Every so often the editorial team at LDV towers inadvertantly posts something that ordinary people actually find interesting. Unaccountably, this is never about Land Value Tax, proportional representation or Trident. The stats graph buckles and the thread concerned fills with – usually – anger of some kind.

This first happened way before my time with the thread about social workers breaking up families (which did serve a purpose, as we were able to pass along all instances of people needing help to John Hemming, whose campaign it was), then more recently came the Gurkhas and, today, there is the Baby P thread. It’s not so much the length of the comment thread – a relatively modest 59 at the time of writing; we’ve had arguments about the existence of god that have gone on twice as long. The signs are in the names on the thread – totally unfamiliar – and the way in which, at times, their jarring illiberalism intrudes on our inbred circle. This is no surprise as, for reasons of interweb magic that escape me, the LDV story is the top hit when you search for Baby P on Google at the moment.

And yes, some of the comments on there make me shudder, for all that I can see where the revenge instinct comes from. Sterilisation, execution, torture – being beaten up in prison is the mildest thing most commenters are wishing on the murderers. But reading this sort of stuff at length makes one detect patterns. It occurs to me that, for all that people claim to want “justice” in cases like this, what they really mean is that they want injustice to be perpetrated against the guilty, the kind of senseless, unexpected injustice, alarming, probably physical and beyond the rule of law, that overtook the original victim. They want something of commensurate unfairness to happen to the culprit. Of course, you can’t get much more unfair than three adults torturing a baby to death, so the unfairness required to balance it is immense. In terms of the “fairness” of the case, how can you hurt an adult as much and as indefensibly as a baby? To be as “helpless as a baby” is the most extreme definition of helplessness against injustice there is.

No wonder people hate the justice system. Justice is innately concerned with fairness. A legitimate and proportionate punishment that the state is qualified to mete out is by definition a fair one. An unfair punishment is what the victim’s family – or in this case public defenders – really want. Something out of the ordinary, something that infringes the rights of the guilty one on a personal rather than state-sanctioned level. You start to see how principles such as lopping a hand off for stealing might start to gain ground again in this country, after several hundred years of abeyance before the principle of “fairness”.

Fair is a big Liberal Democrat word, of course. And rightly so, but it probably wouldn’t hurt us to remember that it’s a relatively modern concept. The justice system is based on fairness to protect us from our own baser instincts, our instinct for revenge, for vigilanteeism and for disproportionate reaction. But it wasn’t always based on that. Our particular variety of fairness is a post-Enlightenment understanding – before that, what was known as “natural justice” held far more sway in the making of law. Many individuals secede from that post-Enlightenment understanding, historically speaking they’re not in an indefensible position and, occasionally, they turn up on LDV to remind us. I am moderately glad, I guess, that they do this, and moderately alarmed at what it means for liberalism and democracy. Can both exist? Would a democracy, fully constituted, vote against fairness?

Look. Come on, guys. The result of the Haltemprice & Howden by-election was effectively announced at the moment when David Davis resigned today. Once he had pulled that stunt, he was made for the by-election. It doesn’t even matter if the majority of his constituents are pro-42 days. He’s the “guy who resigned on principle”. Some narratives are irresistable.

I’ve read a lot of tirades this evening about what a cynical stunt this is and how it’s appalling we are letting this character stand for British liberties and how these two things mean we must stand against him. I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. Yes, it is a cynical stunt, and yes his civil liberties record is far from perfect, but this does not make one whit of difference to the positioning he has created for himself. It’s a done deal.

At best, we could have stood wimpily. Yes, we agree with him on the one issue he is campaigning on. And yes, well, admittedly we have far less chance of being in the governing party than he does come the election. But, look, we have all these other nice things as well! Green taxes and… where are you going! Come back!

At worst, we could have stood aggressively, negatively, petulantly. Ner, well, you don’t want to believe anything Tories say. Our civil liberties are the real civil liberties.

What these twin poles translate into is at best a worthy-but-dull second, and at worst being the meanie, jealous nasty kid who pulled the popular girl’s hair. If we wanted to be in the position Davis is now in, we should have thought of it first (easier said than done mind, given that we don’t have MPs in quantities to give away free with breakfast cereal, and our own Shadow Home Secy is balancing on a knife-edge of a majority in Eastleigh).

Please, rather than self-harming, let’s try and look at this from the outside. Go onto any news website tonight, from the Hate Mail to the Groan, and I guarantee you’ll find dozens of self-proclaimed normal people wetting themselves with admiration at David Davis – and not a few of them will be extending their generous incontinence to Nick Clegg for giving him a free run. I actually saw someone suggest on CiF earlier today that the incident proved that Clegg “has backbone after all” which just goes to show how unbelievably convoluted most people’s brains are. Further, go onto ConHome, where the fall-out from this is as complex and multi-faceted as ours – it’s a disaster! It’s a triumph!

Believe it or not, the electorate as a whole is neither as concerned with Liberal Democrat triangulation as we are, nor as concerned with the “Cameron project” (as I learn it is disturbingly called) as the Tories are. They just love a good story with a nice, neat tied up ending. Please let’s, all of us, keep a little perspective, and concentrate. Nick Robinson’s personal weathervane happens to be point in our direction at the moment and we must use the momentum, as I hope Clegg is doing.

