Sunday, January 31, 2010


Love and Liberty V – Green Liberalism (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.5)

I get to the widest possible focus for Liberals in today’s instalment of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism – continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, this time it’s the planet Earth. That’s a light topic for a Sunday noon. What’s the philosophical case for looking out for the interests of future generations? How uncomfortable should you be with thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m not sure this bit and this bit of my philosophy quite fit together’? And when am I going to get on to the “Liberty” part? It starts off today, actually…

Love: Green Liberalism

For a good forty years now, Liberals have increasingly become environmentalists, too. Like so many parts of Liberalism, this is for a mix of reasons and has a mix of implications; some of our ecological concern arises straight out of our Liberalism, while some of it makes sense to make it work – not everything in a philosophy comes from exactly the same stream. It poses some of the same problems as Liberal internationalism, requiring action locally, nationally and across consenting international institutions, and raising a quite different problem of consent – bonds of human duty should also apply to the opportunities of future generations, even though they can’t ask for it. We can’t know exactly what future generations will want; they can have no duties towards us; yet they’re not here to defend their own interests. Using up every resource that exists for humanity is recklessly irresponsible; Liberals should believe that future generations must have the same, or better, choices and chances as we do. So we work to put our ideals into practice across the world, and protect the environment to hold that world in trust for our children and theirs.

Once again, there are immediate pragmatic as well as long-term and principled reasons for tackling the crisis of pollution and resource depletion – not just for future generations, or those alive today who would grow up in a screwed-up world, but for people’s lives now. That environmental problems cross-national boundaries is a pragmatic reason for internationalism. The destruction of areas such as rainforests for short-term gain doesn’t just increase the danger of unpredictable global climate change or desertification for the future, but hurts all the members of the human family living there now.

In Britain, rising car emissions don’t just add to the global warming endangering years to come. The crisis in asthma and other respiratory diseases resulting from pollution is a threat to health, a cause of misery and expense right now that pure market calculations don’t reckon on. The arbitrary and increasingly danger of floods is already a devastating reality to many areas. And if you can’t move for hours in a traffic jam in the middle of a city, the car is plainly not always a contributor to freedom of movement. According to the CBI, hardly radical anti-capitalists, traffic congestion costs business over £20 billion a year, which the market will only make worse unless the state intervenes to point some of its signals in a more practical direction. That same congestion means that buildings are gradually eaten away by the toxic waste in the air – just look at old statues losing their details in our cities. Liberals believe in pragmatic state intervention; if it works and won’t make things worse, as we don’t have a bugbear about private or public action, we’ll try it. Government action on a collective good like public transport actually increases freedom overall – it boosts free movement by reducing congestion, improves health, and does less long-term damage to the environment.

Drawing Liberalism and Ecology Together

A sense of the importance of ecology comes naturally to today’s Liberals, both through care for the future of the human family and through simple pragmatic observation of current problems. Certainly, earlier Liberals were often short-sighted when it comes to the environment, right from Locke, who – far from advocating responsible stewardship – wrote that nature was worthless unless worked on by labour. This wasn’t a drawback for every classical Liberal thinker, however; Mill, for example, though he may not have been the most enlightened internationalist, was rather better at seeing the danger of attempting permanent ‘growth’ with no thought for the cost.

Basing a green Liberalism on the needs of humanity today and on our duties to the future members of the human family arises perfectly consistently from the underpinning concept of love for every individual. Many green Liberals would wish to stretch the definition to include care for other species, or valuing all life. Logically, that can be balanced with the rest of Liberalism, requiring still more restrictions on people for a much wider common good; but it’s a compromise that needs some finding your way around, as once you start down that road, it lays open a whole field of new issues regarding the extent to which humans are special, or simply a part of nature, or how animals or plants might be considered to have rights when (without taking an extremely long-term view of potential evolution) they will not at any stage have a concept of duties, as we would hope for from future generations of people. My own view is that we should have concern for the welfare of animals, and for biodiversity in all its forms, but that’s another sort of philosophy that may run in tandem with Liberalism rather than arising naturally from it, and it’s not on the same level as ties of love for humanity. Liberalism starts with individuals, not the planet. Though not all good things are the same things, it’s tempting to try and cram absolutely every ‘good thing’ into the same message, but Liberals can be relaxed – we’re pluralists, so taking on relatively complimentary views from very different starting points shouldn’t bring us out in a cold sweat. Again, Liberalism doesn’t rely on one sacred text that can never bear additions.

Love Needs Liberty

What does define Liberalism is the idea of liberty. Love on its own is not enough, though it is a necessary prerequisite to social Liberalism; many religions or well-meaning but paternalist philosophies could share such views with Liberalism, without being known for their commitment to freedom. Liberalism sees humanity as all one family, but families can be oppressive, too. Liberals believe if all individuals are equal, so is their right to make up their own mind; each is the best judge of their own lives, so freedom follows on. In a ‘benevolent’ dictatorship, people might have perfect material satisfaction at the expense of freedom, but it would be a bad bargain. Free choice can lead to failure and tragedy, but it is also the source of every advance, and of real satisfaction that doesn’t come from spoon-feeding. Even freedom from war and freedom from want – each of which Liberals struggle for with passion – must not, as the Doctor once said, be bought at the cost of “Freedom from freedom”.

While love is the moral foundation of Liberalism, liberty is its aim and purpose. They’re not the same thing, but they are related. Liberalism’s view of the universal duty between humans and the importance of every single person links each individual to the international, making real the slogan 'think globally, act locally', but that vital link is not just so everyone is ‘equal’ in well-looked-after servitude. It is to ensure that everyone has the freedom to live their own life.

Like yesterday’s post on Liberal Internationalism, what I was in part struggling towards there was why sometimes there’s a clash of views, and trying to be even-handed about them while still making clear my own; again, it’s something I thought about a bit more coherently for my thoughtful and understated later article, When Liberals Attack!

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to IV

Forward to VI

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Saturday, January 30, 2010


Love and Liberty IV – Liberal Internationalism (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.4)

Continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, today’s instalment is perhaps the most problematic part of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism – struggling to set out a Liberal approach to international problems, not getting as far as I’d have liked… And before Iraq. Still, if you’re searching for my answer, there’s another one I prepared later. In the meantime, I paraphrase David Lloyd George (not usually my favourite Leader), suggest the biggest difference between Liberals and nationalists, and come up with a good line knocking the Tories. That’s always fun, isn’t it?

Love: Liberal Internationalism

I once read a line from David Lloyd George, where he exclaimed that he hated fences and wanted to kick down any he came across. He may well have been thinking of Welsh landowners, but that quotation always pops into my head as part of that instinctive Liberal internationalism. Liberals don’t like neat little boxes and borders that individuals can’t cross. I want to kick down fences, too, and I don’t see how the concerns of Liberalism can be confined to one country. We've always been the most internationalist of creeds, and also the most individualist. That flows perfectly logically from the borderless connections individuals make in their own ‘living circles’, though perhaps, with my dual nationality, it was never going to seem like a contradiction to me. That's another difference between nationalists and us: we include everyone, rejecting the idea that we shouldn't bother with rights for people beyond the border - our principles don't stop on the shoreline. As the Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution puts it,
“our responsibility for justice and liberty cannot be confined by national boundaries; we are committed to fight poverty, oppression, hunger, ignorance, disease and aggression wherever they occur.”
There are many pragmatic reasons for internationalism, too; Paddy Ashdown outlined the two main Liberal opportunities at the turn of the millennium as the globalisation of power and information, and the growth of individual autonomy and choice. Standing up against multinationals is no longer possible for many countries in isolation, recessions cross-national boundaries, and one country can’t save the world’s environment on its own. Common peace and security, economies and the Internet are all parts of the movement into internationalism which should hold no terror for Liberals, whose outlook was never confined to the short-term interests of one country.

Other parties have more difficulty; even Labour’s hopeless dithering is preferable to the Conservatives’ approach to Europe. In government, the Tories were like a drunk at a party – not listening to anyone else, standing propped up in a corner, ranting away at the other guests, making our friends move away in embarrassment and those who didn’t want us invited in the first place say ‘See! We told you they couldn’t behave!’ Now they just want to sit at home and complain about the noise next door.

Nationalism, of course, contains a greater danger than mere isolationism. While there is a difference between those for whom nationalism is the end and those for who self-determination is the means, the nationalist assertion that ‘we’re good’ easily leads to ‘they’re bad,’ which too easily becomes ‘we hate them’ and unleashes racism or fascism, particularly to distract attention from failure – for some people, it’s so much easier to put up with if you can blame ‘them’. If you can’t live with differences in people, you start by stopping people living their own lives, and finish by stopping them living. Those who believe Liberalism’s values (rather than some of its methods) have changed so much in the last century should compare Mr Gladstone’s concentration on Bulgaria with Mr Ashdown’s on Bosnia.

Liberal Intervention?

