Friday, September 30, 2011


Which The Avengers DVDs Should You Buy?

The Avengers is fifty years old this year, and at last it’s all available on DVD. But where to start? Strangely (but for both practical and quality reasons), not at the beginning. Last night, I celebrated one of the most important anniversaries in Twentieth Century British history in saying Why The Avengers Matters, how it changed television and society too. Today, I have a simple guide to those extraordinary agents’ DVDs for you to watch one of the greatest TV series ever. And if you buy The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection box set today, you can get a bargain!

Choosing Between The Avengers DVD Boxed Sets

You’ve got a choice of half a dozen The Avengers DVD boxed sets, and if you don’t want to get everything at once, well, I don’t blame you, and I’ll pick which are best to dip into first in a minute. But bear with me. If you don’t have any of The Avengers – and you have a bit of spare cash – obviously I’ll recommend you buy the 39-disc limited edition DVD box set The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection, which is complete. Completely complete. The lot… Well, except for The New Avengers, which has a different rights owner and which you have to buy separately (but quite cheaply), and for most of the first season of The Avengers from 1961, which unfortunately doesn’t exist any more. So it’s as complete as you’re likely to get, and it’s worth buying if you can afford it. And if you can afford it today, it’ll be slightly cheaper.

The Avengers Complete 50th Anniversary Collection has several advantages over buying all five of the one-season sets. It’s expensive – but it’s cheaper than buying the lot. And while there’s not a lot of range between different sellers, according to this price comparison site, if you order it by the end of today from one site there’s a 10% off code, which for this one stacks up to more than a tenner. It’s quite a nice case, though the packaging’s even more difficult to get into without leaving your prints all over the disc than it is to shake out the jammed-in slim cases from the season boxes. It has a whole extra disc of still more bonus features that they couldn’t fit on the earlier releases (though, and kudos to Optimum for this, they’re having the decency to bring that out separately later in the year so people who’ve already bought the individual seasons can buy it too). And – and this is embarrassing – if you buy them like this, all the discs work properly. For all these sets, for all 139 episodes, the picture’s been restored as well as it can be; there are commentaries, rare little clips, scripts and other pdfs, huge stills galleries (but not much in the way of subtitles). And then some prat at the DVD authoring house managed to let production faults slip through on most of the boxes. Now don’t panic: they’ve fixed them all, and each of the ones they buggered up can be replaced. But it’s a palaver, isn’t it? So get them at once, and because this big set came out last, you don’t have to exchange any of it.

But, OK, buying the individual season box sets has its advantages too. You get a few more extras to hold in your hands – exciting little reproduction press handouts, and not just on pdf. And you don’t have to shell out so much at once, just in case (in some Bizarro-world) you turn out not to like it. And picking and choosing encourages you to start in the middle, which if you’ve never seen The Avengers, might be wise. There were six seasons broadcast through the Sixties, 1961 to 1969; two more of The New Avengers in the mid-’70s. In six boxes. That’s because they some of the early ones went out live, and some of those they recorded, they threw away, so the few bits left of the first season are in with the complete second, and The New Avengers only ran half as long, so both seasons are boxed together. That’s six. So which to choose? Start in the middle. The Complete Series 2 is historically fascinating, has flashes of brilliance (not least Mr Teddy Bear), and changed TV – but compared to the rest, it’s much cruder, and it suddenly hits its stride a year later. The New Avengers starts well and has a handful of terrific episodes, but hits a steep decline. So be counterintuitive, and leave the first and last until a little later.

Which Avengers Episodes To Watch?

So if you were to buy just one The Avengers season box set, which should it be? And which episodes from it are especially tempting?

Most people would pick The Complete Series 5. It’s “The Avengers – In Color” for the first time, with Diana Rigg and American money, a massive international hit. And it’s brilliant. Or you might go for The Complete Series 3, the height of Honor Blackman, the original breakthrough, the strongest of all the Avengers women, much cheaper but inventive and with the scripts starting to leave the ground. And that’s nearly as brilliant. But I’m a bit strange, so I’ll draw your attention to the two others. The Complete Series 4 was the first with Diana Rigg, the first shot on film, and stylish as anything in black and white. The Complete Series 6 stars Linda Thorson, and is satisfyingly weird in blazing colour. Both hit just the right note for me between camp and sinister. But whichever you pick, some episodes are better than others, so to help you pick your year, or to give you somewhere to start once you’ve got it, here are a few to set you on your way…

The Avengers – The Complete Series 4

Introducing Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, witty, gorgeously shot in black and white, and the perfect balance of suspense and silliness. If you choose this DVD boxed set, I think you’ll find it’s the most consistently brilliant of all the seasons, though some episodes are more wobbly towards the end. And the very first episode in the set is the perfect introduction to The Avengers. As I’ve often said, The Town of No Return is a strong episode, though certainly not the best, but its first seven minutes are flawless: the first blast of that famous fanfare theme tune; a bizarre mystery played utterly deadpan; meeting our heroes as they trade barbs and make their way to the scene. Together, those seven minutes make up the most perfect encapsulation of what The Avengers is about, not least in letting you know that unlike every other crime-fighting / spy-busting duo, they just do it for fun.
“Are you sure you won’t have a marzipan delight?”
And once that’s – holding my breath – grabbed your attention, here’s my variety assortment (in no particular order, but with a one-line sketch so you can see which might be most to your taste) of the other episodes you might want to dive in with:
The Avengers – The Complete Series 6

Tara King is younger, more earnest – sometimes – and very easy to root for, growing as she goes along. So do the stories; like the black and white Mrs Peels, these superbly blend suspense and silliness, but here the earlier episodes tend to be the rockier ones. It’s more of a mixed bag, but its heights are fabulous. My personal favourite’s Pandora, but even for The Avengers, that’s out of the ordinary, so if you pick up this particular box, here’s my pick of a variety of episodes you might consider starting with:
The Avengers – The Complete Series 5

The most famous, the most repeated, the height of the series’ wackiness and depiction of Britain as a fantasy ‘Avengerland’, this is Emma Peel “In Color”. Simply iconic, though the last third of this season were made after a bit of a break and (comparatively) run out of steam a little. And if you choose this particular boxed, here are my suggestions for a variety of different episodes you might want to start with:
The Avengers – The Complete Series 3

A little more ‘realistic’ than the others, becoming a big hit in the UK but still with a limited budget, this gives the first, most physical of The Avengers women her finest hours. Steed’s often at his best, too, and Honor Blackman terrific; the downside is a much less polished production and the original theme tune, which isn’t bad, but disjointed and nowhere near as classy as that famous fanfare introduced with Mrs Peel. And finally, if this is the boxed set you pick up, here’s my pick (as with all of these, in no particular order, spanning various tastes) of the episodes you might want to try first:

Of my previously-written Avengers articles I’ve linked to above, incidentally, my picks for the best would be The Town of No Return, Game and The House That Jack Built, as I think I did rather well for each of them. But what are you sitting down reading them for? Go out and find the episodes themselves! And whichever you pick, enjoy, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.

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Why The Avengers Matters

Fifty years old this year, The Avengers is remembered not just because it’s the most Sixties show of the Sixties, or outrageous fun, but because, unexpectedly, it mattered. And there’s no better date to show you why than September 29th. Because exactly forty-nine years ago tonight, The Avengers – Mr Teddy Bear introduced viewers to Honor Blackman as an intelligent, independent woman who flung men over her shoulders. I’d like to say that TV was never the same again, but staid, submissive roles for women still can be; but this changed Britain by showing that they didn’t have to be.

In British cultural history there’s nothing like the Sixties, and in the Sixties there’s nothing like The Avengers. The decade’s TV is bursting with spies, thrillers, comedies, sci-fi, subversion of the establishment and celebrations of tradition – but only The Avengers did all of that at one, and more. You can’t place it in just one genre: it’s an extraordinary series, with extraordinary “agents”, and I’d call it “A fantasy of Britain” in the much more detailed article I’ll publish here at some point. But not tonight. Because tonight I’m thinking of the most important thing that made The Avengers extraordinary: that it rode old-fashioned Britishness and Swinging modernity with equal excitement – you might call it a hugely successful Conservative-Liberal coalition – and that equality was sexual in a way that no other TV show had ever managed. Or even tried.

Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale; Diana Rigg as Emma Peel; Linda Thorson as Tara King; Joanna Lumley as Purdey; all strong, independent women in their different ways, in a series that for the most part just ignored sexism and simply made women equal. All symbols of modern Britain, all partnered with the best of old Britishness, Patrick Macnee’s John Steed, a mysterious dandy in a bowler hat. It was sheer genius to make all the women ahead of their time and the man from a bygone age. And as well as lifting a glass of champagne to those brilliant women tonight, lift one to Mr Macnee, who was there first and did what few male stars would have done – let alone male action stars – by being both generous and secure enough in himself to let someone else step into the spotlight, and not just another man, but a woman who’d do most of the action (of all the many serendipitous accidents of history that created The Avengers, perhaps a special hurrah for Mr Macnee being raised by lesbians).

And now you’re enthusiastic to see this amazing series, where to start? Well, I can help you with that

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Thursday, September 29, 2011


The Hyatt Regency Birmingham – Or the Tony Blair Hotel?

Were you at Liberal Democrat Conference last week? What did you make of your hotel? And particularly if you were staying at the officially designated “Conference Hotel” – are they all that? In the absence of the Hyatt Regency Birmingham offering a feedback form on checking out, I’ve been having a think about it this morning, now that I’ve more or less recovered from Conference a week later. Does competition keep these massive hotels to good service and prices? Or do they know we’ll block-book and charge us through the nose…? Yes, you’re right, it’s not a toughie, is it?

Lib Dem Conference is always a strange time of year for me. Sometimes I get to make a speech, sometimes I don’t; sometimes I get to meet up with lots of old friends, sometimes not. I used to be hyperactive at these, crashing on floors and getting by on little sleep or food; my ill-health these days means I’m more likely just to get to the bits I can and collapse in our hotel room for most of it (most days I usually don’t get out at all, let alone feel I should be out all the time at Conference). So I felt a bit embarrassed when friends would occasionally tell me how well I was looking: I couldn’t help wondering how low a bar I’d set in their expectations. Does ‘looking healthy’ mean ‘fat, and not about to throw myself out of the window’? Ironically, I wasn’t well enough to totter over to the next-door Conference Centre for George Potter’s outstanding debate on the crapulent ATOS Work Capability Assessments that I’m stressing about waiting for. But being able to keel over in a hotel room all day is one of the endless things for which I’m grateful to Richard: it’s our one week a year at a ridiculously expensive hotel, and being unconscious in it at any time of day is a vital perk.

Or trying to be unconscious in it at any time of day, at least. I don’t know what you made of it, but while there are many things to admire about the Hyatt Regency Birmingham, having your door knocked on five times a day isn’t one of them. Or, in several case, not knocked on and just barged in. It’s not the staff’s fault, but hotel policy; make your bed? Vacuum your room? Measure your mini-bar? Turn your bed down? Clearly, some manager decided that customers would want solicitude, and to prove it must be interrupted every five minutes. But it comes across less as care than as intrusively frantic box-ticking whether we want it or not.

On the bright side, the hotel room itself was a good one – nice to look at, spacious (I won’t say airy, as it was the ninth floor and the windows were sealed), plenty of furniture and even (always the thing you notice) easy to get the shower to the right temperature. And a proper gush rather than a feeble dribble, too. Its biggest idiosyncrasy was the speaker in the bathroom, which whenever you turned on the telly would activate at a constant volume, whatever you did to the TV itself, and ironically had much clearer sound quality than the TV’s own speakers. Which meant that you could hear most programmes better when you couldn’t see them.

I quite liked the desk, too – handy for your laptop. But no points at all, Hyatt Regency Birmingham, for the wi-fi. Yes, it worked – albeit by having to ring down every day for a new multi-part special code – but when you’re a hotel that’s already charging such a ridiculous daily rate, £15 a day on top for wi-fi is taking the piss. Why do we put up with it?

And then there was the food. The hotel lobby looks elegant enough when you go in in the middle of the day… But try it in the evening, when it’s a badly-designed bottleneck, a seething crush with the restaurant plonked in the middle of it. Whoever thought of that one?

The first night, we arrived late and knackered after much traffic, and checked out the hotel menu online. And didn’t it sound good? You can see it yourself. Seared Hand Dive Scallops with Cauliflower Puree and Smoked Bacon… Flaked Ham Hock Roulade with a Pea Panna Cotta… Duo of Welsh Lamb, Mini Roast Rack, Slow Braised Shoulder with Bombay Potato, Humus and Tzatziki… Pan-Fried Breast of Free Range Chicken with Root Vegetable Dauphinoise, Creamed Savoy Cabbage, Black Pudding Puree… Well, we thought, it all looks pricey but sounds very good. We’d like to try several of those. Such a pity that, on going downstairs to the restaurant itself, we were presented with a much more limited menu that had precisely none of the dishes we’d picked out upstairs. So we both settled for the pork belly, which was rather nice, and almost (but not quite) what the online menu promised. Going back a course, though, Richard wasn’t impressed with his tiny starter – and both of us laughed when they generously presented us with complimentary samples of the soup of the day. Now, it was nice enough, but rather difficult to get at: hilariously, the spoons – teaspoons, not dessert spoons! – were larger than the tiny serving thimbles. And as we’d arrived late, the friend we called up had already eaten, so he just joined us for a drink – and after he only ordered wine, the waiter pointedly ignored him. Not even a thimble. And they did their best to chase all of us out as swiftly as possible, pouncing and removing plates and glasses the second we’d finished (even if we’d wanted to scrape them). Now, it wasn’t that late, and they were three-quarters empty – so there was no excuse of needing the tables, nor of waiting for us to be the last to leave. It was just rude. Other people might have complained; I’m afraid we’re British enough that Richard just tutted and didn’t leave a tip (the bill being outrageous enough). We didn’t eat there any other evening.

Then there was the breakfast. Not the best buffet breakfast I’ve ever had, but not the worst; the sausages were good, which was handy as there was a choice of only one type, but I quite like different types of egg for variety. No, it was just the same mound of uninspiring scrambled egg all week. Well, I say all week; we stayed an extra night to recuperate, and discovered that the Lib Dems had it good with the egg. The morning after, with barely a tenth the number of people down to breakfast, it was clear how milk-based the “egg” really was (at home I make it only with butter), and that they’d added more egg to it to meet demand through the week. On Thursday morning, it looked vaguely the same, but was clearly the starting batch and tasted of nothing but milk. I prefer my scrambled egg to taste of scrambled egg, not rice pudding, thank you.

So what was your experience of your Conference hotel? And if it was the Conference Hotel, why do we let them get away with it? Expensive, intrusive, finding a hundred little ways to charge you extra, replacing customer service with box-ticking that treats us all as ‘throughput’ to be discharged rather than the people who pay their wages… That all sounds very familiar. The Hyatt Regency Birmingham felt less like a hotel, and more like a New Labour theme park.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2011


DVD Taster: Doctor Who – Meglos

Tom Baker was often rather spiky in rehearsals, but it was only at the end of his time as the Doctor that he actually broke out as a cactus. In Doctor Who – Meglos, first broadcast thirty-one years ago this week, the Doctor, Romana and an increasingly knackered K9 face religious fundamentalists, scruffy space pirates and a megalomaniac succulent. Its DVD release earlier this year completed one of Doctor Who’s finest seasons (for the lot, watch The Leisure Hive first, then The E-Space Trilogy and New Beginnings afterwards) with a mixture of good ideas, clichés, entertaining performances and feeble gunfights. What secret lies beneath the sands? A pressing appointment awaits you…

Doctor Who’s Eighteenth Season, broadcast across 1980 and 1981, was terrific. Tom Baker’s last, it’s still among the best, and one of the two most thematically coherent (the other, fittingly, Tom Baker’s first), seasons the series has ever produced. Some fans wrongly dismiss Season 18 as solemn science – rather, it’s something wonderful and strange. I may be the only person who loves both this and The Key To Time’s Season 16 to bits equally, and sees that amid their very different tones, both are making their own sci-fi fairy tales (and if one lacks a sense of playfulness, the other more than makes up for it). The ultimate in Who ‘concept albums’, if ever there was a season that works best when you watch it all the way through, this is the one. Events cast shadows before them, and with Season 18 the long shadow of Tom’s departure, no wonder it’s so often hymned as “Change and Decay”. But it’s really the other way round – just as it’s wrong to see regeneration as a funeral, in a season of Decay and Change, every story features things set in their ways before collapsing, then ends in rebirth, whether people, societies or ultimately our heroes (this DVD’s extra Entropy Explained takes you through the end). Sombre yet still wittily quotable; beautiful but scary; with gorgeous music and every penny seeming well-spent on great design… Only one of these stories fails to meet such high standards. Obviously, it’s Meglos. Back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and placed all but two of the Season 18 stories far too low. Meglos was one of those, and while its feeble 188th place is a bit harsh, even on a good day I’d put it barely twenty steps higher. But even though it’s best when watched as a weaker link in a very strong run than as a story dangling alone, some of it’s very entertaining.

