Tuesday, February 26, 2008


The Two Messages Brian Paddick Needs To Get Across

Brian Paddick is an outstanding candidate. It’s difficult to imagine a better Liberal Democrat contender for Mayor of London – a conviction Liberal, a former high-profile, high-ranking police officer, and a very nice bloke. If you want a Lib Dem with mass appeal and who could absolutely do the job, he’s the one. But in a fiercely-fought race for the biggest directly-elected job in Britain, that’s not enough. The media, Labour and the Tories, and sheer inertia all paint the fight as ‘Ken vs Boris’. To avoid that squeeze, Brian must get two messages across, one of which is particularly difficult.

The Easy Message: Brian Can Do The Job

Brian’s biggest message is the one that comes across less through anything that he says than just through his personal story – what the old Liberal Democrat slogan would call “A record of action, a promise of more,” and what his campaign astutely pinpoints as Serious About London. That slogan also gives the happy additional implications that, as someone with an outstanding record of public service getting things done for Londoners, Brian is a serious challenger to Mr Livingstone; and that Mr Johnson just isn’t serious about anything.

Listening to Brian’s TV appearances – and his TV and newspaper coverage has already been far above what any other Liberal Democrat might expect, reaching out way beyond the usual Lib Dem vote – and looking at Brian’s website and leaflets, Brian’s personal story is very much to the fore, as it should be. Lib Dems are often queasy about ‘presidential politics’, about putting too much power in the hands of one individual rather than letting many voices be heard, and that’s quite right; but though we wouldn’t start from here, while there are directly elected Mayors under the typically control-freak, top-down system Labour devised, we have to find the most effective way to fight the system we’ve got (just as we don’t like first past the post but have got an awful lot better in the last two decades at winning under it). And with the London Mayor having executive power over eight million people, it’s a comparable job with the presidency of a small country. There might be an altogether different election taking place if power lay in the Assembly, but it doesn’t. This is an election for a person, and thank goodness we’ve got an appropriate person for it.

If you look at Brian’s latest leaflet, his record calls up two powerful secondary messages, ‘trust’ and ‘tough on crime’. Trust is a rare commodity in politicians; crime is an issue on which it’s difficult to sound both Liberal and populist. Both are powerful messages that he can pound home because of who he is and what he’s done.

Now, all political messaging is a bit crude compared with the people or subjects the message is about. I got to know Brian a bit while he was running for the Liberal Democrat nomination last Autumn, and some things don’t come across on TV or in his campaign publicity. Anyone who’s seen him at a meeting in person will have been enthused by his sense of humour, his ideas, his passion; anyone who’s studied his record as a police officer will know that his intelligent, innovative, Liberal style not only worked in driving down crime, but is flattened out of the picture in a simplistic ‘tough on crime’ sell. And of course it’s true that the campaign concentrating so much on one issue leaves Brian open to unfair criticism as a ‘one-trick pony’ from opponents pointedly ignoring the rest of his programme. But taking all of this main message together, there’s no doubt it’s very powerful: by virtue of who he is, people see Brian as strong on a major issue and know that he can do the job.

The Difficult Message: You Can Vote For Brian and Not Let [Whichever You Hate Most] In

As an individual, then, Brian is a very strong candidate. He appeals to Londoners way past the ‘average’ Liberal Democrat candidate. However, there’s another message he needs to get across, and it’s the one where great Lib Dem candidates so often come unstuck. Worse, to get the message across means getting people to understand something that has three of the biggest drawbacks to any political message: it runs against what people generally think is true; it seems an esoteric piece of political nerdery; and it’s boring. This means it needs a lot of work to make it palatable. The second message is that people can vote for Brian because he’s the best candidate without fear of letting someone else in. This is a far trickier one to get across, and one I’ve not seen tackled head-on so far by his campaign. Well, I think it needs to rush up the pecking order, because otherwise people will vote negatively and Brian – like so many excellent Lib Dems before him – is likely to get squeezed.

Polling so far has been very limited regarding the London campaign. One poll last year sampled fewer than 300 Londoners – far fewer than any reputable poll would quote to avoid error – but put Mr Livingstone a little ahead of Mr Johnson, with Brian far behind. A poll by Pink News last week was similarly questionable but much more hopeful, making it a fight between Brian and Mr Livingstone with Brian coming out narrowly on top. Another recent poll (by the Evening Standard?) suggested that half of Londoners would be willing to vote for Brian. Obviously, the poll that has got all the attention is the one fitting into the pre-formed media conception that it will be a dreary Labour-Tory fight, but that says more about the people reporting than the reliability of the polling.

The truth is, no-one knows how the votes will split in May, and no-one has yet attempted to form a reliable indication. Despite that, Brian starts at a disadvantage – the disadvantage of inertia and received opinion. The media report a ‘Ken and Boris’ fight for several reasons: many are partisan and simply fall along Labour or Tory lines; many are more excited by two larger-than-life, scandal-ridden caricatures than who looking at who might do a good job, the politics of light entertainment over substance; many are simply too lazy to see beyond the two-party box they’ve always been stuck in. They are fed by Labour and the Tories, each of whom is desperate to keep the perception of a two-party fight. Mr Johnson’s campaign can’t win, but obviously needs to keep their man seen as the challenger to avoid disintegration. Mr Livingstone’s campaign is very happy with a maverick Tory as his main opponent, because he knows that however high the Tory vote might inflate, it will never be high enough to beat him, and that once the second vote comes in, the vast majority of people who backed any other candidate will prefer a bullying liar to a certifiable disaster and hand victory to Mr Livingstone. Mr Livingstone, simply, wants only to fight Mr Johnson because he knows Mr Johnson will lose.

The Labour Party’s most powerful weapon against the Liberal Democrats is not hope, but fear. After eight years of Mr Livingstone’s London, and his hand in running the city going back a full quarter of a century, no-one believes he’s going to make anything better. He’s had his chance; he might have claimed to be the anti-establishment candidate when standing the first time as a fake independent, and Londoners might have been happy to give him a chance to ‘make right’ Mrs Thatcher’s crushing of London democracy, but he’s now been the establishment for a good many years. He still loves to fight old battles against Mrs Thatcher, but when some voters going to the polls this May were born mere months before she left office, it’s time to demand more from a Mayor than an ’80s tribute band.

With Mr Livingstone a shop-soiled bully who’s run so low on ideas that he has screaming fits against anyone who questions him, it’s no wonder that he’s the Labour Party’s greatest living exponent of the election pitch against Liberal Democrats who’d do a better job which I’ve previously characterised as ‘We’re s**t, and we know we are, but, oooooh! The Tories! Scary!’ The last General Election: Mr Livingstone talked up the Tories to frighten disillusioned former Labour supporters back ‘home’. The last Mayoral election: Mr Livingstone talked up the Tories to frighten disillusioned former Labour supporters back ‘home’. The Brent by-election: Mr Livingstone talked up the Tories to frighten disillusioned former Labour supporters back ‘home’. You’d think even the laziest journo would have spotted the pattern by now, especially when the Tories followed Mr Livingstone’s completely truthful and not at all tactical predictions and romped to victory in the 2005 General Election (er, in which the Tories got fewer than 200 seats), the 2004 Mayoral election (er, in which Mr Livingstone beat the Tory first by 7% and then by 9% on the final count) and of course Brent East (er, in which the Tories trailed a very distant third, with Sarah Teather still the Liberal Democrat MP to this day).

Electoral history, too, suggests that Brian will have a hard time beating the squeeze, and not just electoral history in London Mayoral elections. It’s a bit of a simplification but still generally true that, the bigger the constituency, the worse Lib Dems do (bigger in terms of population; we dominate the map of Scotland through huge rural seats that vote for us). We do best in local elections, quite a bit less well in general elections, and worse still in Euro-elections. Part of that is to do with policy issues, but so few people know anything about our mountains of policy that it’s blindingly obvious the main problem is electoral credibility. The media, Labour and the Tories and received wisdom always say we can’t win. Among the relatively small number of people in a ward, it’s relatively easy to contact people, build support and foster a sense that we can win, then do so. A Parliamentary constituency is that much larger, and so it’s that much more difficult to persuade people they’re not wasting their vote. A Euro-constituency is much larger still. Across a city of eight million people in 32 boroughs, the big problem is persuading people who would quite like Brian to be Mayor that they won’t waste their vote if they use it on him.

I believe Brian would be a superb Mayor. I admire his record in working with people and tackling crime. I trust his judgement in getting things done. But I also want Mr Livingstone out of office – although he achieved quite a bit to start with, he’s long since run out of ideas, he lies shamelessly, he employs crooks, he sucks up to the establishment of which he’s a key part, and most of all he’s a bullying egomaniac who puts the Labour Party ahead of Londoners and Ken Livingstone ahead of the Labour Party. So part of the reason I support Brian, not the main part by any means but still a persuasive one, is the negative feeling that Brian is the only person who can defeat Mr Livingstone. And this is clearly a motivation recognised by Brian and his campaign team – I’ve seen him use that line in interviews.

The trouble is, at the moment no-one but political junkies like me will believe it. As I said above, it runs against what people generally think is true, when they’ve all been told it’s just ‘Ken vs Boris’. So I don’t think it’s any use Brian coming out with the statement that only he can beat Mr Livingstone from a standing start. There are some counter-intuitive statements that make people sit up and pay attention, but this is one of those counter-intuitive statements that make people think ‘he’s just telling porkies’ and switch off. This message needs serious re-focusing to get across, because it’s really the secondary message once people have already understood something else that, at the moment, they simply don’t. And the reason why it’s so urgent to work on how to get people to understand how Brian could beat Mr Livingstone is that we have only two months to communicate something that seems to most people, as I said above, both an esoteric piece of political nerdery and very boring to boot.

Fortunately, and however tedious a piece of political trivia it may seem, there is a way to counter the Labour-Tory squeeze for London Mayor. Though lazy journalists and calculatingly dishonest politicians do nothing to inform the public, this election is not decided by the same first past the post system that Londoners use for their MPs and councillors. Instead, everyone has two votes for Mayor, so that if your first choice doesn’t make it, your second choice might.

When the vote’s counted, if your top choice isn’t in the top two, they look at your second choice. If that one’s in the top two, your vote just gets added to their stack.