A Liberal response to issues in other countries is a key area where Liberal values clash – often setting diversity and democracy against duty. Liberal internationalism is a tradition that’s long been kept alive in Liberal hearts, but we try not to talk about the movements also once active in the old Liberal Party for pacifist isolationism or imperialism. If we recognise no borders to our love of humanity, what about freedom for ‘a people’? What about self-determination? What happens to persons, when it has to apply on levels other than the personal? Liberalism’s search for ‘truth’ means Liberals should accept practical, pragmatic experience solutions, but not believe in any ‘perfection for all time’.

One lesson of the 20th Century is the growth of cultural and colonial independence – but another is that ‘muscular’ Liberalism must sometimes intervene to prevent hideous crimes, even at the expense of pluralism. If we regard individuals as different from societies, then causing harm to ‘our own’ is still ‘harm’. A majority can’t consent to harm a minority, but it can be a difficult circle to square with not forcing your own idea of ‘best’ on others – particularly if ethnic cleansing starts in a ‘democratic’ country. Where is the balance to be found between protecting cultural diversity by not stomping over a country from outside, against protecting cultural diversity by stopping the leaders of a country eliminating internal pluralism? While I’ve always tended towards pacifism towards attacks on me, I’ve always favoured weighing in to defend someone else, and I have a similar view about intervening to protect the oppressed in other countries. Even so, who appoints you a policeman? Who holds you accountable? What if you’re wrong; if reason fails, can you only say that might happens to be right, so it’s OK? As with ‘internal’ guarantees of liberty, Liberals believe the long-term answer will be to set rules, and look at each case on its own merits. Instinctively keen to look beyond national boundaries and pool sovereignty, Liberals’ solution is a framework of ‘international law’ and agreements, not merely to rely on US unilateral action. It is difficult to reconcile the appalling actions of the Taliban towards women, for example, with the still-revolutionary Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Problems on a global scale or made plain through global communications, whether war crimes or multinational company power, are problems for consenting international institutions.

Tempting as it is to re-write the whole of Love and Liberty, I’ve only been polishing the odd particularly clumsy line here and there, or just changing it to my ‘house style’ (double quote marks for direct quotations, single for anything paraphrased, unattributable or just made up for a laugh, and so on). I frowned on re-reading today’s piece, though; the earlier part of it has several lines which I – can I be charitable to myself? – which I’m sure I borrowed, but the second part just isn’t really up to scratch.

I still agree with myself as far as I went (and haven’t changed a word of that part), but I knew what I wrote about Liberal intervention was a bit threadbare at the time, and it looks much more so post-Iraq. It’s partly because there’s a definite clash of different Liberal values here, and I don’t have an easy answer to it. It certainly needs more work from me.

Fortunately, I did do a bit more work on it, so here’s one I prepared later, which does at least weight matters post-Iraq, if far from definitive. In 2006, commenting on the Liberal Democrat policy paper on Britain’s Global Responsibilities: the International Rule of Law I wrote an article for Lib Dem Voice which outlined three areas where Liberals tend to have arguments – as I said yesterday, while all parties have ideologies, they don’t all focus on the same things – and focused in on one in particular. My theory is, you see, that we all generally tend to agree that informed consent is the touchstone for what people should and shouldn’t do, and it’s usually a pretty coherent model. What happens, though, in situations where informed consent can’t apply? I wrote,
“It seems to me there are three big issues on which Liberals lack an instinctive compass, and they’re all situations where it’s impossible for all those concerned to give informed consent: animals, children and international law. I remember coming up with these in discussion during the writing process on the party’s philosophy paper It’s About Freedom. Its chair, Alan Beith, agreed that these were issues on which Liberals might well not have easy answers, and while I thought that was a good reason to raise them, he – perhaps wisely – thought the opposite was true!”
So, if you want to read what I thought further (if still not far enough) on the international rule of law, it’s here in my thoughtful and understated article, When Liberals Attack!

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the consequences of putting love and then liberty at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to III

Forward to V

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Friday, January 29, 2010


New Labour’s 4,289 New Laws – Yet Blair Walks Free

You couldn’t get a more stark summing-up of Labour’s moral bankruptcy. For war criminal Tony Blair, the Prime Minister whose illegal invasion was led by George Bush and cheerled by the baying enthusiasm of the Labour and Conservative parties while only the Liberal Democrats stood against it, life after office means pocketing millions of pounds and sparing just one day to help Lord Chilcot with his Inquiry. By contrast, for the rest of us ordinary people, in thirteen years Labour has fabricated over 4,289 new laws so far (nearly one a day) to waste police time and micro-manage our lives.

This is not the trial of Tony Blair, sadly. The Inquiry has no power to lock the bastard up. They don’t even have the power to summon up all the evidence – lots of Mr Blair’s dodgy correspondence promising war in advance has been blocked from view, despite Nick Clegg demanding that the Inquiry must be given all the facts. Still, from the Labour Government that abolished the right to silence, we all know what to infer from that. But I suspect that even Mr Blair’s extraordinary gifts with language will not entirely spare him from wriggling in discomfort under some harder questions than his native chat show sofa puts to him. However deflective or punctured his composure in today’s hearing goes, though, I won’t be the only one to feel a sense of betrayal that, at the end of his testimony, he’ll stroll back to making more extreme wealth from his Premiership rather than be escorted back to the cell he deserves.

Blunkett: Iraq Debates Spoiled My Posh Dinner Parties, So Pity Me

Disgraced former Labour hatchet man, failed Home Secretary, serial waster of police time through making up hundreds of daft new laws and unbelievable media favourite David Blunkett complained on the Today Programme this morning that some newspapers have “never forgiven” Mr Blair for the Iraq War, which is so terribly unfair to a “great” man. Well, fair’s fair: none of you war criminals have ever said sorry or admitted there’s anything to forgive. The flippant answer to such whining pleas usually involves asking Mrs Lincoln how, apart from that, her night at the theatre went, but I just find it difficult to sneer away hundreds of thousands of deaths on Mr Blair’s (and Mr Brown’s, and Mr Straw’s, and Mr Blunkett’s) orders. Or the lies that they used to justify them. Or ignoring all the people who marched and protested, and all the Liberal Democrats’ questions about how it could all go so horribly wrong, and evading responsibility when it all did. Or ignoring all the government lawyers who told them, as the Liberal Democrats did, that their war would be illegal and smash international law into piece – Mr Straw’s response to them, as we heard this week after his leadership-hungry posturing last week as a tortured man of principle, was in fact to boast that he was always being told what he was planning was illegal, and always went ahead and did it anyway. So much for the Rule of Law.

What else did Mr Blunkett plead pity for when he was interviewed this morning? What was his response to being pressed about the repeated outright lie about weapons of mass destruction being ready to launch at Britain within 45 minutes, a three-part claim in which all three parts were untrue and at least two were known to be untrue by the Labour government who sexed them up before misleading the House of Commons and spreading their terrifying lie through their chosen attack-dog newspapers, screaming that everyone who questioned them was a traitor? About the fact that Mr Blair and the rest of the Labour Government claimed that Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” were “active, detailed and growing” and “beyond doubt” when the evidence before they sexed it up read instead “sporadic and patchy”?

Mr Blunkett’s response was that he wants to be loved, and it was all very hurtful, and that – you may have to stop reading, gentle viewer, lest you burst into tears – he even had to ask people to stop arguing about Iraq over the table because it was upsetting his dinner parties. Oh, the horror. So never let it be said that Labour ministers didn’t suffer just as wretchedly as the people being bombed to blazes.

An Overdose of New Laws? It’s Enough To Drive You To Drink

Something else you may have heard on this morning’s Today Programme is the Labour Government’s latest example of legislative diarrhoea. Today’s new law – well, one of them – is to prohibit “persistent possession of alcohol in a public place” – well, they’ve not banned alliteration, at least. Richard groaned and exclaimed, “Why not just say, ‘You’re under arrest for hanging about’?” Welcome, then, to the Labour Government’s 4,290th law – or 4,291st, or 4,292nd, or have we passed 4,300 yet? And are they in a headlong rush to top 5,000 pointless prohibitions before they’re forced from office?

Just last week, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Chris Huhne revealed that Labour’s record, while being shamefully poor at achieving anything in the real world, is a sparkling success in the Labour MPs’ imaginations that have cobbled together new legislation in ever-greater torrents. A couple of years ago, Labour had only inflicted 3,000 new laws on an unenthusiastic public; but by last week, Chris revealed, the total had rocketed to 4,289. If only manufacturing industry had grown like the manufacturing of legislation, Britain would be a world leader. If only saying the magic words really made it so, Britain would be a shining fairyland. But, instead, Chris pleaded that, if only Labour would stop, think and start repealing some of their ridiculous 4,289 new laws, the rest of us might find it easier to get on with our lives.

