Saturday, July 31, 2010

RIP Ben Keith

Neil Young's steel, guitarist who was part of Young's distinctive 'Harvest' sound, but who also played with Patsy Cline died yesterday. The link is to a performance of Neil Young of the song 'Too Far Gone', which perhaps seems appropriate for the moment. Obituary here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

So was there an alternative?

It would have been nice if Liberal Democrat participation in government had led to us being feted in the country and a massive surge in our popularity.

But no one should really be surprised if there has been a dip in Lib Dem support according to the opinion polls, although how far this is the case has been disputed.

While the Lib Dems aim to transcend class-based two-party politics, it is hard to do so completely. The Labour versus Conservative struggle remains a reality, and those people who voted for us, but who defined themselves as 'anti-Tory' were never going to be happy. Likewise, back in the 1980s I can remember canvassing people who has voted Liberal in 1974 but who said they would never vote for us again because we kept the politically bankrupt Callaghan government in power through the Lib-Lab pact.

It is of course sad to find with some friends, loved ones and work colleagues that conversations about politics are now distincly awkward because of the coalition. What is particularly frustrating is to find all attempts at argument based on the post-election arithmetic/need for stable government/number of Lib Dem policies in coalition agreement greeted with 'But you shouldn't have done a deal with the Tories' as if that single sentiment trumps any attempt at reasoning.

Which brings me to last nights interesting but essentially superficial documentary by Nick Robinson, which I imagine will be available for a few days here. Lord Adonis argued that the parliamentary arithmetic was a mere alibi for the Lib Dems who had already decided to to a deal with the Tories. [Mean-spirited aside - It's a bit hard to take Lord Adonis getting all sanctimonious about Lib Dem behaviour when he is a turncoat who quit the Lib Dems in a rather-too-obvious search for high office under Labour.]

My question, therefore, is whether anyone has actually articulated a coherent argument as to how this Progressive wet dream of a Labour-Lib Dem-SNP-Plaid Cymru-SDLP-Alliance-Lady Sylvia Hermon might have actually have worked in practice and delivered stable, reforming, cuddly, spending-cuts-and-VAT-increase-free, electoral reforming with full STV government in practice? Even if Nick Clegg and David Cameron do both talk a bit posh, wear brogues and comb their hair in a similar way, that doesn't mean that Nick wanted a Lib-Con coalition all along.

With the Labour party having been in power for thirteen years and having lost its overall majority and holding fewer seats than the Conservatives, it was always going to be a high hurdle for the Lib Dems to put Labour back in power - really to be justified only if we could achieve full proportional representation. Given that a Lib-Lab coalition would not have had a majority, that many Labour MPs clearly didn't support such a deal, while others were not prepared to work with the SNP (whose support would be needed to sustain the coalition) it really is impossible to see how such a government could have lasted more than a few months before collapsing ignominiously with no achievements to his name. This seems to me a pretty convincing argument and by no means a mere alibi. So has anyone on the left put forward a serious response to it other than 'I don't care, you shouldn't have done a deal with the Tories'?

Staggers Lee

The New Statesman arriving on a Friday is now a mixed blessing, given the unflinchingly hostile line it has taken to the coalition from day 1. The only way is seems able to treat the new government is with retro 80s-style anti-Thatcherite rhetoric.

The theme of this week's issue is 'Politics and comedy' and includes an article on arts funding by alleged comedian Stewart Lee. Deploring the likelihood of cuts in state arts budgets, he comments: 'Artists are sensitive souls who may feel compromised by sponsorship' (article not available online so far as I can tell). But in that case might they not also feel compromised by taking state funds provided by a government that the Staggers editiorial describes (not wholly in jest, I fear) as 'dismembering the country'. One wonders whether artists might not also feel tainted by guilt by association through accepting the dismemberers' shilling.

Despite all this, I don't quite yet share Stephen Tall's gloomy conclusion that: 'I've given up on the Staggers. The book reviews are good but the politics are too formulaicly dull.' I like reading a weekly magazine and there is still good stuff in there: Peter Wilby, Rachel Cooke, Nicholas Lezard and so forth. And if the Staggers is frustrating reading for a Liberal just now, at least it's nowhere near as bad as the Spectator, which is going through a deeply unpleasant phase at the moment, dominated, as Jonathan Calder says, by 'right-wing American nutjobbery'.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

I nearly forgot to mention...

