Saturday, 29 May 2010

David Laws and the closet

There was an interview with David Laws in The Times this morning, recorded and written up before the expenses story broke. "David Laws says he does not know whether he is living in a dream or a nightmare," it begins.

That would be a nightmare, then.

What a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday Laws was the new superstar of the Lib Dem front bench, making Vince Cable look suddenly old-fashioned and irrelevant and even Nick Clegg a little daft (Cameron would never have described David Laws as his "favourite joke", would he?). Today he looks like a throwback to last year's dismal procession of expenses fiddlers. He appears to have been caught bang to rights. If so, his ministerial career will suffer at least an interruption - a tragedy for him, but more so for the country. For it is clear from his performance at the dispatch box the other day that there is no-one else, Conservative or (a fortiori) Lib Dem with the intellectual and moral capacity to do the necessary but unpleasant job of budget-cutting. He has the rigour and financial expertise to understand the reality of the economic situation facing Britain, but he also has impeccable liberal principles. My only regret was that he couldn't be chancellor.

He has been more than silly. A wealthy man, he did not need to claim £40,000 in Parliamentary expenses to rent a room in his lover's South London flat. The excuse that he was engaged in a subterfuge to conceal his sexuality may reflect his inner turmoil, but in these days of ultra-transparency (on matters financial, but also, sadly, on matters sexual) isn't satisfactory. All cabinet ministers must be whiter than white: one charged with scything billions from the national budget must be beyond even the whisper of a shadow of suspicion.

So he had to go. But the case raises other questions, in particular whether it is or should be possible for someone in public life to conceal their sexuality from the world. David Laws was in the somewhat unusual position - certainly these days though not perhaps in times past - of being neither open and partnered nor furtive and promiscuous. According to the Independent, the ex-Chief Secretary is now saying that James Lundie (whom he met in his mid-thirties) was the only person he had ever had a relationship with. That suggests, at the very least, an ascetic devotion to politics (or, previously, to making money in the City). It may also point to guilt and sexual repression.

A recent article in the Erotic Review, by an anonymous former Commons researcher, lifted the lid on Westminster's hyperactive gay scene. The writer had "lost count of the number of married MPs, most but by no means all Tories, who are prone to fondling your arse after a few drinks." (Somehow I doubt that David Laws ever came into that category.) He nevertheless expressed sympathy for "many of the closet cases, especially the older ones who had to contend with lonely encounters in public parks and a life lived in fear at being exposed." These days, by contrast, there were MPs in civil partnerships, "shiny examples of our new tolerant society." He concluded that "the stench of hypocrisy around Parliament has lessened."

Before he was forced to go, Laws declared that it was "in some ways a relief" to have been forced out of the closet, and apologised that he had "not been honest about who I am." He goes further, lecturing the rest of the world about the benefits of his newly-discovered openness: "I hope that others will now learn that it is time for people to be honest about their sexuality. Keeping secrets is much tougher than telling other people who you really are." As now seems to be assumed, his sexual orientation thus becomes synonymous with who he "really is". Yet, to judge from his apparently limited sexual history, being gay would seem to be a rather small part of David Laws' identity. A brilliant economist, a millionaire in his twenties, a political theorist (he was largely responsible for the Orange Book that did so much to rescue the Liberal Democrats from its Muesliant Tendency) and confident, competent minister: these are what he really is, and what has been lost to the Cabinet.

It should be irrelevant that Laws wanted to keep his private life private. Yet for all that this has been presented as just another expenses scam, the fact is that the revelations about his sexuality have been at the centre of today's story. There has been a barely-suppressed glee and titillation in some quarters reminiscent of the days - not that long ago, but assumed gone forever - when the discovery that so and so bats for the other team could in itself destroy a career. But there have equally been comments such as this from the apparently sympathetic Graham Mckerrow:

The closet was at the root of Jeremy Thorpe's troubles and again we see it rocking the heart of the liberal establishment. The closet is no place to live; it offers no peace of mind, involves constant deception and risks disaster. I am only astonished that after all the years of law reform and changing public attitudes, this is a message that still needs to be heard in 2010. It is disappointing that the gay liberation movement is still needed here in the UK, as well as in even more troubled nations such as Malawi.

Yet for all we know David Laws may have been perfectly happy in the closet, and remained so had he not been ejected from it in these career-wrecking circumstances. He has been forced to resign; he shouldn't feel compelled to mouth fashionable platitudes about the wonderful new freedom that comes with openness. I doubt that's how he's feeling at the moment, or how he felt when he was trying desperately and unsuccessfully to save his job. Many people are comfortable with talking about their private sexual lives, and some like to bore others with the details. There's a widespread assumption that this is the only way to be. It's an orthodoxy that can be almost as oppressive as the old forced closet used to be.

The concluding words of the Times interview read cruelly today. "Unmarried and with no children or distractions, he can concentrate on the job of making the coalition work" wrote interviewers Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thompson. If only.
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Thursday, 27 May 2010

There were definitely a lot of complaints

In a fun postscript to last year's atheist bus wars, I learn that the most complained-of advert in Britain last year was... for the Rev George Hargreaves' counter-poster. It received a grand total of 1204 complaints, while the original BHA "There is probably no God" was down at number 6, with a mere 394. More than twice as many people complained about an advert for oven cleaner which some found offensive to men. Hargreaves - founder of the Christian party and former Eighties record producer - went with the slogan “There definitely is a God, so join the Christian Party and enjoy your life”.

The atheist bus campaign, you may recall, was itself complained of by a some high-profile and rather silly people, notably Thought for the Day regular Clifford Longley, who sent the ASA several pages of ill-digested "science" as part of his case. There probably is a God, he claimed - and moreover he could prove it. It had something to do with the Anthropic Principle, he maintained. Unfortunately for him, some of the scientists he had used pointed out that he had misquoted and misunderstood their work. Even more unfortunately, his lengthy exposition turned out to have been lifted verbatim from a Creationist website. I was one of those who bothered to file a counter-complaint pointing out Longley's plagiarism, irrelevance and foolishness - the reply I received was an early indication of the ASA's attitude towards the issue.