Yes, with 4,289 new laws under New Labour as of last week, and still growing rapidly as we heard this morning, Britain may be an international disgrace for joining George Bush’s illegal war, and Britain may be the last major economy to emerge from recession – and even that by the most Brown-trouseredly microscopic measurement – but Britain is, proudly, a world leader in law-making.

But what’s it for?

Though the Labour Government has produced more new laws than any other government in British history, are we in some way more riotous than ever before? Hardly. Are the police short of powers? Not a bit of it. Can any of us even keep up with this mountain of legislation, and find out exactly what we’re newly outlawed from doing day by day? Not even if it’s our full-time job, I imagine, though if there’s one sort of job that’s been growing as unemployment spirals under Labour, it’s the jobsworth. They ban things that shouldn’t be banned, they poke about in our private lives and micro-manage our public spaces, and all they achieve is labelling ordinary law-abiding people ‘criminals’.

This is a waste of all of our time. It’s waste of the government’s time. It’s even, and in some ways most counter-productively, a criminal waste of police time. What on Earth is the point of getting every police officer in the country to stay in and memorise a new law every day, when the problem is that they’re not getting out and enforcing the laws we’ve already got?

Labour’s Waste of Time; Tories Support Them; Lib Dems Have A Better Answer

Labour’s laws are not for the benefit of the police, or of society – just for the benefit of Labour. These are laws as substitutes for action – laws showered out instead of press releases, to get a winning headline for a day, then someone else can clear up the mess later. Don’t ask the Conservatives to do it, though; you may not realise it from the way they attack Labour in the TV studios, but in Parliament, just as the Tories were even more eager than Labour to wave their pom-poms in support of the Iraq War, the fact is that right now the Conservative “Opposition” are voting in agreement with the Labour Government more times than any “Opposition” since the Second World War. Some change.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Even a lot of people whose knee-jerk response was that if it moves, ban it, can see that this tidal wave of time-wasting actually gets in the way of the practical function it’s supposed to achieve. And for those of us Liberals who don’t like banning things anyway, who’ve been questioning what the point is every step of the way and opposing so many of these crazy new laws on principle, it’s small comfort – to us, to the police officers who don’t have time to do their jobs, and to all the many, many people brought before the courts on stupid little charges that should never have been made up – to say ‘we told you so’.

The centrepiece of the Liberal Democrats’ legislative programme in our General Election Manifesto will be a Freedom Bill, which rather than adding to the pile will start repealing vast swathes of Labour’s bossy, bullying, blatantly unnecessary laws. It can’t come soon enough.

Labour Bans Locally As Well As Nationally (and I have blogging trouble)

This morning’s indignant piece is for the moment rather linkless, as blogging and Twittering have hit something of a hitch at home: on getting in from a rather impressive few Richard’s birthday burgers together at the Gourmet Burger Bar, where I’d recommend the lamb (if slightly smothered) and the wild boar, and the really serious garlic mayo if you really like garlic (the only garlic dressing I’ve ever had in a restaurant as ferocious as my home-made garlic bread), our evening was slightly put out of kilter by finding our Internet connection had gone down. Actually, I probably shouldn’t write “gone down,” as it’ll add fuel to the censor’s fire, of which there’ll be more in a moment. Anyway, I spent quite some time on the phone last night to Waitrose broadband customer support, and rather more this morning, and there’s good news and bad news. Good news: they made a note on our account last night, so I didn’t have to go through every test all over again. Bad news: this morning’s tests and changes didn’t fix the problem either, or even identify it (sample quote – “Oh, that’s strange” / put on hold with ’80s stadium rock). Good news: they’re sending a new router. Bad news: we’re waiting for a new router…

So I’m out at my local library, which has a tight time limit on how long you can use their computers for (as I discovered when our street had its power cut for a day a fortnight ago – not good if you have no gas, your phones need power and the water in your flat runs from electric pumps – and my library e-mails to EDF Energy were abruptly cut off), in a bit of a rush, even with one I prepared earlier on a memory stick.

And just as I was getting into the swing of publishing Love and Liberty posts at noon daily. Bah. I’ve just done today’s, but can’t actually check what it or any of my other posts look like, as the local library’s over-enthusiastic content protection blocks anyone from viewing my blog – bloody Labour council! And that’s despite several times e-mailing them with examples of just which political websites they’ve auto-banned (including most Lib Dem blogs), and how ludicrous it is for a library to be so dead-set against reading. Richard has suggested that, as this is a Labour council, the word “Liberal” has been put on their anti-terror watch list.

Once we’ve got our connection back, I’d better look up some really interesting porn links to post and give them something worthwhile to ban me for, then…

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Love and Liberty III – Liberal Individualism (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.3)

Continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, today’s instalment might well be my favourite part of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism. What’s the problem with defining people purely by their class or nation? Who’s afraid of the big bad market? What was my favourite speech by Paddy Ashdown (ooh, that’ll get readers flocking)? What’s the contradiction at the heart of Tory philosophy? What did I write about “liberal Conservatives” that looks rather dated these days? And what do I think of the argument that “the end justifies the means”? Go on, guess.

Love: Liberal Individualism

Talking about the human family isn’t just a truism. Liberalism starts with the individual, and that approach has two vital consequences: a politics in which every individual is important; and a politics in which no exclusive, artificial group should be put up above all the others. Not all politics works like that. All parties have philosophies, acknowledged or implicit, but they don’t necessarily all have them about the same things, or see the same issues as matters of principle. Some Liberal Democrats would say We should be practical and pragmatic, basing our decisions on common sense, not ideology’. That puts us in danger of becoming New Labour. You need to let people have an idea of what you stand for, because most of politics is reacting to events, not predicting them in a manifesto, or the different ways in which the same basic policy, adopted for different reasons, can be implemented (a distinction always missed by those who, in the mid-’90s, claimed ‘Labour are now the same as the Lib Dems’).

There’s a useful Yes, Minister-style irregular verb – ‘I have a philosophy, you have an ideology, she is dogmatic’. Though Liberalism has an ideology, it doesn’t have a dogma; if it’s an open ideology that concentrates on the message more than the mechanism, then it can be pragmatic without being rudderless. We don’t have to live by one holy text for ever and defy reality when it doesn’t have the answers, whether it’s the Bible, Das Kapital or the Financial Times stock pages. Because people change, so do Liberal solutions – it’s how we’re still going after all this time. Pragmatism about your methods and mechanisms is only sensible; claiming pragmatism about your ‘principles’ means no-one can know what you stand for. There’s often a confusion between ‘interests’ and ‘ideologies’: for socialists and conservatives, their interest group is bound up with their ideology, so everyone knows what they stand for – they don’t stand for everyone.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Market?

Liberalism is the opposite of authoritarianism; socialism and Thatcherite ‘free-marketeers’ are mirror images of each other, reversed economic views that still appear frighteningly similar. We know economics is important, but it’s just one sort of power, not everything. For Thatcherites their notion of the market is the most important thing. Everyone can understand – but you don’t have to live by – the appeal of class and clan, to feel good about achieving things for ‘your own’, I’ve never understood why self-styled ‘neo-liberals’ get so excited by the market. You can’t see the smile on the face of a market when you’ve put all your energies into helping it out. You can’t see the children of a market playing happily in the street. You can’t be photographed with a market, a market can’t cheer you on and cheer you up, and to be very brutal about it, a market can’t even vote for you – and when it fails, it doesn’t thank you for nursing it (and neither does anyone else).

Lady Thatcher’s acolytes claim to think the free market and the absence of the state is Liberalism; Mill wouldn’t agree. Any Liberalism worth the name must be a social Liberalism – equating Thatcherism with ‘neo-liberalism’ is rather like equating King Herod with ‘neo-childcare’. By raising the market alone as their totem of freedom, they threw the baby out with the bathwater. Fortunately, most conservatives have gone back to using “Liberal” as a swear-word and stopped trying to appropriate it. There are some things where free-market ‘efficiency’ isn’t appropriate, like running schools or hospitals for profit. Did Mrs Thatcher support private armies and police too, or was she just confused? Perhaps Jackie Ballard summed up this double-think best in a Liberal Democrat Conference speech on how people propose vouchers for education, but not for defence; she said she wouldn’t mind vouchers for two soldiers and a sailor! Liberals see no problem with a role for the state intervening to make the market work and to do the things the market can’t, just as we guard against the state when it tries to take on everything itself and run things it can’t or shouldn’t.

Liberals are not scared of the big bad market, either. The market’s a useful tool (if a great big clumsy one), not a master, and most jobs should be done with several different tools. Even the 19th Century Liberals that many accuse of being starry-eyed free-market ideologues brought in Factory Acts rather than just leaving the market to run its course, and often supported the free market and free trade in the first place because it was the best way to help the poor and break down privilege. Talk of distorting the market, though, is ludicrous for two socking great reasons. First, unless you’re one of its worshippers, you needn’t fear upsetting it. Second, because markets are always distorted. Free markets are distorted by anyone’s decision, by people not just buying what’s cheap, by people who buy with ‘non-market considerations’ such as the environment, by people who know what they’re doing…! The market is distorted by huge companies, distorted by big speculators, distorted by low pay, distorted by advertising, distorted by unions, distorted by government – but they’re flexible enough to adjust, and no other way of distributing resources as effectively as often has been found. If one came along, Liberals would go for it where it worked, too – even John Stuart Mill enthused about markets on entirely pragmatic grounds, not on principle. Markets have no interest in social justice, or even long-term practicality; left alone, they consume themselves by leading to monopoly and leaving talented but poor people destitute and homeless, and always create huge costs to business or taxpayer, not least through congestion and pollution.

