Sunday, October 31, 2004
How to be a pundit in one easy lesson
Two days to go to the US presidential election, and both the British and American media are filled with acres of speculation about the result.
You don't need to be an expert. Anyone can do it. All you need to do is namedrop assorted permutations of bizarre demographic groups and remote towns that no-one's heard of, while keeping a straight face.
Most of the coverage reads like a Private Eye parody. "Pollsters are predicting an above-average turnout among blue-collar soccer moms across the prairie states, while in the battleground state of Nirvana, early voting by retired Hispanic cheese farmers is..." (cont. p.94).
It's a close election, no-one can predict the outcome with any confidence, so you can get away with saying just about anything and still sound plausible.
The one thing you can't say is the truth; it's a lottery and no-one has a fucking clue.
Friday, October 29, 2004
The USA's Declaration of Independence is widely admired as a political statement. Its most memorable sentence is, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
It is a thoroughly admirable sentiment, apart from that final phrase, "the pursuit of happiness". Was there ever a more ridiculous political aspiration? Or potentially a more damaging one?
'Fulfilment' would have been a better word than happiness, since it expresses a more realistic and ultimately more satisfying aspiration. Happiness exists only in relation to other emotional states, hence the paradox; if we were permanently happy, we would not be happy. True happiness is something we experience at best only fleetingly. Its elusiveness means it is something no political system can meaningfully guarantee. And if capturing this butterfly becomes our overriding goal in life, we end up in a futile pursuit of more and more stimulation and excitement.
Joan Bakewell's column in today's Guardian was ostensibly about a lost recipe for stuffed marrows, but actually mourned this "plaintive search for the ever more outrageous, the further extremes of enjoyment." She did, however, point out that, as we get older, "thankfully the taste for excitement does die away."
That is some consolation. Nevertheless, the futility and hedonism of 'the pursuit of happiness' is at the root of the spiritual void in western societies and will be our undoing.
Any chance of a constitutional amendment?
The Good Life?
Pitcairn Island has not been in the headlines since the mutiny on the Bounty, not until the recent and disturbing child abuse trials, in which most of the island's men have stood in the dock.
Most observers have been puzzled why this crime was endemic in a supposed paradise. This article in today's New York Times explains why.
"Such disturbing crimes are often attributed to the influences of modern society, from pornography on the Internet to the dissolution of the nuclear family. But on the remote island of Pitcairn, you can't tune in to a single TV channel, while Internet access is only a recent innovation. And the ties of community are very strong; there are only nine families, sharing four surnames. Everything commonly denounced as corrupting is absent. So why is such a pocket-sized island not Paradise, but an outcrop of Hell?"
The answer is precisely that it is an isolated settlement. Communities such as Pitcairn Island, where everyone is related and there is no-one to turn to, are places where petty tyrants flourish.
Many British people idolise remote rural life and self-reliance, but such places aren't happier or healthier. In fact, they tend to be more oppressive and illiberal. As I pointed out in an earlier posting (Country members), liberalism is more likely to flourish in big cities. As Tristram Hunt argues in his recent book, we should regain the self-confidence of our Victorian forebears and learn to celebrate the city. It is, after all, where 85% of British people live.
It's all the fault of socialist William Morris, of course. That, and endless re-runs of the sitcom The Good Life. The sooner the British end their idiotic rural obsession, the better.
All aboard the Liberal Love Bus
Some enterprising and broad-minded liberals in the USA have set-up a campaign called FTheVote.com.
It's a novel method for neutralising conservative votes. Liberals are encouraged to, how shall I put it, seduce conservatives and then get them to sign a pledge not to vote for Bush. The campaign includes a tour of 'swinger states' with a 'Liberal Love Bus'.
Could the Liberal Democrats replicate this campaign in the UK? It's a tempting thought, until you realise some of the snags. The average age of Conservative party members is about 70 and their voters aren't much younger, so you'd have to be a fairly extreme swinger (even by Liberal standards) to delve into that particular sexual maelstrom.
Then there's the Liberal Democrats themselves. The FTheVote website declares, "Everyone knows liberals are hotter than conservatives - we look hotter, we dress hotter, our ideas are hotter, and we are infinitely hotter in the sack."
Well, everything's relative. But one glance at the delegates at a Liberal Democrat conference and you'd realise this does not necessarily apply in Britain. Sandals and beards are rarely in evidence these days, yet sometimes you feel you have stepped into the bar scene in Star Wars (but without the violence).
