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.