.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Sunday, January 30, 2005



Wyre Forest Liberal councillor Mike Oborski recently described the so-called Standards Board for England as "plonkers". This, I now realise, is an understatement.

The more I hear about this public body, the more I have come to the conclusion that it is akin to a large festering vat of rancid goat semen.

I'm all for stamping out genuine corruption, but this body appears to have nothing better to do than to waste public money persecuting local councillors for making ribald comments or breaching some imagined protocols. The latest iniquity is the disqualification last December of East Riding Liberal Democrat councillor
Colleen Gill for simply doing her job.

You can read the full story on Colleen's
website. You can read more about the strange goings on in East Riding here.

A recent letter in the
Yorkshire Post (12 January) highlighted the dangers of current trends:

"East Riding councillor Colleen Gill's suspension resulting from the intervention of the Standards Board for England continues an extremely worrying trend where councillors are punished for basically looking after the interests of their constituents.

"As with other recent rulings, including Hull and the East Riding, the common denominator is a councillor's desire to correct and, if necessary, highlight a perceived failure of a particular department which has caused grievance to their fellow resident.

"Should this trend continue, the role of the councillor will become ever more impotent; they will have increased trepidation of overstepping the mark when, for instance, questioning the advice of unelected officers.

"This only perpetuates the perception of an officer-led council and threatens local democracy due to an increased disenchantment by the electorate and a reduced enthusiasm for suitable candidates to stand for election."
If you wish to show your support, visit Colleen's website, sign the petition and make a donation.

In the meantime, I can thoroughly recommend the
Double Standards website, which keeps tabs on the Standards Board's absurd behaviour. It sums up the problem succinctly:

The problem is that the Standards Board for England is NOT enforcing high standards.

It is in fact simply making it almost impossible for local councillors to express opinions and to articulate the views of their electorate.

More and more councillors feel that they are being needlessly harassed and persecuted to the serious detriment of local democracy.
Still, it could be worse. New Labour could be placing local councillors under house arrest.


"Defeat before a shot is fired"

It's official: Mark Oaten is now to the right of Frederick Forsyth.

Saturday, January 29, 2005


Whose side are you on?

Anyone who calls themselves a liberal should have been appalled by the government's proposal to introduce house arrest. It is a further demonstration that New Labour has few qualms about bringing in a police state, fewer even than most Tories.

Giving the government powers of administrative detention is not only an affront to our civil liberties but also counter-productive, as the experience of internment in Northern Ireland demonstrated. This measure has no merit even on its own terms but is simply a piece of window-dressing. But why care when, like this government, your only concern is tomorrow's headlines or the results of this week's focus group?

This alarming proposal has arisen because of the
Law Lords' judgement last December against the detention without trial of terrorist suspects in Belmarsh prison. Lord Hoffman delivered a devastating critique, which New Labour appears unable to grasp. It is worth quoting at length:

"This is a nation which has been tested in adversity, which has survived physical destruction and catastrophic loss of life. I do not underestimate the ability of fanatical groups of terrorists to kill and destroy, but they do not threaten the life of the nation. Whether we would survive Hitler hung in the balance, but there is no doubt that we shall survive Al-Qaeda. The Spanish people have not said that what happened in Madrid, hideous crime as it was, threatened the life of their nation. Their legendary pride would not allow it. Terrorist violence, serious as it is, does not threaten our institutions of government or our existence as a civil community.

"...I said that the power of detention is at present confined to foreigners and I would not like to give the impression that all that was necessary was to extend the power to United Kingdom citizens as well. In my opinion, such a power in any form is not compatible with our constitution. The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory."
You'd think the Liberal Democrats, as Britain's main liberal party and leading opponents of the strategy behind the Iraq war, would be at the forefront of opposition to the government's repressive measures. Sadly not.

Things had looked more promising last November when Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
attacked David Blunkett's use of a "climate of fear" to introduce some "extremely repressive measures". His home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten has now undermined that position.

On BBC Radio 4's
The Week in Westminster on Saturday morning, listeners heard the government's proposals being attacked by Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews but were also treated to the shameful spectacle of these proposals being given a fair wind by Mark Oaten. To the extent that Oaten opposed the government, his criticism was muted. (You can hear the programme online for the next seven days - fast-forward 9 minutes 35 seconds into the broadcast to find the relevant report).

Marshall-Andrews made the right points and Oaten didn't, as these extracts from Saturday's radio broadcast show:

OATEN: "I welcomed what Charles Clarke said in the sense that at least we were now having a debate and the politicians were able to get into some of the detail, and there may very well be some measures that he is putting forward that the Lib Dems can support."

MARSHALL-ANDREWS: "I'm actually very disappointed to hear that the Liberal Democrats are giving any support at all to measures which are in fact infinitely worse than those that we have at the moment... For the first time for 300 years, what is being proposed here is executive arrest and detention without trial and indefinitely of British subjects... External threat has been the excuse used by authoritarian governments throughout history... The worst thing that terrorism does to you is not the threat that terrorists pose to us, it's what they induce us to do to ourselves."

OATEN: "What I've got to do as a politician and a Liberal is to try and juggle this complicated equation over making sure that on the one hand I defend those civil liberties but on the other hand that I am responsible and listen to the security threats. I think that the last Home Secretary had the balance completely wrong. What I'm indicating is that there may be a way in which we can redress that balance with this new Home Secretary but obviously there's a range of control orders that he's suggesting. Now there may be some of those which do not require a derogation [from the EU human rights convention], which we can live with. There may be other of those control orders, such as house detention, which if they do require a derogation we would have serious concerns about."

MARSHALL-ANDREWS: "The last Home Secretary, whose record on civil liberties was deplorable, probably the worst in modern memory, even the last Home Secretary never brought through proposals for the executive detention without trial of British citizens indefinitely. Now this is what it is. The fact that's it's not in Belmarsh and it happens to be in a bungalow is neither here nor there... One thing that I am absolutely certain about is that we did not have [during Blunkett's time as Home Secretary] an absence of terrorist attacks because of the erosion of civil liberty... Now if it is going to be suggested that those twelve people in Belmarsh are the effective reason why we have had no terrorist attacks, I simply do not accept it and I don't know anybody who has put that forward. But we were threatened by the IRA for effectively half a century. We never, never introduced measures of this kind."

OATEN: "What I have to do is to listen carefully to this change of announcements and that's got nothing to with general elections, it's got to do with sensible grown-up politics, to find a good way forward which can balance the civil liberty beliefs I have and I must take note of the security implications at the same time."
This was not simply a matter of a difference of opinion. Marshall-Andrews was not only logical but also expressed moral clarity and passion. Oaten, in contrast, expressed his views in mostly dessicated, administrative terms, as if this were nothing more than a question of weighing up some technical details. His talk of "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" betrayed a belief that fundamental values are tradeable. He then had the nerve to co-opt the language of responsibility with his tendentious reference to "sensible grown-up politics".

Oaten's problem, as his reference to a "complicated equation" showed, is that he has accepted the false premise of authoritarianism, that civil liberty and security exist in inverse proportion to one another. Consequently, his argument with the government has become a matter of degree rather than a principled disagreement.

