April 2009

The wider significance of the Liberal Democrat victory in the Gurkha debate yesterday is twofold.

Well, threefold. To get the bleeding obvious out of the way first, it’s another strangled warble in the painfully operatic death of Gordon Brown’s political career (y’know, the ones that never … quite … diiiiiiii-iiiiiiii-iiieeeeee!)

Secondly, it may come to be seen as a defining moment in Clegg’s leadership. No media source that I am aware of is denying him full credit for having taken up the Gurkhas’ cause as soon as he reached office. An otherwise generous David Cameron felt the need to interrupt Clegg yesterday during their joint press conference with La Lumley, halfway through Clegg’s perfectly articulate answer to a question which was put directly to him. That interruption is a telling sign of who was political top dog yesterday afternoon.

The most successful parliamentary moment in Clegg’s leadership so far may become particularly significant if this afternoon’s debate on MPs expenses – where he has also been leading the way, having been the first leader to moot the idea of a three-way meeting – turns out equally well for the two opposition parties.

A nice parallel in several ways is Paddy Ashdown’s championing of the Hong Kong citizens who applied for British passports in 1997. This was similarly a niche issue at first which slowly rose to top of the national discourse and established Paddy as someone who had Done the Right Thing. The Iraq war, of course, is another parallel – all three fitting enough for a party of internationalists.

But thirdly, and most significantly, the Gurkha debate constituted a sudden and spectacular meeting of minds between liberalism and the self-styled “moral majority”. Andrew Neil commented that he had never had such a flood of emails after PMQs, and all in support of the Gurkhas cause.

This is because, and let’s not shirk this issue, the Gurkhas hit on some rather old-school buttons. The moral majority like Gurkhas, they’re brave and love Britain etc. And the same moral majority has spent some years railing against excessive immigration of the undeserving. Suddenly they have a clear-cut case in front of them of the deserving being denied the right to immigrate. It enables them to affirm their support for all things British – or better still Anglophile – military and citizenly, while also denouncing all the “murderers and terrorists” whom they imagine to be spilling over the borders. As a fable, the story of the Gurkhas is about as neat and Middle England-flavoured as you can get. And Joanna Lumley was involved. No wonder the moral majority went wild for the Gurkhas.

But I’m not being dismissive of the moral majority (no, that was just good-natured joshing), because there was, under all the prejudiced persiflage, a strong moral conviction and it went like this: if them, why not them. If this, why not that. If the willingness to die for a country, why not the right to live in it. The kind of people who write into Andrew Neil might call that morality. We liberals usually call it fairness – Clegg departed from our usual touchy-feely inoffensive script yesterday in using the M-word.

Of course, our “fairness” and their “morality” are not quite the same. Our “if them, why not them” works equally in reverse, against the social tyrannies of the moral majority. Tomorrow we’ll find ourselves fighting an unpopular cause again. Evan Harris had it neatly summed up at a session during the Convention on Modern Liberty, when he challenged a Conservative panel on their happy claims to be liberals – “What about,” he said, “The people you don’t like?” Would this enthusiasm for localism, for social enterprise, and for freedom from government control, extend to all, he wanted to know? Or just to the approved causes, as now? Aren’t we just looking at a set of people with different approved causes in the Conservatives?

This is the question we need to keep asking them, perhaps all the more so after the co-operation on the Gurkhas. As can be clearly seen from their marriage tax proposals, Conservative social engineering is, basically, just Labour social engineering in old-fashioned clothes. I hold no faith whatsoever that they even begin to understand why Nick Clegg has championed the cause of the Gurkhas, for all that they cheered him on yesterday when he used the words “moral” and “decency”.

As Mill observed, sometimes  that which purports to be a fixed moral code amongst the moral majority is in fact a social tyranny, often highly specific to its time. “If them, why not them” is a principle that many who supported the Gurkhas’ cause can pick up and put down as it pleases them. Another time, their core “moral” message may be nothing more substantial than “I don’t think that’s very nice” or “It hasn’t always been done like that”. Dominic Grieve acknowledged this beautifully at the Convention when he said that what held the right back from full authoritarianism was the idea that “one’s grandfather might have disapproved”.

