Liberal Hero of the Week #81: Sajid Javid

by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

sajid javid

Sajid Javid

Conservative secretary of state for culture
Reason: for his unapologetic defence of freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is a pretty fundamental tenet of liberalism, one which has been under attack throughout 2014 — from the brutal censorship and propaganda of repressive regimes like Russia and North Korea, to the unpleasant baying of the permanently outraged Twitter-mob at the latest cause célèbre du jour to have triggered their ire.

JS Mill pointed out why freedom of expression — and in particular those expressions with which we fundamentally disagree — need to be protected for all our sakes. To censor is to shut down open discussion. It is an assumption of the utmost arrogance, founded in the belief of our own infallibility, preventing ourselves and others from hearing dissenting views:

If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false. (Brendan Larvor, On Liberty of Thought and Discussion)

An open, democratic society should tolerate all kinds of views, even and especially those we ourselves find objectionable. But the tendency — true both of malign governments and benign activists — is to want to bear down on those they disagree with. Always for the greater good, of course, but always at the expense of someone else’s freedom of expression.

So it was refreshing this week to hear a cabinet minister put forward a passionate case for freedom of expression, without caveat or cavil. One day, I hope I’ll hear such a speech from a Lib Dem minister. But in the meantime, it’s right to acknowledge Conservative culture secretary Sajid Javid’s trenchant defence in his address to the Union of Jewish Students’ Annual Conference — here’s an excerpt:

We are British, but we express that Britishness in many different ways. And the diversity of our daily life is reflected in the diversity of our art. That’s what art is for, after all. It tells us who we are. Shows us our strengths and weaknesses. Celebrates our better natures and shines a light on the darker corners of our lives. Ultimately it’s about understanding and expressing what it means to be human. But that cannot happen if art is censored. …

Sadly, not everyone agrees. This summer, for the first time in the near 70-year history of the Edinburgh Festival, a performance was cancelled because of political pressure and threats of violence. Dozens of protesters picketed the venue where a play called The City was being staged. Witnesses spoke of demonstrators screaming abuse at children of 12 and 14. The police said they could not guarantee the safety of the performers or of the audience. The play didn’t contain offensive material. It wasn’t inciting hatred, or pushing a political agenda. It was simply an innovative musical telling an old-fashioned detective story. The protesters were demanding that it be censored for one reason and one reason only. The theatre company behind The City had received some funding from the Israeli government.

A month later the Tricycle Theatre, just a few miles from here, announced that the internationally respected UK Jewish Film Festival was no longer welcome. Why? Because the organisers had accepted a small grant – less than £1,500 – from the Israeli embassy. Neither grant came with political conditions attached. Just as when the Arts Council awards funding to UK artists, there were no attempts to dictate content or censor views. Yet the connection to Israel was enough. The protesters came out and the shutters came down.

The moment I heard about the Tricycle ban I knew I couldn’t just let it go. It’s completely unacceptable for a theatre to act in this way, and I didn’t shy away from telling its directors that. And I’m pleased to say that, after lengthy discussions, the Tricycle and the UK Jewish Film Festival have resolved their differences. This story, at least, has a happy ending.

But the problem continues elsewhere. As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s an increasingly vocal campaign for a full-scale cultural boycott of Israel. It’s a campaign I have no time for, and there’s a very simple reason why. Last month I spoke at a conference for newspaper editors. I was talking about the various attacks on media freedom that we’ve seen recently. The so-called right to be forgotten, for example. And the use of anti-terror legislation against journalists. And I told them that I believe the free press is an absolute concept. Something you support 100 per cent or not at all. That you just can’t say “I believe in media freedom, but…”

The same is true of art and culture. It simply doesn’t make sense to say “I believe in freedom of artistic expression, but…” Yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing, including from some voices at the National Union of Students.

“I believe in artistic freedom, but only for people whose politics I agree with.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only if it’s not backed by Israel.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but not for Jews.”

Let me be very clear – I don’t believe in artistic and cultural boycotts. Nor, I’m proud to say, does my party. As we have said many times, a cultural boycott would achieve nothing. It would be needlessly divisive, and would run counter to the long history of cultural freedom that this country holds dear.

Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politics. It should rise above what divides us, not be used to create that division. It should be used to build understanding, not incite hatred.

We don’t have to like an artist. We don’t have to support them. We even have every right to peacefully protest against them if we want to. But silencing artists, denying their freedom of expression? That is simply wrong.

