Thursday, August 29, 2013


Syrian Intervention: Nick, Please Make the Hard Choice to Be Practical

The argument over Syria is depressing. After decades of an appalling regime and months of appalling civil war, poison gas has pushed many people simply to say – enough. And, morally, they’re right. Who can’t understand the urge to say, these are terrible things, and they must be fought? But real life doesn’t let us be the Sheriff, all guns blazing. The last decade above all has taught us about playing at cowboy ‘peacemaking’. So much as I empathise with Nick Clegg, it’s time to tell him to be a grown-up.

Syria up-ends all the usual certainties of UK politics. Nick Clegg talks about hard choices trumping idealism, and being practical, and concentrating on what can be done, not what we want to do in an ideal world… Not today. Today Nick says, this is what I believe in, it’s simply right, never mind the cost or the consequences, we can work those out later. And it’s the Liberal Democrats who are having to lecture their Leader, slow down, think about it, we don’t have unlimited money, we need to get people to agree, we’re living in the real world and you can’t just commit to everything you want out of idealism.

Political leaders make all the decisions, and their parties grumble and follow… Not today. To the credit of British democracy, all three leaders have blatantly had kicks in the nadgers from their much less gung-ho MPs. Ed Miliband’s constant u-turns after agreeing military action with the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister are only the most obvious signs – and the press treating this as ‘Miliband changing his mind, and again’ only the most obvious sign that the media simply do not understand that parties are not always monolithic and that leaders are sometimes told where to go by their troops.

It’s a harsh lesson to learn, though the use of chemical weapons is a terrible crime, and weakens us all, and we want to do something about it… Sometimes even the most powerful of us can’t get everything they want.

First and Second Principles

First principle: yes. It was wrong. It was horrible. It was in defiance of international law.

Second principle: so call in the international police.


And that’s where it all falls apart.

There were brief times when the UK, or the US, or even NATO, had both the military and moral authority to do pretty much what they liked. In the ’90s, intervening to save lives in Kosovo, it looked like the world would agree to such action, even if the Security Council didn’t. It wasn’t quite legal, but by what looked like wide consent it was the right thing.

It takes naivety past the point of stupidity not to realise that the world has changed, and that the US and the UK changed it for the worse.

We need a system of international law and enforcement to do what Liberals have always done – stand up to bullies. But none of us have any idea how to get there, and our leaders closing their eyes and wishing because they understandably can’t bear that they have so much power but so much impotence at the same time will not make it real.

We need to face up to the unpalatable fact that, after George Bush and the Labour Party’s invasion of Iraq, the US and the UK cannot be the international police. In principle, you can’t uphold international law by breaking it. In practice, too much of the world would see us yet again not as neutral law-enforcers but only the bigger bullies.

Deputy Prime Minister, I know you, and I know you’re sincere, and I know you feel that something must be done. Be mature enough to realise that sometimes you can’t do something, and that trying might make things far worse.

The Practical Problems

Nick Clegg has written “Five reasons why this is not Iraq”. They’re well-considered reasons. They come from the head and the heart. They’re mostly right. But they’re largely irrelevant. No, it’s not Iraq, but it’s absurdly delusional to ignore the fact that everyone on Earth will see it through that prism. Yes, the Coalition is getting a lot right that Labour’s warmongering lie factory got wrong: waiting for weapons inspectors; letting Parliament decide; publishing the legal advice; committing to something far short of an invasion. Before Iraq, that might have been enough. Today, it simply isn’t.

The practical problem of who you’re taking action on behalf of looks like the most insurmountable one. I’ve written before that international law is the gravest of the three big issues on which Liberals lack an instinctive compass – because it’s impossible for all those concerned to give informed consent. I’ve written before that without that, who appoints you a policeman? Who holds you accountable? If you’re wrong, what defence are you left with other than ‘might is right’? And the fact is that the limited framework of international law we have is ‘enforceable’ by a far more limited and flawed body of international decision-making in which many countries with interests against the letter of international law must give their consent, and in which Russia and China in particular can stop any idealist interventionism from having the fig-leaf of legality. There is no ‘citizen’s arrest’ in international law. There is law – or there isn’t. Breaking the law ‘to do good’, again, means no-one will trust you to keep it, or trust your motives. You might or might not be able to improve things in Syria: the likelihood is that no-one will agree on the balance afterwards. The certainty is that international law will be broken, that making it a reality will be put back, and that countries and people who already distrust the US and the UK for the previous governments’ disgusting actions will be further poisoned against us and say whatever government’s in power, they’re all the same.

The practical problem of what happens next is one you clearly haven’t thought out. Say that you manage a precise, proportionate missile attack – whatever that means. Say that somehow the Syrian regime neglects to smear all the world’s TV screens with images of bloody horror that you perpetrated, as any side now can in any war. Say that things have gone ‘according to plan’. But say that Assad doesn’t back down. Does he ever? So what would you do? More missiles? More planes? Tanks? Troops? Or would you back down, and lose face, and do even more damage to the international prohibition of chemical weapons than that which you fear now – with every future perpetrator knowing that you will go only so far, then crumble? You couldn’t answer that question in your Radio 4 interview this morning. If this isn’t going to be another Iraq, we have to ask, too… What next?

The practical problem of the “war crime” is that today we must demand proof. It would be unforgivably irresponsible not to. Even those of us against the Iraq War ‘knew’ about their weapons of mass destruction, because for Labour to sell us monstrous lies on that scale seemed inconceivable. Now we know that they spun and lied their way to war on sexed-up nothing, we can’t take the word of any government and we can’t just take our instincts as proof. It looks very like there was a gas attack: but the weapons inspectors need to investigate. It seems very like it was Assad’s regime: but evidence has to prove it. We need compelling evidence not just of what but of who. We all know of cases where the police said ‘We know he did it, so let’s just get him’. And we’re not even the police. For too many, we’re seen as the gangsters. The consequences of getting this wrong are incalculably higher than just any old-fashioned copper fit-up scandal.

The practical problem for the Liberal Democrats, at last coming to selfish party interests, is that we just can’t afford yet more ‘betrayal’. It isn’t only pacifists who are weary of war. The UK has been fighting for more than ten years – apparently for nothing. The vast majority have just had enough. And for the Lib Dems, it’s worse. One of the few bits of moral high ground we still have that lets our supporters sleep at night (and still vote for us) is that unlike the Labour Party, at least we didn’t invade another country and soak ourselves in blood in defiance of international law. No, this isn’t Iraq, but just as you’re going on your feelings, a hell of a lot of other people are going on theirs that it feels the same. Not least when bloodsoaked liars Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell are already cheerleaders for their next Iraq.

Look at the opinion polls if you don’t trust my instinctive analysis. This is an adventure on which the political leaders and the voters are absolutely split apart, and no more so than Lib Dem voters: the widest gulf between any party leader’s position and that of his voters is for you. Listen to your voters. Listen to your party. If you can’t even get their consent, how much harder will it be to persuade all the countries that are not already minded to trust you? If there’s any issue likely to make both your supporters and your members vote with their feet and leave you with no power at all, or even rise up and break the Coalition, this is the one.

Nick, I know you long to do something, but this is real life and you are not Batman. It’s a hard choice for you, but the most practical thing you can do is – say no.

For further reading, choose by the hundred, but I particularly recommend Caron Lindsay’s round-up “Syria: what do Liberal Democrats want?”, Mark Pack’s “Syria – I know what’s wrong; working out what’s right is rather harder” and Millennium Dome, Elephant’s “Syrians versus Badgers”, in which he hopes that one day, “people will stop thinking that the solution to a problem is to throw ordinance at it”.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Liberal Wednesday 6: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” #LibDemValues

This week’s Liberal Monday is on a Wednesday: the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most celebrated speeches of the Twentieth Century. Dr Martin Luther King Jnr’s speech to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom still has tremendous power both for in itself and for its place in history – the right person, at the right time and place, with more than the right moral clarion call in its inspired oratory. The BBC marked the occasion with a tribute on Radio 4 at 9am, plus a documentary to come on BBC2 at 9 tonight.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

“I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

“I have a dream today!”
What is there to be said of this great appeal for equality, justice and fellowship that hasn’t already been said? Well, there’s this morning’s tribute, for a start. I was a little sceptical of Radio 4’s I Have a Dream this morning – reminiscent of the BBC’s 1997 recording of Perfect Day, the main part of the programme was a ‘cover version’ of the speech performed by a wide array of different people from different countries. It seemed like a bit of a gimmick. But on listening to the collage, ranging from John Lewis and Joan Baez, who were both part of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom that day, to the Dalai Lama, to Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student shot by the Taliban for being a girl who went to school, I found it incredibly moving. With a full speech, the reading doesn’t just switch reader on every line, instead segueing between Dr King and impassioned stretches by so many other people it had touched with enough time for each different person to get a sense of how much it means to each of them. And unlike the original line-up of speakers after the 1963 March, this version of the rally’s showstopping final number has women in it, without which it would seem odd today but shows that not only racial attitudes have changed in the last half-century. It’s repeated on the World Service at 3.30 this afternoon and on Radio 4 this Sunday at 1.30pm.

