Monday, February 25, 2008

Casinos, liberalism and localism

I'm in the process of catching up on Lib Dem blogs from the past week or so. I have spotted this from Adrian Sanders MP about casinos and cite it as another example of what I was going on about here about sticking to a consistent Liberal ethic.

Now, I should say on the subject of casinos that my personal views are a bit puritanical. I rarely gamble and feel it preys on the vulnerable. Despite my usual libertarian impulses I am uncomfortable about TV adverts encouraging people to have a flutter on sporting events. So on this issue at least, I am not quite the wacky libertarian, although equally I don't want to impose my personal prejudices on everyone else.

So I feel uncomfortable about Adrian Sanders simply criticising the government for allowing casinos. To me the liberal solution ought to be about decentralised decision-making. It should be up to local areas to determine their policies towards casinos and the like.

I certainly wouldn't advocate a super casino for Watford. Yet I can't see why councils in Torbay or Blackpool or wherever should be prevented from encouraging them if they feel that would help with local employment and regeneration.

It's not so much the fact that Adrian Sanders disapproves of casinos and gambling that I have a problem with. It's the uncritical acceptance that policy in this area should be top-down and centralised.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Berwick-upon-Tweed: Scotland's Gibraltar or England's Kosovo?

I have been meaning for a little while to post on the subject of South of Scotland SNP MSP Christine Grahame for Berwick-upon-Tweed to be returned to Scotland.

My father always refers to Berwick as Scotland's Gibraltar. I am not much of a nationalist, but each time I travel northward on the east coast mainline, I think that the River Tweed feels like it ought to be the border. And from the train at least Berwick looks more like a Scottish than an English town.

Yet Berwick residents, Scottish and English alike, have seemed happy enough these last few centuries with their position. This may change as I understand that the government has approved a plan for unitary government in Northumberland, which will take away some of Berwick's autonomy. Joining Scotland may therefore look like an attractive option.

Across Europe many if not most wars have been caused by territorial disputes around which nation or empire a particular territory should belong to based on the wishes of its inhabitants.

How do you decide which unit of territory or population should get self-determination? What if Scotland declared that Berwick is an integral part of the national territory regardless of the views of the town's citizens? Or if Berwickers wanted to rejoin Scotland, should this only be done if the rest of England acquiesced? Or should it be just down to the views of those who live in Berwick?

We search in vain for consistency in European precedent. Gibraltarians don't want to become part of Spain. But Spaniards don't accept its right to be separate from Spain. Kosovo has just seceded from Serbia against the will of the Serbs. Yet Northern Cyprus is still a pariah state within Europe, even though its residents clearly don't want to be part of the rest of Cyprus. I gather that both Spain and Cyprus voted against independence for Kosovo.

There but for the 1707 Union go we in Britain. So whether or not the Scots Nats get to reclaim Berwick, I suggest its very anomolous state - a town in a different country from its eponymous county - helps to undermine the case for an independent Scotland and is a good argument for maintaining the United Kingdom.

Castro and the Staggers

Peter Wilby once wrote that:

One of the earliest lessons I learned as [New Statesman] editor was that many readers regard Castro rather as Telegraph readers used to regard the late Queen Mother, and that harsh criticism of the Cuban president would lead to threats of cancelled subscriptions.

I wonder therefore whether it was brave or foolhardy of current acting editor Sue Matthias to publish in this week's edition this article by Isobel Hilton as its comment on Fidel's resignation.

Although balanced in tone, it is more negative than positive about El Comandante's legacy. So much so that it wouldn't have looked out of place in the Spectator.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Fact-checking Harry Potter

I am currently listening to a band called Bodies of Water whose excellent album/cd is called Ears Will Pop & Eyes Will Blink.

Their music is hard to categorise. They comprise two men and two women and tend all to sing at once, in a style a little reminiscent of the Mamas and the Papas. Then the music is all a bit grandiose and bombastic, in a way that reminds me of Arcade Fire. And then the songs seem to be all about religion, rather like Bob Dylan's Slow Train Coming or the entire oeuvre of Nick Cave.

You can hear for yourselves here (I can't do that clever putting the YouTube screen up on the blog thing - perhaps a kind reader might help me out with this).

Their music apart, I was rather taken with this website entry by group member David Metcalf about the jobs he had before the band 'made it'. One was fact-checking Harry Potter trivia games. He comments:

I may be the world's only expert on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets who did not actually read this book.

As one who believes that adults have no business reading the Harry Potter books, I approve.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Liberal England and Enoch Powell

Jonathan Calder highlights that within a week of his starting to write a column on the New Statesman website, the magazine's editor John Kampfner resigned.

A little further investigation reveals that Kampfner resigned over a row with the owner Geoffrey Robinson MP over the publication's costs. So how much must they have been paying Jonathan? Perhaps Lord Bonkers was demanding a cut to help subsidise his Rutland estates. The price was clearly too much for the Statesman's proprietor.

All of which puts me in mind of a story I heard about Enoch Powell, who was notoriously tough in negotiating fees for newspaper articles and the like.

Asked by an editor to contribute an op-ed piece, Powell immediately demanded to know how much he would get paid. On being told the intended fee, he said 'I'm not a charity you know.' The editor replied that Powell's then party leader Edward Heath has been paid the same for writing an article. To which Powell replied, 'Yes, and he would have written it for nothing if you had asked him.'

Journal of Liberal History

Sticking to historical matters, the latest edition of the Journal of Liberal History includes my review of James Moore's The Transformation of Urban Liberalism: Party Politics and Urban Governance in Late Nineteenth-Century England.

The latest edition isn't available on the web, so far as I can see, and I suppose it is not quite the done thing to put the review on this blog.

