify the historical record in order to promote his own hateful and anti-semitic views. As for Griffin, he is the leader of a political party which, whatever its attempts to appear respectable, promotes a doctrine of hate, exists on the fringes of criminality and which would deny the human rights of, including the right to free speech of a substantial proportion of our fellow citizens.

In short, on top of being purveyors of deeply unpleasant opinions, neither have any mark of intellectual or public distinction that might render their views of interest to decent people. While they are entitled to free speech, an organisation such as the Oxford Union has no business inviting them and is being irresponsible in giving them this opportunity for publicity and the credibility of addressing a supposedly intellectually respectable institution.

It is disappointing that at least two Lib Dem bloggers (here and here) do not see this and have defended the Oxford Union decision. Does this mean they would be happy to see Griffin or Irving addressing fringe meeting at a Lib Dem conference or a Centre Forum seminar or Liberal Democrat History Group meeting? The logic of their comments is that they should be – indeed that such invitations are a necessary part of defending free speech. But I, for one, would not want to be a member of any organisation that extended invitations to speak to Irving or Griffin and I like to think most Liberals would agree.

No doubt when the event takes place, there will be a big demonstration outside the meeting, Griffin and Irving will try to occupy the moral high ground, as TV cameras show them appearing statesmanlike (while barely supressing smirks), as the police protect them from an angry and potentially violent mob. I can only hope this doesn’t come to pass.

Instead, I would like to think that people who are in the future invited to speak to the Oxford Union consider whether they wish to be regarded in the same company as Griffin and Irving, and if not then they should favour some other worthy body with the benefit of their views on whatever topic is under discussion. Doubtless the membership of the Oxford Union will find other ways of attracting publicity by getting nasty people to address their ‘debates’. Perhaps for their next trick they will ask Ian Brady or Ian Huntley to discuss child protection policies, for example. But genuine scholars and mainstream politicians should give their meetings a wide berth.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Can Clegg raise his game?

Tonight I am off to the St Albans hustings, which I hope will enable me to reach a firm decision as to who to vote for.

At the start of the campaign, I thought it almost unimaginable that I wouldn’t vote for Clegg. But events since then have given cause for serious doubts, and I would certainly be more than happy to have Huhne as leader.

The Clegg campaign has been very poor indeed, which gives cause for doubt about Nick’s choice of acolytes. There has been an impression that his organisers, fancying their man to be the equivalent of 1–0 ahead in a football match, have tried to grind out a win, with little attempt to inspire or enthuse or to confront the difficult issues that the party faces. So I can only hope that he will have the strength of character to avoid rewarding his undeserving campaign team with top jobs, thus creating a bunker mentality from the start.

He has appeared too afraid of being painted into the right-wing corner and therefore seems to have kept his comments on public services as anodyne as possible. For example, while I can understand (and agree with) his ruling out of vouchers and continental-style health insurance, I would have liked to hear a clearer willingness to take on the ‘Liberals against choice’ and ‘experts know best’ brigade, who have effectively stifled party debate on public service reform in recent years.

Clegg’s apparent flakiness under attack has also been a problem and he will have to do something it about quickly. It is the lot of third party leaders to be subjected to ridicule by the media and he will have to learn to be more resilient and phlegmatic.

In short, I wanted to be inspired and enthused by the Clegg campaign, but have been disappointed. The ‘bloggers' breakfast' session, as reported by James Graham, provides quite a bit of reassurance. But again the situation was within the Clegg comfort zone – thinking aloud among friends, with the opportunity to be discursive. It’s not the same as being snapped at by Paxman or Humphrys.

Yet I keep hoping that Clegg will come good. Of all the national politicians I have come across, he is the one who combines most clearly both an instinctive and intellectual commitment to Liberalism, which he is capable of not just of articulating as abstract principle, but actually of applying to specific policy areas.

So, come on Nick. Show us tonight that the campaign so far has been an aberration and that you are not merely just a likeable chap and a good liberal, but really have what it takes to be leader.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Huhne ahead on Question Time

Last night’s Question Time was my first real opportunity to take notice of the leadership election campaign. We moved house a week ago, so during the last fortnight all spare time has been spent packing, moving and unpacking endless cardboard boxes. Debates about Trident replacements and alternatives, school vouchers etc. have passed me by.

Before commenting on the debate, I should perhaps mention the political baggage that I carry in assessing the merits of the candidates. I want the Liberal Democrats to be a party of the libertarian centre-left, a contrast with the Conservatives and with Labour’s patrician, top-down instincts. We should combine a clear social conscience and commitment to social justice with a belief in decentralisation of power and support for personal liberty.

Over the years, my biggest frustration with the Lib Dems has been the disjunction between the our professed abstract principles, which include an emphasis on individual choice and freedom, and the detailed policy prescriptions we arrive at, which often seem every bit as nannyish as those of New Labour. This stops us from developing a clear political narrative because there is no obvious connection between what we say we stand for and how we respond to the issues of the day.

To me Nick Clegg seems to understand this problem better than Huhne. He strikes me as a thoroughgoing Liberal, sufficiently confident in his own ideological principles to reject the kind of ‘intellectual cringe’ towards socialism that many Lib Dems seem to indulge in for fear being thought right-wing. Although there is much I agree with Chris Huhne about, and I would be more than happy to have him as leader, there seems to be a touch of the Toynbees, a whiff of patrician Fabianism, about him.

So my default position is to vote for Clegg because he is more in tune with my political instincts and beliefs. I have chosen not to sign up as a Clegg supporter, because I want to see how the candidates perform before reaching a final decision. But it would take something dramatic to convince me to vote for Huhne.

Last night, therefore, I was rooting for Clegg. So it is with some disappointment, that I say that Huhne came across as the stronger candidate, with a clearer worldview, which he articulated confidently. He was also the first to mention the importance of localism in our approach to public services, and gave a clearer sense of how we are different from the other parties.

Although Clegg was generally engaging and articulate, he foundered badly on the question about his criticisms of Huhne in the last leadership election. Had he been on the Today programme in a one-to-one interview, he would have been shredded for his answer that ‘this was in a totally different context’ and ‘of course I don’t believe that now because I haven’t said it again’. Far better to say that he was offering a genuine view about Chris’s last leadership campaign and that there is a danger in producing eye-catching policies that give hostages to fortune.

