May 2010

A couplet of TED talks from Sir Ken Robinson. The first is from 2006:

The second is from this year:

(In a manner of speaking Ken Robinson has already been to Lib Dem conference, because I’m pretty sure Clegg’s speechwriters filched one of his anecdotes one year.)

I’ll let the talks speak for themselves, but one incidental observation occurs to me. I spend some of my internet time as a silent lurker on various science and skeptical blogs. This is not because I have any scientific training whatsoever – I was overjoyed to leave science behind at school. I lurk there because I can get a fix of that element that science and the humanities have in common – the concern with an evidence base, and the passionate and laudable desire to promote it in public life and policy.

The same movement, that attempt to connect the lessons of one’s own discipline with the wider world, doesn’t exist on the humanities side at the moment. Or at least not in such a self-conscious way that it gives itself a name and gathers together to blog. Humanities graduates, in their infinite variety, don’t find a specific sense of common purpose online, probably because the number of professional spheres and ways of life open to them are traditionally wide. People who trained as scientists of various sorts do feel a greater cohesiveness, it seems to me, even where they go on into unrelated fields. They have a more lasting shared culture, probably because many of their likeliest professional spheres are specifically related to their university training. The cultural glue of studenthood is very powerful, and may be sustained for longer among, say, doctors than among, say, civil servants. All this would explain why the online skeptic community has grown from that particular side of learning, even though its concern with an evidence base is not unique.

Anyway, one potential weakness in the science/skeptic outlook, it seems to me, is an occasional impatience with pluralism in education. Scientists traditionally have a hard time in terms of funding, so unsurprisingly they have developed a  sort of collective chip about it, and in particular about the idea that there could be any merit in funding certain arts and humanities subjects. Charles Clarke lost his seat at the election, and after giving three  cheers for the end of another authoritarian home secretary, I gave another small one for the end of an anti-pluralist. In 2003 Clarke suggested that “unproductive” humanities subjects could have funding withdrawn. Naturally, all the liberal arts broadsheets set off in full cry after him for being a philistine.

My response to Clarke would have been much simpler. Clive Bloom wrote along similar lines of the uselessness of much funded humanities research in the THES recently, and oddly ended up reminding me of nothing so much as  science and medical research. In so much research, in all fields, we simply don’t know how the thing ends. The applications aren’t immediately obvious. This or that obscure paper or experiment might be a tributary into an uncharted river, a new line of enquiry, a new field even. It is probably true that 50% of all humanities research is useless how-many-angels stuff, but like the man said of his advertising campaigns, no-one knows which 50% is useless.

Surely, if we take a sort of fundie approach to education at any level – from the arts, the humanities or the sciences side – we’re cutting off our own options, and far from incidentally cutting off a proportion of the population from its potential. We lose one segment of the Ken Robinsons of the world. Science training, for example, doesn’t equip you to think  about or design new education systems, or undesign them – even though a new education system might be fundamental to the successful provision of science training in future. And set alongside Robinson’s reconception of what education should be about, wrangling over which subject areas should attract most postdoctoral funding starts to look unbearably petty.

How you would even begin to translate Robinson’s vision of pluralism and local variation into reality, and basically give education its own inbuilt capacity to evolve and meet humanity’s needs, is an entire culture of blogs unto itself. (And free schools look like the clumsiest of first attempts, set uselessly within the same old framework.) But you certainly couldn’t expect to be successful if you began by rejecting one of those two basic tenets, and it’s a shame to see otherwise thoughtful people moving in that direction.

I keep being told by Labour commentators and supporters that for the Lib Dems to do a deal with the Conservatives would be to walk away from the only chance of the electoral reform that the Lib Dems have always fought for. I keep being told that only Labour offers that chance.

I’m certainly not sanguine about what Cameron is likely to offer, but I am starting to wonder about the smoke and mirrors on the other side as well. Obviously, Labour has had thirteen years of vast parliamentary majorities to reform the system and restrained their eagerness, so we are right to be cynical about their late conversion.

But they could have blown all that doubt away – and put the Lib Dems in a tricky bind – if they had come out immediately after the election and very publicly made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. Brown gone, Citizens Convention, referendum on STV, open to generous negotiation on all other Lib Dem policies. Something so obviously better than what we’re likely to get out of Cameron that Clegg might be tempted to go against common sense, honour and democracy and seek an alliance of the two smaller parties against the larger one.

This would have been absolutely impossible on Friday, of course, when Clegg stuck to his word and allowed the party with the most votes to take the first shot at government. But there have been three days of talks with the Conservatives now, with amicable briefing on both sides; no-one can say Clegg hasn’t tried. If he’s not getting the results we want, the imperatives on him to stay in negotiations with Cameron shrink by the hour. I’m not sure Clegg would do it anyway – I suspect the democratic instinct is too strong. But it would be worth Labour having a try, wouldn’t it, if only to show him up?