Splits in the Tory party are of course hotly cooly denied by all one of the sides. Rumours abound to the contrary, many of them started by me, but one alternative dimensional scenario doing the rounds is giving me genuine pause for thought. If DD had stayed in post, ground his teeth, bided his time and waited to get into the home office in 2010, he could repeal the 42 days legislation before he’d got his feet under the table.

So, er, why didn’t he?

Why stand down, not just from his seat as a somewhat clumsy and melodramatic way of “taking the issue to the country”, but from the one post in which he could actually get his heart’s desire? I don’t really buy all this toss about him being an unprincipled weathercock out for glory and seeking to embarrass his party leader. He has had ample opportunities to move against Cameron since the leadership election and hasn’t taken them – why pursue his cunning plan now that the Tories are looking stronger? He has never come across as much of a showman either.

And there’s another important strand to this - Tory HQ will not be funding his campaign. Why the hell not? He’s still a Tory (rumours of his independent status and invitations from the Libertarian Party notwithstanding). He looks like becoming a very popular Tory very quickly. All Cameron has to do to ride the surf here is back him delightedly, fund him amply and promise him his portfolio back on the achievement of said glorious victory. I see a number of people on both Lib Dem Voice and Liberal Conspiracy are convincing themselves that the whole thing must be some preternaturally devious evil Tory plot but they don’t appear to consider this. If it is a Cameroon plot, it’s backfiring on them bigtime.

The only alternative explanation for DD giving up his front bench post is because he has learned, or it has become clear to him, that some of his more neocon fellow front-benchers (neocon sounds daft in a British context, somehow, and particularly a Tory context; neodweeb would be nearer the mark) hold beliefs about civil liberties that are inimical to him. If he stayed where he was, come 2010 he would be a lone wolf home secretary in his own government. We’ll see how things look in the light of morning, but currently my feeling is that this is way too ridiculous and overcomplicated to be a plot. There are far easier ways for the Tories to win the next GE, not the least of which would have been “Carry on as you are”. I don’t for one moment believe they would go to this trouble and raise all these questions. This is a split, pure and simple.

As a sidelight on the whole business, I must say that Iain Dale’s Diary has been nothing if not helpful and it has not been helpful. Sweetie though he is, I don’t read the dear man much. He’s a news conduit rather than a writer to turn to for interest and enlightenment, so I tend to enter the blue and white portal only when some pressing event is occurring. And what do I find? A soapy tribute to the great man so soft you could wash babies’ bottoms with it. If he knows the back story (and given his links with DD, he should) he ain’t telling.

Meanwhile one of his commenters is gravely concerned for the Dalester’s integrity:

The MSM have a narrow view of the world that is adrift from the reality faced by the people.

That is why blogging, at its best, is important. It derives its vitality from a direct connection with that reality.

It is also, at its best, immediate. Guido had the news before the BBC and well before Reuters and comments flowed, unmoderated, from the moment he posted.

Your appearances on TV showed you think BBC and Sky News are more important than the two most important blogs in the UK: this one and Guido’s.

They are not. Far from it when you hear Nick Robinson yet again telling us all what we think and getting it horribly wrong.

You had an opportunity today to show what blogging can do.

But instead of thinking “today is the day my blog goes bigtime” you headed for the TV studios.

Bad decision. Very bad.

We in the People’s Republic assure Mr “Johnny Frontpage” that we would sooner be hiding under a blanket with a cup of tea and a slightly tea-stained keyboard than go and be all urbane and knowing and wear exciting ties on Sky News any day.

What if you’re a liberal, but 95% of the people you represent aren’t? Alternatively, what if you’re not really a liberal, but are pretending to be one, and 95% of the people you represent still aren’t?

Bernard Salmon (in entertainingly sarcastic mode this evening) alerts me to this blog post by Jayne McCoy about organising a protest outside a shop that sells smoking paraphernalia – not drugs, nor anything else illegal. Just smoking paraphernalia. This has already caused ructions over Essex, though I think Chris Black misreads the case somewhat – stating your disagreement with a particular protest does not for one moment mean you disagree with the right to protest. 

Anyhow, Cllr McCoy has since explained more of the background to the decision of her and Tom Brake to mount the protest. This is something “95% of the parents” at the (very) local primary school are concerned about.

It’s a problem, isn’t it. Without wishing to comment on Cllr McCoy’s personal views, because I don’t have a clue what they are, how do you set about faithfully representing an electorate which would happily club a baby seal to death with a copy of Mein Kampf and then wrap its remains in the Daily Mail if it prevented their little mop-headed darlings being thirty feet away from anything new and culturally unfamiliar and hence a DANGEROUS INFLUENCE for ten seconds? (Liberal Provocateur started it with this capital letters thing. I blame him.)

Now we might surmise, in our cynicism, that Cllr McCoy would hardly have responded with enthusiasm to this call to arms if she had liberal objections to her own actions – but how much scope does she or any other councillor really have to follow their liberal instincts? And what of regional differences? We’re a localist, decentralising party, aren’t we? It often occurs to me in unquiet moments that there are an awful lot of Lib Dems out there with whom I agree on just about every matter of substance who would be very, very uncomfortable with allowing true localism to run free.

