When do liberal ends justify illiberal means?

by Stephen Tall on March 15, 2016

It’s a question worth wrestling with. Here are three issues on which I struggle, or have struggled:

All-women shortlists.

A major topic for discussion among Lib Dems this weekend, with the party conference voting that “If any sitting MP elected in 2015 decides not to contest the next General Election, his replacement should be selected from an all-women shortlist” (as well as giving the right to any local party “to be able to vote for an all-women shortlist or an all-disabled shortlist, or reserve some spaces for candidates from other under-represented groups”).

Once, I would have been firmly opposed. We shouldn’t promote equality by openly discriminating against individuals based on their sex. Nor do I see why we should privilege a white, female barrister over a black, male bus driver. Also, the Lib Dems’ leadership programme had proved itself successful in ensuring women were selected in roughly equal numbers as men in what we had thought were “winnable seats” (unfortunately, in 2015 very few seats proved remotely winnable for the Lib Dems).

I still hold those views. But, equally, I cannot deny that progress will be much, much quicker with all-women shortlists. That increased diversity will benefit the party and (if they’re elected) the country.

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

Smoking in public places.

One of my most popular articles to this day is something I wrote more than a decade ago – Why we shouldn’t ban smoking in public places – based on a speech I gave in an Oxford City Council debate at the time when the smoking ban was a hot topic.

I’ve just re-read it and found myself nodding along. Not only did the ban re-define private businesses as public places… not only did it ignore the increasing number of pubs etc which were already declaring themselves smoke-free zones (meaning customers had a choice)… not only did it ignore that the real threat to public health was from passive smoking at home… More fundamentally, “I believe that every time governments impose a law designed to compel individuals to improve their health – whether they like it or not – we make the individual less responsible for their own actions. But a functioning liberal society depends on individuals taking full responsibility for their lives.”

Yet I can’t deny that the evidence suggests the policy has worked, according to a government review on its effects: ‘The law has had a significant impact. Results show benefits for health, changes in attitudes and behaviour and no clear adverse impact on the hospitality industry.’

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

Freedom of expression.

I’ve long been a First Amendment-er, reckoning that absolute freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of liberal society. It’s why I’ve long stuck up for the Christian-run Ashers Bakery in Belfast over its refusal to produce a cake with a pro-same-sex marriage slogan for a gay customer: they shouldn’t be forced to write something they don’t agree with, even if it is as a transaction.

As Peter Tatchell wrote, “This raises the question: should Muslim printers be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed? Or Jewish ones publish the words of a Holocaust denier? Or gay bakers accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs?”

And yet, and yet… Do I really want to turn the clock back to the pre-anti-discrimination laws days of the 1950s, complete with infamous landladies’ signs declaring, ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’? Of course not — but curtailing the rights of businesses not to turn away paying customers on the basis of who they are was a crucial step in ensuring the UK is a more tolerant society.

So, do the liberal ends justify the illiberal means?

There you go, then. Three issues on which my views haven’t changed, fundamentally, but on which I’m now much more ambivalent.

I agree still with my former liberal principles; but cannot pretend that those liberal principles being flouted won’t result in a better, healthier, happier reality. Maybe that’s a function of growing older — our youthful certainties are gradually broken down by life experiences — or maybe it’s a liberal character trait of seeing both sides of an issue. Whichever, I’ve found it interesting to reflect on the issues on which I now find myself conflicted.

It’s also a useful reality check: most people put outcomes before ideology, prize ends above means. Unless you can show how your principles will improve their everyday lives, don’t be surprised if you fail to persuade.

My must-reads this week March 11, 2016

by Stephen Tall on March 11, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

Why I gave up on Channel 4’s ‘Spin’ (Les Hommes de l’ombre)

by Stephen Tall on March 8, 2016

c4 spin

Warning: spoilers follow

Well, I gave ‘Spin’ (Les Hommes de l’ombre) — the French political drama broadcast by More4 in its Walter Presents strand — a decent chance. An entire series, in fact. But I’ve now officially given up. Here’s why.

One of my pet-hates always used to be TV dramas which mocked-up newspaper front pages in an appallingly amateurish way. It’s bizarre that directors who will take every care with set designs and costumes seem not to care if they splash the screen with a ‘Daily News’-type tabloid with a badly written, badly spaced headline that looks like a Year 6 kid’s ‘write your own newspaper’ English project.

