Saturday, June 28, 2014


Which Website Is Attracting 86.3% of Parliament’s Bandwidth? Or – Showbusiness for Clickbaitors

The air of Westminster is today seething with wi-fi so overheated that some researchers have actually* been microwaved (*not actually. Actually that goes for much of this article). Personality politics is often dismissed as just a beauty contest; now, at last, politicians have a genuine* beauty contest about themselves (*no, seriously, against all reason this bit is completely true). Among usvsth3m’s array of “Fights”, you can now vote for “Which gentleman MP is the sexiest?” Other votes pit songs, films, cities and scary clowns against each other, but I know this one floats your boat (and the Doctor Who choices). Warning: this is a post-watershed blog post. …

The usvsth3m set-up is familiar from the well-known exercise, ‘Which of X and Y is best? There’s only one answer – FIGHT!’ and here people create lists of anything that takes their fancy, from which two items are pitted against each other at random each time you click. This sorts the list by what or who’s won the most head-to-head battles. Simple as that.

Two Lovely Pairs of usvsth3m Votes – and a Poll Where Lib Dems Do Best!

Of the many available, four have caught my eye and my mouse clicks: inevitably, two for politics and two for Doctor Who. The pairs curiously mirror each other. “Which gentleman MP is the sexiest?” offers a choice of 504 men combining in random pairs (if that sort of thing turns you on), so I doubt I’ve chosen between more than a tiny fraction of them, while “Which government minister do you loathe the most?” gives you a choice of 21 Cabinet Ministers, so it’s much easier to ‘collect the set’. Similarly, “What is the best Doctor Who story EVER?” suggests not only that television is the basis of all reality but also that the world will end before August Bank Holiday, but even so provides an eye-blearying array of 241 stories, while “Who’s the best Doctor Who?” offers only 14 versions of the Doctor to choose from, and not even (spoiler) Michael Jayston.

The most confusing to pick from if you have several tabs open and are on a hypnotised clicking spree between multiple pages – I know nothing of this – is the “Which government minister do you loathe the most?” which, as you can spot, is the only one of these four where you want your favoured candidate to score not towards 100% but towards 0%, like an especially pointless round of Pointless. This means it’s very easy to mix up who should be up and who should go down. At the time of writing, Iain Duncan Smith and George Osborne are hitting it out as the most unloved (not my picks, but high profile) at around 80% apiece, while Alistair Carmichael rejoices in being the only member of the Cabinet to score under 20%. Hearteningly, every Liberal Democrat scores below 50%, with the winner-by-which-I-mean-loser inevitably Nick Clegg, though still hated in only 45% of battles. So here at last is a poll in which the Lib Dems are doing comparatively well.

The main other conclusion I’ve drawn from this is that Iain Duncan Smith is a low-grade copy of William Hague, but lacking the looks, charm and redeeming social concern, and that Chris Grayling is a low-grade copy of Iain Duncan Smith, but lacking the looks, charm and redeeming social concern.

Favourite Doctors and My 85% Difference From the Average Fan

As for the Doctor Who choices… Well, at the moment I’m quite cheered by the results for favourite Doctor, which are significantly out of line with most polls and rather closer to my own views, though it’s possible this may change when more people vote on it. Not wishing to dwell on the unloved here, I’m delighted to see William Hartnell and Matt Smith currently in second and third place, and Colin and Sylv not inappropriately at numbers six and seven. The best story poll is the one in which I’ve voted least, counter-intuitively, as it’s the only one I could see myself going, ‘No, that’s wrong!’ and getting lost in it for days trying to affect the outcome of something completely meaningless (and even here the pictures matter: screengrabs, book covers, posters, many make the stories involved look much more or less appealing than they ought to be. I don’t think much of The Monster of Peladon, for example, but I have a Pavlovian response to Alpha Centauri, and as for The Smugglers…). At least, right now, my favourite story is doing about 25% better than in last month’s rather wider and more settled Doctor Who Magazine poll, so that’s something. But if I click 120 times, statistically it’s very likely to turn up in there for me to vote for it… No. No.

What I should do, I suppose, is post some of the more entertaining differences between what I think of various Doctor Who stories and how the average fan’s votes turned up in Doctor Who Magazine 474, just now disappearing from the shelves (but I’m sure you can find one, or buy the download). Should I? For the moment I’ll tease by saying that, out of 241 televised stories so far, my biggest differences either way with average fan opinion were one that I would have put 170 places higher – and another that I would have put 205 places lower! And both by the same author. Any guesses?

