Happily for the reader, others with better notes and more sense have already been blogging on the substance of last night’s London leadership hustings while I was busily engaged in eating a bowl of cous-cous and singing gently to myself. I am therefore free to kick back with a few disorderly observations. We’ve all done policy to death over the last few weeks (well, every bugger else has, I’ve just been reading and tutting). No-one with an ounce of sanity doubts that these are two highly intelligent, able, confident potential leaders and most people I have spoken to are rightly happy with either prospect. For me, as for a lot of us, it’s going to come down to presentation and selectivity of content.

You can tell a lot about a man if you look at him from the side. I arrived late and was forced into a seat of unlovely prominence, perching right up by the stage like a particularly keen and swotty budgerigar in a school for budgerigars. This had the advantage that I could scan the rest of the budgies to see how they were taking it (very well, for the most part, except when Nick mentioned positive discrimination and we all turned into stuffed budgies; you could have heard a seed drop).

The disadvantage was that, owing to said prominence and the notepad on my knee (I was working on my novel in dull moments) I think Nick may have identified me as a journalist. I was near a phalanx of them, and the flashbulbs started popping around me like mad when Nick stepped up for his speech – far more than for Chris. It was revealing, sitting there. This man plays it scruffy-natural-ordinary-person-liberal (“Gosh!”) but he knows how to pause mid-sentence for a photo op, and he knows how to meet one’s eye and address the journos directly. After a slightly (deliberately?) nervous start he gave a top speech and he knew it, and he was watching us know it. If he really did think I was a journalist of course, he must have been very encouraged to see that I kept breaking into applause. I can also confirm that he does move around at the podium – but on a front-back axis, rather than side-to-side, like a man who has set his running machine too fast. Someone needs to turn the running machine through ninety degrees and he’ll be as perfect a speechifier as there can be, certainly streets ahead of Broon and Macaroon.

Reservations: there were three malapropisms that I spotted, a habit which journalists will make play with. “Arrogance” when he meant “anger” (translated specially for Liberal Polemic), “authoritative” when he meant “authoritarian” and perhaps worst of all:

We are an internationalist party if we are nothing

You can transpose “or” for “if”, or “anything” for “nothing” according to preference. Still, we all clapped. We knew what he meant. Yes, it’s the sign of a friendly audience, but it’s also a testament to his empathy that he can make slips like that and still successfully get a point across. Watching Nick was like watching a great but nervy actor, in both the speech and the Q&A. There were moments when it was hanging in the air slightly, moments when the audience was holding its breath to see if he would come out with the right word, and there were undoubtedly moments where the good will of the audience saw him through. But you feel rewarded for your participatory efforts at the end.

The main contrast between the two last night was that Chris didn’t put any strain on the stress levels at all. From the moment he stepped up you knew you were in the hands of a master. Even though his speech was, for my money, less well underpinned by a good structure than Nick’s, his delivery was pure class and that made up for it. He told us what he thought and he told us why, something I have responded to right from the off. The reason he gets more applause than Nick, I now realise, is that his speeches are better and more conventionally timed for applause – twenty seconds, point made pause, applause, on continuous rotation. Nick will talk for forty seconds or more, feel his way to the end of his sentence, and sometimes the hard-hitting phrases have come in the middle of it, so that by the time you get to the end applause is no longer quite the thing.

In amongst the usual Chris stuff, there was a lovely touch I hadn’t heard before about liberties our grandparents fought for being given away, and I have found his emphasis on radicalism convincing from the beginning. It isn’t good enough to disbelieve him on the grounds that one’s conception of radicalism doesn’t fit the image of the man – the adjective “grey” gets bandied around about Chris, as if this precludes him from radicalism, and it’s tantamount to ageism. No shit, Sherlock, he’s got grey hair, that’s what happens to human beings. Surely we don’t want to go down the American route here?