If that seems an oddly mutable thing to come out of the mouth of a decent man in an avowedly “moral” party, it’s because it is. And it comes as a bit of a shock to me, as someone who would sooner gnaw their own leg off rather than tell someone how to live, and gnaw their leg off sooner than have them tell me, that we liberals are actually the guardians of morality. Morality is not a set of social no-nos. Decency is not what the Daily Mail says is ok this week. True moral values are fixed, they are not subject to social or religious fashions, and they deal with all equally – did so even before the Enlightenment. The “if them, why not them” principle, and that other liberal stand-by, “do no harm”, are at the heart of most ancient moralistic religions.

So are other things, of course – but it’s interesting how followers of those religions have apparently been able to tell the difference without any trouble. We must presume that the many millions who call themselves Christians but who do not advocate the stoning to death of adulteresses and homosexuals are guided by something. They have successfully separated the abstract and eternal from the particular and timebound.

That separation is precisely what liberalism is all about, what Evan Harris was getting at during the Convention on Modern Liberty, and what Nick Clegg put across so successfully yesterday.

Maybe we need to follow Clegg’s lead, stop calling this thing we do as liberals “fairness” and call it by its older, proper name.

And so to London for the Orwell Prize dinner, and an evening of anthropological study among the chattering classes . I feel a positive tourist there these days.

Fortunately, the Humph was three tables away and my victim for the evening was Iain Dale’s Blackberry featuring Iain Dale as Himself. Double good fortune, by the time Iain had shimmied off to do 5Live and I had drunk enough to kill a small horse and begun to reason that it might be a joll’ good idea to into- intu- introduce mysel’ to Mssstr Humphreys and maybe Mssstr Porter and Mssstr Sparrow too, they were all in the process of wisely departing.

Still, the person I’m really sorry I didn’t meet is the one I was never going to – the pseudonymous NightJack, English detective, secret policeman and richly deserving winner of the big prize itself. NightJack is mesmerisingly written, with not a word out of place. I defy you to read this, in particular, and not find yourself as changed as if you had read a gripping novel afterwards. And there is of course a lovely symmetry in an award with Orwell’s name on it going to an anonymous policeman, one which ol’ Eric would surely have appreciated.

But more than that, reading NightJack was something of a wake-up call for me, one of a number of startlingly great blogs I ran across on the longlist. It reinforced my sneaking suspicion of being trapped in the bubble of the “political” blogosphere, unblissfully unaware of the important treasures in other blogospheres. There’s no good reason at all for avowedly political blogs to exist in a different universe to blogs by police officers, NHS doctors, social workers, call girls, knitting hobbyists, whoever. What a depressing reflection of reality that separation is. Some political bloggers do very well at linking outwards, and reading NightJack made me realise how important that is.

It will take more than one prize to melt down the barriers between blogospheres, of course, but I wonder if the thaw is slowly setting in? I was struck last year by the sudden head-on collision between the civil liberties political blogosphere and the techie blogosphere, as Labour’s thought police turned its sights on the internet and the two sets of bloggers suddenly had an enormous amount in common. Insofar as political blogging has a strength as a tool for campaigning and talking back to the ruling classes (and I’m not always sure about these strengths, though it’s a nice thought), its proponents need the expertise and wider world view of bloggers like NightJack.

And this is the traditional point at which to say “Long may he flourish” but he has, sadly, packed it in. So I’ll have to instead say that I hope others continue to follow in his blogsteps (and here’s a heartening example).

This is particularly important because, by unlovely coincidence, and apart from a last-and-positively-final appearance to accept the Orwell award, this happened a few days after the G20 protests. Police relations in this country are, notoriously, at something of a crossroads. I used to work a little bit alongside Met officers in my professional life and can’t reconcile the reality of the friendly, thoughtful and dedicated people I met with what NightJack aptly calls the “imperial stormtrooper” face of the police, tooled up with shields and tasers.

And it strikes me that this is the political and legislative reality of our day: the police have been set up, they’ve been smothered in equipment, given tasers and powers that Thatcher’s bullyboys only dreamed of, and they have a choice now between becoming the protector, and becoming the next great enemy, whether that is fair on the current generation of officers or not. It’s  just a bigger version of the same kind of choice individual officers face on the meaner streets every day – it’s not fair to be called upon to be a social worker and substitute parent as well as a law enforcer. Society has set them up with a bum deal there. But some of them manage it very well anyway, against the odds, which is how an awful lot of great things are managed.