It was wrong when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti came under siege from members of the Sikh community. It was wrong when Christian groups tried to drive Jerry Springer The Musical off the stage. And it’s wrong when Jewish artists are targeted simply because of their connection to Israel. A century ago William Howard Taft called anti-Semitism a “Noxious weed”. A century later, I don’t want to see that weed taking root in any aspect of British life. …

.. by all means disagree about art and culture. I want you to debate it, discuss it, defend it and decry it. But whatever you think of an artist’s work, you must never allow them to be silenced by the politics of prejudice.

You can read his speech in full here. I think JS Mill would’ve liked it.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #81: Sajid Javid

by Stephen Tall on December 21, 2014

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

sajid javid

Sajid Javid

Conservative secretary of state for culture
Reason: for his unapologetic defence of freedom of expression

Freedom of expression is a pretty fundamental tenet of liberalism, one which has been under attack throughout 2014 — from the brutal censorship and propaganda of repressive regimes like Russia and North Korea, to the unpleasant baying of the permanently outraged Twitter-mob at the latest cause célèbre du jour to have triggered their ire.

JS Mill pointed out why freedom of expression — and in particular those expressions with which we fundamentally disagree — need to be protected for all our sakes. To censor is to shut down open discussion. It is an assumption of the utmost arrogance, founded in the belief of our own infallibility, preventing ourselves and others from hearing dissenting views:

If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false. (Brendan Larvor, On Liberty of Thought and Discussion)

An open, democratic society should tolerate all kinds of views, even and especially those we ourselves find objectionable. But the tendency — true both of malign governments and benign activists — is to want to bear down on those they disagree with. Always for the greater good, of course, but always at the expense of someone else’s freedom of expression.

So it was refreshing this week to hear a cabinet minister put forward a passionate case for freedom of expression, without caveat or cavil. One day, I hope I’ll hear such a speech from a Lib Dem minister. But in the meantime, it’s right to acknowledge Conservative culture secretary Sajid Javid’s trenchant defence in his address to the Union of Jewish Students’ Annual Conference — here’s an excerpt:

We are British, but we express that Britishness in many different ways. And the diversity of our daily life is reflected in the diversity of our art. That’s what art is for, after all. It tells us who we are. Shows us our strengths and weaknesses. Celebrates our better natures and shines a light on the darker corners of our lives. Ultimately it’s about understanding and expressing what it means to be human. But that cannot happen if art is censored. …

Sadly, not everyone agrees. This summer, for the first time in the near 70-year history of the Edinburgh Festival, a performance was cancelled because of political pressure and threats of violence. Dozens of protesters picketed the venue where a play called The City was being staged. Witnesses spoke of demonstrators screaming abuse at children of 12 and 14. The police said they could not guarantee the safety of the performers or of the audience. The play didn’t contain offensive material. It wasn’t inciting hatred, or pushing a political agenda. It was simply an innovative musical telling an old-fashioned detective story. The protesters were demanding that it be censored for one reason and one reason only. The theatre company behind The City had received some funding from the Israeli government.

A month later the Tricycle Theatre, just a few miles from here, announced that the internationally respected UK Jewish Film Festival was no longer welcome. Why? Because the organisers had accepted a small grant – less than £1,500 – from the Israeli embassy. Neither grant came with political conditions attached. Just as when the Arts Council awards funding to UK artists, there were no attempts to dictate content or censor views. Yet the connection to Israel was enough. The protesters came out and the shutters came down.

The moment I heard about the Tricycle ban I knew I couldn’t just let it go. It’s completely unacceptable for a theatre to act in this way, and I didn’t shy away from telling its directors that. And I’m pleased to say that, after lengthy discussions, the Tricycle and the UK Jewish Film Festival have resolved their differences. This story, at least, has a happy ending.

But the problem continues elsewhere. As I’m sure you’re all aware, there’s an increasingly vocal campaign for a full-scale cultural boycott of Israel. It’s a campaign I have no time for, and there’s a very simple reason why. Last month I spoke at a conference for newspaper editors. I was talking about the various attacks on media freedom that we’ve seen recently. The so-called right to be forgotten, for example. And the use of anti-terror legislation against journalists. And I told them that I believe the free press is an absolute concept. Something you support 100 per cent or not at all. That you just can’t say “I believe in media freedom, but…”

The same is true of art and culture. It simply doesn’t make sense to say “I believe in freedom of artistic expression, but…” Yet that’s exactly what we’re hearing, including from some voices at the National Union of Students.