The ASA wisely decided not to waste their time on any of the complaints (they also rejected the one about the oven cleaner) - though for subtly different reasons. They chose to interpret "There is probably no God" as an expression of opinion, rather than as a statement whose truth could be ascertained on an objective basis. After all, if all that was needed to settle the age-old conundrum of the existence or otherwise of a Supreme Being was a referral to the Advertising Standards Authority, there would be no need for the rival publishing efforts of Richard Dawkins, his allies and critics. As for the Rev. George - the reference to his fringe political outfit was enough to put the matter beyond the ASA's remit. They don't concern themselves with matters party-political.

But what should we make of the difference in numbers? First, I think, most Christians, even campaigning Christians of the type we've become all too familiar with over the past couple of years, weren't particularly bothered by the bus posters (although that reliable fruitcake, Stephen Green of "Christian Voice", couldn't resist making his own complaint). Some even welcomed them as an invitation to debate. In any case, the BHA posters were non-denominational. Had they read "There is no Allah, and Mohammed is not his Prophet", the response might have been different. Or, indeed, "Christianity is bollocks - spend Sunday morning in bed" would probably have provoked a larger number of complaints. The slogan was just too reasonable - those who did bother to complain were forced into Longley-style absurdism.

So why did so many more non-believers complain about the Hargreaves poster? I doubt many were genuinely offended by it - although Ariane Sherine's original proposal was informed by her own feelings of annoyance, when a Christian bus ad she spotted led to a website threatening non-believers with Hell. If anything, it should have been more offensive to Christians than to atheists. The notion that the proper response to discovering the probability of God' existence is to dash off a subscription cheque to George's personal political project - basically UKIP at prayer, with added Clarkson - must strike many believers as a trifle odd. I'm guessing the publicity attracted by Longley's complaint, and others equally silly, played some part. It was tit for tat.

Plus, of course, atheists and sceptics are very well-represented online. It's now ridiculously easy to file a complaint with the ASA. So easy, in fact, that the wonder is there aren't more trivial complaints coming across their desk. It's noteworthy that of the top ten most-complained-of adverts mentioned in the annual report, no fewer than six were held to fall outside the ASA's remit or to otherwise not require an investigation, while only two were fully upheld.

Rather like voting, complaining to the ASA is devalued when it's made too easy. People should have to put the effort in.
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Sunday, 23 May 2010


Apologies for the uncharacteristic lack of blogging over the past week. I notice I am not alone in being less active than usual on the opinionating front - in my case offline projects and activities have absorbed most of the brain-space usually employed thinking up things to say here. Fear not, normal service will be resumed before too long. Read the rest of this article

Monday, 17 May 2010

Liberal Conservatism

Now that I have my dream government, or something closely resembling it, one of four things is going to happen: I shall become very boring, cheering the Con-Lib coalition with nauseating regularity; I shall lay off politics altogether and find something else to write about; or I shall rapidly discover that the Nick and Dave show is, after all, a squalid, unworkable nightmare, riven by splits and patched-up compromises and generally useless. Alternatively I shall go the way of (most recently) Letters from A Tory and shut up shop.

In the meantime, I offer a few personal reflections on the nature of liberalism and conservatism, their compatibilities and tensions and what (if any) sort of liberal I am.

A good place to start is the phrase David Cameron used to introduce his new administration: Liberal Conservative. Many assumed that he was merely combining political nomenclature, but in that case it would have been more natural for him to place the name of his own (larger) party first and describe his coalition as "Conservative and Liberal" or Conservative/Lib Dem. By calling his government Liberal Conservative, he used an expression he has previously employed to define his own political philosophy. The formula suggests at the very least conservatism tempered by liberalism, in other words one that is moderate and centrist (for "liberal", a slippery word and even more slippery concept, can mean as little as "not hardline"); but I would argue that there is capital-L liberalism present here, too, and not just because there are now four Liberal Democrats in the cabinet.

"Liberal Conservative" is not an oxymoron - unlike another phrase Cameron tried on for size last year, "progressive conservatism", which is indeed an absurdity. They are distinct political philosophies, to be sure, but there has always been an interplay between the two. Gladstone, who created the 19th century Liberal party, began his political career as the great hope of the "stern, unbending Tories" and while in some ways he became increasingly radical - like Tony Benn, immaturing with age - in other respects (for example in his religious opinions) he remained profoundly conservative. And in yesterday's Observer Charles Kennedy was reminding us of the historical tendency of Liberals to end up joining the Tories.

That is not to deny profound differences of outlook between conservatives and liberals. At the most basic level, a true liberal believes that ultimately nothing is sacrosanct, while a conservative, as the name implies, wants to conserve things. The distinction may come down to theology. Liberals are Pelagian, believing in essential human goodness and perfectibility; conservatives tend to be Augustinian, believers in original sin and, thus, generally of the view that politics comes down to making the best of a bad job. Conservatives are realists about human nature, but their romantic attachment to history and historic institutions saves them from cynicism or despair. Liberals have no such sentimentality about things, but are often idealistic about people. When, as inevitably happens, people refuse to live up to the liberal's expectations, the liberal risks developing a desire to boss people about - for their own good, of course. Thus is born the "left-liberal" style of socialism.