Socialists once defined themselves as against markets, and instead for ‘their’ class, which could be helped out by changing the way economics worked. Both socialists and free market conservatives put money and economics first. Both served vested interests, big business and the big unions, and didn’t really see ‘people’ at all – just parts of groups, or economic units. The further each went to their extremes, the more it became clear that both believed in a material utopia, either of the ‘pure’ market or a publicly owned paradise which would set all injustices right. No wonder that socialism’s dead today; the wonder is that the market-worshippers are still going.

Utopia and Dystopia Are the Same Thing

Liberalism sees material well-being – freedom from poverty – as part of dignity for all, but as a base to build on, not an end in itself. Liberals never saw all privatisations as good, or all nationalisations as the answer, but judged each on how well it would work. Materialism-based, economically determinist political philosophies of ‘left’ and ‘right’ can set an end point based on people’s economic position, a final, perfect, utopian society. Because Liberalism believes people count, and are not just to be counted as economic units, it rejects seeing material advantage as the only thing that matters, and does not believe in utopia. Those who want to impose their views on everyone else – convinced they know the ‘right’ way to live in absolute certainty – are terribly dangerous. A ‘perfect’ society has no room for individual imperfections, or personal development, or challenging ideas, and generates that terrible creed, “the end justifies the means” – in Liberalism, working for a dynamic, open society that develops constantly in response to the individuals who form it and their changing ideas and actions, the road to ‘utopia’ is the road to hell. The ends cannot justify the means, not only because every individual is too precious to sacrifice, but also because for a Liberalism of real people developing in real life, the ends are the means. Isaiah Berlin said he liked unpredictability and the occasional miracle. That is much more likely to happen if you view the human race as a fabulous collection of six billion miracles than if you see people as just part of a process, a means to an end. Liberals are struggling for liberated individuals today, not crushing them for an impersonal aim tomorrow.

Labour and the Tories: Both Up a Cul-de-Sac

A formerly socialist, once utopian organisation, Labour now appear to want to boss families around because they’ve given up on economics and surrendered to the Tories’ vision of the unfettered free market, only ever able to see socialism or its polar opposite; in Jonathan Calder’s words, “from the Red Flag to the white flag,” and to paraphrase others’, Labour’s view of the state has shrunk down until it fits into your home. Mr Blair’s big idea is to force everyone to be ‘well-behaved’, as he sees it; Mr Brown’s is that everyone should be ‘hard-working’. Between them, there’s not a lot of room left for free will.

In a key way, however, even Mr Blair has not changed anything. Labour are majoritarian. They are only interested in being in power and exercising it, so they aim to look after ‘their people’ and not really care about anyone outside that (and if they can’t look after their own, they can try to please them by bashing others). They used to see ‘their people’ as the working class, and tried to get a majority of people that way; today, they’re trying to appeal to many different groups, some established, some changing, some only existing in Labour’s focus-grouped imagination, but their aim is still to build a majority and establish majority rule – and anyone outside their majority can get trampled down (in fact, they may consider it their ‘moral duty’ to do the trampling). This should not be mistaken for a new pluralism just because one of the groups Mr Blair is attempting to assimilate is the Liberal Democrats. Majoritarianism is an easy basis for authoritarianism, and one Labour is making clear use of. Liberals believe all people are important, whether the Daily Mail likes them or not. We could never attack everyone in ‘the poor’, ‘the young’, ‘the anti-social’, ‘the squeegee merchants’ or even ‘the rich’, because our politics has never been based on hating ‘other people’; everyone is one of ‘our own’, and should be taken on their own terms.

The Tories, defined in opposition to Labour socialism as free market apostles, are now in a dreadful mess. Now that Labour no longer exists, they’re turning inwards to nationalism. For nationalists, the nation or the ‘race’ is the group which is ‘their people’, and the Tories are terribly confused between the market and nationalism; the first is blowing holes in the credibility of the second. They try to defend ‘national sovereignty’ as speculators mock it; Lady Thatcher is still trying to get over having signed the Single European Act to further the market, our largest ever single act of ‘pooling’ sovereignty (a concept no nationalist can get their head around).

Living Circles

Any party which starts off with groups will always see membership of the ‘key’ group as the most important thing about any individual who ‘qualifies’, and will never treat people who are ‘outside’ equally. They also allow acts to be done from above in the name of a collective ‘The People’ – not to arise from below, from real people. Liberals aren’t just for one group, or even one coalition of groups – yet two-dimensional socialists, for example, don’t aim to liberate the rich, only able to see them as ‘rich’ and nothing else. Liberals do, and have no interest in attacking them, ‘to put the boot on the other foot’; Conrad Russell has scathingly pointed out that Liberals hate jackboots, whoever’s wearing them. Equal love across the human family rules out politics based on a group’s self-interest. We start with individuals, who make and define their own groups, but treat every individual as important rather than the groups they’re in.

If you start with the individual, you can stretch out to anywhere, any way that individuals combine. If you start out with ‘the nation’, or class, or social group, you both sacrifice individuals for the group ‘good’ and set borders where you don’t care about those outside. Rigidly class-based or nationalist definitions of individuals go against the autonomy of the human mind, against independence of belief. It’s wrong to define a human being in terms of only one among the many attributes which make them up… We don’t make borders. We don’t try to force square pegs into round holes, our stereotype of what ‘a group should believe’ – a Liberal would never talk about a ‘class traitor’. Liberals, based on love for all individuals, are not ‘against’ particular groups; the most disturbing aspect of many parties is that they seek power to control everyone, yet they are formed to oppose certain people, only most blatantly in fascists like the British National Party. I could never support a party based on hating other people, or telling me what to think; one way in which my old “Love” speech did actually work was in contrast to the hate-filled rhetoric of the Trotskyites who were our main opponents in university politics. Liberalism works better when you’re willing to be nice to people!

Being against exclusive, unitary definitions by social group does not mean that Liberals see no identities bar the individual and the whole of humanity; Liberals see that an almost infinite number of identities can co-exist. A vivid exposition of pluralism of identities was given by Paddy Ashdown in perhaps his best Leader’s Speech to a Liberal Democrat Federal Conference, at Nottingham in Spring 1996.
“There are some who believe that ‘we’ is a singular concept, that it can refer only to one group, define only one identity, fix only one position”
was the proposition he knocked down – because everyone uses ‘we’ in a myriad different contexts. “We’re having Christmas at home,” “We’re getting up a petition,” “We’ve got a new export order” and “We’re playing away this Saturday” all, Paddy pointed out, illustrate different groups and communities that we belong to and identify with, easily and naturally, all at the same time. As a result, identifying with just one label fails to sum people up. To say, ‘I am British,’ or ‘You are gay,’ and only that, diminishes an individual’s identity and limits the space people want to call their own.

When I was LDYS Chair a few years ago, I worked with several other European parties’ youth wings, whether explicitly Liberal or with strong social Liberal currents. One of the latter at the time was the Flemish Volksunie Jongeren, and I got to know one of their leaders, Sigurd Vangermeersch, who had a persuasive insight into the way people’s groups combine and co-exist. Sigurd described this pluralism of identities as “living circles”; people overlap into many different groups that are important to them, not just class or nation. Rather than the ‘closed circles’ of one defining group, living circles are built up by individuals in all directions – I can see myself as part of my relationship, family, workplace, party, Doctor Who fan, friends, Manchester, North-West England, London, America, neighbourhood, gay community, Britain, Europe, humanity – with different circles having been more or less important at different times. One of the few occasions in politics when I lost my temper through feeling personally affronted was with someone persistently labelling me with their version of what my most important identity was. Liberalism must be opposed to those philosophies which tell people which groups they belong in and which one matters – because nobody has just the one.

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the consequences of putting love at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life, though there may be a bit of a delay while our home internet connection’s knackered. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to II

Forward to IV

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Thursday, January 28, 2010


Love and Liberty II – One Person, One Value (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.2)

Continuing my series on what the Liberal Democrats stand for, today’s instalment is the heart of Love and Liberty, a 1999 booklet exploring my own Liberalism. It was born out of a political trip to the USA back in 1998 and three separate things that struck me there – a museum, an interview and a terrible event – which together rekindled my rather burnt-out political determination of the time. It sets out just why I think love as important a political standard as liberty, and why Liberal ‘family values’ should be nothing like the narrow, exclusive conservative claim to them…

Love: One Person, One Value

The first speech I ever gave on political philosophy started off by asking whether my audience of fellow students wanted to hear standard “Liberal Democrat rhetoric” or “hippy shit”. They opted for the latter; the speech was not an unqualified success. Since then, I’ve steered clear of using the word “love” in a political context, though I’ve always been keen on thinking about, writing about and talking about Liberal philosophy. Instead, terms like ‘equal dignity’, ‘equal respect’ or the terminally uninspiring ‘equal treatment’ tend to be thrown around, bound together by ties of ‘duty’. This time, I’m not going to be shy.