So, will the Lib Dems tour Britain's 'swinger constituencies' with a 'Liberal Democrat Love Bus'? Will they swap STV for FTV? Somehow, I doubt it.
Wednesday, October 27, 2004
Like many people, I was saddened by the death yesterday of veteran DJ John Peel. On BBC Radio 1, he was the only DJ to have survived from the station's inception in 1967. Many famous rock bands - from Pink Floyd, T. Rex and Roxy Music through to the Clash, the Undertones, the Fall and Radiohead - owe their first break to Peel.
The British media today have been awash with moving tributes (see, for example, the BBC, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Times and Peel's local paper, the East Anglian Daily Times). Coverage has spread to the rest of the English-speaking world (see, for example, the New York Times and Washington Post). The overarching theme was Peel's eclecticism.
From the outset, John Peel never stuck to a playlist but played whatever music took his fancy - and he hoped it might take your fancy too. Not only that, he did not confine himself to one genre. Rock, folk, reggae, hip-hop, world music or death metal - it could be anything.
As a listener, you can never hope to explore and understand your own musical tastes unless you are open-minded and prepared to take risks. I have no patience with people who believe that music is validated by their own familiarity and who dismiss automatically anything they have not heard before. Unfortunately, such closed-minded listeners are probably in a majority, which is why there is a market for safe, bland and familiar broadcasting.
John Peel proved that pop does not mean populist, but his eclecticism was possible only at the BBC. Commercial radio (with rare exceptions such as London's XFM) can never be as adventurous - indeed, commercial broadcasting giants such as Clear Channel now own thousands of radio stations and are homogenising their musical output. Driving across the USA with the car radio on can be a depressing experience - apart from a few public stations in the big cities, the choice is either country (the corporate Nashville variety) or 'AOR' (basically, endless replays of the Eagles).
Peel can never be replaced - there must now be many indie bands and record labels wondering how they will ever get airplay again. But the BBC continues to provide a home for other eclectic DJs, notably Charlie Gillett, Bob Harris and Andy Kershaw - people who care about the music they play, rather than slick 'personalities' who play whatever some executive in a suit instructs on a playlist.
The value of public broadcasting - and of adventurous broadcasters such as John Peel - lies not in 'giving them what they want'. It is in giving them what they didn't previously know they might like. It is in challenging and stretching audiences rather than confirming their prejudices. Commercial radio, on the other hand, demonstrates that a 'free market' does not always lead to more choice.
Other people's business
The campaign by the British daily newspaper The Guardian to encourage its readers to e-mail voters in Clark County, Ohio, with messages about the forthcoming presidential election seems to have backfired. The Guardian has been deluged with abusive replies from outraged Americans.
They have a point. How would we feel if we were subjected to unsolicited e-mails from Americans telling us how to vote in our general election next year?
Then it occurred to me. For the first time, thousands of Americans have experienced first-hand what it is like to have foreigners interfere in their internal affairs. It's not nice, is it?
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
If ever there were a non-story, it is the disclosure last week of MPs' expense claims. Not a single Member of Parliament has been proven corrupt.
Predictably, that didn't stop Fleet Street's finest working themselves up into a lather of self-righteous indignation. Many of the national dailies deliberately misled their readers into thinking that MPs' expenses are some sort of perk or top-up salary.
Needless to say, the most ridiculous comments were in the Sun, whose leader last Friday began, "We sent a Sun pig to Parliament to see if he could dip his snout in the MPs' expenses trough." Last weekend's Sunday Times was casually referring to "lavish expenses".
Even the Independent, which can normally be relied on for a more sober assessment, referred in an article last Friday to "the astronomical cost of Britain's 659 MPs."
The facts behind the headlines turned out to be thoroughly mundane. Your average MP claims £118,000 per annum, of which the bulk (around £70,000) is spent on staff salaries and most of the remainder on routine office overheads. It isn't widely known that, unlike, say, a newspaper editor, MPs are not automatically provided with secretaries, office equipment or postage, but must pay for their own.
In this post-Poulson, post-Nolan world, nearly everything is transparent and above board. It has become very difficult, not to say politically suicidal, for an elected politician in Britain to trouser money illicitly.
One of the few journalists to keep his feet on the ground was Quentin Letts in the Daily Telegraph; 'The real story is that most MPs are honest' was the accurate but boring headline of his article. Sadly, that's not the sort of headline that sells newspapers.