Still, get the mix right and Liberalism and Conservatism can complement one another. I would argue indeed that they need each other: Conservatism without Liberalism can be oppressive (because it encourages conformity with traditional morality and power-structures even at the expense of individual self-determination) while Liberalism without Conservatism is nihilistic. As JS Mill spotted, most people are not by inclination liberals: "They have no tastes or wishes strong enough to incline them to do anything unusual, and they consequently do not understand those who have." To be liberal is to tolerate and appreciate difference in others, and that requires not merely respect but, more importantly, trust. Individual liberty is sustainable only where individuals are self-disciplined and altruistic, for any functioning society needs a foundation of order and a sense of responsibility. When traditional structures are removed, as a result of economic transition or social change, a dangerous vacuum is created. At least, there is perceived to be such a vacuum, because a majority of the population experiences the resulting uncertainty not as an opportunity but as a threat.

People crave reassurance and instruction - I don't, you probably don't, but we're in the minority. So the liberal is faced with a dilemma: ignore, as far as is possible, the social disruptions brought about by change, on the basis that freedom has its casualties - this course leads to "neo-liberalism", in other words laissez-faire, and a state that strives to stay out of economic life. More than any mechanism yet created, the free market has the ability to set people free and enable them to realise their dreams. The downside of unconstrained market liberalism is that power invariably ends up in the hands of private corporations, as employers and as determiners of economic policy, who can be as overbearing and may be less accountable than an interventionist state. Consumers rather than citizens, people come to feel they have no control over the forces shaping their lives. On the other hand, they can afford a new kitchen.

The tendency in the Liberal Democrats has been to think of themselves as a party of the centre-left, somewhat less statist than Labour but every bit as suspicious of the private sector. This approach stresses social rather than economic liberalism, but in an effort to promote the individual rights of citizens it has to define those rights, often by imposing a new liberal orthodoxy. While they may deplore Labour's natural tendency towards authoritarianism and undervaluing of the individual, the left-leaning Liberal shares its belief that people should be improved, whether or not they want to be.

Another, and for me better, way of avoiding Liberalism's internal contradictions lies in Conservatism. Insititutions, traditions, family, a belief in old-fashioned virtues such as financial prudence, even (though I hate to admit it) religion - such things provide an anchor for society. There's a sense of stability and safety, not imposed by an omnipresent government but inherent within the patchwork of relationships at every level. On its own, the danger is one of stultifying conformity - but the admixture of liberalism sets the people free.

The traditional academic education provided by grammar schools used to be the great engine of social mobility, now stalled - but proper education (which should be available to all, not just the most gifted or, as increasingly these days, the well-off) offers more than economic advancement, it allows spiritual and imaginative release. The welfare state should provide a safety net, in the true meaning of the phrase, giving people the confidence to jump; instead it has become more like a fishing net, entangling its victims until all initiative in them dies. No government should dictate the private life of its citizens - but nor should it forget that while many different forms of relationship are possible and healthy the nuclear family is what keeps society together.

Or take civil liberties, which both parties now in government claim to believe in. They do not come from nowhere, not even the European Human Rights Convention. The rights and protections we cherish - trial by jury, habeas corpus, the rule of law, rights of protest and free speech - are the legacy of our history, hard-won from usually unwilling rulers but as traditionally English as roast beef and oak-trees. It's no coincidence that they came under more threat from a "New Labour" government with no sense of history and an obsession with all things new and "progressive" than from the previous, supposedly right-wing Tory administrations that preceded it. Conservatives, after all, want to conserve our traditions. Personal privacy was another predictable casualty of a government infected by the wrong sort of progressive liberalism. Conservatives, traditionally, have been loath to extend the supervision of the state over private life. And so they are - or should be - naturally suspicious of centralised databases, state-ordained diets (are you eating your five portions a day?) and endless initiatives of social engineering.

Privacy isn't simply good in and of itself. For me, it is the single most important precondition of freedom. Privacy affords us personal psychological space. It allows us somewhere to be ourselves, to make mistakes, to hide from prying eyes, to indulge private fantasies and to overcome the past. A world in which our every action and thought is monitored, recorded and is available for data-mining is not only unforgiving of youthful folly (or adult indiscretion); it also feels unfree. You are constantly looking over your shoulder, afraid to put a foot wrong. New Labour took this technological danger and made it a principle of policy, often in pursuit of supposedly liberal objectives. It demanded employers collect information about the sexual orientation of their staff, for example. None of their fucking business, say I. Prejudice against gay people is a terrible thing, but it cannot be solved by statistics. Nor can it be solved by turning traditionally-minded religious people into free-speech martyrs. Conservatives know that society changes over time, but that for change to be real and lasting it has to come naturally in its own time. Liberals can encourage change, but it is always illiberal to force it.

A state that asserts its power over the individual is an oppressor, however benign its intentions, however well-meaning and morally comfortable its supporters. Any government, even (perhaps especially) a "liberal" one which expands the scope of state supervision over the individual and over the institutions of civil society tends towards tyranny. Worst of all, though, it never works and the country goes bankrupt in the process. A properly liberal society requires a government that is prepared to step back and let people get on with their own lives. And the best guarantee of such a government is scepticism on the part of politicians about their own ability to effect change. Conservatism breeds that scepticism. In the end, liberalism and conservatism, like Dave and Nick, complete each other's sentences.
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Friday, 14 May 2010

Pope in Britain will mean more police overtime

Here's some bad news for the many people hoping to give Dr Ratzinger a welcome he won't forget when he drops by in September. The Times reports that security will be extensive and elaborate. The Pope's view of Britain and its people is likely to consist of a row of police helmets.

Ratzo has been visiting Portugal, a country almost as bankrupt as the UK, and to the horror of British police observers, many well-wishers were allowed to come within egg-throwing distance. Meredydd Hughes, the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire said that Portuguese police "have been much more relaxed and calm than we are about the distance the Pope is allowed to be from the people." In the UK, there would be "many more physical barriers" - partly because of traditional British obsession with terrorist threats, but mainly because of "the anti-Papal protests which are expected in Britain." Go and boo if you like, but he won't be able to hear you. The taxpayer will be paying top whack for Operation Spare The Pope's Blushes, naturally.