Love is better than ‘equal dignity’, because it means more; it sounds less mechanical. It goes straight to many people’s basic beliefs in a way that the often colder, more technocratic language of politics doesn’t. Perhaps people would feel less dismissive of politics if it sounded more often that it came from the heart, from what really matters to them – and love chimes with many humanist and many religious perspectives in seeing each person as of unique worth. It implies ties of duty and mutual respect through common humanity. Every single individual has their own intrinsic value. It doesn’t have to imply liking: when I was younger, I sat through a great many sermons and very few lingered, yet I still vividly remember hearing a sermon on love where it was defined as still being there even when you’re feeling “Right now I can’t stand this bloody person, I’m really pissed off with them, but I still love them.” It’s about commitment. Treat people on that basis, as part of a family, and you can never dismiss or dehumanise them. It’s probably easier for Liberals to see everyone on these terms, as we tend to be less hung up on exclusive definitions of what a family entails.

This notion was brought forcefully home to me while in the United States last Autumn – particularly as I was there in a group of “young political leaders” from all parties in the UK and Ireland, aimed at making a small contribution to the peace process. Within the space of a few days, I was moved by the national Holocaust Museum, inspired by catching an interview with the American liberal Mario Cuomo, saying “Treat each other as brother and sister, even if you don’t like each other, to make it work,” and horrified by the death of Matthew Shepard… a 21-year-old gay man battered and left to die because of others’ hatred of his sexuality. It felt like a political wake-up call, and it’s that feeling that gave me the heart of this essay.

Liberal Family Values Are Wider

The most appalling actions are only possible for most people by stunting their own thoughts and perceptions, a practice Liberals are uniquely placed to overcome. Quakers did not fight slavery only to free slaves, but also to fight its effect on slavers and ‘owners’. Hatred in politics and society and everything along the road to Auschwitz are made possible by dehumanising individuals into faceless members of an alien ‘group’. Liberalism, based on individuals rather than groups, cannot afford hatred. Instead, it should be underpinned by love for every member of the human family.

So why love and liberty? Because Liberalism is about freedom – but it’s built on certain assumptions. They’re not the same as freedom, but they’re necessary to make it work. Liberalism is a living, practical philosophy, so it isn’t just about an abstract concept of liberty in isolation from people’s lives. Surely the only Liberalism that works is social Liberalism, a human Liberalism that relies on love for every unique, precious individual to make liberty real. Love implies duties which we all share; not in the fashionable, crass understanding that every right should be tied to a specific responsibility (you don’t have to sign up to something for not having homophobic attacks made on you in the street) – we all need rights to make our own decisions about our own lives, but we have a duty to ensure those same rights are there for everyone else. We can't be out just for ourselves and let the rest go hang, whether in this country, across the world or for future generations. To do so would deny our humanity.

You can find the evolving links to the whole of Love and Liberty with an introduction here. Over the following days, I’ll be expanding on the consequences of putting love at the heart of my Liberalism – check back to that contents list and watch for those links to spring into life. Oh, and don’t forget to give your opinion on whether #LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues makes the better tag!

Back to I

Forward to III

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Wednesday, January 27, 2010


#LibDemHeart or #LibDemValues?

Simple question: what’s the best tag to identify posts about what the Lib Dems stand for, given that #WhattheLibDemsstandfor would be a bit long? Planning my series, and noticing several other people had blogged on the topic, I thought, ‘I should be all modern and use the tag’. Only there wasn’t one yet, so I’ve narrowed it down: it’s a two-horse race between #LibDemHeart and #LibDemValues (no, you’re not getting a bar chart). Ideally, I’d like some more of you to pick this up and use it so I can follow the cross-blog ideological debate – so, which should win? Anyone answering ‘Fiiiiight’ will be asked to act out John Stuart Mill and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse mud-wrestling for YouTube. That’ll teach you.

Obviously, I’ve gone through an immensely thrilling process of brainstorming, throwing out the longer words that might have worked, throwing out the ones that sounded too airily philosophical in favour of those with some purpose, and throwing out the ones with negative connotations or that were simply too send-uppable. Then I asked a handful of people’s opinions on the remaining tags I posted to them, and the result was clear: it was between just two Twittery tags. Nearly, but not entirely, with me voting for one and everyone else for the other.

Why #LibDemHeart?

Why #LibDemValues?

So, having offered you a scrupulously even-handed and non-judgmental summing-up of the two options, which might you see yourself / other Lib Dems using in the continuing debate over what the Liberal Democrats stand for?

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Love and Liberty I – Introduction (#LibDemHeart #LibDemValues 1.1)

Ever tried to sum up ‘What the Liberal Democrats stand for’ in a sentence? And make it exciting? With – probably – 99 days until the General Election, many Lib Dems are already hard into their ‘ground war’, pounding the streets and delivering leaflets, but there’s more to politics than being a good local campaigner. Where other parties work hard (or, perish the thought, local Lib Dems don’t), what’s the difference that makes you think, ‘Yes, I’m still sure I’m a Lib Dem’? Nick Clegg uses one word: Fairness. I’ll look at that later, but first, what would I say? You’ll not be surprised that it’s more than one word…

Actually, when I had a good think about it eleven years ago, I started with two. You know what they are.

Back in the early ’90s, when I was heavily involved with the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, I wrote a lot of letters. Other Lib Dems often used their own particular sign-offs, “Yours liberally” being an obvious favourite. One day, I decided to adopt my own, and – being a huggy sort of chap and a definite Liberal – “Love and liberty” were the two words that instantly sprang to mind. One of the people I wrote to most often was LDYS’ first Chair, Kiron Reid. For trivia buffs, he was also (separately) the Young Liberal Democrats’ last Chair; these days they’re called Liberal Youth, and I understand there’s a vacancy. If Kiron can sign himself up as a mature student, do you think he fancies the triple? Anyway, a few years later, the two of us having long become friends, activists, LDYS ex-Chairs and enraptured by Liberalism, he asked me to expand that instinctive tag into a philosophy.

From 1998 onwards, Kiron Reid and Bill le Breton edited a series of booklets from Liberator Publications, each usually consisting of two essays (the first of which was Kiron’s own highly recommended Rough Guide to Liberalism). The series was called Passports To Liberty, and in March 1999 I stayed up a few nights to write my contribution, then dashed up to Liverpool so that Kiron and I could format and print it just in time to flog at that weekend’s Liberal Democrat Spring Conference. The A-essay in Passports To Liberty 3 was Jackie Ballard’s The Politics of Community, so it’s worth hunting down a copy for that. You can read my B-essay here over the next few days, split into more digestible parts by its original sub-headings.

The Best Book On Liberalism Ever Written (Before Moving On To The One For Which I Hold The Copyright)

So, if there’s one short book or long essay you should read about Liberalism, it’s without a doubt – well, there are two. John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor’s On Liberty, which you can find free online, and Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, which was published like mine in 1999, to rather greater fanfare and not run off on an illicit photocopier in the dead of night. If you can find a copy, grab it, particularly as it’s criminally out of print and going for £50 second-hand. I can find things to disagree with in both, but they’re still brilliant.

I wouldn’t put my Love and Liberty in a top fifty, but it is the one that I can republish as much as I like. Besides, I intend this to be the first in a series of articles looking at my and many other people’s ideas of ‘What the Liberal Democrats stand for’, and as I’m not going to agree with all of them it’s only fair that I stick my own beliefs on the block first. Bring your own tomatoes.

Modestly subtitled “Alex Wilcock on Social Liberalism,” I’m not sure that my definition of Social Liberalism was one with which Mr Hobhouse would entirely agree, but it tied in with what Conrad called a “rhetorical flourish” (I wonder if I still have the very kind review he wrote – was it in Liberator, or in Liberal Democrat News? I had some unkind reviews, too, but you can look for those yourself). As you might guess, I argued that for Liberalism to work it needed to stand for both love and liberty – each having limitations on their own. How well did I knit them together?