He also made tactical points I’ve heard from him before that make good sense to me. In answer to a good question about younger people turning towards the Tories, he rightly identified it as partly a matter of style. This is why his radicalism stance is relevant. As a former journalist, he is well-placed to understand about memes and about generating an “everybody is talking about…” mood. On a related question about young people not voting, he correctly changed the question into one of more general apathy. There’s a lot of lazy-ass talk on the subject of the yoof vote, as if they are a weird and particular audience who need to be able to do everything via Facebook or they won’t bother. Chris doesn’t fall into that trap. If a party and its politics are relevant, then they’re relevant no matter how old you are.

Reservations: I felt Chris was slightly more inclined to waffle than Nick in the Q&A. I noticed yesterday when I was transcribing the online hustings (nearly done, Will!) that someone has taken Nick to one side and taught him the Two Points trick. Actually, it’s more commonly used as a Three Point trick. You can nearly always think of a main point and an ancillary point in answer to any question. And by the time you’ve got to the end of those, you’ve probably thought of a third point, and you’re done. So you always start by saying, “I have two/three points” and instantly your audience have a route map. As soon as Nick imposes a bit of structure on his ideas, however artificially (of course there are always more than two points to make about anything) he starts talking with real clarity. Chris has structure and clarity in spades usually, but it wasn’t on great display in the Q&A last night.

Second, oh for the love of god, those bloody limousines! Get rid of them! If I hear that one more time, or anything to do with herding any variety of professional from either of you I shall send in the People’s Republican Guard.

Third, and my only serious reservation about Chris: in his speech he said he made no apology for having based his campaign first and foremost on the environment. And nor should he, except for the tiny inconvenient detail that he hasn’t. He’s based it partly on Trident and public services, and partly on communication. I’m going to trot out my interpretation of all that school vouchers nonsense again because I increasingly think it’s the right one. He wasn’t trying to have a policy argument that baffled even the best-informed with its esotericism. He was trying (badly) to point out that Nick’s stance is often open to interpretation because of his communication style, and that in a party with as little press coverage as this, we can’t afford that kind of uncertainty. Last night he emphasised that no journalist would ever be in any doutb about what he thought. He’s right, and up until the Newsnight piece I would have written Nick off on this count alone. How I wish Chris had applied a little of this logic to his environmental emphasis. There is so much that is interesting to be said about how we take forward our brilliant environmental agenda – and a lot of it has been said by Nick. It’s Chris’ pet thing, and he’s the radical, as I’ve said before. Why hasn’t he been selling it proudly to us and to the occasionally slightly interested nation?

I’m still not decided. I started as Huhne-soft, got to self-identifying as a Huhnista, but Nick’s performance on Newsnight was superb and he was superb again at last night’s hustings. But actually I may just end up sticking a pin in the ballot paper because, having seen them in real life for the first time (aw, little me!) I am all the more convinced that, as Millennium would say, they are BOTH REALLY VERY GOOD!

I haven’t seen the full Politics Show yet, just the half-minute excerpt on the BBC website where the Calamity Clegg document was produced. So what follows may need revision when I’ve seen the whole thing. But at first sight, it ain’t pretty. It’s the first real blow my neophyte enthusiasm for the party as a whole has taken. And while I doubt it will turn me into a Clegghead, I’m highly disappointed in Huhne’s unintelligent behaviour.

But that exchange and the fall-out has crystallized my thoughts on what characterises a Clegg supporter and what characterises a Huhne supporter, and why, in the blogosphere anyway, they just can’t seem to get along.

Nick’s powers of empathy really served him well in that exchange. He knew instinctively to look wounded and let his emotion show on his face, and to roll his eyes at Sopel. There’s nothing particularly calculated about any of this. Note my use of the word “instinctively”. Nick is better at dealing with certain kinds of situation than Chris. Chris needs to literally learn himself some empathy – and like anything else it can be learnt. Instead, he blundered on and looked bad as a result, unnecessarily sledge-hammering and failing to knock the Calamity Clegg thing on the head, out of some misguided instinct to remain looking unconcerned. Bad call. The correct response would have been to look horrified and offer an instant fulsome apology for the use of emotive language in the title and distance himself from the contents, rather than associating his attack with it. He could still have said all the same things. My suspicion is that his campaign team had decided there had been too much agreement on Question Time, and his brief was to go out and highlight differences. On being confronted with the Calamity Clegg thing Chris should have softened this strategy for just those few minutes, and he didn’t.

