How To Really Screw Up A Child

Today’s Guardian reports that…

The plans to make personal, social and health education (PSHE) compulsory from the age of five, published yesterday, include a clause allowing schools to apply their “values” to the lessons and another allowing parents to opt their children out on religious grounds.

It means that all state secondaries in England – including faith schools – will for the first time have to teach a core curriculum about sex and contraception in the context of teenagers’ relationships, but teachers in religious schools will also be free to tell them that sex outside marriage, homosexuality or using contraception are wrong. Sexual health campaigners warned that such an approach could confuse teenagers, but Catholic schools welcomed the move.

Let’s think about this for a second. At the kind of age we’re talking about here (secondary school), some may be starting to feel a bit confused about their own sexuality, and questioning whether they might be gay (or, indeed, already feeling pretty certain about it). I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of many things that you can more easily do to them at that point to really fuck them up, potentially for years into the future, than to tell them, as part of the lesson that is supposed to be telling them how to deal with these developments in a mature way, that there is something wrong with them, that to act on their thoughts and feelings would be “sinful”.

If their parents have sent them to a faith school, then they might not be likely to find much sympathy at home. What they are taught and what their friends think about these issues is enormously important. In that situation, what these plans are likely to produce is a whole load of unhappy and repressed young people.

Of course, we all know this; society has increasingly recognised the importance of being supportive of people finding their true sexuality, and the damage that some parents can do by rejecting their children in this situation.

But of course, religion is special. Belief in the sky-fairy entitles you to abuse your children without reproach; indeed, the government will go out of its way to allow you to fucking well INSTITUTIONALISE this abuse. (Am I succesfully expressing how angry this makes me?…)

Amazingly enough, as Costigan remarked this morning, the Daily Mail has managed to take precisely the opposite tack. This is what passes for an argument on the other side of this debate:

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said that ‘pressing the virtues of homosexuality’ could lead to more experimentation, which could be ‘harmful’ to children.

He said: ‘What we don’t want to see is vulnerable young people being exploited by outside groups which want to normalise homosexuality.

‘If this guidance purports to force faith schools to teach things which go against their faith then it is profoundly illiberal and must be resisted at all costs.’

It reminds me of Al Franken’s line about the US religious right’s argument that gay marriage “undermines” traditional marriage, as if he was going to be walking down the street one day, see a gay couple who’d just got married, and think “Well, gee, that does look pretty good, I shall leave my wife immediately.”

I mean, come on, “pressing the virtues of homosexuality”? As in, “not telling people that being gay means they’re sinners”? How many of our “vulnerable young people” are these “outside groups” (read: filthy homos seeking more recruits) really going to turn gay by simply not filling their heads with bigotry handed down by the sky-fairy?

Oh, and a pre-emptive warning to any nice religious types who want me to make more effort to separate them from “the Christian Institute”: go and give Simon Calvert a fucking great slap from me, and I’ll consider it.

Election Result Analysis (Such as can be offered at 4am)

What to conclude from tonight’s results? Well, here’s a summary. As I type, the BBC are reporting we are:

Councils: 6 (-1)
Councillors: 1053 (+8)

They project our national share of the vote to be 25%, 1% more than Labour’s.

But, we must acknowledge, the last time we fought these seats we were at 29%. So where have those people gone? Well, as the Big British Castle has been reminding us all night, in 2004 we were doing well off the back of the Iraq War. Except at the time, they would have phrased it as “attracting protest votes from people who didn’t want to vote Tory”, I imagine.

Is this a bad thing? What strikes me is that, if our vote is down, but the councillors it returns is up slightly, and the change in control of councils has seen no particular catastophic collapses in support in places where we represent a serious electoral prospect, then what do those 4% of projected national people we lost represent? I hate to say it, but I suspect that in 2004 our detractors were right: protest votes.

We have now shed the Labour protest vote, I think. As the psephologist sat next to Nick Robinson tonight (whose name I have rudely forgotten) pointed out at some point, the Lib Dem supporter is no longer the tactical Labour voter she once was. We are our own party now, much more than a few years ago. Much as we might find it hard going, we must accept that under Ming and Nick, we are continuing the steady work of carving out a real identity for ourselves. It is one the electorate are coming to appreciate. Not overnight, not with a disinterested and frankly hostile media mediating our relationship with them. But soon. If at a time of Tory revival like this, we are as capable of holding our heartlands against them as we are capable of picking up Labour seats where we find them, then I see no cause for alarm. Quite the opposite. It suggests to me we now have a firm core support of about 25% (in local government elections, anyway).

All we can do is build. But don’t let “them” tell you that Charles Kennedy did anything other than sensibly capitalise on a populist position. They don’t come along every day, and the fact there isn’t really one around at the moment doesn’t mean we’re in decline, much as the BBC might like us to be (tonight, I actually heard a reporter describe one council race as “a nice straightforward Tory Labour battleground” – make no mistake, they wish we weren’t here). All we can do is build, steadily and on ground which belongs unmistakeably to us.

Tonight was a victory for Rennardism.

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Sides of the Argument

An interesting interview from John Harris with Nick Clegg in today’s Guardian. I say interesting, but only because Nick’s answers are genuinely illuminating and honest compared to the kind of soundbite he tries to offer on TV. But, as usual, the interview suffers from some silly assumptions from the interviewer. I don’t think I can sum it up any better than Harris’s final comment:

a new kind of Lib Dem, but a leader still in thrall to their old habit of taking contributions from both sides of the argument. You might like to think of it as the political equivalent of going Dutch.

Harris is completely unable to escape from the idea that there are two “sides”, and that saying things that superficially align, in certain places, with both “sides” means you are suspicious.

While I’m here, a “B-, must do better” to dear old Kettle for this week’s piece of transparently silly shit-stirring.

Dale Has Dug Up A Slide Show, Cue Sarcastic Applause

Cast your mind back to March 2007. Ming is leading the party, Brown has yet to take power, and Spring Conference has just taken place. The one where, afterwards, people wrote things like

Sir Menzies Campbell steered the Liberal Democrats towards a coalition with Labour yesterday, effectively laying out the terms of trade by setting Gordon Brown five tests he would have to pass as prime minister.

Would it surprise you in the least to discover that the parliamentary party had been discussing this before hand? No, me neither. Still, it is a mark of how frightened of us the Tories are, and Iain Dale in particular, that he has posted quite extensively (for him) about this today, here and here.

Apparently, we are supposed to feel it is some kind of revelation that most Lib Dem voters would prefer a coalition with Labour to one with the Tories. Apparently, “gives the lie” to our position that we are not in politics to be an annex to another party, because our parliamentary party was looking at the possibilities.

Perhaps most desperate, Iain is trying to rake up some kind of scandal over the use of Henley Management College, because Chief Executive Chris Bones is a supporter of the party. He presents no evidence that anything improper has gone on, simply asserting that “his colleagues, … are growing uncomfortable with the Centre being used for party political purposes”. This use for party political purposes, it turns out in the next sentence, means four weekends over the space of a year. Which were in all likelihood paid for in the proper manner.

Dale tries to imply that there is something controversial in the following:

The PowerPoint presentation used in the Henley sessions is a substantial document of 50 pages and fully branded by Henley. So if Bones did this in his private capacity why is it branded ‘Henley’?. As it is branded ‘Henley’ it seems likely that Henley wish to be associated with it and that the College is claiming ownership of the work.

My reactions are twofold:

1. Is it not quite likely that this is Bones’s default slide format, and he just didn’t change it?
2. Is there any problem with it being associated with the college? There is nothing in the presentation, at least that Iain has shown us, that is in the least bit damaging to the college, or in any way a departure from the sort of very sensible judgment anybody could have displayed on the issues. Telling us that speculating about hung parliaments doesn’t help us in an election, you say! My goodness, that’s damaging!