In Portugal, people appear to have been genuinely pleased to see him. Indeed, he attracted larger crowds at Fatima than John Paul II got when he last visited, which is quite an achievement. They were rewarded with hard-hitting comments about gay marriage, which he described as an "insidious and dangerous" threat to society. If he tried something like that here, of course, he might find himself in trouble.

But then with all those police officers watching his every move, he wouldn't dare. Read the rest of this article

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Made in Heaven?

It was compelling, beautiful. They were like David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, Bill and Ben. In the Downing Street garden this afternoon Nick Clegg and David Cameron resembled a couple of Apple executives enthusing about their latest gizmo. They were a double-headed charm machine made of Win.

The last time I saw two coalition partners look so delighted to be in one another's company it was Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness, the Chuckle Brothers themselves. No Brown/Blair nightmare this. They could have been Blair and Clinton, or possibly Blair and Bush. But, still, how can you not love it? Max Hastings may have grumpily dismissed the new coalition as a pantomime horse, but while parts of the agreement have the appearance of a hastily stitched-together compromise the presentation hinted at something deeper: a coming together of political programmes and ideals that are far from incompatible and which may make of them a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

What is this thing? Is it Nestorian, existing in two eternally distinct parts which have only the appearance of union, like water and oil poured into the same glass? Or is it monophysite in character, with the two essences coming together to form a new substance, neither Conservative nor Liberal Democrat but a unique combination of attributes? Will the two parties become symbiotic, will one parasitise the other, or will it be fragile and temporary? Only time will tell, of course. But the signs so far are good. The two leaders spoke in strikingly similar terms about their priorities, and they sounded remarkably like Conservative priorities: freedom and opportunity, more power for individuals and less for the state, social responsibility, restoring fiscal stability. If these are Lib Dem priorities too, then great.

As a programme for government it's considerably more coherent than we have any right to expect from two parties that are only working together because neither has any alternative. Boris Johnson may have been right to comment on the "hybrid vigour" of the new arrangement, even if his image of a cross between a bulldog and a chihuahua suggested something freakish and unpredictable. (I was hoping to entertain readers with a picture of the offspring of an English bulldog and a chihuahua, but was unable to find one. Has it ever in fact been done?) In fact, the new government looks oddly natural and right. You think, "what took them so long?" Well I do, anyway. It lacks only a name. Colliberation, perhaps? Clameronism? Clegg-Cam. If it all went wrong it would be Camcleggeddon.

Not all the policies set out in the leaked agreement are as welcome as the statement on civil liberties, which must have been easy for the two sides to agree upon (basically, undoing the damage done by Labour). "Robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses" sounds sure to be popular, but can it really be achieved without illiberal state interference in private business arrangements? For me, five years is at least one year too long for a fixed-term Parliament, and unsurprisingly there are expensive environmental commitments. Europe may prove to be a fault-line. But no government, and no manifesto, is perfect. On the whole, the agreement represents the best of both worlds rather than the lowest common denominator. Sometimes it's the small things that matter: we are to have a Department of Education once again, for example, rather than Ed Balls' Orwellian-sounding Children, Families and Schools.

I was expecting a degree of cordiality when the coalition was announced. I wasn't expecting the atmosphere of near-euphoria that accompanied today's events. In a way, I'm reminded of the election of Barack Obama: one's enthusiasm for the product tempered by awareness of the almost insuperable economic and social challenges ahead, which no amount of high-flown rhetoric can disguise. The current situation would place heavy strains on even the most united single-party government, and any coalition risks either deadlock or split. Furthermore both Cameron and Clegg are such slick salesmen we perhaps shouldn't take their bonhomie entirely at face value. Yet the mood seems genuine enough, and British politics suddenly seems lighter, brighter, less childish and tribal. That isn't simply because we have two parties in coalition. It's also because of the departure (permanently, I hope) of the poisonous tendency associated with Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and their many lieutenants and wannabes.

We might be seeing the rebirth of decent politics. Given the challenges facing the new government, we had better hope so.
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A new birth of freedom

Liberal Conspiracy has a leaked document that sets out the terms of the Lib Dem/Conservative coalition agreement. And it's mainly great. I'm sitting here with a great big soppy grin on my face. The short paragraph on immigration promises "We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes," thus removing one of the most disgraceful stains on Britain's international reputation. And the section on civil liberties is as wide-ranging as most of us could have wished for. It's worth savouring in full. We knew that ID cards were doomed as soon as Labour gave up the struggle, of course and the relevant government webpage has already been updated to reflect the new political reality. But beyond that there were many questions. This document answers most of them. I've highlighted the parts that I find particularly welcome.

10. Civil liberties

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

* A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.
* The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.
* Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.
* The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.
* Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.
* The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.
* The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.
* The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.
* Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.
* Further regulation of CCTV.
* Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.
* A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

Anything they missed? There doesn't seem to be anything about the Digital Economy Bill, and the last provision, while welcome, only refers to new unnecessary offences - what about all those that have been introduced in the past decade and a half? And after everything that's happened merely promising a "review" of the libel laws strikes me as far too weak. Still, it's a tremendous start. Taken together, the various provisions read almost like a modern-day Magna Carta. Let's hope they get on with it. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

The strange death of Lib-Lab coalition talks

One thing I found very puzzling about today's shenanigans, and that's the abortive nature of the talks between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This morning, the news was all of rainbow coalitions and "progressive" alliances. Paddy Ashdown turned up on the radio practically announcing the squalid deal as an inevitability. Labour tribalists looked forward to seeing the back of any hopes of Tory government, certainly in this Parliament, perhaps for ever.
Yet by lunchtime it was all over.

The Guardian reported that the Lib Dems' negotiating team were "unimpressed by the demeanour of the Labour negotiators, claiming they showed no real interest in a deal."