It’s my usual policy in these not-exactly-underrunning ‘tasters’ not to be too spoilery, so you read on without fear of finding out too many key twists from the end. But this time I couldn’t hold back an ‘…And another thing!’ at the end, so be careful to stop at the warning sign if you’ve not seen it.

That Golden Greeny-Yellow Moment
“I am Meglos! The last Zolfa-Thuran.”
There’s one compelling reason to watch Meglos, and it’s staring you in the face. Some might call this a spoiler, but when Tom’s staring back at you even from the DVD cover (quite a nice one, as usual a fussier version of the Target book painting, making the Screens look like wings) in his full spiky glory, it’s difficult not to come to the story knowing that, somehow, Tom Baker has chosen to interpret his role as a green cactus.

One of the more appealing elements of Meglos’ Golden Moment is that it’s all contradiction – it really shouldn’t work, but it does. Meglos himself is the season’s least well-characterised villain on paper, the clichéd megalomaniac his name suggests, yet another last-of-his-race without any noticeable related trauma but with an array of lazily improbable technical achievements for someone whose only other achievement is to sit and sulk for millennia, yet on screen he blossoms when playing Tom Baker. And while the logic of the once-standard four-part Doctor Who story is that the first episode is the most interesting, setting up the mystery, and the final the most exciting, with its thrilling climax, while the second and third of running around a bit tend to sag, Tom’s turn as Meglos impersonating the Doctor begins at the surprisingly brilliant first cliffhanger and flowers through those middle episodes but in Part Four detumesces like Meglos’ original cactus body before it. And the reason’s very simple: a clichéd megalomaniac ranting to his dim henchmen about ruling the Universe only goes so far, but a wily villain impersonating the Doctor in what’s until the end a far more controlled performance, ratcheting up the tension as to which of them will get caught, and by whom, is far more interesting to watch. And both the script and Tom are clearly far more interested in this criss-crossing than in the uninspiring big finish.

The Doctor is en route to the planet Tigella; evil Meglos delays him, and impersonates him in order to take advantage of their goodwill to steal their giant glowing MacGuffin. And after a surprisingly lacklustre first episode, this is absolutely where the fun starts. Tom always cuts a bold figure in this season’s deep red coat and scarf, but here he becomes sinister with it, climbing stairs like Dracula rising from a crypt, his usual grin dying into something sickly, and most of all a ghoulish, predatory figure turned green. He’s superb as Meglos turning the Doctor’s know-it-all charm into aloof condescension, correcting an old friend’s
“You haven’t changed, Doctor. A little older, a little wiser.”
“Oh, much wiser.”
then unexpectedly crawling to the local religious leader, then outmanoeuvring her by turning her own plotting against her, then consumed with lust for an object… All played with a dangerous control for the moment, all accompanied by eerily spiky music. But he really comes into his own when his theft is discovered before he has a chance to escape, and the stress brings some of Meglos’ cactus form through his skin – or even allows the person whose body he’s possessing for his perambulations to struggle half-free. It’s an impressive, ambiguous performance: does he look frightened, or tortured? Is he embracing the victim that tries to break out of his body, or trying to throttle him? And when he insists that “I am Meglos!” in between moments when his host (the John Major-a-like from House of Cards) struggles to take his own body back, it only underlines that he isn’t, less a self-aggrandising boast than a desperate attempt to cling to his identity, teetering under the strain of using someone else’s body to impersonate someone else again.

It’s no surprise that Meglos gains an opening when the real Doctor arrives and is, obviously, mistaken for himself, nor that the real Doctor gets both good moments trying to talk his way out of it by setting out three perfect possibilities as to what’s happened, and some bad puns (the old “Doctor – who?” gag has rarely had so many outings). What is a surprise is how stylishly the loquacious Tom we all know is intercut with a silent and alien Tom we don’t. And that, early in Part Three, is absolutely my favourite moment of Meglos, shot almost as a silent horror movie – albeit one powered by a striking soundtrack – when spiky-faced Tom looms and takes Caris by the hands. It’s an electric scene, helped by her being one of the few other characters with a character (the most down-to-earth, or up-to-surface, of the priggish Savants), played almost as a dance, but his pulling her back into the shadows is a disturbingly sexual threat.

It doesn’t last, of course. It’s ironic that the last moment of Tom’s Meglosian intensity is at the start of Part Four, as he breathes his reply to “Approaching full potential”: “Precisely… Precisely.” While plenty of opportunities are squandered in the middle episodes in the scenes where Tom isn’t double-handedly propping up the story, and they inexplicably ignored his doppelgänger to choose the least interesting aspect piece of the ‘action’ for the middle cliffhanger, any potential it has drains away in Part Four even when Tom inevitably meets himself and, with neither of him given anything to go on in the script, is reduced to staring at himself in disbelief at his own acting. When this anti-climactic moment is reached, viewers can appreciate Lalla Ward’s breathless reaction to two Toms, where one glance manages to say so much: ‘Well, that’ll be interesting for sex. But in the other twenty-three hours and fifty-six minutes of the day, it’ll be unbearable. And think of the gin bills.’ And while for most of the story, Meglos-Tom’s stunning facial make-up makes up for the rather inadequate cactus gloves, the Tom-to-Tom face-off ends with one of the series’ most gob-smacking ‘special effects’. But, like the Nimon, I still remember spiky Tom looking amazing in Madame Tussauds, so I’ll always have a pointy place in my heart for him.

Something Else To Look Out For

Aside from Tom, and Tom, Meglos is rather thin; despite all the slow running about, all the extended ‘last time’ reprises, and even playing one scene half a dozen times within the narrative, the episodes both underrun and feel overstretched. So the most important “Something Else To Look Out For” is, obviously, the rest of Season 18: the striking new approach of The Leisure Hive before it, though looking very much ahead of it (the two stories have much in common beyond Season 18’s overarching themes, from a near-dead civilisation destroyed by war, reduced to sand and ashes but with something tourist trap-y about the sights, to a sole human who’s a secretly green impersonator, even to multiple Toms – and yet while I can believe Argolis is a world, Tigella is just a studio); the season continuing after Meglos with The E-Space Trilogy of Full Circle, State of Decay and Warriors’ Gate, and then climaxing in the New Beginnings box set’s The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis, all soaring above Meglos. And with Meglos’ first broadcast starting back on September 27th, 1980, watching it yesterday it was difficult not to reach instead for a far more atmospheric space jungle that was first revealed on the same day in 1975 for Doctor Who – Planet of Evil. And yet there are a few other elements worth noticing Meglos for.

Lalla Ward’s Romana has far less to do than in The Horns of Nimon, but is still worth watching: could there possibly be any ulterior motive for the way she overemphasises the word “Lush!” as she aims it twice at temporary-husband-to-be Tom Baker? K9, doomed by this point, gets an infamous kick from guest star Bill Fraser that amounts to little more than a feeble tap, though much of his performance as a Gaztak space mercenary is more entertaining – with bits of the script designed as a satire on Doctor Who, even if mostly far less successfully than the whole of the previous year, a few gags work, and it always cracks me up when Fraser’s General Grugger hears a line of incomprehensible technobabble and grunts, “Oh, yes. Good,” like an uneasy viewer at home. The main problem with the Gaztaks is that, as villains, they’re not supposed to be the ones we identify with – and yet, greedy, grubby and dim as they are, a bunch of individual characters with different costumes and even some mixed-race casting seem more like people than the planet Tigella’s two castes of identical prim Savants and differently identical fundamentalist Deons (yes, I’ve just told you everything about their ‘characterisation’). Between those two factions is inexplicable ‘leader’ Zastor, played by an ill Edward Underdown, and it’s difficult to tell if his ineffectitude is more in the script or the actor. Wetter than a bell-plant salad, he was – many years and surely much lost charisma and beauty (of which I’d love to see any evidence) before – the inspiration for Mad About the Boy, but here he merely fails to interrupt other actors on time and throws away several of the script’s few good lines, most famously on the Doctor:
“He sees the threads that join the Universe together, and mends them when they break.”
I’d like to claim that the scary religious Deons are a clever prediction of, say, the Christian right ignoring global warming, but unfortunately the only drearier stereotypes are the pompously scientific Savants, with whom we’re meant to sympathise but who look ridiculous and send us to sleep. Even for a piece of badly constructed anti-religious propaganda, it fluffs it; the scientists are so naff no-one could side with them, and then the writers lose their bottle and at the end by suddenly deciding one character – of who more later – may be a murderous theocratic bigot, but meant well. Even such a crude analogy has its heart in the right place, if not its brain, and manages a few glimmers of, say, topical Republican Primary: the way someone threatened with death for blasphemy gets told off for mocking religious laws, but not the arch-bigot, so as not to give offence to her beliefs; or how ‘compromises’ with the fanatics involve giving way to every religious demand, but still end up with the appeaser condemned as a heretic for not going far enough. It’s not the script, but two other choices that almost save the Deons from drowning in cliché – Jacqueline Hill, first and greatest of the Doctor’s companions, returning to the series to guest not as sensible teacher Barbara but charismatic high priestess Lexa (fabulously declaiming “It descended from the Heavens!”), and the strange, gorgeous chant that accompanies them.