It’s a question I think we should test ourselves with. Could you, yes you, look over the fence into a jurisdiction where drinking and smoking in public were banned? ok bad example, pretty much true where I live. What about, where movement and im/emigration were prohibited? Where there was one rigid school system where everyone was tested at 11 and if you didn’t do well, you were on the scrapheap? Or where it’s ok for a party of outraged, over-hormonal people whose human reproductive powers* bestow on them a dubious moral guardianship to decide they want to put a legal trader out of business?

Another such borderline case of illiberal councilling is this one, courtesy of the The Gob. I was going to comment on the article as “Worried Lib Dem”, and thought better of it in case the local Labour party picked it up. But actually, sorry, I couldn’t care less. These people deserve to be picked up on. This is what the Lib Dem councillor concerned has to say about binge drinking:

Why are we trailing on these issues? Our Government should be at the forefront, not lagging behind. It is just another example of New Labour’s ineffectiveness…

When is the Govenment going to tackle binge and excessive drinking? To start, there could be a ban on alcohol advertising, as happened with tobacco. Not only are binge drinkers at risk of damaging their health but also the many others who drink in excess of the recommended limits.

This woman is a Lib Dem councillor and she thinks the government are not doing enough to “tackle” binge drinking? The letter only mentions bans on advertising, and dear god, I hope her ambitions are limited to that. Should we give her the benefit of the doubt, and assume that all the emotive language is just so much window-dressing to please the more authoritarian elements of her electorate, while what she’s actually advocating is a ban which will infringe the “rights” of companies, not individuals? Maybe we could, but understandably the commenters take a different view.

For all that the British electorate is said to be not ready for liberalism, these people make the connection instantly:

What sort of a country are we becoming? As tobacco and alcohol are legal products we should be able to buy them where we want. I am sick to death of being told what I can and can not do.

And even more demonstrative of the direct damage caused to the party:

Typical of the Limp Dims this one – why not put Pies and Chips under the counter too, to stop the obese getting fatter!

The setting, to put the pie and chips into context, is Calderdale.

It’s not that I don’t have sympathy with the dilemma councillors face. They’re councillors, not visionary cult leaders. But presumably they had some idea, when they came to office, that some people wouldn’t agree with their views. So did they ever work out a method for working through such disagreements and remaining true to your principles while still serving your community? Not easy, I’m sure, but hey, they were elected!

Or are they, actually, just a bunch of authoritarians hiding behind the Big Yellow Bird who deserve to be exposed for the drag factor on British liberalism they really are?

* I continue, by the way, to misunderstand why so much of our political culture is pulled towards the moral centre of gravity of people who have either fertilised an egg or successfully carried said egg to term. But I’m sure there are smug tossers out there just bursting to tell me that I will understand this one day.

Nah. We should be so lucky unlucky ambivalent. This is one of the more vocal backers of the Iraq war, after all.

But it’s an odd set of parallel universes we occupy if it hasn’t crossed his innermost mind, if only just once, if only on a Tuesday with a prevailing wind when the moon is in Gemini, sign of split personalities…

This particular Tuesday just gone he ventured into the Torygraph to advocate tax cuts for lower and middle income workers. For a less “them and us” take on the issue, consider his Comment is Free piece of yesterday:

Between the Blairite market and the Compass state, is there a place for the individual in modern progressive social democratic politics?

…is the opening poser. He goes on to answer his own question thuswise:

There are two offers in front of Labour at the moment. The calls for a return to the Michael Foot years are growing. All power to the unions. Keep subsidising loss-making post offices. Bring in price controls. Adopt anti-Americanism. …

The other offer is more third way, New Labour triangulation, represented by Phil Collins’s attack on the Fabian tradition in the current issue of Prospect. As a life-long Fabian I think Collins and his wing of New Labour could not be more wrong. The patient step-by-step reformism of the Fabians combined with constant political education has been sadly missing in recent Labour politics in government where short-term gimmicks and even shorter-term manipulation of headlines have been preferred.

So the options are hardcore socialism or… or… more of whatever it is they’ve been doing for the last ten years. Can’t argue with that. Those are indeed Labour’s choices. The somewhat clubby defence of Fabian ideals looks odd in the light of MacShane’s own proposed third (aha!) solution, and this is where I go into superquote mode:

So there is a policy vacuum to be filled.

Well, not vacuum so much as, er, ordinary temporal space that is already occupied by a great big fat wodge of Lib Dem policy. So in order to occupy this same space, the existing object would have to be displaced to a different space. Tsk, tsk. Our parliamentary overlords clearly have no grasp of elementary physics.

It is time for Labour to assert the importance of a 21st-century model of social justice that exists to serve the people, not the state. Unlike Sweden where people pay 25% of their income in tax to local agencies which provide education, healthcare and retirement care that are directly linked to local payment, we sign a collective national cheque for £640bn to the Chancellor and hope he knows how to spend it well.

Sweden, eh? Local control of education spending, is it? Gosh that all sounds familiar…

The time has come to allow some move away from the state and to emancipate the individuals in the lower and middle income strata by giving them more autonomy over the lives by having more spending power. It is a counter-cyclical programme of increasing community spending power by allowing individuals to have a little more cash and the state a little less.