Clegghead supporters have reacted to the spat on an emotional level. Their hero has been dealt an unfair broadside, and therefore takes the moral victory. Chris is not merely displaying unattractive qualities, he is actually a Bad Person. There is an uncritical assumption in the air that Nick won that exchange on the basis that Chris was being “nasty”.

On any rational analysis that isn’t the case at all. As other Huhnistas have already pointed out, Chris was being brutal, but Nick was – in the clip I saw anyway – being flimsy. His usual style, aptly described by a poster on a Lib Dem Voice thread, of feeling his way towards an answer served him well on Question Time, but it doesn’t serve him well when he is under sustained verbal attack. He never prodded back at Chris with the concise ten-word shot of anger the situation demanded. Because he just doesn’t communicate like that. He was “in the right” because he was the target of a poorly titled briefing document that ought never to have seen the light of day, and which will confirm the public’s worst assumptions about politics. But one day he’ll be the one on the backfoot because of some similar blunder – is he still going to look that flimsy, unable to articulate quickly and lethally under pressure?

And this brings us to the nub of it, because it is perfectly clear to me that half the blogosphere genuinely believes there is inherent value in Nick’s communication style, and the other half just doesn’t. The emotive, thinking out loud, feeling your way style that appeals to Cleggheads doesn’t appeal to me. I am drawn in by a disciplined delivery, an exposition of “This is what I think, this is why”, like I am drawn in by an unforgivingly technical book on a subject I love. Sorry, but I just am. It’s the way I’m made. I am into systems, not into people.

Many Cleggheads (it goes without saying that I generalise hopelessly) are made differently. They are into people. They will see that moral victory as unquestioningly superior to any rational victory. The recurrent descriptions of Chris as “dry” and “boring” are as meaningless as descriptions of Nick as “waffly” or “lacking in substance”. All these labels just reflect the different preferences of the individual. Now, by all means shoot me down in flames, but my feeling from reading the blogs over the last few weeks is that some Cleggheads get positively indignant about Huhnista stances, and frequently display frustration with Huhnistas for not “seeing” what to them is the simple truth of Clegg’s superiority. And there do seem, by all reports, to be some rotten eggs in the Huhne basket, which I’m sure doesn’t help. Although having said that, I have actually been far more aware of a tidal wave of Cleggheads yelping about how nasty the Huhne camp are than I have been of the nastiness they’re talking about. But then I’m not on the inside, so maybe I’m just missing a lot.

Both sides should recognise that neither opinion is fact. If you’re a systems-person or a people-person, nothing on earth can make you otherwise. There’s a phrase used in psycho-analysis for this and it’s “Pygmalion project”, after the play, where one person in a relationship tries to change and “improve” the other. Ultimately, we’ll get the leader we collectively want more, and I think that’ll be Nick, because people-people tend to outnumber systems-people (in the party as in the wider world). Which is fine because there are lots of positive reasons why Nick would make a great leader. They just aren’t reasons that recommend him particularly to me. So I’m not going to vote for him, however good he is at looking hurt (and I’m not saying that’s not an important political attribute, because it’s won him a lot of friends today and a vote is a vote). There is really nothing wrong with this view, and I am getting slightly fed up with the shrill insistence ringing around the blogosphere that there is.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Approved as Quite Interesting by Mr Stephen Tall

In the comments below. We are only a very little Republic so it’s very exciting for us. Quick, somebody prepare the guest tower!

This morning Nick Clegg spoke on GMTV about the need to enthuse and inspire people to tackle climate change, rather than threatening them with global disaster and, worse still, bad character development if they don’t play.