It makes me fear that because of Clegg’s attractive quality of appearing to be thinking out loud rather than sticking to a script, he has been given an armchair ride by the media so far. On the evidence of last night, there is a danger that he will come unstuck when pinned down by an aggressive interviewer, as he would be if he becomes leader.

I hope to attend a hustings before making my mind up. It would still seem rather perverse not to vote for Clegg given how strongly I agree with his political outlook. Last night did not to enough to make me change my voting intention, but it certainly sowed the seeds of doubt.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween and the Caledonianisation of British culture

Jonathan Calder bemoans the increased celebration of Halloween at the expense of bonfire night, something that he sees as an example of 'creeping Americanisation'.

However, when I was growing up in north-east Scotland in the 1970s, Halloween was widely celebrated, as much as, if not more than, bonfire night. I remember that my grandmother, a Dundee Catholic, did not really agree that Guy Fawkes was such a baddy.

My memory of Halloween being traditionall well-celebtrated in Scotland is supported by some of the postings in response to this article by the historian David Cannadine. I prefer to regard the rise of Halloween as an example of the 'Caledonianisation' of English culture, which I see as a very good thing.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Why I'll be supporting England tonight

Despite being a Scotland supporter, I have just about talked myself into backing England in tonight's rugby world cup final.

My reasoning is as follows. Last night's third place play off, in which Argentina convincingly beat France, was excellent for its own sake, showing the coming of age of a rugby nation outside the traditional eight 'founder nations'. But it also means that if Argentina beat the French by 24 points, whereas they only beat Scotland by 6, then clearly the Scots are 18 points better than France. By contrast England only beat France by 5 points, which makes Scotland 13 points better than England.

So, by my reckoning, if England win tonight then morally that makes Scotland world champions - something that I am sure Jason White and Co will confirm in next year's Calcutta Cup match in Edinburgh.

Friday, October 19, 2007

There should be a referendum on the EU treaty

Both Lib Dem leadership candidates have rejected a referendum on the new EU treaty within the last 24 hours. I can't help feeling that they are making a mistake.

However limited the terms of this particular treaty, there is a wider problem of democratic legitimacy surrounding the EU. Even if we blame the Sun and Daily Mail, we have to deal with the reality. The EU is all too easily portrayed as a conspiracy political insiders and wire-pullers against the wishes of the public.

It is surely time that pro-Europeans in all parties turned round and confronted their opponents. It would be far better than the present course, which seems to be to snigger privately about how UKIP-types are all bonkers and to avoid talking about Europe publicly if at all possible.

A day of reckoning on Europe cannot be indefinitely postponed. Nick Clegg has said that this is a "modest" document that does not need a referendum. Chris Huhne said much the same thing on television last night. But it's very modesty is why pro-Europeans should want a referendum. This is the best chance for a "Yes" vote to prevail. If the public can't be persuaded to vote for something so innocuous then that must be faced up to not dodged.

I can well imagine that if the Tories were in power, they would have ended up negotiating a very similar treaty and also that a Labour opposition would pander to populism and called for a referendum to destabilise the Conservatives.

In short, no progress can be made on the evolution of the EU without the public having their say and endorsing a way forward. This treaty is surely the best opportunity Europhiles will get for a referendum victory.

So I would encourage Nick and Chris to think again and quickly. Supporting a referendum would be both the correct and the popular position for the Lib Dems to take.

A Neo-Con defends inheritance tax

I always like it when people come out with arguments you wouldn't expect given their general political outlook. So I enjoyed this defence of inheritance tax in The Spectator from right-winger Irwin Stelzer.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Was it baldness not oldness that did for Ming?

During the 1964 general election, Alec Douglas-Home was told by a make-up artist that he would never look good on television because he had a "head like a skull".

In the television age no bald party leader has ever won a general election. Michael Foot. Neil Kinnock, William Hague and Michael Howard join Douglas-Home in the ranks of baldies who have lost. Iain Duncan-Smith never got as far as a general election. In each case there may have been sound political reasons for their failure, but the fact remains.

Mark Oaten is known to have questioned whether the Lib Dems would elect a bald leader. They did, but poor Ming Campbell has had to bow out early too.

It’s hard to believe that John Smith would have lost to John Major in 1997, despite his shiny pate, and I don’t remember him being considered untelegenic. Perhaps it was because he had a pleasing oval-shaped head.

Much was made of Ming’s age, but was this really the problem? Had Paddy Ashdown still been in the Commons and returned for another stint as leader after Kennedy resigned, it is hard to believe his age would have been such an issue. He is older than Ming, but still has a fine head of hair.

Paradoxically, I wonder whether the fact that Ming is quite lean, fit and trim worked against him. It made him look thin and cadaverous on television. Perhaps if he had been a bit tubbier round the middle and chubbier in the face, he would have seemed a jolly gent and appeared easier on the eye, and less ghostly, on television.

Fortunately, this is unlikely to be a problem for any of the current contenders for the leadership.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Liberal Democrat News - too dull or too interesting?

Jonathan Calder takes John Pugh MP to task for an article on Lib Dem Voice in which the MP for Southport describes the party newspaper Liberal Democrat News as ‘tribal, patronising, [and] horribly on message’, but offers no suggestions for improvement.

While agreeing that Mr Pugh’s intervention is a bit gratuitous, perhaps I can expand the critique a bit, in a constructive sort of way.

First, it has to be said that producing in-house media (of which LDN is an example) is always a difficult job. Having at one stage in my working life edited a magazine (well, glorified newsletter really), I know that you have to toe the official line and too much (or indeed any) iconoclasm or against-the-grain opinions can cause no end of trouble. Even humour can be tricky, with the risk of appearing to poke fun at the organisation you are supposed to be promoting.

But even so LDN is a bit dull. It’s not just to flatter Jonathan that I say that the only bit I regularly find worth reading is the House Points column and since he kindly publishes that on his blog, I often fail to open the envelope that LDN arrives in.

My top suggestion would be to have more interesting columnists on the back page, rather than the various party worthies who occupy it now, usually to puff their own achievements. Both Tony Greaves and Tom McNally used to exasperate me, when they wrote the back page columns, but at least they provoked a reaction other than boredom. There are some good writers in Lib-Dem blogland. Let the two past blog-of-the-year winners James Graham and Stephen Tall take turns writing the column, perhaps alongside Andy Mayer or Linda Jack to name two others who are never less than interesting.