What's the good of a blog if one can't use it to blow one's own trumpet?

So I should mention that while this blog was on sabbatical my first full-length research article was published in the journal Parliamentary History. Entitled 'Empire, Patriotism and the Working-Class Electorate: The 1900 General Election in the Battersea Constituency', it is intended as a contribution to the debate on how important a factor the South African war was in the Conservative/Unionist victory in that election. Broadly speaking, it concludes that it was indeed important, and disagrees with those historians who have sought to play down its significance.

This is in many ways an uncomfortable argument to make for someone of my Liberal, cosmopolitan and pacific view. But then, as Liberal Democrats are being all too forcefully reminded in the present day, political realities are often not as one would ideally like them to be.

Sadly, for those readers who can barely contain their excitement, the full text is not available online, or at least not without paying for it. But the printed journal will be available in academic (and perhaps some public) libraries and can also be accessed via the Academic Search Complete database, which many libraries subscribe to. Alternatively, I have a couple of remaining offprints that I could send you on a first-come, first-served basis - but don't get trampled underfoot in the rush!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

In praise of Peter Wilby

Sticking with a Leicester University connection I'm pleased to see that it has chosen to honour the journalist Peter Wilby, a native of Leicestershire, with an honorary degree.

Wilby can be credited with having made the New Statesman readable again in his seven years as editor between 1998 and 2005. His weekly column remains the best thing in the magazine. As a columnist, he avoids the Polly Toynbee-ish vice of writing as if senior members of the government are or should be hanging on their every word, so never mind the poor readers.

As an old fashioned leftist, Wilby always writes with a resigned wistfulness that seems to accept that his views will never be mainstream, but which can find some comfort in finding unusual, thought-provoking arguments that stimulate and entertain the reader. This puts him in a noble tradition of left-of-centre columnists that includes Cassandra (Bill Connor), Keith Waterhouse and Alan Watkins.

Less than sterling architecture

Catching up with the weekend papers: I confess to not having been aware that the Stirling Prize for Architecture, the shortlist for which was announced last week even existed.

No doubt Sir James Stirling was an important architect, a great man etc., but my own close encounter with his architecture - walking past the internationally-renowned engineering building at Leicester University during my time as an undergraduate there - left me as rather less than a fan.

None of the engineering students had a good word for the building as a space to work in, and it didn't strike me as more obviously distinguished than the other two rather nasty towers on the Leicester campus.

Perhaps Stirling's best-known British building is the History Faculty Library at Cambridge University, which Wikipedia describes thus:

Although the building was admired by students of architecture it is less well regarded by those who have to work in it. Expensive modifications were necessary to render to usable, and in 1984 the university came close to pulling the whole thing down.[4]

I seem to remember it being parodied in Tom Sharpe's book Ancestral Vices as requiring the heating to remain on right through the summer and the air conditioning through the winter to keep it at a reasonable temperature - although I can't find my copy of the book to check.

Let's hope that the buildings shortlisted for the Stirling Prize are more practical and less brilliant than those of Stirling himself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Good for Nick!

An interesting blog post and discussion from the BBC's Mark D'Arcy about Nick Clegg's first appearance at prime minister's question time, particularly regarding the 'illegal invasion of Iraq' comment.

There is going to be a fine balance to be struck over the next two years and beyond between having a stable government without constant bickering between the coalition partners and ensuring that the two parties maintain their separate identities.

I am sure most Lib Dems (and many of the party's supporters) will welcome Nick's timely reminder of the party's distinctive position within the coalition.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Is Labour heading for a Clause 4 moment in reverse?

Austerity drive will hand billions to private sector cried the Guardian on Saturday. I'm not sure the story quite justifies the headline, and wonder about the retro language used: 'Rubbish disposal is one of the services under threat of outsourcing' as if we were back to the 1980s. But I was more struck by the comment of Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham that:

Some private operators are going to have a field day, making a fortune from a system which will offer less public accountability

It's as if he has forgotten that neutrality on the question of outsourcing versus direct provision of public services was a key part of the New Labour agenda. As part of its 'Best Value' programme, New Labour insisted that local government should 'consult, compare, challenge, compete' (the four C's) in deciding how to provide services - we were not simply to assume that the in-house team did it best. Likewise in education through the academies programme and in health too, Labour embraced the role of private sector providers.