By which I mean, I gather he did. I have been told so by people who know these things. Myself I was fast asleep and having one of those really prosaic waiting-at-the-bus-stop type dreams that make you wonder what the hell can be going on in your consciousness that your sub-conscious is so bloody boring…

But I digress. This is exactly why Charlotte gets more visitors than I do. Where was I?

Nick and enthusing people. I remain surprised, some, oh, thousand years into the leadership contest or whatever it is, that Chris has not said something similar. A little disappointed even. He’s a self-styled radicaliser and the environment is his baby. Despite all the chuff that gets talked about Nick being indisputably the better communicator, Chris understands the rules governing what people like to hear. (At least I gather he does, or he wouldn’t have e-mailshotted us with a twitchy intellectual rant about Reading being a Good Thing. We like that sort of talk in the People’s Republic).

So why isn’t he contributing to the debate on how to communicate climate change? His manifesto on the environment is entirely policy-focussed and the sort of thing his team could write in its sleep. Is he resting on his organic laurels?

Because there is a problem with communicating climate change that goes beyond marketing – in fact marketing is the problem. One of the many things I meant to blog about when I first saw it but didn’t, probably because I was distracted by a sparkly thing or a seldom screened episode of Time Team or something, was this piece on green fatigue in the Indy back in September.

The gist of it is that people are bored with being green, doing complicated things with shopping bags, buying rubbish lightbulbs that make everything look weird, heaping up mounds of cardboard by the front door, measuring cups of water into the kettle and so forth, when to all appearances the world is still going down the dual-flush toilet faster than you can grow your own organic vegetables (a lot faster, in fact).

Why this malaise? A number of views are gathered in, and they strike me as fairly typical of their respective stables. The marketeer’s take is that people don’t like changing their routines and will always go for the easy option – as if we were all particularly lazy ants, which I suppose as far as marketeers are concerned we are. 

The climatologist and co-author of a book on communicating climate change essentially says the same thing in less repellant terms – she produces the analogy of a diet that demanded stringent effort over a long period and only promises a bit of slow weight loss – why would anyone bother? Unlike the marketeer she has a solution: local collective action that doesn’t focus on a global apocalypse which is just too damn big for our evolutionarily tiny brains to compute.

The green campaigner is contrastingly unforgiving. We are not being demanding enough of ourselves. The problem is huge, but ordinary people can solve it. No sugar-coating. We need to stop pissing about with plastic bag re-use and imbue the fight against climate change with a heroic spirit. Winning the fight, he says, would be as great a victory as winning World War II.

Three points of view to get your teeth into. And then what? Why, the journalist patiently takes it all down, puts in nicely written linking sentences, and then finishes the article with, yes, a little inset box containing words like “brushing your teeth”, “plastic bags”, “thermostat” and the remainder.

When are we going to break out of this (re)cycle? We’ve talked ourselves into a position where the little things are eminently achievable, make diddly-squat difference and are about as exciting as watching yoghurt make itself, but even after a thousand words along these lines a perfectly intelligent journalist still can’t get off the squeaky wheel and admit that something more profound needs to happen.

You will gather that I think the ardent green campaigner has a point. His take is the only one that is truly radical, that steps outside the current model. I have blogged before about the absorption of environmentalism into full-blown marketeering. I was perfectly well aware that people made money out of selling roof-mounted wind turbines, providing green consultancy services and so forth, but the undertow of all these enterprises has always hitherto been radical thought. Someone had the entrepreneurial courage to see the way the wind was blowing (geddit?) and, one assumes, the personal conviction to weather (hehehe) a few bad years rather than make a success of something more conventional. But when promotions people start aping the format of broadsheet greenie A5 supplements and filling them with crap is when I start to worry.

At what point did the environmental market become just that? When did the greenie stop being a citizen of the world, and start being a consumer? Being a consumer means you are aspirationally limited to wanting what a bunch of twats in Shoreditch think you should want.