Then perhaps it could carry a few more human interest features about people in the party other than the usual roll-call of MPs etc. Or events in the party other than local by-election wins and constituency dinners. For example, maybe more could have been made of the Liberal Democrat History Group’s ‘greatest Liberal’ competition before the result was announced. And perhaps there needs to be more guidance to writers to avoid sounding too on-message so that it reads a bit more like a newspaper and less like a piece of publicity material.

There, those are a few suggestions. For all I know they might even have been done already and I haven’t been paying enough attention to notice. But they might just get me opening the LDN envelope with a little more enthusiasm.

However inevitable Ming's decision may appear, I think he was wrong to go

For once I may get my blog post in within hours rather than days or weeks of the breaking news, although I see that are plenty of Lib Dem bloggers have beaten me to it.

The general tenor of comments from Lib Dems has been that this was inevitable. Apparently, however honourable, liberal and intelligent Ming may be, his leadership has not connected with the public and he just had to go.

It isn’t clear at this stage how far this was his personal choice and how far it reflected the groundswell of opinion among Westminster village Lib Dems or even party activists. It’s done now, the decision has been made and clearly can’t be reversed. But for what it’s worth, I think Ming was wrong to resign and that those who have called for him to go have tendered unwise advice.

With the sole exception of Charles Kennedy, every post-war Liberal (or Lib Dem) leader has struggled in their first couple of years in charge and has failed to increase the party’s number of MP at their first election as leader. Most have presided over a net loss of seats. One reason why Kennedy bucked the trend might have been because he was already a sort of celebrity MP, but the main one was that in 2001 the Tories (our main rivals for Parliamentary seats) were very unpopular and appeared to have a death wish.

Which brings me to the key point. Liberal Democrat advances tend to come when one or both of the other parties is one or more of unpopular, extreme and disunited. Tory weakness normally gives us a particular high. At a time when both the main parties are making a dash for the political centre, the Tories have a new leader who at least appears human (unlike the previous three) and Labour have a new prime minister who has until recently been enjoying a honeymoon period, things are inevitably going to be difficult. Both parties are trying to invade the other’s territory and are trampling over ours too.

So, progress during this parliament is likely to be hard-won and at times we have to dig in and avoid being driven back. Any leader is going to find it hard going. Particularly so as the last few weeks have been a set piece battle between Labour and the Tories. At a time like this a leader like Ming, who has experience and good political judgement, was what we needed. But the added advantage was that if we did well at the next election, he could take the plaudits and hand on the baton, if did badly he could bow out at what would seem the natural end to a political career. Whichever way, he would not be unduly damaged.

Instead, the pressure will be on a new leader to produce a dramatic turn-around, even though he or she will have the same problem as Ming in having to struggle for media attention and face tough questioning when they do get coverage. If they don’t produce a dramatic rise in our poll ratings, or increase the number of Lib Dem MPs at the next election, they too will face media stories about whether they will resign, the whole saga starts over again and a promising career will be brought to a crashing halt.

In short, the current political climate is going to be hard for us, regardless of who the leader is and for reasons we can’t control. I was grateful that Ming had taken on this difficult assignment, which he was carrying out with dignity, and thereby protecting the next leader, Clegg, Huhne, Davey or whoever, so that they could take over at a point when the political landscape might open up for us again. This really was not the moment to change leaders.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Harriet Harman insults our intelligence

I have always found Harriet Harman a particularly irritating politican. I think it has something to do with her patronising tone of voice that seems to say: 'I am both more intelligent and have better intentions than you. So if you disagree with what I am saying you are either a knave or a fool.' It's a quality she shares with other prominent Labour women, Margaret Jay and Patricia Hewitt being prime examples.

Ms Harman was at her worst with the announcement on Question Time last night that she thinks Parliament not the prime minister should have the power to call elections. She delivered this opinion with the aura of gravitas as if making a great concession. Yet of course we all know that in practice even if Parliament did have the final say, it would amount to a vote of no confidence by government MPs if they were to vote against a prime ministerial request for a dissolution. It's the sort of thing that might lead to them being deselected.

So Harriet Harman's proposal is just another piece of New Labour spin - designed to appear statesmanlike, but in fact signifying nothing. It's Harriet Harman letting us know she thinks we're all stupid. A pity that the BBC reported it as though it were a serious story.

"They had better give it to me now before I popped off"

I was impressed by 87-year old Doris Lessing's cantankerous reaction to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. After claiming that the Nobel Prize judges had told her in the sixties that they didn't like her, she comments:

"So now they've decided they're going to give it to me. So why? I mean, why do they like me any better now than they did then?"

and adding

"They can't give a Nobel to someone who's dead so I think they were probably thinking they had better give it to me now before I popped off."

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Pumas non plus...

...Or at least not tonight.

I have enjoyed seeing Argentina beating France and Ireland on their way to reaching the quarter finals. One of the problems with rugby as a world sport has been its dominance by the 'traditional' nations, so it is good to see another nation crashing into the big league.

But I draw the line at supporting anyone against Scotland. On the basis of performances so far, the Scots need all the help they can get, even if only by my efforts at telepathy through the television. I might have felt a little more phlegmatic at the prospect of a Scottish defeat, had it not been for England qualifying for the semi-finals. I can never be happy at England doing better than the Scots.

So I will brave the awful ITV coverage, thankful that at least it's Martin Bayfield not Jim Rosenthal presenting and hope for a Scotland win in the knowledge that whoever qualifies for the semi-final, I will be supporting them.

Off downstairs now!

Friday, October 05, 2007

Belated National Poetry Day Celebrations

There are lots of posts I intend to make on this blog, but to which I never quite get round. But this one sets a record in being a year and a day late.

It was National Poetry Day yesterday, something I didn't spot until it was over. A shame because I intended to mark it with a posting, indeed with a posting I meant to make the same time last year.

The day before National Poetry Day 2006, I found myself on Coventry Railway Station. I had been visiting my grandfather who was seriously ill and who died just a few weeks later.

On a plaque on the platform for London bound trains, I spotted the first stanza of Philip Larkin's 'I remember, I remember', which I confess to not having read before. Sadly, it was partially hidden behind a Virgin Trains noticeboard.

It is a sad poem and the the circumstance in which I became aware of it was sad too, not to mention it being a cold, dark autumn evening. But happily, while Coventry may have brought back unhappy memories for Larkin, for me the site of signs for Coventry, the city of my birth, always gladdened the heart for it meant a visit to doting, and in turn much loved, grandparents.