You can also listen to the programme for the next week on BBC iPlayer here; you can read about it and the many contributors here; you can read the text of the speech here; and, above all of those, you can watch Martin Luther King delivering the original speech here.

I’d heard the whole speech before, though much more often excerpts from it – most of all, the extraordinary “I have a dream” peroration of the second half that echoes down the decades. But listening to it fresh this morning, without the thrilling cadences of Dr King whose voice gave perhaps the greatest speech I’ve ever heard, though the multiple performance had much less power than the original, it made me concentrate more on the words.

The speech itself is fascinatingly constructed, an appeal to America’s history and heartstrings with astonishing moral force. I think of the passion, the imagery, the repeated refrains, but it’s far more than that. The speech comes to us now with the power of fifty years of Dr King being proven right and becoming a lasting symbol on its side, but in itself it cascades back through history.

Dr King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and made his own and the marchers’ demand for the fulfilment of Lincoln’s promise an integral part of President Lincoln’s own history; I remember going to Washington in my twenties and wanting to visit that Memorial as soon as I could, looking up at the great graven face of Lincoln but seeing and hearing King in my head. And his speech grounds itself firmly on Lincoln’s own promise, deliberately opening between the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the hundredth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address with a championing of one and the echo of the other: “Five score years ago…” Dr King samples Shakespeare, economics, current affairs and a host of other touchstones, but in speaking for a new America rising irresistibly on the deepest feelings of the old, there’s no mistaking the other great stream pouring through the speech – religion. It’s not just in the words, testifying to the equality of all God’s children, but coming through his own preacher’s experience and oratorical style. The American Dream is only real for any American if it’s shared by all Americans, and that’s because God created all equal. And in that shared language, he was speaking to many who wouldn’t otherwise want to hear him.

For me the most fascinating thing about the speech from my own experience of watching and making a great many different speeches is how it’s essentially two speeches, Dr King’s extraordinary gift making them appear seamless. I know that my own best speeches have been ones delivered without a prepared text, but my worst ones, too: it’s a risk to try to fly. What he does here is start in the safer, meticulously prepared style as a run-up, then suddenly lifts off. There’s the carefully crafted written word fixed in American history, a reasoned argument. And then, apparently spurred by Mahalia Jackson’s cry of “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” he switches from his written text into the part that everyone remembers: the repeated rhetoric beamed straight into the heart through Biblical words and a million-watt charisma, every phrase resonating with the American Dream and with the Gospel call. And that, clearly, is the powerful spiritual appeal of the preacher.

That’s not to say that the “I have a dream / Let freedom ring” extended climax was entirely off-the-cuff. Dr King had had three years of honing that exact metaphor, from his 1960 speech “The Negro and the American Dream” onwards, but clearly it was on the day that it was most needed that suddenly the theme came together and, inspired and inspiring, helped transform America.

There’s much more to the speech – embracing both the more timorous and the more militant sides of the Civil Rights movement, the uncompromising demand to make brotherhood a reality, passing sometimes shocking judgement on the segregationists and the shameful, but then not just rising but soaring above them, preaching against hate, the realisation on his part and on “our white brothers’” part that “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom”. But I still get teary-eyed reading or watching it for myself, so watching or reading it for yourself is going to have much more of an impact than reading about it.

It’s a sign of how far things have come that under the institutional bigotry of the times, in 1963 twenty-one US States prohibited mixed-race marriage. That’s almost impossible to believe, fifty years later, when Martin Luther King’s speech has become one of America’s great moral foundations. Today, thirty-seven US States prohibit same-sex marriage. I wonder whose soaring rhetoric will transform the next fifty years?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Thursday, August 22, 2013


Carnival of the Lib Dems – A Celebration of Blog Posts

Tomorrow, nominations close in the “Liberal Democrat Voice Awards”. These have been thrillingly renamed, relaunched and expanded, but for me the greatest pleasure in them remains celebrating the brilliant flow of ideas by a carnival of Lib Dem voices on their own blogs. The shortlist I most look forward to is that for Liberal Democrat Blog Post of the Year – both because that always introduces me to some great writing I’ve not seen before, and because it’s so much easier to read a hand-picked selection of posts than read through the complete shortlisted blogs, Twitter pages or Facebook timelines.

I was sad to see this award dropped last year, and delighted that it’s back in the greatly expanded new array. And last year I resolved to do something about it, saying: “I will pick at least a dozen articles from at least a dozen different blogs from across the year that I think are among the best and plug them” here. I’ve been noting the most interesting posts to catch my eye – not necessarily the ones with which I most agreed – throughout the year, and as well as irregularly proposing them for Lib Dem Voice’s weekly Golden Dozen, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks poring over the lot (one reason I’m rather later with my selection than ideal). I hope in the three weeks before the winners are announced this will be part of showing just how marvellous Lib Dems blogging are.

So here, to celebrate the talent in the Lib Dem blogosphere and introduce more blogs is a journey through the year (rather than in order of preference) with two dozen of the Lib Dem finest. Pah-pah pah pah-pah-pah…

The first post I’d recommend might be in the ‘Best individual post’ category, or it might be in the ‘Best online campaign’. I’ll leave that to the judges. But last Autumn Jennie Rigg’s outstanding effort in putting questions to over a hundred candidates for the Liberal Democrat Federal elections made a mighty series of posts that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Jennie Rigg on Automated Attack Monkeys, Scalpel Mines, & Acid: Questions for FCC and FPC candidates

Chris Richards on On Liberty Now: Time for Liberal Democrats to stop saying ‘No’
Isn’t it deeply conservative to campaign only to prevent things? The Liberal Democrats should have positive ideas.

Jonathan Calder on Liberal England: Nick Clegg needs to get crunchy again
Nick needs to rediscover his old self as a thinker and libertarian, because the “centre” is defined by your opponents.

Zoe O’Connell on Complicity: New Tory Policy: Pretending to protect children more important than protecting children
Why education is better at keeping kids safe online than faith in the Daily Mail and Internet blocking.

Andrew Brown on The Widow’s World: Dear Nick… An Open Letter on Closed Material Procedures
A loyalist takes a stand on civil liberties.

Jennie Rigg on Automated Attack Monkeys, Scalpel Mines, & Acid: Saturday Silly today comes courtesy of Andy Burnham MP
Now Labour wants to ban Frosties – Jennie outlines some healthy alternatives. Not to Frosties; to bansturbation. Puritanism is never satisfied.

Jonathan Wallace: The Lib Dems’ Battle of Stalingrad
A vibrant image of how Eastleigh “was fought street by street, house by house, sucking in vast armies of activists battling it out.”

Councillor Gavin James: How the Lib Dems should take on UKIP
The three parts of UKIP’s support and how to take them on – by being Liberal Democrats.

Cicero on Cicero’s Songs: The SNP tries to have its cake and eat it
The SNP is now in favour of the pound while defaulting on its debts, British identity while leaving the Union, armed neutrality while staying in NATO, divorce while getting more love from the divorced partners, and it sees no contradiction in that. Cicero does.

Stephen Glenn on Stephen Glenn’s Liberal Journal: In response to Simon Hughes
Thoughtfully exposing the mass of contradictions in Simon Hughes’ attack on religious freedom and equality.

David Boyle on The Real Blog: Violet, Winston and the meaning of Free Trade
What Churchill’s thundering Liberal case for Free Trade in favour of the lower-paid tells us about how the Tories have warped the idea since.

Richard Flowers on The Very Fluffy Diary of Millennium Dome, Elephant: No New Powers for the Security Services At Least Until They Explain Why They Failed to Use the Ones They’ve Got!
A message to Alan Johnson on the Zombie Snoopers’ Charter – is totalitarian China the best role model?

Nick Barlow on What You Can Get Away With: On political stereotypes and Doctor Who
Who would have thought that polling voters about Doctor Who would reveal so much about the wildly differing social attitudes of different parties’ voters?

Mark Pack on Mark Pack’s Blog: Liberal Democrat achievements in government and What do the Liberal Democrats believe?
Not quite ‘blog posts’, but his twin infographics (disclosure: I made some suggestions on the second) are well worth a look.

Mark Thompson on Mark Thompson’s Blog: Seven awkward questions for Liberal Democrats
Still waiting for answers.

Nick Thornsby on Nick Thornsby’s Blog: UK tax revenue and public spending 1997-2012
Sounds boring, doesn’t it? But – shockingly – in the last 15 years, UK governments have only balanced the budget once, relying on massive borrowing in every other year, from a full decade before Labour could blame the international crisis. Sole credit year: +£16bn. Biggest debt year: -£186bn. No wonder the deficit’s taking a while to fix.

Jen Yockney on Either / And: But he’s a TORY!
On why it’s good for sexuality not to be a party political plaything and why both people who grumble that the latest out bisexual MP is a Tory and the Daily Mail have got it wrong.

Peter Wrigley on Keynesian Liberal: Wither amnesty for illegal immigrants?
Contrasting Nick Clegg’s courageous debate performance with his unilateral retreat.