Ooh, that sounds like a good idea. Er…

Cutting taxes is not neoliberalism. The adjective is absurd in a British economy where the state takes and spends £4.50 of every £10 earned in the nation. In the past it was easy for earlier Labour politicians or Fabian or trade union leaders to call for higher taxes because the working class did not pay any. Even as late at 1960, a worker on average manual wage paid 8% in income tax. Today, the vast mass of voters and pensioners pay tax out of their earnings. Those with families get tax credits. But a third of voters in the recent London mayoral election are individuals. They should not be ignored.

Heavens, a recognition that things have changed since the 1960s. What can be going on? And, what’s this? People without children have rights? A bold new stroke from the two-party consensus indeed. Is it me, or is it getting a bit liberal in here?

Does cutting taxes means cutting spending? Yes, it does. Ask any trade union general secretary about cutting costs to keep unions afloat. They have done it. So why should secretaries of state be exempt from being obliged to curb or cut costs in order to put more money in the pockets of low and middle income Britain?

Less state income does not mean less public policy. We need to see rises in the minimum wage, encouragement to councils to build council homes, and further moves like the agency workers’ agreement which the British Chambers of Commerce is denouncing.

Hm, a recognition that the size of the state can be reduced without necessarily entailing the mass consumption of the Babies of the Poor by frothing hordes of Tory hounds, eh? Shurely shome mishtake. And here’s the drumroll:

…If the Tories said there is no such thing as society, Labour must be careful to avoid the trap of saying there is no such thing as the individual.

Labour has a wider duty to reinvent a new form of government… Labour must now break free of the Compass-Blairite axis and shape new policies. In the present conjuncture, a good place to start is to have a little less state and a little more individual spending power.

Who are you, “Denis MacShane”? What have you done with the real Labour MP for Rotherham?

In a way, whilst I agree with nearly all its essentials, the article highlights exactly what is so damaged about Labour after ten years in power. They’ve gone native (if they ever stopped being native in the first place). A thousand word article about cutting taxes and reducing the size of the state in which there is no mention whatsoever of the only mainstream party committed in black and white to doing both? Self-absorbed and self-interested doesn’t begin to cover it.

Of course, MacShane can’t admit that much of what he is describing is the Liberal Democrat approach, because that would be to give up on the cherished party he has been a parliamentary member of since 1994 (certainly not easy), and it would also be to concede that there might be life outside the two-party system, and no-one who profits by a system wants to see it undermined.

But this man is a Liberal Democrat in very many important respects other than the admittedly germane question of international sovereignty and illegal war. Possibly he doesn’t even admit it to himself. But then again, possibly he does.

The clinching proof? Look to the comment thread on Clegg’s Whiff of Insurrection piece for the Torygraph yesterday – a thread aptly described by OneHour over at Paul Walter’s gaff as “like having a bucket of bile thrown at you”. There were a number of noble exceptions to this, in fact, but I still expect to be washing bits of half-digested vomitted-up stupidity out of my hair for weeks. At least this one can construct a sentence:

Yesterday, we had the dreadful dinosaur MacShane, proffering his agreement that Labour was a waste of money, but then in the last throes of pseudo backstabbing of his own fellow travellers, switched to twisting the facts to blame conservative ‘policies’ for the debacle resulting from the last eleven years of Labour. He is another, who runs with an ever so slight conflict of interest in representing both his constituency and the EU, having sworn allegiance to both, and coming down firmly on the side of his EU pension.

Now we have Clegg, with more of the same drivel…

Now that is what I call an endorsement.

An interesting postscript to the debate we’ve been having on my last exposition of Elementary Logic. I’ve no particularly bitter axe to grind here because I didn’t vote for Boris, but I am nonetheless enraged by the almost instantaneous discovery that he’s a rubbish liberal.

It appears Bojo and David Cameron are of one mind* on the link between petty crime and serious crime. Bojo has made his first policy announcement, and yes, it’s “Ban More Fun”. We’re no longer allowed to drink on the tube, or we’ll get it confiscated from our little mits by the fun police.

I firmly believe that if we drive out so-called minor crime then we will be able to get a firm grip on more serious crime. That’s why from 1 June the drinking of alcohol will be banned from the tube, tram, bus, and Docklands Light Railway.

You may well be thinking, haaaang on. Drinking in public isn’t actually itself a crime, is it? Well, you’d be wrong. Traditionally, public order legislation has only given police the power to make arrests for actual drunkenness, and/or disturbance of public order. That was before NuLab. As of 2001 it became possible, under the Criminal Justice and Police Act of that year, for local authorities to designate public places as alcohol free zones, and after that the police can issue on-the-spot fines to those who infringe the zone.

Thus, drinking becomes a crime. Cripes! Just as well NuLab passed that particular intrusive mumsyish measure, eh, Boris? Will these cretins ever realise that they’re helter-skeltering together down a tight little blue-and-red spiral of ever-decreasing policy difference? Remember the wisdom of The Thick Of It:

She doesn’t just think inside the box, she’s built another box inside it and she’s doing all her thinking in there…

* Dave Monday to Wednesday, Boris Thursday and Friday, and the brain gets the weekend off.

Gosh, and to think tonight I was planning to favour you all with a fascinating post on recycling.