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The Atheist Delusion

John Gray has written in the Guardian today, about the athiestic books recently published by Dawkins, Hitchens, and a few others. Far be it from me to suggest I know more than such a learned person as Gray, but after all, that’s what blogging is here for. I feel a fisking coming on:

An atmosphere of moral panic surrounds religion. Viewed not so long ago as a relic of superstition whose role in society was steadily declining, it is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils. As a result, there has been a sudden explosion in the literature of proselytising atheism. A few years ago, it was difficult to persuade commercial publishers even to think of bringing out books on religion. Today, tracts against religion can be enormous money-spinners, with Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great selling in the hundreds of thousands. For the first time in generations, scientists and philosophers, high-profile novelists and journalists are debating whether religion has a future. The intellectual traffic is not all one-way. There have been counterblasts for believers, such as The Dawkins Delusion? by the British theologian Alister McGrath and The Secular Age by the Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor. On the whole, however, the anti-God squad has dominated the sales charts, and it is worth asking why.The abrupt shift in the perception of religion is only partly explained by terrorism. The 9/11 hijackers saw themselves as martyrs in a religious tradition, and western opinion has accepted their self-image. And there are some who view the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a danger comparable with the worst that were faced by liberal societies in the 20th century.

Several false contrasts here. The worst is the idea that “the anti-god squad has dominated the sales charts”. Yes, sure, there have been a few big selling books by atheists in the last few years. But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of religious books by thousands of authors which are sold around the world every year. The fact that the religious don’t have any star authors making a ton of money and being visible doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and to try to argue that the anti-god people have been dominant in the debate which has followed their books, rather than the position adopted by most of the reviews and most of the comment pieces on them (a wafty, faux moderation), is daft.

The other false contrast from the opening paragraph which deserves an honourable mention is the claim that “[religion] is now demonised as the cause of many of the world’s worst evils.” It always was. That’s not an idea that Dawkins et al popularised, it is a thought many people had before. Yes, the assumption that religion would naturally die off has been challenged, but that doesn’t mean that something else has to have replaced it.

For Dawkins and Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Martin Amis, Michel Onfray, Philip Pullman and others, religion in general is a poison that has fuelled violence and oppression throughout history, right up to the present day. The urgency with which they produce their anti-religious polemics suggests that a change has occurred as significant as the rise of terrorism: the tide of secularisation has turned. These writers come from a generation schooled to think of religion as a throwback to an earlier stage of human development, which is bound to dwindle away as knowledge continues to increase. In the 19th century, when the scientific and industrial revolutions were changing society very quickly, this may not have been an unreasonable assumption. Dawkins, Hitchens and the rest may still believe that, over the long run, the advance of science will drive religion to the margins of human life, but this is now an article of faith rather than a theory based on evidence.

This paragraph starts well, but then realises it hasn’t said anything obviously insulting to the anti-god people yet, so wedges in a sly remark that they “may” believe something, and if they do then it is now “an article of faith”. Well fine, but they don’t believe that. That’s why they are writing their polemics now: because the “tide” seems to be turning.

It is true that religion has declined sharply in a number of countries (Ireland is a recent example) and has not shaped everyday life for most people in Britain for many years. Much of Europe is clearly post-Christian. However, there is nothing that suggests the move away from religion is irreversible, or that it is potentially universal. The US is no more secular today than it was 150 years ago, when De Tocqueville was amazed and baffled by its all-pervading religiosity. The secular era was in any case partly illusory. The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed. The current hostility to religion is a reaction against this turnabout. Secularisation is in retreat, and the result is the appearance of an evangelical type of atheism not seen since Victorian times.

OK, this seems fair enough, but why mention elusively that “the mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed” and then not elaborate on it at all? Is it just to sound clever?

As in the past, this is a type of atheism that mirrors the faith it rejects. Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – a subtly allusive, multilayered allegory, recently adapted into a Hollywood blockbuster, The Golden Compass – is a good example. Pullman’s parable concerns far more than the dangers of authoritarianism. The issues it raises are essentially religious, and it is deeply indebted to the faith it attacks. Pullman has stated that his atheism was formed in the Anglican tradition, and there are many echoes of Milton and Blake in his work. His largest debt to this tradition is the notion of free will. The central thread of the story is the assertion of free will against faith. The young heroine Lyra Belacqua sets out to thwart the Magisterium – Pullman’s metaphor for Christianity – because it aims to deprive humans of their ability to choose their own course in life, which she believes would destroy what is most human in them. But the idea of free will that informs liberal notions of personal autonomy is biblical in origin (think of the Genesis story). The belief that exercising free will is part of being human is a legacy of faith, and like most varieties of atheism today, Pullman’s is a derivative of Christianity.

As a criticism of Pullman’s allegory, this is fine. But interesting that, in an article purporting to take on the anti-god squad, Gray starts out with an attack on a particularly weak opponent: one whose criticism is delivered in an allegorical adventure yarn.

As for the point that most of the varieties of Atheism today are derived from Christianity, this is a facile point. The only countries where speech is free enough happen at the moment to be mostly Christian countries. There are equally sound atheist blasts to be published from muslim authors, indeed, a few are in print already, from people such as Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (both included in Hitchens extensive compendium “The Portable Atheist“, which is highly recommended). One only has to read those authors’ wikipedia entries to see why more of their fellow ex-muslims would not want to join them just now.

Zealous atheism renews some of the worst features of Christianity and Islam. Just as much as these religions, it is a project of universal conversion. Evangelical atheists never doubt that human life can be transformed if everyone accepts their view of things, and they are certain that one way of living – their own, suitably embellished – is right for everybody. To be sure, atheism need not be a missionary creed of this kind. It is entirely reasonable to have no religious beliefs, and yet be friendly to religion. It is a funny sort of humanism that condemns an impulse that is peculiarly human. Yet that is what evangelical atheists do when they demonise religion.

The problem is that most of the tenets of humanism which are being continually contravened at any moment in the world are being contravened by the religious (it has to be said, mostly by muslims). A program of secularlisation, as Gray points out with reference to the US, does not help if your population has a large component of people prepared to accept religious authority for their demonisation of others. Therefore, this is indeed a battle of conversion, not because we feel everyone must agree with us, but because we believe that religion is doing damage to the societies we wish to see built; or rather, we believe that unreason is. It’s not that everyone religious is a problem – they’re not, most C of E members are more part of the solution and make admirable humanists too – but that religion has inherant problems, and those people who are not problems too are not because they have learnt to subordinate religion to their own reason. They do not accept homosexuals because the Bible tells them to – it doesn’t – they do it because they recognised that this was the only tenable position in today’s moral zeitgeist. But there is a fundamental itellectual dishonesty in this approach, and ultimately it is an exercise in protecting the name of religion which the anti-god people (as Gray labels us) believe to be harmful to the fight against fundamentalism. After all, you hear a lot more criticism (in the national media, anyway) from moderate Christians of atheism than you do of fundamentalist Christians.

A curious feature of this kind of atheism is that some of its most fervent missionaries are philosophers. Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon claims to sketch a general theory of religion. In fact, it is mostly a polemic against American Christianity. This parochial focus is reflected in Dennett’s view of religion, which for him means the belief that some kind of supernatural agency (whose approval believers seek) is needed to explain the way things are in the world. For Dennett, religions are efforts at doing something science does better – they are rudimentary or abortive theories, or else nonsense. “The proposition that God exists,” he writes severely, “is not even a theory.” But religions do not consist of propositions struggling to become theories. The incomprehensibility of the divine is at the heart of Eastern Christianity, while in Orthodox Judaism practice tends to have priority over doctrine. Buddhism has always recognised that in spiritual matters truth is ineffable, as do Sufi traditions in Islam. Hinduism has never defined itself by anything as simplistic as a creed. It is only some western Christian traditions, under the influence of Greek philosophy, which have tried to turn religion into an explanatory theory.

Evasive waffle. Either religions make statements which are helpful to us in our lives, or they do not. How can they be helpful? By telling us things which we didn’t otherwise know, or by giving us reasons to behave in ways we want to behave in. Both depend on the truth value of the religion’s claims (the latter because otherwise they aren’t good reasons). It doesn’t matter if the religion is “trying” to make itself into an explanatory theory; either it is built on something that is true and makes sense (and “true” needn’t mean “scientifically proven” – ask a philosopher), or it isn’t. Incidentally, here is an article by Dennett where the quote from him is fleshed out a little.

The notion that religion is a primitive version of science was popularised in the late 19th century in JG Frazer’s survey of the myths of primitive peoples, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. For Frazer, religion and magical thinking were closely linked. Rooted in fear and ignorance, they were vestiges of human infancy that would disappear with the advance of knowledge. Dennett’s atheism is not much more than a revamped version of Frazer’s positivism. The positivists believed that with the development of transport and communication – in their day, canals and the telegraph – irrational thinking would wither way, along with the religions of the past. Despite the history of the past century, Dennett believes much the same. In an interview that appears on the website of the Edge Foundation ( under the title “The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion”, he predicts that “in about 25 years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe that it does today”. He is confident that this will come about, he tells us, mainly because of “the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television)”. The philosopher has evidently not reflected on the ubiquity of mobile phones among the Taliban, or the emergence of a virtual al-Qaida on the web.

