Clegg goes medieval

Needless to say, I mean this as a compliment.

Reading this article I finally started to understand what he is getting at with all this fear business. As is often the way with Nick, I struggle womanfully to comprehend what he is going on about for at least four “shots” of information, be they articles or speeches or whatever, and then the fifth time the Cleggprocessor in my brain which is normally humming quietly away to itself suddenly goes BEEEEEPBEEEEPBEEEEEP and lo! a near-perfect Victoria sponge pops out. Or a banana cake sometimes.

But I only have the whole cake because I’ve spent the last eight weeks, er, assembling the ingredients, weighing out the flour, going to specialist shops for the organic dried banana and so forth. Considered as a stand alone piece, I think there are two essential problems with this article.

Item the first. Despite the fact that he is, like a good Liberal Democrat, arguing against the politics of fear, Nick is still stuck in the two-party language. This understandably opens him up to several accusations in the comments of merely perpetuating the politics of fear that he accuses Labour of creating. That central statistic he quotes, that 59% of people feel safe in Britain and yet 62% of people are afraid – he has taken it far too literally. This is a survey. I know about surveys. My ickle baby brother writes them, and I’m sure he would be the first to concede that they are totally, totally (mis)leading and dictatorial in the terms and concepts they present to respondents. Nick needs to wring this one through a few interpretations before he can use it to back up his point.  He needs to make a much clearer distinction between the fear people actually feel and the fear they feel in response to social and political conditioning. What we need is not “a response” to their fear, but an alteration in the social and political conditioning. Which is what we’re all about, right?

Item the second. His civil defence and local courts ideas are very interesting. But he has thrown them in to this piece as an afterthought whereas they in fact define our whole approach. Hence all the mockery in the comments about Dad’s Army, and about never having heard of St John’s Ambulance and the Magistrates’ Courts. To some extent I understand his difficulty because if you had to explain the entire Liberal Democrat worldview in every article you’d never stop – and unfortunately the readership don’t appear to have that natural grasp of the Lib Dem world view (only imagine my shock).

The point is, of course, that initiatives like these must seen in the context of Lib Dem localism – actual localism, whereby everyone in a locality has actual power, and a stake in making things happen in a civilised way. Magistrates’ Courts have got nothing to do with The People. They are very fine and excellent organs of justice, no doubt, but surely no-one who has ever stood before one has conceived of them as a sort of organ of the known local community to which they feel personally bound. A court run by The Man is just a court run by The Man to most people. What I believe Nick is talking about is something more akin to the old Pie Powder courts (pieds poudre, dusty feet) that operated temporarily in medieval fairs and markets, specifically to deal with disputes over goods and payments. The reason these highly mobile and transient courts worked was because they were quite clearly useful, and everyone involved had a stake in making it work – lest they end up being short-changed for the price of two pigs, or getting a broken nose because of their own perpetration of same. I seem to recall that the last Pie Powder Court in England was still in business up until about forty years ago, but can’t now find this anywhere. Any references gratefully &c.

Gesturing at St John’s Ambulance is not a legitimate response to the civil defence force idea either. Is anyone suggesting for one moment that St John’s Ambulance (again, worthy organisation though it is) lies at the heart of every community, thrives and is celebrated by all and mops up the disaffected young? Of course not. It’s a relic of a time when localism was genuine. If that time comes around again, it might well see a resurgence, but there’s nothing wrong with suggesting an updated version (though if Nick really wants to make waves, he might wish to suggest calling the new civil defence force the Knights Templar. That would get rid of all the Dad’s Army associations at a stroke and also recreate a thrilling ancient rivalry between two monastic knightly orders. Which would serve no real purpose other than tickling me enormously.)

Some very fair points are also made in the comments about the scope of any such local force – isn’t there the risk of developing vigilante justice? What if small-town prejudice, homophobia, racism flourish within them? I can see the broad shape of the Liberal Democrat answer to this – optimism, stakeholdership, wisdom of the masses. But Nick needs (as ever) to articulate it better than he has here.

He needs to explicitly bump up localism as the antidote to fear – and for god’s sake, don’t be afraid of the historical associations. This stuff has worked before, and there are no systemic reasons why elements of it can’t work again.


  1. Pah. Camelot is a silly place.

    As for localism… That’s why we get nutters who don’t know the meaning of the word Liberal for our local PPC for the Lib Dems. Localism is all fine and dandy if you don’t live in Redneck Central.

  2. Not especially related, but a dream in the early hours of this morning contained: the spectre of my gran’s mum typing with one finger at a time on a ghostly laptop; drunks trying to break into my gran’s old house (she stupidly opened the door on the chain after midnight) and Chris Huhne being elected leader.