And Now the Main Attraction – Hot MP Totty

So, “Which gentleman MP is the sexiest?”… A serious project to bring sexual objectification to the attention of our lawmakers? A Parliamentary researcher with particularly varied tastes, or some other steamy clickbaitor? Or just taking the piss?

My own pet theory is that the poll has been created by the Labour Party in order to find an opinion poll that they can win: analysing the vital statistical correlation between the current top entries, the most plausible hypothesis is that all Labour researchers are under orders to vote and vote again for every member of the Shadow Cabinet. The null hypothesis would be that Labour’s Shadow Cabinet genuinely is a beauty contest, but while my tastes tend significantly away from society’s ideals of beauty, I don’t think I can be that out.

I found myself clicking on this quite a bit, though often with the ‘pass’ option, it being weirdly compelling more for my interests in politics than in men. Never have I been invited to pass sexual judgement on people with such a bizarre variety of internal reactions. All right, so some male MPs do indeed look attractive; others I recoiled from on looks alone. But for most of them, things were more complicated (or it would be their politics rather than their looks that made my flesh creep). For a start, I’d often vote for some of those with the most unflattering photos: I tend to look terrible in photos too, but it’d be interesting if someone did a (subjective) statistical analysis to see which MPs had had ‘good’ photos chosen for the site and which were clearly designed to put people off. Or which ones were just a little apart from the norm of Commons, conference or canvassing shots. What to make of the one covered in teddy bears? Did the person who compiled the list and pictures for the site have a particular thing for the sole MP pictured with his top off (and wood in each hand)? What have you got on your head, sir? Does anyone really think that being plastered from head to toe in Labour Party stickers is becoming? And how about the Tory posing by bales of hay, all the better to roll in it?

The disturbing thing about click, click, click is that very soon I stopped thinking about it. From being disturbed at being asked to sexually objectify people I may know, I quickly drifted into particular patterns to click through more quickly. Tending to vote the party line on Liberal Democrat MPs – tending to, with more than a few exceptions for more than a few reasons. Lib Dem readers, you may like to know that at the time of writing Duncan Hames is our highest-placed hottie, so congratulations, Duncan. The MP I’d have had top was disappointingly low (though while you’re down there…).

Or there were the wider political reactions. MPs of other parties that I’d met or heard speak usually got me clicking against them, because they’d moved from potentially off-putting to not on your nelly (with a few exceptions, like the backbencher I remembered as a nice old buffer who liked Doctor Who and might be surprised to get ‘sexy’ clicks as a result). Or the ones I’d never heard of but assumed if they were in the DUP they’d be downright unspeakable. Or the ones that are disgustingly homophobic – should I vote for them and send them a message to say so, in the hope that it would hurt them more than it would me? And of course that select bunch who, whatever their looks, I thought ‘unspeakable fascist’ and would vote against with anyone at all – though special points to the poll’s devisor, who managed to find a picture of Liam Byrne that seems to have captured his inner soul (an impressive feat in itself to find it).

Or there were the ones who were quite attractive and I didn’t know anything especially against them; or the ones who weren’t conventionally attractive but looked like they might be goers – several gentlemen’s eyebrows looked intriguing (as opposed to thinking of some, ‘He’s had lots of affairs – so he’s probably good at it’ or ‘He’s had lots of affairs – but I still wouldn’t touch him with yours’); or, I’m afraid, as my brain stopped processing images at all and I clicked ever more robotically, the names. I am of course in the top 0.1% of the population for being mocked about my name and should know better, but as words swam up before pictures I started thinking of Mr Crabb or Mr Clappison, not in my bed, or Mr Pincher, and with the court case so close, or wondering what filthy practice ‘Prisking’ is, or Mr Woodcock – does he have one? I’m sure the poor MP for Ogmore heard even more ‘jokes’ in the playground than I did. And looking at one of the currently highest-placed Tories, who by the vagaries of the algorithm popped up as a choice several times, I wonder if other people voted as I did for Mr Drax because he sounded like a Bond villain? And is it just me, or does Hugo Swire have the most Tory-MP-sounding name of any Tory MP? But when you start misreading names as ‘Tom Greatsex’ or ‘Michael Lubricant’ it’s just too close to Dilbert’s “You’ve ruined sex for everyone” and time to stop.