What distinguishes a liberal political party should, above all, be its liberalism. The government's proposals are not about administrative efficiency or our security but instead strike at the heart of our political values and our liberties. Any Liberal Democrat MP who does not understand this fundamental point is unfit to serve as a frontbench spokesperson.

When a Law Lord and a Labour MP can demonstrate a better grasp of liberalism and express it in forthright terms, while our parliamentary spokesman ends up batting for the opposition, what hope is there?

Thursday, January 27, 2005


God moves in mysterious ways

Can anyone explain why the 'off' switch never seems to work on televisions belonging to devoutly religious people?

Earlier this month, thousands of Christian fundamentalists felt compelled to watch BBC2's screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera then complain about it, rather than watch something more to their taste or simply switch off.

It turns out this is not an isolated problem. The BBC
reports that a devout Baptist couple in Somerset bought what they thought was a Doris Day DVD for only £2.99 from a bargain bin at Safeways. Unfortunately, this DVD did not do what it says on the tin. Instead of The Pajama Game, the contents turned out to be an Italian sex film called Tettone che Passione, which translates as Breasts, What a Passion.

Now you may say that, unlike the TV screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera, the purchasers of this video were not forewarned. Indeed, the BBC reports,

The couple, regular attendees at their local Baptist church, settled down with a cup of tea to watch the 1957 musical which has a U (universal) certificate.
It quickly became evident that all was not well.

"Some topless young women appeared and started talking in Italian... it's not what you expect from a Doris Day film," Mr Leigh-Browne said. "It was a pretty raunchy, explicit film, it certainly pulled no punches."
Time to reach for the remote control and put a stop to this, you'd think. But no.

"My wife and I were very shocked but we watched it until the end because we couldn't believe what we were seeing."
A likely story.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005


The way we live

I strongly urge you to take the time to read the series of articles by Jenni Russell published in the Guardian G2 section over the past three days. They are described as a "highly personal investigation into modern relationships" and they make sobering reading.

Monday's article
What are friends for? acknowledges that, for most of us, friendships have replaced family and explores an insecure world of mutual misunderstandings.

The Love Business (Tuesday) looks at how money has become the key to marriage and long-term partnerships.

Work It Out (Wednesday) examines the problems people face in their workplaces understanding office politics.

Most of you will recognise your own lives in these articles. They go a long way towards explaining the defining characteristic of our age, a deep sense of insecurity. Despite a growth of freedom and affluence, people are generally less happy because they lack close human bonds and feel they are neither needed nor valued. The articles also show that traditional social protocols have been replaced with a web of hidden rules of engagement, which leave most people struggling to make sense of what is going on.

Liberals need to understand what is happening if they are to engage with people's basic concerns. The question of social atomisation is fundamental not only to many public policy issues but also to most people's increasingly fragile sense of self-worth. Sooner or later, probably in the next economic recession, there is likely to be a backlash as people seek to restore some sense of permanence and security in their lives.

It is customary among conservatives to blame 'the sixties' and small 'l' liberal values for these problems. The more widely this analysis is accepted, the easier it is for populist politicians to exploit popular insecurity as a means of creating a more authoritarian society.

There's another way of looking at the sixties. The hippies, far from undermining the fabric of society, can now be seen as the last throw of old communitarian values.

The real culprit is the radical free market policies of the 1980s, which, amongst other things, replaced our social relationships with commercialised exchanges. By embracing these policies, Conservatives ceased to be conservative in the sense of defending traditional social values (read this
quote from John Gray on Jonathan Calder's Serendib blog and also Jonathan's own analysis).

The political argument will boil down to whether we blame the forces that got rid of our corner shops and mis-sold us pensions, or whether to make a scapegoat of the forces that brought us Jerry Springer - The Opera.

The central task for Liberals now is to define how we can reconcile two innate human needs; the need for control over one's life (expressed through the quest for personal freedom) and the need for security and belonging. The last British Liberals to try were the authors of
The Theory & Practice of Community Politics in 1980. While there remains much to admire in this work, the problem with their analysis is a faith in the geographical community, which is no longer a viable solution in such a mobile society.

If we fail to address this issue, conservative and ultra-religious forces will succeed in defining liberalism as the problem rather than the solution, and we will leave the field clear to authoritarians with quick fixes for people's basic insecurities.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


A cunning plan

How will the Liberal Democrats be attacked in the forthcoming general election?

In the 1983 election, when it looked at one stage as if the Liberal-SDP Alliance might overtake Labour (and in one opinion poll, it actually did), the Tories spent £1 million with Saatchi & Saatchi preparing an anti-Alliance advertising campaign. In the event, this ammunition was never used.

This time, with the Liberal Democrats averaging 21% in the polls (which brings a final result of 25% or more within the bounds of possibility), we can expect a serious assault. To work out what form this might take, we need to look at the logic of the situation.

The two main factors in the forthcoming general election result will be the turnout and the switch in votes between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Relatively few votes are likely to switch to or from the Conservatives. The Tories are flat-lining in the polls at only two or three percentage points above their core support (hence their desperate decision earlier this week to play the immigration card).

This situation puts both Labour and the Conservatives in a quandary. Neither wants the Liberal Democrats to do well but neither can afford them to do too badly. Labour needs Liberal Democrat help to prevent Tory gains across the south of England, in seats where Labour is in a poor third place. The Tories need the Liberal Democrats to take votes from Labour in Lab/Con marginals. And both parties need to moderate their attacks to avoid giving the Liberal Democrats too much credibility.

It is relatively easy to predict what Labour will do. The Hartlepool by-election was a dry run for the 'soft on crime/drugs' tactic. In a general election, this may be tempered by a 'more in sorrow than in anger' tone. The temptation the Liberal Democrats must avoid is getting into a playground fight with Labour over who is the most 'tough', since this is a battle on opposition territory that the Lib Dems cannot win. The Liberal Democrats can achieve more if they fight on natural Liberal territory, such as ID cards and Iraq.

More generally, Labour needs to talk up the Tory threat to combat complacency among its own supporters. Labour will hope that this tactic may also encourage tactical voting by Lib Dem supporters.

The Tories are likely to play a more subtle game. They will probably avoid any frontal assault on the Liberal Democrats through national media attacks, but instead come in under the radar.

Whatever the Tories may say in public, they know they cannot win the next general election. To do so would require gaining at least 160 seats. They must play a longer game, which requires re-establishing their credibility in this election to provide a base for victory in 2009 or 2010.

The first thing the Tories need to do is depress the turnout, because they know that the main threat to Labour is complacency among Labour voters. There are two ways of doing this. One is to look as if they can't win by repeatedly leaking to the media about their "private" gloom (box ticked). The other is to encourage general cynicism about politics by alleging that corruption is endemic (box ticked by the tabloids).

Secondly, the Tories understand that a switch in votes from Labour to the Liberal Democrats delivers four times as many seats to the Conservatives as it does to the Lib Dems. Such a switch enables the Tories to win more seats without needing to increase their vote. The key factor is those Lib Dem voters in Lab/Con marginals who voted Labour tactically in 1997 and 2001, but are less likely to do so next time - up to 40 Labour seats are vulnerable to the Conservatives due to this 'tactical unwind' (a topic of perennial interest on the
Political Betting website).