“I believe in artistic freedom, but only for people whose politics I agree with.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but only if it’s not backed by Israel.”
“I believe in artistic freedom, but not for Jews.”

Let me be very clear – I don’t believe in artistic and cultural boycotts. Nor, I’m proud to say, does my party. As we have said many times, a cultural boycott would achieve nothing. It would be needlessly divisive, and would run counter to the long history of cultural freedom that this country holds dear.

Britain is currently leading the way in imposing economic sanctions on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. But that’s not a reason to stop the British Museum loaning part of the Parthenon Sculptures to a museum in St Petersburg. Because culture is bigger than politics. It should rise above what divides us, not be used to create that division. It should be used to build understanding, not incite hatred.

We don’t have to like an artist. We don’t have to support them. We even have every right to peacefully protest against them if we want to. But silencing artists, denying their freedom of expression? That is simply wrong.

It was wrong when Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti came under siege from members of the Sikh community. It was wrong when Christian groups tried to drive Jerry Springer The Musical off the stage. And it’s wrong when Jewish artists are targeted simply because of their connection to Israel. A century ago William Howard Taft called anti-Semitism a “Noxious weed”. A century later, I don’t want to see that weed taking root in any aspect of British life. …

.. by all means disagree about art and culture. I want you to debate it, discuss it, defend it and decry it. But whatever you think of an artist’s work, you must never allow them to be silenced by the politics of prejudice.

You can read his speech in full here. I think JS Mill would’ve liked it.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League: how it stands after Week 16

by Stephen Tall on December 20, 2014

Congratulations to George Murray’s ‘Marauding Fullbacks’, who, with an impressive 928 points, continue to lead the LibDemVoice Fantasy Football League after Week 16. It’s tight, though: just 12 points separate the top 3.

We’re entering the festive period, a time when you’ve probably got lots of other things to do. But, beware: there’s lots of football action, so, if you take your eye off the ball, you could find yourselves plummeting.

LDV FANTASY FOOTBALL_16

There are 157 players in total and you can still join the league by clicking here.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

My must-reads this week December 19, 2014

by Stephen Tall on December 19, 2014

Here’s some of the articles that have caught my attention this week…

7 years on: 2 ‘myths’ about the Clegg-Huhne leadership race that persist

by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2014

skating_13xii07 005It’s 7 years to the day since Nick Clegg was formally elected leader of the Lib Dems. Over at the Telegraph, professional Labour contrarian Dan Hodges has penned what I’d call a fair-minded piece (Clegg’s critics would call it a generous whitewash) which concludes:

Nick Clegg has become the pantomime villain of British politics. A cipher for our discontent about politics, and the modern political class. But let’s step back and look for a moment at the New World Clegg has had a hand in shaping through his own eyes. He has lead his party into government. He has proved that coalition government can be stable. He has neutralised the more extreme instincts of his coalition partners. He has helped guide his country to a place of relative social and economic safety.

Dan Hodges’ article also includes two persistent ‘myths’ — the inverted commas are deliberate, by the way: as you’ll shortly see it’s impossible to know whether they’re totally erroneous or just unknowable hypotheticals.

‘Myth’ 1: Chris Huhne would have won the leadership vote if late ballots had been counted

Dan writes: ‘Nick Clegg won the leadership from his rival and friend, Chris Huhne, by just 511 votes. 1,300 postal ballots were delayed by the Christmas post, and, according to reports, would have been enough to give Huhne victory.’

The source for this is an April 2008 report by the Independent’s Jane Merrick which noted: ‘an unofficial check of the papers showed that Mr Huhne had enough of a majority among them to hand him victory.’

Less often quoted is the explicit denial that this unofficial count could have happened: ‘The Electoral Commission [sic*] absolutely firmly have said that none of the late votes were ever counted by anybody. There wasn’t an official go-through of late ballot papers. Late ballot papers were discarded, because they were late and therefore void,’ pointed out ‘a spokeswoman for Mr Clegg’. To which you might invoke Mandy Rice-Davies, “Well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?”