Is Andy Burnham's comment a sign of Labour re-embracing Clause 4 and rejecting the nasty private sector outright outright? If so, Labour may be looking to a similarly long spell in opposition to that which they enjoyed between 1979 and 1997. But I suspect that it is just rhetoric designed to court union votes in the leadership election.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Richard Grayson, Nick Clegg and 'small-state Liberalism'

There has been much discussion in the Lib Dem blogosphere about Richard Grayson's new pamphlet for the Compass think tank The Liberal Democrat journey to a coalition and where next? Jonathan Calder, David Boyle and Lib Dem Voice, among others, have all had their say. Richard has also been kind enough to draw my attention to the fact that I am briefly mentioned in the pamphlet.

It is a good thing that someone with Richard's knowledge and insight has engaged with the ideoligical issues surrounding the coalition and I very much welcome his triggering a useful debate. Yet I find myself out of sympathy with much of his argument, although in the interests of time and brevity, I will just engage with one of his core contentions, namely that the origins of the coalition:

can be found in the dominance of centre-right small state liberalism in the leadership of the Liberal Democrats

Richard of course will know the leading Lib Dem figures in the coalition better than I do and what makes them tick. But I don't get a sense that Clegg et al are wedded to small state Liberalism. Rather I suspect that they have been driven by political circumstances (the longest ever period of Labour government in Britain) to think about how the Lib Dems differ from Labour and how we would do things differently.

It is perhaps worth noting that in 1979, after Labour had been in power for 11 of the previous 15 years, the Liberal manifesto stated:

Liberals are concerned to simplify the personal tax system and reduce its burden to create a tax structure which encourages initiative and promotes a wider distribution of wealth, and above all to establish principles for a stable tax system which can command the respect of the electorate as a whole: wealthy, poor and average earners.

specifically 'a major switch from taxes on income to taxes on wealth and expenditure'. This has strong echoes of our stance in 2010. Yet, whatever the then Liberal leader, David Steel, few would label him as a 'small state liberal'. (Although John Pardoe, who was no doubt the author of the 1979 tax proposals is probably more a Laws than a Grayson Liberal.)

The Liberal critiques of Labour and Conservative governments are always likely to be different. I doubt very much whether Clegg would have supported a coalition with the Conservatives in 1997 nor felt uncomfortably with the party's call at the time for greater investment in public services. But once Labour had flooded the public sector with money, yet everything in the garden was still not rosy, it was hardly credible for the Lib Dems to say 'We still want just that little bit more public spending than New Labour', because it would have given us a political narrative of 'We're just like Labour only more so'.

Therefore the party needed to think through how it differed from the Labour government, with the Huhne Commission which Richard rightly praises being the start of this. We had to think ideologically and could hardly put forward a viable alternative view of how public services should be delivered if it was predicated on a non-negotiable assumption that the Lib Dems must always support a public sector at least as big as that proposed by Labour.

For what it's worth I think we should be bold and confident enough to put forward our own Liberal agenda without intellectual cap-doffing to Labour, old or new. There are many things Labour spend public money on that we don't agree with at all: Identity cards, the security agenda, the multifarious inspection regimes for local government. Likewise, it's hard to see their rhetoric on crime, drugs and civil liberties as in any way progressive. Equally, I see the Coalition's support for localism as more progressive, liberal, left-wing or whatever you want to call it than Labour's track record. Even free schools (of which I'm admittedly not a huge fan) are the sort of idea that might once have been put forward by the party's radical community politics wing.

It is important that we do have a continuing debate about the future of the Lib Dems. But I fear that social liberals will be heading up a dead end if the root of their argument is about matching the size of Labour's public sector.

I've missed all the fun

A general election campaign, the historic coalition agreement between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, its controversial first budget, the re-election of my dear wife as Mayor of Watford and the disappointment of Sal Brinton not winning the parliamentary seat are all things that I have missed the chance to comment on while this blog has been on hiatus.

Over the past fifteen months such spare time as I have has been taken up working on a long-term project (of which more anon) and maintaining this blog would have been mere work avoidance. To restart it with the intention of making regular posts is a triumph of hope over experience, but let's give it a bash.