Now, most very politically aware people know this. The trouble is, that’s a tiny fraction of the population; most people decide they have better things to do. But it’s the proof that when Mr Livingstone tells Londoners that if they vote for Brian, Mr Johnson will get in, he knows he’s lying through his teeth. The only reason why Brian should get the traditional ‘squeeze’ is inertia – and Labour and the Tories are very happy to have it that way. But what the Liberal Democrats in London need to get across is that you can vote for Brian first, and then – if he were to come third – their second vote can go to stop Mr Johnson, or Mr Livingstone, whichever they find more terrifying.

Either way, what Brian’s campaign desperately needs people to understand, and can’t start early enough on persuading Londoners, is that you can vote for hope first and let your back-up vote be about fear without any danger that you will ‘let in’ your least favourite candidate. And if Londoners get to understand that truth, then Brian’s big advantage starts to work: that all the evidence (from previous London Mayoral elections, from the Pink poll which actually bothered to use the system) is that people give their second preferences strongly to the Liberal Democrat candidate. So, if Brian can avoid that squeeze and get into one of the top two places, he’s very highly probable to get a lot more transferred vote than Mr Livingstone will (and far more than Mr Johnson could), and that means he’s the only candidate who, in that final run-off, could actually beat Mr Livingstone. But it’s no use just jumping straight to that point before people understand how the system enables that to happen.

I don’t know the best way to get this across, but I do know that unless Brian’s campaign cracks it and repeats the message again and again until everyone knows it, he will be squeezed by two dishonest campaigns that want to pretend they’re the only game in town because the other is too appalling to bear. I know plenty of Londoners who think Brian would do the best job and speaks the most sense, but are simply too worried that Mr Johnson would be a disaster / that Mr Livingstone is a disaster and feel they have to vote against someone rather than for the person they want. They really don’t – but, just as much as Brian has to establish himself as the best candidate (and is doing so), those are the people Brian has to reach.

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Monday, February 18, 2008


Alistair Darling on Today: Shattered Credibility and An Incredible Interview

Oh my. Regular readers will know I often find interviews on the Today Programme frustrating, rubbish or just plain barking. This morning’s ten past eight special, however, may have found a new winner. Alistair Darling’s outright stream of lies just now was the least convincing performance I can remember, making Andy Burnham seem almost informed and David Cameron seem borderline competent. It hinged, or perhaps unhinged, on his trying to persuade John Humphrys and the listener that the words “I agree with my Honourable Friend” in fact meant ‘I reserve my position entirely and in no way endorse your view’. Mr Humphrys wasn’t having it. I doubt a single listener in the country believed the Chancellor, either.

Labour’s Ex-Policy On Northern Rock: Close Your Eyes and Wish For Luck

We all know that it’s embarrassing for the Labour Government that they’ve been forced to nationalise Northern Rock after months not only of dithering but of constantly attacking Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor Vince Cable for, er, saying they had to nationalise. The months of dithering since Vince set out the cold facts as to why temporary nationalisation was the least worst option haven’t changed any of those facts, but they have changed the amount of taxpayers’ money the Labour Government was pouring down the drain: Mr Darling has unnecessarily lost many millions more to stave off the moment when he’d have to capitulate and nationalise. That’s a very expensive piece of political vanity. It’s been clear for many months now that a realistic private deal that would safeguard taxpayers’ money was sheer fantasy.

Richard Branson is bleating this morning, but what can you expect when his proposal was to put in less than 2p of Virgin money for every pound from the taxpayer and only pay us back our money once he’d already made a 75% profit? I’m sure I’d be upset, too, at losing the prospect of so much money for next to nothing, but when the proposal was so Del Boy even this Chancellor saw him coming then it’s Virgin’s own fault for gambling the Labour Government would be dumb enough to take any deal to spare them from nationalisation. And, to be fair, for several months they looked like they would be that dumb. And I doubt there’ll be too much sympathy for the shareholders waving lawsuits and synthetic outrage this morning, either. Not only are many of the big shareholders speculators who came in after Northern Rock collapsed and was bailed out by the Labour Government, simply hoping to make a fast buck at the taxpayers’ expense, but even those who’ve been in it for the long haul have been treated incredibly well by the Chancellor. How many other people get the Government stepping in to keep their dreams afloat after the nag they’ve put their cash on falls at the fence? The shareholders would have lost everything had the Government not stepped in to save their bankrupt bank. Do they not understand what their bank having gone effectively, um, bankrupt meant?

So why did the Labour Government wait so long, and waste so much more money? Vince Cable has been calling for short-term nationalisation since last Autumn, largely because the Labour Government had already sunk all the taxpayers’ cash of a major nationalised industry but failed to guarantee getting any of it back. Back in December, Vince observed:
“The government now seems to have got the worst of all possible worlds. It’s effectively nationalised the liabilities of the bank, while at the same time it doesn’t control it, it doesn’t own it, and if it is sold then all of the upside, all of the capital gains will accrue to speculative investors and not to the taxpayers.”
The reason behind Labour’s expensive delay is very simple. Everything has been about not running the economy, but hoping against all reason that something would turn up to save the Chancellor’s face. And, more importantly, as my learned friend Millennium Dome has identified by dubbing Mr Darling “Sooty”, the real Chancellor who gives Mr Darling his orders is the Prime Minister, whose reputation for economic competence plummets further by the day. Soo… Terror and vanity. Great principles on which to run an economic policy!

The Liberal Democrats, of course, are a free-market party because we know that’s mostly what works, and so can advocate intervening from time to time if that works without having the screaming oopizootics. Labour are a free-market party – these days – because they eventually realised that being socialists was unpopular, and now they’ll do almost anything to avoid people thinking they’ve gone socialist again. The Conservatives are a free-market party by religion, and regard any deviation by mere pragmatic empiricism as blasphemy against the Church of Thatchianity; it isn’t necessary to test in which circumstances the free market might not work, because it always does (glassy-eyed stare).

That’s why in last November’s big debate on Northern Rock, Vince Cable said that short-term nationalisation was unpalatable but the only viable answer left; Alistair Darling attacked Vince, because he still hoped he might be able to look tough; and George Osborne attacked Mr Darling but had not a single word of alternative proposal, because his faith refused to allow him to admit the possibility of such blasphemy. Of course, the odd excommunicated Thatchianist like Ken Clarke was free to agree with Vince on nationalisation, but – unlike Mr Osborne – Mr Clarke has run the economy, so what would he know? While Mr Darling has spent months dithering and praying he doesn’t have to face up to the facts, Mr Osborne has spent months constantly changing his position on everything but that it’s all Mr Darling’s fault, because he can’t admit the facts even exist. As Steve Richards writes in today’s Independent:
“Yet the Conservatives' credibility is being tested too. They began by supporting the Government. Subsequently they condemned Mr Brown and Mr Darling and warned against nationalisation without coming up with a clear alternative. Yesterday the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, attacked the Government for not taking the decision to nationalise earlier while making clear he still opposed this particular course. Mr Osborne is getting good at having his cake and eating it, but this is not a sequence that suggests the Conservatives value consistency and coherence over opportunism.”
What Mr Darling Said and Why He Tried to Unsay It

Where the Chancellor came so mind-bogglingly unstuck in this morning’s interview is very simple. John Humphrys threw a quote at him with which the Chancellor had previously agreed, and Mr Darling then spent several minutes saying that, because he hadn’t actually said the words with which he was asked to agree and explicitly did so, he couldn’t possibly be associated with them. Faced with this novel interpretation of the words “I agree,” Mr Humphrys became more and more incredulous, as did Richard and I. A lot of the time, listeners can come away with completely different impressions of an interview – one person’s bully is another’s only way of getting to the truth – but I find it hard to imagine how anyone can have listened to Mr Darling this morning and not thought ‘Why won’t he just tell the truth and move on?’

I’ve already referred to the 19th of November last’s big Northern Rock debate in the House of Commons, in which Vince was practical and consistent, Mr Osborne was vacuous and Mr Darling hoped a magic rope would unfurl from the sky for him to climb. The subject of Mr Darling’s embarrassing lies this morning was this exchange, in which Jim Cousins (Newcastle-upon-Tyne Central, frightened of the Liberal Democrats Labour) asked him a question and he answered:
“Does my right hon. Friend accept that the policy of nationalisation would lead to a slow lingering death for the jobs of the Northern Rock workers, its assets and Britain's reputation as a major financial services centre, with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor cast in the role of undertaker—and that only by finding a successor business to grow on those jobs, assets and reputations can we offer any real prospect of the taxpayers getting their money back?”

“I agree with my hon. Friend.”
Now that Mr Darling has taken the course of action that the Liberal Democrats said he’d have to take all along, the one of which he’d previously agreed would “lead to a slow lingering death” with himself “cast in the role of undertaker,” of course you can understand that Mr Darling is very embarrassed. Everybody knows that admitting he’d said this would lead to headlines about U-turns and gaffes, and every politician tries to avoid those, but get some perspective, man! Any embarrassing headlines about what you said in a debate in November pale into nothing next to the humiliating headlines about the nationalisation itself. And on a morning where the Labour Government’s entire economic policy has just done a U-turn, the way to rebuild trust in what you’re saying is not to stick to an obvious lie and hope nobody’s listening. ‘I made a mistake’ is hard to say, but it’s much more damaging to have listeners realise they just can’t believe a word you say, when you spend several minutes insisting that the words “I agree” mean nothing and that because you personally didn’t say words that you directly endorsed you can pretend you never had anything to do with them.

Now, to be fair to Mr Darling, Mr Humphrys (with his usual lazy, arrogant lack of preparation) first gave him the open goal of suggesting Mr Cousins’ words were Mr Darling’s rather than merely words which Mr Darling had expressly accepted, and it’s also true that Mr Cousins’ question was as part of an attack on the Liberal Democrats – Mr Cousins and all those Labour MPs who attacked the policy of short-term nationalisation put forward by Vince Cable last year will be just as embarrassed this morning, and I look forward to seeing if they stick to their ‘principled’ and ‘informed’ attacks of the last few months and vote against the Labour Government’s nationalisation today – so I suspect Mr Darling just wanted to join in. But just as he wouldn’t tell the truth about being hardline against nationalisation, he couldn’t tell the truth about why he did it and why he slithered back from it straight afterwards: ‘I was given the opportunity to put the boot into a political opponent and, in the heat of a debate and being more interested in looking tough than in the best interests of taxpayers, I took it. But I realised straight away that he might turn out to be right anyway and immediately tried to leave myself a way out by contradicting what I’d just said, so it’s very unfair of you to say that I’m only contradicting myself three months later.’ No, that doesn’t really hit the spot either. Either way, he’d have had to admit that he’d been attacking the Liberal Democrats for purely partisan reasons when we were right all along and he was wrong. Unfortunately, just the act of nationalisation was admitting that in a pretty big way, so why not just say you were wrong and have changed your mind, get on with selling the new policy and emerge with some credibility? A desperately shifty Chancellor who won’t tell the truth even about a small thing and even when caught bang to rights is the last person to inspire fresh economic confidence.