After several days of being showered with flowers and love-poems by an enamoured - or just plain desperate - Conservatives, the most they got from Labour was the equivalent of "get yer coat, luv, you've pulled." The Tory negotiators gave so much ground one Lib Dem source described it as "embarrassing". Mandelson and Co presented their interlocutors with a list of demands which even the fiercest anti-Tory would have found hard to accept. They were not, in short, serious negotiations.

By that stage, of course, the negative attitude of some Labour MPs (notably John Reid and David Blunkett) had probably put paid to any serious possibility of striking a deal on a minority coalition. But is it really so certain that the Parliamentary Labour Party would have rejected the opportunity of staying in power at almost any price? Had a deal been done - and many Lib Dems plainly believed that they were on the verge of achieving it - it's unlikely it would have been serious internal opposition after it had been announced. Not for a few weeks at any rate. And since when have New Labour insiders troubled themselves unduly with backbench opinion?

So what was going on? Either the Labour leaderhip's sense of entitlement, nurtured over thirteen years in government and several years of political ascendency before that, remained so great even after last week's drubbing at the polls that they had become utterly disconnected from reality. They actually believed that the Lib Dems were theirs to dispose of as they wished. Or there never was even the prospect of a deal. The secret talks between Clegg and Brown, the brilliantly-timed resignation announcement that had the more idiotic Lib Dems drooling and Tories in serious danger of spontaneous combustion, were all smoke and mirrors.

Knowing they were heading for Opposition, the evil geniuses (and they are geniuses, as well as being evil) Mandelson and Campbell, along with Gordon Brown, proceeded to do the only thing that was left to them: planting depth-charges underneath the incoming coalition. However chimerical, the prospect of an anti-Tory Ministry of all the talentless was irresistible to many on the Lib Dem benches, and Labour strategists knew it. While it was dangled before them, they would never agree to enter government with the Conservatives. That's why backbench dissatisfaction nearly derailed the talks even before Brown's dramatic announcement yesterday evening. Yet the deal - some sort of deal - would still have to happen, and when it did it would be perhaps fatally undermined by mistrust on the Tory side and dissatisfaction on the Lib Dems.

What happens when the going gets choppy? When the new "stable" government does what it has to do, and faces the electoral consequences? Will left-leaning Lib Dems start defecting to Labour? Or will the coalition collapse amid mutual recrimination, leaving the Lib Dems destroyed and the Conservatives out of office for another decade and a half? I don't know, but Mandelson has always seemed to me very like Lewis Carrol's crocodile, who "welcomes little fishes in/ with gently smiling jaws." Read the rest of this article

Monday, 10 May 2010

Evan Worse

This is a cross-post from The Hearth of Mopsus by James Rattue

I find myself today in the unusual position of feeling I must defend erstwhile Oxford University Lib Dems election supremo and MP for Oxford West Dr Evan Harris. As has been recently alluded to at Heresy Corner, it is no secret among some that in those far-off days of the fallout from the merger of the Liberals and the SDP, when we were both involved in Oxford student politics, I and the Dr found ourselves adversaries in certain matters. At this distance I can judge it all as involving questions of style rather than real principle although it seemed terribly important at the time, as student politics often does.

Evan was, we found, incredibly difficult to work with, and after he won Oxford West and Abingdon in 1997 I concluded (and was not shy of saying) that he was doing less damage and more good as a backbench Liberal Democrat MP than he’d done at any stage of his political career hitherto. When Charles Kennedy appointed him Party spokesperson on women’s rights it even provided some laughs, which I suspect Good-Time Charlie fully intended it should.

Evan gradually became more and more concerned with secularism, assisted dying, and other such issues. As I underwent a parallel and opposite movement of becoming an orthodox-minded Christian and eventually an Anglican priest, I couldn’t be expected to sympathise much with this, but I curiously respected it. At Oxford Evan talked very little about ideas or beliefs. He did have something of a narrative of what had led him into politics, involving growing up in Liverpool and observing the incompetence and neglect of the city at the hands of the Labour Party, but that was as far as it went. Yet his secularist stance was something he pursued despite strong opposition and which won him few friends; one can only conclude that he actually believes it. I have no idea what led Evan to follow this line, and it would be interesting to find out; it certainly wasn’t anything he ever talked about at Oxford.

On Thursday Evan lost his parliamentary seat to the Conservatives, apparently as a result of boundary changes, by a tantalising 176 votes; once upon a time I might have nursed a touch of schadenfreude, but that’s long past. It’s the way things work in UK politics – but there was an extraordinarily fatuous and vitriolic column by George Pitcher in the Telegraph crowing over the Doctor’s defenestration. ‘Revd’ Pitcher places Evan Harris’s title in quotation marks, as though he isn’t qualified to practice medicine at all - see how offensive it looks when I do it? – describes him as ‘a stranger to principle’, and alleges that his election as an MP was simply a convenience to allow him to pursue his campaign on behalf of the National Secular Society.

As I say, I don’t recall Evan saying anything about secularism until long after his election; something unknown has happened to him to convince him about it. But then George Pitcher doesn’t know anything about Evan. I don’t agree with Dr Harris, never have done really, but I can only see someone who has grown as a result of his experience of public office and, probably, working in the medical profession as opposed to simply shoving leaflets under students’ doors. I suppose I’m the naïve one for expecting better from a priest.

The Hearth of Mopsus Read the rest of this article

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Choice

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition may not happen, of course. But until I know for a fact it's all going to fall through, I will allow myself the chance to dream. My ideal government would be moderate, socially and economically liberal, civil-liberties friendly, not afraid of the tabloids (or of the Guardian, for that matter), able to take the country in a new direction after thirteen depressing years of over-centralisation and media micromanagement, untainted by sleaze and demonstrably new. It's a tall order, I know, but frankly a combination of the best elements of the Conservatives and Lib Dems would be more likely to achieve it than either party could alone.