I Remember, I Remember

by Philip Larkin

Coming up England by a different line
For once, early in the cold new year,
We stopped, and, watching men with number plates
Sprint down the platform to familiar gates,
"Why, Coventry!" I exclaimed. "I was born here."

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been 'mine'
So long, but found I wasn't even clear
Which side was which. From where those cycle-crates
Were standing, had we annually departed

For all those family hols? . . . A whistle went:
Things moved. I sat back, staring at my boots.
'Was that,' my friend smiled, 'where you "have your roots"?'
No, only where my childhood was unspent,
I wanted to retort, just where I started:

By now I've got the whole place clearly charted.
Our garden, first: where I did not invent
Blinding theologies of flowers and fruits,
And wasn't spoken to by an old hat.
And here we have that splendid family

I never ran to when I got depressed,
The boys all biceps and the girls all chest,
Their comic Ford, their farm where I could be
'Really myself'. I'll show you, come to that,
The bracken where I never trembling sat,

Determined to go through with it; where she
Lay back, and 'all became a burning mist'.
And, in those offices, my doggerel
Was not set up in blunt ten-point, nor read
By a distinguished cousin of the mayor,

Who didn't call and tell my father There
Before us, had we the gift to see ahead -
'You look as though you wished the place in Hell,'
My friend said, 'judging from your face.' 'Oh well,
I suppose it's not the place's fault,' I said.

'Nothing, like something, happens anywhere.'

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Come on Los Pumas!

Tomorrow evening, all being well, I shall settle in front of the television to support Argentina against France in the opening game of the Rugby World Cup.

It’s not that I have any Argentine blood or personal connections, nor even a sense of liberal guilt over the Falklands. It’s not that Los Pumas play a particularly attractive brand of rugby – the sight of their famous rolling maul has been likened to watching a tractor in low gear. No, I shall be cheering Argentina purely because they are the underdogs.

I am not sure whether it is nature or nurture but I seem fated to take support for the underdog a little beyond the ordinary. This applies to all my main interests in life: sport, books, music and politics alike. Sometimes this is just a matter of fate, sometimes deliberate choice. I am half-Scottish and half-English, but have always been a Scotland supporter – influenced by my Scottish father and growing up in Scotland. The other teams I support - Coventry City, Watford, Montrose and Dundee at football, Coventry and London Scottish at rugby are all perpetual underdogs, although the latter two were once upon a time top dogs.

The problem with the Rugby World Cup, compared with its soccer equivalent is that too many games are a foregone conclusion – the top dog almost always prevails, usually with a comfortable margin of victory. The advent of professionalism has reinforced this. Nonetheless, Argentina, are the one team outside rugby’s eight ‘founder nations’ to put together a team that can challenge the best. For their troubles, they have not been allowed to join either of the two major annual international tournaments – the Tri-Nations and the Six Nations – and have got another rotten draw in the World Cup. Rugby needs to expand its horizons beyond the traditional nations. Argentina beating France tomorrow evening would be a good start.

Mark Oaten and the folly of talking up coalitions

Over the years, I have from time to time attempted to defend my old Watford colleague Mark Oaten against those who tried to make him a hate figure within the party. So I can reasonably take issue with his comments about the Lib Dems and coalitions without feeling I am just hunting with the pack.

One of the reasons he became such a target for the ‘radical’ wing of the party was, I suspect, because he never quite seemed in touch with the soul of the party. So, utterances from him provoked great hostility when they would have seemed unexceptional coming from any other leading Lib Dem.

Nowhere is this more true than over coalitions. Mark always gave me the impression of thinking that coalitions were a good thing of themselves, regardless of what they designed to achieve. It’s a case of ‘Come on now, let’s be reasonable, surely we can all agree.’ But of course any democratic political system needs opposition, challenge and scrutiny. This can easily descend into petty bickering and name calling, but it’s an essential part of politics.

Mark does not give any sense of why we should go into coalition with the Tories, other than that we often vote with them in the opposition lobby. But that’s hardly a programme for government.

There are other flaws in Mark’s thinking. In the first place, if you are a Lib Dem who wants a coalition your best way of achieving it is not to talk about it too loudly. On the two occasions where the Lib Dems have allowed themselves to be portrayed as potential kingmakers – 1987 and 1992 – this led to a fall in our support as the election approached. The electorate are unlikely to respond positively to an uppity third party trying to imply that it can choose between and lay down terms to the other and larger parties. Such presumption will make a hung Parliament, and therefore a coalition, less likely.

In addition, any third party would be mad to enter a coalition without a promise of either fixed-term parliaments or electoral reform or both. Under the present system, the prime minister has absolute discretion about when to call a general election. So either Cameron or Brown could use us to get into office, then work up a disagreement within the coalition, then dissolve parliament on the basis that they need an overall majority to govern effectively. We will not have had time to carve out our own identity within the coalition, but will have antagonised that section of our support that wanted us to put the other lot in. Any such coalition is likely to be short lived and spell electoral disaster for the Lib Dems at the subsequent election.

Lastly, it is by no means clear that a hung parliament would leave us with the balance of power between the two other parties and therefore a choice of potential coalition partners. There are the Northern Irish MPs, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists to reckon with.

In a reformed electoral system, where it was unlikely that any one party would ever gain an overall majority, the Lib Dems might well be part of a coalition administration, if we could get agreement the right deal from potential partners. But to achieve that we need to put ourselves in a position of strength in the next parliament. That is more likely to happen if we talk about what we believe in rather than who we want to do deals with.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ali Miraj – a cautionary tale

I see our old adversary in Watford, former Conservative candidate, Ali Miraj has cropped up again with the same toys-out-of-pram routine that he adopted in response to the local Lib Dem campaign at the last general election.

This latest outburst doesn’t surprise me much. Although many of those Watfordians who met him during the last general election campaign testified that he was charming and articulate, others who spoke to him at any length on policy issues seemed to consider him lightweight.

When under pressure he emerged as both extremely sensitive to criticism from opponents and unable to accept that if he attacked political opponents (the Lib Dems mainly), he could hardly complain if he met a response in kind.

The odd thing is that he clearly believed that after a disappointing result for the Conservatives in Watford – finishing third when elsewhere in Hertfordshire they were gaining seats from Labour – he should be a shoo-in for a safe seat. Or even a peerage. I remember thinking when he got on the Tory A-List, that he would prove too thin-skinned and self-important to find his way into Parliament, however much he was on the surface everything that the Conservatives were looking for in a candidate.