This interview should be available on the Radio 4 website for the rest of the day, if you want to listen to the whole thing again. If you do, don’t stop once they finally move past Mr Darling’s denials that he agreed with what he agreed with last November. It moves into another Vaudeville routine in which he denies that he refuses to use the word “nationalisation”… All the while still refusing to use the word “nationalisation”. He just doesn’t learn, does he? You’d think after all the fuss about their never-ending spin, someone in the Labour Government would realise that it’s actions that count, not just words.

George Bush – the rubbish President, not the completely diabolically disastrous one – once described Ronald Reagan’s fiscal proposals as “Voodoo economics”. Before he swallowed that attack and joined Mr Reagan’s ticket as Vice-President (yes, the ‘I’ll attack it before I have to end up delivering it’ does sound like Mr Darling, doesn’t it? And what about “Read my lips – no new taxes”?). Mr Darling’s approach also seems to be based on magic thinking, a variation on the old idea that as long as you keep your ‘true name’ secret no-one can have power over you. He evidently believes that, whatever he does, if he doesn’t actually say the words himself, his trick remains completely invisible. Mr Darling, surviving sawing the economy in half needs a better bit of conjuring than putting your faith in magic words.

Update: It’s lovely to have been featured on this week’s Golden Dozen, and in Casting the Net – but as I didn’t get round to submitting my own nominations for the Golden Dozen this time, I ought to mention a few here. Three pieces particularly stood out for me, all on the subject of Northern Rock, and all in their different ways taking the Tories’ so-called ‘alternative’ to pieces. So have a look at what Millennium Dome, Paul Walter and John Hemming had to say.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008


It’s All Because…

Why has it all gone so wrong for the poor Archbishop of Canterbury?

Why is brave, righteous President Bush so unpopular that even the Republican candidates won’t go near him?

Why is there so much binge-drinking? Why do kids get ASBOs? And what’s the real cause of global warming?

This video has the answer.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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I love you, Richard.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008


A Government of High-Quality Fantasists?

The Labour Government’s fantasy world of choice usually seems to be an Orwellian dystopia in which they grab more and more power to run the lives of more and more citizens. In the real world, this is mainly ameliorated by their sheer incompetence. So many disastrous losses of personal data, for example, give the impression of Airstrip One done as a school play. But there’s one little Minister who seems different, who dreams not of an iron fist but a velvet seat. This morning Andy Burnham declared, starry-eyed, that there would be opera for all on fifteen quid a year.

Usually, Labour Government Ministers on the Today Programme come across as arrogant and bossy. Frequently, they come across as clueless too, which is when they start bullying to try to hide it. Their standard aim is to terrify the listener, and paint everyone who disagrees with them as in league with the object of terror to destroy civilisation as we know it: ‘Look! Terrorists! Hoodies! Criminals! Tories! Oooh, scary! The only way to stop them [this week] is to [insert bonkers plan here].’ And, that, of course, is their pretext for more insanely bossy laws which will stop us living our own lives, give the Labour Government supreme power and, um, destroy civilisation as we know it. This sort of appearance on the Today Programme usually inspires a response from me which a Labour Minister would classify as anti-social behaviour.

This morning, I listened to Culture Minister Andy Burnham and found an unusual reaction stirring. Sympathy. Disbelief, yes, but sympathy. He sounded like he wanted children to be treated as if they were something other than scary ASBO-fodder. Astonishingly from a Labour Government for which work is almost as much the Holy Grail of life as is unthinking obedience to the state, he even sounded like he wanted children to be creative rather than drilled McDrones. I could almost agree with what he seemed to be after – perhaps I was still asleep? No. Because there was one tiny problem with his utopian plan. He clearly didn’t have the faintest idea how to achieve it.

Now, boys and girls, what does a Labour Minister do when they haven’t got a clue how to do something?

George – don’t do that.

Yes, that’s right. They tell everyone else that they’re not allowed to do it. But there’s something else they do, isn’t there?

No hands up?

Then I’ll tell you.

They set a target, and they give someone else responsibility for fulfilling it.

That way they can just give orders rather than ideas or money, and they have someone else to criticise when it doesn’t happen!

And I’m afraid that’s just where Mr Burnham showed that he was just a little Labour Minister after all. Having come up with the goal of letting children be more creative, he immediately reached for the target of making children be exposed to Labour Government-approved Sources of CreativityTM for five hours a week. Oh, Mr Burnham!

“Five hours a week of high-quality culture”

When it comes to education, my instinct’s always been that there’s a role for teachers’ choice, but that I’m wary of them when they act as a monolith; that there’s a role for parents’ choice, but that I’m wary of them when they want to deny their children access to anything that might open up their minds beyond their parents’ ambitions and prejudices; and that there’s a role for children’s choice, but that… No-one else seems to think so. On the national government’s choice and how it should dictate to every individual school, however, I’m less ‘wary’ and more ‘completely cold’.

So when Mr Burnham comes up with the idea of another target and talks excitedly about it on the Today Programme, while for once I can believe a Labour Minister means well, I just can’t believe how many ways he’s got it wrong. He was prefaced by a grumpy teachers’ representative; now, I’m not one to let teachers have it all their own way, but I couldn’t disagree with a word when this guy pointed out that it was difficult to see how five hours of “high-quality culture” could be stuffed into a school week already micro-managed by the National Curriculum, already required to deliver five hours of sport a week – dear Lord Adonis, I hated the one or two hours I had to do at school, and five hours sounds like utter hell – and when the budget for even the pilot schemes the Labour Government has announced (and pilot schemes always get more money, after all) amounted to just fifteen pounds per child per year.

When Mr Burnham was pressed on all this, he excitedly announced that his plan meant children would be able to visit opera and top theatre shows, galleries and dance, or they could learn a musical instrument, make films or do creative writing. Yes, said John Humphrys, but – and I paraphrase, but I get the gist – how do you do that on fifteen quid a year, and how do you make the hours of the school day bigger on the inside than on the outside to fit an extra hour to put all this (and Mr Humphrys didn’t even point out that most of these proposed quality hours of quality culture would require additional quality hours of quality travelling)?
“It’s easy to be cynical,” said Mr Burnham.
Yes, and I often think Mr Humphrys is much too cynical, but here there was much to be cynical about. Limited school hours – no solution from the Minister. No budget – nowt, zip, nada. But if we all clap our hands and make a wish, it’ll happen (again, I paraphrase, but not by much). It was at this point that it became clear that Mr Burnham was on a school trip of his own, away with the fairies.
“You are right to say that it’s an ambitious goal…”

“I’m saying it’s an impossible goal.”
Another morning miracle; not only did I feel some sympathy toward a Labour Minister’s dreams, but I laughed at that answering sneer from a Today interviewer rather than rolling my eyes. But none of it’s going to make children being exposed to high culture – however the Labour Government and its scary-sounding Youth Culture Trust prescribes it – any closer to being a reality. Mr Burnham’s ‘plan’ sounded more like a brilliant wheeze someone turning up to an educational policy consultation session had suddenly come up with on the hoof than anything that had had a moment’s thought applied to it.

Now, it’s true that Mr Burnham left dangling the possibility that some of this might take place outside regular school hours, but if that’s so, that would only raise the additional budget query of ‘where does the money come from to pay the teachers for an extra hours’ work a day, and the travelling time, and are they expected to have lives, at all?’ On Mr Burnham’s past form, you’d imagine he probably thinks keeping children behind after school to keep them out of trouble – I’m trying not to spoil my ‘be charitable to the Labour Government’ morning by thinking this is what’s behind it all, he did sound like he meant it – would be a good idea, and particularly for children whose parents aren’t married (something of which he disapproves). But I suspect the opposite would happen. Mr Burnham is touting this as the solution to parents who aren’t interested in culture, to give those kids a chance, and that’s a laudable aim. Without the money that, say, Nick Clegg is proposing to target on kids from poorer backgrounds, where will the schools try to get the cash for these trips? That’s right: from the parents. And which parents, according to Mr Burnham, would and wouldn’t be interested…? So the typical after-school ‘culture hour’ would be likely to go something like this: ‘All right, culture time. Posh kids, into the coach for Stratford-on-Avon; chavs whose parents wouldn’t pay, sit at the back of the classroom and do some creative writing.’

I’m not knocking creative writing, and I’m not sneering at Stratford-on-Avon, and when Mr Burnham talked of all the great places in Manchester that kids could go to see, my heart went out to him. But I went to a comprehensive, a really good comprehensive, a couple of dozen miles from Mr Burnham’s seat, and we went to Stratford-on-Avon just once in five years (to see The Merchant of Venice), while we spent an awful lot more time doing creative writing. I was fine with that – the single thing I loved best at school was writing stories. I wanted to do more of it. The thing is, though, it won’t give you a cultural education in the round; an awful lot of kids will hate it as much as I loved it; but, if Mr Burnham’s proposal goes ahead, it’s likely to be what almost every ‘culture hour’ consists of… Because sitting a kid down with a pen and paper (or a PC) and telling them to get on with ‘being creative’ is by a long way the cheapest option.

The problem isn’t just the budget, nor the hours. It’s the ethos. Just as the Labour Government’s plan to devise a national motto to which we will all no doubt be required to pledge allegiance before the Union Flag sounds almost the antithesis of Britishness, nothing is likely to put kids off all aspects of ‘culture’ than making it a five-hours-a-week box-ticking chore to Labour Government targets, and nothing is less likely to encourage creativity than being told you have to write a story because the Labour Minister wants you to be creative and, as it’s the second week of January, the term’s opera budget’s already run out. I wrote last year that the secret of children’s books is to write stories that children want to read, and the same goes for any ‘improving’ works to be delivered by fiat rather than letting people find their own way.

You can’t raise enthusiasm to order. You can’t promote creativity by setting targets. You can’t make kids loosen up by tightening your grip on every aspect of their lives.