That still happens. But there’s a new irritation that’s been added — dramas deciding to ignore how social media is used because it would spoil their dramatic tension. And that brings me to ‘Spin’. Two incidents stood out in its first series:

* News breaks of French presidential hopeful Anne Visage’s affair with the recently blown-up former President. Her campaign manager is issued with the urgent warning… “this story will hit the news-stands in just a few hours’ time!”. Because, obviously, we’re all ignorant of what the newspapers are saying til we walk past les kiosques in the morning and Twitter stops at the white cliffs of Dover.

* A key witness — the one person who can testify to the motives of the President’s assassin — is being hunted by the French authorities desperate to ensure their state-sanctioned lie of terrorism isn’t challenged. Tensely, he hunkers down for a couple of days until a journalist with a TV camera can arrive and film his evidence. On tape. Seriously. No suggestion is made that he might tell his story using the smart-phone he’s carrying and post it to the Internet. Or even tweet his testimony.

It’s hard to take seriously a drama which ignores the real world. And then, when the first episode of the second series opened with a laughably contrived cover-up involving the new French president which will, inevitably and tediously, unravel over the next five hours, I thought: enough, this simply wouldn’t be taken seriously if it didn’t have subtitles.

My must-reads this week March 4, 2016

by Stephen Tall on March 4, 2016

You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

The Economist on the success of the Pupil Premium: “A pricey education policy looks like money well spent”

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2016

I’ve said before that I think the Pupil Premium – £2.5 billion of extra money given to schools to support children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds — is one of the most progressive government policies of the last decade, an achievement of which the Lib Dems can be well proud.

This week’s Economist takes a look at it and gives the policy the thumbs-up:

How to raise the attainment of children from poor backgrounds is now a focus for educators. Before the premium, 57% of school leaders said they aimed support at their most disadvantaged pupils; 94% now do, says the [National Audit Office]. With such a wide gap in attainment between children from rich and poor families, that is no bad thing.

Which backs up something I suggested in 2014 about the Pupil Premium:

What I suspect it has done is focus schools’ attention on the attainment gap and to address it in ways that go beyond, and do not depend on, the value of the Pupil Premium itself.

Full disclosure: I work for the Education Endowment Foundation, cited by the Economist in its article:

… the government has poured funding into studies looking at how best to spend money, providing the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), a charity, with £137m. It collates evidence from abroad and funds studies at home: around one-quarter of English schools are involved in randomised control trials run by the charity.

Schools increasingly turn to the research for guidance: two-thirds now consult the EEF’s advice, up from one-third in 2012, according to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO), which scrutinises government spending. Surveys by the National Foundation for Educational Research, a charity, found that the most common interventions in the first years of the pupil premium were to reduce class sizes and increase numbers of support staff—neither of which are judged to be effective by the EEF. Now schools are more likely to put in place one-to-one tuition and pupil feedback—both of which are highly rated.

Review: ‘Bang!: A History of Britain in the 1980s’

by Stephen Tall on March 3, 2016

Bang!: A History of Britain in the 1980s by Graham Stewart bang

The ’80s are suddenly back, at least for the Labour party which has regressed to them. I was two years old when they began, so I recall a fair amount, but through the inevitably unreliable and partial lens of a child. So I thought it was about time I revised what I had lived through.

Graham Stewart’s Bang!: A History of Britain in the 1980s is, overall*, an excellent guide. He’s as comfortable writing about monetarism as he is about Madness, as informative about the SDP as he is Sloane Rangers.

What’s most startling is how much society has changed, mostly for the better – indeed, reading about the rampant sexism, racism and homophobia which prevailed at the time, re-inforced by the stodgily white, male trade unions, might shock those Corbynistas who appear to think that simply turning back the clock to pre-Thatcher would right all wrongs.

We think of the 1979 election as a turning point, with Mrs Thatcher’s victory a decisive pivot away from the soggy, consensus ‘Butskellism’ politics of the 1950-70s. Yet that wasn’t necessarily how it appeared at the time. In 1955, 74% of those polled by Gallup believed there were important differences between the Conservatives and Labour; in 1979, only 54% did so.

Some things don’t change, though. Labour’s chancellor Denis Healey described finding Tory costings in their 1979 manifesto as “like looking for a black cat in a dark coal cellar” — a simile which will resonate with anyone who’s tried to identify where the Tories’ £12bn welfare cuts in their 2015 manifesto will be found.

As for the idea that the Tories are the party to trust with cracking down on welfare spending, well… try squaring that with the ’80s’ reality: ‘after the effects of inflation are taken into account, the state still spent nearly 13 per cent more at the end of the eighties than it had done at the end of the seventies’.