Sam Phripp on So Sam said... A statement about my membership of the Liberal Democrats
Sam gives his three top tips if you’re planning on leaving the party.

Jae Kay on Freedom Is Not The Problem: Marriage Equality: Taking Stock And Preparing For The Future (AKA It Ain’t Over)
After a year of heroic posts about equal marriage – and many more before then – this looks to what’s next.

Lester Holloway: The Voice says Labour are losing the Black vote. Addressing Black voters might help
A detailed analysis of the relationship between all parties and the Black vote – and what to do about it.

Caron Lindsay on Caron’s Musings: What the hell are the Home Office playing at – and why are Liberal Democrats letting them get away with it?
The Tories aren’t just re-toxifying themselves with their racist harassment of every non-white person but trying to toxify the Lib Dems too. It’s time for Nick to take the gloves off both because it’s right and for our survival.

Charlotte Henry on Digital Politico: Anti politics leaves us all with egg on our face
When our political culture is so warped and toxic that no-one can discuss it properly.

Carl Minns – Thoughts from Hull (A Liberal view from Hull): How to tweet like a Lib Dem
After columnist guides to tweeting like the other two, Carl redresses the balance with a guide to tweeting like a Lib Dem.

And finally… Alex Wilcock on Love and Liberty: My Best Posts 2012-2013
…It’s quite hard enough choosing one from other people’s!

If any of these blog posts excite and delight you, please consider nominating them for the Awards. Good luck to everyone nominated.

And if there’s a vital one I’ve missed, please add it in the comments!
After all, my draft list started out twice as long, so there are plenty more where all of those came from…

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My Best Posts 2012-2013

As my contribution to the Lib Dem Voice Awards, I’ve just put together a celebration of a great many posts from a great many other Lib Dem Blogs – so it seems an appropriate day to select my own latest ‘greatest hits’ package. Below you can find links and summaries for my best articles of the last year on politics, Doctor Who and one or two other subjects. Featuring What the Lib Dems Stand For, Liberal Quotations, Betrayal, Daleks and much more…! All showcasing posts written from the start of October last year to the end of August this year (a change from last year’s ‘Best of’ selection from September 2011 to September 2012). So, if I write any more this month, I may re-edit this to add something else which you can discover later…

My Best 2012-13: Politics

Nick Clegg’s Garden Cities – Thinking Big, But Are There Any Foundations?

Fisking a major speech from Nick – agreeing with him in principle, but doubting what would happen in practice. Two hard-headed tests for any major policy proposal: ‘Can we get it done?’ and ‘Will we get any credit?’

Eastleigh – Proof There’s No Such Thing As a Perfect Storm

Taking five lessons from the Eastleigh by-election, and asking two questions for the future.

Lessons From Coalition – The Two Biggest Problems: Betrayal and Betrayal

Available in two versions: for the in-depth article, click the named link above, while the supercompressed version was written for Lib Dem Voice.

Update: Syrian Intervention: Nick, Please Make the Hard Choice to Be Practical

Role-reversal where Nick Clegg’s party has to tell him we can’t have everything we want by wishing for it.

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge

The best political pieces I’ve written in the last year are together ongoing investigation, collaboration and rallying cry about what the Liberal Democrats stand for. The basic idea is to challenge myself, first, then other Lib Dems to get across what we stand for in something more meaningful than a soundbite but still short enough to be no more than a minute’s speech or a box on a Focus leaflet. And to make things harder, I aimed for broad consensus by synthesising the Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution, the party’s priorities in government and the party leadership’s latest messaging. Did it work? Here’s my go:
The Liberal Democrats stand for freedom for every individual – freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity.

To make that freedom real needs both fairness and economic responsibility: an economy that works, that encourages enterprise, and where everyone pays their fair share.

So freedom from poverty requires responsible spending, not debt, built on fairer taxes where lower earners pay less tax and the wealthiest pay more, and building green jobs for the future.

Freedom from ignorance needs better education and training, so people have the opportunity to realise their potential.

And freedom from conformity, supported by freedom from poverty and ignorance, means everyone should have the liberty to live their lives as they choose – without harming others; with equality before the law; with a better say, because no government always knows best.

That’s why Liberal Democrats are working for a stronger, greener economy in a fairer society, enabling every person to get on in life.

Happy 25th Birthday, Liberal Democrats – and What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.1

Why we should sum up What the Lib Dems Stand For, and how it’s developed over the years.

What the Lib Dems Stand For 2013.2 – a Challenge and a Meme #LibDemValues

Setting out my ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ based on the Preamble, practice and core messaging, and challenging other Lib Dems to come up with their own.

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.3 – Eight Answers (so far) #LibDemValues

After receiving the first set of responses, rounding up eight different Liberal Democrats’ versions of what we stand for – so far…

The Liberal Democrat What Do We Stand For Challenge 2013.4 – What It’s All About #LibDemValues

Inviting people to use my short declaration of ‘What the Lib Dems Stand For’ and explaining what each bit of it means.

There’ll be more.

Last year’s theme for occasional Lib Dem blog posts was less positive – “Things To Remember About Labour”. I’ve written one more since:

Things To Remember About Labour #6 – Iraq

Liberal Mondays

I’ve been writing another occasional series, too. My aim with them was simply to pick an inspiring or intriguing Liberal quotation and publish it to start the week. Naturally, being me, with each of them so far I’ve instead used each line as springboards to talk around Liberal ideas they suggest to me.

Liberal Mondays 1: Alfred Russel Wallace #LibDemValues

Quoting the Victorian naturalist, natural selection theorist and Liberal, then going on to look at the 1996 collection Why I Am A Liberal Democrat. I notice that the party’s evolved from Jeremy Bentham to John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor and more – and a good thing, too.

Liberal Mondays 2: Conrad Russell – The Liberal Cause #LibDemValues

Examining in detail the first booklet I ever read by the Conrad, who became a friend and mentor. I’ll probably return to him in the future.

Liberal Mondays 3: John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor #LibDemValues

Probably my best of these so far: going to the Liberal text, On Liberty, to look afresh at its heart. In Lib Dem Focus leaflet style, Three Things To Remember; definitely not in Focus style, also one to think about.

Liberal Mondays 4: Ralf Dahrendorf Vs Utopia #LibDemValues

Looking at three separate quotes as a Liberal critique of Utopia.

Liberal Mondays 5: The World’s End Vs Utopia #LibDemValues

Where Ralf Dahrendorf left off, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright pick up.

Update: Liberal Wednesday 6: Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” #LibDemValues

On the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest speeches of the Twentieth Century, and how it echoes through history.

Three Problems With The Politician’s Husband

Bridging my politics and TV articles, I set out exactly why the BBC’s flagship new David Tennant drama was such a failure.

My Best 2012-13: Doctor Who

Doctor Who – The Evil of the Daleks (Campbell & Hadley’s Recorder Uncut)

I’ve written fewer Doctor Who reviews this year, but here’s one with a difference, answering questions from my friend Nick about one of my favourites. And what does it all have to do with John Stuart Mill?

Doctor Who 50 – Fifty Great Scenes

On top of two series of occasional blog posts on Liberal themes, I’ve been writing an occasional series to celebrate Doctor Who’s Fiftieth Anniversary. Taking Fifty Great Scenes, exploring what’s great about each of them in turn, and adding bonus quotations from other stories that seem to fit. Rather than list the lot, here are six of my favourites so far:

Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 50: The Eleventh Hour

Starting off the countdown with the two most important words in Doctor Who.

Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 47: The Rescue – The Powerful Enemy

Celebrating William Hartnell, the Doctor, and going all the way to Matt Smith

Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 45: Robot

The Doctor, Sarah Jane and Harry in the first story I ever saw, with a bonus that was another sort of first for me.

Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 44: Enlightenment

Ships where you don’t expect to find them and, as a bonus, one of my more creative moments: fashioning scenes from a favourite story into an epic poem and the cliffhanger that should have been.

Doctor Who The Master 50 Great Scenes – 39: Terror of the Autons

The first (plastic) flowerings of each incarnation of the Master.

Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 36: The Krotons

Celebrating Patrick Troughton, Robert Holmes and the Double Act

I’ve also got back to my thoughts-from-the-beginning review blog Next Time, I Shall Not Be So Lenient! at last, so here are two from that:

William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton’s Doctor Who: Now You See It…

What happened to much of 1960s Doctor Who, and the different ways in which you can still experience it after all.

Doctor Who – Marco Polo Episode One: The Roof of the World

Beginning an episode-by-episode look at Doctor Who’s first ‘missing story’.

Broadchurch and How To Spot A TV Murderer

And finally, ITV’s goes-against-the-grain-to-say-it-but-far-more-successful flagship new David Tennant drama. Examining the surprisingly deep themes of murder drama Broadchurch – without spoiling whodunnit, but giving Richard’s and my Rules of Suspicion so you can spot the murderer for yourself in a host of different detective series.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Lessons From Coalition – The Two Biggest Problems: Betrayal and Betrayal

This article comes in two versions: in depth here, and the supercompressed version published as part of Lib Dem Voice’s Lessons From Coalition series.