So it has proved. He hit the headlines a little while back complaining at not being short-listed for a safe Conservative seat. He attributed this to a bias in favour of ‘white middle-class male candidates’, only to find the local members selected an Asian woman, Priti Patel. His latest criticisms of David Cameron, while including some valid points, are clearly shot through with personal resentment.

Now this inability to accept the frequent brickbats that politics brings, along with the (much rarer) bouquets, has done for him. Judging by the comments on Conservative Home, I would be amazed if he now ever gets selected for a remotely-winnable Conservative seat, let alone a safe one, or a place in the Lords. Even defection seems an unlikely alternative route to Westminster – his dissing of Cameron would certainly make New Labour nervous of giving him any high-profile role.

Given that my one Conversation with Ali Miraj concluded with him describing me as ‘scum’, I am tempted merely to gloat. But in fact this is all rather a sad story. Clearly he had some ability that might well have enabled him to carve out a political career as a Conservative MP. But he lacked the necessary stoicism and resilience to do so. It is a cautionary tale for any aspiring politician.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Every historical precedent is against a successful premiership for Brown

It would be churlish to begrudge Gordon Brown his assumption of the premiership tomorrow. As architect of New Labour, he helped to make his party electable again. As chancellor, he has avoided the economic crises that proved the undoing of previous Labour governments. And despite the ongoing feud with Tony Blair, he has stayed the course, not resigning nor being so overtly disloyal that Blair could sack him. In the process he has seen all his potential challengers for the Labour leadership fall by the wayside.

Nonetheless, Brown should enjoy such honeymoon period as he gets, because none of the historical precedents suggest that his will be a successful premiership. In the past century or so, none of the prime ministers who have succeeded long-serving party leaders while in office have enjoyed much success. Brown is known to be obsessed with the Anthony Eden example: the second-in-command who waited years for Churchill to retire only to crash and burn within two years of reaching Number 10. Leo McKinstry recently drew a comparison between Gordon Brown and Lord Rosebery, who was Gladstone’s successor in 1894 – both chippy Scotsmen with poor people-management skills. Rosebery led a divided and ineffective government for 15 months before seeing his party go down to a spectacular defeat that marked the start of a decade in the political wilderness.

Other examples tell a similar story. Balfour, succeeding his uncle Lord Salisbury in 1903, took over a party that had won two successive landslide majorities and led it to a landslide defeat in 1906. Neville Chamberlain, Baldwin’s de facto deputy and unchallenged successor in 1937 never faced the electorate as party leader, but his premiership was brief and ended with the catastrophe of the second world war, with his appeasement policy discredited. Callaghan succeeding Wilson in 1976 was much admired as prime minister by his colleagues, but presided over the Winter of Discontent and his electoral defeat in 1979 ushered in the era of Thatcherism. Of course, John Major took over from Thatcher in 1990 and went on to win the election in 1992, but this is perhaps not the happiest of precedents.

A further bad omen for Brown is that governments who have seen their majorities reduced have never been able to turn the tide. In 2005 Labour’s national share of the vote fell from 40.7% to 35.2% and their majority from 167 to 66. Every historical precedent says they will fall further next time. In 1900, the Conservatives saw their majority slightly reduced. In January 1910, the Liberal landslide majority was wiped out and Asquith was thereafter dependent on third and fourth party support to remain in office. The Liberals, of course, never won another general election. In 1935 the electorate slashed the record majority of the Conservative-dominated National government and voted the Conservatives out of office altogether the next time they got a chance in 1945. Five years later, the Labour government’s landslide majority was converted into a very narrow one and the party lost office at the general election of the following year. And the Conservative government of 1979–87 reached its electoral zenith in 1983, had diminished majorities in both 1987 and 1992 and then suffered devastating defeat in 1997.

As if all this is not enough, during the twentieth century on each occasion that a government took the country into a prolonged war, the electorate delivered a harsh verdict at the first general election AFTER the war was over. This was the case for the Conservatives in 1906, following the South African War, the Liberals in 1918 after the first world war and the Conservatives in 1945 after the second world war. Of course, in these three cases there was strong public support for the war while it was in progress – the backlash came afterwards. By contrast there was strong public opposition to the Iraq war from the start and it may be that the electorate will feel that they gave Labour a bloody nose last time. But, equally, in 2005 it was still possible to believe that the Iraq war might have a positive outcome and to celebrate the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Unless, as seems unlikely, British troops come home leaving behind a stable, democratic Iraq, voters may use the next election to reach a very severe judgement on a failed enterprise.

Of course, there are no inevitabilities in history and in many ways New Labour have already rewritten the electoral rules of the last 100 years, keeping the Tories out of office for the longest period since the eighteenth century. Brown may look to the example of Harold MacMillan, who took over after the disastrous Suez enterprise and, even though he had supported it, managed to put it behind him and win an increased majority at the subsequent election. However, unlike Brown, MacMillan inherited a party that was on an electoral upswing.

How does all this affect the Liberal Democrats? Well it is perhaps no wonder that Brown is trying to cosy up to us. If he is re-elected with a reduced majority, Labour’s vote share is likely to be so low as to call into question the government’s legitimacy – for example, if it has an overall majority but less than a third of the national vote. However, there is a real question mark as to whether it would be right to maintain in power a government that had lost the confidence of the electorate. In such circumstances, Brown may need us more than we need him, so we ought to be in a position to drive a hard bargain, if we want to deal at all.

On the other hand, if Brown’s fortunes follow the historical pattern, that spells bad news for the Liberal Democrats. Historically, our worst results, in terms of loss of votes and seats have come when Conservative governments have replaced Labour ones. The 1924, 1931, 1951, 1970 and 1979 election results varied between disappointing and disastrous for the old Liberal party. But then, in most of these elections there were few constituencies where we could mount a genuine challenge to the Labour party. So with our growing strength in urban areas, we have may a chance of bucking the trend next time even if Cameron does end up victorious. And of course, as Michael Portillo has pointed out in the Sunday Times, the wheels may already be coming off the Tory revival.

Friday, June 15, 2007

How the media loses those shades of grey

The previous posting put me in mind of a story that a former colleague of mine used to relate about the ways in which subtleties and shades of opinion get lost amid journalists’ wish to simplify news coverage.