Don’t Shoot the Piano Player – Shoot the Director and Writers Instead

With most of the production values a good deal shakier than in the rest of the season, the music lifts it all – for once, a combination of both Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, probably ’80s Who’s most gifted composers. The Deon chant; Meglos’ own spiky theme; the dancing music as Meglos’ lair rises between the giant Screens (‘The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has this to say about the Screens of Zolfa-Thura: just don’t go there’)… Each composer has done greater work elsewhere, but I’ve still listened to the isolated score over and over, and it’s splendid enough to transport you when, say, planets are hanging in the sky a little too literally, or a spaceship that looks like a cross-breed of a brick and a chicken flies as elegantly as neither. And while the jungle design is both cramped and unconvincing, there’s some impressive design work in the dark labyrinth of the underground city, split across different levels, well-lit, and with interesting spaces.

Almost the nadir of the story comes in a moment that’s entirely predictable by thinking about what Doctor Who could and couldn’t do at the time: given impressive acting and music, a tense internal struggle for possession of a body works; given listless extras, feeble special effects and feebler direction, a Star Wars-style gunfight utterly doesn’t. I was only eight when I first saw this, and still thought all Doctor Who was utterly brilliant, but even I could see something was very wrong with a lot of faffing about with naff ray-beams and a limply held giant pencil that apologetically stands in for a battering ram. Pennant Roberts must have been livid: he’d tried so hard and so often to win the title of ‘world’s crappiest gunfight’ (as you can see in, for example, The Sun Makers, another of this year’s releases), then Terence Dudley swans in and steals the title on his only crack at Who direction. Now I’m a bit older than eight, I can see that the script is almost as limp as the director, desperately looking for something to pass the time and make sure all the people who’ve been ambling about aimlessly for two episodes can now meet up at exactly the same time as each other by ‘coincidence’.

Much as I adore Christopher H Bidmead’s brilliantly auteurish year across Season 18 as Doctor Who script editor, almost the equivalent of today’s all-powerful lead writer (without the power, or the pay, but with much the same creative impact), I have to wonder what he saw in Meglos’ twin writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch – particularly when he then had to rewrite so much of their work anyway. It’s like a script by a Terry Nation tribute band who think it’s somehow funny and original, with a ludicrous villain, improbable superweapon, several different deadly plants, dying and dead civilisations and characters fashioned from the purest cardboard, but with added Steven Moffat, as they think Doctor Who requires them to make it all about Ti…me (with little tributes to the story appearing in Russell T Davies’ spiny Vinvocci, and nearly a sequel in last year’s The Lodger, which had its own sequel just last Saturday in which poor Gareth Roberts was still unable to get the rights to the classic Meglos and had to make do with Cybermen).

Unfortunately, long-held fan claims that the authors were really terribly witty and only threw in clichés in clever, knowing mockery of Doctor Who are now faced with the Meglos Men themselves, both on their own DVD extra here (weird as all buggery, or, as they’d say, boogery) and John Flanagan as part of one of the range’s more offputting, self-aggrandising and unintentionally revealing commentaries, in which they stand exposed as piss-takers with a profoundly delusional sense of self-worth. Gasp as Mr Flanagan claims the badly written hoary old cliché of religion versus science stuff as wildly original and ahead of its time; laugh as he praises himself for ‘clever’ ideas he takes deadly seriously but which are clearly intended as jokes (and must surely have been written as such by someone else); restrain the urge to kill as he blames the script editor and the “very fast pace” – oh, my sides – for his very skimpy script underrunning; simply explode as he claims to have personally invented the concept of time loops and inspired Groundhog Day; fall asleep as he relentlessly not explains but summarises the plot of the story we’re actually watching. He even manages to alienate his supporter Lalla Ward – always looking for an excuse to kick this period of the show, but raising the tone occasionally by comparing the jungle to a Douanier Rousseau painting – by solipsistically getting her character’s name wrong, such is his grasp of detail. Thankfully, the two musicians also appear on the commentary and know what they’re talking about, though sadly they don’t get the chance to discuss working off each other.

The highlight of the DVD’s extra features for me is the rather lovely Jacqueline Hill – A Life In Pictures, a tribute to the late Doctor Who star with her husband and friends, and as affecting as the commentary is sour and ill-informed. Add features on the story’s special effects breakthrough and a reasonably decent essay style of text notes, and of course the lovely isolated score, and it’s quite a good little DVD package. The menus are as cobbled together as ever, though, and Richard points out that they absurdly miss the opportunity to have the scene that endlessly repeats with “Oh, blast, here we go again” (as every household in the country echoed at the time) endlessly repeating on a menu loop. If you have the novelisation, it’s not bad at all, notable for fleshing out the “Earthling”, George Morris, and for Terrance Dicks showing his script editor background by performing a number of neat little salvage jobs on the plot – I love Jesus H Bidmead for his vision, but you can’t beat Uncle Terrance for making things work.

Warning! Spoilers – The End

I said the paltry attempt at a pitched battle for three and a half quid and early closing was “almost the nadir of the story”. Well, there’s one scene that makes me snarl and swear so much that I can’t help but lay into it here, even though I shouldn’t – have you seen the story? No? Then look away now.

It is, of course, fantastic to have the great Jacqueline Hill back, but though she looks striking it’s not the most consistent part ever written as it all falls to pieces in Part Four: sigh as she dismisses Zastor and Romana as heretics, then two seconds later goggle as she asks his advice and trusts his simple word to justify not only his own sudden freedom but that of the most appalling blasphemer of the lot as well. And that’s not even the worst of it. Having spent the whole story as an utterly inflexible religious bigot itching to bring back the days of bloody tyranny, not only does she drop her new theocratic state within minutes of mounting the coup she’s spent so long salivating for, but she then sacrifices her life for one of the upstart scientific heretics she hates. As if to say that murderous fanatics are all right, really. And it isn’t just the shockingly poor scripting of Jacqueline Hill’s last moments in Doctor Who that’s offensive, but that it’s directed as if deliberately trying to illustrate a textbook on how to get every basic element of TV storytelling wrong. The Gaztaks have complained of their heavy casualties, which turn out to be just three people, and one of them still alive; having not been seen for an episode, he raises himself up at a handy moment to shoot at Romana; the ensuing ‘special’ effect is a single weedy ray from a clearly multi-barrelled blaster; it appears to take several seconds to fly a couple of metres, as we see him fire, then cut to Lexa shouting “Romana” and then move in front of her – and we don’t even see the beam hit her. It’s one of the most completely inept scenes in the history of the show.

And finally, many have noted that the entire Tigellan civilisation depends on a power source which no longer exists, in order that they can cower underground from the people-eating bell-plants which do still exist. So the Doctor saying a jolly goodbye to the comatose Zastor and wishing him well with a spot of gardening seems like rather an offhand death sentence. However, I have the solution to what happens next. There are three problems: the power having gone; the plants on the prowl; and the Deons, who five minutes ago were rounding up all the non-believers for death, and are now without their inexplicably deathbed-nice leader to restrain them. And on top of all that, no-one’s mentioning that the next-door planet has just exploded. So what the Savants need to do is to turn their power-absorption screens to the outside to soak up the massive radiation explosion – which means that living underground would be even more sensible, and that it could fry the plants, too; and also persuade the Deons to pop upstairs and wait for something else to descend from the heavens. And ideally squash them.

Or they could export a TV cookery show in which Tigella leans towards the camera and pouts, ‘Today, I’m going to be preparing bell-plants. Which look almost as rude as I do.’