So where’s the offer that could tip the balance? Why hasn’t it been on the table since Saturday morning, when Sunny first pointed out the need for Labour to give Clegg a proper incentive? Why are we still today hearing briefing noises about AV, for god’s sake, a system not even proportional and can sometimes be more disproportional than FPTP? What do all the Labour supporters who chanted “We want PR” in Smith Square on Saturday think of the fact that their party of choice hasn’t actually put down a firm commitment to it?


I doubt Labour wants a LibLab coalition at all. I don’t think they care enough about electoral reform to go after it – the majority of their MPs certainly don’t. Think about this from their tribal point of view. If we go into alliance with the Tories, we’ll be wiped out in the north, Wales and worst of all Scotland. Labour are looking at the prospect of winning back all the votes it has lost to us over the last ten years and laying claim to being the “only progressive party”. The only conceivable drawback to this plan for them is that it doesn’t involve electoral reform. And Labour’s MPs don’t, by and large, don’t care about electoral reform, or have the habit of listening to the grassroots that do.

Labour are doing what they, by design of Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, have always been best at doing: creating enough sound and fury to seem like they are mounting a passionate argument. But the substance is not there. The necessaries have never actually been done, and as things stand no real prospect of a LibLab deal has been created. So, if and when a Lib/Con deal is concluded, expect Labour to suddenly and smoothly slip into wounded innocent  progressive gear.

If you hang around the yellow bit of the internet much you’ll know that the Lib Dem Voice server is utterly borked, owing to a surfeit of people trying to get on there to tell other people what they reckon, and a surfeit of journalists trying to get on there to selectively misrepresent to the outside world what people reckon.

The text below was the last post on there, and since it’s rather important we’re being asked to copy and circulate it far and wide, so please do. At present I am assuming this is for members only, but I will update if I hear to the contrary. Members and party supporters fine. Non-supporters who do not wish to know the results of the hung parliament negotiations should therefore look away now:

What should the party do next? Have your say by 2pm on Saturday

On Saturday afternoon the party’s Federal Executive is meeting to discuss how the party should handle the Parliamentary situation. There’s no pre-set, universally supported answer to this so the FE’s discussion is going to be meaningful and important – which means that if you want to influence what the party does, now is the time to let the FE know.

Because many members of the Federal Executive are scattered around the country – sleeping, travelling back from election counts, making their way to London and so on – the FE members may be hard to get hold of and many will not necessarily be checking their emails frequently.

Therefore, in order to ensure that people have a chance to send in a view that will be read before the meeting, we’ve agreed with the Party President Ros Scott a special email address -

which can be used to email in your views. A member of staff will collate all the messages and make sure that they are drawn to the attention of Ros and also reported to the members of the FE in time for their discussion.

A few tips when emailing this address:
- Given the pressures of time, short and concise messages are likely to be more effective than 12 pages essays [chiz - AEM]
- As with letter writing or lobbying more generally, saying in full who you are and where you’re from is likely to add to the impact of the message
- Please send your message as soon as possible

In the darkest hour of the night, around 4am when Evan Harris lost his seat, someone reminded me of this Woody Allen quote:

People get the government they deserve. Unfortunately, I get the government they deserve too.

Oxford West and Abingdon was the only moment last night that I was actually scared. Not just grumblingly disappointed with the whole thing on a partisan Lib Dem level (I’m on record as saying I’d have been happy with 25% and that remains my position – I would have been). Really scared. What sort of world is it where Evan Harris can lose his seat to a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship? I stress I know nothing about the woman herself, but the background to his defenestration – hate mail from pro-life and animal cruelty groups, frenzied character assassinations from the ghastly Cristina Odone, and an unspeakably unpleasant piece of twit-gloating from the even ghastlier Nadine Dorries soon afterwards – is inescapable.

Evan lost his seat because an ungodly alliance of the Daily Mail mob, the woo mob and the Christian fundie mob went after him with pitchforks and burning torches. It worked. They’re probably dancing round a flaming pyre somewhere right now, celebrating, before they sober up with a spot of demon exorcism.

It scares me, the thought of these people imposing their morality on others. That’s why I’m a liberal. I don’t want these puritans trying to influence my life and my rights, reducing the abortion limit on moral grounds, building their narrow beliefs about familial organisation into my tax system and turning out baseless judgemental guff under the banner of “social research”.

Why, then, am I getting them? Partly, lets face it, because Christian Conservatives tend to be good at attracting money, and money wins  political campaigns as we saw in Richmond. But also partly because their mindset lends itself to collective activity in a way that mine, frankly, doesn’t. It took me twenty-eight years to stop seeing politics as some dirty little squabble far beneath my lofty uber-rational notice. What, you mean I might have to commit to things I might not 100% agree with? Do things I couldn’t see the point of? I might have to – gulp – surrender some of my autonomy to a group identity?

Look again at that moment, 4am this morning, right there. Yes, I do have to. If I want people  like Evan to stop being beaten and people like Nadine to start being beaten, I’ve got to be prepared to give a little autonomy, do all the usual grunt work, put in what I can,  be prepared to be (in some sense) part of an organisation. Do things, say things and support things I wouldn’t necessarily choose to if it were entirely up to me.