If you want the Lib Dem vote to go up in some constituencies but down in others, the obvious solution is local targeting. For that reason, the Tories will appear simply to ignore the Liberal Democrats in their national campaign, while pouring resources into the LD/Con marginals they wish to win or hold.

The main evidence for this prediction is that the Tories have hired as their campaign manager Lynton Crosby, who masterminded four successive election victories for John Howard in Australia. One of Crosby's key tactics was to lull (Australian) Labor voters into a false sense of security. And he advocates a stealthy strategy for the (British) Conservatives, spending nothing nationally but instead targeting specific constituencies, as today's
Times reported:

A senior Tory source said: "To target the 160-odd seats required to win is preposterous. Crosby is talking specific targeting of specific voters in specific seats rather than preaching in seats nationwide where no one is listening to us and we have no one to deliver the message."
There is a tendency to underestimate the Conservatives because of their apparently hopeless position in the polls. But look at how they have clawed their way back in local elections since the nadir of the John Major years. From a low point in the mid-90s, when they were the third party of local government controlling only about a dozen councils, they now have more councillors than any other party and continue to make gains.

The Liberal Democrats were the pioneers of local community campaigning and targeting strategies. They should watch out for similar tactics being used against them.


Keep it simple

Michael Howard's anti-immigration stunt, launched on Sunday, seems to have left his opponents in a state of shock. Only today is a serious counter-attack emerging but, instead of countering Tory policy, it risks validating it.

For example, there is an extensive
feature in today's Guardian that debunks the myths on which Tory policy is based by setting out copious facts and figures. All good stuff, but it is missing the point.

The real argument is not about numbers, legality or administrative efficiency. The Tory stance and the popular prejudice on which it feeds are essentially emotional rather than rational. You cannot fight emotion with logic.

Churning out a series of dry statistics about the number of Australians versus the number of Romanians may be valid in rational terms but will make little impact.

David Aaronovitch came closer to the truth than some of his Guardian colleagues by saying that "immigration control is code for fewer darkies, Gypsies and Bulgarians." Only one of the people quoted in today's Guardian feature got to the heart of the matter. Edie Friedman, of the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, said,

"I find the timing of this announcement, during the week that we are remembering people who died in Auschwitz, extremely uncomfortable."
Unlike Prince Harry, the Tories know what they are doing when they put on a swastika armband. The answer to their emotional charge is an emotional response. Tory anti-immigration policy is nothing more than an attempt to exploit racial prejudice and it is morally repugnant. Liberal Democrats should reiterate that simple moral judgement and not allow themselves to be deflected into statistical quibbling on their opponents' territory.

Monday, January 24, 2005


The passage of rights

The more you think about New Labour's latest wheeze of 'citizenship ceremonies' for 18-year olds, the more ridiculous it looks. This policy has been hastily knocked up in reaction to an assortment of moral panics about national identity, 'community cohesion', political alienation and binge drinking. It is unlikely to address any of them.

It could also have unforeseen consequences. When the government introduced the national curriculum a few years ago, everyone opposed it until it looked like a done deal, then all the special interests piled in to demand their regulatory double-period on the school timetable.

letters page in last Friday's Guardian illustrates that a similar thing will happen to any citizenship ceremony. One correspondent demands "special passages on environmental, anti-racist, global and European citizenship" but then renders this call meaningless by adding, "People would need to decide which parts of the ceremony they wished to include." Another correspondent calls for "a rite of passage that celebrates children's rights" (a bit late to be celebrating that at the age of 18, I would have thought).

There will no doubt be hundreds more helpful suggestions like this before the scheme ever reaches the statute book. In the event, the actual highlight of this laughable ceremony will probably be writing out a cheque for £85 for the privilege of receiving one's first ID card.

The British are famous for muddling through. I find it hard to believe that this officially-sanctioned 'rite of passage', should it ever get off the drawing board, will rival those three more traditional ceremonies, the first drink, the first snog and the first shag.

Sunday, January 23, 2005


Calm down, calm down

Did you read Andrew Rawnsley's column in today's Observer? I can well imagine how it would have made thousands of Liberal Democrats ecstatic over their corn flakes, but we must not get carried away.

I agree with Rawnsley (and with
Peter Black) that, in the forthcoming general election, turnout will be the joker in the pack. Rawnsley points out the risk to Labour of complacency among its own supporters.

"Of the factors that threaten the government's election prospects, the most menacing may be the near universal assumption that Labour is cruising to a comfortable victory."
However, Rawnsley is a little over-optimistic about Liberal Democrat prospects. He repeats the mantra of the 'iron law' of a 6% gain:

"The extra exposure enjoyed by the Lib Dems during elections has, in the past, given them a campaign boost of as much as six points."
It is doubtful this assumption remains valid. The reason the party could expect to gain 6% in previous general election campaigns was that it had had little or no media coverage in the preceding four years. The extra percentage points were due to punters being reminded that the party existed. This time round, the party has been getting better media coverage so that the 'jolt to the memory' factor can be largely discounted. If this factor still exists, it is unlikely to be worth more than 2%. Or to put it another way, if the Liberal Democrats do gain 6% during the campaign, it will not be because of this statistical determinism.

The second reason not to get over-excited is that, unlike in previous elections, the Liberal Democrats will face serious attacks by their opponents and by the tabloids (even if, as Rawnsley states, no-one is yet sure how to do it). Whatever form these attacks take, they will be ruthless, targeted and well-funded.

If the turnout falls again at the forthcoming general election to the extent it did in 2001, then all bets are off. But, assuming the decline in turnout has bottomed out and there is no drastic change, here is my prediction of the number of seats. (Bear in mind that, because of boundary changes in Scotland, there will be 13 fewer seats; Labour will lose the equivalent of ten seats; the Tories, SNP and Lib Dems will each lose one. The +/- change figures are comparisons with 2001 and ignore subsequent by-elections and defections).

Labour 363 (-50)
Conservative 194 (+28)
Liberal Democrats 61 (+9)
SNP 5 (no change)
Plaid Cymru 5 (+1)
Others 0 (-1)
Northern Ireland various 18

Labour majority 80
In other words, all shall have prizes. The combined smugness of the party spokespeople on the TV election night specials will be unbearable.


"Rivers of blood"

It is a sign of how hopeless the Tories must feel that Michael Howard has decided to play the immigration card. Charles Kennedy has rightly condemned this tactic as "desperation" but we have been here before.

Howard's warning that "uncontrolled immigration" will lead to race riots recalls Enoch Powell's notorious
'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968. Powell was fired from the Shadow Cabinet by the leader of the opposition Edward Heath. Sadly, other Tory leaders have not set such a good example.

In 1978, a year before she became Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher gave an infamous TV interview in which she claimed that "people are really rather afraid that this country might be swamped by people of a different culture". Throughout the mid to late seventies, the far right National Front had been doing well in local elections and by-elections. Thatcher's remarks dealt the NF a fatal blow by recapturing much of the extreme right vote, and were credited with helping the Tories win the 1979 general election.