Another sane voice was Peter Riddell in Friday's Times, who remarked, "...the totals are still small by international standards. And, by and large, our politics remains pretty clean."
MPs have rightly pointed to the humbug of newspaper editors, who pontificate about MPs' salaries and expenses when their own are much more generous. After all, none of our politicians can even begin to rival the behaviour of former press proprietor Conrad Black.
But no-one seems to have spotted the real story. The media attacks on MPs are part of an ongoing campaign by the right-wing press to discredit representative democracy. It's all part of a "they're all the same", "they're only it for the money" narrative, a cynical belief that everyone in public life is a crook and a curious expectation that public figures should be kept in a permanent state of humiliation.
The effect of this propaganda is to drive down electoral turnouts and discourage talented people from entering public life. You have to ask yourself who benefits from the degradation of our civil society. I doubt such powerful enemies of democracy would be keen on any public scrutiny of their own affairs.
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
Who is to be master?
The infighting going on within the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party reminds me of this famous passage from Lewis Carroll's 'Through the Looking Glass':
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "who is to be master. That is all."
The publication last month of the Orange Book brought to a head an ideological dispute over what is meant by the term 'Liberal'. But this is less an intellectual argument, more a battle for power. The combatants are chasing the ultimate prize, or so they believe.
Rivalries between Liberal Democrat MPs are becoming more bitter because of two articles of faith in the parliamentary party; (1) that Charles Kennedy will step down as party leader soon after the next general election, causing a leadership election; and (2) that the subsequent general election (2009 or thereabouts) will be the 'breakthrough' for the Liberal Democrats.
It doesn't matter whether either of these assumptions is actually true. What matters is that many MPs and their hangers-on believe it. They are convinced that Kennedy's successor as leader has a good chance of becoming prime minister. The conviction that so much is at stake explains not only the intense rivalry between the MPs but also why various hangers-on are making selfish calculations about whose coat tails they should hang on to. Yes folks, guess right and a life peerage could be yours.
But the two assumptions on which the MPs are basing their rivalry are flawed. My bet is that Kennedy will surprise everyone after next year's general election and decide to stay on as party leader. The party has 55 MPs and current spread betting predicts between 70 and 75 seats at the next election. This is probably over-generous and a tally of 60 to 65 is more likely. Even so, such a result would enable Kennedy to emerge from the election campaign with some credit. Or, to put it another way, the only election result that could threaten Kennedy's leadership would be a net loss of seats.
Kennedy's leadership had been in a state of crisis since the infamous Newsnight interview in July 2002, which first brought the drink allegations out into the open. A series of damaging press stories ensued (most of them the result of leaks by various Liberal Democrat MPs attempting to influence the outcome of an expected change of leadership). This culminated in the debacle this March, when Kennedy missed the budget debate. The party's spring conference in Southport was rife with rumours that Kennedy would be toppled in June, to be replaced by Menzies Campbell.
In the event, Kennedy heeded the dire warnings and sharpened up his act, and the threat of a coup receded. By September, some of the more excitable people in the party were even talking of him "playing a blinder", though everything is relative. Nowadays, such has the currency of leadership been debased that simply getting up in the morning and staying upright for the rest of the day is considered great statesmanship.
Despite this turnaround, it remains widely assumed in the party that Kennedy has had enough and will be glad to give up the leadership after next year's election. I wouldn't bet on it.
Kennedy's kitchen cabinet naturally has a vested interest in him remaining leader. His representative on earth, Lord (Tim) Razzall, has been publicly talking up Kennedy staying on till 2009 and becoming PM afterwards. Meanwhile, other leading figures in the party privately dread a Simon Hughes vs. Mark Oaten leadership contest and want to spin things out until either Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg (not yet MPs but both selected for safe seats) is ready.
If you fancy a flutter, you should get good odds on Charles Kennedy still being party leader for the election after next.
The other assumption (a 2009 breakthrough) is equally questionable. By then, the British political landscape is likely to have morphed out of all recognition. One way or another, the boil of Europe will finally have been burst, which will determine whether the Conservative Party is electable. If Bush is re-elected next month, 'Atlanticism' will be exposed as a busted flush; a serious rupture in relations between the EU and the USA is on the cards and NATO may not survive. The British housing bubble will burst soon and the huge mountain of consumer debt will eventually collapse, leading to a loss of consumer confidence and possibly a deep recession.