A fair point about communication not necessarily breaking down religion, though it is worth pointing out that the language barrier makes the breakdown of Islam by the internet rather slower than it otherwise would be. But it is important to think for a moment about how Dennett’s view is different from Frazer’s. It is this: where Frazer felt religion would die out, Dennett only predicts, as Gray quotes, that religion will “have evolved”. What people like Dennett and Dawkins have found, much to their frusration, is that faced with a reasoned rebuttal of religion, people do not let their religion fall away, they wall it away in an irrational part of their mind where it is not allowed to be challenged. How much of their actions are then allowed to be driven by religion is a different matter, but this building a protective wall of mysterious virtue in “faith” is something which almost all theists today must do. Breaking down this wall is one of Dawkins’s central aims.

The growth of knowledge is a fact only postmodern relativists deny. Science is the best tool we have for forming reliable beliefs about the world, but it does not differ from religion by revealing a bare truth that religions veil in dreams. Both science and religion are systems of symbols that serve human needs – in the case of science, for prediction and control. Religions have served many purposes, but at bottom they answer to a need for meaning that is met by myth rather than explanation. A great deal of modern thought consists of secular myths – hollowed-out religious narratives translated into pseudo-science. Dennett’s notion that new communications technologies will fundamentally alter the way human beings think is just such a myth.

Possibly. Note that none of that means religions are true.

In The God Delusion, Dawkins attempts to explain the appeal of religion in terms of the theory of memes, vaguely defined conceptual units that compete with one another in a parody of natural selection. He recognises that, because humans have a universal tendency to religious belief, it must have had some evolutionary advantage, but today, he argues, it is perpetuated mainly through bad education. From a Darwinian standpoint, the crucial role Dawkins gives to education is puzzling. Human biology has not changed greatly over recorded history, and if religion is hardwired in the species, it is difficult to see how a different kind of education could alter this. Yet Dawkins seems convinced that if it were not inculcated in schools and families, religion would die out. This is a view that has more in common with a certain type of fundamentalist theology than with Darwinian theory, and I cannot help being reminded of the evangelical Christian who assured me that children reared in a chaste environment would grow up without illicit sexual impulses.

A careful reading of Dawkins’s chapter on this in the God Delusion will clear this up. It isn’t (in Dawkins’s theory) that religion itself is biologically specified because it was adaptively advantageous, it’s that many of the traits in humans led us to adopt religions, for exactly the reasons Gray has already hinted at – a search for meaning and patterns, etc. One cannot escape the sense that Gray is wilfully misreading Dawkins here. It’s also worth pointing out that memetics is a completely separate thing from biological evolution, one which attempts to export the basic principle of natural selection into a different realm altogether. The idea that religion is a meme is not in the least bit incompatible with the idea that religion is being propped up by education; indeed, the two sit together quite nicely if you believe, like atheists, that religions are not all that strong a set of memes nowadays, but they are being reliably propagated because they are, for some reason, artificially propped up.

Dawkins’s “memetic theory of religion” is a classic example of the nonsense that is spawned when Darwinian thinking is applied outside its proper sphere. Along with Dennett, who also holds to a version of the theory, Dawkins maintains that religious ideas survive because they would be able to survive in any “meme pool”, or else because they are part of a “memeplex” that includes similar memes, such as the idea that, if you die as a martyr, you will enjoy 72 virgins. Unfortunately, the theory of memes is science only in the sense that Intelligent Design is science. Strictly speaking, it is not even a theory. Talk of memes is just the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors.

Fair enough. This is the real point Gray was trying to make in the above paragraph: he doesn’t like memes. And why should he? They are not a widely held theory, indeed, nobody claims memtics is a theory, really; simply an approach, an analogy which may or may not shed some light.

Dawkins compares religion to a virus: religious ideas are memes that infect vulnerable minds, especially those of children. Biological metaphors may have their uses – the minds of evangelical atheists seem particularly prone to infection by religious memes, for example. At the same time, analogies of this kind are fraught with peril. Dawkins makes much of the oppression perpetrated by religion, which is real enough. He gives less attention to the fact that some of the worst atrocities of modern times were committed by regimes that claimed scientific sanction for their crimes. Nazi “scientific racism” and Soviet “dialectical materialism” reduced the unfathomable complexity of human lives to the deadly simplicity of a scientific formula. In each case, the science was bogus, but it was accepted as genuine at the time, and not only in the regimes in question. Science is as liable to be used for inhumane purposes as any other human institution. Indeed, given the enormous authority science enjoys, the risk of it being used in this way is greater.

Christopher Hitchens responds to exactly these points in “God Is Not Great“, Chapter 17: “An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch ‘Case’ Against Secularism”. He needs no help from me in doing so. I will simply remark that it is a shame Gray doesn’t even acknowledge that this point is dealt with by Hitchens (for whom history is a rather stronger suit than with Dawkins or Harris), instead choosing to belabour the point with salvos against Harris and Dawkins, as follows.

Contemporary opponents of religion display a marked lack of interest in the historical record of atheist regimes. In The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason, the American writer Sam Harris argues that religion has been the chief source of violence and oppression in history. He recognises that secular despots such as Stalin and Mao inflicted terror on a grand scale, but maintains the oppression they practised had nothing to do with their ideology of “scientific atheism” – what was wrong with their regimes was that they were tyrannies. But might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom? It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan “Religion is poison”, would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies. It is true he was worshipped as a semi-divine figure – as Stalin was in the Soviet Union. But in developing these cults, communist Russia and China were not backsliding from atheism. They were demonstrating what happens when atheism becomes a political project. The invariable result is an ersatz religion that can only be maintained by tyrannical means.

A point that could almost be plagiarised from Hitchens, but dressed up as if it’s an argument for religion, rather than (as Hitch sees it) an argument that religion is simply following unquestioningly any figure who sets themselves up as your messiah, whether or not they march under the banner of atheism.

Something like this occurred in Nazi Germany. Dawkins dismisses any suggestion that the crimes of the Nazis could be linked with atheism. “What matters,” he declares in The God Delusion, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does.” This is simple-minded reasoning. Always a tremendous booster of science, Hitler was much impressed by vulgarised Darwinism and by theories of eugenics that had developed from Enlightenment philosophies of materialism. He used Christian antisemitic demonology in his persecution of Jews, and the churches collaborated with him to a horrifying degree. But it was the Nazi belief in race as a scientific category that opened the way to a crime without parallel in history. Hitler’s world-view was that of many semi-literate people in interwar Europe, a hotchpotch of counterfeit science and animus towards religion. There can be no reasonable doubt that this was a type of atheism, or that it helped make Nazi crimes possible.

I think Dawkins’s point was that Hitler is an example of a person who did bad things, but that his basic motivation was racist. He would have shored up his argument with any supporting arguments he could find, and drawn support wherever it came from – after all, it is at the very least debatable that the Vatican reached an “accommodation” with Nazism quite early.

Nowadays most atheists are avowed liberals. What they want – so they will tell you – is not an atheist regime, but a secular state in which religion has no role. They clearly believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline. But America’s secular constitution has not ensured a secular politics. Christian fundamentalism is more powerful in the US than in any other country, while it has very little influence in Britain, which has an established church. Contemporary critics of religion go much further than demanding disestablishment. It is clear that he wants to eliminate all traces of religion from public institutions. Awkwardly, many of the concepts he deploys – including the idea of religion itself – have been shaped by monotheism. Lying behind secular fundamentalism is a conception of history that derives from religion.

They believe that, in a state of this kind, religion will tend to decline because they will have the freedom to make rational arguments against it. Setting about them for therefore taking up their responsibility to do so is ridiculous.

A monotheism-heavy view of religion is excusable, I would say, in a world where the majority of people adhere to a monotheistic religion.

And frankly, in a world where the archbishop of Canterbury has a special status accorded him by the state, from which he is allowed not simply to preach Christianity, but to argue for special treatment for all religions, it is quite understandable that the anti-religion people should seek disestablishment even in a fairly secular country.