Reassuringly Authoritarian

For all those disconcerted by a Labour Minister trying to do good in almost exactly the wrong way this morning, it may have been a relief that a few minutes later Jack ‘Boot’ Straw, the Demon Headmaster himself (insulting to the charismatic Terrence Hardiman, I know, but the name’s stuck) came on the Today Programme to champion some form of written constitution that would be more a safeguard of the Labour Government’s power and its ability to exclude people it didn’t like than a protection of citizens’ rights (and even that much is years off):
“Which would set out not only people’s rights, but their responsibilities.”
Phew. Well, at least we know that he just wants to boss people around from on high in the traditional bullying / incompetent Labour Government mix of a boot aiming to stamp on a human face forever, but missing and stubbing its toe. There’s no ‘Oh, so near and yet so far’ sympathy for Mr Straw, is there? If a right is contingent on doing exactly what the Labour Government tells you… It isn’t a right, but an inducement. Sadly, the interviewer didn’t take the opportunity to ask just what he thought he was doing by pushing through legislation to decide inquests from above by removing juries and bribing coroners, but it’s all part of the same bullying bossiness.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that the Labour Government’s latest brilliant database idea is to track every teenager from the age of fourteen, permanently recording their personal details, every exam result and every exclusion, so that if you get into trouble once then every potential employer will see you branded a trouble-maker for life? You could call it the ‘anti-social mobility database’. And the Labour Government has such a brilliant record with data safety, anyway.

Mr Burnham, for once I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you probably did mean it for the best. But you’re unbelievably clueless, Mr Burnham, and the rest of the Labour Government are scary bullies who dream of bossing everyone around and whose only limit is that they don’t have a clue how to make that work, either. So, for the sake of the children, Mr Burnham, your Labour Government has to go.

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You Will Obey Me!

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Don’t Open the Watch!

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008


The Time Meddler

…In which someone styling himself a Christian cleric devises a warped scheme to pick favourites and plunge England into a different century. But don’t worry – this villain’s rewriting of history is less demented than the Archbishop of Canterbury’s plan to turn the clock back, and you’ll find last week’s Doctor Who DVD release infinitely more entertaining than watching Rowan Williams. Set in 1066 (when the Church had a monopoly on reading and writing rather than just an Archbishop pretending they do), the centre of the story is a fabulous face-off between two Carry On stars, William Hartnell and Peter Butterworth. Oh, and skip to the end of this for a much less detailed set of previews of more of this year’s Doctor Who DVDs!
“So that’s it! You’re a time meddler – no wonder you wanted to get rid of me! …You know as well as I do the golden rule of space and time travelling. Never, never interfere with the course of history.”
“And who says so? Doctor, it’s more fun my way!”
The Doctor’s certain the TARDIS has landed in Northumbria sometime around the Eleventh Century – so how has someone been able to mislay a Twentieth-Century wristwatch, and why does the monks’ chant drifting down from the local monastery alter speed like a recording? This is the first story with perhaps Doctor Who’s most distinctive idea, of someone or something anachronistic, advanced and usually alien on the loose somewhen in Earth’s history. It’s a great example of the sort of wit, invention and setting that the series practises right up to the new series today, though on just a tad higher budget – and just as in two of the high points of last year’s series of Doctor Who, a watch is unexpectedly important to the Doctor’s discovery that he’s not alone (but more on watches down below).

Last week, rather than watching this exciting new DVD from 1965, I was watching the DVD of a much more stodgy old story from 1985. Yes, the DVD release schedules feel like time travel, too. In both this and The Mark of the Rani, the actors playing the Doctor are superbly watchable – Billy Hartnell and Colin Baker – and the scenery’s an awful lot better in 1985 than the odd tree stuck round a studio in 1965. But how come the later story’s the one that feels so slow? To say nothing of its both nonsensical and hackneyed plot, the terrible dialogue and that the audience laughs with the Monk in 1965, but laughs at the Master in the 1985 story where all the mystery’s gone by half-way into Part One. So don’t let this far superior tale from 1965 and 1066 being black and white put you off.

As usual, the story’s been beautifully restored for DVD (complete with a feature about how they did it), though the patchiness of the old print is particularly noticeable in the final episode. Good news: it’s cheaper than usual. Bad news: because there are fewer extras than usual. Good news: there are still quite a few extras anyway. In addition to the usual photo gallery and informative text notes to play throughout the story, there’s a commentary with companion Peter Purves, script editor and terribly nice man Donald Tosh, designer Barry Newbery and producer and TV legend Verity Lambert, recorded just weeks before she died. There’s a small obituary and a photo gallery for her – let’s hope for a proper retrospective when they get more time to put one together, as production on this disc was already finished last November. The other standout feature is Stripped For Action – The First Doctor, looking at the comic strips based on the series’ early days, with their wacky plots, the Doctor’s different grandchildren and his recurring foes the villainous, vaguely cone-shaped, robotic, er… Trods. Daleks being a bit expensive to license. It’s an appropriate extra, as the Monk returned three times – once on TV, once in a novel and once in a comic strip (the latter really wasn’t very good, but you can buy it in a ‘Complete Fifth Doctor’ graphic novel and it’s well worth picking up for the fantastic title story The Tides of Time). Let’s hope they do more of these for the other Doctors, and commission documentaries about the books, too…

The Plot, With Spoilers – Skip to the Next Bit If You Don’t Want to Know Who Wins the Battle of Hastings

Watching The Time Meddler in 2008, it’s almost impossible not to look at it as an ‘important’ story introducing so many plot elements that would grow within the series from that point on. But I’m fairly sure that for viewers at the time, another change was much more important. From the series’ beginning in 1963, the Doctor had been accompanied by two teachers, Ian and Barbara, along with a teenager – and although his granddaughter Susan (apparently aged sixteenish) had left, she was instantly replaced by near-photocopy orphan Vicki. Well, at the end of the previous story, Ian and Barbara went back home to dear old Blighty and their claim to being the ‘parents’ in the TARDIS family was never replaced. If ever there was a debate about whether the Doctor was the lead character, with The Time Meddler it was definitely over and viewers knew that anyone else could come and go. How would the series carry on?

About four years ago, Richard and I watched the whole of William Hartnell’s time as the Doctor in order (with appropriate replacements for the bits the BBC chucked away). I’ve always found The Chase, the story before this one, a bit rubbish. It is, but after following the continuing story through I found myself tearful at the end because Ian and Barbara were leaving – and never tell me they didn’t marry and live happily ever after. By contrast, I’d loved The Time Meddler since I first saw it, and I wondered if now I’d be put off it by missing Mr Chesterton and Miss Wright. Then I started watching this story and found that I’m a fickle thing, much as the audiences at the time might have been (with another twenty-four years of the series’ original run to follow). This one is great fun from the start.

The Time Meddler has a marvellous first episode, doing exactly what it needed to – provide a particularly intriguing mystery, and show that the Doctor and the series can get on just fine with just young Vicki and sceptical space pilot Steven for company. And the dialogue between them is great, the Doctor being both off-balance and off the leash now the junior lead talks back rather than being the ‘straight man’, giving us all a treat as they fling put-downs at each other. When the series first began in 1963 and when it returned in 2005, the first episodes were taken up with introducing ordinary people to the Doctor’s life and astonishing them with the TARDIS – because those people, Ian and Barbara and then Rose, were exploring what this show was all about on behalf of the viewer. This time, as with last year’s Smith and Jones that brought Martha on board, there’s a new companion but most viewers already know what to expect, so the introductions are much briefer and played much more for laughs. If you thought the Doctor was cheeky to mouth “bigger on the inside than on the outside” behind Martha last year, wait ’til you see him exasperatedly point out to Steven such features in the TARDIS as:
“That is the dematerialising control, and that over yonder is the horizontal hold; up there is the scanner, those are the doors, that is a chair with a panda on it… Sheer poetry, dear boy. Now please stop bothering me!”
Like Martha, Steven refuses to believe the TARDIS travels in time. As the Doctor was rather less able to steer it back then, rather than popping about to do tricks he merely argues waspishly with his new companion that, as they’re in the Eleventh Century, perhaps he should stop being sarky and notice. Picking up a Viking helmet with horns – you know, like they never wore, but forgive the historical inaccuracy for the gag – he waves it at his sceptical stowaway, exclaiming:
“What do you think it is? A space helmet for a cow?”
The story’s a great showpiece for Billy’s magnificent Doctor, given the chance to be gentle with Vicki and Edith; much cleverer in finding out the date than later Doctors’ “What year is it” clodhopping; acerbic with Steven; and by turns amusing and authoritative with the Monk. He really dominates this story, despite spending a week of it on holiday! The entertaining script really comes to life, though, in the many confrontations between the Doctor and his counterpart the Monk. Every time they appear on screen together, the quality rockets.

Both William Hartnell and Peter Butterworth are actors with great screen presence, each able to play both comedy and drama with aplomb and switch between them with ease as they and their characters fight to get one up on each other. You can see why one was the first Carry On star and the other went on to star in several future Carry On films. The Doctor’s companions aren’t bad, either; Peter Purves (Stephen) later found greater fame in Blue Peter, while Maureen O’Brien (Vicki) went on to more acting fame and also writes a successful series of detective novels. She was signing DVDs of The Time Meddler at Tenth Planet last Saturday, and if you want future DVD speculation, she didn’t give anything away – though don’t put your bets on The Space Museum coming out this year. Of all the pictures from other stories she was given to sign, that was the one that rang no bells at all (“Everyone had big sideburns or strange eyebrows?” She shakes her head. “You started a revolution among teenagers in black pullies?” “Did I? I’m glad to hear it,” and so on). But anyway, the Monk…

This story wrong-foots the viewers more than any other since the first story, An Unearthly Child, going somewhere quite unexpected just as they’d got used to the idea of the ‘adventures in history’ and the ‘science fiction’ stories being completely separate. The rules change here, as the future gets mixed into the past to produce several ‘What the hell is going on?’ moments of the sort best summed up for the novel of the later story Carnival of Monsters:
“The Doctor and Jo land on a cargo ship crossing the Indian Ocean in the year 1926.
“Or so they think.”
When we first see the Monk, he’s a mysterious figure watching from a clifftop as the TARDIS appears (there’s a marvellous shot of it from above), and not only does he seem to recognise it, but he appears to be wearing a ring just like the Doctor’s (something that was occasionally significant in the early days, but which was soon dropped). Clues build around him as more and more anachronistic details are revealed, and he shows his capabilities as he traps the Doctor. When Vicki and Stephen investigate the Doctor’s disappearance, they discover the Monk’s mysterious plans regarding the Vikings (with help from that hoary old ‘one fatal mistake’ slip)… And then, in the cliffhanger to the penultimate episode, suddenly they and the audience find that the Doctor’s Ship is no longer the only TARDIS in the Universe. It’s a stunning moment, recently reworked to similar shock effect when the lonely Doctor of the new series was suddenly revealed to be not alone.