It's not just a question of bursts and busts. As Steve Richards observed in the Independent (19 October), the main political fault lines in Britain, on defining issues such as public services and Europe, do not match the boundaries between the parties. If the right-wing cabal in the Liberal Democrats persists in its strategy of railroading the party into 'economic liberal' positions, it will cause a serious split and make any 'breakthrough' less likely.
Both Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy will fall off their perches in due course. But, in both cases, the manner and the timing of their demise will not be the way most people assume. Trying to guess the outcome of either eventuality is an amusing political parlour game but does not amount to a serious political strategy.
Sunday, October 17, 2004
I was amused to discover that an attack on this blog has come from the Labour Watch site, of all places. Labour Watch, ostensibly dedicated to revelations about the Labour Party, decided to post an 'off-topic' reference to my earlier posting All things to all men.
Sadly, my critic has made three mistakes. First, you'd think anyone running 'Labour Watch' has enough on his hands without bothering with me. Second, he failed to spot my deliberate irony (he's not American, is he?). And third, he has inadvertently revealed that he is a Tory.
Being an idiot and a Tory are not mutually exclusive positions - the Tories are not known as the 'Stupid Party' for nothing.
In the spirit of political ecumenicalism, I shall continue to list on this blog a link to Labour Watch - until a more intelligent person starts a more credible alternative.
Saturday, October 16, 2004
Bangers for Europe
I am strongly pro-European but have always felt frustrated by the failure of politicians to connect the European case to people's everyday concerns.
The biggest advantage of the European Union (the end to war within Europe) has little or no traction with those not old enough to remember the Second World War. Much of the EU's day-to-day work on harmonisation directives, while bringing widespread economic benefits, seems too technical or boring for most people. And the cause isn't helped by avid pro-Europeans who think the case for Europe is made by banging on about the technical benefits of clause VII, sub-section (iv), paragraph (iii) of the draft EU constitution.
So it's good to see a campaign (also here) being launched by local butchers in my home county of Lincolnshire, to persuade the EU to give 'protected geographical indication status' to the Lincolnshire Sausage. The campaigners have managed to enlist the celebrity cook Clarissa Dickson-Wright to support their cause.
The goal is to persuade the EU to give the Lincolnshire Sausage statutory protection, under regulations that protect food names on a geographical basis. If the campaigners are successful, only sausages made in Lincolnshire to a traditional recipe may be sold as 'Lincolnshire Sausages'. Imitations made outside the county could no longer be passed off as the real thing.
The philosophy behind such regulation is based on the French concept of 'terroir', the idea that foodstuffs from a particular region embody a unique local character derived from a specific combination of soil, climate and production methods. While the relevant EU regulations go back only to 1993, similar laws have existed in other EU countries (such as France, with its 'Appelation d'Origine Contrôlée' system for wine and cheese) for much longer.
The British have been slow on the uptake. Only the name of Stilton cheese enjoyed statutory protection until recently, but now more than 30 British products (including Newcastle Brown Ale, Whitstable oysters and Cornish clotted cream) are protected, and a campaign similar to Lincolnshire's is being mounted to protect Melton Mowbray pork pies.
The Melton Mowbray campaigners face opposition from Labour peer Lord Haskins and his Northern Foods company. Critics see such regional designations as a crude form of protectionism, and the system has also been attacked by the Americans in the WTO, who see it as barrier to the interests of their giant food multinationals. But when large food companies complain that geographical protection "fragments the market", this is just a euphemism for the threat it poses to their monopoly power and their attempts to homogenise our food culture.
Contrary to what critics claim, no one is making absurd demands for protection, such as that Brussels sprouts should be produced only in Brussels. But protected status, where legitimately applied, brings a range of benefits that go beyond the interests of producers.
Liberals should welcome this system because it ensures diversity and choice for the consumer, and provides an assurance of authenticity. It also helps traditional local producers, who lack the marketing budgets of their multinational rivals, to promote and win recognition for their products. It raises standards of food production by providing an incentive for farmers to move from quantity into quality (important when the EU needs to tackle a glut of produce). It helps revive regional economies and restore local pride, and provides a basis for encouraging food-based tourism.
But the real political benefit is that this is one way of demonstrating the value of the European Union to the ordinary citizen, who might otherwise perceive the EU as a remote bureaucracy. The more the EU becomes a forum where local people can campaign for their interests, the more the EU will have come of age.
The lesson for pro-Europeans? Less constitution, more sausage.
PS: If you live in the UK and want to order the real thing from Lincolnshire, try here.