In 1990, the Tory Cabinet Minister Nicholas Ridley created a sensation and was forced to resign as a result of accusing the Germans of wanting to ‘take over the whole of Europe’ in an interview in the Spectator.

During the media furore over this, one of the broadcasting channels visited Cirencester, in Ridley’s constituency to get his constituents’ views on his comments. My ex-colleage, who lived in Cirencester, was one of those stopped and asked his opinion. Being a contrary type he said that he thought Ridley was completely wrong, but didn’t think he should resign, because it was a good thing when politicians spoke their minds.

Watching television that evening to see if he would be ‘on the news’, he realised that his remarks didn’t fit the journalists’ pre-ordained script. And indeed the interviewees whose comments were broadcast either said ‘Yes, I agree with him the Germans are a rotten lot’ or ‘No, I disagree, he must resign’. Any opinion that was nuanced or quirky didn’t stand a chance.’

Blair and the feral beasts

Perhaps the moment has passed, but I have been reflecting on Tony Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech. He tries to play the dignified statesman, the ‘pretty straight’ guy, having to do battle with the feral beasts.

It seems to be though that it is difficult to think simply in terms of a relationship between politicians and the media, because there is so much overlap between the two. It isn’t just that many journalists seek an alternative career in politics, as MPs or spin-doctors, and politicians moonlight on the op. ed. pages of newspapers and magazines.

It’s also that both are to a great extent in the same business – purveying information, news and opinion that we hope will be of interest to a particular audience. For journalists this is their core business – done to sell newspapers or attract viewers and listeners. For politicians it is a means to an end – that of winning elections and carrying out the business of public administration. But it is a great and increasing part of the job. The skills required to produce newsletters (whether Focus, Rose or In Touch) MP’s reports, tabloids and election addresses, websites and blogs are essentially journalistic skills.

They share the same sins too – sensationalism, oversimplifying issues in order to make them seem exciting or interesting, presenting shades of opinion as clear-cut contrasts, as well as making factual errors or writing something in the heat of the moment that doesn’t stand up to later scrutiny. But if we are all to some extend guilty, I can’t help feeling, however biased my view, that Blair and New Labour are that bit more guilty than others. It’s not a question of the Iraq dossiers – the whole message has been to reduce debate to near absurdity – Labour are against crime so everyone else is in favour of it; Labour are against Saddam so everyone who disagrees favours him. (More examples at Millennium Dome Elephant). These have not arisen, as Blair claims, in the early years of New Labour when they were in opposition and struggling to deal with a hostile press, but well into the Blair project when they were in power.

So while some of Blair’s arguments may have some validity, he is in no position to take the moral high ground with the media.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Is political meddling really devaluing the school curriculum?

Is political meddling really ruining lessons as the think-tank Civitas claims and as reported on the
front page of today’s Daily Telegraph?

I heard the discussion on this morning’s Today Programme between Chris McGovern, one of the authors of the Civitas report and Peter Hyman, Downing Street Spin Doctor turned comprehensive school teacher. The strange thing about their argument was that they appeared to describe two entirely different national curriculums for history – the one infected by fashionable policitical nostrums to the point that history has become a bogus subject, the other a highly traditional outline of 1,000 years of British History. Both can’t be right.

The reason for this, I suspect, is not simply that the truth lies somewhere in between, but that the national curriculum includes a strange mixture of both elements. Of course, I am neither a schoolteacher nor a recent pupil – indeed my schooldays are so long ago that they didn’t even have GCSE’s back then. But helping my stepchildren with history homework gave me at least a little bit of insight into the way students are expected to learn.

While they did indeed learn about the Tudors, the Victorians etc., it seemed to me that these were dealt with in a funny order without a clear sense of chronology. And homework projects were rather different from those of my schooldays. Rather than having to outline the key events of 1066 etc., students would have to examine a picture or other contemporary document and then write about how an Anglo-Saxon woman would have felt at her husband leaving home to fight in Harold’s army and then having all their land taken away by the Normans. Or something like that. So rather than what happened, when and why, pupils were invited to make up stories about historical events.

My suspicion is that the history curriculum has become a bizarre amalgamation of the traditional ‘island’s story’ that the Tories wanted when they introduced it and the postmodernist ideas of those who theorise about the learning of history and who reject the idea that we can ‘know’ what happened in the past and instead see it as any number of equally valid stories. (Richard J. Evans’s book In defence of history deals at length with the baleful influence of postmodernist theorists on the historical profession.)

Of course, one wonders also whether the ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ lobby are protesting just a little too much. Anyone who has read 1066 and all that, whose authors, Sellars and Yeatman subtitled their work ‘a memorable history of England’, will know that there are only two dates in British history that most people remember – 55BC and 1066. The year of the Gunpowder Plot was excised because it was not ‘memorable’ So people having only a vague notion of the key events of British history has a long genesis. Sellars and Yeatman were of course writing in 1930, before political correctness, postmodernism or the national curriculum.

There is indeed a danger in making history about empathy rather than knowledge. But neither should history simply be a story of kings and queens and great men, as many conservative historians might wish. It ought to be possible to give children studying history at school a clear sense of the high politics of British history, alongside the social, cultural, ethnic and religious elements. These things are important too and it is possible to teach them in an academically rigorous way.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Begrudging Blair

The problem with not keeping up daily posts is that fellow bloggers beat me to posting more or less exactly what I would have written. Not for the first time, step forward Liberal England.

Perhaps there are a few things to add. By 1997, the Tories and the country really did need a long break from one another, and Blair is to be congratulated in putting together a non-Tory electoral force that was capable of winning repeatedly.

The only other period in the past century that the Conservatives have appeared so utterly out of tune with the electorate and incapable of governing was in the few years before and the eight years after the 1906 Liberal landslide before the first world war intervened. Blair too got Britain into a war that it would have been better to stay out of. But because the war was on a lesser scale and much further away, his party has survived intact.

Liberals should be wary of lionising the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith administration, but they certainly contributed towards making Britain a fairer, more democratic and humane society. I don’t believe that the same can be said for Blair’s government.

My particular complaint is about the criminal justice process, where the Blair government has abandoned Labour’s liberal traditions and reduced law and order policy to a bidding war for Sun and Daily Mail headlines. Even back in the days when Labour opposed neighbourhood watch schemes, I don’t think anyone claimed they were on the side of criminals – an accusation that Labour willingly level at opponents who dare to oppose any of their criminal justice bills.