All governments depend on events – some, like the LiberaTory Coalition, coming in when events were especially bleak. No lesson can predict all political outcomes. But whatever the economic and political weather, some lessons are plain.

The two biggest problems for any future coalition will be the breakdown of trust between the voters and the coalition parties, and the breakdown of trust between the coalition parties themselves. The Liberal Democrats have learned that all too well.

We know what the flashpoint issues for each during the current Coalition that still say ‘bitterness’ and ‘betrayal’ to many, too: tuition fees and Lords reform. On both, ugly reality got in the way of how coalitions ought to work. The challenge is to learn from them in order to foresee and avoid similar events – if we don’t find solutions to both problems, any future coalition will suffer the same poison.

If It Won’t Work, Walk; But If It Will Work, Walk In

We should aim to achieve things in government – that’s what a political party’s there for.

The theory of forming a Coalition is sound. If we don’t win a majority and no-one else does either, the Liberal Democrats must negotiate with other parties – ideally playing them off against each other to get more of what we want, if the votes tumble evenly enough to give us that chance. It’s the worst option apart from all the others. We should always oppose a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, which means nearly all the blame for none of the power to do anything. That leaves two options: a coalition, yes or no. For a political party rather than a debating society, the choice is straightforward. We should drive as hard a bargain as we can. If it’s impossible to reach agreement on enough of our priorities, we must be prepared to say no. But the corollary of that is that we must be prepared to say yes, too, if we can form a stable government with another party that delivers enough of our aims. When I spoke in favour of endorsing the LiberaTory Coalition, I was under no illusions, and neither was anyone else in the hall:
“Maybe it is the worst possible time to take power. But I don’t want us to wait until I’m wheeled into Conference aged 78, in another 40 years, to say, ‘Well, the economy’s crashed again and at last we’ve got another hung Parliament. Maybe we should try it this time’.”
From the platform, Vince Cable made a similarly practical point:
“It’s going to be bloody awful. But it’ll be less awful because we’re there.”
It’s never going to be easy, but it’s in the national interest – and it’s simply what a political party is for.

The Lib Dem Voice regular polling question ‘Would you rather form a coalition with Labour or Conservative?’ is based on a completely mistaken assumption. I’d rather we form a government on our own. If the voters don’t give us that, I’m still a Liberal Democrat, and I don’t follow the media narrative that I must be ‘really’ Tory or Labour, push comes to shove. I dislike both of them. My answer is not that I want to be a bit Labour or a bit Tory, but that I’d go with the one that’s prepared to be the most Lib Dem. Whichever way round they go, we should partner the party that compromises and not the one that’s arrogant enough to just demand we join them. That’s the principle; the simple common sense reason is that to prefer one side in advance is essentially an endorsement, one that sends voters streaming away to whichever side we’ve given the nod to before the election and loses all bargaining leverage afterwards.

2010 is the only case study we have. I’ll never like the Tories either, but the tiny band who pretend we should have formed a coalition with Labour (and Uncle Tom SNP and all, and still not got a majority) after the last election were out of touch with reality then and have rewritten history since. Both the number of seats that the voters gave to each party and the Labour Party’s own ‘negotiations’ made a coalition with Labour impossible – but I also remember what the Labour Party did with thirteen years of absolute power and saw them as no better than the Conservatives. I didn’t forget the war-mongering, evidence-sexing, amnesia-promising, freedom-crushing, LGBT-hypocrisising, rich-brownnosing, poor-taxing, crony-bribe-swallowing shameless Labour Government overnight in favour of a starry-eyed childish fantasy image of the ‘nice’ Labour Party that bears no resemblance to their continuing record. And I remember what they offered as the price of coalition: bugger all.

Next time will be different in ways we can’t know. The Tories may well prove ungovernable; Labour may realise that they can’t demand absolute power when more than seven out of ten voters oppose them. But there’s a simple lesson from 2010 about how to negotiate. Labour did not offer a Coalition. It demanded a mass defection. Despite the Lib Dems getting our second-biggest vote since 1928 and Labour their second-worst vote since 1918, Labour’s sense of entitlement pretended that they had the right to keep everything they wanted and Lib Dem voters should get nothing. Despite Labour winning eight and a half million votes to the Lib Dems’ seven million, they expected all Lib Dems to suddenly join the Labour Government to vote for everything we’d previously opposed, because our voters being 83% as numerous as theirs didn’t count. Well, that was a ‘privilege’ it was easy to turn down. There is no point whatsoever in joining a government only to do exactly what the other party would do anyway – otherwise, we’d all have taken the easy road and just joined one of the others years ago. One lesson for Labour from the LiberaTory Coalition is that the Lib Dems are not their battered spouse. As Andrew Hickey said most pithily, we are not Labour’s back-up plan.

The Tories had a larger vote still – ten and a half million – but they weren’t so tribal as to insist only their votes counted… Not when they didn’t have a majority, anyway. Of the four main priorities on the front cover of the Lib Dem 2010 Manifesto, the Tories agreed to three and a half of them (though the ‘half’ has since crumbled further), and Labour none of them. The main advantage of talking to Labour turned out to be that even the Tories couldn’t believe how arrogant Labour would be and assumed that they, too, must be bargaining in good faith, giving a boost to the Lib Dem-Conservative negotiations. I vividly remember self-important Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind complaining all over the TV that the Lib Dems were “harlots” for talking to Labour as well, a Tory predictably failing to comprehend so-called Tory principle of free-market competition to get the best deal.

So the theoretical lesson is that, short of a Lib Dem majority, the best outcome for the Lib Dems at the next election would be genuinely holding the balance of power (as we didn’t quite last time), with both other parties so hungry for power that they offer big compromises – like the Tories in 2010, only more so. That would give us the most power to bargain, and to choose the partner that would enable the greatest share of our Manifesto. The worst would be for the voters again to give us only one realistic choice, and for both others to behave like Labour in 2010 and offer nothing. Then I hope we’d have the guts to walk away.

Unfortunately, reaching even a good deal on paper is where the problems really start.

Compromise or Betrayal?

Voters don’t trust parties to do what they promise. Most of all, they don’t trust us.

The Coalition Agreement was a decent programme for government. The Liberal Democrats didn’t win the election. Fortunately, neither did anyone else. That gave us a chance at last to put some of our Manifesto into action after nearly a century of none of it. The LiberaTory Coalition promised government by principles of freedom, fairness and responsibility, all sounds Liberal ideals. We’d constantly made clear what our priorities were before the election, and three and a half of those four main priorities written on the front of the Liberal Democrat Manifesto were being delivered. Even in Coalition Government, even after Labour blowing the economy to bits and leaving an incredible debt to repay, and even having to compromise with the Tories over what they want to do, the Liberal Democrats have still put our own distinctive stamp on good things from government, not just lessening the bad. Raising the income tax threshold and cutting taxes for 23 million ordinary working people. The Pupil Premium to help out poorer schoolkids. Not just a stronger but a fairer economy, tackling the banks, record numbers of apprenticeships, green jobs and the new Green Investment Bank open for business. And tiny baby steps that soon tripped up on more open politics. Win-win-win-OK, lose a bit on the last one, surely?

Well, we all know what happened next. Somehow the narrative is almost entirely that to get nothing, zip, zero, nada done and help no-one at all would have been principled, while getting stuck in and delivering quite a lot of what we wanted to do is a betrayal. No-one’s interested in looking at policies as a whole: that’s too much effort. No-one complains when we moderate what the Tories want to do (despite the best efforts of baying Tory MPs who actually see what’s going on). But for the Lib Dems to make compromises in some areas to achieve wins in others is an unforgiveable sell-out. The irony, of course, being that this is the corrosive attack by Tory and Labour Parties who have identical policies on tuition fees, the Lib Dem effect on which was to make them far fairer to poorer students (and poorer graduates).

Without a way to challenge the idea that any compromise is betrayal, it’s hard to see how any future coalition can work, either.

In retrospect, David Cameron’s cleverest move in the Coalition negotiations was to have the nous to put his foot down and say the new government would have to keep his expensive but explicit promises, like protecting handouts to millionaire pensioners, even when they weren’t key commitments of the Tory Party itself. And Nick Clegg’s was to be willing to bargain away expensive personal promises because they weren’t at the top of the Lib Dem Manifesto. We all know by now how devastating the effect of Nick breaking his tuition fee promise has been, however improved the real as opposed to the political outcome.

The problem even for negotiations is that voters regard Labour and Tory as opposites and Lib Dems as somewhere in the middle – according to taste, a moderating or a blandifying influence. This is something Nick Clegg has done his best to amplify. It’s not enough on its own. It gives only weakly negative reasons to vote for us, when even Nick in the early days of the LiberaTory Coalition knew that it wasn’t enough to hold each other back, but to achieve big positive things, too. And it’s actively dangerous to future negotiations. It does nothing to explain our poor bargaining hand on the many, many issues where the other parties are identical and we oppose both: most famously, raising tuition fees, but also wasting billions on Trident and, increasingly for the Tories as they move back towards Labour’s far right position, attacking civil liberties.