AC Grayling provides an example of the persistence of religious categories in secular thinking in his Towards the Light: The Story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. As the title indicates, Grayling’s book is a type of sermon. Its aim is to reaffirm what he calls “a Whig view of the history of the modern west”, the core of which is that “the west displays progress”. The Whigs were pious Christians, who believed divine providence arranged history to culminate in English institutions, and Grayling too believes history is “moving in the right direction”. No doubt there have been setbacks – he mentions nazism and communism in passing, devoting a few sentences to them. But these disasters were peripheral. They do not reflect on the central tradition of the modern west, which has always been devoted to liberty, and which – Grayling asserts – is inherently antagonistic to religion. “The history of liberty,” he writes, “is another chapter – and perhaps the most important of all – in the great quarrel between religion and secularism.” The possibility that radical versions of secular thinking may have contributed to the development of nazism and communism is not mentioned. More even than the 18th-century Whigs, who were shaken by French Terror, Grayling has no doubt as to the direction of history.

A cheap point about Whigs being religious. The word has had several meanings encompassing all sorts of sides of various arguments.

But the belief that history is a directional process is as faith-based as anything in the Christian catechism. Secular thinkers such as Grayling reject the idea of providence, but they continue to think humankind is moving towards a universal goal – a civilisation based on science that will eventually encompass the entire species. In pre-Christian Europe, human life was understood as a series of cycles; history was seen as tragic or comic rather than redemptive. With the arrival of Christianity, it came to be believed that history had a predetermined goal, which was human salvation. Though they suppress their religious content, secular humanists continue to cling to similar beliefs. One does not want to deny anyone the consolations of a faith, but it is obvious that the idea of progress in history is a myth created by the need for meaning.

The belief in “goals” is not the same thing as belief in an “ultimate goal” which is the purpose of history. Nor it the idea that history has a “goal” the same thing as the idea that it has a direction of travel. Liberalism is about the direction of travel as much as the goal.

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world’s pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

Gray is quite correct that in many versions of secular narrative, progress is not inevitable. It certainly isn’t in the view of most of the authors who Gray pretends to be fighting with – why would they so tirelessly be taking up this fight, if it was, in the grand scheme of things, inevitably won anyway?

Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it. This is what Nietzsche did when he developed his critique of Christianity in the late 19th century, but almost none of today’s secular missionaries have followed his example. One need not be a great fan of Nietzsche to wonder why this is so. The reason, no doubt, is that he did not assume any connection between atheism and liberal values – on the contrary, he viewed liberal values as an offspring of Christianity and condemned them partly for that reason. In contrast, evangelical atheists have positioned themselves as defenders of liberal freedoms – rarely inquiring where these freedoms have come from, and never allowing that religion may have had a part in creating them.

It doesn’t matter that religion had a part in creating some of them, if religion is now seeking to curtain others, such as our freedoms to speak out against religion. And it is one of the most recurrent themes amongst opponents of the new Atheists that they are not more like Nietzsche. Nietzsche was nice, they knew how to deal with Nietzsche.

Among contemporary anti-religious polemicists, only the French writer Michel Onfray has taken Nietzsche as his point of departure. In some ways, Onfray’s In Defence of Atheism is superior to anything English-speaking writers have published on the subject. Refreshingly, Onfray recognises that evangelical atheism is an unwitting imitation of traditional religion: “Many militants of the secular cause look astonishingly like clergy. Worse: like caricatures of clergy.” More clearly than his Anglo-Saxon counterparts, Onfray understands the formative influence of religion on secular thinking. Yet he seems not to notice that the liberal values he takes for granted were partly shaped by Christianity and Judaism. The key liberal theorists of toleration are John Locke, who defended religious freedom in explicitly Christian terms, and Benedict Spinoza, a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic. Yet Onfray has nothing but contempt for the traditions from which these thinkers emerged – particularly Jewish monotheism: “We do not possess an official certificate of birth for worship of one God,” he writes. “But the family line is clear: the Jews invented it to endure the coherence, cohesion and existence of their small, threatened people.” Here Onfray passes over an important distinction. It may be true that Jews first developed monotheism, but Judaism has never been a missionary faith. In seeking universal conversion, evangelical atheism belongs with Christianity and Islam.

A bit of picking and choosing the philosophers, here. Suddenly, it becomes clear why Onfray was the only name we didn’t recognise back up at the top: He is more like what Gray wants, so he gets a leg-up even though we’ve not heard of him. So, too, liberalism is to be defined as it suits Gray, as the product of the work of Locke and Spinoza (whose pantheism isn’t mentioned), but not the work of any of the other people generally thought of as founders of liberalism: certainly not Hume, or Mill. And anyway, it doesn’t matter if some of the people who came up with liberalism were theists, it only matters that liberalism has no real connection to the debate between atheists and theists. Where it becomes relevant, as Gray sees it, is in that many of the new Atheists profess to liberalism because they think that under it, religion will die away. I argue that this is because they believe they are right and that with freedom of speech they should be able to win the argument.

As for atheism being a missionary faith because it seeks conversion, well, yes. If all “missionary faiths” are defined by is the characteristic that they want to persuade other people they are right, then so too are all political parties “missionary faiths”. The point, contrary to Gray’s suggestion here, is not that atheism seeks conversion, but that it seeks to bring people back down to the default state of belief (ie. none), as it were. Faiths require the building of a complex set of propositions which are held true in the mind of the believer (I have a soul, it will live after my body dies, there is a God, what happens to my soul after I die depends on what God thinks of me, etc…). Atheism requires none of this. It simply tries to persuade people that one or more of these tenets that they have accepted as part of their religion is false. It doesn’t seek to put anything in their place, least of all a morality or a system of government (atheism is not liberalism, as I hope we all agree).

In today’s anxiety about religion, it has been forgotten that most of the faith-based violence of the past century was secular in nature. To some extent, this is also true of the current wave of terrorism. Islamism is a patchwork of movements, not all violently jihadist and some strongly opposed to al-Qaida, most of them partly fundamentalist and aiming to recover the lost purity of Islamic traditions, while at the same time taking some of their guiding ideas from radical secular ideology. There is a deal of fashionable talk of Islamo-fascism, and Islamist parties have some features in common with interwar fascist movements, including antisemitism. But Islamists owe as much, if not more, to the far left, and it would be more accurate to describe many of them as Islamo-Leninists. Islamist techniques of terror also have a pedigree in secular revolutionary movements. The executions of hostages in Iraq are copied in exact theatrical detail from European “revolutionary tribunals” in the 1970s, such as that staged by the Red Brigades when they murdered the former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.

Interesting. OK.

The influence of secular revolutionary movements on terrorism extends well beyond Islamists. In God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens notes that, long before Hizbullah and al-Qaida, the Tamil Tigers of Sri Lanka pioneered what he rightly calls “the disgusting tactic of suicide murder”. He omits to mention that the Tigers are Marxist-Leninists who, while recruiting mainly from the island’s Hindu population, reject religion in all its varieties. Tiger suicide bombers do not go to certain death in the belief that they will be rewarded in any postmortem paradise. Nor did the suicide bombers who drove American and French forces out of Lebanon in the 80s, most of whom belonged to organisations of the left such as the Lebanese communist party. These secular terrorists believed they were expediting a historical process from which will come a world better than any that has ever existed. It is a view of things more remote from human realities, and more reliably lethal in its consequences, than most religious myths.

Is Gray saying that suicide bombing in general is nothing to do with theism? Because that’s going to be a hard sell. Anyway, Hitchens does indeed omit to spell out that the Tamil Tigers are atheistic, but that doesn’t matter. What drove them to blow themselves and others up was not atheism, but ethnic strife. If you want to see what Hitchens said on the subject, it’s in chapter 14, page 199 of the hardback.

It is not necessary to believe in any narrative of progress to think liberal societies are worth resolutely defending. No one can doubt that they are superior to the tyranny imposed by the Taliban on Afghanistan, for example. The issue is one of proportion. Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century. A greater menace is posed by North Korea, which far surpasses any Islamist regime in its record of repression and clearly does possess some kind of nuclear capability. Evangelical atheists rarely mention it. Hitchens is an exception, but when he describes his visit to the country, it is only to conclude that the regime embodies “a debased yet refined form of Confucianism and ancestor worship”. As in Russia and China, the noble humanist philosophy of Marxist-Leninism is innocent of any responsibility.