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011


A New Purpose for Politics? Is It Bollocks (#LibDemValues 2.1)

An unexpectedly exciting afternoon at Liberal Democrat Conference has just seen a major policy paper – after more than two years’ development, the sort usually nodded through – nearly thrown out altogether. And what a shame it was only “nearly”. After decades of debating whether the heart of the Liberal Democrats’ philosophy is freedom, fairness, or sustainability, the Policy Committee tried suddenly to bounce the party into saying it’s “Wellbeing”. Yes, you’re right – that is complete bollocks. And I’m hugely proud of Richard, who today made his first ever full Conference speech, standing up for Liberalism against incoherent mush.

No-one expected a near-revolution against Liberal Democrat Policy Paper 102 – A New Purpose for Politics: Quality of Life. Richard and I thought it was just us. Perhaps if more of us had realised how little support it had, we might have organised a proper rebellion. It’s the first time in the Party’s history that a policy paper has nearly been defeated simply through a spontaneous uprising: it’s difficult enough to defeat the bland might of the policymaking machine, and it’s only ever happened before with co-ordinated planning (an ability which the party establishment belatedly demonstrated by ferrying people who’d heard none of the debate into the hall just in time for the vote).

There were three outstanding speeches against the policy paper: Jill Hope’s appeal that we should be talking about real economic issues; Richard’s storming passion for real Liberal principles and not just being fuzzily “nice”; and Christina Baron’s lethally funny evisceration of the paper’s new centralised National Institute of, or perhaps for, Wellbeing. In favour, Simon Hughes MP was wheeled out to considerable effect; former Alliance Party Leader John Alderdice was erudite; and the Federal Policy Committee’s Jeremy Hargreaves gave a fine summation speech (though less than entirely convincing with his rearguard claim that the National Institute of, or perhaps for, Wellbeing could both be petite and provide information tailored to sixty million people). The wooden spoon went to David Hall-Matthews for meanly trying to make Liberalism smaller and more exclusive, and trying to put lipstick on a pig with the claim that merely calling a top-down government directive freedom of choice makes it so.

Core Values Need More Than Wafer-Thin Support

In the event, the vote had to be counted – with a paper styling itself the party’s “New Purpose” carried by just 158 votes to 122, 56% to 43%. This is not a unifying theme. The question now has to be – will the Policy Committee listen to the opposition to their new ‘big idea’ and quietly move it to the back shelf, or carry on trying to claim that the party now stands for a piece of marketing mush that splits us down the middle?

If you didn’t see the debate today, it’ll soon be available part-way into BBC Parliament’s ‘From 2.30pm’ coverage on the iPlayer.

Update: Richard’s speech is now here for the next few days, 1.55 in.

And here’s a bonus – nothing could have thrilled me more than Richard finally getting called to speak and being so brilliant. But what could have thrilled me almost as much was if I’d been called to speak, too! So here, below, is the speech I would have given if I’d been given the chance (and a little bit more, having cut it down for time). I’d intended to expose the paper’s illiberal philosophy, and attack its dangerous demand to dominate our next General Election Manifesto. You can judge for yourself just exactly why the self-styled A New Purpose for Politics is such a wrong turning.

What Do the Liberal Democrats Stand For?

What do the Liberal Democrats stand for? What makes us different? What makes us bother? One word, one idea, one passion? Hold that thought.

This paper is fluffy, well-meaning and thoroughly forgettable. Who could disagree with “wellbeing”? And who could disagree with many of the individual ideas in the paper – mostly those that are our policy already? Even have to admit that bits of this are fluffy and inoffensive and even mildly attractive, particularly when it seeks to go beyond only economic advancement.

But there are three big questions to ask about the central theme.

Who will it appeal to? Who does it boss around? And does it work as our “New Purpose,” our big idea?

Feeble Appeal

Of all the many, many attempts at setting out our big idea, this paper is the most well-meaning, the most wishy-washy, and the least likely to inspire anyone that we’ve come up with so far. “Wellbeing” is something that a lot of people quite like – but that no-one would go to the stake for.

Who will so passionately agree with this that they’d swing over to us? Do we really expect anyone to hear this message and say, ‘Wow, that’s it, you’ve got it, that’s for me?’

It’s technocratic, not passionate – In Government, In the Minutiae.

Surely a crucial test of any political idea’s distinctiveness and passion is to ask, who would disagree with this? The other parties won’t. It’s a bit Big Society – and a lot Blairite. So it’s not just foolishly rebranding us as a tiny niche market, but one where we’re not the only people in the niche.

It sounds like we’re becoming the political wing of Waitrose. Now, don’t get me wrong – some of their stuff is nice, when you can afford it, but they have a 4% market share. Even after another four years in government, I hope we’ll aspire to be doing better than 4%.

Bossy Blairism

I’m very ill, very much of the time. I could do with a bit more wellbeing. But I don’t see a word in this paper that’s going to help me with that.

Instead, we get the Blairite bossiness of a ton of new “mechanisms”. A great big new National Institute of Wellbeing, probably headed by Tessa Jowell. Even more added to the National Curriculum, even though we claim we want to slim it down. Making “Wellbeing” a job in Cabinet, and even in the European Commission. A Wellbeing Index of large organisations. Statutory Wellbeing Plans and impact assessments. And a vast array of new Wellbeing Boards in every local area! Oh, god. It’s like New Labour never died.

The paper bleats defensively that it’s not for government to set targets… But that we should require business to collate many types of “Wellbeing” information, painstakingly, expensively, so that we can report on the targets that don’t exist. Have you ever heard a more ludicrous caricature of a Liberal? If you’re in favour of big government, you demand acres of data so you can use it to boss everyone around. If you’re against big government, you oppose the database state that intrudes into your business. But if you’re one of the people writing this paper, you want to gather every bit of information – so that government can maybe shake its head and tut a bit. Intrusive, expensive, bureaucratic – and pointless, too.

And it’s not just about the intrusive, expensive bureaucracy, but the tone throughout of telling people what’s good for them. Right up front, Line 5 of the motion tells us all – everyone in Britain, perhaps everyone in Europe – what we really all think. Well, thanks for that, but I’d rather make up my own mind. Liberal Democrats don’t say we know best – because everyone’s best is different.

I think that all this Blairism must have worried some of the people on the working group, too, because the motion gets its excuses in first, the introduction paying lip service to our core values of freedom but the rest of it pulling away in a completely contradictory direction. The two aims are mutually exclusive. You simply can’t say that people can all find their own way – then build huge new institutions through which the government will be dedicated to holding the rest of us to its decree of the good life. Even the resort to spin seems Blairite: sticking an article of Liberal faith on the door of a massive new state bureaucracy doesn’t make it small and Liberal.

Big Idea or Big Mistake?

I wouldn’t mind so much if this was a small-scale paper about small-scale solutions, as it should have been. But it isn’t.

It sets itself up as the single most important thing we have to say. It wants a guaranteed place on every page of our next Manifesto. It says absolutely clearly that whatever it means by “quality of life”
“should now become the central goal for public policy.”
Such high ambition means this paper must be held to much higher standards. Because if we get something this big this wrong it will be a catastrophe for us.

Big bureaucracy? Big ambition? Big idea? Big mistake.

This sets itself up as a giant, when Liberalism is about cutting giants down to size.

It tries to shoehorn in so much, from mental health to mutuals – excellent aims – to the arts, to special awards for communities, to… education about advertising?! But all that just underlines its failure as a ‘big idea’ to underpin everything we stand for with the gaping holes still left in policy and real life that this has nothing to say about.

We’ve had a “Green Thread” in every section of our Manifesto for the last four General Elections, marking that as vital to what we stand for. We tried a “Freedom Thread” too, and that only lasted for one! Do we really want to make something as fuzzy and forgettable as “Wellbeing” our “central goal” instead?

Well, it can’t do any harm, you might be thinking.

It can – if it’s government yet again telling people how to live.

And it can – if in putting this fuzzy, feel-good, do-good mirage on a pedestal, it replaces what the Liberal Democrats are really about.

We Don’t Need A “New Purpose”

I asked you to think of one word, one idea, one passion that the Liberal Democrats stand for.

It wasn’t “Wellbeing” for very many of you, was it?

We do not need a “New Purpose”.

Our purpose is freedom, fairness and the green agenda. Our purpose is to give people the power to make their own lives, in freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity, those of us here today and in future generations.

If we keep changing our minds about what we stand for, no wonder no-one else knows.

This paper tells people we suddenly stand for something different – when we don’t – and tells the public what they want – when individuals should decide that, not the government.