When I was little, I didn’t know a lot about this story. I’d read that it had the Monk in it, who was ‘A Renegade Time Lord’ and therefore ‘Very Important’, but not played by Roger Delgado and so not as impressive as the Master (unless you take Cadfael as proof of the unlikely theory that the Monk and the Master are one and the same). But fan lists long before I ever got to see the story labelled it the first ‘psuedo-historical’ story, the first with ‘another Time Lord’ (aside from Susan, and still not named as such), the first ‘indication that time can be changed’, the first time what the word ‘TARDIS’ means is changed (it’s changed back again, these days, but the tiny alteration lasted a quarter of a century) and even, according to some po-faced people that didn’t like The Romans, the first ‘comedy story that works’. The last may tip you off that, unlike Last of the Time Lords, this story has a refreshing lack of self-importance. It’s the end of the second season of Doctor Who, but it feels like a fresh start rather than a ‘season finale’ – though the closing fadeout, with Billy’s voice-over and the TARDIS crew’s faces across a starfield, is sheer magic. Though with such innovation and revelation you’d expect an over-hyped, climactic end-of-season cliffhanger, instead it just gets on with telling a jolly story and taking the mickey, and I’m very glad. First the very funny novelisation came along in the ’80s, then I saw a repeat in 1992, and I realised that it’s terrific. Not epic, not awesome, not immense, but a great little story, with huge entertainment value.

These days I sit back and enjoy just how good these characters are, and all the twists and turns of the Monk’s plan. Is he helping the Viking raiding party, and betraying the friendly Saxon villagers? In which case, what’s that atomic cannon doing pointed at the Viking fleet he’s signalling towards land? Yes, he’s one of the Doctor’s people, but rather than just occasionally helping people out from moral conviction he has grand schemes to rework the whole of history because, ooh, it seems like a good idea at the time! He boasts of building Stonehenge with anti-gravitational lifts and he’s made multi-century investments for the compound interest (though the banks would surely switch him to a worse rate), while his ‘to do’ list is a scream. And here, he plans to obliterate the Viking fleet in order that King Harold’s Saxon army will be fresh, uninjured and ready to win the Battle of Hastings (JRR Tolkien might approve).

The details beyond the two main characters are worth watching, too. There are lashings of post-modern wit long before it was fashionable – whether it’s the way About Time 1 notes how everything works in the way TV does twenty years before Moonlighting was ‘ground-breaking’, that the Doctor’s missing for the second episode and the cliffhanger is that – shock – he isn’t there, or the way that most of the ‘technology’ the Monk has is from the ’60s things, just as Russell T Davies these days deliberately makes a series from ‘now’ appealing to and joking with the contemporary audience. And, like writer Dennis Spooner’s previous scripts, the humour is leavened by alarmingly grim elements like the villagers’ hard lives, the threat of the Vikings and, shockingly, the implied rape of a character we’ve got quite fond of, taken deadly seriously (for all those people who said Billy was just for the kiddies, and that sex was invented in the New Adventures, the repeat of this story was the most shocking sexual reference in Doctor Who in 1992). The depth and deftness aren’t just in the script and the performances, either, but in some inspired direction and impressive design that belie the story’s wafer-thin budget – you can believe the dirty Saxon huts, there’s one of the series’ better forests not filmed outside, and there are touches like filming actors from below against scudding clouds that make it much less plain the clifftop is in the studio. It’s not perfect, but nothing is; some of the scenes with the minor characters are a little dull, and the Vikings aren’t exactly sparkling. Their fight scenes are a bit feeble, too, but you can’t have everything.

This is a super little example of what makes Doctor Who Doctor Who – I’ve always loved the uniquely Who-ish historical anachronisms of aliens or time meddlers, a type of story that could almost be the backbone of the series. Right from this prototype through Pyramids of Mars and The Curse of Fenric to Tooth and Claw and Human Nature, there are great tales to be found when the Doctor travels back to a well-known period of Earth’s history, meets both exactly the sort of people we’d expect him to and some outer space people we really wouldn’t, and everything collides. If anyone’s come up with a better idea of the perfect basis for Doctor Who story, I haven’t heard it.

Watch Out!

Today is the 77th anniversary of the première of Tod Browning’s Dracula, one of the great Universal horror movies and making an instant star of Bela Lugosi for his charismatic performance. This morning, I trudged out to the doctor – not the Doctor – after some of the latest dreary things wrong with me started to alarm Richard when I spent Saturday keeling over (thanks for driving me to Maureen O’Brien and back, love!), and found that there’s a two-week wait to see the phlebotomist for some tests. In 1931, they were keener to take blood…

While I was out, I nipped into the local supermarket and – among other bits of more necessary shopping – got myself a dinky half-price remote-control Dalek to cheer myself up with. Some readers familiar with more of Doctor Who’s second season than just The Time Meddler may understand (though the cashier didn’t) why I laughed on hearing that it all came to £21.64. On Saturday, though, I picked up a new Doctor Who toy at Tenth Planet that somehow particularly appealed to me, though; ‘the Doctor’s Fob Watch’. I know, it doesn’t sound like the top thing for kids, does it? But after the significance of the Monk’s dropped watch in The Time Meddler, you might remember how important and unfortunate a fob watch was to ‘John Smith’ in last year’s fantastic Human Nature. Well, now you can get one of your very own, with its rather lovely design (albeit in plastic), lights and squeakily played David Tennant quotes. It keeps terrible time, though. And it doesn’t even have the excuse that it’s on Malcassairo time. Here it is modelled by our Moomin, Billy:

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To tell the truth, though, there’s something else that’s not quite as thrilling as it could be about the watch. Because, exciting though it is to have the nice Doctor speaking to me from it, what I’d really like them to bring out – and I suspect quite a lot of people will agree – is not the Doctor’s fob watch, but the Master’s. Because, though Human Nature was undoubtedly the most marvellous of all last year’s Doctor Who stories, the climax of Utopia as kindly Professor Yana opens his watch and becomes the Master was the most gripping quarter-hour of the year’s telly. So please, Character Options, next time let us press the button and hear Derek Jacobi:
“It’s time travel! They say there was time travel back in the old days… I never believed… But what would I know? Stupid old man! Never could keep time. Always late, always lost – even this thing never worked…”

“Time and time and time again…”

“Oh, it’s – it’s only an old relic. Like me. I was found with it, an orphan in the storm…”

“Does it matter…?”
Or the Doctor and his friends:
“That’s a TARDIS…”

“TARDIS… The time vortex…”

“Regeneration… Regeneration…”
Or a wicked chuckle from Anthony Ainley, then Derek Jacobi being much more sinister and evil Roger Delgado:
“The drums, the drums, the drums, the never-ending drumbeat – open me, you human fool, open the light and summon me and receive my majesty!”

“Destroy him! …Then you will give your power to me.”

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A Quick Peek At Forthcoming 2008 DVDs

The Time Meddler’s not the only Doctor Who DVD out this year – expect nearly a dozen releases – but since I rarely get round to doing these reviews, here are some quick previews of the stories coming up in the first half of the year. Oh, and the Beneath the Surface box that came out in January…

Beneath the Surface

Now, here’s a mix. These three stories, which Richard, our friend Stephen and I all think of as ‘Under the Sea’ after Homer Simpson’s song, all feature different ethnic groups of the same species, intelligent reptiles (misnamed ‘Silurians’) that lived on Earth before humanity evolved and went into hibernation to escape a global catastrophe – but though the stories all try to make the same sort of moral point with each group that wakes up millions of years later and comes into conflict with the human race, they do it in a textbook example of diminishing returns. The first story in the box is absolutely terrific and the series’ moral centre, despite iffy science; the second often looks great and is dumbed-down fun, but makes a horrible mess of the ending; the last is pretty much a horrible mess all the way through…

Doctor Who and the Silurians

This story has a lot to answer for… Reading its message that green scaly rubber people are people too turned me into a Liberal. It’s worth picking up the book, originally titled Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters, though it’s a lot easier today to get the talking book version on CD – it’s one of the finest Doctor Who novelisations ever written, with characterisation greatly expanded from the TV version into very much a story in its own right, though Caroline John isn’t as impressive a reader as she is playing the Doctor’s companion Liz Shaw on TV (her ‘Scottish accent’ has to be heard to be believed, but look out for her husband’s fantastic reading of another outstanding novelisation of the time, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon). As far as the 1970 TV version starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor goes, there’s a lot to treasure, despite a really naff T-Rex – a great guest role for Fulton McKay, some riveting dialogue as people (green and pink) divide into different sides about how to deal with the other species, and of course one of the series’ most memorable final scenes. Along the way, there’s a jaw-dropping documentary-style disaster in London, too. Really impressive extra: a documentary on the politics of the time and how it affected Doctor Who. Really, er, different extra: the earliest story to have its complete score presented as a separate music-only track, a feature which I love, always, and only slightly less when this one’s the attack of the killer kazoos. Probably the best of the stories so far announced for DVD release this year.

The Sea Devils

More Pertwee from a couple of years later, though I first saw it – like The Time Meddler – as part of a repeat season in 1992. This one, too, has a rare ‘early’ music-only score, and though I’m quite fond of it, it’s pretty notorious. The version released on CD has sleeve notes describing it as “uncompromising,” and if ever you notice an incidental score, you’ll notice this one. The story? Well, the Silurians’ cousins the Sea Devils are scarier but dumber and far less characterised, despite their rising from the sea giving a brilliant cliffhanger (one that inspired several more later in the series). The Doctor is increasingly unlikeable, if more flamboyantly dressed, and here faces off against Roger Delgado’s original Master, who’s in prison and claiming to be a reformed character. I suspect it’s not much of a giveaway to suggest he may be fibbing (watch out for a fabulous scene involving The Clangers that was remade with John Simm’s Master and more modern equivalents last year). On the down side, despite being slightly shorter than the previous story it feels much more flabby, it has the series’ crudest caricature of a politician, and the ending… Well, without spoiling it, it turns the morality of the previous story on its head, and that’s just wrong.