On an earlier occasion, at the 1964 general election, Tory candidate
Peter Griffiths defied the national swing to Labour by capturing the Birmingham Smethwick seat in an ugly campaign, using the election slogan, "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Liberal or Labour". Griffiths (who, incidentally, had unseated Labour's foreign secretary Patrick Gordon Walker) was condemned by Harold Wilson as a "parliamentary leper".

Moral standards have deteriorated since Heath's and Wilson's day. Just as Howard can use remarks for which he would have been fired by Heath, so David Blunkett
echoed Thatcher by reviving the 's' word in 2002.

Immigration and asylum have become another of those grubby little auctions where politicians compete to see who can sound the most 'tough'. The Liberal Democrats are right to keep well out of it.

Friday, January 21, 2005


Bring out your dead

The Tories are not quite dead yet. Yesterday they won a remarkable by-election victory in the inner London Borough of Hackney.

The result is interesting for two reasons. First, it took place in Queensbridge ward, where the Blairs attended their first Labour Party meeting and where Tony first held political office, as the Labour Party's branch secretary (does anyone know whether the story is true that Blair was turned down here by Labour as a local council candidate?).

Second, the Tory victor is Andrew Boff, a former leader of the Conservatives in London's Hillingdon Borough and a 'rising star' being talked of as a future London mayor (he came second to Steve Norris in the Tories' 1998 mayoral selection contest).

Boff is an effective community campaigner. He has built a high profile locally and is someone to watch. While the local Labour Party was complacent, the Tories campaigned hard in this by-election, completing five canvasses since the autumn, and came from fourth place in 2002 to win.

The figures (for those who like these sort of things) were Conservative 696 (36.3%), Labour 595 (31.1%), Lib Dem 334 (17.4%), Respect 291 (15.2%), turnout 29%. In 2002, the figures were Conservative 231 (11.2%), Labour 1006 (48.9%), Lib Dem 436 (21.2%), Socialist Alliance 158 (7.7%), Green 380 (18.5%), CPA 77 (3.7%).

Queensbridge is a mixed ward, with its share of council estates but which is gentrifying as 'City boys' move in to the terraced housing. The main issue in the by-election was the council's plan to spend £64m on a revamp of the town hall - the Tories copied the old Liberal tactic of "bring this petition form with you and give it to our teller at the polling station".

This is just one example of how the Tories are learning to target and how they can attract disaffected Labour voters. They have no chance of winning the next general election but will do better than most people expect, especially now that UKIP is
imploding. Don't write them off.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


The holiday of a lifetime

Fancy a world cruise? It wouldn't be my cup of tea but 1,752 people paid up to £41,985 each for a 103-day, 23-country trip aboard the ill-fated P&O liner Aurora. The journey from Southampton began ten days ago but had reached only as far as the Isle of Wight before "propulsion problems" brought a premature end to the proceedings.

385 lucky passengers had already left the ship when the technical problems became apparent. But the majority of passengers were less fortunate. The
BBC reports that P&O decided to add insult to injury.

Those who remained were treated to free drinks and entertainment from comedians Jimmy Tarbuck and Tom O'Connor, magician Paul Daniels, and singer Elaine Page, while the ship was stuck in port.
Anyone sailing from Southampton to the Isle of Wight would be better advised to take the ferry.


The final word on Prince Harry

A classic: this week's Private Eye cover. Posted by Hello


An area the size of Wales

Have you noticed how "an area the size of Wales" has become an all-purpose analogy in the media? It's used to explain any concept otherwise too large or abstract for readers to grasp.

At last, someone has created a
online calculator, enabling you to convert any measurement into a handy analogy. Not just Wales, but also whales or the Prince of Wales (not to mention those other convenient media stand-bys; football pitches, double-decker buses and Nelson's Column).

Peter Black's Focus leaflets will never be the same again.

And let's hope Lembit Öpik never gets his hands on this device.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


Outposts of tyranny

Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's nominee as secretary of state, has identified "outposts of tyranny" where the US must help bring freedom. They are Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Burma and Belarus.

So far, so good, but curiously she omitted to mention Turkmenistan, ruled by the bizarre dictator President Niyazov.
Amnesty International reports,

The human rights situation in Turkmenistan has been appalling for years. It deteriorated even further following an alleged assassination attempt on President Niyazov on 25 November 2002, which triggered a new wave of repression across Turkmenistan.

The regime is extremely intolerant of dissent, and it has severely limited civil and political liberties. No independent political parties or human rights groups can operate openly in the country, and opponents of the government and civil society activists have been forced into exile or faced imprisonment and persecution.

Key to the failure to address impunity or counter the widespread abuses of human rights is President Niyazov's domination of all aspects of life in the country, and the personality cult with which he has surrounded himself.
Niyazov, or 'Turkmenbashi' as we must now call him, was recently re-elected unopposed in a "sham poll". His personality cult includes renaming some months after himself, outlawing beards and incorporating knowledge of his spiritual writings in Turkmenistan's driving test.

It's not just the Americans turning a blind eye. There are similar problems in another former Soviet republic, Uzbekistan, where Britain's former ambassador
Craig Murray was dismissed by the British Foreign Office for having the temerity to reveal that dissidents were being boiled to death.

Might Condoleezza Rice's selective memory regarding Central Asia have anything to do with the fact that Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan have provided bases for the US military? (Funnily enough, both countries border Afghanistan and possess huge gas and oil reserves). It would seem that, provided you sign up to President Bush's 'coalition of the willing', you are welcome to remain an 'outpost of tyranny'.

Monday, January 17, 2005


The Cabbies' Party

How often have you been told that politicians are a bunch of crooks that should be replaced by 'ordinary people'? Last week's ITV political talent show Vote for Me, intended to counter popular alienation from politics, has ironically left this argument in tatters. Sandra Gidley was quite right in her blog last Saturday to point out the apparent contradictory attitudes of the public.

Vote for Me concluded last Friday night with the victory of Rodney Hylton-Potts, anointed 'The People's Politician'. You may have heard him on the Radio 4 Today programme on Saturday morning (at
08:20) - he's a pantomime right-winger, obsessed with immigration, part Al Murray's 'Pub Landlord', part archetypal London cabbie.

It turns out that he is also a convicted fraudster who has spent two years in Brixton prison. Yesterday's Observer reported that Hylton-Potts, instead of celebrating his victory,

... is being forced to deny allegations that he told a fellow competitor that in the 1960s 'you could drive to Henley without seeing a nigger on the streets'.

Hylton-Potts, who won the competition on the strength of what he calls his 'cabbie's manifesto' - the mandatory castration of paedophiles, the legalisation of all drugs, the repeal of the human rights act, a massive prison-building scheme and an immigrant deportation programme that would reduce Britain's population by 20 million - vehemently denies the allegation.
Hylton-Potts is in no doubt about the main reason for his victory.

'I won because of what I call the "cabbie vote", he said. 'I think cabbies are a very good guide. As I was being ferried back and forth to the studio, I would say to the cabby: "What do you think of immigration?"

'When I told them my views, every single one of them said: "Good on you, mate."
Should we worry? Dolan Cummings, reviewing the programme in Spiked, argued its irrelevance to real politics. Literally speaking, he's right - Vote for Me was pure light entertainment, a variant of the Pop Idol format. Despite both the producers' and the victor's claims, the winner of Vote for Me is unlikely even to stand at the next election, let alone get elected.