The best case that can be made with this message is that the Liberal Democrats are in Coalition with the relatively moderate side of the Tory Party and pulling them to greater moderation in the process. While shrieking ‘Traitor!’ for the Lib Dems being an independent party and not their possession, Labour see no contradiction in voting again and again and again with the far right of the Tory Party to make politics more rabidly authoritarian. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t that no-one else sees the contradiction in that, either, because it simply doesn’t fit the narrative that Labour’s illiberal gut instincts are just as extreme as the Tories’.

Agreements Are the Start, Not the End

Parties don’t trust each other to keep to their agreements. Most of all, we don’t trust either of the other two.

If Labour were the more unbearable immediately after the election, a large proportion of the Tories have been making up for lost time in the Coalition itself as their own sense of entitlement grows. And not just the far right MPs who are irreconcilable to any compromise with the Coalition, with their own Leader, or with reality, but – more subtly though in many ways more damagingly – many of the Tory Ministers who in theory are loyal to the Coalition. So what would be the point of making another Coalition Agreement with Mr Cameron if we know from experience that his Leadership is too weak to deliver on his fine words?

Both the letter and the spirit of the Coalition Agreement have slowly withered. A lesson from the LiberaTory Coalition is that agreement on policy at the start is not enough. For two inevitable reasons, any unequal coalition government will get more like the larger party as it goes along: the initial agreement will run out of steam as (and if) it gets delivered; the larger party having the mass of ministers will be able to respond day-to-day to events to its own tune. And those inevitables aren’t all. Large swathes of written promises and more of the principles on which the Coalition was proclaimed have simply not been delivered.

The LiberaTory Coalition has tested if the Lib Dems really meant our Opposition rhetoric about co-operation; through gritted teeth and pain, it turns out we do. It’s also tested if the Tories really meant their Opposition rhetoric – and their signed-up Coalition Agreement’s explicit promises – about the environment, freedom and decentralisation. It turns out they don’t. George Osborne consistently undermining a greener government, Theresa May’s indistinguishable-from-the-Labour-Party authoritarianism and Eric Pickles micro-managing every local council to his own bizarre prejudices only the biggest examples of Tory Ministers simply chucking the LiberaTory Coalition’s founding principles in the bin.

More openly, there’s been a repeated pattern of Lib Dem MPs faithfully voting through some horrible compromise closer to what the Tories wanted, then Tory MPs voting against the more Lib Dem-agreed proposals or Tory Ministers simply dropping them. Part of this is because the Lib Dems agreed to the Coalition en masse, while only the Tory high command ever gave their word. Part of it is simply that it’s in the Lib Dems’ long-term interest to show that Coalition can work, and in the Tories’ long-term interest (if not in David Cameron’s, who can’t afford to lead a failed government) to show that Coalitions fail. Polling may show that more voters believe the Tories haven’t kept to the deal, but I suspect they also don’t care. The “Betrayal” label still belongs to the Lib Dems.

This doesn’t mean that Labour have been blameless in Opposition. More headless. Labour’s years of shrieking fury against the Lib Dems for having the temerity to be a separate party, where they flung shamelessly homophobic abuse at the Coalition and voted against everything they claimed to support simply out of mouth-foaming hatred and a desire to see the Coalition fail, have made them – as under George W Bush – soulmates of the US Republican Party in its obsession with wrecking anything to do with President Obama, even if that means wrecking America.

It all throws into sharp relief the problem with Coalition Agreements. What happens if the other party simply breaks the agreement? Like tuition fees for the voters’ sense of betrayal, one totemic issue was the breaking point. David Cameron agreed to Lords reform, but a large pack of his MPs are feral animals who will vote against him, let alone against us. The Labour Party has pretended to support Lords reform for a hundred years, but on the one single occasion that an elected Lords was on the verge of being delivered in that time, not just a feral faction of them but the entire Labour Party collectively voted to defeat its own principles because, like spoilt teenage bullies, they couldn’t bear anyone else to get the credit. As on so many issues that they claimed to support in principle, in practice they treated Lords reform as a political football, with them as Lucy van Pelt. I don’t know which is worse, but I do know that that day made it seem impossible for the Lib Dems to trust either party in 2015.

Is There Any Hope For A Future Coalition?

The Lib Dems can’t just sit back and hope that press, public or other parties will all suddenly decide to treat us fairly.

That isn’t to say that others may not change their minds in a more helpful direction. To be fair to our opponents / dubiously potential partners, there are straws in the wind that each other party may be stepping back from the abyss, if not quite becoming creatures of reason and principle. To Ed Miliband’s credit, in recent months he’s finally been grown up and passed up opportunities to cut off his nose to spite his face (on, for example, Europe and mostly-equal marriage). It’s too early to say if this means the end of Labour’s all-consuming hatred, but it’s a start. And to David Cameron’s credit, he appears to be realising that he’d have to get his party to commit themselves in another hung Parliament as the Lib Dems did, rather than leave himself exposed when he leads and they choose later not to follow. But faced with two such major problems looming for any future coalition, we need to find our own solutions too.

The Lib Dem Leadership’s ‘we are the middle’ answer appears to be to abandon the big ambitions of either Lib Dem policies in general or even of the early days of the LiberaTory Coalition. It’s at best a sort of judo, to let the other two parties stand for something and then try to turn standing for anything against them by saying ‘Well, we don’t know what we want to do, but we’ll stop them getting that.’ To me, a Manifesto that doesn’t promise anything much that distinguishes us from the other two may guard against betrayal, but it doesn’t give people much of a reason to vote for us in the first place. It also seems to be tacitly accepting in advance that neither of the others can be trusted to vote for any of our own programme, and that all we can hope for is for them to get their own, just not as much as they’d like of it.

I don’t have all the answers, but here are three proposals for a start:

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Monday, August 19, 2013


Liberal Mondays 5: The World’s End Vs Utopia #LibDemValues

Sometimes you find a Liberal quotation in a book, a speech or a politician you know. Sometimes you find a Liberal quotation in a Dictionary of Liberal Quotations when your a-bit-too-occasional-lately series needs kick-starting. And sometimes you find a Liberal quotation in a cinema and scrabble for a bit of paper while trying not to grind too much popcorn into your pocket. That’s how to go from Lord Dahrendorf to Simon Pegg on a pub crawl, finding they’ve got more in common than you might think. Spoilers for the movie follow later…
“It is our basic human right to be fuck-ups!”
My previous Liberal Monday put together three quotations from respected academic, politician and peer Ralf Dahrendorf into a critique of utopia, a theme close to my heart. On an in-between Friday, Richard and I went to see the new Simon Pegg-Edgar Wright comedy drama The World’s End. I’d loved most of their previous work; I grew up reading and still love the sort of John Wyndham / Nicholas Fisk / John Christopher-esque ‘cosy catastrophe’ that I’d heard the movie was to open up into. And, obviously, I love Cornettos. What I was less expecting was for The World’s End also to morph into ‘Ralf Dahrendorf: The Movie’ (spoiler: may not contain actual Dahrendorfs. Other movie spoilers will be less prominent than my latest move to spoil the concept of utopia).

The World’s End is a less approachable film than, say, Hot Fuzz, and will probably make less money: it might make the audience ask difficult questions of itself, the paradox shared by many ‘cosy catastrophe’ novels that, at heart, they make you uncomfortable. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s another excellent reason for you to go and see it anyway. It’s been called a film about growing up, but it’s less dreary and more complex than that – with themes about consequences, and choices, and that while it may be better for you to grow up and better yourself and that the opportunity to do so is important, when you have all that imposed on you it’s really not worth it. And by the end it’s as explicitly anti-utopian film as any. Which is exactly where it chimes with Liberalism, those Ralf Dahrendorf quotes, and my sudden need to dig out a piece of paper and a pen in front of the big screen.

I left sixth-form in 1990 to a similar soundtrack to the lead characters in the film’s opening flashback, which struck the first of several eerie notes with me (though the flashbacks on grainy film are the sort of flashbacks people having grown up to turn 16-18 at that time would imagine, if it was really a flashback to 1990 it’d be on cheap video. But I digress. The digression in this paragraph is merely a device to separate the spoiler at the end. Honest). Some of you may know that drinking isn’t one of my many vices, so my only pub crawl was a year or three later, in the unlikely circumstances of being stranded in London after a business meeting (due to IRA bombs shutting down London Transport). This involved a friend who I worked with at the time going round a long assortment of pubs he wanted to check out while wearing identical pink ties (Tony was the straight one, and camper), with him sinking pints and me on fruit juices and the occasional absurd liqueur (I’d have thought it rude only to ask for tap water). The point of this anecdote is partly to express the movie-appropriate nostalgia that I’d like to get in touch with him, and the also movie-appropriate worry that he’d give me Nick Frost-face these days. But the main point of the anecdote is that, after a business meeting in Kensington, our crawl wound round Chelsea and Fulham and, inevitably, centred on The World’s End.

Spoilers. Liberal Bits. Ready?