Just think: Nick Clegg, as Home Secretary, introducing a great repeal of the worst of New Labour's authoritarian legislation: the terror laws, the ID cards, the DNA retention scheme rejected by the European Court of Human Rights, the secret inquests and the restrictions on trial by jury. Ken Clarke back as chancellor, restoring confidence and good sense after years of spendthrift mismanagement - and, with the widely respected, even loved, Vince Cable at his side, the public would be more easily reconciled to the necessary pain. Radical decentralising reforms in education and health - perhaps with the excellent and forward-thinking David Laws occupying one of those seats at the cabinet table (indeed, Michael Gove has publicly and most graciously offered up his own). A more equal distribution of power between Scotland, Wales and England, perhaps. Certainly Change - the banner which both parties carried into the campaign.

Above all, at a time of crisis, when (as we are so often told by pollsters) people want politicians to work together in the national interest, a Lib Dem-Conservative alliance would bring the broadest possible range of political perspective to bear on the problems the country faces. After all, both the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats are now broad and diverse coalitions. The Tories embrace modernisers almost indistinguishable from their Lib Dem counterparts, One Nation traditionalists, Thatcherite economic radicals and religiously-motivated moral conservatives, while the range of thought on the Lib Dem side runs the gamut from left-wingers unhappy with the rightward drift of New Labour to genuine economic liberals.

That may be a recipe for confusion, of course, but there is one big thing most can agree on and which differentiates them from Labour - a distrust of the big state. Other than that, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition would be a triumph of pluralism and diversity. And by doing a deal with the Conservatives Nick Clegg would prove that he represents a genuinely independent third party, not (as many suspect) an adjunct of Labour.

Compare the alternative: the "anti-Tory alliance" so much desired by self-styled "progressives", but which would really be no more than a mechanism for propping up a discredited, statist, morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour government that has been massively rejected by the voters. Especially the voters in England, which gave the Conservatives a 62-seat majority. Such a Labour-Lib Dem-nationalist-Green conjugation would have no legitimacy to govern England. And if the SNP and Plaid Cymru abstained on devolved matters, as is their practice, such an administration would be unable to introduce a single law affecting only England. The result would be permanent stalemate, while the press cried foul.

Such a shabby deal would have as its sole raison-d'etre the exclusion of the one party that has any kind of claim to have "won" the election. Rather than an inclusive government in the national interest, representing all shades of opinion, it would be a negative, highly partisan arrangement whose very existence would anger a large numbers of voters. With the barest of majorities, it would be terminally weak - at a time when strong government is essential. And for what? The Lib Dems, merely to indulge their obsession with PR, would have shackled themselves to a corpse.

What would the public conclude? That the "anti-Tory majority" is no myth but, in party terms at least, a fixture of the Westminster scene. That backroom deals, inaccessible to the public, matter more than the democratically-expressed will of the people. That tribalism matters more than the public interest. That Labour and the Liberal Democrats are, to all intents and purposes, a single party, with only the Tories offering an alternative to the status quo. That Nick Clegg's promise to respect the mandate of the party with the strongest representation was a lie. That they're all the same. The Lib Dems would have gained their greatest desire - but at the price, not only of their soul, but possibly of their very existence.

And as for voting reform - whoever forms the next government, it is now almost inevitable that there will have to be a referendum at some time about some kind of new system. The only questions are: when will it be held and, more significantly, what options will be on the ballot paper. There are multiple ironies here. One is that Nick Clegg has been more than compensated for his poor showing in terms of seats with the power he now wields. Another is that the traditional voting system, cruel as it was to the Lib Dems, produced a far less distorted result this time round. In 2005, as few people seem willing to remember (and few complained at the time), 36% of the vote (to the Tories' 34%) delivered Labour a shockingly undemocratic 60-seat majority. Today, with Labour's vote share collapsed to historically abyssal proportions, they still won almost 260 seats.

I do not say that, with 36% of the vote the Conservatives deserved to win an outright majority. They didn't. Under a properly functioning version of first past the post, with equalised constituencies drawn up without regard to extraneous factors such as county or borough boundaries and without the absurd over-representation of Scotland and Wales, no party would be able to obtain an absolute majority without winning more than around 42% of the vote. If as seems likely we have entered a time of three-party politics, with the three major parties each having a core vote of between 20 and 30%, then a fair FPTP system would deliver hung Parliaments on a regular basis. Labour rightly won in 1997 and 2001 (although not by the massive landslides they actually obtained) but the 2005 outcome was a travesty of democracy. Coalition government, the very thing desired by proponents of PR and feared by its detractors, increasingly looks like the future, whichever system is used to elect MPs to Parliament.

But by all means, put the case to the people. The Tories would, I think, be monumentally stupid to hold out on proportional representation in the sure knowledge that a Labour-Liberal-nationalist-Green alliance would immediately introduce it. There are, after all, other likely reforms that would be far less objectionable to Tories: recall of errant MPs, democratic elections to a reformed Upper House, perhaps fixed Parliamentary terms (though where a government is weak or based on shifting alliances, that could be both dangerous and radically anti-democratic). The people can be presented with several different options, ministers can be given free rein to argue their preferred system, and ultimately the decision will be made by the voters. The referendum is going to happen: the only questions are whether Conservative ministers will have any say on what choice is put before the public, and whether they will be able to argue for their favoured outcome from a position of strength.

That, then, is the choice facing Nick Clegg. If he joins a stable coalition with the Conservatives, he can exercise real power and see the implementation of many policies dear to Lib Dem hearts. He can prove himself a flexible, grown-up politician leading a party that knows its own mind. If he turns away in a gran rifiuto, he may please more of his own supporters and achieve more rapidly a referendum on voting reform. But by that stage he may have so alienated the public that the referendum is lost and the Conservatives are back with a landslide.