On the bright side, this is surely the most memorable tool yet for educating us on what the largely anonymous mass of Parliamentary Members look like – and encouraging us to be kinder to some – so I can recommend it as a valuable service to the public.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Me Vs Stephen Tall: An Open Letter About (Oh Joy!) The Orange Book

Stephen Tall today celebrates the tenth anniversary of the much-maligned, much-magnified and in my view surprisingly dull Liberal Democrat essay collection The Orange Book with a provocative article: “Why looking back on the 2005 Lib Dem manifesto depresses me. And why The Orange Book means the 2015 manifesto will be better.” So…

Dear Stephen, you’ll be delighted to know that you’ve provoked me into thinking (and so much that it would be overdoing it a bit to submit this as a comment to you). You may be less delighted to read that I didn’t agree with very much you said…

I might summarise your article as saying ‘The Orange Book came up with some new ideas and provoked lasting debate in the Liberal Democrats, while the party’s 2005 Manifesto was largely coasting along on old policies and not very interesting*’. I’d mostly agree with that – which shows the problem with short summaries, as I mostly don’t agree with your article, and where for me you fall down fatally is in basing all your arguments on short or partisan summaries rather than at any stage examining the documents themselves.

*[Though some might ask which of those two is more useful for a political party to campaign on in a General Election.]

It’s terribly tempting to demonstrate that today’s article isn’t up to your usual standards by cutting and pasting your own words: individually, most of the criticisms are defensible. Collectively, it’s shockingly lazy and lacks all credibility except when based on hindsight.

But I’ll provide some of the context you don’t instead.

My Own Biases and My Review of The Orange Book

I’ll start with a little about my own biases. I read both The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism and Freedom, Fairness, Trust: The Liberal Democrat 2005 General Election Manifesto when they were new; I’ve not read either in any detail for a few years. In my much more active and much less ill past, I spent a few years as a ferocious critic of the Lib Dem policymaking process, getting more amendments passed by Conference than anyone save the party’s Federal Policy Committee… Then spent about a dozen years as a directly elected member of the party’s Federal Policy Committee, including some as its Vice-Chair, trying to write my amendments in at source rather than from the outside, and including work on three General Election Manifestos, of which the 2005 one was the last and in my view the least interesting (or most honed, for campaigning purposes).

One of my first substantial articles I wrote on starting this blog in early 2006 was what I think of as an even-handed review of The Orange Book (your mileage may vary). You can read it here in full, but here’s another partisan précis. I didn’t see it as anything like the coherent package it would suit its admirers and detractors to be; I thought its timing was a deliberate and cynical attempt to advance its authors rather than to advance its ideas; I praised David Laws much more than some of its contributors; I thought some chapters dull, silly or disturbingly authoritarian, but most in the Lib Dem mainstream; and I thought two chapters were absolutely crucial. One of them was by David Laws, defining Liberalism, which I said was well worth a read, mostly interesting, and wholeheartedly Liberal – with some significant caveats. The other was by Paul Marshall, who in your article comes across as your main source for framing both documents, and his introductory chapter was one of the most leaden failures in any book on Liberalism I’ve ever read.

In The Orange Book’s defence, the authors did at least get their fingers out and try to come up with some big ideas – and whether it’s truth or legend, they did win a reputation for setting off debate. That’s no mean feat, though I criticised crucial writers for “leaving [their] philosophical innovation stalled somewhere around 1908”. To be fair, although poor health gets in the way, it is also true that I’ve not only failed to launch the big idea for the party I keep meaning to, but that its philosophical innovation arguably hails from 1859. So the most remarkable thing about The Orange Book is that they did it, and then managed to get lasting attention for it.

Either way, when it comes to The Orange Book: Rewriting History, I was around for that history and require more than Paul Marshall’s highly spun hindsight as the sum total of evidence.

The Orange Book, the 2005 Manifesto and the Context

Stephen, you quote glowingly a speech by Paul Marshall long after the fact in which he puts down the 2005 Manifesto and praises his alternative by highly selective presentations of each. Let me provide a little more revealing context.