While we may laugh at the prejudices and ineptitude of the candidates in Vote for Me, we cannot simply dismiss it. The concept behind the show, the eventual winner and his popular appeal are all further evidence that the ingredients exist for the emergence of a powerful right-wing populist movement.

What are these ingredients? They may seem an unlikely combination, yet what they have in common is opposition to what might broadly be termed enlightenment values.

The first ingredient is a pool of resentful voters who see themselves as losers. Typically older, white, uneducated, working class men, their grievances stem from losing out in the economic and social changes brought about by globalisation and liberalisation. They hate foreigners, gays, speed cameras and the BBC. They have a chip on their shoulder about everything that's changed in the past fifty years and they hark back to the 'good old days' of the British Empire. This is precisely the demographic group that votes for UKIP and the BNP. Election results and polls throughout Europe, not just Britain, suggest there is anything between 15% and 25% of the electorate in this category. If there were a deep recession or the Tories were to implode, this percentage would increase.

The second ingredient is a widespread disillusionment with the democratic process and the political classes, a sense that politics is run by a remote and dishonest elite, 'only in it for themselves', using 'fancy words' and conning the public. Note how Robert Kilroy-Silk plays this card - an 'ordinary bloke', sacked from his media job for 'telling the truth'. This narrative is validated by the tone of the political coverage in most of the tabloids - indeed, I get the impression the Daily Mail's agenda is to dismantle the whole democratic contract.

The third ingredient is an organised religious right. Violent bigotry could always be dismissed as a phenomenon confined to ethnic minorities, so long as it was only Muslims or Sikhs who were burning books or throwing stones. The recent protests against the BBC for broadcasting Jerry Springer - The Opera suggest there are also many white Christians who essentially object to the post-1960s liberalisation of society.

The final ingredient is a charismatic leader able to join the dots. Fringe parties have a penchant for infighting and a consequent tendency to fragment, but a strong leader able to impose discipline and project some simple messages can perform remarkably well. No-one has yet succeeded in marrying the grudges of working class whites to the agenda of the religious right, but the success of the Republicans in the USA is bound to inspire a copycat strategy in Britain.

It would take only one charismatic figure to fuse these ingredients into a compelling recipe. Is there a British Jean-Marie Le Pen or Pym Fortyn waiting in the wings? Who knows, though it is where Robert Kilroy-Silk's ambitions clearly lie.

Kilroy, having fallen out with UKIP, is already searching for a new political home. Last Wednesday's Guardian
Backbencher column reported:

The Backbencher hears that Kilroy's increasingly desperate search for a political home may be about to come to an end. Having been narrowly rejected by both the English Democrats and the New Party - a tax-cutting, British trucker-loving outfit whose logo depicts five blue people conducting a seance - Kilroy is apparently now hoping to lead a putative party called Veritas, set up by four disaffected members of the New Party's national executive. The New Party "knows nothing about it" and Kilroy isn't answering his mobile, but the Backbencher hopes to be able to confirm the wanderer's latest perch shortly.
Right-wing populism already has the capacity to create a real impact in Britain. The fuel tax protests in 2000 seriously jolted the government; UKIP won 16% of the vote in last June's Euro elections (more than the Lib Dems); and a 'no' vote seems certain in any EU constitution referendum. It is not that far fetched to imagine the emergence of a coalition comprising some permutation of elderly white racists, Poujadist small businessmen, truck drivers, Fathers 4 Justice, the Countryside Alliance, In-ger-lund supporters, evangelical Christians - and maybe some cabbies.

A widespread complacency has set in about democracy and freedom because they appear not to be under serious threat. In the fifteen years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the alleged 'End of History', we have been through a period of political 'slack water' (to borrow Conrad Russell's phrase) and have become used to a world in which there is no clear ideological conflict. There are signs this phase is coming to an end and we are entering more tumultuous times. A culture war is breaking out and the basic issue is whether or not we wish to live in a liberal, tolerant and rational society.

This is a vital matter for Liberals. If we fail to fight for our interests, we will allow conservative forces to define the debate and we will lose, just as liberals in the USA have been comprehensively defeated.

The Liberal Democrats need to recognise what is happening and fight these illiberal forces now, not cede ground in the hope this will pacify them.

PS: Rodney Hylton-Potts has announced he will stand in Tory Leader Michael Howard's constituency (Folkestone & Hythe) at the forthcoming general election. Make of that what you will.

Friday, January 14, 2005


Quote of the Week

From Ian Bell in the Glasgow Herald (10 January):

"On Saturday the Daily Telegraph, or some other sane and rational paper, reported triumphantly that the BBC had received 50,000 complaints over the broadcasting of a musical with salt on its tongue. In a country with a population of roughly 59 million, that’s 0.0848% of all available righteous indignation."


Tough choices

Still not a word from Charles Kennedy in defence of the right to freedom of expression, in the light of the recent Jerry Springer and Behzti cases.

However, today he has
announced that the Liberal Democrats would scrap the government's new child trust funds and use the money to cut class sizes.

This is a populist gesture unlikely, in itself, to improve the quality of education. A study published only last week challenged conventional wisdom by showing that smaller class sizes do not produce better results from children at primary school. A
report of this study in the Times (6 January) noted:

Levels of literacy among children aged 11 in classes of fewer than 25 pupils were lower than those who were in groups of more than 30 children.

Academics at London University’s Institute of Education, who carried out the research, also concluded: "No evidence was found that children in smaller classes made more progress in mathematics, English or science."

Family poverty had the biggest effect on results. Children who were eligible for free school meals fell further behind in English and maths as they progressed through school.
A report in the Scotsman (6 January) added that

... teachers who took part in the survey insisted that their job was made much easier if class sizes were smaller.
At Liberator's fringe meeting at last September's Liberal Democrat conference, David Boyle queried the obsession with class size and asked why we did not instead question the size of schools.

The answers can be found in the survey results. First, the greatest determinant of educational success is parental wealth, and few politicians have the balls to confront the issue of poverty.

And second, the main pressure for smaller class sizes is coming from the teaching lobby.

Despite this, Charles Kennedy insists his class size policy is one of the "tough choices" that are needed when it comes to allocating government funds.

"Tough choices mean looking carefully at the money being spent on our children and choosing to spend it more effectively, rather than wasting it."

Thursday, January 13, 2005


Don't mention the war

Prince Harry's wearing of a swastika armband at a recent fancy dress party is the tabloid crise du jour.

While most respondents to the BBC's
Have Your Say website have echoed the widespread condemnations, one chap from London seems quite blasé.

"I'm sure he's not the first or the last to wear a Nazi uniform to a fancy dress party."
I really should get out more often.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005


Amateur Hour

The Blair vs. Brown punch-up appears to be spinning (in both senses of the word) out of control.

Gordon Brown has neither denied nor withdrawn his alleged statement to Blair, "There is nothing you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe." This quote should have been applied prominently to every Liberal Democrat election leaflet, although the Tories appear to have got there first.

The animosity has been an open secret in the 'Westminster village' for some years and, despite the vitriolic briefing and counter-briefing by both men's gangs, had not really impinged on the national consciousness.