Love and Liberty

Alex Wilcock on Social Liberalism

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world… All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10.12.1948

Part One: Love

One Person, One Value
Liberal Individualism
Liberal Internationalism
Green Liberalism

Part Two: Liberty

Equal Voices, Different Choices
Freedom from Poverty
Freedom from Ignorance
Freedom from Conformity

Conclusion: Love and Liberty

Click on the as-yet-unfinished links to read each section in turn, and follow me on my journey through a definitive essay I wrote eleven years ago to discover with me whether I still agree with it, just how dated my knocking copy on the other parties is from a day when New Labour was new, and Iraq was as yet uninvaded (will I be as eerily prescient as the conclusion to Conrad’s book?), and how desperately I tried to shoehorn in lines I thought really ought to be in there somewhere but couldn’t really find a place for. The last is my main memory of what was dodgy about it at the time, but no doubt today I’ll find much more.


I’ve been thinking about this series on what the Liberal Democrats are about (“This is what KLF is about!” has just belted out behind me) for a couple of months, seeing quite a few other people write about the same sort of thing along the way. So this introduction seemed an appropriate way to celebrate my 500th blog post on Love and Liberty. Thanks for reading so far, if you have!

It’s with rather more trepidation that I’ve also celebrated by joining Twitter. You might very well think that starting to micro-blog just as I set out on a series of maxi-blogs is an incongruous move, but… My shivering hand was held by Her Highness of Hashtags herself, Helen Duffett, so thank you, Helen, for the starting advice, and the nonsense I tweet is entirely my own.

Obviously, I need to amend my links to add my Twitter account, but as the whole sidebar’s not been updated for about a year, it’s almost as terrifying to contemplate redoing the whole thing as it is to think about tidying the spare room…

Forward to II

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Tory Tax Plans – Victorian Values Revealed

The Conservatives now have two whole policies: giving massive inheritance tax cuts to millionaires; offering tiny tax advantages for marriage*. But what values link these two ideas?

For example, Liberal Democrat plans to close tax loopholes for the richest, tax pollution and tax multi-million mansions will fund tax cuts of £700 for everyone on low and middle incomes (so you can make your own choices, unlike the Tory tax punishment if you don’t follow their ‘approved’ lifestyle). Those aren’t four separate tax proposals: they’re all part of one purpose. Fairness.

So I’ve worked out the secret motive behind Tory taxes. Why give hush money to a battered wife to stay with her abusive husband? Why give a tax reward to the philanderer who runs off and gets a new spouse, but rob the old one left behind with the kids? Why should it be the government’s business to tell you how to live your life anyway? And perhaps most cruelly of all, why punish you when the love of your life dies?

Maybe the Tories are so overcome by the excitement of gaining the opportunity to turn the clock back to Dickensian times that they’ve come up with a whole tax structure with one overriding purpose: to act like a villain in a Victorian melodrama and grind down poor widows.

Posted by Picasa

I’m not good at fitting words into a limited space, am I? Bet I’d be rubbish at Twitter. Hmm…

And there are many more where I knocked that one together.

*May not include most marriages. Your marriage may not matter as much to the Conservatives as others. Unlike ordinary people’s marriage plans, Mr Cameron’s is only a “hope”, not a “commitment”. Please check terms and conditions on all Conservative “promises”. Terms and conditions not provided.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010


DVD Taster: Doctor Who – Peladon Tales

Tomorrow, another Doctor Who DVD boxed set goes on sale, starring Jon Pertwee’s Doctor in The Curse of Peladon and follow-up The Monster of Peladon. If you think a 1972 tale about joining the EEC Galactic Federation could be making a subtle political point, I couldn’t disagree more. Curse isn’t subtle (except in comparison to its crass sequel), but it’s a highly entertaining shaggy god story packed with memorable aliens, and one of my favourites of the period. Monster… Isn’t. If you want to watch something for free, though, here’s my pick of the last week’s brand new TV, repeated tonight:

Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Ethiopia

You might expect me to recommend the new series of Hustle, which is as inventive and fun as ever, or Being Human’s black comedy thriller, possibly the best new drama on right now, or even Survivors, which is still well worth watching despite its lack of killer vegetation (being essentially The Day of the Triffids with more tedious gardening) – the new series has now run out of Terry Nation’s original Survivors plotlines, so ironically last week’s lifted large chunks from his Destiny of the Daleks – but the TV show that most gripped me last week was, improbably, not big-budget drama but archaeology on BBC4. Gus Casely-Hayford’s knowledgeable, enthusiastic and kind of hot real Indiana Jones (though he wasn’t allowed in to see the Ark of the Covenant) is in the middle of a series exploring Africa’s lost civilisations, and while I was only half-watching the one about Nubia, perhaps because it’s so lost that there was relatively little to see, the latest on Ethiopia was extraordinary.

You can see the Ethiopian documentary again tonight at eight on BBC4, or on iPlayer until the series finishes, and I thoroughly recommend it. Perhaps urging you to watch a real history programme with jaw-dropping pictures of actual ancient buildings is unwise before suggesting you visit a studio-bound medievalesque Doctor Who planet of suspiciously regular caves, but really, this is too good to miss. I knew a little about the Aksûmite Empire and the Ethiopian Kingdom said to have lasted three thousand years, claiming descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, but I didn’t realise how awesome – in the best sense – the architecture it left behind actually was. Tune in for the churches carved, incredibly, out of solid rock (to bolster a usurper’s credentials), or the far older giant Stelae jutting into the sky to mark the graves of ancient kings.

If you’re still looking for a Doctor Who connection, incidentally, one of Professor Bernice Summerfield’s most intense, inspired and insane adventures, The Sword of Forever, is steeped in Aksûmite legends; as that’s long out of print, though, it might be easier simply to watch Lost Kingdoms of Africa: Ethiopia and see what strikes you (stop reading now if you want to test this theory). Perhaps it’s just me, but one of the architectural features repeated over hundreds of years in royal and religious buildings made me start the first time it appeared, then began to get unsettling as more and more examples were displayed. It’s described as an emblem of “the rising sun,” and consists of a semi-circle set – on a small connecting piece – above a tall oblong block. As it wasn’t just a semi-circle alone, the first time I saw one it struck me as a representation of a figure. And as it wasn’t just one emblem but many, it didn’t strike me as a representation of many suns in a row, but of several figures. The first pair of them, I have to confess, immediately brought to mind a stylised pair of Time Lords in their ceremonial collars (set, appropriately, above a double cross). The centuries-older pair we saw next had a far more tapered oblong below it, its stepped edges looking for all the world like shoulders and hips. And the oldest, topping the Stelae like the heads of giants, even had pointed edges to the ‘rising sun’, like the downward points of a collar. But it could be just me.

Anyway, back to the Doctor properly.

The Curse of Peladon

With most Doctor Who stories already released on DVD and rumours that some of the remaining ‘fan favourites’ are being held back ’til the end of the range – approximately the close of 2012 – this year’s release schedule is looking a bit patchy. This story, however, is one I’ve always loved. It’s relatively unusual for a Jon Pertwee story in that it’s set entirely on an alien planet; at the end of Patrick Troughton’s reign, the Time Lords caught up with the Doctor and turned out to be bastards (yes, it’s happened before), executing the Second Doctor and, in a fate worse than death, turning him into Jon Pertwee exiling him to Earth. There was a bit of politics, or at least internationalism, in his working with the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce when ‘grounded’; by mid-way through Pertwee’s tenure, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were getting a bit fed up of that and finding ways to get the TARDIS working again.

This was only the second proper trip for the Third Doctor, yet the planet Peladon on which he found himself was home if anything to an even more internationalist moral (and one I took very much to heart on reading the book when I was little). In Pertwee’s era, Earth’s future involved getting an Empire, losing it, then joining up with a Galactic Federation. Unlike Star Trek’s version, in which America Earth is plainly in charge, Doctor Who’s Federation is full of genuinely alien aliens who bitch about how crap Earth is and outvote us. It’s much more like the EU and the UK than the US’s view of international institutions, by an amazing coincidence. Among the most notable here are the Ice Warriors, huge reptiles from Mars who’d been brutal conquerors (though always with some personality) in two 1960s stories, and who as a result the Doctor doesn’t trust an inch here – it may not be giving too much away that you might think of them as ‘the Germans’ for this story. Meanwhile, the local high priest is being racist to the aliens, whipping up local traditions and in proper Eurosceptic Galactosceptic way, insisting that losing the vote means people were tricked by traitors, or that mounting a coup is protecting their institutions. Like all religious maniacs, too, he pronounces instant death for the mildest infraction by anyone else, but when the Doctor is absolutely cleared through sacred ritual, he blasphemously tears up the rules – of course, he’s holy, so they don’t apply to him. Just call him Iris Robinson.

The star of the show, though, is the Federation delegate from Alpha Centauri, known imaginatively as “Alpha Centauri,” who is one of the most utterly loveable aliens ever presented in Doctor Who. An hermaphrodite hexapod, Centauri is tall, green, one-eyed, and it’s your own guess where the female bits are, as this is an alien that famously looks like a phallus with tentacles. No, I said tentacles. Centauri is a camp, panicky snob appalled at being sent to some medieval backwater, shrilling in response to:
“There has been a new development?”
“Something dreadful, no doubt. This barbarous planet!”
…but despite that, rather sympathetic, and completely endearing. Alpha Centauri’s finest moments come in the sequel, but more on that later.