Perhaps. But the maths are also tricky. To have overturned Clegg’s 511 vote majority, Chris Huhne would have needed to pick up 871 (67%) of those final 1,300 votes and Clegg just 359 (33%). Not impossible, no — it’s why the ‘myth’ remains in inverted commas — but extremely unlikely. Even less likely is that an unofficial count would have been able to predict so confidently and with such exactness what these never-counted ballots actually said.

Might the rumour have been passed onto a journalist as a bit of mischief-making by Friends of Chris Huhne (perhaps even the same friends who accidently sent out the notorious ‘Calamity Clegg’ briefing during the campaign)? You might very well think that…

For the record, by the way, I voted for Chris — that’s my ballot paper in the photo — even did a bit of phone canvassing for him. But I don’t believe he would have won if those late votes had been counted.

(* I assume this should have read Electoral Reform Services, which ran the ballot, but don’t know if the error was the spokeswoman’s or the journalist’s.)

‘Myth’ 2: If Chris Huhne had been elected Lib Dem leader, and become Deputy Prime Minister in May 2010, then his later arrest and conviction would’ve sunk the Lib Dems.

Dan writes: ‘Had those ballot papers been delivered in time, Huhne would have been Deputy Prime Minister when Vicky Pryce wreaked her terrible vengeance. It’s interesting to speculate what implication his arrest and subsequent conviction would have had on the Lib Dems, the coalition and the course of British political history.’

There’s a lot of hypothetical here, so I’ll be brief with my own. Chris Huhne’s an ambitious man. Had he become Lib Dem leader, even more had he become Deputy Prime Minister, I very much doubt he’d have put all that in jeopardy by leaving his wife. And had he not done so, his historic speeding points lie would almost certainly have remained just that: historic.

Fifa World Cup row: Lib Dem members say no to Qatar but split on 2022 boycott

by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2014

Lib Dem Voice has polled our members-only forum  to discover what our sample of Lib Dem members think of various political issues, the Coalition, and the performance of key party figures. 747 party members responded – thank you – and we’re publishing the full results.

Yesterday, Fifa’s independent ethics investigator Michael Garcia quit in protest over the handling of his report into bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Here’s what Lib Dem members had to say about Fifa in our latest survey…

Do you think the 2022 football FIFA World Cup should go ahead in Qatar, or should it be hosted elsewhere?

    9% – The 2022 World Cup should go ahead in Qatar

    70% – The decision to host the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should be scrapped, and it should be hosted elsewhere

    21% – Don’t know

A pretty definitive view, there — here are some of your comments:

• It should never have been awarded to Qater – FIFA is a mess and needs a block of countries to threaten to withdraw from it.
• Don’t care about football and footballism.
• The evidence that has been collated by enquiry as disclosed, states unequivocally that there was corruption in securing QUATAR`s votes and thereby the decision for them to hold the World Cup in 20122 should be revoked.
• World Cup in the tropics in summer is suicidal or even murderous. Re-arranging all the world’s leagues to have it later or sooner is plain stupid. Somehow FIFA must be brought to book. UEFA pulling out would be a good start, surely this could be achieved with the use of good diplomatic skills from well-qualified persons?
• If we are serious about getting it out of Qatar, we must suggest a host other than ourselves.
• The bid was manifestly corrupt. The self-serving report by FIFA is Kafka-esque.
• Their decision to host the World Cup in Qatar is disappointing considering the country’s poor human rights record, particularly regarding LGBT* people.
• Ridiculous weather and conditions to hold it, and why on earth we go somewhere where they don’t even PLAY football… Well, we all know why, don’t we.
• Who cares, this has got nothing to do with the government. If fifa want to be corrupt let them.
• FIFA have made a complete mockery of the investigation into the bids. They have whitewashed the whole thing. The Qataris are treating the workforce very badly. The World cup should not be played in a place where people have died in building the stadia. It is also too hot to play the game.
• FIFA is totally corrupt but it seems impossible to do anything about this.
• Is this really a serious political issue?
• Corruption should be tackled.
• The way this decision was reached does not seem to have been above board. We should have no part in corrupt international bodies anyway.
• Qatar human rights abuses make it unfit to be host.
• Playing a running about game in temperatures which are too hot for running about is silly …
• We can’t pick and choose which international sports bodies decisions we like.
• The decision is flawed: it is simply not sensible to hold a major world competition in a country where the summer temperatures may reach 50 degrees Celsius. The decision was money-driven and stinks of corruption: seemingly no regard has been paid to the health requirements of the competitors.