Friday, October 15, 2004
Get a life
I was encouraged to read in last Sunday's Observer that, as a spin-off of the BBC2 TV quiz show QI, a QI members' club has been established in Oxford. Founder John Lloyd said, "It will be a place where you can have a decent conversation," adding, "It is for people who are curious and interested. We will be for farmers, novelists and students. It doesn't matter."
But the QI club will be swimming against the cultural tide. Lloyd acknowledged, "Our club is not cool and it is not for people who want to be hip."
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of social conversation in Britain today is the increasing limit on what it is permissible to talk about. This is not formal censorship - it's more insidious than that.
Nowadays, it is considered a faux pas to display any form of erudition, enthusiasm, hobby or intellectual pursuit. Do so and you are immediately slapped down with one of these stock phrases; 'sad', 'trainspotter', 'anorak', 'anal' or 'get a life'. Indeed, that was the instant response of one friend when I mentioned last weekend that I had started this blog.
The permissible range of conversation has narrowed in intellectual scope to the world of the tabloids and 'Hello'-style magazines. Unless you want to become the butt of jokes among your friends, you may discuss only the following topics:
- malicious gossip about mutual friends and acquaintances
- malicious gossip about celebrities
- football (the private lives of players, but not the 4-4-2 system)
- movies (recent Hollywood products, but not art films)
- TV (light entertainment and soaps, but not documentaries)
You may talk about politics, but only if you confine your remarks to personality issues. If in any doubt, the rule of thumb is, the smaller the talk, the safer you are.
This pernicious form of intolerance extends beyond social occasions to how one lives one's life. For example, until about twenty-five years ago, it was considered perfectly acceptable to be interested in railways, and large numbers of people pursued this hobby with no risk of social opprobrium. Then, at some point in the late 70s/early 80s, a new fashion dictate emerged and railway enthusiasm has been pilloried relentlessly ever since.
Why has this change in attitude occurred? There always was a strong streak of anti-intellectualism in English culture, but this recent shift is the product of a convergence of two newer social trends, the culture of 'cool' and feminist chic.
The phenomenon of 'cool' has been examined thoroughly in an excellent book, Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude by Dick Pountain and David Robins (Reaktion Books, 2000). Cool is essentially about affecting an air of ironic detachment. Its modern origins can be traced to American black culture of the 1940s, which was then picked up by rebellious white icons of the 50s such as James Dean and Elvis. But during the 60s, 'cool' began to be exploited by advertisers as a means of selling consumer goods and by the 70s it had entered the mainstream. 'Cool' people may imagine they are rebelling by wearing a particular product but in reality they are just suckers for commercial fashion.
Precisely what constitutes 'cool' is constantly changing but, crucially, the people who define 'cool' at any given point are not adults but children. It is playground fashion. This has created the absurd situation where many adults now take their fashion cues from teenagers, then employ infantile techniques to score points over their peers.
But 'cool' is not just fashion, it is an attitude, and it is having a thoroughly corrosive effect on our culture and society. Since 'cool' is about narcissism and cynicism rather than doing anything positive, it follows that most enthusiasms and intelligent conversational topics must be stigmatised as 'uncool'.
Besides 'cool', the other factor behind this growing intolerance is a shallow form of feminism - and here, I realise I am venturing into risky un-PC territory. Most men have horror stories to tell of how their mother, wife or girlfriend waged war on one of their hobbies. Most women do not have any hobbies or intellectual pursuits and cannot understand why men do. Nothing new there. But what some feminists have done is to intellectualise this prejudice.
An example is this particularly nasty piece by columnist Cristina Odone (Observer, 10 November, 2002). Here, we move beyond mere intolerance of other people's pursuits into very dangerous territory, the idea that hobbies and interests are some form of mental disorder. There is a recent and worrying precedent for pathologising normal male behaviour. In America and Britain, the drug Ritalin is being prescribed routinely to pacify millions of naturally boisterous young children on spurious medical grounds. How long before the pharmaceutical industry responds to demands by women to cure their young sons of an embarrassing interest in stamp collecting?
An exaggerated scenario, perhaps. But over the past two decades, the climate of opinion towards intellectual curiosity has been made more hostile by the steady drip, drip of feminist commentators casually portraying men's hobbies and interests as a form of autism - at best an eccentricity, at worst a behavioural problem to be treated.