We do not, suddenly, have “A New Purpose For Politics” to decide and determine the outcome of people’s lives for them. This “New Purpose” isn’t new – unless it’s New Labour. It’s too big and bossy for the complex, messy, diversity that makes up real people’s lives; it’s too small and dogmatic an idea when set against freedom. And it just isn’t us. Vote against this motion.

As I continue writing my series exploring what the Lib Dems stand for, one very clear answer came out of today’s debate: ‘Not this’.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Saturday, September 17, 2011


Never Mention “STV” Again

The Liberal Democrat Conference opens today in Birmingham with perhaps the most depressing talking shop ever put on a Lib Dem Agenda. It’s the consultative session for the “May 2011 Election Review”: a big drop in the popular vote; a major setback on local councils; a disaster in Scotland; a total and utter thrashing in the AV referendum. And it’s the last that looks the most hopeless. Is electoral reform finished for good, or at least for a generation? Instead of endlessly debating what went wrong, there’s one major change we can make right now to improve things next time: never mention “STV” again. But I don’t mean running scared – I mean widening our appeal. Because if we’ve learned one thing, it’s that an electoral ‘reform’ campaign that only appeals to Liberal Democrats is stuffed, whether it’s this Spring’s or in a decade or two’s time.

I’m passionately committed to the system called the Single Transferable Vote. No system is perfect but, for me, it has two massive advantages. It’s broadly proportional – which means it’s fair to parties, and means that the House of Commons is broadly in line with people’s votes across the country. And it gives voters more power to choose the candidates who win – when every other system gives all the power to the parties. But I’m a political beast, and most people aren’t. Let’s not kid ourselves: a system where you choose different candidates in order of preference was obliterated this year, and it would be easy to attack STV as complicated and weird in just the same way (as Mark Thompson’s excellent if depressing article Outline of a No2STV Campaign illustrated). If there had been an STV referendum this year, it too would have been thrashed. And no proponents of STV have come up with anything like an answer save ‘campaign harder’. That’s necessary – but it’s not good enough.

Where AV Went Wrong (and more of AV’s greatest mistakes)

There’s still time, if you want to, to get your answers in to the Liberal Democrats’ Campaigns and Communications Committee’s consultation on the elections and the referendum. It’s already made up its mind on four key reasons for AV’s failure: But it’s really just looking mournfully at the stable door, and not wondering why the horse bolted. Similarly, the Electoral Reform Society has just elected a mostly new “Reform Slate” in reaction to the terrible result, but without making decisions on how to improve the message. And the aftermath for the victorious other side is that opponents of any kind of electoral reform, shameless conservatives in Labour and Tories alike, are claiming this was a vote against proportional representation, despite AV being often less proportional than “First Past the Post” (making the self-styled ‘No to AV, Yes to PR’ useful idiots look stupider than ever; hard to believe, isn’t it, that David Owen could have a catastrophic failure of political judgement).

The one good thing that came out of this year’s débâcle (other than establishing a grassroots movement for electoral reform, which is now largely dispersed and demoralised) is that we can learn how not to do it next time.

You know the story. The “No” campaign was full of lies. But it was brutally effective. They identified issues that Labour voters in particular wouldn’t like about AV – “Costly, Complicated, Clegg” – and pushed them hard. The Conservatives, always assumed to be anti-reform, as they have been for every reform in history from votes for ordinary people to votes for women, outdid themselves by at the same time using their party slogan “Working together in the national interest” to say how good it was that they were in coalition, and pouring wads of cash into vicious attacks on the Liberal Democrats for being in coalition and attacking the very idea of coalition to make AV scary. A finer example of saying one thing in one place and another elsewhere has surely never been seen. And perhaps most importantly, they made the political weather. It didn’t matter if what they said was truth or lie – they got in first. Almost every issue was then debated on ground set by the “No” campaign. The “Yes” campaign’s wider base of grassroots campaigners was completely let down by a disastrously faltering “air war”, and was simply overwhelmed by messages that they didn’t have the people or cash to counter.

Attack “First Past the Post”

So there are two key lessons to learn for ‘next time’, whenever it may come.The first is the lesson of the electoral mechanics, and that’s one for the long term: it can be planned for, but only really put into operation when the time comes. For what it’s worth, though, here are a few markers we must learn for taking the fight to “First Past the Post”:
Time For British Proportional Representation

But the biggest lesson can – and must – be implemented as soon as possible, and it’s not about campaign mechanics, but about principles. If you’re involved in policymaking with the Liberal Democrats or with the Electoral Reform Society, here’s what you can do today, rather than in ten years’ time: never mention “STV” again.

Who, other than a political junkie, is going to get enthused about a set of initials? And when you expand it into the Single Transferable Vote and explain about transfers, people’s eyes are no less likely to glaze over. Yes, we’ll have to find a clearer, simpler way to explain how it works – but the name we use for it just makes it seem all about the mechanics. And that’s always going to be a loser. We’ve feebly addressed that by talking about “Fair Votes” – but that doesn’t appear on the ballot paper (you might say it’s a loaded term; when calling the current system “First Past the Post” is such a lie that it literally has no winning post, loaded terms are hardly new!), and we all saw how trying to refer to AV as the even feebler “Fairer Votes” failed.

The next campaign must be between “First Past the Post” and “British Proportional Representation”. Say no to the emulsified high-fat offal tube – call a sausage a sausage, and call our favourite system British Proportional Representation.

This is the ‘director’s cut’ of an article published earlier on Liberal Democrat Voice, written to follow this morning’s depressing consultation session and Simon McGrath’s article earlier today on election results within the Electoral Reform Society.

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Sunday, September 11, 2011


Love and Liberty VIII – Freedom from Ignorance (#LibDemValues 1.8)

Education, freedom of information and children’s rights are today’s issues in my ongoing republication of Love and Liberty, the booklet on Liberalism I originally wrote back in 1999. It’s part of my contribution to exploring what the Liberal Democrats stand for, as the coalition continues and Conference looms. I’ve added a few more notes and polished up a few sentences today, while stopping short of a temptingly total rewrite; I still mostly agree with myself, but if any of the instalments have dated, it’s this. Spot the one written just a year after discovering the Internet…

Liberty: Freedom from Ignorance

Setting out the aim that “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” doesn’t mean that these three giants have to be tackled entirely separately. All three stop freedom – all three are often linked. And perhaps the biggest link from one of them to another is, as I mentioned yesterday, that creating opportunities for people to free themselves from poverty leads directly into the Liberal fight for freedom from ignorance. Education, in its many forms, is at the heart of Liberal tools for people to take up their own power and opportunities – and much of building a Liberal society is based on involving people in decisions, which can only really be done with free information.

Practical Freedom of Information

Liberalism aims to increase the power and responsibility of every individual, yet the political system we have now often seems designed to have the opposite effect – something that’s not just counterproductive for unleashing the power of individuals, but of government as well. Making freedom of information a practical reality isn’t just about stopping all levels of government getting in the way and holding it to account, but making it work better, too. Individuals who are responsible, equipped with skills and information to take and use power need a co-operative, open political system, but equally the political system needs to be open to those individuals to work properly. Think about it – if the government orders people to implement difficult proposals like cutting energy use (or spending, for that matter), all they’ll get is resistance; give people the information and power to develop their own solutions, and everyone’s better off. Top-down, standardised solutions can never work as well as those where the people affected are involved in developing and delivering them – for example, redesigning estates through “Planning for Real”, giving those who live there control over their own space and pride in their own housing. This makes freedom of information essential to democracy, for the government as much as the ‘governed’.

Secrecy is used by governments to dominate and to reduce power and choice for anyone else. The British government has always been immensely secretive, shored up over centuries by a monarchy and now the practical exercise of prerogative powers whose lack of accountability is legitimised by tradition. By contrast, democracy is based on openness and on informed choice. No wonder that our undemocratic un-constitution makes corruption so easy, or that Labour have fallen prey to the temptation not to deliver on effective freedom of information. Choice isn’t a real choice if it’s a choice denied access to the facts, still less a deliberately misleading choice. The same is true of economic choices. Surely if you want as ‘free’ a market as possible, that depends on informed choices to work in an ‘undistorted’ way, yet Thatcherites in power – Tory or Labour – have seemed strangely unconvinced of its benefits, preferring to let the big businesses that coincidentally give them so much money give as little information as they like. I wonder what a really aggressive implementation of freedom of information might do to make markets more open (imagine the effect of ‘original cost price’ labels on mark-ups, or ‘longevity estimates’ on planned obsolescence or shoddy work)? It might even reduce demand and consumption (with better-made products more labour-intensive), and have even greater environmental effects than labels indicating non-renewables, artificial chemicals or genetic modification.