We then asked…

If the 2022 World Cup goes ahead in Qatar, do you think the UK’s national football teams should take part, or should they boycott the competition?

    36% – Take part

    38% – Boycott

    26% – Don’t know

A much more divided result, with those having a view pretty evenly split between saying our national teams should boycott the Fifa World Cup in 2022 and those saying we should take part. Again, here are some of your views…

• Neither is ideal; Olympic boycotts in ’80 and ’84 were hardly effective. Neither though is participation in an event that raises billions for the corrupt. Leave the call to the experts in the field at the appropriate time, don’t become The Man In The Pub and pontificate from ignorance far in advance.
• There should be a Europe wide boycott.
• I understand that World Cups are the pinnacle for footballers, and would be sad if it came to that – but someone has to take a stand against FIFA corruption. I would favour the FA lobbying hard for other major nations to join us in a boycott. It would only take two or three to totally discredit the tournament.
• I won’t watch it anyway
• Boycott, if others do the same.
• Sport should be above this kind of bribery and corruption beyond the enquiry…..
• We’re not going to win. We’ve just hosted the Olympics so we’re not in need of a global sporting event. Why be unprincipled chumps and play in a competition we’ve so publicly derided?
• It’s only football – but the World Cup venue choice was the most corrupt decision I’ve ever witnessed
• British teams should not act alone (or just with each other) which would either be pointless, or exploit the situation to “win”.
• Needs to be a global boycott (cf South Africa 1970s); token boycotts (1976 / 1980 Olympics) etc don’t change anything.
• Boycotts are a futile gesture when used for purely political reasons.
• it hardly matters they’ll coming home soon enough anyway
• If Qatar is ‘cleared’ to host the 2022 World Cup, the UK’s teams have no justification to boycott it
• A lone boycott is stupid. A large boycott would be good.
• Players have worked hard to achieve their dream of playing in a world cup. A boycott punishes them, not FIFA.
• However, they need to train for an event in that heat and climate and to have the right level of medical support on hand.
• Boycotting is likely to be less effective than going out there but making a point of highlighting problems. (e.g, by wearing #RainbowLaces)
• It’s a game of football for goodness’ sake.

  • 1,500+ Lib Dem paid-up party members are registered with LibDemVoice.org. 747 completed the latest survey, which was conducted between 22nd and 26th November.
  • Please note: we make no claims that the survey is fully representative of the Lib Dem membership as a whole. The surveys are, though, the largest independent samples of the views of Lib Dem members across the country.
  • We have been able to test the LibDemVoice surveys against actual results on a handful of occasions. It correctly forecast the special Lib Dem conference would overwhelmingly approve the Coalition Agreement in May 2010. In the 2008 and 2010 elections for Lib Dem party president, it correctly predicted the winner. However, in the 2014 election it didn’t; see here for my thoughts on this.
  • Polling expert Anthony Wells has written about the reliability/validity of LibDemVoice surveys here.
  • The full archive of our members’ surveys can be viewed at www.libdemvoice.org/category/ldv-members-poll
  • * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    My ConHome column: We live in an age of OUTRAGE that’s killing political debate

    by Stephen Tall on December 18, 2014

    con home cartoonHere’s my latest The Other Side column for ConservativeHome, published here on Tuesday. My thanks as ever to the site’s editors, Paul Goodman and Mark Wallace, for giving a Lib Dem space to provoke – constructively, I hope.

    We live in an age of outrage in which a clumsily expressed remark will be punished without mercy. Just ask the Conservatives’ Baroness Jenkin, whose genuine, long-standing commitment to tackle food poverty was brushed aside by opponents ready to vilify her for her ill-chosen ad lib that “poor people don’t know how to cook”.

    Or, alternatively, ask Labour’s Emily Thornberry, whose hastily-tweeted-repented-at-leisure photo, appearing to sneer at England flag-brandishing white van drivers, reportedly provoked her party leader to hitherto unknown heights of anger. I have far more sympathy for the well-intentioned Jenkin than I do for the often-haughty Thornberry, but in both cases the front-page hyper-reaction was crazily disproportionate.

    Moderateness is, it seems, unfashionable. Maybe we’re all grumpily living out the hangover of the Great Recession, but sweet reason seems to have had its day. Or perhaps it’s the enforced brevity of anti-social media, in which character-heavy context, nuance and fairness are sacrificed for the quick fix of instantaneity.

