Liberals in an illiberal world?

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.


  1. “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?”

    Yup, that’s about the size of it.

  2. “Could you, yes you, look over the fence into a jurisdiction where [silly policies reigned?]”

    I like to think so, provided we have genuine freedom of movement to go with our genuine localism. If one locality is behaving more sillily than its neighbours, then wouldn’t people learn not to vote for the sillier policy at the next election?

    I might be naively ignoring a theory/practice gap here, of course.

  3. Ah the shame. One thing you have to realise about many of the Labour and Lib Dem Councillors in Calderdale is that they disproportionatly live in Hebden Bridge.

    Hebden Bridge, retirement villiage for Hippies, Paradise for Lefties and Scourge of the Right, is really in a whole different political sphere. The ‘centre’ in Hebden would be considered about 3 miles to the left of the rest of the country, and frankly every single right-on bandwagon is leapt upon with gay abandon.

    What Christine’s done there amounts to populism in Hebden Bridge, where she lives, but to the rest of Calderdale it just comes across as the very worst kind of Nanny State control freakery.

    They’re defending against Labour so I suppose this is what they need to do. But yes, it’s not liberal and yes it’s entirely maddening. I have a strict rule of only helping candidates that I actually want to get into power – I don’t help the local party for the sake of it. I’m not a very good member really but they make it so incredibly difficult.

  4. I find the “Stafford Road Spat” quite an interesting one.

    On the one hand, yes, the shop is selling nothing illegal. Looking at Live Earth’s pictures of the area it’s in a fairly large area of smallish shops, which is exactly the sort of area you would expect to find this kind of a small independent enterprise. I’m sure there are probably shops along there some of whose offerings could be seen similarly as promoting some forms of illegal activity, right down to the backroom photocopier for breaching someone’s copyright…:-)

    Kiddies and their parents also have to walk past a motor dealership; are the kids in danger of having the destruction of the planet, the planet they will one day inherit, glamourized by that?

    However, I would also say that a fair bit of <a href=””what “You(‘)r(e) High” sell probably ought to be illegal compared with the currently illegal “real deal” stuff we know so much more about that parents Brake and councillor are worried their kids are being attracted to.

    One of McCoy’s stated worries is that the children will be brought up not to respect the law – well I’m also afraid that laws that kill more than the things they prohibit are laws I would like everyone brought up to disrespect and preferably ignore.

    I remember a probably similar objection to the siting of a gay youth group aimed at providing a meeting and social space for people whose (underage) sexual activity at the time could have put them away for longer even than possession of class B cannabis. Was that in danger of bringing up the youth of the time to disrespect the law? You betcha and thank the almighty or whoever for that!

    A happy medium position for a liberal in such a position wanting to help their constituents might be to protest that if the law was changed, and the real substances of which this shop sells “fake” alternatives were legalized and regulated, the shop may well have to be licensed and sited somewhere other than near a school.

    “But I’m sure there are smug tossers out there just bursting to tell me that I will understand this one day.”

    Interesting use of the “t” word there…:-)

  5. That should be:

    <a href=””what “You(’)r(e) High” sell probably ought to be illegal

  6. Yes, it’s hard convincing myself that we are the future when so many people have rabidly illiberal attitudes towards drink, drugs & consensual sex.

    If you’ll remember, in this city we had Gavin Webb, whose case was taken up by your mate Julian H. I agree with most of Webb’s views, but sure as shit most people round here don’t.

    I’ve laboured this point endless times. But the problem with stupid, authoritarian, punitive laws is not only that they are bad in themselves, but that they bring the entire law into disrepute. In order to smoke a joint, someone has to break the law. How, then, is he supposed to respect the law? How are the police going to do their job of protecting us when they’re too busy chasing us for harmless activities?

    The whole Scum-“reading mentality” of “I don’t take drugs or watch hardcore porn, so I don’t see why you should have the right to” is utter shit. I’ve tried convincing people against the ID cards scheme that something they like to do might become criminalised, because they’re resolutely “normal” (ie stupid and boring) and don’t have any unorthodox interests.

    For example, I’m not gay, so it wouldn’t affect me directly and obviously if homosexuality were criminalised. But I wouldn’t want to live in such a society.