So how do you get hold of ‘free’ information? It must be available, easily and cheaply, to be of worth. It’s dispiriting that the last couple of decades of disastrously illiberal governments have presided over the crippling of public libraries, whether through central policy or through dictating local government spending by imposing capping and ring-fencing. And yet libraries are on the front line of freedom of information and education throughout life, a resource that should be there for all to use, the absence of which hits the financially disadvantaged worst. Librarian numbers, skills and conditions have been savaged in a way that no government would dare for, say, teachers; many services buy virtually no new books; opening hours are shrinking; and, increasingly, services other than books on the shelf are made available only to individuals willing and able to pay. What expansion libraries might have in the immediate future is as centres for Internet access, a massive tool that needs to be open to all and is much cheaper to provide than books – and probably the invention that most utterly undermines censorship since printing. Censorship strikes both at self-expression and access to information, stopping people speaking up or finding things out for themselves.


There are few duties of government – local and national – more important, though, than education itself. And while giving people the knowledge and skills for work has to be a vital part of that, it can’t be everything: if you’re ever to grow up to hold government to account rather than let it be in charge of you, school’s where that instinct has to start. The more governments bleat that schools need to be more about discipline, the more you wonder if it’s not because they’re scared that schools might be too much about asking questions, when I’m worried that the target culture means it doesn’t do nearly enough of that. Make education about equipping people with knowledge, skills and self-confidence, make it about how to understand and fulfil your rights, make it the opposite of exclusion and discrimination. Above all, make it about giving you the opportunity to discover and develop your own potential. Education is the most powerful way for people to pull out of poverty, to shape their own future by developing their skills and enhancing their strengths for the benefit of themselves and for others. It should give, and to break down ignorance and give people the tools to make their own way. It is essential for equal opportunities, freedom and adaptation.

I’m sure all that’s something that most teachers want to do. And yet all that politicians ever seem to say about schools is that ‘standards’ are too low – then set targets to prove that they aren’t. It’s as if the priority is to pretend that everyone’s the same, rather than encouraging questioning individuals. Many teachers try; many pupils end up that way; but the basic system doesn’t seem to encourage it. One of the principal differences between most children and most adults is that children approach life with curiosity tempered by trust, while too many adults display only dull submission, tempered by suspicion. To talk of education purely in terms of economic investment and job training, rather than treating this aspect as only a part of wider development, is missing too much of the point.

The structure of the school system, too, seems to be all about the economy, with governments shouting, ‘private bad! Public good’ – or, much more often, the other way round – and being more interested in diversity of ‘providers’ than diversity of ideas or different backgrounds. If you want to build a society of integrated individuals, constructing a system that means even children only mix with ‘their own sort’ can’t be the right way to do about it. Wouldn’t it be better to look at ways for kids of different races, religions, classes and house prices to mix freely, so that by being encouraged to think for themselves, education breaks down prejudice and encourages different points of view through different experience, rather than hindering all that by splitting off children into schools based on money, background or the latest government ideology rather than diversity.

For the Sake of the Children

How should society enable the rights of children, when the media portray them either as ‘angels’ or ‘monsters’, one set too innocent to have rights and the other not deserving of any? Particularly for adolescents, as society drives both to ‘look after children for longer’ and to make them more ‘responsible’ earlier, which together are unlikely to inspire the development of real responsibility. Throw in this age’s biggest tabloid fear, of paedophiles lurking everywhere, and how to protect without losing childhood’s freedom or creating a climate of fear and persecution is a terrible dilemma. There’s no more tempting or dangerous line in politics than ‘For the sake of the children’ – and it’s not just children that are affected, with them touted as excuses by authoritarians whose real aim is to control adults like children, ‘for their own good’ (two-thirds of households don’t contain children; every censor appeals to ‘but what if children see this?’).

This is symptomatic of the areas where Liberalism has the most trouble: those where it’s difficult to apply democracy or informed choice. I’ve said that’s the problem with international action, which lacks appropriate institutions for informed consent, while children are simply unable to take up most rights. At what stage can they make their own informed choices? There is no reliable answer, as individuals develop at different ages. Set an age of ‘independence’ too high, and you suppress individual development. Set it too low, and you risk exploitation. Yet with most rights and responsibilities in society an either / or choice, it seems too often that children have to be cossetted away from the right to any decision about themselves (‘angels’) until, if they step out of line, suddenly they have absolute moral culpability (‘monsters’). Perhaps it’s not just by encouraging children to ask questions that schools might help bridge the gap, but by pupil governors and school councils coming back into fashion so that young individuals get used to finding more responsibility and more involvement in decisions that affect them.

If you want a real clash over the idea of rights for children, just ask a parent, more so than ever these days when every newspaper sees bigger sales in making every parent scared to death of any child that’s not wrapped up in cotton wool. I’m suspicious of the concept of ‘parents’ rights’, as if children are merely extensions of their parents until they hit sixteen and turn to adults with one bound. It clearly impedes children’s development and information to make their own decisions if parents are able to excuse them from sex or religious education; schools can be a bulwark against bigotry at home, or simply a chance to learn something new that isn’t primarily academic. Yet look at the alternative. I’m even more suspicious of the state deciding it knows best about parenting. Kids’ rights to decent facilities, learning, hearing different views and meeting different people must be balanced against their need for decent, loving families, however they decide to live; when governments use their power not to set minimum standards but to tell everyone how to live, things go disastrously wrong, whether in failed top-down solutions such as bussing children around in the States to get more socially and racially mixed schools, or setting too-eager targets to take children from their parents because ‘we know best’. Even when looking out for children, Liberalism still has to be the enemy of authoritarianism – however tempting it is to ‘do good’. Treating adults as children is surely not the answer.

I can see why I was having a crisis of confidence after reading these last three main instalments again last year; while a lot of today’s is still on the right lines, a lot of this one felt like a mixture of clichés strung together, topical policy ideas that I liked the sound of and wanted to cram in, and bits that have dated terribly (yes, what a good idea it was to deal with the whole subjects of the Internet and of censorship in two lines at the end of a paragraph about something completely different). But, again, I’ve only rewritten some of my more clunking prose here, though this was the one on which I most felt like starting from scratch. If I ever do that, it’ll have to be the whole thing, not just one piece. It does, at least, tie in quite neatly to what I had to say about Liberal Intervention and the sorts of issues where Liberalism’s philosophical basis of informed consent has nowhere settled to stand, as in my thoughtful and understated article, When Liberals Attack!

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life.

Back to VII

Forward to IX

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Saturday, September 10, 2011


Blogger’s Changing Things Again…

I’ve used Blogger for more than five years now; in part because it does the job for me, and because it doesn’t require technical knowledge to register on my cantbearsedometer. And, being a creature of habit, I’m happy with that. But there’s a little bit of me that can still go ‘ooh, shiny,’ when offered something new, and Blogger is now tempting me with an exciting new interface that gives me all sorts of extra features (without having to work for them). But there’s a catch: Richard was lured into this web of novelty, and it wiped out his template. So if you’re wondering why Millennium’s Diary suddenly looks completely different after five years, it wasn’t from choice (though he’s had a chance to play about a bit with a new template since).
“You’ve had this place redecorated. I don’t like it.”
The trouble is, I’ve had a look at some of the new features and thought, yes, they would be quite nice to have. But I’m very happy with the template I spent some time tinkering with to my satisfaction some years ago, a slightly customised version of one of their old standard versions. And I really don’t want to have to lose it all, try to reconstruct it, or find out the hard way whether anything like it’s available the other end.

So, does anyone who’s terribly tech-savvy – and who uses Blogger, if that’s not a contradiction – have any brilliant suggestions (though, yes, I have always kept my template saved somewhere in case my latest fiddle mucks it up)?

No to change! But give me new things for free! And don’t lose any of the old ones! I want a choice, and I want both! Do it all for me and I’ll complain whatever happens!

Dear god, I’m turning into a British voter.

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Love and Liberty VII – Freedom from Poverty (#LibDemValues 1.7)

Many people feel, now we’re in coalition, that they don’t know what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Answering that question has never been more important – but it’s not a new problem. For many of us, Liberalism is the clearest, most consistent philosophy among Britain’s political parties… But not a lot of other people see it that way! Back in 1999, the Passports To Liberty series published my own idea of Liberalism, Love and Liberty. I’ve previously republished some of it here, adding new notes. Tonight I set out why freedom from poverty is one of our three great aims.