Not any more. The publication of Robert Peston's book
Brown's Britain, serialised in the Sunday Telegraph, seems to have burst the dam. The Labour Party may be able to effect sticking plaster repairs until the general election but, soon afterwards, the situation must surely be resolved one way or the other.

The basic problem, however, is not personality clashes but incompetence. An excellent
article by Simon Jenkins in today's Times explains just how shambolic the government is.

"The truth is that neither Mr Blair nor Mr Brown seems able to manage their clashes in ways familiar in any normal organisation. They watch 'Yes, Minister' when they should be watching 'The Office'."
This failure has been masked by Tony Blair's public relations machine, in particular the technique of co-opting the language of competence. Admittedly, this was not difficult when the comparison was with Michael Foot. But eight years on from Blair's victory, we should not be afraid to take the words 'piss-up', 'brewery' and 'organise' and rearrange them into a well-known phrase or saying.

Liberal Democrats will be familiar with the rhetorical device of co-opting language. Back in the 80s, the Liberal Party's right wing used to bang on about being "serious about power", even though most of them had never so much as won a parish council seat. After the merger, their buzz phrase was 'new'. Nowadays, the in-word among such charlatans is 'tough'.

We should know by now not to mistake spin for substance.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


Zippy, Bungle and free artistic expression

On a lighter note, anyone old enough to recall the 70s children's TV programme 'Rainbow' will enjoy this clip.

They don't make programmes like that any more.

PS: I wonder if this is what Mediawatch UK and Christian Voice have in mind as the kind of wholesome family entertainment they would rather we watched on TV?


Is nothing sacred?

For a variety of reasons, we live in an age of political rectitude. Prevailing inhibitions mean we take our liberties for granted and rarely stand up for what we believe in. It's not so much that people have forgotten how to stand up and be counted, rather that it's nowadays considered eccentric and uncool, and risks offending someone with a contrary opinion.

Yesterday, I decided to buck the trend and join the
National Secular Society. I did so because there is a fundamental principle at stake and because I see my interests threatened.

Though a lifelong atheist, I had seen no point in belonging to any organisation until now. Atheism is not a philosophy - I am an atheist only by virtue of other people's belief. I saw no point in declaring myself as, say, a 'humanist' because of my non-belief, any more than I saw a need to join a society for people who don't play croquet.

But the past two months of religious bullying have proved a sobering corrective. In December, there was the violent
Sikh theatre protest in Birmingham, which led to a play being taken off. This month, there has been a Christian protest against the BBC's screening of the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera, which is now turning particularly nasty.

The final straw for me, however, was to learn that the Vatican is running a discreet
diplomatic campaign to have 'Christianophobia' (whatever that is) recognised by the United Nations as an evil equivalent to anti-semitism. Not only is this a perversion of human rights and anti-racism, it is also part and parcel of the efforts by several religious groups to place themselves off-limits for the purposes of criticism.

At stake is the fundamental principle of pluralism. This principle means that each of us should be free to hold and practice our beliefs (or non-belief), and should be free from discrimination and persecution. However, there's a catch. One cannot simply demand these rights for oneself but must respect the right of others to hold contrary views. The outcome is often messy and frequently entails being confronted with views one finds distasteful. But that is the price of living in a democracy. The alternative is theocracy, to live under the tyranny of one religious or political sect, where all dissent is oppressed. There are enough appalling lessons from history to know this.

For this reason, the state must be secular. Michael Meadowcroft, writing in the Yorkshire Post (
1 October 2004), argued that theocracy...

"... challenges the whole basis of democracy. Consent is essential to the survival of democracy and can only be sustained within a society based on rational debate and with democratic decisions based on objective arguments. These debates and decisions are, or should be, influenced by broad political philosophy, but this itself is open to challenge. Arguing that a policy is God's will does not allow much room for a second opinion.

"The flaw in the fundamentalist case is actually very straightforward: religious faith is, by its nature, subjective and is beyond objective analysis. Only the individual can have faith. The inanimate state cannot 'believe'. No state can be religious, in the full sense of the word... What is more, it runs counter to any concept of religion to suggest that it can be possible in practice to enforce, by law, standards on non-believers that can only be followed by individual believers."
Mary Kenny, writing in yesterday's Guardian, fails to grasp this point. She believes that Christians are justified in copying the tactics of Islamic and Sikh thugs as a means of enforcing their beliefs on others, and effectively asks us, "Is nothing sacred?"

In a secular state, the answer must be that nothing is. To declare one's views 'sacred' is a personal choice, not a statement of objective reality. There can be no such thing as a right not to be offended. If there were, anyone could enforce censorship simply by declaring that their feelings have been hurt.

today's Guardian and on Ekklesia (a voice for more tolerant Christians), we learn of the vile agenda of Christian Voice, the group at the heart of the protests against the BBC. Yesterday, Christian Voice announced it would bring a private blasphemy prosecution against the BBC. Bring it on, I say.

Libby Purves in today's Times confronts Christian Voice with the words of the Sermon on the Mount, then asks,

"Is that quite clear? Is it clear, I wonder, to the director of the campaign group Christian Voice, Stephen Green, who... announced in Pharasaical glee that he made no apology for giving out the home addresses of BBC executives, and endorsed protests outside their homes? Is it clear to the creep who said 'Christians should carefully consider what the Sikhs achieved with a few well-aimed stones' ?"
She adds, in case anyone was in any doubt,

"... the vital issue is preventing art and debate - however shocking - from capitulating to bigoted protest."
Bigoted protest presents a real threat to our liberty. That's why Liberals need to stand up and be counted. Gary Younge, in an excellent call to arms (Bring back the lash) in yesterday's Guardian, noted that the liberal left has forgotten what it stands for. He warns,

"... with each failure to promote its principles and values, the liberal left ends up on the defensive, ceding the ideological foundations it needs to build any substantial comeback. As a result the national conversation ends up taking place almost entirely on the right's terms."
Still think it's not worth the bother? Remember Edmund Burke's words, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."

Well somebody is doing something. Read this
statement issued yesterday:

"A kind of Christian Taliban, modelled on the Religious Right in America, is forming in this country, and they are attempting to dictate what can and cannot be said about religion. For all our sakes, that must not be allowed to happen. It has never been more important for religion to be held up to close scrutiny and critical examination. It must also, like every other ideology, be open to satire and mockery.

"A culture war is developing in Britain, and it is time for liberals and others who value free expression to speak out more forcibly. If they don't, the freedoms that we cherish will be rapidly eroded."
Who said this? It should have been Charles Kennedy, the leader of the one mainstream British political party with the word 'Liberal' in its title. In fact it was Terry Sanderson, Vice President of the National Secular Society.

I am ashamed to discover that, according to the Liberal Democrats' official
website, no party spokesperson has yet made any statement on this issue at all.

Why the silence, Charlie?

Saturday, January 08, 2005


Nice work if you can get it

Hurrah! As I write, Jerry Springer - The Opera is in full flow on BBC2. The religious bullies have lost this battle but they're unlikely to give up, especially not now they've won the support of the Conservatives.

On Radio 4's
Any Questions last night, Tory spokesman Michael Ancram came out in support of censorship. Do the Tories imagine they can win the next election by copying the fundamentalist tactics the American Republicans? If Ancram wants to be back in power, he'll need considerably more votes than the 45,000 Christians who complained to the BBC.