    I like to think, especially when wallowing in Yuletide, that there is, inside each of us, a generosity of spirit — call it empathy — which not only respects the other person’s point of view, but is also capable of understanding their mistakes. That, while our Bad Angel might be tempting us to put the boot in at the first, last and every opportunity, we will listen to our Good Angel pointing out that each of us puts our foot in it sometimes. There, but for the grace of God, self-destruct us all.

    Would it be so hard for the anti-Tories among us to acknowledge that Baroness Jenkin’s point — that some of those living in poverty spend more than they need to on food because they lack the time or the energy or the expertise to cook a cheaper, more wholesome, meal — has validity? And would it be so hard for the Labour-haters among us to recognise that Emily Thornberry’s presumption about Rochester’s White Van Dan is the sort of sweeping generalisation of which we’re all sometimes guilty, and that to lose your job over it is a bit harsh?

    Is it naive even to ask the question? Tribalism is now all the rage, literally. Not so long ago, if your public utterances were littered with red-mist adjectives — angry, outraged, disgusted — you’d have been dismissed as a green-ink letter-writer, whose frothings should be deservedly ignored. But now fulmination is vogue, brandished as proof that you care more than others, an attention-seeking fast-track to getting noticed.

    It’s not enough any more merely to disagree with the Government or the Opposition: you must hate, mock and deride not only their actions, but also their motivations. “All MPs are self-interested crooks in it only for themselves,” goes up the popular cry on a thousand talk-in shows and online message-boards. And so the ‘meme’ spreads, even if it means crudely distorting the truth — as with those infamous pictures allegedly showing a packed House of Commons discussing MPs’ pay, but virtually empty when [insert campaigner's pet peeve] is being debated, eagerly shared by ‘slacktivists’ as if to demonstrate the adage that a lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.

    We see it in BBC1′s Question Time, once a sober arena for informed debate on the issues of the day, now a ratings-chasing entertainment bear-pit, where audience, panellists and programme-makers are in cahoots to give the viewers what they want: a glib, knockabout exchange of carefully rehearsed lines (including the weekly immigration showdown), loudly applauded by whichever section of the public has had its pre-existing bias confirmed, while the watching masses passively but aggressively tweet along to their hearts’ discontent. Forget about Enlightenment, we just want to be fired up. We used to be bought off with bread and circuses, today we settle for public figures oh-so-lightly toasted on the politicos’ version of Jeremy Kyle.

    None of this is to deny we should ever get angry or outraged or disgusted. It can have its place. For me it happens when I hear politicians indulging in dog-whistling racism, such as suggesting that people should be concerned if Romanians move in next door. But, even then, does shouting, that oral CAPS LOCK which signals irrationality, make us more listened to? ‘Thaw with her gentle persuasion is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces,’ as Henry David Thoreau put it.

    The danger is this. If public debate becomes pub banter, existing only as shouting matches between diametrically opposed sides trading populist soundbites — aiming only to rabble-rouse, not to win over — it drowns out constructive argument.

    Let’s take the coming election. I can foresee the next five months’ economic argy-bargy. Labour will try and frighten voters that the Conservatives will take us back to the 1930s (Evil Tories!). The Conservatives will try and frighten voters that Labour will take us back to the 1970s (Reckless Socialists!).

    This colourful rhetoric will camouflage the grey reality: neither party yet has a clue how they’ll make the next five years’ budget figures add up, so they’ll muddle through with a combination of ill-considered, ad hoc spending cuts, tax rises and continued borrowing. We should be questioning them now, demanding straight answers to straight questions based on the available facts. How much easier it is, though, to indulge the parties’ distraction-propaganda (“We have a plan, that lot don’t, nah nah nah”) and settle for the same-old point-scoring masquerading as political debate.

    But it isn’t just the politicians’ responsibility to level with us. We voters — and the media — need to give them the space to tell the truth. If they think we can’t handle honesty they’ll hold back. If they think we’ll swallow only easy answers that’s what they’ll spoon-feed us. If they’re worried how we’ll react to hard truths, then they’ll pretend they have simple, quick-fix solutions to complex, deep-seated problems.

    It’s up to us, really. Do we want to live in a perpetual hair-trigger state of zealous agitation, poised to jump down our politicians’ throats any time they mess up or say something we don’t much like? If yes, then they will either glory in their own martyrdom, or else retreat to the banal safety of telling us only what they think we want to hear. What I’d like is very straightforward: frank, honest and open debate about big issues minus the assumption that those who disagree also eat babies for breakfast. That’s not too much to ask for this Christmas, is it?