1. “It isn’t necessary to believe… etc.” Oh, so what was much of the last few paragraphs about, then, John?
2. North Korea isn’t a threat. No North Korean terrorists threaten us, their nuclear capability, such as it is, is a deterrent just like ours is – we all know that nobody wants to ever use nukes, for the simple reason that it will likely mean their death too. I’m sure I don’t need to go over this.
3. Once again, the point is not whether the regime of North Korea is religious, but whether its motivation is specifically atheistic.

Writing of the Trotskyite-Luxemburgist sect to which he once belonged, Hitchens confesses sadly: “There are days when I miss my old convictions as if they were an amputated limb.” He need not worry. His record on Iraq shows he has not lost the will to believe. The effect of the American-led invasion has been to deliver most of the country outside the Kurdish zone into the hands of an Islamist elective theocracy, in which women, gays and religious minorities are more oppressed than at any time in Iraq’s history. The idea that Iraq could become a secular democracy – which Hitchens ardently promoted – was possible only as an act of faith.

I am not about to defend Hitchens on Iraq. It’s a cheap shot, but Gray can have that one.

In The Second Plane, Martin Amis writes: “Opposition to religion already occupies the high ground, intellectually and morally.” Amis is sure religion is a bad thing, and that it has no future in the west. In the author of Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million – a forensic examination of self-delusion in the pro-Soviet western intelligentsia – such confidence is surprising. The intellectuals whose folly Amis dissects turned to communism in some sense as a surrogate for religion, and ended up making excuses for Stalin. Are there really no comparable follies today? Some neocons – such as Tony Blair, who will soon be teaching religion and politics at Yale – combine their belligerent progressivism with religious belief, though of a kind Augustine and Pascal might find hard to recognise. Most are secular utopians, who justify pre-emptive war and excuse torture as leading to a radiant future in which democracy will be adopted universally. Even on the high ground of the west, messianic politics has not lost its dangerous appeal.

I think we’ve already covered this. “Messianism”, as Gray puts it, is essentially a form of religion – it is a surrender to unreason, and therefore exactly what Dawkins and Hitchens and the rest rail against.

Religion has not gone away. Repressing it is like repressing sex, a self-defeating enterprise. In the 20th century, when it commanded powerful states and mass movements, it helped engender totalitarianism. Today, the result is a climate of hysteria. Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.

1. No comments in the above paragraph on the validity or otherwise of religious belied, only pessimism about arguing against it.
2. I would severely object to the idea that the Earth is here to “serve humans”, and I think it is probably simply untrue to say this is a view held by “most secular humanists”.
3. More “these people self-defined as being on your side, so you must be wrong because they were”. Dawkins, Hitchens et al. do not seek to curtail freedom in these ways, so in an essay rebutting them, why bring this up?

The attempt to eradicate religion, however, only leads to it reappearing in grotesque and degraded forms. A credulous belief in world revolution, universal democracy or the occult powers of mobile phones is more offensive to reason than the mysteries of religion, and less likely to survive in years to come. Victorian poet Matthew Arnold wrote of believers being left bereft as the tide of faith ebbs away. Today secular faith is ebbing, and it is the apostles of unbelief who are left stranded on the beach.

And thus we conclude with a charicature of an argument that none of Dawkins, Hitchens or Grayling have made, nor any of the others quoted, I shouldn’t wonder.

Throughout the article, he tries to suggest people’s error, not by engaging with the substance of their arguments, but by lumping them in with other people and then declaring that grouping to be wrong. He thinks that the liberalism of people like Dawkins is undermined because other liberals were religious. How so? Were the ideas they imparted fundamentally religious? Or is it simply that they arrived at them in part because of their religion? If the latter, how does that matter? If Mill had arrived at his general principle of “You may do as you wish, as long as it harms nobody else” through frustration with the religious people around him, what of it? Does that make it a fundamentally atheist idea? Does it bollocks.

This is a shoddy piece of argument which Gray should be ashamed of. Sadly, though, it is all too typical of the apologetics which has served as rebuttal of the “new atheists”. It doesn’t deal with their fundamental point: that religious belief is irrational and often opens the door to all sorts of other unpleasant irrationalities. It simply nit-picks, often pretty ineffectually, and slings counter examples which aren’t counter examples.

I don’t know how Dawkins finds the energy.

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Clegg’s Speech: My Reaction

So, now that I have shaped my thoughts by reorganising the speech itself, what do I make of it?

Well, the delivery (which you can see here) was interesting. It showed great promise, but I suspect that the audience didn’t get as fired up as it might have done owing to what sounds to me like a rather acoustically cavernous hall
(picture here: ). Occasionally Nick seemed to expect the audience to applaud when they didn’t, and conversely, sometimes they applauded when he didn’t expect it. His improvised “Hang on, it’s my speech” in response to some unintended audience participation was funny by itself, but had the effect of divorcing the “No.” from the rhetorical question it answered. He could have solved this by simply repeating the question. All in all, a good start, but I expect that, like Ming, his speech-making will improve with time.

Style is all very well, but what about substance? Well, here, I will break into lists, since they are as fast a way as any of saying what you liked and what you didn’t.

Things I Liked

-Obliquely mentioning the Europe debacle early in the speech, and going on to say quite firmly “You can expect more of this approach from me” about the walkout, whilst maintaining a contrite silence on the Three-Line Whip, but going on to describe himself as “a passionate promoter of the European Union and Britain’s place at its heart.”

-The featuring political reform prominently. Those of us who always felt we should never stop making noise about PR have plenty to be happy about here.

-Recall elections.

-The “vested interest” analysis of politics, from his characterisation of Labour as trade unions and Tories as big business when he joined the party, to the later reasoning on why they other parties will never truly change the system now. It is a much neglected way of thinking, in my view – probably because we, as liberals, like to think that we hold our ground for rationally argued reasons and not because they are in our interests; not everyone is like that.

-Contrasting Vince with George Osborne.

-The life-expectancy tube journey.

-The importance of mental health.

-The marvellously liberal section on giving people second chances and caring for people as we punish them. I hope some awful Tory somewhere had a seizure at this point.

– The urgency of climate change.

– A trenchant line on foreign policy.

– Anti-cynicism.

Things I Wholly Disagree With

-Err…. not a lot. Oh:

-His comment that “When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, buying a wormery or going organic seems like a luxury for someone else.” I have no problems with wormeries, I should make clear. But I do have a problem with the suggestion that the organic movement and the wider environmental movement are necessarily bedfellows of any description. Climate change is not going to be helped at all by inefficient farming practices motivated by an ignorant fear of “chemicals” (as if everything weren’t a “chemical” of some description). And yes, I know, pesticides, water table, blah blah. But this is about priorities. All concerns about the biosphere more generally are secondary to combating climate change, and we should be happy to say so. Sounding like some dopey middle class eejit seeking to bring the wonders of organic sun dried tomatoes and wormeries to the great unhosed isn’t going to help at all.

Niggles – Could Be Improved

-The section about maybe possibly lowering the overall tax take if we don’t need the money for our plans at the next election. Anyone paying attention will have realised that this was nothing but mood music to attract disaffected Tories, containing as it did no actual policy commitments, and as such could probably have been shorter. As it was, it sounded as if he was trying to make it sound like more than it was.

So all in all, rather more to like than not, but then, I am in his party for a reason, and after all, isn’t that what conference is there to persuade us?

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Clegg’s Speech: Key Message for the Lib Dem Bloggers

I’m just watching Nick Clegg’s leadership speech on the BBC website. Generally good stuff, and I’ll post a more extensive discussion once I’ve finished listening. But one section really jumped out at me, and made me want to draw attention to it right now:

If it means walking out of parliament when the big parties collude against us, I say “fine”. If it means boycotting banquets that celebrate our relationship with dodgy regimes like Vince Cable did, or speaking up to expose corruption like Chris Davies did, I say “quite right”. And if it means risking court refusing to sign up for an identity card, I say “so be it”. And you can expect more, much more of that from me.

Of course it’s a high risk strategy. But I warn you, we can only make it work if we are united, and if we are disciplined. United and disciplined in the face of attacks from the establishment parties and the establishment media.

This is as relevant to the Lib Dem blogosphere, in my view, as it is to anyone else. Of course nobody should gag themselves when they feel they have a point to make about the party. But it is imperative to the success of the Lib Dems that we start to think more like a party and less like a congregation of trenchant view-holders. We need to collectively turn outwards and be united in our scorn for the other parties.