The big reveal towards the end of the film is that the reason our heroes’ home town has been repopulated with very slightly higher-achieving Stepford people is that benevolent but disapproving aliens have decided that Earth is the least civilised planet in the galaxy (with a disapproving Polly Toynbee-esque chart to prove it). They’ve come to give us the opportunity to stop being such a blight on local spiral arm property prices, and to serve Alien Spitting-image Behaviour Orders on us if we don’t co-operate with the opportunity.

Yes – it’s New Labour From Space.
“Face it! We are the human race and we don’t like being told what to do!”
It turns out that we don’t like being forced to conform even if conformity can be shown to make things better against recognised galactic standards – with charts – though I suspect the percentage of those refusing to conform shows a slightly optimistic view of human nature. Less optimistically but chiming right in with my own prejudices, the attempt to impose a top-down utopia and sulky withdrawal causes massively more problems than the fuck-ups it was intended to ‘solve’.

The very end of the coda also displays in hearteningly simple form the difference between Liberals and UKIP: a fuck off to enforced utopia; but emphatically not a fuck off to aliens.

[Additional joke critique: Richard rightly points out that “Fuc-King Gary” would have been funnier, while I couldn’t believe that they didn’t knock over Chekhov’s roundabout sign.]

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Sunday, August 18, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 35: Full Circle

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… This one’s from 1980, towards the end of three years starring Tom Baker, K9 and Romana. It’s a brilliantly designed, directed and scripted story, a fiercely intelligent evolutionary fable. The allegory of ‘revealed truth’ versus awkward questions and the morality of siding with the underdog are close to my heart. But for all the great dialogue, thought-provoking revelations and the Doctor’s moral passion, deep down the moment that most gets me is still the thrilling monster reveal. When Mistfall comes, the giants leave the swamp…
“Master. Alert.”

Doctor Who’s Eighteenth Season, broadcast from 1980 to 1981, has long been one of my favourites for its ideas and scientific fairy tales (in this case, great work from writer Andrew Smith and lead writer Christopher H Bidmead), as well as for suddenly stunning visuals and music. In the run-up to my Fifty, I selected Eleven Great Cliffhangers and wrote that this season has arguably Doctor Who’s most sustained run of terrific episode endings, with two stories in particular having outstanding cliffhangers every time. This is the other story for which that’s true: the climaxes to Parts Two and Three are brilliant as well, but you can’t beat a great monster moment.

Strange creatures rising from beneath the water are among Doctor Who’s most striking repeated cliffhanger images. First and perhaps most iconically, a Dalek emerging from the Thames in The Dalek Invasion of Earth; the Silurians’ amphibious cousins in The Sea Devils were excitingly captured for me in prose and photos on the page long before I saw their story; the Haemovores in the terrific The Curse of Fenric; if you’re unlucky, River Song. The Marshmen revealing themselves as they leave the water at the end of Full Circle Part One are for me the most memorable of the lot – perhaps because of the atmospheric direction, perhaps because of their monstrous design, perhaps because of the eerie spiralling music that accompanies them. Or perhaps simply because I was at the right age for this to be the first such scene I was able to see on TV.

For once, the sun came out for the location shoot, making the planet Alzarius seem much more alien – to British viewers – and the production much more lush. The Doctor’s vivid red outfit stands out so gorgeously against the vivid green that Richard Briers took this vibrantly exotic image for expensive tropical filming; the sudden murk of Mistfall becomes that much more of a contrast.

The citizens of the Starliner are used to gathering in food from around the great lake, but it’s the food itself that provides the first portent: strange tiny life growing within the marshfruit. Soon the lake itself is bubbling and something beneath the water is grabbing at the skinnydippers. Bearded patriarch Decider Draith announces the coming of Mistfall, the semicentennial Judgment Day during which his people are commanded to huddle within their centuries-broken spaceship, waiting for the deadly mists outside to pass over. Not all of these truths are true… And not everyone is following the commandments. Inquisitive strangers have arrived in a blue box from far further than the Starliner came before its crash on Alzarius, while teenage rebels define themselves by refusing shelter – “Outlers” – one of them even an Elite who ‘should’ be destined to be a Decider, Adric. Draith pursues his protégé, but rather than successfully bringing him back to the fold, the Decider is knocked into the lake and dragged under the water. Adric flees, taking with him Draith’s last warning, and collapses on running into the TARDIS. The Doctor (Tom Baker) and robot dog K9 (John Leeson) go out to the lake to investigate the legends…

The first major clue to the theme of the story – aside from Draith telling his head scientist that he has all the answers the other man seeks, but it would be blasphemy to divulge their ancestors’ secrets to him – is that after all we’ve heard about Mistfall, K9’s analysis instantly debunks it: the billowing fifty-year-recurring fog is non-toxic. So is this just propaganda to remind citizens never to stray from the Starliner? Or is there something else out there they shouldn’t mix with – and is it a physical, a moral or an existential threat?

As the Doctor kneels with K9 to study the marsh, the mist thickens and the lake heaves… K9 alerts the Doctor to potential danger, and the people of the marsh break the surface of the water, approaching the land. The slightly Creature From the Black Lagoon-ish Marshmen designs were one of the best-realised ‘monsters’ the series had created for some years, and Peter Grimwade’s direction gives them a magnificent introduction, swaying and dripping in slow motion in a great return to Doctor Who for scaring the kiddies.

The other contribution that really makes it for me is composer Paddy Kingsland, whose first full score for the series is a triumph, especially here when a spine-chilling motif builds the tension by circling higher and higher until the titles crash in to end the episode. The cliffhanger is cut at just the right moment to leave you wanting more, and if you follow through into the next episode, it offers more: rather than the howl of the Doctor Who Theme’s cliffhanger sting, as the Marshmen fully emerge from the swamp and stride onto land to open Part Two the eerie chiming music evolves into harsh electric guitar power chords for the developing peril.

As I’ve sometimes written, I enjoy film and TV scores but have no musical training and little musical vocabulary, which is why I think in metaphors such as “spiralling”; a person who does know a bit is John Toon, whose blog Doctor Who Electronica – 50 Scores in 50 Weeks for the 50th Anniversary is keeping up much better with its intentions than my own Fifty. He has this to say on that cliffhanger moment:
“A repeated seven note phrase plays over scenes that relate to Mistfall or that feature revelations about the Alzarian life cycle. The end of Part One, as the Marshmen emerge from the water, is a notable example. The notes rise and fall cyclically within the phrase, and the phrase itself rises across repetitions, as if emphasising the upward climb of Alzarius' super-evolving lifeforms. ‘The Ascent of Marshman’, we might call it.”

Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – The Power of Kroll

I wrote last time about the brilliance of Robert Holmes’ writing for Doctor Who. His last story in his ten years as a regular scriptwriter featured the same team of the Doctor, Romana and K9 – though a different Romana to the regenerated Time Lord seen in the other two stories I feature today. 1978’s The Power of Kroll doesn’t entirely play to Mr Holmes’ strengths: told to take out the jokes and put in a giant monster, he gives us an alien world whose green-skinned people show more buttocks than Torchwood and whose history of exploitation is a mash-up of Native Americans, Irish nationalism and, as you’re about to discover, the subtle tribal characterisation of King Kong. At least when Kroll the massive tentacled beastie does eventually rise from the depths he’s rather impressive (and has a well-conceived life cycle). Before he does, we’re given what looks like a traditional ‘monster reveal’ cliffhanger at the end of Part One, but is actually something stranger, cleverer, and at first glance a little disappointing: while several of Bob’s cliffhangers are stunning moments let down by lacklustre resolutions the following week, for this one time only it’s the reverse of instant gratification. As Romana (Mary Tamm) struggles on the Stone of Blood and the Doctor (Tom Baker) paddles through the swamp to find her, there’s memorable dialogue from the Tribe. This time with the actions. It’s no double act, and it may be memorable for all the wrong reasons, but I still can never help but sing along to The Kroll Song as the Tribe do aerobics with spears, stamping and thrusting and giving it some welly to summon their god. It’s a sort of ritual chant:
[Five drumbeats]
[Five drumbeats]
[Five drumbeats]
[Five drumbeats]
[Five drumbeats]
Repeat twenty-five times, or until cliffhanger.

Extra Bonus Great Doctor Who Quotation – City of Death

Today’s other bonus was first broadcast back in 1979, in between the other two choices, and though technically it’s not a monster rising from the depths, here we have a villain from the depths of time, traced back to the ocean floor before it was ocean, and who looks very tentacular when not looking like the fabulous Julian Glover. So it counts. And while this story is another to feature marvellous images and marvellous music, this time I’ve picked a line of drawing-room comedy dialogue. The script is credited to “David Agnew” – in truth, a mixture of Graham Williams, David Fisher, the actors and perhaps most prominently Douglas Adams – and towards the end of Part Three, Romana (Lalla Ward) has escaped from the villainous Count Scarlioni – in truth, ancient alien Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth – but returns to his château to find out what he’s up to. She breaks in with the aid of an out-of-his-depth private detective, but they don’t break in terribly successfully. They’re dragged in at gunpoint by a sneering henchman, where Scaroth (Julian Glover) tosses an aside to them with a beautifully underplayed little laugh:
“As soon as the alarm sounded, Excellency – he was halfway through the window, and she was outside. I thought you might wish to speak to them, so I called off the dogs. They cannot be professionals.”
“My dear, it was not necessary for you to enter my house by – ah, we could hardly call it stealth – you had only to knock on the door…”
She’s so utterly impractical, he’s so urbanely villainous, and it always cracks me up.