I called The Orange Book an alternative manifesto because in its timing and in its introduction (to say nothing of the editors’ spin all over the press) that is precisely how it was promoted. So it’s not unreasonable to make some direct comparisons. Way back when I reviewed The Orange Book myself, I said that Paul Marshall’s introduction was the weakest single chapter: a dully written and incoherent attempt to make an alternative manifesto of a series of disparate essays (to the obvious embarrassment of some of its authors), Mr Marshall showed more effectively than any other Lib Dem just how difficult it is to write a manifesto, because his attempt at one was so pitiful.

Not only was The Orange Book a shambles as an alternative manifesto, it was utterly useless in every regard (save to our enemies) as any basis for the actual manifesto. It was published to coincide with the party’s own pre-manifesto that was the culmination of two years’ consultation. I mean, how much “foresight” was that? Any ideas in The Orange Book, good or bad, could only be portrayed as ‘splits’ and completely useless as contributions. Imagine what the current manifesto co-ordinator – David Laws, I think his name is – would say if you were to publish an alternative manifesto in Autumn this year when his own carefully negotiated version had already been printed and circulated to every Conference representative? Had The Orange Book been published either a year earlier or a year later, it would have been timed to make a genuine contribution to ideas and been the target of far less opprobrium. In context, deliberately timed to get attention rather than to advance its ideas, it wasn’t taking part in a debate. It was merely willy-waving.

Then there’s the Manifesto itself. I’m sure you’ve read both the 2005 Manifesto and The Orange Book, but your article gives the impression that you’re taking Paul Marshall’s skimpy press releases as the entire basis of your critique of one and praise for the other. Well, I’ve said what I thought of Mr Marshall’s introduction to The Orange Book: now for the Manifesto, which I also read in full (many times, back then, as I was one of the many with a hand in writing it). Was it unambitious? Yes, in some places it was. There was a drive to cut down the length and the promises of 2001 and 1997, each of which I thought were more interesting manifestos, and I was exasperated at how hard I had to fight to get even a tiny box about our ideals into it, but as for “unrealistically high spending commitments”?

It turned out some of them were, in hindsight. In context, they weren’t. Like the 2001 and 1997 manifestos, they were based on months of hard arguing and hard costings to cut down our promises to what we could afford – as our (and the IFS’) understanding of the general economic framework went at the time. No other party bothered. It turned out that the general economic framework of the time was a bloated absurdity that vanished in a puff of debt, but no-one knew that yet. Let me turn back to sage, prophet and incredibly boring wordsmith Paul Marshall: hilarious that he now attacks that manifesto for “unrealistically high spending commitments” when his own alternative manifesto took exactly the same general economic framework as truth (just swapping what turned out to be “unrealistic” tax cuts for the spending, all based on an understanding of wealth we didn’t have).

One of my key criticisms of The Orange Book – unlike Mr Marshall’s conveniently partial claims today, from before the financial crash – was in its flagship approach to financial markets, one of the less convincing arguments written by David Laws. I wrote:
“He mentions opposition to monopoly and 1930s market failure, but that brief aside merely draws attention to this as his biggest blind spot. While many Liberal policies over the years have been directed against private monopoly, he fails to address other monopolies than state ones, or what to do in the event of other market failure – as well as raising the question, if he admits the market failed in 1930s (and that’s the only point at which he’s prepared to admit any such thing), does he have any alternative answer to such catastrophic failures or would he just have shut his eyes and hoped it would go away?”
Which, though ‘I told you so’ is never very appealing, is why The Orange Book had no predictions and no solutions when a massive market failure inevitably came along all over again.

Neither did the 2005 Manifesto, you might rightly point out (though you didn’t, merely implying by elision that it lacked the foresight that The Orange Book had, and which I’ve just noted that it didn’t). What the Manifesto did have was a lot more than the ten points you published as if they were the Manifesto in its entirety. I’ve read through your article twice and I still can’t believe you’re writing as if that’s all there was, and certainly as if it was all you’d read. That’s bizarre, because you link to the whole thing, which sets out the costings right at the front and then has 38 more pages than the one you present as if it was the whole thing.

What Was the Point of the Ten-Point Plan?