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Message for Ed Davey

Ed, by now, the UN Secretary General has managed to comment very sensibly on the fairly appalling actions of Israel in recent days. Why have we said nothing on this? In 2006, when the Lebanon business flared up, Ming took a very sensible and proactive stance in calling for Israel to call off its grossly disproportionate and aggressive campaign. Surely this is an equally obvious situation in which we can be pretty clear in opposing the cosy consensus view of Labour and the Tories, which broadly supports the (typically fatuous) US-Israeli line that goes something like the following quote.

The Observer:

Last night, the US called for an end to the violence and said it regretted the loss of life in the Gaza Strip. ‘There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self defence,’ White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Actually, when you have responded to 1 death and 5 injuries at the hands of terrorist rockets from Gaza with bombs that have killed over 100, and many innocent children and other civilians amongst them, as well as denying medical care to many innocent Palestinians, I don’t see the distinction Mr. Johndroe is trying to make. Only an amazingly militaristic, aggressive and paranoid mind could call this “self defence”. This becomes obvious when you listen to the statements of some within the ruling Kadima party who are presumably driving this, for instance:

Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit: “The heads of Hamas must pay the price. Hamas doesn’t understand any other language; the problem is we are talking to them in English instead of in Arabic. They only understand [the language of force]. The situation at present doesn’t make sense; every other country faced with rockets on its citizens would go in and destroy the area. We should warn the [Arabs in Gaza] in advance, give them a day’s notice, and then wipe out a neighborhood. We should also hit their leaders, regardless of who or what they are.”

Opposing this kind of thinking looks like a no brainer to me, especially in light of Israel’s bomb attack on the office of the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Whatever we may think of this man, his party was democratically elected by the people of Gaza, and it is not Israel’s place to remove him by force. Isn’t the word “Democrat” in our name?

When Ming was leader, we all welcomed calls for him to be “the pinstripe radical”, for our party to “rattle the cage of British politics”. It seems perfectly in line with that aspiration to me to speak up about this issue. And yet I see no comment from you (or anyone else) about this at all on the party website. I know you are busy with the Lisbon treaty stuff right now, as you told some of my fellow bloggers the other day. But this shouldn’t be a difficult issue. I, and I’m sure many others would appreciate it if you could make a bit of noise about this. After all, the Lisbon treaty circus is all very well, but it’s not likely to actually sway many voters. This might.

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"Ministers Plan Clampdown" – What A Good Idea

Today’s Guardian front page story (and doesn’t it look pretty now?!) tells us that

A legally enforceable cinema-style classification system is to be introduced for video games in an effort to keep children from playing damaging games unsuitable for their age, the Guardian has learned. Under the proposals, it would be illegal for shops to sell classified games to a child below the recommended age.

At present only games showing sex or “gross” violence to humans or animals require age limits. That leaves up to 90% of games on the market , many of which portray weapons, martial arts and extreme combat, free from statutory labelling.

Now, whilst it is true that the requirement for age ratings to be followed only applies currently to those games referred to the BBFC, there has for a while been a system of indsutry-wide voluntary ratings, first under ELSPA and then PEGI. The problem, as ever, is not so much with the industry, which did everything you could reasonably expect it to without being particularly firmly regulated. The problem comes in the shops selling the games and the people buying them. Whilst most shops, certainly chains, had some kind of policy not to sell games to people under these ages, on the whole it wasn’t exactly ruthlessly applied.

So to be honest, despite it probably being in some sense illiberal, I am all for this. For one thing, if we can’t trust parents to exercise their own control over children in the field of video sales (which are all covered by the BBFC), then why should we for video games. If anything, there is more of a case for intervention here, since most parents don’t play games, and certainly aren’t likely to play a game through before giving it to their children like they might a film.

Another reason I would be wholeheartedly in favour of this is that it just might drag the games industry into a more mature place. There will always be violence in all artistic depictions of events, as the film industry of today shows. But by making itself one of the major avenues for boys (and, to a much lesser extent, girls) to get their hands on the kind of material they wouldn’t be able to get near (hopefully) in any other medium, the games industry has given itself an image problem. From the outside, it is seen as churning out games full of rather adolescent crap for the sake of it (and not without reason – it does produce a disproportionate amount of this kind of output).

From the inside, many games consumers have got themselves into such a skewed mindset that anything not full of guns and violence is seen as in some way childish and immature. Frankly, companies like Nintendo, which produce an output with some kind of balance of subject matter, deserve to be lauded for their maturity, but they receive precious little of this, and when they do, it often comes from parents, giving them an even worse image.

Gaming still has a problem being taken seriously as an artform in the sense that television and film are. To some extent, this will be the case until the generation which grew up with games supplants its forbears, and the average Mail or Telegraph reader has personal experience of playing games and knows it didn’t turn them into either a gun wielding vigilante or an acrobatic plumber, according to taste. But until such time, a step in the right direction might be brought about by this move. My logic for saying so runs something like this:

A large section of the audience for the kind of adolescent drivel which is released is probably underage. If they cannot buy it (and of course, this will not be absolutely the case, parents will still buy things they shouldn’t, just as irresponsible parents will buy their children DVDs they shouldn’t have), this market will be significantly diminished, rewarding those games companies which have staked their business model on expanding the idea of who their typical customer is (like Nintendo), and punish those who have relentlessly pursued a pretty cynical agenda of pandering (like Sony and EA).

On the other hand, this might see an increase in (ugh) sports games.

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Political Balance

Reaction to my bit of number crunching earlier today has been interesting. Benedict G commented that “From that graph it looks like we’re overrepresented on Question Time.”

A valid viewpoint, I can see where it comes from. But it also doesn’t ring true to me (surprise surprise!). Here’s why.

Any conception of a “balance” in guest booking must be based in some conception of what that balance looks like. How does one go about doing this? One idea might be that the guests over the course of a series should reflect the balance of public opinion. It looks as if that’s what the producers have indeed been doing. At the 2005 election, the polling went 37/33/22/8. When you multiply that proportion by turnout (61.3%), that means that of the total electorate, the proportions who put their vote to the use of a particular party were 23/20/14/5. Question Time, meanwhile, has, since 2005, booked guests such that its proportions go 21/21/15/5.

So no, I don’t think we’re over or under represented, if you accept that this is what balance means. Certainly no more than the Tories are. And arguments addressing the idea that the proportion should follow our seats in parliament is ludicrous, since it accepts a fundamental tenet of FPTP which we, as Lib Dems, do not accept.

The problem comes in the presence of the wildcards who make up the other guests on each panel. Because so many of them are columnists, or journalists, from the national press, we end up with an awful lot of people expressing opinions which march in much closer step with the Conservatives than the guests who might be more sympathetic to Labour or Lib Dems do with their respective parties.

So here are my suggestions, if we’re accepting that model:

No more programmes where you have effectively two tories or two labourites. That seems silly no matter what arguments about balance one puts. And it wouldn’t affect the balance much anyway.

Greatly reduced presence of Littlejohn.

That is all.

But I’m not convinced that that is the model of balance that we should be accepting.

There is such a thing as a “main party”, at least, that seems to be what the BBC believes – they use the phrase often enough. Surely, then, it is the role of the BBC, in its public service remit (and I feel certain that they claim Question Time as part of their public service time), to provide equal platforms to the “main parties”. They seem to broadly agree with this, they have more or less a guaranteed place on the programmes for a Tory and a Labour person each week – even though simply the idea of “balance” doesn’t require that this be the case (you could have weeks where nobody from the government was present, for instance, and more weeks when there were two; at least then the sense that the other two parties are in some way “entitled” to these places, but we aren’t, would be removed).

The BBC simply doesn’t accept that the Lib Dems are a main party. If it did, I feel sure it would be allowing us on each programme.

GMTV Sunday

What the hell is the point of a programme that goes out at 6.10am on a Sunday? Who exactly can watch this? And why is there no facility to watch it again on the internet (certainly not one I can find after 5 minutes of Googling)?

I really don’t see why politicians would want to go on it. Almost nobody sees the interviews, the only things which ever make the news are the bits the press decides are newsworthy. And since nobody (to a first approximation) really saw the original interview, they are free to take it as out of context as they want.

This must be the most influential programme for insomniacs ever made.