I think Nick Clegg knows what is in his own, his party's and the country's best interests. I just hope his MPs and supporters can extricate themselves from their backsides for long enough to realise.
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Friday, 7 May 2010

Whatever happened to the Lib Dem surge?

Ever since the first exit poll last night had pundits and politicians scratching their heads and refusing to believe the figures, the mystery of Nick Clegg's disappearing voters has deepened. Greg Hurst in The Times has a theory: it was Clegg's willingness to talk about what might happen in the event of a hung Parliament:

This flurry of speculation meant that television clips of the Lib Dem leader were dominated by him talking about process, about horse-trading, about politics. For three or four days, voters saw him no longer articulating vision or speaking about policy, but talking like any other politician.

For Hurst, the early surge was followed by first a plateau and then a gentle drifting-off, until by the end the Lib Dems were back almost where they started. Some late polls, it's true, did show a marked decline in the party's support. Others, though, continued to show them neck and neck with Labour or even in a strong second place. And while, for me at least, Clegg's performances - in the debates and on the stump - had become tedious and repetitive by the end ("It doesn't have to be like this", first inspiring, eventually sounded wheedling, like a lover begging not to be dumped) polls continued to suggest that most people believed he had "won the debates". And that meant they simply had to vote for him, didn't it?

That, after all, was how the media had framed the election campaign. After initially appearing dumbfounded by the strength of the Nick the Obscure's showing in the debate, the commentariat collectively decided that this was now a three-horse race, that the old certainties were all up in the air, that this would be the election that finally broke the mould of British politics. We were in uncharted territory. Add your own cliché. The British people, the implication ran, were so superficial and easily swayed that a ninety-minute performance would and should overturn decades of political normality.

In fact, though there is a hung Parliament, the voting pattern for the three parties are quite similar to last time. Labour and the Tories merely changed places. Labour, of course, did catastrophically worse than in 2005, narrowly beating Michael Foot's performance in 1983. But the Tories performed at a similar level to Blair's result at the last election, and the Lib Dems were little changed. What made for the dramatically different shape of Parliament was the continuing distortion of the electoral system in Labour's favour. If Michael Howard had done as badly in 2005 as Brown did yesterday, the Tories would have gone down to a third successive landslide defeat. As it was, their narrow defeat in percentage terms left them with Parliamentary forces smaller than those commanded by Foot when he awoke to his party's virtual obliteration.

But I digress, slightly. The main point is that, despite all the talk of radical transformation, the two party system remains largely intact. In some ways this is puzzling: after all, thirty or forty years ago Labour and the Conservatives had mass memberships and deep roots, and for most voting was as much an expression of identity and social solidarity as it was of a careful consideration of the policies on offer. It's supposed to be different now. The leading figures of the three main parties are, in background, rhetoric and even policy, hard to distinguish, all pitching themselves to a narrow subset of floating voters. Whatever deep differences there may be between them, they present themselves to the electorate in a way that positively invites the cynical shrug of "they're all the same". Yet the old voting patterns persist - especially, perhaps, in the Labour strongholds of Scotland, Wales, industrial towns and areas with a heavy ethnic minority settlement. Nor does the Tory stranglehold on its safe seats in Southern England seem to have weakened substantially.

There's no obvious reason why the Lib Dems can't match either the Tories or Labour in terms of votes - or even seats - except habit and inertia. But then habit and inertia are strong forces. And for all Clegg's claims of newness, what was he really offering?

Electoral reform basically means more seats for Lib Dems, more opportunities for inter-party deals and stitch-ups with the political elites paying only lip-service to the will of the people. It doesn't mean more direct participation in politics from the mass of the population, even if it does mean "fairer" votes. (This election, incidentally, though cruel to the Lib Dems, produced a much "fairer" result than 2005, and one much more accurately reflective of the public mood. On both occasions, after all, no one party succeeded in attracting a decisive share of the vote.)

Other than that, the Lib Dem manifesto offered a basket of policies, some similar to those Labour was offering, some closer to Tory ideas, but all of them (like all the Tory and Labour policies) fairly middle of the road. There's nothing wrong with the Lib Dems, particularly, except that they have little different to offer beyond their claim to be different. So inertia and habit ordain that the duopoly survives.

What, then, of the Cleggmania? What of the surge? Was it, as many seem to think, a genuine phenomenon that burned itself out just before polling day made it into something real? I don't think so. I don't believe it ever happened at all.

Election campaigns rarely make much difference. They are media events, short-lived soap operas put on for the entertainment of voters who have already made up their minds, even if they don't know it yet. The party that "wins" the campaign may not win the election. That was true, for example, in 1992, when the Conservative victory took the pundits so much by surprise largely because of the widespread perception that Labour had won the campaign. It was true in 2005, too, when the Labour party, aided by a rigged electoral system, wons its last majority: Blair's campaign, by common consent, was dreadful. Here's the interesting thing, though: opinion polls during a campaign are often less reliable than those immediately before it. It's almost as if people asked during those carnivalesque weeks who they intend to vote for are answering a different question entirely: who do you think is running the better campaign? Inside the voting booth, however, the froth of the campaign lifts, and people vote in the way they were always going to.