Ironically, after a two-year consultation process in which the Manifesto was written between the Leader’s team, the Federal Policy Committee and the Parliamentary Spokespeople, the ten-point list was presented at the last minute by the Campaigns Department as a fait accompli, and none of the people who’d written the full Manifesto liked it. It was literally given to the FPC at the final meeting (again, after two years) to sign off the final draft of the Manifesto, and when FPC members started to move amendments – this one’s not a priority, this one doesn’t get across what the policy means, this one’s actively misleading, and so forth – we were told that we couldn’t change a single word because the posters had already been printed. So rather than a representative summary, even, of a far longer document, this list was something cobbled together in haste by the Campaigns Department without consultation because for the first time in any election the party literally had more money than it knew what to do with, as a very large donation (best not to say whose, in retrospect) had come in long after the local spending caps had come into force and so the only thing left to spend it on was posters.

I didn’t think they were very good, but whether they were or they weren’t, Stephen, what they certainly were not was the full Manifesto.

So that’s the context of the time. If you want to make up your own mind, the 2005 Liberal Democrat General Election Manifesto is here, The Orange Book is… Hey, where are all these libertarian pirates putting bootleg pdfs of it online? Well, I bought and read a copy, anyway, and you can still buy it at full price long past its sell-by date and bore yourself silly typing out long chunks to support your case. Just don’t make up your own mind on the basis of toytown spin and abuse from either side.

The Orange Book – The Legacy?

I wasn’t at Centre Forum’s meeting this week to – what? Celebrate? Commemorate? Build on? Bury? – The Orange Book, but I’d be fascinated to hear what people had to say, and to what extent that was based on the book itself, or merely on the legend. Stephen, you seem to be firmly a champion of the legend, and so your most interesting paragraph is your last, despite its assertions not being based on anything in the rest of your text:
The Orange Book helped wake up the party, stimulating a much better quality of debate across the spectrum of views. Without The Orange Book, it’s doubtful we’d have the Social Liberal Forum. Without SLF, Liberal Reform wouldn’t exist. I like dialectic in political debate and the challenge and counter-challenge which often (not always, but often) ratchets up standards. Certainly it gives me confidence that our 2015 manifesto will be a marked improvement on its 2005 version.”
I’m not convinced that it did. If anything, the self-indulgent timing of The Orange Book’s publication harmed its case and set back debate in the party. Most of it wasn’t of very good quality anyway. But I’m prepared to go along with your conclusion that it helped factionalise the Liberal Democrats into opposing teams shouting vituperate caricatures of each other – which is, obviously, always a sign of “a much better quality of debate”. Personally, I find both the self-identified “Orange Bookers” and the self-identified “Social Liberal Forum” and others depressing, lazy and unambitious for Liberalism – as well as each far smaller within the party than their self-importance would suggest. I agree that dialectic, debate and challenge and counter-challenge can ratchet up standards, but if carried out mostly by organised factions it can also lead to groupthink, entrenched positions and a lazy, never-ending exchange of misrepresentation instead of a thousand positive ideas blooming.

So here’s my own caricature: rather than arguments about the basis of Liberalism, what we all stand for and how we can inspire more people with it, much internal debate has become a values-free mud-fight about short-term economics, where one side is mean (but against debt) and the other generous (except to future generations), both say they are the only true Liberals while saying little recognisably Liberal, and neither has much to say that appeals to me.

Once again, my favourite contribution to Mark Pack’s “What do the Liberal Democrats Believe?” is on the basic conviction that unites social and economic Liberals:
“All POWER (be it government, business or other people) can both PROTECT and THREATEN LIBERTY.
“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on the BEST DEFENCES and the BIGGEST BULLIES.”
Stephen, what would you say that unifies rather than divides, and yet remains interesting? That’s the sort of inspiration I hope for from the 2015 Manifesto.