That Golden Moment
“The facts point to one thing – a unilateral blood alliance between Peladon and Earth!”
“It is unusual to celebrate such an event with an execution.”
It’s easy to pick out great scenes from The Curse of Peladon – perhaps because several of the characters are so well-drawn, and there are real issues behind their arguments. Naturally, then, the one that most fans will think of instantly as their favourite involves the Doctor crooning a Venusian lullaby to a big shaggy monster. I love that bit too, of course, but I’ll pick instead a sequence of scenes that takes place almost concurrently, but with rather more meaningful dialogue.

The scene – or, rather, set of scenes – that spring to mind for me are in Episode Three, in theory the story’s most disposable. You could argue that the plot hardly moves along at all between the end of Episode Two and the very end of Episode Three, and though you’d not be wrong, you’d miss a lot of the story’s best characterisation and dialogue. I’ve always enjoyed the way the Federation delegates bicker when the Doctor’s banged up, entertaining the viewer and driving Jo to distraction. The great thing about them is that, though it’s not impossible to read in national stereotypes made green and alien, they behave hugely against type for Doctor Who ‘monsters’ of the time; they’re far more engaging characters than most of the rather wooden badger-haired ‘humans’. Arcturus – basically an alternative design for a Dalek – stirs up trouble with scurrilous gossip. Izlyr – a big butch brutal Ice Warlord expected to be the main villain – defuses the situation with dry wit. And Alpha Centauri delights everyone by waving shocked tentacles in the air and screaming. Jo loses her temper with everyone arguing round in circles, but after she walks out on them the ‘old enemy’ saves the situation, and sets out to save the Doctor’s life. It’s a turnaround in our view not just of one character, but of his entire people.

At the same time, the Doctor’s talking with the high priest: one’s liberal and arguing in favour of working with other peoples; the other’s afraid of losing his past and his power, and setting up the other to be killed. No prizes for working out which is which, nor for who sounds scarily like a modern-day Eurosceptic. The two sequences dovetail when Izlyr finds the Doctor missing from his cell (off in search of that shaggy monster) – and, ironically, it’s only on confronting the possibility that the Doctor’s been killed that the sardonic Ice Lord finally reveals a flash of the deadly aggression for which his race was once known.
“They’ll exploit us for our minerals, enslave us with their machines, corrupt us with their technology. The face of Peladon will be changed, the past swept away, and everything that I know and value will have gone.”
“The progress that they offer – that we offer – isn’t like that.”
“I would rather be a cave-dweller, and free.”
“Free? With your people imprisoned by ritual and superstition?”
Something Else To Look Out For

The first episode has a marvellous stage-setting scene where the Doctor and Jo are dragged into the throne room, apparently to have their heads chopped off, and are instead taken as the late-running delegates from Earth and introduced to the rest of the cast. Naturally, they take full advantage of this with some inspired blagging (I suspect that blagging my own way into several meetings and buffets I had no business at were inspired by reading such Doctorish scenes as a boy). Highlights include the local theocratic bigot mixing it by telling the very nervous delegate from Alpha Centauri about a mysterious murder and threatening legend, which climaxes in a prophecy of a stranger bringing peril to the land… On the stroke of which, the Doctor appears. Anyone would think he was the personification of peril to theocratic bigots everywhere, and rightly, though this story famously exposes some of the Doctor’s own prejudices too (as well as giving him a terrible line about aristocracy being democratic; you forgive a swashbuckler for being pro-monarchy, but there are limits). Jo suddenly proclaiming herself a princess and saying how deplorable her pilot was is also a scream.

One comedy hypnotism scene apart, this is one of Jo Grant’s strongest stories. Brought in to replace the fabulous Liz Shaw – too brainy to be a companion, thought the producer – she was dimmer and ditzier, and Katy Manning often had very little to work with to bring her part to life. Here, for once, she’s allowed to be brave, bright and put Pertwee down on several occasions, which is a blessed relief. In fact, as the Doctor spends much of the story incarcerated, she’s more like the lead character, and seizes the opportunity. She gets raw emotion and interplanetary politics between her fake princess and the young king falling for her, with all the farcical gossip that arises from that situation. For me, though, Jo really shines in the scenes in the final episode where the Doctor’s swanned off to arrange a deus ex specus and she’s left as the voice of reason, paired up with a ferocious Martian warlord detective, with an outrageously camp space octopus panicking in the background. Alpha Centauri’s ‘vote’ may be extracted improperly, but it’s very funny, and who couldn’t love a character who in one online transcript of the story is given the stage direction “To Ssorg, hysterically” nine times in one scene?

That part of the final episode follows a brilliant subversion of the murder mystery that’s taken up much of the story so far. The Doctor does the old ‘I’ve called you all here today’ bit that ought to wrap up the plot, but instead of that solving things in the Agatha Christie way, it simply pushes the real enemy into mobilising his real power. The whole thing’s one of those legendary ghost stories with a scheme underneath, having more than a passing nod to The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the way it’s carried off tells you a lot about the series at the time. Had it been made for William Hartnell as the Doctor, David Whitaker would have written more intricate court plotting and far richer dialogue; if Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe had made it with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, its main aim would have been to go for the jugular as a ghost story to scare the pants off little kids like me watching at the time. Under Barry Letts, it’s less literate on the one hand, and less scary on the other, but cosily enjoyable, full of character, and – crucially – with a political allegory for the kids and masses of memorable, colourful monsters for the adults.

Incidentally, the story exists in a couple of other versions, too (as does its sequel, less memorably): it was released on CD a couple of years ago with narration from Katy Manning where, just as in the days when she was playing Jo, she’s better than the script – there are some good lines, but far too many of them treading across the soundtrack. Within the first couple of minutes, the words “The beast’s roars echo back along the corridor” entirely drown out the roar itself, for example, and while it’s useful to have the action on the mountainside narrated, do we really need to be told about Jo tugging the Doctor’s arm and shaking her head, when we’re just about to hear her telling him that she can’t go on any further? Then there are additions we wouldn’t have by watching the story: Arcturus may well have a helium-filled dome, but is this a talking book with hastily-squeaked frills, a radio play or TV show with occasional stage directions? The uneasy mix of all three does it no favours, though I do enjoy the slightly tongue-in-cheek
“The delegates bow to the King, and then shuffle, walk and trundle towards the doors.”
Brian Hayles’ novelisation was also a particular favourite of mine as a boy – no doubt strongly contributing to my political indoctrination – with an excitingly monster-packed cover (the sacred beast Aggedor may sometimes look a bit iffy under studio lights, but in pictures, as a statue and as a thrillingly threatening legend he’s fantastic), a strong narrative told solidly with flashes of inspiration, and above all, Alpha Centauri, a favourite alien long before I ever saw the show from little flashes of character such as diplomatically praising the harsh, barbaric décor from which the delegate inwardly yearns to shy away to the way Centauri’s green tentacles turning milky blue or even mauve in distress were endlessly fascinating (now, come on, if there’s an alien to bring back for the new Doctor, fully realised at last…).

The Monster of Peladon

This story’s half as long again as the original; definitive proof that it’s not how big it is, but what you do with it that matters. Obviously, the longer adventure has fewer interesting characters – you can guess which one I’m going to praise – and a far thinner plot, with court politics, contemporary political allegory and murder mystery all much dumber and less involving this time around. Most of the Ice Warriors are physically at their least impressive – in their final appearance, their costumes are shoddy and ill-fitting – but wheezily voiced, uncredited, by producer Barry Letts and with rather a splendid leader, as usual. The rest of the design ranges from a terrific Aggedor statue to the Universe’s largest screw (no, steady) for the Doctor to wave his sonic at. The latter is more representative. The story’s BBC production code was “YYY”: make up your own jokes.

There are three things to notice about The Monster of Peladon, and they’re all about mining. Back in 1974, when this was transmitted, mining was big news – so much so that this is all about a mining dispute. Except that I shouldn’t pay it the compliment of calling it an allegory, when the boss is a murderous, stupid bully who doesn’t listen to anyone, the miners are all incredibly dim and do exactly what the last person who spoke to them says (whether it’s the Scargill-a-like revolutionary, the dull but worthy ‘moderate’ or even their evil boss: “All right, Chancellor, we’ll trust you this time”), and the Doctor is cast in the role of ACAS as action hero. No, really. Second, this story and its predecessor were the only two Pertwee stories made with no location filming – so, in a stroke of genius, they make it all about mining, so have to build a quarry in the studio. And thirdly, it seemed very exciting to me when I was a boy because of Weetabix. No, hear me out – this comes back to mining, eventually. I hated Weetabix. Loathed it. It did, in fact, make me sick. But we got boxes of the revolting stuff, because when I was very little they did a range of cardboard Doctor Who figures (as seen on TV), and because The Monster of Peladon had been on TV a couple of years earlier, several of them were based on characters from it. It was a story from just before I started watching, and the figures were thrilling, so naturally I was far more excited by them as little cut-out standees than I’ve ever been since seeing them on screen. One was the Queen’s Champion, Blor, who in the actual story gets to wear a remarkably silly hat, grunt “Uh!” about nine times and then cry “Aargghh!” I remember thinking, ‘And he gets a Weetabix for that?’ But the really exciting one was the wide-eyed, faun-like mining engineer (from a Star Trek-esque planet made up entirely of mining engineers, apparently), Vega Nexos. He won’t last long, either, but he’s far more interesting and Weetabix-worthy than Blor, so he’s remembered much more fondly than the usual ‘first alien to be brutally murdered’.