The widespread and indiscriminate use of terms such as 'sad' and 'get a life' has come as a godsend to those people who prefer small talk to conceptual talk and need a handy social technique for inhibiting more intelligent conversation.
Does any of this really matter? Attacking trainspotters may seem harmless enough, until you realise the consequences. Once upon a time, small boys who collected train numbers matured into adult railway enthusiasts who ran various museums and preserved steam railways, contributing much to our local heritage and tourism, and giving pleasure to many people. It's not just trains. All over Britain, volunteer enthusiasts can be found restoring and running old windmills, canals and factories. But not for long. They are failing to enlist a new generation of volunteers, because potential young recruits are deterred for fear of being mocked by their peers.
The effects go far beyond preserving our industrial heritage. The overriding need to look 'cool' is now recognised as the main reason why boys are underperforming in the state school system. Boys are under huge peer group pressure not to study or be seen as a swot. And now, we are faced with a rash of knife incidents in schools because, apparently, it's 'cool' to carry a knife.
What is worst of all, though, is that this powerful social trend has limited our freedom to be ourselves, and has led to a general diminution of our cultural life. Intelligent conversation is one of the great pleasures of life and it is depressing when less and less people are willing to participate, for fear of what others might think. Before long, the only permissible social option left will be to slouch nonchalantly in a chair and bitch about other people - then we'll all be the poorer.
We flatter ourselves that we live in a more liberated age, when all we have done is exchange one set of social restrictions for another. What is particularly sad (in both senses of the term) is that many of my friends and acquaintances who call themselves 'Liberal' are as big a dupe for this sort of intolerant social posturing as anyone else. Let's get this clear - anyone who habitually mocks the individuality of others has no right to call themselves a Liberal.
Get a life? The people who should 'get a life' are the immature fashion victims whose only outlet is to sneer, smirk and snigger at the intelligent discourse of others.
Wednesday, October 13, 2004
The Dear Leader
Part of the new line in Lib Dem souvenir knick-knacks
Not much on the telly last night, so I decided to look back through the keynote speeches at the Liberal Democrats' recent party conference in Bournemouth - or was it Pyongyang?
Some of the MPs delivered leadership tributes that would not have sounded out of place at the congress of the North Korean communist party. Most of these MPs ought to have known better. Amid the political cliches and tired jokes were these gems:
Ed Davey - "It was Jo Grimond who said he would march us, his Liberal troops, towards the sound of gunfire. Well, Charles Kennedy has led us much, much further."
Simon Hughes - "Under Charles's leadership, I shall work with my parliamentary colleagues, our MEPs, councillors, members and staff to continue to build a party organisation to be fit for government."
And, to cap it all, there was the title of the pre-election manifesto, 'Freedom, Fairness, Trust', also used as the conference slogan and the hook for many a dreary speech. As Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart put it, " 'Freedom, Fairness, Trust', as opposed, presumably, to Oppression, Inequality, Betrayal."
No doubt everyone's working hard to fulfil their quotas at the tractor factory. But such leadership tributes and empty slogans are simply an extreme example of a broader problem. The general language in which MPs' speeches are delivered belongs to another age and lacks human resonance.
It's hard to put one's finger on the precise problem, but you know it when you see it. It's a strange sort of massaged and meaningless language - a combination of partisan smugness, unreal optimism, empty platitudes, cliche-ridden exhortations, witless point-scoring and laboured 'jokes' - with the added ingredient of Blair-style sentences without verbs. Basically, it's a failure to speak from the heart.
None of these MPs talk like this in the pub (and I should know - I've been out drinking with many of them in my time). I realise that the oratorical demands of the conference podium are somewhat different from the social requirements of the conference hotel bar. But I can't help feeling that our MPs would have much more impact if they simply cut the crap.
A large part of the popular appeal of politicians such as Mo Mowlam and Ken Clarke is their ability to speak in plain, everyday language. You may not agree with them, but at least you feel that they look and sound like real human beings. Our MPs might be better advised to fire their 23-year old speech writers and have more faith in their instincts.
One of the few Liberal Democrat MPs to keep a level head in Bournemouth was Norman Baker. In his conference speech, he managed to steer clear of the stock salutations, although he did remind us of a Chinese proverb: “If we continue down the road which we appear to have chosen, the danger exists that we may end up exactly where we are heading.”
Quite. It starts harmlessly enough with yellow 'Kennedy' baseball caps but ends up like this.
Monday, October 11, 2004
I am no particular fan of the Observer columnist Cristina Odone, whose moral certainty and irritating smugness I tend to find objectionable.