It is perhaps a bit begrudging to pick on this particular issue while overlooking independence of the Bank of England, civil partnerships or the minimum wage. But there is something deeply cynical about the way Blair and New Labour have cheapened political debate that induces such begrudgery.

Simon Jenkins encore

One point I missed in my previous post was the wrong-headedness of his comparison between the Lib Dems’ attitude to Scottish independence now and the Liberal party’s support for Irish Home Rule a century or so ago:

That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd..

The whole point of the Gladstonian Liberal party’s position was that it saw home rule as a final settlement that would recognise Irish aspirations for self-government while reconciling Ireland to the union. The Liberal party certainly did not support Irish independence.

The Conservatives and the schismatic Liberal Unionists opposed home rule inter alia because they thought it would inevitably lead to complete separation while the Liberals saw it as a way of averting such an eventuality. In the end, because home rule was never tried, the failure to grant it did indeed lead to independence.

So there is nothing odd here at all about the attitude of the Scottish Lib Dems. In supporting a devolved parliament for Scotland, while resisting independence, they are being entirely consistent with the views of their Gladstonian forebears.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Scotland needs to break with the soggy social-democratic consensus

Simon Jenkins is one of the heroes of this blog. His guide to English parish churches accompanies us on our perambulations about the country and I have consistently admired his championing of localism. Even if he has never been very positive about the Liberal Democrats, he has always struck me as the sort of commentator we ought to be wooing.

So it is disappointing to read his attack on the Liberal Democrats in this morning’s Guardian, Nice but hopeless, the Lib Dems should call it a day. At one level it is easy to fisk Jenkins’ logic. He seems to be lamenting on the one hand that under proportional systems the Lib Dems have a ‘golden share’ in representation, putting them in the position of kingmakers, while on the other criticising us for our failure to exercise our pivotal position to put ourselves back in government. Without PR Scotland would almost certainly be governed by a permanent Labour majority under first-past-the post and direct election of the executive would have led on Thursday to power being conferred on party with less then a third of the vote.

Yet somehow, there is something in what Jenkins is arguing if you ignore the cheap jibes at the Lib Dems. The party’s Scottish leadership appears to have lost the propaganda battle over coalition-making, painting itself into a corner of appearing undemocratic in opposing an independence referendum.

It seems to me the Scottish party had two choices given last week’s results. The first was to declare that as part of a ruling coalition that had lost its majority, and having seen our own representation reduced, we had lost the election, should accept our defeat gracefully and leave it to the other parties to work out governing arrangements. Instead we have gone: ‘Well, we won’t talk to Labour, but we will talk to the SNP, but on second thoughts we’re not sure about that, in fact probably we won’t.’ All of which just makes us look indecisive.

The other option was to accept that the SNP had beaten Labour but could only govern with our participation, and made a serious show of negotiations. I heard Iain Smith MSP argue that the problem wasn’t the referendum per se, but that the SNP wanted it in four years’ time after they had had a chance to work up a row with Westminster. This seems a fair and reasonable argument. In such circumstances, it seems to me that the Lib Dems should have insisted on an immediate referendum to get the whole issue out of the way early in the parliament. Assuming that the Scots voted against independence, the Lib Dems could have then held their SNP coalition partners to actually governing, not picking fights with Gordon Brown.

However, the real problem is surely with the make-up of Scottish politics and the fact that three of the four main parties are in much the same centre-left social democratic mould. It is noticeable that the policies with which the Scottish Lib Dems have been most closely associated in government – no tuition fees, free personal care for the elderly, a smoking ban introduced earlier than in England – are all ones that could have come just as easily from Labour or the SNP or both. Although we have STV for local elections, there is little sign of a second level of decentralisation from Holyrood to local authorities.

Since the Conservatives remain a busted flush in Scotland, we have yet to see a clear set of coalition alternatives emerge. This is unlike the position in Ireland where there is a clear alternative between a Fine Gael/Labour/Green rainbow alliance and Fianna Fail.

Scotland badly needs an alternative government that challenges the soggy social-democratic consensus, but is not tainted with the historical baggage that the Conservatives carry in Scotland. Having achieved its own parliament, Scotland needs to develop its own political discourse that turns on more important things than whether there should be a referendum in four years’ time.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Today Programme hands a small propaganda victory to David Irving

In reporting the death of author Kurt Vonnegut, the Today programme this morning managed to slip in a piece of misinformation that would no doubt have pleased David Irving and other Holocaust deniers.

Vonnegut's best known book Slaughterhouse 5 is in part based on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied bombing raids of February 1945. The Today report referred to this and stated that ‘more than 100,000’ people died in the Dresden bombings.

In fact, nearly all scholars who have researched this episode put the figure much lower – somewhere between 25,000 and 35,000. The only one who persists in claiming 100,000+ deaths is David Irving. In his original book The Destruction of Dresden he referred to 135,000 deaths, which he revised upwards to 250,000 using a document that was later shown to be a forgery. Since then he has persisted in the 135,000 figure, contrary to the evidence uncovered by other historians.

Given that Dresden was undeniable a human tragedy on an enormous scale and morally questionable at best, does quibbling about figures matter? Yes, it does, partly because truth matters and partly because deliberately exaggerating the Dresden death count is part of a revisionist project of Nazi-sympathisers like Irving designed to imply a moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies in the Second World War.

Irving’s misrepresentation of the figures is well-known. It was exposed in detail in the Irving-Lipstadt libel trial by Professor Richard J. Evans. It is dealt with in a chapter of Evans’s book Telling Lies About Hitler. Any BBC researcher wanting to check the information could have found Evans’s report on the web. Or if they couldn’t be bothered they could have looked at Wikipedia which has quite a detailed entry on the Dresden bombings.

Although Irving wasn’t mentioned by name in the Today report, by repeating his fictions rather than the conclusions of genuine scholars, they give him a small propaganda victory.

POSTSCRIPT: I have noticed in the past Today’s indulgent treatment of Irving. Earlier this year, the programme featured an item on laws against holocaust denial. To represent the views of those who oppose such laws, they interviewed David Irving. In the first place they referred to him as a ‘historian’, a label that many consider inappropriate given his persistent and deliberate falsifications. Then they misleadingly stated that he was no longer a holocaust denier. And when he said that if Britain passed a law outlawing holocaust denial he would be the first to break it, the interviewer failed to challenge him as to why he would do this if he accepted that the holocaust happened.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

From Adam Curtis to the Beveridge Group: negative freedom and economic liberalism are not dirty words

I see that it is almost a month since the last post on this blog. In the meantime I have been tied up variously with local politics in Watford and researching Liberal party temperance policy in Edwardian Britain. Various posts have been planned but somehow never written up.