On topic of the moment, Ed Davey’s ejection from the Commons and the ensuing Lib Dem walk-out, I find I am a cross between Linda Jack and Stephen Tall (now there’s a thought): part of me whoops for joy in a totally unrestrained fashion, part of me clear-headedly approves both tactics and principle. It gives me hope, because if we in the People’s Republic can whoop for joy, other people - neutral people - can have their interest piqued as a result of this afternoon’s events. It also gives me hope to see Tories spitting out accusations of childishness, first retort of the terminally out-manoeuvred, as fast as their little keyboards can carry them.

I would just like to echo Stephen on one particular point though – of course it was bloody planned! It would have been the height of irresponsibility to take a decision like that on the floor of the House on the spur of the moment.

_44452993_daveyprotest203_bbc.jpg

Man with a plan

 And what on earth is the problem with planning a protest, in effect boycotting a political process because you don’t believe it is being effective and allowing you to answer to your constituency – both your actual electors and the wider electorate ?

There was nothing procedurally wrong with the amendment being turned down, but it was a slap in the face to the parliamentary party’s core view, as expressed through the tabling of the amendment. And sorry, but it just isn’t enough to mumble about splits in the party as Michael White does in the Guardian. That was the amendment that was. It was obviously important, obviously an issue of national interest, obviously of more significance than the procedural sum of its parts. It was not put on the agenda. This is a matter for concern. The parliamentary party’s response could have ranged all the way from acceptance that getting it on the agenda was always a long shot anyway and issuing a disgruntled press release afterwards up to what actually happened – and they went with the latter. O shock and-as-it-were-to-say horror.

It’s not just the publicity value either, nice though that is. This incident has the potential to be a watershed. It draws a line, blows away of some the madness the Cleggster wrote about yesterday. It may now be a matter of backing the Tory amendment en masse after all, but my feeling is it won’t quite amount to that, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a disaster. The online party presence has been all over this question with fine-toothed combs, secateurs and feather dusters (or at least other folk have and I’ve been reading and going, “Yeh….”) and briefly a second-best referendum on the treaty alone is not without serious objections. A Yes vote, which the party could not, in all conscience, campaign against, is interpretable by the government as a blank cheque in Europe, and the whole notion of voting on a treaty which does not by itself amount to a constitution as if it is one is intellectually bankrupt.

There are two other alternatives to hand. One is to unashamedly go for exasperated free-for-all voting now that the party’s first preference has been so publicly pushed off the table, and continue campaigning for a full referendum in other ways – hell, we’ve got the anecdote to kick off with, should the Cleggster feel like doing any more writing for the Yorkshire Evening Post. The other is to use the threat of mass backing for the Tory amendment to get that first preference back on the table.

Either way, there is an unfamiliar sensation of having shots to call, and how it pans out remains to be seen, but tonight in the People’s Republic we concur with a significant section of the liberal nerdorati that today is a good day to be a Liberal Democrat.

Jacqui “Wimp-ass” Smith recently revealed a further segment of her not-so-secret agenda to turn the entire nation into wet-eyed clones of herself by clamping down on underage drinkers in the streets. Presumably her ultimate aim is to secure a society where she feels safe to go out at night because there are no other people in the world anywhere doing anything she doesn’t much like the look of.

As ever, with NuLabour, this is about aesthetics and prejudice, not about an assessment of the actual harm being done, and as ever, clamping down means giving the police extra powers to, er, do pretty much what they’re already empowered to do, that is arrest people engaging in anti-social behaviour and trace shops selling alcohol to underage drinkers but with more moral disapproval than before. They also get the power to take underage drinkers’ alcohol away from them. I’m sure they’ll just love that. Nothing the police like better than being asked to take on the role of parent-stroke-social worker.

This tendency to see public youth drunkenness as a problem in and of itself is dangerous. It has even hooked in the chair of London LDYS. It causes us to lose sight of the most basic liberal principle of all – who is harmed? I have nothing but scorn for the idea that young people drinking in public is innately any more dangerous, repellant or worthy of punishment than old people drinking in private – and that goes for underage drinkers as well (does anyone want to put their hand up to not having been an underage drinker?) If you stop underage drinkers from drinking, it has to be because you are convinced they are harming themselves and do not believe they are competent to decide to do so. I don’t care if you don’t like the appearance of it. I don’t care if you feel slightly threatened by it. Sorry, but I really don’t give a toss. Have the grace to admit that you’re afraid of Young People, Jacqui, Young People probably from the lower end of the social scale, and that’s all there is to it.

I have a jolly good mind to go and hang around outside the library swigging from a bottle of Merlot and shouting environmentally-aware abuse at 4×4 drivers (hell, it wouldn’t be the first time) and see what NuLabour does about it. For a start, do I still count as a young person? This will be the acid test.

Being the second instalment of Terribly Boring, an occasional series for hungover weekends, in which I consider two utterly disparate ideas side-by-side for no discernible reason.

This became so long and had so few jokes that I eventually had to split it down into two – in my defence, I will add that after reading it you can cross John Gray’s Heresies off your Oh god, when am I going to get around to reading that? list. Just to keep you primed with excitement I’ll reveal the counterpoint – just what does she intend to consider alongside the doctrine of progress, eh? – at the end. I bet you can scarcely wait.

Progress – is it real or are we just speeding?