Yours always in hope, despite curmudgeonliness


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Monday, June 16, 2014


Liberal Mondays 8: Doctor Who – The Green Death #LibDemValues

This week’s inspiring thought in my occasional series of Liberal moments is close to my heart: it is, of course, from Doctor Who. A confrontation between the Doctor and a much more dictatorial egomaniac, it’s taken from Episode Five of The Green Death, first broadcast forty-one years ago today. From the same story that featured Jeremy Thorpe as Prime Minister, this pits a monopolistic megacorporation, totalitarianism and pollution against the Doctor’s freedom, ecology and individualism. The argument crystallises in one especially memorable exchange that says benevolent authoritarianism is not enough if it means absolute ignorance and conformity. It’s about freedom:
“Doctor, believe me, we wish you no harm…”
“Ah, don’t worry, my dear feller. I’m having a whale of a time.”
“In the end, we all want the same thing; an ordered society, with everyone happy, well-fed…”
“Global Chemicals taking all the profits…”
“What’s best for Global Chemicals is best for the world – is best for you!”
“Such as a little touch of brain-washing.”
“Freedom from fear, freedom from pain…”
“Freedom from freedom!”
This 1973 story was co-written by Robert Sloman and then-producer Barry Letts, who it appears was rather pro-Liberal. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) had spent a few years exiled to Earth in the near future, and was still popping back on occasion to help out his friends at UNIT; The Green Death has one of the slyer little suggestions about their stories being set a few years later than broadcast, as the phone is at one point handed to a Prime Minister called “Jeremy”. Unfortunately, the striking Liberal revival in the following year’s elections didn’t quite carry him that far, and the 1975-but-set-in-1980 story which suggested Mrs Thatcher as PM was altogether more on the button. Since then, actual Liberal politicians have mostly just had backward references, such as Mr Asquith springing one of the Doctor’s companions from Holloway or Mr Lloyd George drinking the Doctor under the table. A Liberal worldsview, on the other hand, has always been part of Doctor Who’s RNA. I argued that most comprehensively in my “How Doctor Who Made Me A Liberal”, but it’s summed up with particular clarity here.

The Doctor’s been captured and is being interrogated by the managing director of Global Chemicals, himself only a cog in the company machine (and that taken to extremes). For greater efficiency, productivity and profit, the company’s BOSS has decided to take over the world. Just as its workforce are brainwashed into servitude, a signal will be transmitted from the sinister multinational’s subsidiaries all across the world to bring the entire human race under its control in a literal ‘command economy’. So far, so familiar. But as you’ll have seen from the key quotation above, this particular mind-control story has thought about its message and argues it in unambiguously Liberal terms.

All Power Is Dangerous – Especially If It’s ‘For Your Own Good’
My favourite contribution to Mark Pack’s “What do the Liberal Democrats Believe?” is on the basic conviction that unites social and economic Liberals:
“All POWER (be it government, business or other people) can both PROTECT and THREATEN LIBERTY.

“Economic and Social Liberals put different emphasis on the BEST DEFENCES and the BIGGEST BULLIES.”
The Green Death’s Liberal analysis is dead-on that same line. It chooses as its main target a monopolistic mega-corporation – but it’s just as applicable to totalitarian government that would exert the same degree of power over individuals. Indeed, part of its point is that any body that exerts total power can be exactly as dangerous and as illiberal as any other. When the Doctor carelessly resists the brainwashing, the political applicability comes as thick and fast as Global Chemicals’ poisonous pollution. First, the machine grumbles that:
“The subject is not responding to therapy.”
“Therapy” is exactly the “pretty euphemism” for what political opponents in the Eastern Bloc of the time were often subjected to – and this story would have exactly the same philosophical underpinning were the villains, say, Evil Space Communists with the same plan. No doubt many of those who praise The Green Death for being ‘left-wing’ because it’s ‘anti-big business’ would have criticised it as ‘right-wing propaganda’ had the allegory apparently pointed against big government instead, but that’s missing the point: it’s not a left-wing or right-wing critique of the ‘wrong’ sort of big power, but a Liberal critique of any sort of Big Power.

The crux of the argument above isn’t simply that ‘turning the entire human race into zombies is bad’, though. I’ll admit that even most of my political opponents would agree that’s a bit much. It’s that what Global Chemicals wants to impose is in many ways tempting. It’s simply taking to a sci-fi extreme the ‘perfectly reasonable’ exercise of power to ‘help’, and that’s an argument that this scene ruthlessly exposes and explodes:
“You’re not trying to tell me this is all for my own good?”
Which, of course, is exactly the point. Pay attention to the characters and their motivations, and no-one here is simply perfect or simply evil: the Doctor’s attitudes aren’t always appealing, with his own insufferable prejudices showing through, and the villains are at times endearing and well-meaning. From their point of view, it is all ‘for people’s own good’. Which is one of the political phrases that always sets alarm bells ringing for me, along with “we all want the same thing”. Who could object to an end to pain and hunger? To universal happiness? Well, what if my idea of happiness is different to yours? Liberals don’t say ‘We know best’, because everyone’s best is different.