But this seems as good a moment as any to plug the Liberal Democrat History Group, which publishes the journal, a peer-reviewed publication that includes not just general articles, but original research by practising historians across the whole range of Liberal history. In my view it is easily the best thing published from within the Lib Dem family.

I encourage readers who don't already subscribe to do so.

Bermondsey revisited (again)

We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Bermondsey by-election.

To commemorate the event, Jonathan Derbyshire has written fair-minded article, which appeared in last week's Time Out.

The author is the son of one of my Lib Dem colleagues on Watford Borough Council (although I gather he is not himself a Lib Dem).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making Liberal history sell

I have just finished Ian Packer’s excellent book Liberal Government and Politics, 1905-15, which offers an original and thought-provoking reassessment of the Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith administrations.

The book deals with a fascinating period of British politics. Written in lucid and engaging prose, it deserves a wider readership than just academic specialists. Yet, I suspect, few general readers are likely to get hold of it. For it retails at £49 and if it is typical of academic monographs will have had a print run of just a few hundred. It will end up only being obtainable through university rather than public libraries.

Dr Packer’s problem is that he is not already famous in some other field. Well-known politicians, be they William Hague, Douglas Hurd or Mark Oaten seem to manage to get books on historical subjects published in popular editions at reasonable prices. This is so even if they carry out little or no original research and merely piggy-back on the work of others. It’s less a case of ‘A Life of William Wilberforce by William Hague’ and more ‘Hague On Wilberforce’.

Further down the intellectual food chain, publishers fall over themselves to bring out books by assorted celebrities who seem to ‘write’ more books than they are ever likely to read.

Perhaps the answer is for academics to give up publishing books in their own names that are doomed to remain in obscurity. Instead they should act as ghost-writers for celebs who have no time between hairdos and buying clothes to do any writing, but whose names will certainly sell books.

That way, perhaps Dr Packer’s little volume could yet reach a wider audience as Victoria Beckham’s Book of Edwardian Liberalism.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Letter to Lib Dem News

For the first time in a while, this week I have a letter in Liberal Democrat News. In was a response to Bob Russell MP's comment to the effec that we don't need three Tory parties in British politics. This is what I wrote:

In political argument, there is an unofficial rule that the first person to mention the Nazis automatically loses.

In the Liberal Democrats there should be an equivalent rule - that in any debate the first person to accuse a colleague of being a Tory loses.

Bob Russell MP tells us that ‘there is no need and no room for a third Tory party’ in British politics, implying that some in our party think otherwise.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in such things, but I try to take some interest in political debate within the party. I attend conference, subscribe to Liberator, CentreForum etc, and have read at least some of the Orange Book and Reinventing the State. Yet nowhere have I seen any Liberal Democrat argue that we should become a third (or even second) Tory party.

Perhaps Mr Russell has a grasp of political philosophy far more sophisticated and profound than my own. Yet I can’t help thinking that as we discuss how our Liberal principles should be best applied to current politics, it isn’t helpful if we resort to the cheap jibe of accusing colleagues with whom we disagree of being Tories.

The aim is to be distinctively Liberal, not any kind of Tory party.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Sticking to a liberal narrative - a small suggestion

During the latest hiatus in this blog, I was struck by the coverage given to Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall’s call to ban patio heaters and Greg Mulholland MP’s proposal that pubs should have to sell wine in 125ml measures. Both of these raise the problem of liberals calling for individual freedom in the abstract, but in practice calling for more regulation of people’s lives.

Of the two I think that Fiona Hall’s quest is the more questionable. Patio heaters are certainly bad for the environment and it may well be true that they consume more energy (or whatever) than running a car. And yet lots of other things that are not eco-friendly are not banned. What if someone didn’t want to own a car, but liked occasionally to sit outdoors on chilly evenings, and used their patio heater sparingly? Why should they not have that choice.

Greg Mulholland, on the other hand seems a little unfairly maligned. If I have understood right, he has not (as has been claimed) said that pubs should not be able to serve larger measures of wine, only that they should offer small glasses as an option. This is a fair point. I have come across some bars that serve wine only in large 250ml measures. If wine is up to three times as strong as beer, then this is the equivalent of serving beer pint-and-a-half measures and nothing less. But if the suggestion is sensible of itself, it is so easily misrepresented that it risks making the Lib Dems seem nannyish.

How we are perceived by the public is not just about our principles or policies, but also a question of what our representatives choose to talk about. For example, the Liberal Democrats support controls on immigration. But if a Lib Dem MP chose to talk obsessively about the need for more strong immigration controls, to the exclusion of other issues, this would seem at variance with our general approach to politics, even if said MP was not going against party policy. It would look like pandering to the illiberal far right.

Projecting a clear Liberal narrative means that our leaders, parliamentarians, council leaders etc. need to consider when launching any initiative how it fits in with our Liberal principles. No one wants the kind of control-freakery that Mandelson and Co. operated in New Labour. But my modest suggestion to the new leader, if he wants to project the Lib Dems as a consistently Liberal force, is to give a very firm steer to the party colleagues along the following lines:

“Before speaking out or launching a new initiative on any issue, think how well it fits our liberal message. Is it

• decentralising or centralising?
• pro or anti civil liberties?
• pro or anti personal choice?
• good or bad for the environment?
• likely or not to combat poverty and exclusion?
• drawbridge down or drawbridge up?

If it fails one or more of these tests, then think twice about going public. Ask advice from the leader/party spokesperson/policy team. Sometimes these values may conflict and we have to prioritise one over the other. Sometimes our view will have to be tempered by pragmatism. But remember that the transient publicity we get on a single issue will affect the overall image of the party. It can serve either to undermine or reinforce our general message. Think before sounding off!”