This is one area where the market cannot correct by itself. It’s not going to have the big idea for us; it’s only going to follow the big ideas we feed into it. At the moment, the big idea is that we should all reuse plastic bags and put tinfoil on our rooves, and that frankly isn’t turning me on. I don’t want my life to be like an endless Blue Peter presentation in which nothing ever gets made, I want to be challenged, I want to make BIG stuff, I want to abandon the squeezy bottle for the meccano kit!

But there is also a lot that is significantly wrong with the campaigner’s view, and that’s that masochism is not to everybody’s taste. Back in Brighton in September, I went to a fringe meeting whose speakers included the Indy’s environmental editor Mike McCarthy. I am lastingly astonished that he (presumably) okayed the piece I’ve linked to above only the next day, because at the meeting he spoke knowledgeably and engagingly about the need to accentuate the positive, talk up how wonderful life would be if we actually were carbon neutral. His and the other panellists’ concerns were so thoughtful and their conviction so genuine that I became slightly annoyed with a greenie who stood up to accuse them of not doing the responsible thing and sounding a front-page disaster-alarm every day until people woke up. That just wouldn’t work, they said gently, and the way they said it, I really did believe they weren’t just thinking of circulation figures. Aww, little me.

Nick Clegg is fully alive to this. He had a strong piece in the Guardian last week on how the environment has been undersold as an aspiration. George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network has been talking along these lines for some time – to hell with the impersonal, dogmatic “Save the Planet”, let’s save the people from an extended commercialisation nightmare that also happens to be melting the ice. It fits like a charm into a Lib Dem world view. We can use it like the Tories never can. It chimes with localism, with radicalism, with the very notion of liberalism conceived as doing as little harm as possible. Liberal footprint, carbon footprint.

And needless to say it tends to chime with the sort of people Lib Dems are as well. I like using a jute bag at the supermarket. I like re-using what I have. There’s a processual satisfaction in not being wasteful, and I’d be surprised if it weren’t communicable.

If little me knows about this stuff, there’s really no excuse for Chris.

Civil disobedience is hot, which is why blogland was fairly unstinting in its outpouring of praise for Nick Clegg’s intended stand against ID cards. Now Huhne has stepped up with an open invitation to court action for saying, effectively “You’re a bunch of corrupt bastards. And you know you are.”

As I said before, gesture politics this ain’t. Neither is promising something they could only deliver in power. They’re opening themselves up to damage in the here and now. Those with subtle minds may wish to point out that Clegg was proposing to break the law (which was the aspect that caused dissent) whereas Huhne only a few days later has offered himself up to due process of law. But I suspect such refinement will escape most people, and a good thing too.

Because for my money this is proper cocking-a-snook anger. This is what people are not used to hearing from politicians. We’re in gallant underdog territory and heading for Robin Hood central. Our michievous Merry Men might be scrapping it out between themselves, but as far as the wider world is concerned, they are two top-flight Liberal Democrats saying interesting, honest, angry things. Much more of this and it’ll amount to a call to arms. We’ll be doing them and the party a disservice if we don’t go out and finger-write their quotes in the dirt on every white van in the land.

Seriously, could these be the opening shots in a winter-long campaign of Liberal fury? she said, daring to dream. There is a story here, a movement, a trend, call it what you will - I know that because I am a bumbling armchair pontificator and even I have spotted it. But the media, as usual, will suddenly decide to run off and play with their willies in some unguessed-at cause just when it is getting interesting, so what can we do to generate the publicity I think this deserves? Any ideas? Is there no stopping our chaps? Will future hustings have to take place via videolink because Nick is tied to the minute hand of Big Ben and Chris is lying down with his arms folded in the path of Gordon Brown? This much we know, I will have a very dirty finger before the day is out.

Is there no containing the Mortimer Posty Finger today? Sorry.