Next Time… The scariest place for anyone

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Wednesday, August 07, 2013


Doctor Who 50 Great Scenes – 36: The Krotons. Featuring Patrick Troughton, Robert Holmes and the Double Act

Counting down towards the fiftieth birthday of Doctor Who with Fifty great scenes… Now we have a new Doctor and look forward to a new direction for the series, today it’s a celebration of two people who did those things brilliantly: second Doctor Patrick Troughton and lead writer Robert Holmes, both still regarded as patron saints by Doctor Who actors and writers today. Paired together here from 1969, this scene (and more) offers the sort of double act both men were famous for, a warning about computer games, and proof that nobody’s perfect:
“Oh, Doctor! You’ve got it all wrong!”

By the time The Krotons was first broadcast at the tail end of the ’60s, Patrick Troughton was approaching the tail end of his time as the Doctor, while Robert Holmes was just starting out on his career in the series – one which would see him write for five Doctors over nearly twenty years, become the series’ most prolific writer during the Twentieth Century with scripts that ran from comedy to horror and nicking from everything in sight, and establish himself as Doctor Who’s greatest ever script editor (the equivalent of today’s showrunners like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, without the money), defined by great dialogue and great wickedness. The Krotons is a bit smaller than all that and not the greatest story in which either Mr Troughton or Mr Holmes would be involved, but right from the first Bob writes perfectly for the Doctor and Pat runs with it superbly. You can see why so many actors who’ve played the Doctor since cite him as their favourite, from Peter Davison on BBC1’s So You Think It’s Capaldi… It Is Now! programme last Sunday night to still-current incumbent Matt Smith: not only is Patrick Troughton pretty much unbeatable when he’s giving his best, but he’s obviously the patron saint of ‘the impossible job of following the big success and making it work’. And one of the things both Pat and Bob made their own in their different ways can be checked by asking long-term Who fans, ‘Which Doctor / which writer was brilliant for comedy double acts…?’

Half-way into Episode Two, the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his friends Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) are trying to work out the secret of the Krotons, legendary beings long-unseen and perhaps best left that way* who rule from their great crystal machine over the locals, known as the Gonds. The Krotons have for centuries demanded tribute of the Gonds’ best and brightest delivered to them, and in a neat critique of instant gratification, by the time our heroes arrive the Gonds are predictably no longer best or bright. As the Krotons need mental energy to revive themselves, their own not exactly high-brain short-termism means perpetual slumber for them and perpetual slavery for the Gonds. Unless someone very bright indeed turns up and puts their foot in it, of course…

Zoe is a brilliant teenage computer programmer from the Twenty-first Century who, when the Doctor bumbles off to look elsewhere, is drawn to the Krotons’ teaching machines and all the games installed on them. Stop me if you can see where this is going. She’d have been a demon with ‘Tomb Raider of the Cybermen’, and even though ‘Selris’ only involves a completely inanimate block that has to be winched into place, she’s soon more than doubling the previous high score and flooded with endorphins. The Doctor wrenches off her headphones, but the Gonds’ dreary leader has already spotted the score. The Doctor’s not impressed:
“Yes, well, Zoe is something of a genius. Of course, it can be very irritating at times.”
That’s nothing to his reaction when a gong sounds from the great crystal machine and a message from the sleeping Krotons demands that Zoe join them as a special extra companion. As Zoe and the Doctor have both already witnessed that round the back of the great crystal machine there’s an exit where the ‘honoured’ companions are unceremoniously ejected and disintegrated after having their brains sucked out, the usually mildest of Doctors snaps to his friend in sudden fury and fear:
“Now do you see what you’ve done? Fooling around with this stupid machine!”
“But I’m not a Gond!”
“But the machine doesn’t know that!”
He stomps off to take the test himself, unwilling either to let the Kroton machine massacre the Gonds for disobedience or let Zoe go into danger alone. And that’s what I really love about this scene, because the Doctor’s palpable concern, and Zoe wanting to make up for her getting them into trouble, and looming certain death, all obviously create a situation which is both tense and terrifically funny.

The Doctor sits down at the teaching machine and their positions are suddenly reversed: he’s the one with the headset on and Zoe’s the responsible one telling him what to do. And on top of both wanting him to succeed, they’re absurdly competitive about it. She tells him to press the button to start, then tells him again, because he can’t hear with his phones on; he answers back too loudly, and with a storm of testy words that get her going, and coming, and them both rushing about:
“All right, there’s no need to shout! Now go away and don’t fuss me – no, come back, what’s this? – It’s all right, I know – right, fire away. I’m ready.”
At which an exasperated Zoe now mimes that he has to press the button to set it going. Not much of The Krotons looks good, but there’s some fabulous design here for the circling computer symbols (absolutely not CGI) assembling, breaking and reforming, all to great sound design, too, an ominous low chattering hum. Brian Hodgson’s soundtrack – a radiophonic mixture of electronic effects, textures and near-music – is now available to buy, and so fascinating that Richard has instructed me never again to play it in his presence (look, it’s shorter than The Sea Devils…).

So does the brilliant Doctor at once beat Zoe’s high score? No. He makes a clever person’s error and, rather than reading the instructions properly, works it out on the wrong basis and scores zero. The Gond leader worries to Zoe:
“This is the most advanced machine. Perhaps he can’t answer the questions.”
“Of course he can. The Doctor’s almost as clever as I am.”
So the Doctor gets it all wrong again, as Zoe jumps in frustration. That is, until he gets into the swing of it and, at last, the score battering over the upper limit, he turns very smug and she turns very cold:
“I think I’ve scored more than you have, Zoe.”
“You answered more questions!”
Before long, the “dinner gong” sounds again for them to enter the great machine, and even as the danger reaches its pitch, the Doctor’s deadpan polite thanks when Selris the Gond leader dolefully tells him his people will remember him is a scream…

*On another not entirely stunning visualisation, Alan and Fiona have recently covered The Krotons on Kaldor City and I laughed at their all-too appropriate “The Gond village looks like someone has dropped a packet of chips and a Scotch egg on a gravelled drive” – this is not among Doctor Who’s more lavish productions.

Bonus Great Patrick Troughton and Robert Holmes Doctor Who Quotation – The Space Pirates

If The Krotons is not the most fêted of Doctor Who stories, Bob Holmes’ second script, The Space Pirates, can be a bit of a slog. Of all the stories I’ve watched when prospecting for the Fifty, this was the hardest work to pry anything precious from: for me, it’s easily Bob’s weakest script, badly structured, thinly plotted, and with most of it junked by the BBC so only the soundtrack is left, not even visually diverting. With Bob’s entertaining but unexpectedly queasy final treatment of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor not until a 1985 guest reunion, though, this is the only other time they paired up. But the great thing about Doctor Who – and about Pat and Bob – is that even in the most exhausted parts you really can still find something marvellous. And here it’s not in the endless, plotless space chases but in the second half of the story, where the Doctor (Patrick Troughton) and his longtime partner in the double act Jamie (Frazer Hines) finally get to meet people from across the plot and to do plenty of their perfectly timed schtick. A terrible gag with drawing pins that’s terribly funny; the Doctor’s favourite marble; and the bit that I’m afraid always makes me laugh – trying to break out of a cell with an audio lock, the Doctor gets out a tuning fork and, endlessly, twangs it. Jamie:
“Which end did he land on when you fell down that shaft?”
[After driving them all nuts…]
“Oh, look, Doctor, will you stop it?”
“You want to get out of here, don’t you?”
“Oh, that’s not going to get us out…”
“Yes, Jamie, it is! An audio lock is a simple solenoid switch which is only activated by a particular sound. It’s just a question of finding it, that’s all.”
“Oh, look – I can’t stand any more!”
[He grabs the fork off him… Chucks it against the wall… And as the Doctor wails, the cell door opens.]
“Jamie! Jamie! …Jamie, you found the right note!”
Confronted with a three-inch-steel door later:
“It’s not an audio lock, is it?”
“No, Jamie, it isn’t.”
“Ah, that’s a relief.”
“Jamie, I think you don’t appreciate all I do for you.”
And there you go – sifting out the good bits of The Space Pirates.

Admittedly I do find one line from the old comedy character without much comedy to him very appealing, too – here’s Milo Clancey up against the New Labour space police:
“You know it’s an offence to operate without a feedback to CFI?”
“An offence?”
“I didn’t realise that, sonny, no. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. There are so many offences these days.”