The first of these was going to have been about the re-launch of the Beveridge Group at the Liberal Democrat conference in Harrogate in early March, the most recent about the final part of Adam Curtis’s documentary on BBC 2, The Trap - whatever happened to our dreams of freedom?. Perhaps now, and rather belatedly, I will attempt to revive this blog by drawing a link between the two.

The flaws in Adam Curtis’s attack on Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative liberty have been admirably fisked by Thomas Papworth (thorough and analytical) and Alex Wilcock (inspired, impassioned and without paragraph breaks) These do such a good job that there is not much for me to add about the programme itself. But what struck me about Curtis’s argument was the way in which many people the left (including Liberals) have allowed themselves to be duped into believing that so-called negative liberty (i.e. personal freedom and absence of coercion) are nasty right-wing concepts that smack of greed and selfishness and which we ought to be against.

It is true that much of the rhetoric of the Thatcher revolution was about individual freedom. But the Thatcherites’ commitment to that cause was always highly selective. It certainly didn’t extend to social policy – remember Section 28 anyone? But instead of contesting the ground of personal liberty with the right, and promoting their own rival vision, many liberals seemed to conclude that if we are against the Tories and they think personal liberty is good, then it is something that we should regard with suspicion.

In fact, the cause of personal freedom, in the sense of absence of state restriction, has always been an important part of the liberal/left tradition, from supporting free speech to abolishing slavery through to campaigning for homosexual equality. True, the left always had its coercive streak too – witness Liberal support for prohibitionist temperance campaigns in nineteenth-century Britain. But the role of restricting state intervention in people’s personal lives is one that the Liberal left should not meekly concede to the Conservative right.

Which brings me via a rather clunking link to the Beveridge group launch and the opposition of the various speakers – most notably Paul Holmes MP – to the concept of economic liberalism. (For outsiders, here I should say that the Beveridge Group is an internal Lib Dem ginger group which is seen as being on the left of the party and more-or-less opposed to the notorious Orange Book.) Whenever I hear fellow Liberal Democrats attack ‘economic liberals’, I’m always tempted to ask: ‘So you’re an economic what, exactly? Illiberal? Social democrat? Stalinist? Surely, social liberals who want to spread wealth more fairly through society ought to have some idea of what sort of economic approach will be most effective in generating this wealth.

Again, I suspect that because back in the 1980s some Thatcherite Conservatives described themselves as economic liberals, many Lib Dems feel that economic liberalism must be synonymous with Thatcherism and therefore bad. I have never shared this view. For me, being a liberal ought to mean supporting liberal approaches to all aspects of public policy – on economic as much as social questions. If Conservatives try to usurp the concept of economic liberalism, we shouldn’t let them.

Economic liberalism ought to be economics as practised by Liberals. And that includes being part of a reformist tradition. The economic policies of nineteenth-century Liberals were about removing arbitrary restrictions to wealth creation and economic participation. And even in the supposed heyday of laissez-faire it didn’t stop Liberal governments passing legislation to promote public health, enforce better conditions for factory workers or grant increased powers for municipal corporations. And again, Thatcherite Tories were not exactly consistent in their economic liberalism. We didn’t hear much about free movement of labour across international boundaries, for example.

For me personal and economic liberty are important elements of the progressive Liberal tradition. It is true that they are not exclusive to that tradition and just as there are collectivist and libertarian liberals, there are paternalist and liberal Tories. But there is no reason why belief in individual freedom and liberal economics should be seen as crypto-Thatcherism and the fact that some Lib Dems do so shows a lack of confidence in our own intellectual inheritance and allows our political opponents define Liberalism for us.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Lottery is the least worst way of allocating school places

In my rush yesterday to publicise the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, I didn’t get round yesterday to posting about Brighton and Hove’s controversial plan to allocate secondary school places by lottery.

As I mentioned on this blog some while ago, this has always seemed to me the most equitable way of allocating places to oversubscribed schools. I base this conclusion on the following assumptions. Selection on grounds of academic ability is divisive and wrong. A system of schools with particular specialisms selecting on grounds of aptitude for music, sport or whatever is not much fairer. And allocating places on the basis of how close a family lives to a school simply leads to higher house prices in the catchment areas of the more popular schools – selection by parental salary.

If we reject – as I do – the dirigisme of the anti-choice lobby, who appear to think that education officials should simply allocated children to schools without reference to the views of children or parents, then it is hard to see a fairer way of allocating places than by lottery.

Of course it won’t be a panacea. For parental choice to be meaningful, there does have to be diversity among schools in a given area. Some will stress academic achievement, some pastoral care and others sport, music etc. Selection by lottery would mean that the star footballer who wanted to go to the school that specialised in sport might lose out to the child with two left feet who has just applied because that’s where all his/her friends are going. No system is going to be perfect.

But if we want to have parental choice, avoid condemning children to educational failure and create schools with balanced intakes where most children will be able to fit in, learn and thrive, pulling the names out of a hat to allocate places in oversubscribed schools is probably the least unfair way.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Hurry! Hurry! while stocks last!

On Friday I am off to Harrogate for what promises to be a truly exciting event. I refer of course not to the Lib Dem conference itself, but the launch there of the publishing sensation of the year – the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, which is the latest venture into hard covers by the Liberal Democrat History Group. It is the definitive guide to the world’s greatest political philosophy.

Modesty of course prevents me from mentioning that I have played a small role in its publication as part of the editorial group responsible for producing the book and also that it includes three entries written by me. Most of the really hard work was done by the indefatigable Duncan Brack and the excellent Ed Randall. It also includes contributions by many distinguished political historians. Lib Dem bloggers will be particularly interested in the article by the late Sir Karl Popper on the political thought of our own dear Lord Bonkers.

The book retails at £35.00, but I see it is also available via Amazon for £23.10. Doubtless there will be some kind of discount for LDHG members (although I can’t swear to this).

Of course, such is the richness and variety of the prose that many readers will not be content merely to own one copy. Since it is the sort of book one can dip into at any time for enlightenment and inspiration, as a minimum it is advisable to have one on the bookshelf to impress visitors, another on the bedside table for late-night reading and another at one’s place of work.