The Clegg surge, then, was never going to be reflected in the final result, because it did not represent a real political phenomenon. Rather, it was an aesthetic judgement, an acknowledgement that Nick Clegg had put in the best performance. He won the campaign. He won, if you like, the audience prize. But that's a very different thing from winning the election. It's almost as though the public, the politicians and the media - the three actors in the democratic process - are engaged in a dance of mutual self-delusion, telling each other that the campaign matters, and that the stunts, the gaffes and, this time, the debates, are what decide the result. In fact, this election, like most elections, was over before it was even called.
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The English Question

One thing is certain this morning: the Conservatives have won a resounding majority in England, both in seats and, even more strongly, in votes. If there were a devolved English parliament, it would be dominated by the Tories. Any "anti-Tory coalition", bringing together Labour, the Lib Dems, the SDLP, Caroline Lucas and whatever else could be assembled by a defeated government in denial and in defiance of the clearly expressed will of the people, would be an anti-English coalition. It would be made possible only by the anachronistic distribution of seats in Scotland and Wales, which massively favours Labour. That alone would make it a democratic outrage. But it's worse even than that, because large areas of policy - education, health, the police, justice, local government, most of the bread-and-butter issues that determine many people's votes - are devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scottish and Welsh MPs unable to influence policies on their own countries would be attempting to impose them upon and English populace that had clearly, decisively, rejected them. This is not on.

For such a government to have a majority it have to obtain at least the acquiescence of the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Both parties, however, as a matter of principle do not vote on English matters. This means that (assuming they can rely on the support of the DUP) the Conservatives would be able to defeat any measure brought forward by a putative anti-Tory coalition that applied only to England. On the other hand, even with a minority of seats in the UK as a whole the Conservatives would be able to rule England. This fact has been rather overlooked amid all the talk of deals and Parliamentary arithmetic, but it is really quite basic and obvious.

"English votes for English laws" has never been more urgent. As a matter of principle, Scottish and Welsh MPs should not be able to impose their will on the people of England who have voted for a Conservative government - at least not in areas where English MPs have no power to legislate for Scotland and Wales. Furthermore, a coalition of the losers are not in a position to do so even if they wanted to. England has, de facto, a Tory government this morning. If the other parties refuse to recognise this, there will be deadlock. Read the rest of this article

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Gordon Brown and Demosthenes

Perhaps it's the innovation (for Britain at least) of the TV debates, or perhaps it's the consensus among the political leaders to say as little as they can get away with about the real issues facing the country, but I've noticed a tendency to look for parallels from the ancient world. Mary Beard was discussing Roman electioneering techniques with Boris Johnson on Radio 4 yesterday (here she is, in the wake of "bigotgate" on the subject of ancient gaffes). She commented that thirty years ago any parallels seemed far-fetched, not least because republican Roman politics was far more about personality than policy, but that the history seemed far more relevant today.

Yesterday Gordon Brown was speaking at an event run by community organisation Citizens UK also addressed by the other party leaders, and orated with such passion about the need for social change and improvement he sounded more like an opposition leader decrying the follies of the incumbent than a prime minister with a record to defend. His performance - in which he associated himself with Lincoln, Wilberforce and Obama - had the Guardian in ecstasies. He also trotted out this line:

When Cicero spoke to crowds in ancient Rome people turned to each other after hearing the speech and said ‘great speech’. But when Demosthenes spoke to the crowds in ancient Greece and people turned to each other they said, ‘let’s march’.

Brown has used the anecdote several times before: at Michael Foot's funeral, in a Time magazine article about Barack Obama, at the 2008 Lambeth conference of Anglican bishops, even at a gay/transgender rights conference at Downing Street two years ago. It was also used by Adlai Stevenson introducing John F. Kennedy in 1960. Obviously it's one of Gordon's favourites, though I can't help thinking the same comparison could be made between Churchill and Hitler.

At first sight it's more than a little hubristic of Brown, a notoriously tedious speaker, to compare himself with the man reputed to have been the most scintillating orator of antiquity. But maybe he has a point. The Edwardian classical scholar J.B Bury - no great admirer - wrote of one of Demosthenes' most famous speeches that

No politician ever knew better than he how short is the memory of ordinary men for the political events which they have themselves watched and even helped to shape by their votes and opinions; and none ever traded more audaciously on this weakness of human nature. Hardly four brief years had passed since the peace was made, and Demosthenes, confident that his audience will remember nothing accurately, ventures lightly to falsify facts which had so lately been notorious in the streets of Athens.

Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Unless you're a specialist, if you know anything about Demosthenes at all it's probably the story that he cured his stammer by loading his mouth with pebbles. His reputation as a practitioner of the art of rhetoric is unmatched, but his political career is another matter. Demosthenes managed to involve Athens in several unnecessary and unwinnable wars, by deluding both himself and his audience that the city was still the great power it had been in the age of Pericles a hundred years earlier.

He led the Athenian opposition to the rise of Macedonia under Philip and then Alexander, a policy that, given the reality of power in the second half of the fourth century BC was almost suicidal to his native city. Suicidal it would probably have been had his fellow citizens done as Gordon Brown asserted they did. On those occasions when the Athenians did march with Demosthenes they usually suffered catastrophic defeats. More often, though, they listened, cheered, and then paid heed to more cautious voices.

But where does the story come from? It's unclear. The version quoted by Brown has been sourced to a 1906 book about rhetoric by William Jennings Bryan, where it is attributed to "someone". Bryan adds, "the difference being that Cicero impressed himself upon the audience, while Demosthenes impressed his subject upon them." But the anecdote exists in several other versions, too. Sometimes Demosthenes is replaced by Caesar - which makes more sense, given that Cicero and Caesar were contemporaries. But that would change the meaning to a contrast between the man of action and the man of words.

Alternatively, a version attributed to advertising mogul David Ogilvy contrasts Demosthenes with his greatest rival Aeschines, who may not have been as memorable a speechmaker but who proposed a more subtle accommodation with Philip's expansionism. That makes better chronological sense, but it over-simplifies history, in particular ignoring the fact that the Athenian citizenry often sided with Aeschines. In 343 BC Demosthenes accused his rival of taking bribes from the Macedonians and at the subsequent trial made one of his greatest speeches, which Bury described as "a triumph in the art of sophistry". Aeschines was acquitted. Read the rest of this article