I actually started republishing Love and Liberty split across a series of ten more manageable posts early last year, inspired by the forthcoming General Election. I read the whole thing again; I decided not to rewrite it from scratch, though there were plenty of bits that might have been better that way, deciding that I still agreed with myself – mostly – and so it wasn’t worth trying to reinvent it; I made the odd change or addition, largely to clean up some of the clumsier passages, add appropriate links or insert more up-to-date quotes from Lib Dem politicians and knocking copy against the others (being at the fag-end of a terrible Labour Government instead of just past the fag-end of a terrible Tory one). It was going to add up to the first – or first ten – in a mammoth series of articles looking at my and many other people’s ideas of ‘What the Liberal Democrats stand for’. And, as you might guess, I argued that for Liberalism to work it needed to stand for both love and liberty – each having limitations on their own. How well did I knit them together?

I wasn’t expecting it all to unravel, but suddenly it did. After polishing and publishing six of the ten parts, I came to a grinding halt, and I still can’t say precisely why.

In part, it was because I became rather ill – which I very often am. In part, because after being very ill, my flow was broken (and before long I became much more ill, and stayed that way for most of last year). But it was also, I think, a crisis of confidence. Sections seven to nine were different to the rest of the essay. Where the rest of it follows a clear philosophical thread, these were basically bundles of loosely linked policies. They didn’t flow as naturally; they weren’t as well-written; they seemed a jarring change from the rest of what I’d written; they had enormous gaps where I really should have expanded into other issues, or where what I said was far too skimpy (probably because at the time I first wrote it, I’d seen something I needed to raise, but couldn’t think of anything interesting to say and just mentioned it in passing). And they seemed a bit pompous as a result. I’d really liked the previous bit I’d published, too, which as it turned out didn't help – after I’d felt uplifted by re-reading section VI, Equal Voices, Different Choices, nodding along and feeling it came from the heart (or from Conrad), suddenly the rest just felt like a cobbled-together manifesto. And once I lost confidence in myself, it was very difficult to go back.

Well, I’m back. I’ve read it all over again; I still mostly agree with it. And I do feel now that, more than ever, we need to set out what the Liberal Democrats stand for – so I should finish setting out what I thought about Liberalism, so I’ve got something to build on.

Of course, if you want to read the best book on Liberalism published in 1999, you should read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, obviously. But mine’s free.

You don’t need to have read any of the other sections before starting on the latest one, but none of the individual pieces are very long (fortunately), so if you want to catch up, here’s the story so far. And, hopefully, the rest will be along in rather less than eighteen months.

Introduction and Contents

Part One: Love

One Person, One Value
Liberal Individualism
Liberal Internationalism
Green Liberalism

Part Two: Liberty

Equal Voices, Different Choices

And now, at last…

Liberty: Freedom from Poverty

The three most important challenges for Liberals set out in the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution are to ensure that that “no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity” – because those three are the three biggest roadblocks standing in the way of people’s freedoms. And by putting freedom from poverty even before freedom from ignorance and conformity, the Liberal Democrats make a bold statement that for Liberalism to mean anything, it must be social Liberalism.

Poverty Stands in the Way of Freedom
“To have a little freedom, you must have a little money”
said occasional Liberal Winston Churchill, rarely today regarded as having been on the fierily anti-Conservative wing of the party. He was pointing out the material baseline to equality of opportunity – but it isn’t an end in itself, maximising choices and chances goes deeper than elementary social justice. Liberalism doesn’t fall into the trap of assuming that possessing ever-increasing amounts of money is always the same as enjoying ever-expanding freedom, nor into the trap of enforcing equality of outcomes to give everyone equal wealth and assume that the work of liberation for all has miraculously completed. Material well-being is an essential base on which to build, not the only end in itself. Happiness, self-discovery and self-fulfilment are not just material, but also come from unleashing individuality and imagination – whatever the tunnel vision of materialists from ‘left’ and ‘right’ alike might think. By treating every individual as uniquely precious through their simple humanity, whatever their choices in life, Liberalism makes equality of opportunity central.

When you recognise every individual as equally valid, important, unique and precious, no-one can be just dismissed as a ‘failure’ and tossed on the scrapheap, or left forever trapped by poverty. Equal access to the essentials for making choices is a precondition for choice. For people to have a fair chance to exercise freedom to think and act, Liberals must fight for freedom from poverty and all the disadvantages associated with it. Uniting freedom from poverty and ignorance from the start of his Leadership, Nick Clegg raised the issue of the comparative wealth, health and death rates in his home city of Sheffield (where a child born in a poor part of the city is likely to die fourteen years before a child born up the road), leading to setting extra money for early years education as the most powerful way out of poverty and to tackle the high stress, poor health, susceptibility to infection, and earlier deaths that all follow for too many trapped in low income areas. While Liberal Democrats have long argued for more such ladders out of poverty, too many institutions instead pull them away, denying people living in poorer areas essential services for anything from banking to entertainment to crime prevention. Freedom from poverty is a means to reach many other freedoms.

Liberal internationalism also demands action to assist members of the human family who suffer in utter, absolute poverty; for huge numbers of the world’s citizens, ‘economic liberty’ would have to start with freedom from economic insecurity and privation. Countries with the power, money and resources to help have a duty to do so, most clearly through overseas aid, while guarding against over-prescriptive strings attached to that ‘aid’; at home and abroad, programmes to reduce poverty must create opportunities and self-reliance, rather than making people jump through ‘moral’ hoops and denying dignity by meting out crumbs as if to children who’ll never be allowed to grow up. And once again, it’s not just love but pragmatism that calls for action – global environmental degradation and pollution, the flow of refugees and the hope of security are all intimately tied to how well we help our fellow humans to build themselves up.

Success Needs Freedom

Not just poverty itself, but the fear of it through desperate insecurity must also be challenged. In the words of William Beveridge, perhaps the Twentieth Century’s most influential British Liberal in fighting poverty:
“A starving man is not free, because till he is fed, he cannot have a thought for anything but how to meet his urgent physical needs… a man who dare not resent what he feels to be an injustice from an employer or a foreman, lest this condemn him to chronic unemployment, is not free.”
Liberals support fairness at work, so employers can’t bully their employees; for practical reasons, involving a business’ own workers in decision-making not only makes them more secure, but by introducing more ideas, makes the work more successful. Freedom from poverty needs economic success – and with small businesses usually the bedrock of a successful economy, Liberals have long advocated small-scale, imaginative solutions to boost financial autonomy, security and creativity, such as co-operative enterprises. If you want to unlock people from poverty, unleashing creativity to succeed has to be a major part of it. As Nick Clegg said:
“A Liberal believes in the raucous, unpredictable capacity of people to take decisions about their own lives.”
Labour in power have seen poverty as something to be levered out of, ticking boxes to make sure that you’ve moved by exactly the prescribed increment so as to meet exactly the right target. ‘Freedom’ has nothing to do with it. It’s no surprise that they’ve failed their own targets as a result, with the gap between rich and poor wider than at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s government. Perhaps doubling the rate of income tax paid by the lowest earners, while giving massive tax breaks for the rich by slashing Capital Gains Tax, wasn’t such a great idea after all? Which is why the Liberal Democrats would raise the income tax threshold to let people on low incomes earn more of their own money – without having to pay it to the Labour Government, fill out a hundred forms, feed it through a tortuous bureaucracy, then if they’re lucky have a bit of it dribble out back to them if the Labour Party thinks they’re ‘deserving’. And paid for in part by reversing Labour’s tax loopholes for the rich that have allowed that gap to grow so wildly, reducing poverty and increasing fairness.

The Conservatives say they want tax cuts too, of course. But of a very different kind. Cut services to the poor; give the money to dead millionaires. But then poverty has never been a major Tory concern. Where Labour’s regimented approach to poverty had nothing to do with freedom, Conservative ‘freedoms’ have tended to create limited ‘choice’ while destroying opportunity. This is just the ‘freedom’ to exploit, not real liberty that can be gained and shared by all. Creating opportunity is necessary to enable many people to exercise real choices, but making choices for people is an abuse of power.

Freedom from poverty doesn’t mean doing everything for everyone, or putting up material ‘progress’ as a panacea, or forcing people through conditional hoops to win their basic dignity. It means simply removing a massive barrier in order that people can develop along their own line, so long as they don’t harm others, and unleashing talents which would otherwise have no opportunity to flourish for themselves, or to benefit anyone else.

Back to VI

Forward to VIII

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