Warriors of the Deep

Bright lights; Cold War machismo; eyeshadow and morality applied with a trowel… It’s 1984, Peter Davison is the Doctor, and this is a story where very little goes right. The monsters fall apart – literally, in places – the cast are wooden, the script is clichéd and the Doctor’s stuck in a moral quagmire where the writer thinks agonising about it is the same as justifying it (even the much-praised final line is almost word-for-word from the final episode of The Daleks, twenty years earlier). On the good side, the Doctor’s companion Turlough is fun when screwed up to a pitch of twitchiness, the sets are impressive despite unmerciful lighting and the music-only score on this one is rather good… Probably the weakest of the stories so far announced for DVD release this year (though K9 runs it close).

The Five Doctors (25th Anniversary Edition)

Some series would have their 20th-Anniversary parties off-air. Doctor Who televised it, a story crammed with old friends – including Doctors Peter Davison, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, a bit of Tom Baker and someone pretending to be the late William Hartnell – and old enemies. It’s fun, but dumb, with as good a script as you could expect when asked to mix in so many ingredients, though significantly more plodding direction than you might have expected. This DVD is an all bells-and-whistles set, the 25th Anniversary Edition of the 20th Anniversary story, and includes both the original version and the 1990s ‘Special Edition’ (the only version previously released on DVD, though without any extras) with what are now much more dated special effects than those which were originally transmitted; will there be new new effects to cover up the old new effects? [R: NO! Ed] The best moments are probably Peter Davison’s emotionally affecting performance early on, underscored by evocative music, before the vivid cartoons of his other selves turn up – and the lovely pre-credits clip of William Hartnell, which is unfortunately more stylish than all the rest of it.

Sadly, despite all the extras that will be crammed onto this two-disc set (and probably due to shameless breakage of copyright), what’s by far the most exciting version of the story won’t be on the DVD – you can, however, enjoy both Part One and Part Two of it on YouTube. Do. It’s a work of genius, for fans of the old and the new series alike.

The Invasion of Time

Tom Baker as the Doctor, Louise Jameson in leather bikini as Leela and the tin dog – probably the best-remembered of all the line-ups from the original series, and all good characters, but rather starved of good stories together. The Doctor returns to Gallifrey and turns into a mad dictator over the Time Lords – you may, readers, suspect it’s acting, or indeed overacting – where there’s a striking mix of fabulous and wooden characters, exciting and very dull monsters, exciting twists and long stretches that seem to be made up as they go along. A lot of it’s very entertaining and there’s a great surprise appearance by the same monsters who’ll be making a surprise appearance in this year’s Doctor Who on TV (for once, last year I correctly predicted this would be out, and that there’ll be a box set of these same surprise monsters’ previous appearances, also now due this year). A lot of it’s one of the most inept ‘political thrillers’ you’ve ever seen, it treats intelligent, independent-minded Leela dreadfully, and it has perhaps the most thoroughly wrong ending of any Doctor Who story (yes, worse than The Sea Devils), both morally and in requiring the viewer to remember details of a very much better story shown a year and a half earlier. One to watch in parts, then…

Black Orchid

Peter Davison’s Doctor travels to 1926 for a comedy of manners crossed with Jane Eyre, all set at a country house. It’s short, it’s rather diverting and it has some marvellous frocks, but there’s not a lot of substance to it and it’s hardly up to Agatha Christie’s standards. Though it has one of the Doctor’s most widely ridiculed moments – ‘proving’ he’s not a murderer by saying, ‘Look at my TARDIS!’ – there is a strange sort of thematic sense to it; this story is all about masks and keeping up appearances, from the masked ball to the tragedy underneath, and the Doctor’s point is that he’s the only person telling the truth and so, literally, an innocent. Or it might just be very silly.

The Brain of Morbius

Tom Baker’s Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, 1976, and the first Doctor Who I ever saw in colour (aren’t hospitals marvellous?). And what colour! Mainly rich red, appropriately for the series’ most Hammer-toned Frankenstein pastiche, with more ‘unsuitable material for children’ than in almost any other Who story (naturally, I loved it). It gets away with the brains and the blood by being simply so funny. The dialogue is fabulous, Philip Madoc enjoying every word as an outstanding villain, and there’s some of the most stunning ‘architecture’ ever seen in the series for the interior of his castle (the ‘outside’ shots are less convincing, though). Of all those I know are still to come this year, this is the story I’m most looking forward to on DVD, and there are three things in particular to look out for: the way it turns the Frankenstein story that everyone else had done upside-down, by having the ‘creature’ in control from the start; the way it turns the ‘Hitler returns’ story that everyone else had done upside-down, by making Morbius the ex-dictator of the Time Lords and so making the Doctor not the standard ‘dashing British agent preventing them from rising again’, but a horrified ‘German’ stuck with the responsibility; and an enthralling climax as the Doctor and Morbius fight a mental duel to spine-tingling music (which, sadly, won’t be available on a separate track).

The Invisible Enemy and K9 and Company Box

At some point in the year, there’s going to be a K9-themed twin pack featuring what are in effect his first and last stories from the series’ original run – the story that introduced him, and a one-off spin-off pilot for a series that, unlike Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures, never got any further. On the basis of what we got, though, that was a bit of a relief – it’s not a patch on the two new spin-off series, let alone Doctor Who itself, and even The Invisible Enemy’s very patchy. Personally, I’d have gone for a three-pack of stories and bunged in another K9 tale that was more entertaining (Nightmare of Eden, say), but – as I said last year – if you want a box set that shows off K9 at his best, hunt down a copy of the brilliant Key to Time

The Invisible Enemy

Tom Baker as the Doctor, Louise Jameson in leather bikini as Leela and the tin dog – probably the best-remembered of all the line-ups from the original series, and all good characters, but rather starved of good stories together. It’s still true. A new producer had just taken over in 1977, and broke the bank on this one – some of it looks great, but with inflation and the writers’ ambitions both spiralling out of control, some of it looks downright terrible. The first episode is intense, with abrasive music, a mysterious catch-phrase and oppressive horror, but it goes rapidly downhill: mistakes include an outer-space hospital with a Level ‘4X’, which makes you think they couldn’t give one; an unintentionally funny giant prawn; and one of the two Doctor Who scripts that always spring to mind as riddled with such plot and scientific ineptitude you wonder if anyone had read it (points for guessing the other). K9’s not the only change to the leads, though – playing in effect a double role, here’s where Tom Baker starts a very different and more comedic performance, but also where free-thinking, intelligent Leela is hideously dumbed down to nothing but a savage in a skimpy outfit… Still, these days, contamination by superbugs in hospital is very topical.

K9 and Company – A Girl’s Best Friend

From the opening sequence of perky pop over Sarah Jane jogging and K9 sat on a stone wall, you suspect this is going to be funny without meaning to be. Unfortunately, a lot of it’s just very dreary. Sarah is good as the lead, despite the title “Girl” rather doing down a successful career woman in her thirties and her having much less to work with from the script than in today’s smashing Sarah Jane Adventures, but this is fatally flawed. It can’t decide if it wants to be cosily ’50s Miss-by-a-mile Marple-style village mysteries, modern woman Avengers, transatlantic Hart to Hart, outright Wicker Man horror or something with a cute robot for the children. So it manages to be none of them. K9’s role is so minimal he could largely be replaced by a gun and a tape recorder, while the ‘clues’ to the double-murder-mystery (without any murders) seemed ridiculously clumsy even when I was ten. Still, the music always makes me chuckle.

Enjoy all of these, and whichever you buy, remember to pop your DVD into the player and hit play on each feature straight away, because – on past form – the menus always give away the key bits of the plot that I’ve tried not to.

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Lib Dem Voice Participation Up 100%!

Anyone remember that big row a couple of weeks back, with several Liberal Democrat bloggers complaining about Lib Dem Voice’s ‘Top of the Blogs: The Golden Dozen’? The result was that regular compiler Stephen Tall announced he was throwing open the nominations, and the other day I sent in a bunch, expecting my suggestions to be counted as votes amongst dozens of others. So I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue why it turns out I was the only one who sent any in. Surely Liberal Democrats are people who, rather than just whining, get off our backsides and do something?

I know I sometimes pull a face, too (and so does Millennium, which is more impressive) when I’ve written something I think’s really good and it doesn’t get a gong. It’s only human, or elephant. But it seems very odd to sulk in public, then sit on your bottom and not help out. Well, admittedly, I was sitting down as well when I typed out my nominations, but you know what I mean. If making any positive suggestions scores too high on your cantbearsedometer, what’s the point of complaining in the first place?

Besides, I’m sure it’s embarrassing for Lib Dem Voice when a great appeal for more involvement doubles the number of people picking their favourites to, er, two. It’s certainly embarrassing for me; Millennium gave me a very hard look this morning when I hadn’t sent any of his in, and my protestations that bloggers are like MPs and shouldn’t give hand-outs to members of their family (however deserving) merely led to a sticky bun bouncing off my forehead. I feel guilty about not including Jo now, but then she did get number one last week… I don’t envy Stephen having to have people get all pouty with him every time! So, won’t you think of the children elephants, and write in about blog posts you like this week?

There were, incidentally, a couple of suggestions I sent in that there wasn’t room for, so here for your delight and delectation is my Golden Dozen Fourteen Special Edition:

Lynne Featherstone makes an informed and disturbing point about the Home Secretary being the guardian of our liberties – yes, I know, but there’s a practical point beyond the obvious absurdity of it…

Whereas Paul Walter just came up with a stroke of inspiration so entertaining that a self-igniting Romney-follower with no sense of humour has already missed the point. As that leaves the other side without an advocate, can I just say that I was very offended. Whatever their superficial similarity (and no-one beats Governor Romney for superficiality), please remember that “The Devil” is a witty, charismatic figure who always steals the scene for me when he appears on screen and has an uncanny knack of persuading people to do what he wants. And no-one could say that of Mitt Romney.

If you’ve not seen Reaper, by the way, I thoroughly recommend it – it’s very entertaining, and thanks to E4+1, we’ve been able to watch it straight after Torchwood. The lead and his sidekick are both rather cute, too; one has a propensity for taking his shirt off, and the other looks uncannily like a young Kevin Smith.