Some years after the rest of the intellectual world, I recently got around to reading John Gray’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions. Before I outline his anti-progress argument, I will get some whining out of the way. Gray has cruel things to say throughout about liberal values and the people who espouse them. Now, this would probably be bothersome if it wasn’t quite clear that he is using “liberal values” as shorthand for, amongst other things, intrusive statism and aggressive western hegemonising. In other words, he is taking uncritically the definition of liberal values as espoused by a Blair or a Bush (and not a few self-styled “leftish liberals” among the left activist base). And he is to some extent quite legitimate to do so, because liberal values are what these people are claiming to be the justification for their actions. Gray isn’t in the business of realigning liberalism correctly with its actual meaning, that’s our job, so with that observation in place I’ll stop kicking him for it.

His progress argument, as nearly as I can remember it (the book has gone back to the library along with the one pound sodding forty fine)  is divided into three parts. First, he argues that technological progress, conceived as a sort of panacea which will lead us into an age of plenty in which no-one will starve and medicine will be available to all, is a delusion. The twentieth century has been a history of the misuse of technology for political ends – why should we imagine that future developments will meet with any better political response? The crux of this rather depressing point reveals, to me, Gray’s own Thatcherite past: human beings are fundamentally and immutably bad, and will continue to be bad no matter what wonders proceed from their brains. Everything human beings create is tainted by its origins.

Actually, to call this an argument against progress per se is slightly misleading. It’s specifically an argument against that teleological concept of progress that will one day lead us to Utopia (and Gray draws the comparison between this fervent belief in technology and the old, displaced belief in religion and in heart-and-head political ideals like Marxism – all supposedly leading to one form or another of heaven). On the specific point about teleology I’m entirely with Gray, by instinct and by training. It’s impossible to study history for any length of time (in both senses) and not know that teleology is rubbish. But he doesn’t put enough emphasis for me, and nor would he, on how technological progress nonetheless makes things better. I mean, penicillin and all that? Freely available to everyone in the UK (not, of course, in the US)?

This cavil aside, the idea that technological progress is not the supra-human light that will lead us permanently out of all-too-human political darkness is something that makes an instinctive sense to me, even if I do not quite share Gray’s somewhat one-dimensional view of human nature. People often glibly talk about how history proves that human beings have always essentially been the same and I can’t understand why, I really can’t. Yes, if you only study the post-1800 period, it probably does prove just that. But if you immerse yourself in twelfth-century France, or in Mayan culture, or in Classical Greece even for five minutes, the shape of the minds, mores and priorities you detect around you are so eye-poppingly different that you’re never quite the same again when you come out.

The other two parts of Gray’s anti-progress thesis are even more clearly rooted in historiography. Secondly, in discussing Iraq and US hegemony, he clarifies that the new “democratic values” wars of the 1990s and 2000s are still, nonetheless, basically the same land-and-resource wars that have always been fought, dressed up in a hearts and minds language that will appeal to what he thinks of as “liberal values”. Thirdly, and in the most scattered section that ranges over a number of topics, he essentially argues for what you might call the swings and roundabouts theory of history contra the forward march of those “liberal values” – thus, the re-emergence of the Far Right in Europe is actually evidence that, for all our leaders would like to have us think otherwise, we are not steadily proceeding into more liberal times.

These two points in particular could have come straight out of Herbert Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History , published in 1973 and probably the single most influential historiographical work of the twentieth century. Mind you, that famously slim volume, as far as I recall, has few actual examples or illustrations in it (admittedly it is some time since I read it). It’s one of those crystalline pieces of thinking that is so abstract and self-contained that there is no need for the author to have any truck with actual sordid reality. Accordingly, with your critical faculties and normal standards of evidence flapping in the wind, you read it and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is right. About everything. The main thrust of his argument matches Gray’s; the onward progress of history is an illusion. Most historians, by their nature tending to be liberal, Protestant, progressive people, write selectively to emphasise the progress of western history towards an enlightened ideal that fits rather happily with their own concerns. There is a:

tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present. 

So much for poor old progress. None of these are terribly lovely things to read for a liberal, small-l or big, because the inescapable implication is that, just as Marxism didn’t work, statism didn’t work and paternalism didn’t work, liberalism won’t work either. Or at least, not forever. It’s undoubtedly what we currently need but that is a different thing, a matter of balancing and rebalancing society.

Saying this feels a little heretical on day when the Cleggster has been delivering this corker, so I should qualify it to reassure you that, as far as you and I (and, to his chagrin, John Gray) are concerned, it really doesn’t matter that liberalism is not the perfect answer. It doesn’t have to be. It just has to be the best answer. Neither you nor I will live forever, so for current purposes we can put the fact that liberalism is not perfect for all times and all seasons at the back of the same drawer where we keep all our awkward questions, unfinished business, opportunities lost, the knowledge of our own mortality and that of our loved ones, and our Weightwatchers points card.

Join us again tomorrow or, depending on whether we can sneak past the library counter to the computers without paying out another fine, later today, for the next thrilling instalment of Terribly Boring in which the whole progress business is unloaded like a ton of bricks all over that famous Twenty-First Century Panacea: Managerialism.