    Fixed-term parliaments: 56% of voters support them, finds YouGov

    by Stephen Tall on December 17, 2014

    I’ve written before about the fact I like fixed-term parliaments: In praise of 5-year fixed-term parliaments. You may remember that a few years ago, former Cambridge MP David Howarth tried to introduce them. Then in the Coalition Agreement, they became reality.

    YouGov has asked the public what they think about them, and yuo can see the result below courtesy the New Statesman’s May2015 polling website:

    yougov fixed term parliaments - 1

    Despite the sub-heading claiming ‘The public are divided’, that’s not really true: by a 2:1 majority, voters think they’re a good idea (56% in favour with just 29% wanting to revert to the old system of Prime Ministerial whim). Of the 56%, who support fixed-term parliaments, though, there is a pretty even divide between those who prefer 4 or 5 years as their length. Here’s what I said about that in June:

    Personally I quite like five-year terms. It reduces the temptation of government ministers to resort to “initiative-itis” as they know there’s a fair chance they will actually have to live with the consequences of their reforms and be responsible for their successful implementation (or not). … The usual pattern, pre-fixed-term parliaments, would have been for cabinet ministers to have two years in post; then a mid-term ‘scapegoat’ reshuffle; followed by another two years in a different post leading up to an election. It’s a recipe for poor government. I’m not saying that having the same ministers in post for 4-5 years guarantees good government, by the way (the names of Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove spring to mind). But at least there’s clear accountability: it’s hard to blame your predecessor for the failure of your policies if you’ve had a whole parliament to get it right.

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Our worst nightmare? Peter Kellner’s scenario 3: “Lib Dems choose who’s the PM”

    by Stephen Tall on December 16, 2014

    cameron clegg miliband 2Just over a year ago I wrote a piece titled Nightmare scenarios: what are the 2015 election results the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour most dread?

    In it, I argued that the trickiest prospect for the Lib Dems would be an evenly poised general election outcome in which the Lib Dems held the balance of power:

    In the nightmare scenario [we] would have a genuine choice open to us: a second coalition with the Tories or a Lib-Lab pact.

    Do a deal with the Tories – if that’s even possible, given the Cameron modernising agenda is dead in the water – and we risk saying goodbye to what remains of our progressive vote (and another tranche of our membership). Do a deal with Labour – if that’s even possible, given the bile spilled since 2010 and Labour’s tendency to tribalism – and we put at risk our remaining MPs the vast bulk of whom have Tories in second place.

    There is of course a third option: do a deal with neither and allow a minority government to be formed. But that comes with the high likelihood of a second general election not long afterwards where we run the risk of getting squeezed.

    I’m all for extending choice. But, to be honest, at the next election I’d rather the voters didn’t leave us with more than one option.

    (Note this isn’t the worst possible outcome: that would be the Lib Dems losing so many seats we have no influence at all. But at least in that situation we’d know what we had to do next: go into opposition and re-build.)

    This scenario is one of four outlined by YouGov’s Peter Kellner in The Times yesterday:

    kellner gen election scenarios

    Here’s what he had to say over at the YouGov site about scenario 3 (Labour and Conservatives tied on 290 seats, Lib Dems with 40 seats, making a coalition with either possible):

    They will still be a major force at Westminster, unlike Ukip and the SNP, which will have seen their fortunes fade in the weeks leading up to the election. Mr Clegg has a genuine balance of power. He is able to deliver a majority to either Labour or the Conservatives.

    What he won’t have is the option that many of his activists might prefer, of going into opposition in order to revive their radical credentials unsullied by the inevitable compromises of office. The public – and the financial markets – are unlikely to look kindly on a party that plunges Britain into an era of instability by refusing to do any kind of deal with either Labour or the Conservatives. The Lib Dems would be in the position of a vegetarian forced to choose beef or lamb – and not being allowed to reject both.

    However, it may be some days before the shape of the new government becomes clear. Again, as the incumbent Prime Minister, Cameron could have the first go at assembling a parliamentary majority – provided that Conservative MPs don’t eject him first. Tory backbenchers may decide that he has blown his chance to win the election and think they have a better chance in future under someone else – Boris Johnson? Theresa May? A. N. Other?