But her column yesterday (10 October) about country folk made an interesting point. Rural Britain is not all it is cracked up to be. And rural culture tends to be antithetical to Liberalism.
Odone paints an unflattering picture of rural Britain - "... the suffocating yearning for respectability, the curtain-twitching curiosity about what the neighbour's up to, the tedium of a social life whose high point is a WI coffee morning. Worst of all, bigotry thrives in a landscape almost wholly bereft of blacks, Asians and gays."
Cruel but fair, I'd say.
In Britain, we tend to idolise the countryside, yet few of us actually live in it or spend much time there. It is commonplace to hear politicians and lobbyists talk of "rural issues" but most British people live in suburbs - have you ever heard anyone talk about "suburban issues"?
Britain was the first country to industrialise and is one of the most urbanised in the world. Most of us inhabit just a dozen or so major conurbations. In the past thirty years, many middle class people have moved out of towns and cities to live in nearby villages but, in doing so, they have not become more rural. They have suburbanised these villages and priced out the original rural inhabitants.
Well, what has all this to do with the price of fish?
I am particularly impressed with the ideas in The Rise of the Creative Class. The author Richard Florida has found that there is a strong correlation between having a liberal and tolerant culture and enjoying economic success. He studied 100 American cities and found that those that are welcoming places for creative and bohemian people, ethnic minorities and gays are tending to thrive, whereas cities with a conservative and intolerant culture are tending to fail. Similar research is being done elsewhere in the western world and the findings are the same.
This analysis helps to explain the emerging culture war in Britain, currently most obvious in the violence provoked by the fox hunting dispute, but also manifest in other issues such as Europe and asylum-seekers. And it also has profound implications for the electoral strategy of the Liberal Democrats.
The natural support base for the Liberal Democrats is liberal people - tolerant, educated, cosmopolitan, individualistic - who tend to live in inner cities rather than rural areas. It seems obvious to me that the future of the party is in representing this growing class and that, as a consequence, the Lib Dems will make gains in cosmopolitan urban centres but will lose seats in rural backwaters.
For example, life is becoming increasingly uncomfortable for Lib Dem MPs in some of the more rural parts of the south-west of England, where they are going through agonies on Europe and hunting. Trying to face both ways on such issues, simply to hang on to a few rural constituencies at any price, risks undermining the party nationally by alienating our core support.
Conversely, the Liberal Democrats are making electoral breakthroughs in most of the major British urban centres. If the party understood this dynamic more fully, it would be better able to exploit it.
Liberal Democrat MPs representing rural areas have tended to exercise disproportionate influence within the party. I suspect they've had their day.
Friday, October 08, 2004
All things to all men
Since the Liberal Democrats have been doing quite well in the polls and by-elections lately, they have attracted fire from the other main parties (who otherwise rely on the simple tactic of ignoring the Lib Dems). And the criticism that is trotted out most frequently is that the Liberal Democrats pretend to be "all things to all men" (put the two phrases "Liberal Democrats" and "all things to all men" into Google and you'll find hundreds of examples).
Is this charge fair? Well, yes and no.
When called upon to elaborate, opponents accuse the Liberal Democrats of saying different things in different parts of the country or to different audiences. I see no problem with this. If you are sending a leaflet to rural voters in Somerset, they're more likely to be interested in what you have to say about village schools and local post office closures rather than, say, the London congestion charge. If you are sending a leaflet to pensioners, they're more likely to be interested in what you have to say about pensions and hospitals rather than university tuition fees.
More fundamentally, I see no problem with adopting different policies in different parts of the country. It is a natural consequence of devolution. Different parts of the country have varying priorities - there is no reason why people in Cornwall should feel obliged to adopt identical policies to those in Scotland. When decisions are made centrally, one can understand the sense of unfairness if different regions enjoy different levels of public services. But when power is devolved, it is nonsense to talk of "postcode lotteries".
There is an important distinction between values and policies. Values are fundamental and timeless. Policies change over time according to circumstance. What matters is that political parties remain true to their core values.
The Liberal Democrats do have a problem with being "all things to all men", but not the way their critics allege. Lib Dems typically still have a naive and touching faith that everyone is really like them. All you have to do is sit round the table and eventually everyone can reach agreement. They find it hard to accept that there will always be many people, probably a majority, who are not Liberals, who will never be Liberals, and whom they must confront. Too often, they sit on the fence for fear of causing offence, instead of having the courage of their convictions.