Bloody Christmas. This year in the People’s Republican grotty grotto we have unemployment, overdrafts, deceased relatives and fathers detained several hundred miles away*. On the plus side, we also have cheese. A lot of cheese. Still, overburdened as you are with all those wry and amusing “looks” taken by newspaper columnists at the ribtickling social implications of Yuletide, you will be pleased to hear that I intend to talk a bit about Nick Clegg’s family panels, rather than my actual family. No hilarious escapades involving a snowball fight, a pool of catsick, an unsteady great aunt and a brussel sprout shortage will be related here (oh, use your imagination). Absolutely no tales of woe about being unable to procure a violet calf-skin Smithsons diary for my god-daughter will ensue, because I don’t have a god-daughter (or, for that matter, a god) nor any inclination to piss away my werewithal on hysterically over-priced luxury goods. Thank you.

No, this is very much a post for families. Last week, James Graham asked Nick Clegg to elaborate on this:

That’s why I will set up a network of real families, who have nothing to do with party politics, in every region of this country to advise me on what they think should be my priorities.

It’s the prospect of continuity that is key to this idea. Nick emphasised that he wanted the people on the panels to feel that they could email him and keep in touch with him. He’s getting at an important truth of political discourse here. Discussions which take place within the ambit of an evolving relationship are always more meaningful than one-off contacts. This is, emphatically, not about focus groups – it’s as diametrically opposed to a focus group as you can get. It’s not necessarily about telling people they’re right about everything either, although this is going to be a tricky one for Nick to pull off without opening himself up to charges of elitism. One man’s robust approach to argument is another man’s arrogance, as this comment on Alex Wilcock’s blog made clear. However, he is better qualified than any other politician I can think of to make a good job of it. This is where the “Would I go for a pint with him?” test may have served us well in electing him.

Still, he’s got his work cut out to persuade the wider media of all this. They’ve heard this reaching-out tack before, and politicians say the word “families” like most people say “the”.** I think Nick can do two things to show them he’s in earnest. First, and most obviously, he can publicise these relationships. That doesn’t necessarily mean a ghastly glitzing-up of every single contact he makes – and that would compromise the development of the relationship anyway. What about a quarterly round robin letter reflecting on what he has learnt and what he has taught, which names names and issues? “As a result of x, I was able to refine my opinion of y. However, I was able to explain a satisfactorily to b, and they now agree with me on that.”

The other thing he can do is flesh out what he means by “family”. If nothing else, doing this will be an important move in the Campaign to Shake David Cameron Off Nick Clegg’s Ankle (banner designs welcome). Step one is clearly to refute the 2.4 children model, and he has already done that, as James Graham describes. It’s a no-brainer for a liberal. There is, howver, a more abstract step two and since it’s Christmas, I’m going to allow myself a little petulant tantrum. When I hear a politician say the word family, I am one of those who switches off rather than on. I stay switched on intellectually, of course, but my heart remains totally unmoved. That’s because my birth family has separated into the individual components of retired couple and grown-up, moved-out children; I’m not in any sort of family unit of my own making; I have no personal reason to give a damn about pupil premiums, tax credits or care homes. I’m in between all of that. And I know that when most politicians talk family, that’s the stuff they’re really talking about.

In the online hustings, Nick said that his family were the most important thing in his life, far more important than politics. That my family is the most important thing in my life is equally true, but only in the sense that it encompasses my college friends family, my school friends family, various work friends families, and my neighbourhood family (flatmates, bar staff at my local, friends of friends living nearby etc) as well as my parents and brother. Now, it’s probably true that I would instinctively dive in front of a bus to save my brother, and wouldn’t perform the same office for Darren the landlord at the Maid (sorry, Darren). But no single component of this family of mine overrides the rest in any practical day-to-day sense. They all help me get through the day. I break bread with them, chat to them, form my opinions with them, say good morning to them. They’d notice if I dropped from view.

Politicians are generally, in the nature of things, part of fairly conventional and visible family units, and it’s easier for them to assume that most people experience family in this way. But really your family is simply the social and cultural forum where you evolve your private and political opinions and sketch out the shape of the impact you make on the wider world. That’s the unit of individuals that Nick could usefully talk to. Because families are self-perpetuating political engines. And it is the sum total of these little social and cultural engines that make up society. Information he feeds into a proper, effective family unit will be processed and talked about as part of its internal life. This is, to my mind, what makes his family panels idea really quite exciting. By promoting continuity of relationships, and by adopting as wide a conception as possible of what a “family” is, Nick can tap into a web of social and political networks bursting with the potential for liberal thought.

UPDATE: I’ve only just noticed that Jonathan Fryer has blogged a measure of justifiable disquiet on this.

* I mean detained on other business. Not at Her Maj’s pleasure.

** That is, often. Not in place of the definite article. That would be silly, and very confusing for Hansard transcribers.

“Um,” says The Man Himself, contemplating the jam which is about to drop from his Krispy Kreme doughnut all over his leadership-winning trousers, “I think I might have to put this down somewhere. Sorry, that’s really rude, isn’t it…”

Nonono! It’s your party! And today of all days, we can’t have the shiny new leader going on television with jam down himself. Nick’s a nice guy – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has met him, but I hadn’t, and he was very much as nice as I had been led to believe. If nothing else for finding time on his day of victory to see a bunch of self-indulgent ramblers who love the sound of their own voices, in between Jeremy Paxman and Nick Robinson (oh . . .)