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You know you’re in trouble when…

…you first read something that you could genuinely describe yourself as “disgusted” at. Not just your common or garden intellectual disapproval, but a genuine visceral reaction.

Well folks, today I hit that point, thanks to this story, tucked away on EducationGuardian:

Students will be “blackmailed” into holding identity cards in order to apply for student loans, the Tories have warned.

According to Home Office documents leaked to the Conservative party last night, those applying for student loans will be forced to hold identity cards to get the funding from 2010.

Anyone aged 16 or over will be expected to obtain a card – costing up to £100 – to open a bank account or apply for a student loan.

The document says: “We should issue ID cards to young people to assist them as they open their first bank account, take out a student loan, etc.”

What is it about ID cards that gives Labour such a blind spot on this? They talk about a “voluntary phase”, and no compulsion without further legislation, and then they immediately start cooking up schemes like this, which to my mind can only be described as fucking despicable. As NO2ID state:

This is less a phased introduction than a clandestine one. There is to be no choice.

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Here, Mr. Dale!

Iain Dale’s obsession with the Lib Dems continues today with an attempt to make Clegg look out of step with the party on the EU reform treaty (as long as for “party” you read “four bloggers”). He asks: “are there any LibDem bloggers at all who support their new leader’s calamitous stand?” Well, on the condition that I don’t accept the stance as calamitous at all (awkward, maybe), I would like to step forward.

Paul Walter has already put forward the best worded technical argument on this that I have heard (including from Ed Davey), and I don’t intend to retread that particular strand of the case against a referendum. If you haven’t read Paul’s post, read it, and then add the rest of my post to it, to achieve a full appreciation of my point of view.

My main reason for disliking the idea of a referendum is that it just seems like a really stupid way to work our membership of the EU. When these documents get put together, years are spent by our (constitutionally) elected representatives hammering out the clauses they want and those they don’t. There are now 27 countries in the EU, and they all have their own positions. It’s a long and drawn out process. Nonetheless, if we believe there is merit in membership of the EU at all, then it is a worthwhile one, and any treaty that makes the EU work better is worth negotiating.

Once all this stuff is put together, right at the end of the process of wrangling that has formed this constitution, its final step before being passed into law is for each country to ratify it. And this is the stage when it is appropriate for the British people (or the people of any other country, for that matter) to have their say?

Think of it this way. You commission an architect to design a building for you, on the basis of your brief for what it must do. They then go away, and get the building’s design accepted by your neighbours, which involves the odd compromise on one or two points. They have to change one or two building materials to comply with environmental regulation (quite right too!). They draw up a design. At the end of it all, they stand back and say “There you are, it may not be exactly what you wanted, but we did our best. You can now either accept the job we’ve done, or tear it up.”

What would be on offer to the public in a referendum on this treaty would not be a meaningful say on the treaty, it would be petulance. If we want to be in the EU, we have to accept that treaties must be negotiated, and must inherantly be compromises. If we don’t like what they come out with, we should not derail the process for the rest of the nations who are quite happy with the way it is going. There is no point in sending them back to the drawing board, we are unlikely to get anything better back if we do. If we don’t like it, we should leave the EU.

And that is why the referendum the Lib Dems are proposing is the only sensible one to be offered. Referenda are always blunt instruments, and the idea that a referendum is the appropriate instrument with which the British public should express a view on something like the contents of the EU reform treaty is barking. Not when we have already had, for some time now, a much more sensible instrument with which to do so: a representative democracy. Nobody could argue that a party’s position towards the EU was not a big issue in the minds of many when they elected the parties that they did.

(You might, of course, take issue with the way our representative democracy is organised. For instance, you might point out that the Tory party is not as outright anti-Europe as many of its MPs and supporters might like, and that as such, your only option for expressing an explicitly anti-EU stance is to vote for a party like UKIP with little chance of success. I know. Frustrating, isn’t it? Why not vote for a party with a committment to change that, then.)

So lets not waylay the EU’s progress any more. If the great British public are so set against the EU reform treaty, despite the government’s having done their best to negotiate it in our interest (it is not in their interest to do otherwise, surely?), then lets take the opportunity to leave them all to it. But lets not insist on remaining in the EU, sending them back to the drawing board with every attempt they make to reform the EU. And if we entertain the notion that actually, given an in or out vote, the majority would vote to stay in the EU, then can we also accept that membership of the EU entails a committment to compromise and due process, and that referenda are wholly inappropriate to that process?

When we passed Maastricht, there was a case for a referendum. When we entered the EC, there certainly was. And there is a case now for a referendum. And it is the one the Lib Dems are offering. But I just don’t see that it is in any way helpful to have a referendum on the reform treaty. Once we accept that we want to be members of something called “the European Union”, and that we do not want to be the only members of it, then we no longer have the right to expect it to be everything we might want. It belongs to other people as well. If, on balance, we don’t like it, we should get out of it.

And that is why what Nick Clegg has done is eminently sensible.

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Clegg’s New Year Message

I just got in from work to read the email version of Nick Clegg’s New Year Message. He has also recorded it as a YouTube video:

Personally, I was genuinely enthused by it, and it’s not often I can say that about a Lib Dem email shot. I think this message contains the beginnings of a really strong narrative for Clegg to hang our policies off: what he terms “social mobility”.

I believe no-one should be condemned by the circumstances of their birth. And I am certain that is what the British people believe, too. We are a nation with a strong sense of fair play, and natural justice.

The challenge for our party is to persuade those people that their home is with the Liberal Democrats. We will do it by putting social mobility – a fair deal for every family – at the heart of our message.

Sprouting from this sturdy trunk are four key issues which he clearly intends to try and make some running on in the new year. Two of them are not surprising, they are major planks of existing policy and are familiar territory for us, although weaving them into his “social mobility/families” may be interesting to watch. They are:

1. Opposition to ID cards.
2. The Pupil Premium / Levelling the playing field for poor families in general.

One of them is clearly a piece of David Cameron’s political territory which Nick wants for himself:

3. Quality of Life / Work-Life Balance

I see no reason why he shouldn’t take it relatively easily, since the Tory quality of life policy review’s suggestions were so roundly ignored.

The last one, and the most specifically trumpeted here, is an interesting one:

4. “We will campaign for sensible restrictions on advertising aimed at toddlers.”

Now, as a regular reader of Adbusters, I need little persuading that campaigning to take back some of our more cherished public spaces from advertisers is a good thing, so I don’t have too much concern about this as a bit of policy, but I think it is interesting as a sign of Clegg’s thinking, since it is so specific an issue and so early in Clegg’s leadership. I don’t know what to make of it, really. I hope it will go down well, though. Advertising is quite a big issue for the anticorporate left, and for young people in general, and it’s a sufficiently unusual political issue that it might just capture the attention of people who don’t usually pay much heed to the usual spats on tax, education, health, foreign policy and so on. If the campaign on this can find something genuinely interesting to say, we may well win some new following. Which can’t be bad.

I will finish on a prediction: Like last time there was a kerfuffle over kids TV advertising, the commercial broadcasters will likely predict the end of kids’ TV in the commercial sector. I didn’t believe them then, and I wouldn’t believe them now. Anyway, to be honest, it’s wouldn’t be a terrible thing for the BBC to end up producing the bulk of kids telly. They do it very well, and I think it’s more obviously justifiable as a public service than much of their programming. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how the commercial sector reports it. Will ITN’s reporting be notably chillier than the BBCs? Will either of them bother to report this at all?

Time will tell…


Shropshire MPs make me so proud. Not, this time, my own (Saudi-loving) MP Daniel Kawczynski, but Mark Pritchard, MP for neighbouring constituency The Wrekin. This week, he published a barking press release with attached debate in Westminster Hall. Apparently, Christianity is under threat in the UK. Now, I know every year, Fox News and the Daily Mail share a common cause in uncovering the “War on Christmas” in their respective countries, but it is a sad development for one of our legislators to take up this perennial bonanza of bollocks, and try to dress it up in more plausible terms.

Still, to turn to the kernel of substance in what he says, he argued that:

It is important for the Government and public agencies to recognise, acknowledge, and be reminded of the roots of Christianity in this nation

A recent survey in The Sunday Telegraph revealed that fewer and fewer schools are staging traditional Christmas nativity plays, supposedly through fear of offending people of other faiths and those with no faith.