There are some great lines, exposing the hypocrisies which history has a habit of laying bare, and some fascinating facts, including:

  • Stewart notes of the anti-nuclear weapon Greenham Common protesters: ‘without apparent irony, the women were charged with ‘breaching the peace”;
  • he highlights the tensions between Britain and the USA over the Reagan-Gorbachev disarmament talks, with Mrs Thatcher regarding Reagan suspiciously as ‘the only nuclear abolitionist ever to have been president of the United States’;
  • Norman Tebbit’s sharp note to Channel 4’s first chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, about the corporation’s distinctive mission: “The different interests you are supposed to cater for are … golf and sailing and fishing. Hobbies. That’s what we intended.”;
  • in 1981, the National Theatre rejected an offer of £750,000 sponsorship from Pear Assurance – “it seems wrong to us to be into a position where we had to have private sponsorship to do the job we are paid to do by public money”;
  • in 1982, City’s highest earner made £320k (Ian Posgate of Lloyds);
  • homosexuality remained illegal in Scotland until 1980, and in Ulster until 1982. Public attitudes also lagged today’s thinking: three-quarters of the population in 1988 believed homosexual relationships were always/mostly wrong;
  • though Mrs Thatcher took the blame for closing the coal-mines in 1984, Tony Blair’s Labour government would have been forced to do the same 13 years later because of its determination to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol.
  • Interesting, too, is Stewart’s take on the SDP’s phosphorescent explosion into British politics. He rightly rejects the old leftist canard that the SDP split from Labour was to blame for Mrs Thatcher’s decade of dominance: ‘it was only the intercession of the SDP that stopped the Conservatives beating Labour by even greater margins in the 1983 and 1987 general elections’.

    And he is pretty scathing of its intellectual contribution, invoking Ralf Dahrendorf’s famous quip that the SDP offered “a better yesterday”. After all, the ‘Gang of Four’ renegades were ‘committed not to radical change but to the preservation of the post-war consensus’, with their Limehouse Declaration showing they believed the settlement as per 1979 about right — for example, that a state-regulated incomes policy should be core to the government’s anti-inflationary strategy.

    If anything, the SDP was more left-wing than Jeremy Corbyn. It’s a moot point who would be most offended by that realisation.

    * I say “overall” because my confidence in Stewart’s account was knocked by his lazy peddling of the myths about the infamous 1983 Bermondsey by-election in which Labour’s Peter Tatchell was defeated by the Liberals’ Simon Hughes. He refers to ‘the smear tactics of local Liberal activists’ without mentioning the really virulent campaign against Tatchell came from homophobic Old Labour-ites. (See this Wikipedia entry for a succinct and mostly accurate summary.) It’s only a half a page, but unfortunately it does make me wonder how many other parts of the book rely on press cuttings.

    My must-reads this week February 26, 2016

    by Stephen Tall on February 26, 2016

    You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

    Confessions of a Lib Dem Eurosceptic

    by Stephen Tall on February 22, 2016

    By Lib Dem standards, I’m something of a Eurosceptic. That is, I accept the EU is less than perfect. A lot less than perfect.

    I’m not alone. When I polled party members for LibDemVoice a couple of years ago, I was surprised to discover less than half wanted Britain to integrate further. Indeed, an estimated one-in-six Lib Dem voters will choose Leave on 23 June.

    In reality, Lib Dem policy is a lot less starry-eyed than some activists. For example, the party has been campaigning for years to bring an end to the European Parliament’s monthly travel between Brussels and Strasbourg, a move – or, more accurately, non-move – that would save £150m a year (and almost 20,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions).

    Vince Cable once (rightly) branded the protectionist Common Agricultural Policy “a complete disgrace”. The EU’s decision-making is as opaque as it is sclerotic, as Nick Clegg acknowledged: “When I worked in the European Union I remember it took 15 years to decide the definition of chocolate and a chocolate directive. Anything that takes a decade and a half to define what chocolate is is in need of reform”.

    Yet the party is widely perceived, and I understand why, to be slavishly obeisant to the EU. Too often we have mistaken being pro-internationalist, pro-Europeans as requiring us to be overly defensive of the EU establishment. The party’s position has too often been defined by dislike of the Tory right and frothing Europhobe press than by the liberal principles we should apply: open, transparent, accountable government of the people, by the people, for the people.

    The Lib Dem approach to David Cameron’s re-negotations have compounded this problem.

    For years, the party opposed holding an in/out referendum altogether (unless required by treaty change), latterly simply as a bargaining chip for future coalition negotiations with the Tories. Unlike the Tory PM.

    Then Mr Cameron put forward his shopping list of EU reform demands. These were either modest or irrelevant or both but they achieved their aim of showcasing his willingness to fight for national interests.