    Heaven forbid that I’ve turned seer.

  3. “Localism is all fine and dandy if you don’t live in Redneck Central”

    Don’t say things like this. It is terrifying. Everyone is NICE and FLUFFY. Hm, like I say, I think Nick needs to work on selling me his message more effectively.

    ‘Join Grammar PCSO again next week on “Let’s Make No Fucking Sense” when he’ll be waxing an owl…’ [attr. Green Wing]

  4. “Any party that is committed to social justice must address the power of fear, because the poorest and most vulnerable are often the most fearful.”
    I think it’s middle-class, media-fueled fear that’s a bigger problem. I’m still liberal enough to believe that greater material equality would reduce crime and social problems. But saying that sort of thing gets you helpfully labeled a Stalinist.
    We have to empower people to help themselves, definitely. But we also have to stop the already powerful throwing their weight around.

  5. Ahh, I see, you’re using my blog for dream therapy. That will be £50 please.

    Your grumpy “alt” liberalism is always welcome round here, Disco! I would hope though that in boring “mainstream” liberalism, the act of empowering all the people will in itself act to stop the already powerful from throwing their weight around, because their respective stakes in society will be something closer to equal.

  6. For example, I am steadfastly against empowering local communities to be able to subsidise their schools, as this favours schools in well off areas. If you wish to subsidise schools beyond what tax requires, it should be spread around equally. Otherwise we would see an increase of inequality in the performance and quality of schools around the country.
    Is this an example where empowering all is not necessarily a good thing Alix?

  7. The local funding thing is a conundrum. On the one hand, we favour localism so we must favour the ability of local councils to raise or lower taxes. But this means that wealthy areas will have better-funded public services, because they have bigger tax bases to draw upon. More to the point, they could still spend more than poorer areas even with a lower percentage rate of tax.

    For education, the solution to this problem is probably the dreaded education vouchers, where central government would allocate a fixed amount of funding for each child, to be taken to the school of the parents’ choice. This way, poorer areas would spend as much per pupil as rich areas; in fact, the lower costs of operating in poor areas (lower cost of living and of land etc.) might give the poor-area schools a relative advantage. But what role is there for local councils in this picture? We’ve even removed the decision over how the education budget is allocated between schools via the voucher system.

    One could argue that the latter system empowers individuals/families more, so, by the principle of subsidiarity, this is the course we should favour. It’s probably what I personally lean towards. As such, I’m probably not the best person to make the opposing case, in favour of empowering local councils, except insofar as I regard empowering local councils to be a better option than empowering central government or unelected quangos.

  8. I was using empowering in a slightly more touchy-feely sense than just devolution of power. Empowerment in the sense of people actually wanting to take part in local processes that affect them is clearly a good thing. By itself, of course, it’s just a wish. You can’t build truly local accountable structures in an aggressively centralised state. So “empowerment” in the sense that you mean it (devolution of practical power) is a necessary pre-requisite for the “empowerment” I was talking about (encouraging self-perpetuating social and political structures at local level).

    To be honest I don’t see any contradiction between (an element of) fairly radical redistribution of tax on the one hand and devolution of power to communities on the other, especially if such a system could be linked to land values, and would thus, in a perfect Lib Dem world, even out automatically as LVT was introduced (a whole can of worms unto itself, I know). There are also elements of localism that in said perfect Lib Dem world would act to even out inequality – e.g. with greater devolution of power, greater spending potential at local level, and a different mindset towards public transport, employment would be less concentrated in a few centres, which in turn would drive up the quality of local amenities, the combination of which would act to even out house prices. It’s perfectly true that this is a much more difficult and long-term process than just saying, “Oh bugger it, it’s not working right at this moment, so let’s just centralise everything”.

    In the particular case of education, I am fast coming round to the idea that education should not be provided by the state at all. Some form of it should still be compulsory, but I believe the history of state education over the last twenty years tends to show that it may have had its day as an idea. It’s only a hundred and twenty odd years old, after all. In that scenario, you would have a sort of super-voucher system, in which literally the entire education budget would be given to individuals. Scary, huh.

  9. Not nearly as scary as the logical conclusion of this line of thought, basic income, which takes the ‘get rid of the bureaucracy and just give them the money’ approach to the benefits/tax credits/pensions system. In fact, direct education funding is just a basic income for children, ring-fenced for spending on their education. This is probably a bit too radical for most people’s tastes, and I’m not at all sure that it would work in practice, but the idea has a certain appeal, for its simplicity as much as anything else.

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