And so do you. If I’ve specifically asked you to read this post (and you are, for which, thank you) it’s because I think you’re, in some sense, a great and mighty nerd, and I think it’s time we started to put things on a more formal footing if we want to (a) get Evan back into parliament and (b) stop the same battles being lost elsewhere. I don’t suggest for one moment that joining the Liberal Democrats is necessarily the thing you need to do. There are more specific ways you can help Evan regain the seat, and in any case staying out of membership means you could also help, say, a independent candidate in the same way. But sooner or later, this endarkenment thing is really going to start to close in upon us, and we are each going to have to be prepared to be a cog in the engine of reason that resists. And that might mean you – you precious little rational autonomous snowflake, you – doing things that are a bit poe-litical.

Because make no mistake – our opponents, the purveyors of unreason, the doctors of woo and the anti-secularist Christians, have no compunction whatsoever about conforming and stifling independent impulses to achieve their goals. They revel in it. It’s the sort of people they are. If you’ve not read this account of the Christianisation of Tory party policy by the excellent Chris Cook at the FT, you should do so. We don’t have to turn into those sorts of people. But we do have to be able to challenge them effectively, and that means organising, mobilising and all those others words that individualistic skeptics instinctively flinch at. It means getting off the internet too.

I do not yet have a clear idea in my mind of what such organisation would look like. I can imagine it might be based on such existing social structures as the skeptics meet-ups, with a fair bit of overlaps with various campaigns such as Sense about Science, PEN, No2ID, Unlock Democracy and so on. But it would be distinct from all these – a sceptics movement which sought a public voice, and leant its numbers to particular political causes. All this is  the roughest of rough outlines my addled brain can produce right now. I’ll return to the thought, and I dearly hope others will too (Christ, I’ve never actually caught myself longing for people to read my blog before.)

We got a horrible, horrible warning last night. If we don’t heed it, we’ve let the slide towards the triumph of unreason begin. I need to leave you with this excessively long  quote from the stupendous Less Wrong blog (and the post is honestly worth reading in full):

I’ll write more later (tomorrow?) on how I think rationalists might be able to coordinate better.  But today I want to focus on what you might call the culture of disagreement, or even, the culture of objections, which is one of the two major forces preventing the atheist/libertarian/technophile crowd from coordinating.

Imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  Afterward, people line up at the microphones for questions.  The first questioner objects to the graph used in slide 14 using a logarithmic scale; he quotes Tufte on The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  The second questioner disputes a claim made in slide 3.  The third questioner suggests an alternative hypothesis that seems to explain the same data…

Perfectly normal, right?  Now imagine that you’re at a conference, and the speaker gives a 30-minute talk.  People line up at the microphone.

The first person says, “I agree with everything you said in your talk, and I think you’re brilliant.”  Then steps aside.

The second person says, “Slide 14 was beautiful, I learned a lot from it.  You’re awesome.”  Steps aside.

The third person -

Well, you’ll never know what the third person at the microphone had to say, because by this time, you’ve fled screaming out of the room, propelled by a bone-deep terror as if Cthulhu had erupted from the podium, the fear of the impossibly unnatural phenomenon that has invaded your conference.

Yes, a group which can’t tolerate disagreement is not rational.  But if you tolerate only disagreement – if you tolerate disagreement but not agreement – then you also are not rational.  You’re only willing to hear some honest thoughts, but not others.  You are a dangerous half-a-rationalist.

We are as uncomfortable together as flying-saucer cult members are uncomfortable apart.  That can’t be right either.  Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

With apologies to the Daily Mash.

Here are some of the headlines you can expect to see tomorrow (or if you’re surgically attached to the internet, tonight):




Others have written on these matters (ok, the first two) far more effectively than I could.

(But this much, I can tell you: in a country with a large deficit, a generally overspending government, and a desperate need for stimuli to work and to enterprise, widdling away billions on inheritance tax cuts and marriage tax breaks is high up the list of things you probably shouldn’t do. No-one should be in any doubt about the fact that supporting the Tories for their economic competence is largely a matter of faith.)

Yup, we’re going to get a lie sandwich in the face, which we absolutely do not deserve. So don’t forget – establishment figures like those ordering the articles and those calling their tune are only scared because we, the Lib Dems, represent a threat to their “arrangements”. And believe me, I’m fully aware of how ridiculous that sounds – when a mainstream political party led by a decent chap constitutes a fundamental threat to the status quo in media, politics and public life, something has gone badly wrong with the system. And so it has.

But on one subject, and one only, they are right to be afraid. Because on political reform, the Liberal Democrats are the real thing, the bona fide radicals, and political reform would spell the end of all the current hegemonies across public discourse. No matter what happens tomorrow, political reform is now the main event, and will be until some sort of reaction occurs at the very top of politics (I hear rumours of a mass rally in London this Saturday, regardless of who wins or doesn’t on Thursday). This is why they’re so afraid – and we did this. Little yellow us.* So keep calm, wear a quiet smile, and fucking carry on. You’re doing great.

*With a little help from the Telegraph. I do wonder if they really understood what they were starting with the expenses scandal. It’s a nice coincidence that the editor who oversaw that has been pushed out  of the group tonight isn’t it.


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