Fortunately, The Monster of Peladon isn’t the only sequel to Curse; I suspect the first story grabbed many young fans’ attention for being the only decent alien world for years under Pertwee, so you can find several books and audio plays that return to Peladon in later years. The most entertaining for me remains one that strictly isn’t a sequel at all – not only is it not set on Peladon, but it features not one of the Alpha Centauri but the even less butch and naughtily copyright-skirting Beta Centauri. If you get hold of the Bernice Summerfield short story collection A Life of Surprises (edited by Paul Cornell), you must read Nev Fountain’s Beedlemania aloud, and read out all the Beta Centauri lines in an hysterical high-pitched voice. It’s the law. It’s also killingly funny. 2005’s Russell T Davies story The End of the World has more than a touch of The Curse of Peladon about it, too…

That Golden Moment
“The Citadel of Peladon, Sarah. One of the most interesting and –”
“Oh no it isn’t, is it, Doctor?”
“Well, no. Not exactly.”
“No! It’s not your precious Citadel at all. It’s another rotten, gloomy old tunnel.”
“Yes, well, with the scanner still on the blink, there was no way I could really check…”
“There’s more than the scanner on the blink.”
It’s another adventure, and the TARDIS materialises in another dingy tunnel (to be fair, some of the tunnels look all right, but it’s quite glaringly obvious which are shot on film and which on video). The Doctor steps out in full tour guide fashion, introducing Sarah Jane Smith to the Citadel of Peladon – it’s before the days when people would say of him (and Martha say to his face) that he always takes his new dates to the same old places, but you may find the style familiar, even though this is in fact the first time he ever successfully takes a companion to the alien world he’s aiming for without the controls blowing up – and falters slightly on seeing where he’s parked.

Unlike some of the Doctor’s companions, Sarah Jane is fabulously unwilling to put up with his cock-ups, and tells him so. She’s also dressed rather better than he is, in a black leather jacket rather than his green-as-poison jacket (itself an improvement on his moss-green outfit a couple of stories earlier and his nasty green and red plaid in Curse). He’ll pick up the leather jacket a few lives later. In the meantime, he locks the TARDIS door and puts the key away, transparently to stop her going back inside and tapping her foot ’til he turns round. He only gets his way by pleading with her, when she finally breaks and humours him, alternating between getting cross and pissing herself as he first gets them lost and then tries his usual name-dropping act to big himself up again. She really is just what he needs – brilliant at taking him down a peg or two. And wait until he’s optimistically pleased to see the palace guard…

Something Else To Look Out For

It’s not just Sarah Jane that takes this Doctor down a peg in his penultimate and rather tired story. While he’s become a legendary figure in these parts in the fifty years since the previous story, opinion on him is divided. The Queen virtually asks for his autograph, while the jealous Chancellor / High Priest / power in front of the throne would prefer a lock of his hair with the head thrown in, reckoning himself the keeper of the sacred beast and not wanting any competition for living legends (to the point where, predictably and again blasphemously, he ignores all his own sacred rules). The main villain, once revealed, is all for killing the Doctor at once – but gets talked out of it. The most satisfying moment for Pertwee-non-fanciers, though, comes at the end of Episode Four, when Scargillesque local nutter Ettis beats the stuffing out of him. Or, more accurately, beats the stuffing out of an hilariously visible stuntman – in full close-up! I met actor Ralph Watson (and his son Alex) recently, and he’s still very proud of getting to duff up the Doctor. In other stunt-related fun, watch out for the stuntman-cum-bit-player who dies several times in this one story…

Sarah Jane gets some other good moments – notably, mourning for the Doctor as well as mocking him, in some of the powerfully emotional (but never hysterical) scenes for one of his companions. Naturally, each time he turns out not to be dead after all, he takes the piss out of her for worrying, the cad. I have to admit, though, my ‘you go, girl!’ reaction to Sarah Jane snatching up a gun may be at odds with my distaste for the Doctor slaughtering battalions with a remote-controlled death-ray. Perhaps Miss Smith’s best-known moment here is telling the sopping wet Queen (in her primary school stiff card and tin foil crown) that she should stand up to her Chancellor, because “There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl!” Not only is it a clumsy and patronising stab at ‘Women’s Lib,’ but it’s a sign of the times that no-one noticed anything remotely incongruous about Sarah Jane repeating this advice mere seconds before the Doctor prattles on and on about Gebek being the right “man”. You want Mr Watson’s character to come back to life and slap him again.

There’s some fun to be had with the almost Tom Baker-like laid-backness of engineer Eckersley (his first name’s William), but you know who I really watch this for. And, unlike the first story, Alpha Centauri’s most of the reason to watch this one at all. Now the Federation Ambassador and with an expanded role – effectively taking much of Izlyr’s place in the story, too – Alpha Centauri is, like all the characters here, occasionally very dim (though the Queen is so stupid that Centauri has to dramatically reveal to her the oh-so-secret traitor’s identity twice), but even more entertaining than before. Now, some fans say Alpha Centauri looks and sounds silly, and so is a ‘silly monster’. Not only does this show an appalling humour failure, but on a planet of overacting people in badger-striped afros that make Jon Pertwee’s bouffant seem restrained, ‘silly’ hardly bears mentioning. Alpha Centauri is outrageously camp and outrageously out of place, but magnificent. If it didn’t give the game away, I’d have picked as my “Golden Moment” Centauri’s piercing thanks to the traitor at a moment of revelation – simultaneously polite and damning, and prompted by sheer civil servant’s outrage – but there are many others. Describing treasonous thuggery as “most reprehensible,” or the outstandingly flouncy act of bravery “I shall summon assistance. Help! Guards! Aaahh!” On finding out about a traitor, the Ambassador exclaims, “I find it hard to believe that ----- could do something so wicked!” Bless you, Alpha Centauri. You’re too good for this world. In several senses.

Finally, it’s an impressive DVD set from a technical point of view; they’ve gone to remarkable lengths to restore the two tales, and the two stories get three discs, packed with extras. There are the usual full commentaries (with a bonus ‘fan commentary’ including writer Rob Shearman on one episode of Monster; I’m particularly looking forward to that, as I’ve heard him be even ruder about it than I am) and text notes on the stories themselves, photo galleries, pdfs, and several documentaries – two on The Peladon Saga, its making and its socio-political background, one on the Ice Warriors, one on Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. There’s even a deleted scene. I suspect I’m most looking forward to another piece on Target Books, however, this time focusing on Terrance Dicks, who wrote nearly as many Doctor Who novelisations as everyone else put together (and previously the subject of a DVD retrospective on his wider Doctor Who work). The set’s exciting trailer is only available online…

Update: Whoops! I forgot to plug the detailed and insightful episode-by-episode reviews of Curse and Monster by the lovely John Dorney. Take a look, and – as, though he got a lot further than me, his reviews tailed off with the penultimate episode featured in this set – I’ll give him a little prod to say I’d like to read more. I bet you would, too.

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Friday, January 01, 2010


Happy New Doctor!

Our household’s all agog for tonight’s Doctor Who – probably the most important regeneration for twenty-nine years. Thank you, David Tennant, and good luck, Matt Smith!

And I always said the Time Lords were gits.

As a special New Doctor treat, I’d like to share with you this superb piece of animation by “Tardis Timegirl”, mixing Stanley Kubrick and Patrick Troughton to create something very special indeed: inspired, gorgeous to look at and, in parts, rather witty.

In other turn-of-the-year news, birthday elephant Millennium – happy birthday, young Master Dome! – has assembled the best of his and other bloggers (and has much to say about The End of Time so far), the other lovely Andrew (known in our household as Benedict Napoleon) is preparing for Sergeant Pepper and still more PEP! , and the lovely Helen brings news of a Guardian columnist’s prediction for a Labour-Tory coalition (it’s not going to happen, but short of a Liberal Democrat government, it’d be the best thing possible for us in the long term. Horrific while it lasted, though).

The most striking post of the New Year, however, belongs to the Blogger Formerly Known As the Lovely Stephen Glenn. He’s very musical, but not quite himself.

Fortunately, I am completely immune.

The Simmilarity is uncanny.
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19.55: Yes, of course I cried. Then grinned, hugely.

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