Meanwhile, the dispute has taken a bizarre turn. Christian objectors to the broadcast claimed that the musical contained more than 8,000 expletives.

Not so, says the BBC.

A reported total of 8,000 obscenities was reached by adding every swear word sung by each member of the 27-strong chorus.

However, on Saturday, a BBC spokesperson said the number was less than 300 and was arrived at "even using the broadest definition of an offensive word".
I thought the religious protestors were arguing the broad principles. It turns out that they have been sitting in a London theatre, notepad and pocket calculator in hand, counting each rude word and multiplying it by 27.

Not to be outdone, the BBC apparently employs someone to carry out a similar function and arrive at a more modest total. His occupation must be an ice-breaker at parties.

Friday, January 07, 2005


How to stand up to the bullies

I am pleased to see that the backlash against religious bullies is developing.

Will Howells
encourages us to e-mail the BBC with messages to counter the orchestrated protests against the screening of Jerry Springer - The Opera. Do follow his example and send a message today.

Meanwhile, Ryan Cullen offers some
useful advice for the bigots who seem to be having difficulty with their TV remote control.

Personally, I dislike musicals and had no intention of watching Jerry Springer - The Opera, but now I think I just might.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


Stand up to the bullies

Where the Sikh protesters blazed a trail, other religious bullies have followed. In my postings on the Sikh theatre protest (December 19 and December 22), I warned that we should not allow feelings of 'offence' to justify censorship. I also quoted the 1968 Paris graffiti, "The church complains of persecution when it is not allowed to persecute."

Salman Rushdie (who knows a thing or two about religious bullies) warns of the extent of the problem in a letter in today's Guardian.

Thanks to
Ryan Cullen's blog, I now learn that some Christians are jumping on this oppressive bandwagon, with an orchestrated campaign to bully the BBC into dropping its screening next Saturday of the musical Jerry Springer - The Opera.

Here is a message all Liberals should state to such protesters loudly and clearly:

We live in a democracy. You have the right to hold and practice your beliefs.
You do not have the right to deny others the right to criticise or lampoon your
beliefs. I have the right to see this musical if I wish. You do not have the
right to stop me. You are under no obligation to watch it.
Here is a message all TV engineers should state to such protesters loudly and clearly:
What's wrong with your telly? Does it not have an 'off' switch?


A rummage in my ganderbag

The 1960s continue to come in for a lot of stick, being blamed by conservatives (including Tony Blair) for all our society's ills. But just what were 'the sixties' and when did they happen?

Philip Larkin had an exact view in his poem Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the "Chatterley" ban
And the Beatles' first LP.
Other witnesses were less precise. Paul Kantner of the rock band Jefferson Airplane famously said, "If you can remember anything about the Sixties, you weren't really there."

Over the recent holidays, I found an answer in an unlikely place. Several long motorway journeys provided an opportunity to listen to archive recordings of
Round the Horne (which, for those of you too young to remember, was a hugely popular BBC radio comedy show originally broadcast between 1965 and 1968, and still being repeated today - listen online on BBC Radio 7, or catch the stage play Round The Horne Revisited if you get the chance).

The BBC had randomly released some of the old shows on vinyl in the 1970s and cassette tapes during the 1990s, but now all four series have been reissued in chronological order on
four boxed sets of CDs. This makes it possible to listen to all the programmes in the order they first appeared, and experience the show evolve and hit its stride.

To listen to these programmes now is as close as you'll get to hearing the sound of the sixties happen. Not the Woodstock, peace 'n' love, LSD-drenched sixties of myth and legend, but the sixties of real-life Britain, emerging from the grey cocoon of the post-war era. Round the Horne was not a cause of the social revolution of the 1960s, but reflects perfectly the sense of liberation people were beginning to enjoy.

Parts of Round the Horne still evoke an earlier era, notably the sleazy character 'J. Peasemould Gruntfuttock' with his references to the horsemeat shop in the Balls Pond Road, conjuring up a lost world of bomb sites and pea soupers. And there are the occasional contemporary references to Alma Cogan and pre-decimal currency.

But, for the most part, the humour sounds utterly fresh and it never ceases to amaze that such ground-breaking comedy, not to mention such smut and innuendo, was regularly broadcast at Sunday lunchtimes to a mass audience. Recall that Round the Horne's camp duo
Julian and Sandy were first aired in 1965, two years before homosexuality was legalised in Britain. Even today, these sketches might be considered too risqué for prime time listening.

In stark contrast, over the holidays I also happened to catch an old episode of
The Clitheroe Kid on BBC Radio 7. Made around the same time as Round the Horne and originally broadcast in the same Sunday lunchtime slot, this show now sounds utterly dated, an unfunny exemplar of the "where's me washboard" style of wartime humour. Astonishingly, The Clitheroe Kid outlasted Round the Horne and the final shows were made as recently as 1972.

Just as comedy can become unfunny by belonging to a bygone era, so it can be rendered defunct by trying too hard to be hip. Consider
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, an American TV comedy show of the late sixties. Regarded at the time as the acme of modern humour, it is now so dated as to be embarrassing to watch.

The key to innovative comedy enduring is that it is trend-setting rather than self-consciously trendy. While Round the Horne was ground-breaking, it also satirised contemporary entertainment fads. It enables us to enjoy the best of the sixties while mocking the worst.

Critics of the sixties invariably base their criticisms on an idealised version of the fifties. They would be well advised to see Mike Leigh's new movie
Vera Drake for a less romantic view.

Next time you encounter such critics, challenge them. How many people really wish to turn the clock back to a drab world of backstreet abortions, demob suits, hanging, rationing, outside toilets, horsemeat shops in the Balls Pond Road and The Clitheroe Kid?

On the whole, individual liberation is a good thing. Liberals should celebrate it, not apologise. As Round the Horne's
Rambling Syd Rumpo might say, "Now let us all burst forth together, so grundle your parts and away we go..."

Wednesday, January 05, 2005


"A stupendous bucketful of brown shite"

Lucy Mangan's column in today's Guardian is a witty diatribe against astrology and assorted other superstitious fads, such as essential oils and magnet therapy.

Many readers, especially if they are inclined to a sceptical and rationalist view, would have been punching the air and cheering. But others would have taken deep offence.

Their cherished beliefs were described in no uncertain terms as

"... a stupendous bucketful of brown shite, infused with extracts of mendacity and exploitation and waved over a shadowy pool of gullibility left over from ye olden times."

Not only that, but the writer did something no male Guardian columnist would have dared, by claiming that it is invariably women who are suckers for horoscopes and the like.

I draw attention to this column because it is a rare and striking exception to a new rule. A significant cultural shift has taken place over the past twenty-odd years. It has become widely accepted that we have an overriding duty to avoid giving offence (as the recent Sikh theatre protest showed - see my postings on 19 December and 22 December).

And New Labour is reinforcing this morality through legislation, not only its ill-advised Bill on religious hatred, but also the creation of the
Standards Board for England, which is penalising councillors for making remarks that, until recently, would have been regarded as nothing more than the normal rough and tumble of politics.