Blogging might – it might – be one of the lesser tools that pushes us towards that better outcome. The more human voices coming out of those black visored helmets, even anonymously, the better for all concerned.

Headphones in, press play and read on.

This is what I’ve been waiting to hear:

The Liberal Democrats will fight the next general election with a pledge to cut income tax bills by £700 for people on low and middle incomes.

The party will promise to raise the income tax personal allowance to £10,000 by closing tax loopholes exploited by big businesses and the wealthy.

The internet is positively stuffed with my repeated opinion, in threads, on message boards, and here, that this is by far the most important and liberal step any liberal party wishing to reform the  tax system could take. I have also said that the first party to realise the need to do this, whoever it is, will reap a large and just reward. Let’s see if I’m right (and let’s see if Labour don’t follow suit on Wednesday).

Note: This is not the tightest and most beautifully arranged recording of the Hallelujah chorus I have ever listened to. I chose it because of the fabulous your-muzzer-was-a-’amster accents and because, rather like us, the Saint Severin Choir at Church Saint Jean-Baptiste de Grenelle in Paris may not be the most co-ordinated lot, but by god, they’re enthusiastic.

Mr Eugenides has written a very insightful post about the root causes of left and right attitudes towards the Ian Tomlinson affair. He takes his cue from James Graham’s shudderingly evocative empathy with what Tomlinson went through, and theorises as follows:

I think that some of us on “the right” take the view, usually subconsciously but sometimes explicitly, that our most cherished civil liberty is simply the right to be left alone. What tends to vex us most is those instances where government tries to impinge on that right – through a national ID scheme, for example, or punitive taxation, or petty officialdom.

Because “protest” has traditionally been a tool of the left – the average Tory does not go to many demos, no matter what government is in power – it is something that many on the right simply don’t and can’t identify with.

Mr Eugenides cannot control his subsconcious, and simply does not have the same visceral reaction to the video of the assault as James G did, much though his reason tells him it is a clear and shocking curtailment of civil liberties.

This is a neat theory, certainly backed up by some of the more characteristic responses on both left and right – contrast the anguish of Laurie Penny with the lofty moralising of Letters from a Tory, for example. The former assumes a connection between the fall and the heart attack which is not currently supported by hard evidence, and the latter uncritically accepts the Daily Mail’s position that being shamblingly drunk makes one more deserving of attack from behind by a policeman with a big stick.

Soak up the generally cynical tone of the posts on Liberal Conspiracy (which on the whole I share, though I was careful to keep Lib Dem Voice‘s coverage on the restrained side throughout) and marvel, if you will, at Danny Finkelstein’s unfortunate attempt before and after the event to paint various Lib Dem MPs’ involvement as legal observers as “an extraordinary insult to the police” which “misjudged the public mood”. He hasn’t been seen since, poor man.

But actually what has struck me most forcibly about the online chatterati’s reaction to the affair is the precise opposite to what Mr E is talking about. I am amazed by the sudden faultlines everywhere. I’ve never seen people like LFAT and Dizzy get such a drubbing from commenters who normally agree with pretty much everything they write – and the latter express their own astonishment at this too. Suddenly the libertarians are lying down with the left. Or something. The fact that libertarianism (where it is not a poorly worn excuse for the protection of existing privilege) is in many ways a distinctly left-leaning philosophy suddenly looks less awkward

It’s not all one-way traffic either. There are fewer examples of leftie blogs I have come across taking the police side (please do point me towards them) but exhibit A is of course the still silent Labourlist, top-down tool of the left at its most authoritarian. Sadie Smith’s overall attitude to the protestors (though divorced from the context of Tomlinson’s death) also echos much of what the pro-police right-wingers say, for all that she appears to be taking a diametrically opposite view (“trustafarians” being her disparagement of choice, as opposed to “unwashed rabble” or similar).

It’s a pretty rum set of reactions, in other words. I think I just heard the sound of a hairline crack splintering into a jagged gap you can get your thumb into. I think one of Mr E’s commenters has it right, referring to the contention that “some of us on “the right” take the view … that our most cherished civil liberty is simply the right to be left alone.”