A-while-a-back I wrote about the important political concept of “wetting oneself”. I’m not sure that anybody cared, mind.* So to avoid your having to wade through it all again, political self-wetting is when you care about something so much that you abandon the nappy of spin and the incontinence pad of cynicism and just let your opinion flush itself out, probably angrily and publicly and in a way that it is going to be very difficult to retreat from (because you can’t simply sidle away from a pool of urine). Revolts and successful demonstrations are instances of communal mass self-wetting. They’re rather thrilling and make people feel important in the same way any performance art does, and they don’t happen very often.

But when I conceived of this important political meme I was of course thinking about the little people. The sans-culottes, the revolting peasants. It’s comparatively rare that actual real-life politicians, let alone of the top flight, are willing to be seen with properly wet trousers. And so one is all the more impressed with Nick Clegg for the conviction pant-pissing that has gone on today:

If the government seeks to make ID cards compulsory on every British citizen, I will lead a people’s campaign to thwart the programme.

I, and I expect thousands of people like me, will refuse to be forced to register.

This is an issue that is so contrary to the spirit of British liberty and privacy that I would not be able to stand by.

I am willing to do everything in my power to stop this intrusive, expensive and unnecessary imposition on the liberty of the British people.

Reactions have, on the whole, been unsurprisingly positive. It confirms the Cleggery of Andy at Wouldn’t it be scary…, Jeremy Hargreaves is palpably jumping up and down a bit, and the ickety-pickety little dissentient posts at LibDemVoice are overridden (insofar as anyone is ever overridden by anything on that august organ) by the orators.

The excitement and wet pants are owing to the fact that this is not really gesture politics. There is some prospect of its actually being tested. Everyone accuses the Lib Dems of saying what the hell they like because they know they’ll never get into power and have to stand by it. Not applicable this time. If when push comes to shove the Cleggster doesn’t follow through on this one he’s going to look a silly crumbly tart indeed.

With my wise onlooker hat on (for I’m still firmly undecided) I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to mark the real turning point - as opposed to the media-sponsored turning point - in the leadership race. I have not bought into the Cleggarchy so far, nor am I bought into the notion that everyone else is buying into it – I just think those that are tend to be noisier about it. And I am still, I guess, a more natural Huhney Monster** and I might yet vote that way. Moreover, I am fully cognisant that Huhne’s response to the above notion was, essentially, “What a good idea! Yes, so would I,” and, if you’re a grown-up, this is something to admire in itself.

But it seems to me that I cannot escape the implications of my own pant-wetting theory. Secretly, nothing turns Lib Dems on more than the idea of wetting themselves (but in the right causes, obviously, and only after the whole thing has been thoroughly thought through) and the Liberal tradition has been in the care of the terminally continent for a long time. Continence and common sense has been the Lib Dem calling card, the thing that marks them out from the pop-eyed shouty plonkers and undead tight-bottomed control freaks. So it’s not surprising there’s an inner liberal marcher bursting for release on a subject that’s directly germane to the whole concept of liberalism – which Iraq wasn’t, not really. Not like this is.

Civil liberties, leader-sanctioned peaceful protest and that racy edge of danger give off a heady niff for any romantic old liberal - for in a sense, we’re all old romantics. And Nick Clegg is now officially the man with the wet trousers.

Least of all my brother, who was really quite dismissive of my harmless little flight of fancy at the last Chapter Meeting of the Equity Rich Parents Assassination Club (ha! I thought vengefully to myself, you’ll be sorry when I blog about your dismissive attitude, won’t you!) 

** I do wish we could stop all this, by the way. But it’s too late now.

They (the wizards) say that frivolous humour is a smokescreen to mask the absence of anything more meaningful to say. They are of course quite correct as you will now discover in perusing my pictorial reflections on the leadership contest thus far.

Clegg - foreign

“Look, that’s Afghanistan over there.”



Prove: E° + S°² = E°(S° – P°)

Where E is angle of eyebrow, S is angle of shoulderpad and P is angle of parapet of Westminster Bridge 


Chris and Nick

“Ah, the old electric shock hand buzzer trick, eh?”


I love you guys. Keep being in genius pictures or I’ll have to invent an actual position to blog about.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 35 other followers