Wandering to the US elections for a moment – and this will link back to Reaper – I have to admit I’ve not been won over by the treacly “Yes We Can” video setting Barack Obama to music. Perhaps I’m just too cynical. I do, however, think the John McCain version should have a wider airing. Well, versions, I should say: No, You Can’t is worth a look, but I’m afraid Ten Thousand Years beats it by a mile. There are so many brilliant elements that I won’t list them all, but watch out for the sign language and – coming back to the point – that nice young man from Reaper looking even less delighted working for Senator McCain than he does for “The Devil”. So that’s balanced my attacks on leading Republicans (NB: Governor Huckabee is theocratic loon, but in the miraculous event of him getting the nomination he’d make the Democrats a shoo-in, surely?), and my work here is done.

Despite the YouTube links in that last paragraph, this morning I’ve mainly been listening to one of my DVD pop video compilations, this one including Deborah Harry, the Buzzcocks, the Inspiral Carpets and, as I type this, James’ ‘Born of Frustration’ and ‘I Know What I’m Here For’. Not remotely appropriate for a blogger, then…

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Friday, February 08, 2008


Rowan Williams In Detail: Deceitful, Demented or Naïve to the Point of Idiocy?

Individual Muslims often complain that the press slavishly report the views of unelected, unaccountable “community leaders” – elderly men out of touch with the real world and unrepresentative of most of the people they claim to speak for. Today, many members of the Church of England will be similarly embarrassed by their unelected, unaccountable ‘community leader’ (though at least Muslim “leaders” don’t get free seats in Parliament to boss the rest of us around). The Archbishop of Canterbury’s nonsense has also allowed the Labour Government to pose as defenders of the Rule of Law, when they’re the main threat to it.

Gordon Brown Would Be a More Credible Defender of the Rule of Law If He’d Ever Done It Before…

When every newspaper and politicians of all three main parties line up to agree on something, it’s always wise to watch your liberties and check your wallet. For once, they’re right, though they may not all be right for the right reasons: defending the Rule of Law that treats everyone equally; hanging on to your power rather than let someone else make the laws; bashing Muslims… Take your pick as to the motivations of each commentator that shoots their mouth off.

Still, every now and again it’s good to be reminded that most of us agree on some of the fundamentals, though it’s off-putting that Gordon Brown’s defence of the Rule of Law was based not on everyone being held to account without fear or favour but on wrapping himself in the flag, and that David Blunkett this morning blamed “well-meaning liberals” when the threat is, in fact, from would-be theocrats, while Liberals are the people who seek to stop bullies and limit arbitrary power. Unlike Mr Blunkett, who glories in it. Well, let me take those as my ‘get out of being nice to Labour free card’, as this week of all weeks their posturing as defenders of the law should stick in their throats. Funny how they only do it when it’s their own interests being threatened, isn’t it? Rowan Williams wants an alternative centre of power to the Labour Party – and suddenly the Party of crooked coroners corruption spouts about the Rule of Law. Where was that concern, exactly, when they were introducing legislation to fix inquests at the desire of a Labour Minister, not an equal law? Where was it when they decided that bribing coroners was the way to get the best results? Labour are not defenders of the Rule of Law, because they don’t believe any law applies to them at all. It’s simply that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s attack on the Rule of Law coincides with an attack on the Rule of Labour, and that would never do.

The Reaction To Rowan Williams

If there’s one good thing that’s come out of all of this, it’s that most of the country is now as hostile about a mealy-mouthed religious buffoon as I usually am when listening to Vacuous Platitude for the Day. For another, it’s always a relief when, of all the different stances being taken, the person whose comment most nails the issue – setting out that the Rule of Law is all about equality before the law – is my own Party Leader. Step forward, Nick Clegg:
“Equality before the law is part of the glue that binds our society together. We cannot have a situation where there is one law for one person and different laws for another.
“There is a huge difference between respecting people's right to follow their own beliefs and allowing them to excuse themselves from the rule of law.”
Rowan Williams made a point of starting his speech with an in-depth and occasionally informative discussion of Sharia Law, perhaps in order to distract attention from his argument for special religious rights in general. I’m not going to discuss Sharia Law in detail, because it’s the more general threat to the Rule of Law that I wish to illuminate. I’m not a fan of Sharia Law; of all the theocratic legal systems operating in the world today, the strict Sharia implementation of Iran is the one I would least like to live under, because after they chopped my head off I wouldn’t live very long. However, that’s not a particularly likely legal code to be enforced on me or other people in Britain, so while much of the press coverage and political posturings are rooted in dislike of Sharia rather than support for the Rule of Law – most blatantly in today’s front page of the Daily Diana: ‘MUSLIM LAWS MUST COME TO BRITAIN,’ subtly accompanied in the completely separate secondary front-page story by a picture of Abu Hamza – my wariness is of what the more mealy-mouthed, ‘moderate’ religious power-grabbers like the Archbishop of Canterbury would do to the law if they got their beringed fingers on it. Well, any more than they already do by being seated in the House of Lords without anyone having the power to choose them or kick them out.

So what is there to worry about? First, that this is all an excuse for religion having more of a say, not through the ballot box but through ghettoisation and through holes in the law punched by unelected bishops. Both threats are serious. Leading Christian churches in Britain have form about their desire to get special treatment for themselves in the law and their even greater desire to discriminate against other people. I wrote last year about the Church of England’s sanctimonious hypocrisy as they begged for bigotry, about them backing Catholic bishops’ demands to punish vulnerable kids, and about just why everyone has an interest in saying discrimination in the public sphere just isn’t on. The threat of ghettoisation is different, but just as serious. It will entrench social division and inflame social – and racial – tensions, by increasing the extent to which communities lead separate lives and see each other as having special privileges. It will make pick-and-choose legal systems common and unworkable, as people go to whichever they think will get them the best result. And it gets into a terrible muddle about arbitration. I’ll come to the speech in a minute, but – as it’s so careful not to say anything definite – it can be taken to mean that people should have the right to choose religious authorities to go to as arbiters when the real courts ask parties to reach an agreement. The trouble with all his fuss about a “secular government” forbidding such things is that, er, it already happens under the current laws on civil arbitration. So was he just saying ‘carry on as is’ and making an incredible hash of it? To paraphrase a comment by Will Howells, why call that “Sharia Law” when it’s just voluntary arbitration – we don’t talk about ‘Judge Judy Law’. Then there are Islamic mortgages, for example, which are clearly a useful extension of choice that both buyer and lender are advantaged, to their lights, by agreeing to. The problem comes when parties disagree. So was Rowan Williams calling for entrenched, enforced, ghettoised religious power? He talks in his speech about choice and protection, but if some parallel legal system is set above a community, what idiot doesn’t consider that community pressure may make it impossible to refuse the ‘choice’ of a religious alternative – even if it judges on an entirely different basis to both sides’ equality before the law? That is not a route to voluntarism, but to theocracy, patriarchy and social exclusion.

That “Misunderstood” Interview

You might expect this sort of debate to have started in a rarefied atmosphere of academic rigour, religious conviction and revealed truth, conducted by holy men – funny, I must have missed the legions of women queuing up to support the Archbishop – and only to have flared up into unseemly accusations when the squalid press and politicians intruded.


The Church of England bishops are just as arrogant and deceitful a bunch of spin doctors as anyone in the Labour Party. They’re just more rubbish at it. The key piece of spin coming from the Church establishment is that people haven’t read or listened to Rowan Williams’ interview, and if they have, then they haven’t read or listened to his speech. Yesterday afternoon, as the row was erupting over all the stupid things he’d said, rather than take responsibility for them we heard on the PM Programme a report that the Archbishop knew when he gave his interview that it would be “misunderstood”. No, you patronising pillock, we pea-brained commoners haven’t failed to grasp your mighty wisdom; we disagree with you. You aren’t “misunderstood”; you’re wrong. And then switching to an argument that you can’t criticise his interview if you haven’t seen his speech, all still before he gave the speech last night – yes, the oh so honest and holy Archbishop of Canterbury did an interview before he delivered a speech in order to spin the speech’s content, then complained that people aren’t entitled to complain because they’ve not read his speech. The flagrant dishonesty and buck-passing is pure Alastair Campbell.

It’s tough, then, that these days us proles can read it all on the Internet and see exactly what he said. Among many gobsmacking moments of moral self-serving and philosophical ineptitude, he said that an approach to law which simply stated:
“there's one law for everybody and that's all there is to be said, and anything else that commands your loyalty or allegiance is completely irrelevant in the processes of the courts – I think that's a bit of a danger.”
It’s at moments like that that everyone else thinks your lot is a bit of a danger, Archbishop. The whole basis of the Rule of Law is that it treats everyone equally. You don’t get off through special courts for the clergy any longer. You don’t get let off a crime because it’s traditional, or your family does it, or God told you to do it. And the law still applies just the same to you if you’re a minister – whether a Church of England one or a Labour Government one, even though both groups want one law for the rest of us and their own special privileges for themselves. “Cultural loyalty versus state loyalty” is a false choice – obeying the Rule of Law is not about loyalty to the state. It is about everyone being treated the same, so they can choose to put their loyalties wherever they like.

It’s fascinating, too, to compare his speech to his spin. Another thing he said in his interview yesterday on The World At One, the spinning to set the tone, was that:
“Very often traditional forms of mediation can disadvantage vulnerable groups, such as women, within a community.
“I'm concerned about how much choice the weaker party would have in submitting to the governance of these alternative forums.”
So isn’t it an astonishing oversight when, delivering a speech of whatever he likes that runs to well over six thousand words, rather than being pressed (not very hard) by a journalist over a mere few minutes, he neglects to consider that? Then he claims, successfully diverting the attention to Sharia Law rather than his own special privileges, that “Nobody in their right mind I think would want to see” the sort of extreme punishments or attitudes to women that often characterise Sharia; but where do you draw the line, once you say religion or tradition are an equal legal path? What is the philosophical line between ‘nice theocracy’ and ‘nasty theocracy’, other than knowing ‘I am nice; they are reasonable; others are mad’? It’s striking that people who disagree with his view of religion are characterised as insane, just as people who disagreed with him were later characterised as ignorant. Bear in mind, then, that it’s this nice holy man who opened up his spin by name-calling. Add to that the arrogant pomposity and contempt for anyone else’s views when he claimed that a Sharia system was “unavoidable”. No room for argument, then; so much for the claim since then that he was merely “opening a debate”.

What his interview boiled down to was that he was advocating several established religions, as long as none of them were too ‘extreme’, which would protect his position as head of an established but tottering religion (no longer even the main Christian denomination). I’ve an alternative suggestion. How about none? Oh, and the really priceless contribution, yes, you heard right, was that it will “promote social cohesion” to have different laws for different ‘communities’. And black is white, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.

