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.

Labour – don't cha love ‘em?

There has been another gap in this blog over the last couple of weeks. This has been largely due to my having to write and present a seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on the topic of ‘Herbert Gladstone and Liberal-Labour relations’ between 1892 and 1905. This was quite a formal affair that couldn’t be dashed off in a couple of hours.

The core of my thesis is that contrary to the views of many Liberals of the ‘We was robbed’ school of thought, the promotion of Labour candidates by the Liberal party at this time was a logical and necessary step. The views of Labour and Liberal politicians of that time were pretty much identical and the Gladstone-MacDonald pact of 1903 that gave birth to the parliamentary Labour party was the only possible way of increasing working class representation in Parliament.

In between times, I have been engaging in a furious exchange of letters in the pages of the Watford Observer with members of the Labour party in Watford. My main theme has been what a disaster their party has been for the country in general and Watford in particular and that only the Liberal Democrats offer a serious alternative for progressive politics in Britain.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Why Unionists get such bad PR

I’m grateful again to Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to this example of control-freakery by the Democratic Unionist Party, which is asking their candidates to sign a contract committing them to support party policy.

This one little incident demonstrates why Ulster unionists have such bad public relations. I can’t imagine the Sinn Fein leadership tolerating it for too long if their elected representatives demonstrate quirky, maverick views that contravene official policy. But somehow these things will be well understood without having to be spelled out.

By contrast it is typical that the more literal-minded unionists will want party loyalty rules put in black and white, so that there is no ambiguity. And perhaps typical too that at least one among their number should find it unacceptable and leak the story to the press.

For anyone wanting to understand more about the cultural differences between Unionist and Nationalist/Republican politics I recommend this article by Ruth Dudley Edwards.

Phil Willis for President (of 'Liberals Against Choice')

Magpie-like, I shall seize on a couple of items from Liberal England that highlight stories I missed when I was away.

Phil Willis’s opposition to parental choice in schools is predictable but still annoying. It is a similar attitude to that displayed by Don Foster on casinos (see previous post). Both seem to have a paternalist, almost Fabian, attitude, with a touching faith that experts know best. ‘You see, the people, the poor dears, they don’t know what’s good for them.’ I can’t imagine that Willis or Foster stop for a second to consider how their pronouncements relate to liberalism either with a small or large L.

And yet somehow they escape the opprobrium that many defenders of Liberalism within the party pour on the likes of Mark Oaten. Although I have by no means always agreed with Mark, at least he genuinely did try to think about the nature of Liberalism and much of what he said was simply about changing how we present our views. By contrast, I find it almost impossible to recognise anything Liberal about many of the public views of Willis and Foster.

The evils of pedestrian guardrails

Where I was in fuller agreement with Alan Duncan was over his strictures against street clutter – he made reference to a roundabout near Kettering where he counted more than 200 poles, signs etc.

This is hardly a new issue. My own bugbear is the hideous pedestrian guardrails, that seem to be installed as part of almost any new urban traffic scheme. In theory they are designed to protect the pedestrian. But in fact they box us in, restrict our freedom and make roads look like racetracks so that drivers feel more confident in going faster.

The one council that has really tried to counter this ‘clutter culture’ is the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (Conservative, unfortunately, not Lib Dem), whose Kensington High Street improvements scheme was based on creating a pedestrian-friendly environment through the removal of excess ‘street furniture’.

I understand that the council had great difficulty getting the scheme past the safety fascists because it broke many of the supposed rules of such scheme – for example cycle parking racks on a central reservation.

Are the Tories for real about localism?

The gap in postings has been at least in part because I have been away at the Local Government Association urban conference in Newcastle.

I heard Alan Duncan, the Conservatives’ Shadow Secretary for Trade, Industry and Energy argue for more autonomy and powers for local government. This seems a bit rich given that during their last 18 years in power the Tories went to almost any lengths to avoid giving extra powers to councils and to take away as many as they could. I mischievously asked whether this conversion was genuine or just because he was speaking to a local government conference. The reply was pretty noncommittal.

It seems all opposition parties sing the praises of local choice and autonomy until they get into power, when the dead hand of the Treasury takes over. And yet the optimist in me keeps hoping that a consensus is emerging that excessive central control of public services just has not worked.

So right now the Liberal Democrats, as a party committed to decentralisation, should be leading the debate and building on the report of the Huhne Commission of a few years ago. Yet somehow I’m still not hearing it and the lacklustre policy paper on local government submitted to the last conference (and rightly rejected) gave a sense that we are resting on our laurels.

Part of the problem is that we are a party dominated by campaigners and matters like the balance of responsibilities between central and local government hardly make for exciting newsletter copy. Yet campaigning is surely about more than just winning votes in a given election, but about changing the intellectual climate in our favour.