    I still, despite the fact that this probably makes me a total idiot, live in hope…

  7. Oh, and I totally agree that single, childless adults get a raw deal out of this system. It’s just wrong in infinite ways. A particular bag of bollocks is working tax credits. It’s as if people are being rewarded for knocking out babies & punished for having the responsibility not to do so.

  8. I would be one of those fertile people, in fact – to a surprising degree – I wasn’t expecting a result so quickly, especially after my total lack of success at any science experiments at school – I was half expecting something to go wrong.

    anyway… as a parent and a tax payer I think all tax credits should and could be scrapped and replaced with either a reinstated 10p tax level or an increase on basic allowances (maybe even have some more simple allowance rules).

    As a liberal I’m puzzled as to why this councillor is being so shrill and hysterical, when a perfectly reasonable request would be to ask that the shop not allow any patrons under 16, and maybe be considerate of parent’s concerns when displaying products/posters in the main windows.

    I think a good councillor would have looked at a diplomatic solution that would have worked for all parties, but instead she has been stirring protest with shrill hysterics.

    The MP however managed to mix both hysteria and waste of parliament time/money fighting to make illiberal and unenforcable laws even more so, by requesting that pretty much sterile hemp seeds are banned, and the selling (and presumably possession) of them become a criminal offence. Home Goal!

  9. I’m not sure what to make of the principle of tax credits. I agree with the principle of making work pay, but cutting taxes on low incomes and trying to cut marginal tax rates is a better idea.

    But the system, as it exists, is utter shit. The number of people who come into the bureau, overpaid, is staggering. Maybe it keeps me in work, but I’d do myself out of a job if I could…

    In particular, single people on low incomes get a pittance, it’s only when people have children that they get any serious payment. If I got a low-paid job, I wouldn’t bother to claim because of the risk of overpayment just isn’t worth it.

    Hopefully the present unsustainable system won’t outlast this government. But I don’t trust Camoron to improve it!

    *weeps helplessly*

  10. I think the issue is the closeness to the school.

    I don’t have kids and like Alix do get tired of having those who have managed to have unprotected sex set the parameters of what is acceptable or not but I know that if I did have kids I wouldn’t really want them walking past this shop everyday.

    So, is the ‘liberal’ response just going to be: tough! It ain’t illegal, so tough!!

    I think that’s pretty unsatisfactory. Of course, if the shop isn’t doing anything illegal then it has the legal right to be there. But liberalism is more than just the application of law.

    What about the harm that it may do to kids in normalising drug taking? Those who don’t see drug taking as being normalised as a problem won’t mind, sure but other won’t. Some people undertake a little, recreational drug taking and whether we do it for a couple of years at college or continue doing it for the rest of our lives and it doesn’t do them any harm. For others drug taking can be devastating and ruin not just their lives but the lives of their families. As someone who comes from a family with a number of alcoholics in it, I have a clear understanding of the effects of addiction and also the randomness with which addiction strikes.

    So, whilst the shop is not illegal and people using it are exercising their choice, it may well be doing some hard to those who have no choice but to walk past it on their way to school. It seems to me that a lot of what is being sold is drugs paraphernalia, and yes, there are some people who smoke flavoured tobacco that use it but mainly it will be people using illegal drugs. So, one could argue there is a moral question in the positioning of this shop. Children are not adults and many of them, especially at primary school age, do not have the ability to discern the acceptableness of legal drugs paraphernalia from illegal drugs.

    So, to the compromise: not putting stuff in the window and taking care to the sensitivities of parents is an option. But then I would say, surely that is hampering the shops ability to trade fairly?