The Bishop of Hulme described his boss on today’s edition of The World At One as “One of the finest minds of our nation” putting forward “a serious piece of academic work” and repeated the outrageously pompous lying spin that people who disagree with its assertions – you can hardly say it has a conclusion, if you’ve read it – haven’t read it.

If you read the speech, you’ll find that he assembles an enormous pile of learned texts and references in order to discuss them at length and allow himself as much internal contradiction as possible rather than bring the big picture into harsh focus. It poses as a serious piece of academic work, but rather than being so intelligent that it’s impenetrable to mere mortals, it’s an enormous ill-argued muddle with an impressive bibliography (well, it would have if he acted like a proper academic and listed it). In his repeated wish to take us back to a kindler, gentler Middle Ages, saying we can have all the cosiness of medieval theocracy without the unfortunate parts, I can’t decide if he’s deceitful, demented or merely naïve to the point of idiocy. If you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor, can he not see the wood for the trees, or is this a Trojan Horse?

Civil and Religious Law in England: a religious perspective – The Speech

Like James Graham, I’ve read the Archbishop of Inconsistency’s entire speech – lest he carry on accusing his detractors of not wading through his arguments in all their glutinous obscurity – so I feel it’s well within my competence to take apart some of the more egregious platitudes there. Probably the most dangerous is that he tries to stand his whole argument on the claim that
“our social identities are not constituted by one exclusive set of relations or mode of belonging,”
which is an obvious truism, and the syllogistic follow-up that
“secular government assumes a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity,”
which can only be the most dishonest of straw men. Who argues that we do have only one “mode of belonging”? Not the state, that’s for sure, and I’m as suspicious of the state as anyone. People are part of families, neighbourhoods, clubs, teams, countries, ethnic groups, workplaces and all manner of “social identities,” and liberal democratic states do very little to interfere with any of that, nor to pick just one identity and say that’s the only one that counts. But what about religious “community leaders” who claim that they speak on behalf of their congregations, as if anyone belonging to a church is of exactly the same mind, never mind what other “social identities” they might have? Absolutely.

What a “secular” state has to do is not meddle or boss people around – and I’m happy to give it a kicking when it does – but to act as a referee that treats everyone equally, allows everyone to choose their own social identities, and makes everyone subject to the same rules, rules that do not favour any one group, and that apply equally to the government and other established power. That is a key Liberal idea. Perhaps the first and most important. And it is no coincidence that most continental Liberal parties began as challenges to clerical power, while in Britain the Tories were seen as the party of the established church along with other established interests, while to this day the Liberal Democrats want to see the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Archbishop Williams touches on “The 'forced marriage' question” – but instantly elides it into
“custom and culture rather than directly binding enactments by religious authority,”
dodging the issue of whether “custom and culture” might force people into accepting a binding religious authority. And that’s one of the biggest problems with his concept of “supplementary” legal systems. He pays great attention to the letter of quasi-legal structures, looking to give legal recognition to them within ‘safeguards’:
“allowing scope for a minority group to administer its affairs according to its own convictions… can hardly admit or 'license' protocols that effectively take away the rights it acknowledges as generally valid… no 'supplementary' jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”
What he fails to deal with is the effect of social pressure, that once an alternative legal system is in place for “a community,” whatever it happens to be, people will be forced to accede to it not by official sanction but by “custom and culture”. It’s back to those unelected, unaccountable “community leaders” holding sway, for which they will think Rowan Williams but few other people will. Every club has its own rules, but when you live your whole life among members of the same club, sub-letting the law to club officials and pretending that you have complete free choice which system to be ruled over is insanity. More mealy-mouthed windbaggery:
“making sure that we do not collude with unexamined systems that have oppressive effect or allow shared public liberties to be decisively taken away… Once again, there are no blank cheques.”
Once again, this offers no guarantees at all, and spot the caveats “unexamined” and “decisively”. He describes the issue of “the right” to inflict punishment on a convert as a “sensitive area” in terms “not only [of] legal practice but also in interfaith relations”. Ah, the good old days when the Church of England was founded on clear principles about conversion and punishment, that famous irregular verbiage: ‘I am a convert to the Church of England and the path of righteousness; you are a renegade papist heretic whose soul can only be purified by burning’. Religions love proselytising to convert others, but hate apostates who turn from them, in short. Tell us something we don’t know… And, again, this isn’t something he explores in any detail for fear of admitting that all religions believe their club is right and all the others are wrong. Which would be a bit of a problem for his argument, and for the continuing project espoused here for all the religious establishments to band together in support of each others’ hanging on to as much influence as possible to stop most of the population making their own decisions and as much authority as possible over their smaller and smaller bands of adherents.

He has two separate passages where he deals with the Enlightenment, backhandedly praising it in order to say that we don’t need it any more. To paraphrase one, he argues that we’ve outgrown the privilege and despotism that the Enlightenment railed against, so it’s safe to go back to Medievalism. In the other, he smugly attests that
“a universal principle of legal right requires both a certain valuation of the human as such”
is rooted in Christian theology, reducing the contribution of the Enlightenment to human rights to merely “a necessary wake-up call to religion,” and only mentioned in brackets at that! Mmm, do I smell martyr burning? Either way, you see, we don’t need such Enlightened concepts as a secular state that allows everyone a level playing field and stops religion being able to boss them about.

It’s that Enlightenment-founded level playing field that leads to his most self-contradictory wriggles, as he both admits what the Rule of Law is there to do and twists round to say it does the opposite. He recognises that
“The most positive aspect of this moment in our cultural history was its focus on equal levels of accountability for all and equal levels of access for all to legal process.”
But he immediately erects the straw man that
“it is not enough to say that citizenship as an abstract form of equal access and equal accountability is either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation.”
Well, that expands on the founding con-job on which his whole edifice of pretend argument totters, as I criticised above. No-one does say that citizenship is “either the basis or the entirety of social identity and personal motivation”. No-one. The whole point of equality under the law is that that permits you to find your own form of “social identity and personal motivation,” without all the many people and institutions who want to police your social identity and personal motivation being able to boss you about and force you to comply with their view of you. His absurd view of equality before the law is that it makes a level playing field into the limit of aspiration. The whole point of a playing field is that all the action takes place on top of it. He then goes on to pull out of a hat the brilliant idea that rather than “specific community understandings” being “'superseded' by this universal principle… they all need to be undergirded by it.” It’s unclear from his argument, twisting all over the place as it is, whether he’s now arguing that this is how it is – thereby contradicting his contention of a few paragraphs earlier – or whether he’s claiming that “specific community understandings” are necessary to make a “universal principle” mean anything. Either way, he’s talking rubbish, and when he solemnly condemns the way
“a narrowly rights-based culture fosters… a manically litigious atmosphere,”
it’s difficult not to tell him to take the beam out of his own eye, or the cross off his own BA uniform. What he is arguing for is not an end to a “rights-based culture,” but that the religious should have special rights and privileges from the top rather than going to the bother of wasting people’s time by suing for them.

Another straw man is that he pummels at great length is that having a right must not be the same as a legal compulsion to practise it or assist others in theirs. Well, gawrsh, what a revelation. I have a right to marry a woman (but not a man, thanks to the likes of the Archbishop), and to join the Church of England if I want to see my religion have a guaranteed voice on my laws (but not any other religion, nor none). I choose not to exercise those rights, strangely enough. He argues that one person’s right doesn’t mean you have a duty to help others exercise it, raising the case of medical professionals who don’t have to perform abortions, which again is perfectly fine.
“It is difficult to see quite why the principle cannot be extended in other areas,”
he continues… Then stops. Well, goodness me. Over six thousand words dancing around the issues in minute detail – which makes even my articles seem skimpy – yet he can’t find a sentence to give an example of where he thinks religious rights might encroach. Forgive me for being suspicious but, based on the voting and speaking record of Church of England bishops, I can only conclude that what he wants is not freedom from compulsion to assist in others’ rights, but freedom to prevent other people exercising their rights, with a religious right to ‘take offence’ allowing other people’s choices to be trampled by the pick-and-choose law.

Far from leading to the greater powers for religion that he is calling for, outside the Church of England mealy-mouthed, ill-thought-out, dangerous pronouncements like this will strengthen the case for it to be disestablished and the bishops removed from power over us in the House of Lords. Inside the Church of England, mealy-mouthed, ill-thought-out, dangerous pronouncements like this probably scare them off support for disestablishment, because if the C of E is left to its own devices it’ll mean they can no longer blame Parliament for interfering in their decisions and have to face up to their own prats like Rowan Williams taking responsibility.

6pm Update: The Archbishop of Canterbury is letting it be known through his spin doctors that he is “in shock” at the criticism. Apparently he’s also upset that several of the twenty-six other bishops given a free ride to the House of Lords with him have pointedly refused to back him. Lucky for him, then, that the Bishop of Hulme has added to the spin that people who disagree with his boss are variously ignorant and insane and that there’s no possibility that he’s wrong, this evening tarring every person who’s commented by saying we’ve made a “Knee-jerk reaction which has elements of racist overtones”. Well, that’s me and Bishop Michael Nazir Ali – not a combination I’ve previously typed – told.

Lib Dem Robert Shaw has also sprung to the Archbishop’s defence, calling me “childish” and “inaccurate”; as he forgot to link to this article, or to the Archbishop’s speech, why not read for yourself his in-depth rebuttal of my arguments [NB: he later deleted his article, I would like to think from belated shame though more probably through cowardice and his inability to answer the critical comments his piece drew. Obviously, it was easier for him to bear false witness, like the Archbishop’s other spin doctors and shills, by not dealing with a single one of my actual arguments, not quoting or linking to me, but merely mounting vacuous ad hominem attacks until he was caught out. As usual, self-styled ‘Christians’ can only defend their extreme views by vicious smears on their opponents and run away when their lies are exposed. Unlike such Pharisaic hypocrites, though, I was willing to link to his piece, because I believe the truth sets you free and so am not afraid of it. Ironically, the Archbisop himself has since deleted both his interview and his speech from his own website, too, as I found when much later clicking on my links above. I’ve left them in place to bear witness that I fairly quoted the people I criticise – even if they then try to cover up what they said]?

Saturday Morning Update: proclamations from the Bishop bunker are still trying to redefine what he said, but that’ll probably go on for a while; meanwhile, I’ve contributed to an ongoing Lib Dem Voice thread, which includes a round-up of Lib Dem blog links. There’s a good piece, too, by Matthew Parris in today’s Times.

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