Jonathan Calder made the point well in his Liberal England blog (
4 October 2004), where he criticised

"... exaggerated concerns for others' feelings. Politics, local politics included, thrive on conflict and strong argument, but both are thoroughly out of fashion at the moment."

We have somehow created a squeamish political and intellectual climate, in which forthright expressions of opinion are stigmatised as 'judgemental' and punches must forever be pulled. No wonder our politics is so grey and that so many voters complain that "they all sound the same".

As regular readers of this blog and my Liberator articles will have gathered, my main criticism of the Liberal Democrats is their lack of confidence in their own Liberal values. Afraid of scaring the horses, they end up making flaccid and mealy-mouthed statements or, worse, retreating into warmed-over Thatcherism or social democracy.

The only way to attract and galvanise your natural supporters is to say things sufficiently bold that will also offend and repel your natural enemies. I pray for the day when Charles Kennedy has the courage to describe New Labour or the Tories as "a stupendous bucketful of brown shite" - which they obviously are.

Saturday, January 01, 2005


The hazards of willy-waving

Like many other Liberal Democrat members, I have received party leader Charles Kennedy's New Year Message in my inbox. But are the ideological sentiments expressed in this message sincere, or are they just some old bollocks cobbled together to keep the activists happy?

Most party members were probably cheered to read this passage:

"A clear division is emerging in British politics: the politics of fear versus the politics of hope. Labour is counting on the politics of fear, ratcheting up talk of threats, crime and insecurity. While the Conservatives are re-working their populist scares about asylum and the European 'menace'.

"Look at how Labour, with the support of the Conservatives, has undermined trust in the political process by its spin and its reliance on external threats. Currently Labour is using this climate of fear to try to strip away the civil liberties that generations of Briton have defended and enjoyed.

"The politics of fear versus hope can be expressed in another way. It's also the politics of liberalism versus illiberalism. And, as happens increasingly often today, Labour and the Conservatives are on one side and we are on the other."

All good stuff. But readers of last Tuesday's Daily Telegraph might have gained a different impression. A report by Toby Helm said,

"But he [Kennedy] also cautions his own party against allowing itself... to be portrayed as soft on crime and terrorism."

Kennedy is quoted,

'We have to address that agenda because it is going to be a big one. The Government has put it up in lights. The Conservatives want to put it up in lights. What we must not be content to be is the (advocates of) soft-centred liberal opinion.'

Note Kennedy's automatic association of the words 'soft-centred' and 'liberal' - this tells us a great deal.

The article continues,

"In a message to party traditionalists, Mr Kennedy added: 'By all means stick to your principles on civil liberties and (arguments about there being) too much interference by the state. But that doesn't mean to say we haven't got anything relevant to contribute. We have now got many hard-headed Liberal Democrat politicians out there taking tough decisions.'

"He sees the party's new catchphrase 'tough liberalism' – championed by Mark Oaten, his home affairs spokesman – as the equivalent to the 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' mantra invented by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s to show New Labour was a credible alternative to the Conservatives on law and order."

Kennedy seems to be back-pedalling on the principles underlying his party's rigorous support for the recent Law Lords' ruling. Instead, he appears to accept New Labour's false premise that civil liberties and security exist in inverse proportion to one another. He thus concludes that, to be credible on the issues of crime and terrorism, one must enter a bidding race with Labour and the Tories to see who can sound the most 'tough'. This is a contest the Liberal Democrats cannot win. And it is a sordid auction the Lib Dems have no business entering.

Allegedly 'tough' measures, most of which involve a diminution of civil liberties, do nothing to prevent crime or terrorism. They are macho postures, intended to play to the gallery, create a superficial impression of decisive action and stave off attacks from the tabloids.

For example, providing the whole of the third world with clean water and sanitation would do considerably more to reduce terrorism than invading Iraq, and would also be a damn sight cheaper. But this sort of wisdom lacks the elemental satisfaction that political willy-wavers crave.

And talking of willy-wavers, the Telegraph article also demonstrates the thoroughly malign influence that right-wing MP Mark Oaten exerts on the Liberal Democrats. We know why Oaten believes in 'tough liberalism' but what is Charles Kennedy doing endorsing this ridiculous posture?

Oaten is a Bad Thing for four reasons. First, he is ideologically on the right-wing fringe of the Liberal Democrats and hasn't a Liberal instinct in his body. Second, he advocates an illogical and potentially disastrous electoral strategy of "sounding more Tory". Third, he operates through dubious front organisations, Liberal Future and the Peel Group. And fourth, he has acted as a magnet for some of the most odious people in the party, who are egging him on to even worse extremes.

If Charles Kennedy were sincere in his Liberal sentiments, he would cut off Oaten and his supporters at the knees, not promote Oaten to a major portfolio and endorse his right-wing slogans.

But if Oaten's fringe opinions, along with the laissez-faire economics proposed by the party's Treasury team, are to be at the heart of the Liberal Democrat election platform, why not be honest? Why not title the manifesto, 'I Can't Believe It's Not Liberalism' ?


Why societies collapse

The New Year is a time for reflection. With a general election looming in Britain, it is a good time to consider our long-term prospects and reappraise our political priorities.

Jared Diamond (writing in today's New York Times) examines a fundamental issue that will scare off the politically timid; the historical reasons why some societies have collapsed while others have survived.

"When it comes to historical collapses, five groups of interacting factors have been especially important: the damage that people have inflicted on their environment; climate change; enemies; changes in friendly trading partners; and the society's political, economic and social responses to these shifts."

Diamond examines historically how societies such as the Mayas and various Polynesian settlements collapsed, while others in Japan and Europe were able to overcome adversity.

The lessons? First, we must take the environment seriously. The Mayas and Polynesians could destroy their environments and thus their societies with relatively primitive technology. Modern technology and globalisation have substantially increased our destructive capacity.

Second, we need successful group decision-making.

"A society contains a built-in blueprint for failure if the elite insulates itself from the consequences of its actions. That's why Maya kings, Norse Greenlanders and Easter Island chiefs made choices that eventually undermined their societies. They themselves did not begin to feel deprived until they had irreversibly destroyed their landscape."

Diamond warns,

"Could this happen in the United States? It's a thought that often occurs to me here in Los Angeles, when I drive by gated communities, guarded by private security patrols, and filled with people who drink bottled water, depend on private pensions, and send their children to private schools. By doing these things, they lose the motivation to support the police force, the municipal water supply, Social Security and public schools. If conditions deteriorate too much for poorer people, gates will not keep the rioters out. Rioters eventually burned the palaces of Maya kings and tore down the statues of Easter Island chiefs; they have also already threatened wealthy districts in Los Angeles twice in recent decades."

The threats now also come from abroad but, rather than spend ever more on short-term military responses.

"A genuine reappraisal would require us to recognize that it will be far less expensive and far more effective to address the underlying problems of public health, population and environment that ultimately cause threats to us to emerge in poor countries."

The answer is to recognise and share problems, and learn to adapt to changed circumstances. In other words, if we want to survive and prosper in the long term, we must recognise that our unrestrained consumerism is no longer viable, and democratise our society so that elites cannot escape the consequences of their actions.

Now that's what I call 'tough liberalism', not the macho posturing on law and order by certain Liberal Democrat MPs.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?