This goes right back to my first Liberal Monday choice, when I observed how over the course of a century the most-quoted Liberal creed had thankfully moved from utilitarianism to Mill-and-Taylor-flavoured social Liberalism. I said there that utilitarianism and utopia had a superficial attraction, but gave me the creeps. Here’s the difference in a nutshell: today’s Liberals prize freedom from conformity for every individual to live their own life; Global Chemicals offers a perfect utilitarian future of absolute happiness, absolute equality and absolute mindlessness, forever. Even Liberals need to guard against the price some would too eagerly pay ‘for your own good’.

I was only a year old forty-one years ago, but as a boy the novelisation of this story was one of my favourites, and one of the books I credit with making me a green Liberal. And yet this most cuttingly Liberal of all scenes, as blatantly applicable to big states as big business, wasn’t even in the book. I didn’t see it until repeats nearly twenty years later, when it instantly struck an unforgettable chord with me. So why wasn’t it in the book? Well, the story was novelised by Malcolm Hulke, one of Target’s most talented writers, the one most likely to chop out scenes from the script and add his own that fleshed out the characters – so that’s probably it – but also the range’s card-carrying Communist Party member, so it’s just possible that like me he saw the Doctor objecting to an utopian regime promising freedom from material want at the price of “Freedom from freedom” for exactly what it was…

Or you may simply remember this as The One With The Maggots.

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014


Shoot! It’s the Nutribullet!

One of the risks of turning on the telly before 9am is being assailed by relentlessly cheery, cheesy teleshopping adverts. I caught one this morning, the TV still being tuned to the Horror Channel from last night’s Doctor Who (if you’ve not been watching their terrific selection, start today: they’ve got three showings of The Deadly Assassin, simply the best story in the series’ history), but before my dulled not-a-morning-person reflexes could switch over, I was captivated. Or, more accurately, laughing like a hyena. A new food blender for dieters? Yeuch. But wait! It has two unique selling points.

A great big blending machine for grinding unappetising veg and seeds to a pulp to make your own still more unappetising ‘health food drink’. Dull. Disgusting. How can we sell this?

Brilliant Idea One!

Make the transparent shield slightly more curved than usual (though not actually pointy) and call it the Nutribullet!

Frankly, I don’t know why they didn’t go the whole macho hog and make it the Nutribullet 5000.

But wait! That’s not all (as other good telesales pap says)!

This has conquered the idea of a food mixer not being cool to have on your shelf, they think. Why, it’s almost like having a bazooka in your kitchen, and who wouldn’t want that?

They then come up with the acronym “SBBAF!” to suggest what to put in it, which sounds like a vaguely pornographic sound effect but is in fact a list of ingredients that makes my stomach heave just looking at them, so I’m not going to type them all. But imagine if you will that you’ve conquered the urge to projectile vomit at the assembly stage and have thrashed some poor vegetable matter into pulp.

It’s still vile, undrinkable pulp that no-one on Earth wants to touch. So how can they make people want to drink it?

Brilliant Idea Two!

Here is the genius part.

Obviously, the exterminated vegetables would too thick a paste to swallow, so the key is that you add water as you blast them beyond death and they come out as a drink-like slurry in their own built-in mug (mug being an appropriate word). Then, presumably, you could hold your nose and think of England. Except...

But wait!
“Simply add water – or your liquid of choice – and watch how the power of the Nutribullet breaks everything down!”
And then:
“Just add ice and you’ll also be able to make quick, delicious icy Summer drinks.”
It’s not just a diet: it’s a mixer.

Pass me a litre of gin and put two small berries in the grinder (because grinder is an anagram of “Derr! Gin!”). Cheers – I’m ready for another Nutribullet breakdown!

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Sunday, June 01, 2014


The Best of My Election Tweets

A micro-guide to the parties! What UKIP and Lib Dems do when they lose! When Lib Dems can expect to get over 50% in the Euros! What I thought of the BBC election coverage! And a cheery song! All this and more in short form from before, after and during the May elections. Most of us had a pretty rough time; everyone has their own worst story to tell, but I’d rather not think about my being ill, with Richard away, Elections of Doom looming, and bereavement. Instead, some of my coping mechanism: posting on Twitter like there’s no tomorrow.

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