    However, if Cameron, having lost the confidence of his MPs, resigns as Prime Minister, it is a moot point whether the Queen will invite Miliband or the new Conservative leader to form a government. In order to avoid dragging Her Majesty into controversy, there will be intense pressure at Westminster to assemble a stable majority, and so make the Queen’s decision straightforward. Again, the Lib Dems will be forced in practice to abandon the luxury of a spell in opposition.

    Such a scenario would make 2010 look easy.

    Of course, this, and the other three sketched out, are among many possible outcomes. It’s impossible to know yet what awaits; and just as impossible to know now quite how the outcome will look and feel in the days after 7th May. Which is why, as I’ve argued before, we need to keep our options open in the event of a hung parliament:

    Nick Clegg has publicly ruled out the option of a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement in the event no single party wins a majority in May 2015 (ie, the party won’t join a formal coalition but wouldn’t bring down a minority government either). I can understand why he’s sceptical of such an arrangement – as I’ve argued before, “It seems to me a way of getting all the pain of coalition with little of the gain of being in government.” But we need to keep all options available to maintain maximum negotiating leverage. What matters most is how we can deliver liberal policies in the next parliament. That’s most likely to happen in a full coalition, but not at any price. Tim Farron was spot-on to argue, “When you go into negotiations with another party you have to believe, and let the other party believe, that there is a point at which you would walk away, and when the outcome could be something less than a coalition, a minority administration of some kind, that is something we all have to consider.”

    * Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

    Liberal Heroes of the Week #80: Alan and Gary Keery (aka the ‘Cereal Killer Cafe’ entrepreneurs)

    by Stephen Tall on December 13, 2014

    Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and Research Associate at CentreForum

    cf hero - cereal bar

    Alan and Gary Keery

    Owners of the Cereal Killer Cafe in Shoreditch
    Reason: for starting a local business in the face of Channel 4 News’s mockery

    It was a close call this week whether I nominated identical twins, the Keerys, as Liberal Heroes — or instead Channel 4 News as a Liberal Villain. Here’s why.

    This week, London’s first ‘cereal café’ opened in hipster-central, East London’s Shoreditch. Alan and Gary Keery’s Cereal Killer Cafe serves 120 different varieties of cereal from around the world, which customers can combine with 30 different varieties of milk and 20 different toppings. Prices start from about £2.50.

    So what?, you might think. I did: interesting idea; not particularly my kind of thing; wonder if it’ll succeed? Such were my thoughts as I flicked past the Evening Standard report on its opening.

    Channel 4 News took a different tack. To them and their reporter Symeon Brown, the Cereal Killer Cafe is a totem of evil capitalism: “the business sells breakfast cereal from £2.50 a bowl, while one in every two children growing up in Tower Hamlets are living in poverty” it preached, as if these two facts were in any way connected. Kudos then to Gary Keery for writing this open letter of complaint:

    You obviously don’t understand business if you think I don’t have to put a mark-up on what I sell. It may be the poorest borough in London but let’s not forget canary wharf is also in this borough but I am the one to blame eh? I am from one of the most deprived area in Belfast so me and my family know all about poverty but haven’t had to blame the small business owners in the area for it, I have been taught a great work ethic and have made it this far without blaming small business owners trying to better themselves and make a future for themselves.

    I still have to pay over the top rent for my premises and pay the 12 staff I have employed so I either have to make profit or I will be out of business. Maybe if I charged over £3 for a coffee and dodged all the taxes in this country like some cafés – the reporters would leave me alone would they?

    Actually it wasn’t Channel 4 News’s wilful refusal to understand the profit motive in business which irritated me: that’s just par for their Guardianista course, an implicit belief the magic money tree somehow can provide society with the public services we need.

    What irked me more was their patronising assumption that all poor people in East London really want is a greasy spoon caff, something like EastEnders’ Cindy’s Bridge Street Café, where you can get sausage, egg and chips washed down with weak tea and still get change from a fiver. But a cereal bar? Run by hipsters? In Shoreditch? That all sounds a bit modern and different, doesn’t it? Before you know where we are, people will start wanting lattes and mochas and frappuccinos, when they should be perfectly happy with an instant Nescaf and UHT in a chipped mug.

    I still don’t know if the Cereal Killer Cafe will work, but good luck to the Keerys. A liberal market economy needs entrepreneurs willing to stick their necks out (and certainly far more than it needs the media sneering at their efforts).

    * The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.



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