I wonder if that makes us ‘right’ or whether those distinctions are now outdated.

Commentators have been referring to the death of left and right, with no real conviction, ever since Labour came to power, but have never found a narrative that sticks. We have come to understand over the past couple of years that they were looking in the wrong place. Because left and right were defined, ultimately, by economic attitudes, they focussed on the shifting sands of an economy that we do not, never have, and never will control completely through the tools of either side to the satisfaction of all.

It has taken a series of quite serious blows to liberty to make the new faultline visible. For some of us, liberalism versus authoritarianism (or the y axis, in political quiz terms) has been the real divide, the one that matters, for quite some time. That goes for me and most Liberal Democrats, some Tories and some ex-Labour people too. How else would members of the former hard left ever have ended up in the same conference centre as a man who favours the return of capital punishment?

I have found the divide between the liberal and the authoritarian becoming still more real for me over the last week.  And as it grows, there will be a certain amount of jumping for various people to do. In five years’ time, what will the political blogosphere – and the political landscape – look like? Me, Mr Eugenides and Laurie Penny versus LFAT, Dizzy and Sadie? What an entertaining thought.

I’ve had one of those Damascene moments that remind you there is always something new to learn about liberalism and tolerance. It involves chocolate* and chicken. Bear with me while I watch the TV a minute.

On Channel 4 just now was Willie’s Chocolate Revolution. Willie, his wife Tania and their children Bunty, Tristram and Ezekiel (or something like that) live in a gorgeous Georgian house in Devon and make chocolate. And it only gets more annoying from thereon in.

For a start, Willie insists on calling cocoa “kacow”, according to the South American pronunciation. He sounds like a dairy farmer with an unconquerable stutter. Look, the word if you’re speaking English is “cocoa”, right? We don’t correct our raggedy old eighteenth-century pronounciations for any other foodstuffs.

This, in truth, would probably not irritate me by itself. What irritates me is the sight of an upper middle class man with a huge Georgian rectory (gee, and it’s before the watershed) raving about his intention to “educate” the British masses about “real” chocolate. “It’s about health, and real authentic tastes, and about me being someone who owns a farm in Venezuela telling people how to live in a more middle class manner,” he says, or words to that effect.

I suddenly realise that he’s a much more irritating and self-conscious version of Hugh Fearlessly-Eats-It-All, whose stout stand against the battery hen saw Tescos embarrassed late last year. I don’t get irritated by Hugh. But watching Willie it occurs to me that this is probably because I already like cooking. I already like eating vegetables most of the week and meat only two or three times. Nobody needs to convince me of the virtues of making stock from my Sunday chicken, or building a meal round whatever looks good at the market.

But by god, threaten to take my Mini Eggs away, and you will find me a formidable foe. I suddenly find myself thinking in Tory. “But I LIKE rubbish British chocolate! Don’t wanna be re-educated! Take your filthy horrid nasty pure 100% cocoa chocolate away!”

I’ve tried, I really have. I’m an inveterate chocolate eater, and leap at the chance to guzzle down other challenging flavours, so you’d think high-cocoa content chocolate would be a natural progression for me. Tried. Never got it. And the trouble is, whenever anyone says something like, “Oh but you simply must try insert-over-packaged-brand-here! You’ll love it – it’s organic/from Somerset/hand-knitted by impoverished Peruvian yaks!”, what they are implicitly saying is that you haven’t tried hard enough before. You have failed, Mortimer, in the matter of chocolate appreciation. That’s what they’re saying.

Well, I say ha. I say fie, and a pox on your nobby nasty chocolate. If you want to eat stuff that smells and tastes (yes, I know the difference, and how they interact) like it’s been scraped out of the grooves of a tyre just because it’s wrapped in very swish matt black packaging (where do these people’s eco-credentials go when it comes to the packaging, by the way?), be my guest. But I for one am quite happy wallowing in a trough of sugar, milk and fat and any perpetrators of further do-goodery in this matter will find themselves on the business end of a Twirl sharpish.

* With apologies to Stuart Sharpe, who is on the wagon (wheel) until Sunday.


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