Bonus Great Patrick Troughton Doctor Who Quotation – The Moonbase

The Doctor had begun as a figure who intended only to observe and who learned only gradually the moral instinct to interfere: moral outrage had long topped non-intervention by the time of his first regeneration, but it’s when the new Doctor (Patrick Troughton) faced the early return of the Cybermen that he gave the clearest declaration that he fights monsters now, and fighting monsters is cool. It’s part-way into Episode 2, with the Doctor and his friends having a bit of a time of it up on a Moonbase about a century after the story’s 1967 broadcast. The base commander is fed up with the Doctor’s antics and wants him gone; the Doctor’s friends are mostly fed up with being injured and threatened and might just do that; but the Cybermen appear to be on the prowl, and the playful Doctor suddenly puts his foot down with sober gravitas and issues his manifesto. This is the moment where this Doctor finds himself. Later Doctors found a more nuanced moral compass, but this one took two very firm and uncompromising if not completely complementary stances: anarchic freethinking meddling; and destroy all monsters…
“There are some corners of the Universe which have bred the most – terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought.”

Bonus Great Robert Holmes Doctor Who Quotation – The Time Warrior

One of Robert Holmes more influential scripts, The Time Warrior introduced Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen): in Episode Four, broadcast early in 1974, Sarah Jane has snuck into a medieval castle to knock out a nasty robber baron and his entire garrison while the Doctor deals with the alien in the cellar. It’s a scene that shows how very resourceful she is, how very feminist she is, and how very funny she can be. Caught in the kitchens by Meg the fearsome – well, I suppose in a posher castle she’d be called the châtelaine, but here ‘lead serving wench that bullies the other serving wenches into getting the job done’ – Sarah Jane first bluffs that she’s a lady and will have her flogged, then, that failing, turns on a groat to wheedling pauper needing food and is put to preparing some, after which if she’s lucky she might get some bread, cheese or oatmeal – meat only being for the men. Exasperated at the downtrodden kitchen women, Sarah Jane confronts them about their situation and gets carried away…
“You should set yourselves free.”
“Oh? And how should we do that?”
“Don’t you want to be free?”
“Women will never be free while there are men in the world, girl. We have our place.”
“What subservient poppycock. You’re still living in the Middle Ages!”
Next along, half of what will much later become a famous double act with Sarah Jane…

Extra Bonus Great Robert Holmes Doctor Who Quotation – The Sun Makers

After three sublime years of scaring the kiddies (I was that kiddie) in the mid-’70s, the BBC itself took fright of Doctor Who (and of far right anti-TV ideologues), sacked the producer and demanded a change of tone. And lead writer Robert Holmes, who’d been half of the brilliant creative team behind all the horror, stayed on long enough to come up with the next new wave, too – to use Tom Baker’s enormous charisma as a springboard to a much funnier style. 1977’s The Sun Makers has the iconic line-up: the man in the incredibly long scarf (Tom Baker); the woman in the leather bikini (Louse Jameson); the tin dog (John Leeson). While the TARDIS is still in flight, we join the travellers playing chess. There are other great Doctor-machine chess games to come, from the Doctor’s return match with K9 a year later in which he cheats again but steals from the wrong game, to his playing chess against himself within the Cyberiad just this year, and facing Fenric along the way, but this is the first and, in its own way, as much a statement as the Doctor’s famous line on The Moonbase. The Doctor (Tom Baker) will now be funny and outrageous and often get caught out; K9 will be not just a blaster-cum-database on wheels, but bitchy and pedantic and with a touch of robotic venom when his “master” tries it on. And Leela, moving the pieces for K9, will be the straight man.
“Even simple one-dimensional chess exposes the limitations of the machine mind.”
[The Doctor laughs]
“Bishop to queen six. Mistress.”
“Affirmative. Check, master.”
Machine mind computes mate in six moves.”
“…Your move, master.”
“I know it’s my move. Don’t flash your eyes at me.”
“Wrong square.”
“Your king, master. Wrong square.”
“Really? Are you sure?”

Doctor Who and the Double Act

I don’t know which Doctor Who critic first wrote about the “Holmesian Double Act,” but they nailed one of the most striking things about the series’ arguably greatest writer, and everyone familiar with Robert Holmes’ scripts suddenly knew exactly what they meant. Yet these took a little while to appear; you don’t really get double acts in Bob’s two earliest scripts – there are functional teams (the plotters in The Krotons, the police in The Space Pirates), but they’re not amusing and they’re not memorable. The exception is, of course, the Doctor and Jamie (or the Doctor and Zoe), who’d perfected a brilliant relationship over the years.

So, while Bob was finding his voice, I wonder how much he looked at the team he was writing for in 1969 and was influenced by them – with Pat and Frazer’s fantastic on-screen chemistry displaying a great way to bring out character. The Doctor, highly intelligent, easily flustered, always getting his friend into trouble; the young Scot from 1745, uneducated but canny enough to always watch out for the Doctor getting it wrong; both devoted to each other (and with Zoe coming in to be exasperated and constantly one-upping on both).

The way Robert Holmes writes his own double acts is never the same each time, but still distinctive: two people who are clearly meant to be together but through some imbalance of age, position or outlook constantly snipe at each other, which moves the plot along, informs and entertains us and comments on the story. The earliest version is in 1970’s Spearhead From Space with, archetypally, a husband and wife – and once he’d written the Seeleys always trying to get one over on each other, the key to all the rest is that they’re husband and wife / odd couple sketches transposed into a serious setting. And while Sam Seeley was just a bit shifty, a great many of them raise the stakes by being explicitly villains.

The partners in a Holmesian Double Act can be anywhere along the dial from out-and-out comedy characters to comedy-drama to downright dangerous and very blackly comic indeed, from supporting to central characters in the plot, and from ‘loveable rogue’ with ‘disapproving wife’ all the way up to ‘mad scientist’ paired with both ‘war criminal’ and ‘brutish servant’, which makes the insults all the grander and crueller (“You chicken-brained biological disaster!”) and at their darkest where each might grow to regard the other as disposable. Some double acts are only temporary, just for a scene or two within a story, some an inseparable chorus, but many are deeply celebrated partnerships – to the extent that many other Doctor Who authors consciously emulate the idea, with one writer’s best story features not just Bob Holmes Tribute Band double acts of his own, but even lampshades the term (as does later still writer Paul Cornell. In iambic pentameter).

In 1971’s Terror of the Autons, the Master and Rex Farrel (Michael Wisher) get to play master and servant so archly that it’s amazing so few people spot the husband-wife origins, but the point at which Bob really finds his voice and the double act springs fully formed for every critic to identify is 1973’s Carnival of Monsters, in which we don’t just get gossipy alien fascists Kalik (Michael Wisher) and Orum as the villains but dodgy travellers Vorg and Shirna to mirror the Doctor and his companion. As the series gets scarier, the pairs get more serious – Nyder and Davros (Michael Wisher… Look, he’s awfully good, and very versatile, and they did employ other people in the ’70s, honestly) – but there are vestigial double acts even in comedy exchanges that are going to turn murderous like Warlock and Namin in Pyramids of Mars or Federico and Hieronymous in The Masque of Mandragora, soaring to the nastiest but almost the funniest of the lot in The Brain of Morbius, with unhinged Dr Solon sparking off both his brutish servant and his obsessed master. There’s a spin on the buddy movie not with butch young things but cynical old codgers in The Deadly Assassin (plus The Clue of the Murdered Double-Act that we don’t even get to meet), and in later, less serious times double acts with outrageously evil capitalists before Bob launches another fabulous the Doctor and companion double act, this time an impossibly arch fellow Time Lord. And that’s not the half of them.

Still to come in the Fifty: from Bob Holmes’ big comeback, one of several especially nastily dysfunctional double acts – but will it be the disturbed homoerotic one, the other disturbed homoerotic one, the in-your-face twisted and murderous one, or the only one that’s clearly productive until…? Plus Bob’s deconstruction of his own trope and, shockingly, of his own inspiration – and, of course, the most beloved and famous double act of them all, who each try out various partners before finding each other.

Extra Bonus Great Robert Holmes Doctor Who Double Act Quotation – The Ribos Operation

On, for an irresistible last bonus, to one of Robert Holmes’ most celebrated double acts, broadcast in 1978. I know I quoted The Ribos Operation just last time, but full of such marvellous characters and dialogue that I can’t help coming back to it (and beside, Bob Holmes probably didn’t write that bit, but he definitely wrote this one). It’s half-way into Part Four, and scurrilous con-men Garron (Iain Cuthbertson) and Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) are stuck in a labyrinth. Garron has three aims: avoid the big bad soldiers; avoid the Doctor and Romana; get out with the loot. The more innocent young Unstoffe is shocked by the second aim, and to find that his grizzled old partner has none of the ‘It’s not all about the money’ code of Hustle: having teamed up with Romana in order for each of them to find their friends, Garron’s nicked her vital detector and left her stranded…
“Money isn’t everything, Garron.”
“Well, who wants everything? I’ll settle for 90%.”
“…You cavilling old hypocrite. How could you?”
“Well, I admit I had a great trouble with me conscience. Fortunately, I won.”

Next Time… Monsters from the deep. But which?

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