    By contrast, the Lib Dems have stayed schtum. We should have been setting out our own renegotiation ideas – more democratic accountability, greater transparency, anti-tariff, etc – so that we could fight for Remain on the basis we were “in the EU to improve it”.

    But because it was reckoned this might undermine Mr Cameron’s renegotiations – and they are reckoned to be the key to referendum victory – that was ruled out. Leaving the Tory PM to claim sole bragging rights and the Lib Dems left looking, again, like slavish adherents to all things Brussels.

    I know many of my fellow Lib Dems are looking forward to the campaign. I’m not. I’m reminded of something I wrote two years ago about the Scottish in/out referendum, which has parallels:

    If I were a Scot with a vote in September, I’m not sure which side I would favour. I see no reason why an independent Scotland wouldn’t do quite well out of new arrangements, but it would of course be a risky venture into the unknown (which is why I don’t think the SNP’s bid will succeed). As that great liberal Ludovic Kennedy once rhetorically asked, “I still believe that if Denmark can run its own affairs, why can’t Scotland?”

    It is, of course, ironic that so many (Tory) unionists who argued Scotland would be dead and buried if it struck out on its own believe that the UK can and will thrive in similar circumstances.

    I’m not a unionist. Nor am I a separatist. I’m a federalist (my definition: accountable power distributed locally, nationally and supranationally, operated at the lowest level possible).

    I’m sure the UK would do just fine as an independent country… eventually. But, as a certain well-known Tory MP argued a couple of weeks ago – before U-turning at the weekend – I am concerned “that leaving would cause at least some business uncertainty, while embroiling the Government for several years in a fiddly process of negotiating new arrangements, so diverting energy from the real problems of this country – low skills, low social mobility, low investment etc – that have nothing to do with Europe”.

    Boris was right then. He’s not right now. And ultimately, that’s the problem with Euroscepticism: the Eurosceptics. Somehow the subject brings out the worst in them, with even sober, intelligent, mild-mannered folk like Times commentator Tim Montgomerie transformed into irrational obsessives: English cybernats, nationalist Corbynistas. As JS Mill so nearly remarked, “I did not mean that Eurosceptics are generally weird; I meant, that weird persons are generally Eurosceptics”.

    Considered on its own merits, Brexit isn’t such an appalling conclusion. But then you look at who that means winning. And I know I’m going to be sticking with Remain.

    My must-reads this week February 19, 2016

    by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2016

    You can read all the articles that have caught my attention this week here: https://delicious.com/stephentall Below are a selection…

    In praise of Peter Tatchell (but not of identity politics)

    by Stephen Tall on February 16, 2016

    I suspect if Peter Tatchell and I ever sat down to talk about the economy we’d be poles apart. He’s a far-lefty, I’m not.

    But he happens also to be one of my political heroes, a fearless champion of equality, whose bravery in standing up for the human rights of the oppressed around the world is an inspiration. He was my 50th Liberal Hero in my series for CentreForum for supporting free speech and its positive use.

    To the NUS’s Fran Cowling, though, he’s a racist and a transphobe (or at the very least an ally of those who are). Plenty of people have already taken down the absurdity of this gross distortion. But it was a paragraph in Brendan O’Neill’s scathing Spectator article that had me nodding most:

    The turn against Tatchell speaks to a worrying trend among today’s young radicals: fury with the very people who fought to make their lives freer and easier. … They have disappeared so far up the fundament of identity politics that they bristle at any argument that smacks of universalism, which emphasises the sameness and the shared capacity for autonomy of all human beings.

    It’s that divisive aspect of identity politics – the deliberate segregation of society into homogenised groups and sub-groups – which turns me off.

    I fully recognise (who couldn’t?) that there are categories of people who have been discriminated against, and too often still are, on the basis of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, etc. Much has been done to break down these barriers, to move society forward. Much more still needs to be done. I hope an awareness of how this may have impacted on those from such groups is imprinted on all our minds.

    But it is an inherently backward-looking and reductive approach. Yes, we’re shaped by our histories. We don’t have to be defined by them, though. Let me put it this way: whose shoes would you prefer to walk in – those of a child from a poor, disadvantaged background with loving and supportive parents; or of a child from a rich, privileged background whose parents neglected and abused them?

    Group identities matter, but they aren’t everything. We are individuals with our own unique life experiences, good and bad, which have made us what we are today. And we are individuals with agency, able to re-make our own futures.

    The moment we start looking at a person and see only our perception of their group identity, rather than who they are as an individual, we make a hell of an assumption – and lose a bit of our humanity.



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