Jam threat dispensed with, we blast once round the room with questions under the watchful button eye of a fluffy toy, and gosh! (to coin a Cleggism) it’s invigorating. I’ve said this elsewhere but I really do think these events are a good idea. I can see how, at its best, it could be a really productive two-way process. We get to put rather more (one hopes) intelligent and nuanced questions to our guys than the kind of flaccid heads-I-win-tails-you-lose fare on offer from most of the media. And they get a friendly, informed audience to practise inspirational stuff on, and a informational superhighway conduit to the Citizen Readers of the People’s Republic (I’ve made you all Honorary Citizens, didn’t I say?)

“That early momentum . . .”

He starts by contemplating his immediate task, that window of opportunity a new leader has to lay out his leadership style without its being distorted by the media. Nick knows it isn’t going to be as nice as he is. Benefit of the doubt from the media? “It doesn’t feel like it,” he says wryly, having just come from a drubbing at the hands of the Paxomaniac (which I think, having now seen it, he actually won hands down).

Is he looking forward to PMQs? Yup. To get it out of the way. His conviction that a few minutes’ infantile jibing on a Wednesday afternoon is the wrong way to go about politics is very clear, very heartfelt. We all know, of course, which twinkle-toed star performer he will be compared with. The media, as he says, will be interested only in delivering the line that he has fallen at the first hurdle. But he just doesn’t rate it as an exercise. Will he make mistakes? Of course! He’ll have good days as well – of course! As so often when listening to Clegg, I find myself hoping that someone will ask him “what he thinks” about xyz. Because if you do that, you get pure gold. But of course, no-one is going to invite him to rubbish the institutionalised shouty plonker contest that is PMQs, so with Chris Huhne’s now-famous elbows in mind (has he insured them, like Ava Gardner’s legs?) I hope Nick finds a way to rubbish it all the same.

“What was it he said? ‘Progressive consensus’?”

I am much more reassured by the response to my question about defeating the inevitable Cameron comparisons and, in particular, deflating this coalition notion at an early date. What I was looking for was the instant snap-awareness that this must be shot down in flames, and fast, and that’s what I got. I’m going to paraphrase it as nearly as I can remember it, and I think it should be inscribed on a little card and carried around in the weskit pocket of every member for aposite brandishing.

I just don’t take that whole offer seriously at all. I mean, David Cameron? With his, what was it, progressive consensus? There is nothing, nothing progressive about the Conservative party. He has no idea of how to deliver social justice – does he really think that giving people a tax break of twenty quid a week is going to make them stay married? He has no notion of how to follow up on all his fine words on the environment and he just doesn’t even begin to understand what liberalism actually means. Decentralisation? How does Cameron intend to achieve that exactly? The only way to really offer decentralisation is to devolve the raising of tax to local level, or else it becomes meaningless – this is so basic. And we are the only party that offers this.

I’m also completely relaxed about comparisons with Cameron, just because I think the differences are so much more instructive than the similarities. Look at how we started out in the 1980s – I was repelled by the soulless vision of Thatcher’s Britain and he fell in behind it. I am sufficiently self-confident in my liberalism to know that I am a different sort of leader to him. He’s just . . . vapid.

I’m not in the business of leading the party into an annexe with either Labour or the Conservatives. Liberalism is the creed of our times. I believe the British people have the core liberal instinct, and my business is to concentrate on that.

Don’t worry [dark expression]. He’ll be dealt with.

Well, I don’t know about the enemy, but he sure scares the hell out of me.

“Exemplifying the tolerance of my generation”

Nick had interesting things to say in response to Alex’s question about maintaining various minority votes – particularly now that Iraq is receding as an issue and the gay lobby has won much of the legislation it was demanding. I would even cautiously say that he came closer to articulating a successful, common sense position on this than any other politician I have heard.

Matters like sexual orientation are just a non-issue for his generation. That instinctive tolerance, that instinctive pluralism, is what he hopes to exemplify in himself as leader, and what he hopes will draw minority votes to us. Tolerance like that is in short supply in populist politics, but it’s fundamental to the creed of liberalism. If he can pull off this exemplification successively, people will realise that they needn’t just vote for us when we coincide on an issue. They’ll vote for us because we are who we are, and the central tenet of this is the acceptance – the unthinking acceptance – that they are who they are.

It’s that non-issue bit I like. It avoids all that special pleading  and exaggerated politeness that can make politicians sound like they’re guiltily hiding a homophobic past. It’s a top piece of Cleggery – common sense, heartfelt, and once it’s out it’s so simple you wonder why no-one else has come out with it.

“Look, I don’t mean to order anyone about, but would it be possible to get a cup of tea?”

I am going to return for the last two questions another moon, but James has already blogged his (as has the fluffy one) and Linda’s question touched on positive discrimination which I have been pummelling very recently.

The People’s Republic is cautiously quite excited. We may put some bunting up or something. Between London hustings, today’s acceptance speech and tonight’s interviews (friendly and otherwise), we conclude that Nick is a fast learner, as well as one of the good guys. I have a nagging suspicion that I can’t quite put my finger on – far less offer supporting evidence for - that it was hostility within his party that he found vaguely disturbing. Hostility from the outside is something he’s more ready for, impatient to deal with. “Hang on,” he kept exocetting at the bullying Paxomaniac tonight.

It’s actually a damn good liberal catchphrase. Now, hang on.

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