This timidity only gets the Lib Dems into trouble. An example of this problem is their back-peddling on the issue of Europe. The overriding concern of the party has been to avoid upsetting Eurosceptic voters and the right-wing press. The party's support is around 20%. The percentage of voters who are pro-European remains some 35 to 40%. It is a minority, but a substantially larger one than the people who vote Liberal Democrat. A robust assertion of pro-European values would help the party capture this natural support base. Instead, the party's pusillanimous posture lets down pro-European voters who have nowhere else to turn.
The Liberal Democrats should identify a target demographic rather than try to be "all things to all men". And this is where there is good news – a liberal demographic is emerging. There is a direct correlation between higher education and liberal (with a small 'l') attitudes. As an increasing proportion of the population becomes better educated, more liberal and tolerant attitudes will prevail. This is not speculation, but was one of the key findings of the 2002 British Social Attitudes Survey (the 19th annual report of the National Centre for Social Research).
Opinion polls and election results increasingly bear out this view. Polls show the Liberal Democrats scoring higher than the Tories with the under-35 age group, and even better (over 50%) among students. And in real elections, the party is doing particularly well in university towns (visit the Political Betting site and see the posting dated 31/7/2004, Could the university seats be Blair's undoing?).
If the Liberal Democrats wish to avoid accusations of being "all things to all men", there is a simple remedy. First, they should rediscover their core values and shout them from the rooftops. And second, they should face up to the most illiberal elements in society - the small-town xenophobes, the braying county set, the hangers and floggers, the bullet-headed 'Ingerlund' supporters and the council estate lynch mobs - and tell them all to sod off.
Thursday, October 07, 2004
An off-message greeting
Greetings to the Liberal Dissenter.
This is the first of what I hope will be many stimulating posts on topics of political and social interest. My objective is to provoke thought, through some random observations - and to draw your attention to some of the world's absurdities.
My standpoint is that of a Liberal who, though a member of the (British) Liberal Democrats, almost despairs of that party.
Any party claiming to be Liberal ought to be promoting the liberty of the individual as its primary goal. Yet the Liberal Democrats, in so far as they promote any values at all, are split between two factions - 'economic liberals', who seem far more concerned with the welfare of powerful business interests than those of the individual citizen, and 'nanny state' social democrats, who assume that people are incapable of doing anything for themselves and propose a welter of state interventions in people's lives.
Yet these two groups are only part of the problem. Far worse is the generally technocratic and managerialist approach that dominates the party's culture. The recent party conference in Bournemouth was a case in point. The motions before the conference were lengthy screeds of dessicated, technocratic and arcane detail, which lacked a moral core or any sense of passion.
Not that many of the conference delegates would have noticed, because they now spend all their time in 'training sessions'. There are now so many of these training sessions that the conference organisers have removed them from the fringe meetings directory and published a separate booklet to list them all. Well, I'm all for giving people skills and confidence, but much of this 'training' misses the point of politics completely.
Politics is basically about making moral choices, not management. Elected politicians should be popular representatives (in both senses of the term 'popular'). Yes, we need efficient management, but we employ civil servants and local government officers to do that. The more we insist on 'professionalising' politics, the more we disconnect politicians from the people they are meant to represent, and the more we fail to offer the electorate a real choice.
The response of many Liberal Democrats is to say that people don't like 'yah boo' politics but are interested only in getting their bins emptied on time. This is a myth. Argument is what differentiates parties and provides people with a real choice. What people actually don't like is when all the mainstream parties look and sound the same. A leader in the Observer (13 June, 2004) got it right: "We need the three principal parties to be clear what they stand for and to fight for coherent positions with integrity. Being all things to all men disaffects core support and benefits the fringe."
Conflict and argument are not a sign of failure - they are the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. The well-meaning belief that you can reduce politics to issues of 'efficient management' is one of the main reasons why democratic politics has become so uninspiring and discredited.
Try telling that to the party's managers. Like their counterparts in the other main parties, they are obsessed with media management to the point of making everything sound bland. God forbid anyone might say anything that upsets the Daily Mail. Well, they've finally succeeded in making the party conference thoroughly boring and I hope they're pleased with themselves.
The Liberal Democrats cannot tell the difference between politics and management, and consequently they are becoming sterile, earnest and po-faced. My goal is to do what I can to help remove the broom-handle from the party's bottom - though I may need to stab them with something a little sharper from time to time.