    I’m with Jock on this one. I think the products on sale might want to be regulated better, then they could be sold (as they are legal) but not necessarily in the pathway of children who don’t yet have the ability to make an informed choice about whether to taking illegal drugs is a good, bad or indifferent thing. I feel the same way about lap dancing clubs that are in the same category as café’s for licensing purposes

  11. I am having a quiet chuckle to myself about being branded ‘illiberal’. However, to defend my position a little I must say that my blog is aimed at the residents of the ward I represent, and I am not sure that they are quite ready for the full on debate about the issue. When speaking to parents I have used the issue as an opportunity to bring attention to the fact that decriminalisation of drugs would give the council more control over the means in which it is distributed – and if you read carefully you will see that I say this in my post. However it is a dilemma and the truth is that if I were to express the kind of views that some of my detractors have proposed there would be one less Lib Dem (however watered down)representative on the council.
    But now I must question the liberalism of those who have rushed to judge me. Why is it that the terms ‘shrill’ & ‘hysterical’ are regularly applied to women who don’t conform to your world view and where is the tolerance of those members of society who have chosen to have a family. Tolerance has to work both ways.
    I am sure it will be pointed out to me that your right to free speech allows you to express your views in any way you see fit.

  12. Yes, I’ve tried many a time that supporting liberalisation of the drugs laws does not mean “approval” of drug-taking, or caving in, it is a policy that will result in a dramatic fall in drug-related crime.

    People have got these visions of everyone suddenly rioting in the streets, high on drugs, immediately after liberalisation and ask me whether that’s what I want.

    They are totally immune to rational argument, like the Daily Hell “readers” who are in a panic about crime, but don’t realise that we have high crime because we are doing things their way & it is failing.

  13. 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?

    Those are interesting questions Alix, and I haven’t seen them posed in that way before. You’ve made me think about my own situation.

    I represent a ward that votes strongly Conservative at national elections, however for various good reasons we are dug in here at local level and get about 74 percent of the vote in district elections in two-way contests with the Tories. The District Council as a whole has 33 Tories , 5 Lib Dems and 1 Independent , and the English Democrats are bidding to be the third party here.

    Over the years I’ve never yet felt pressurised to ‘campaign illiberally’ just to obtain votes.

    The main issues here are overdevelopment, traffic, lack of local amenities – especially facilities for young people – and a problem of youth nuisance. It doesn’t take a political genius to see that the last two issues are linked. I try to take a carrot and stick approach to the situation, and point out to those with little sympathy for young people that if we can provide more youth facilities, then that would make it easier for the police to deal with any small hardcore of troublemakers.

    As for binge drinking – I don’t think it’s a good idea, I’d like to see less of it , and I think the governments’ changes in licencing policies have made things worse.

    Incidentally we have a separate website for local issues – which we don’t include on Lib Dem Blogs because we don’t think the really local stuff interests a national audience. However we attract quite a good level of debate there – and no-one there would call anyone”Scumreaders” or someone’s attitude as utter shit .

  14. Of course I am very strident on the drugs issue. Since I truly believe that prohibition kills, I believe those who use prohibition and the war on drugs as political footballs are akin to accessories to murder.

    NOTE, Jayne, I’m not saying that applies in this case, but in general about the war on drugs.

    But see this for how mercilessly other parties can and do use unorthodox opinions on drugs to bash others in the “political game”. It is a difficult line to navigate I realise, and you are for better or worse the representative of the people who elected you.

    In a sense I’m probably more upset about Tom’s posturing on it – at a national level he is likely more able to make the alternative argument, while you Jayne, representing a much more parochial group (not meant pejoratively as much as simply geographically) are closer to the specific issue.

  15. I agree, Jock. But it feels as if no one else does. It beggars belief that the Tories talk about how “realistic” they are, and we are hopeless dreamers, when their policies have been proven to fail.

    I think people don’t study the examples of other countries enough.

  16. Some interesting points.

    It can be highly frustrating when people disagree even on well-meaning grounds, but I don’t think we should rush into calling them illiberal.

    Yeah, we’re all imperfect so it’s a bit harsh to hope for perfect liberals (esp. when there are so many different conceptions of what that means) at every level throughout the party.

    However, from my experience it’s noticable how often local protests fail the liberal test of offering a positive alternative, so it can sometimes be justified in calling them ‘shrill’ or ‘hysterical’.

    If it’s a protest just calling for a ban it is unlikely to work and can be counterproductive, while there is always ample (if long-winded) scope for working patiently and cooperatively with shop owners through local licensing and planning committees to make sure they find outlets which suit and serve everybody’s needs.

    Setting one set of right-on moralising members of the community against another group of hard-working anti-establishment entrepreneurs and their specialist clientele won’t help anyone in the long run even if the electoral logic supports the idea of playing to the votership.

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