The last bit is simply his assertion, and a straw man. The point is not offence, it is that, if schools perform nativity plays, particularly in areas where most of their pupils are not from Christian backgrounds, then there is a good argument that they also ought to go out of their way to celebrate equally important holidays of other religions. If they don’t want to do this, then why should they do it for Christians? And would atheists be allowed to invent their own “Holy Days” to celebrate, perhaps Hume’s birthday, or the anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species? To be inconsistent on this matter, in state schools, is to imply an endorsement of Christianity by the state.

But then, why would we be surprised to find that? We have plenty of explicit evidence for it already. For instance, the legal requirements for daily collective worship in schools (which is so obviously stupid that three quarters of schools flout the law in this regard). Just take a look at the “Religion and Education” section of the Wikipedia article “Religion in the United Kingdom“:

Religion is still heavily involved in education in the UK. 7,000 (30%) of the 24,000 state funded schools in the UK are faith schools. The vast majority, 6,955 (99%), are Christian. 6,400 (92%) of these are primary schools. These Christian state funded schools are mainly either of Church Of England or Roman Catholic denomination. There are also 36 Jewish, seven Muslim and two Sikh faith schools. Faith schools follow the same national curriculum as state schools with the added ethos of the host religion. In Scotland, the majority of schools are non-denominational, but by legislation separate Roman Catholic schools, with an element of control by the Roman Catholic Church, are provided by the state system. Northern Ireland has a highly segregated education system, with 95% of pupils attending either a maintained (Catholic) school or a controlled school (mostly Protestant). However, controlled schools are open to children of all faiths and none, mirroring the stance taken by many Church Of England schools.

Until 1944 there was no requirement for state schools in England and Wales to provide religious education or worship, although most did so. The Education Act 1944 introduced a requirement for a daily act of collective worship and for religious education but did not define what was allowable under these terms. The act contained provisions to allow parents to withdraw their children from these activities and for teachers to refuse to participate. The Education Reform Act 1988 introduced a further requirement that the majority of collective worship be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. In recent years schools have increasingly failed to comply with the collective worship rules – in 2004 David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools said that “at present more than three-quarters of schools fail to meet this requirement.” Religious studies is still an obligatory subject in the curriculum, but tends to aim at providing an understanding of the main faiths of the world than at instilling a strictly Christian viewpoint.

Given such a favourable climate toward not just religion generally but specifically Christianity in law (and remember, Christianity is the only religion specifically protected from blasphemy by law, as Mr. Boyce pointed out on Question Time tonight), how can any sidelining of Christianity be seen as anything other than a failure of Christians to make enough noise on behalf of their religion?

Personally, I think that the legislation this country has passed is far too deferential to religion. No special protection for religions or religious people should be required; free speech laws and the laws governing our interactions in general should be quite enough. No state money should be allowed to go toward any overtly religious event or institution, unless they are performing some public function (like adoption agencies). Faith schools should certainly not be state funded. I realise that’s a marginal view in this country – funnily enough, I suspect it would be considered less so in the USA, normally a country where we consider religion to be such a massive thing.

Separation of church and state is a big issue, and one that the UK really hasn’t done enough on. If eejits like Pritchard want to start a fight on this subject, fine. But they shouldn’t expect the largely secular public to come to the conclusion that, since public money goes to other religions, we need to bed Christianity down in our national life once more. The answer I think we are much more likely to reach, and the one which is the right answer, is that the state has no business associating itself with any particular faith. This is not “Christianophobia”, any more than a refusal to make special arrangements for school kids to go on the Hajj is Islamophobia. Nobody is being prevented from practicing their religion. Clear thinking progressives must be confident and proactive in rejecting calls, from all religions, not just Christianity, for special treatment by the state.

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The "I’m Back" Roundup of the last few weeks

Having now returned from uni for Christmas, I thought I probably ought to get posting again. There’s no great reason why I couldn’t blog whilst at uni, but the motivation was a long time coming during the leadership bickering going on for the last few weeks, so I didn’t.

Anyway, here are my thoughts for the last few weeks, condensed into a kind of roundup post:

* Free speech. The Oxford Union thing brought out for me the amazing number of people I had idle conversations with who have swallowed the complete doublethink that is the argument that there are “limits to free speech”, or that the right to free speech can be divorced from allowing people platforms (is the right to free speech effectively just the right to talk to yourself? No? Then people with universally despised views actually will need special provision of platforms, surely?). Also, a side note about the “Oxbridge Union is a prestigious platform” argument: That’s only so if you proclaim it to be so. Personally, as someone who attends a fair few debates at the Cambridge Union and sees the pitiful nature of many speeches, I accord very little respect to someone on the grounds of having spoken there. I imagine it is probably the same in Oxford.

* Leadership Election. Yes, I have voted. Yes, I voted for Nick. Yes, for the same reasons as I outlined at the start of the contest. Having said that, I was challenged constantly by Chris Huhne, who has run a very competitive campaign, not helped by the fact that Nick has seemed rather unimaginative in his, content to rest on his laurels as frontrunner. Ultimately, though, if we don’t elect Nick now, we will next time, whenever it comes, which would always leave Huhne feeling like a stopgap. We can’t do that. A third party must always look as if it’s boldly heading upwards.

* Vince. Well done, sir!

* This Week. Is it me, or does Michael Portillo squeeze ever further down to Diane Abbot’s end of the sofa each week. He now has a big gap to the other side of him. Budging up to make room for a Lib Dem, perhaps?!

* I was going to add something about the Christianophobia debate this week, but that went a bit long, so it will be a separate post.

And that’s all I can remember about the last few weeks. If anyone has been on the edge of their seats to know what I think about any other issues, then do let me know, and I will add updates!

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Hurrah for Nintendo (the Lib Dems of Video Games)

Today’s BBC tech page features the news that the Wii has brought Nintendo a doubling of its profits. Which makes me happy. Even better, the Wii has sold twice as many units as the over-priced glorified Blu-ray player that is the PS3.

“Ah-hah”, any of you inclined to defend Sony cry, “surely that’s because the PS3 hasn’t been out for as long, and Christmas ’06 will have put a lot on the Wii’s figures”. Well, that would be fine, if the PS3 was outselling the Wii now. Which it’s not. Here is a lovely graph.

OK, then, so why should I be all that bothered about this? Surely I am celebrating one company making a huge amount of money rather than another company making that money, neither of which makes much difference to me? Well, yes and no. I am, it has to be said, a shameless Nintendo zealot. I bought a Gamecube and not a PS2, a rather more questionable choice than the one most consumers are making today. Why?

Well, Nintendo are just a nicer company. Throughout their history, they have been willing to be innovative and take risks with their products. Sometimes they have produced what can only be described as duds with this strategy. And on those occasions, only people who wanted to support Nintendo as a company bought their products. But on other occasions, they produced things that revolutionised the industry, and were immediately stolen by the other companies. I’m sure I don’t need to point out the parallel to the Lib Dems here.

So for instance, Nintendo gave the world the analogue control stick, immediately nicked by Sony, whose horrid PS1 controller was soon replaced with the swanky Dual Shock, a PS1 controller with not one but two analogue sticks shoved on the bottom. The next generation, there wasn’t much in the way of innovation, but still Sony couldn’t produce a controller that was anything like as nice to hold as Nintendo’s. This generation, of course, Nintendo have gone so far out of the box that they can hardly see it any more, with the Wiimote. As soon as the operating concept for the Wii was announced, of course, Sony once again set about ham fistedly stitching it into their plans for the PS3, with the result being the less than exciting Sixaxis. Very little so far has been done with it, compared with even the limited output on the Wii.

“Policy theft” aside, another parallel we might point to is “non-sensationalism”; the nature of the games that Nintendo makes its flagships compared with the other companies. Where Sony and Microsoft are all about wars and the “broken society“, with the selling point being essentially populism and shrouding themselves in glamourous clothing, Nintendo sells its games based on a sound philosophical underpinning based on characterful and slightly more wholesome franchises and, most importantly, interesting and innovative gameplay. As a recent article in Edge argued,

It’s these two factors – innovation and kid-appeal – that have remained at the core of Nintendo’s philosophy … And, although that assumption that Nintendo is for children may raise howls of frustration from dedicated grown-up fans, it’s a crucial point … whatever their real age, there’s no doubt that Nintendo perceives its audience to be childlike. Whether five or 50, Nintendo thinks of its gamers as playful, curious, eager to be delighted, ready to laugh. It’s not how Rockstar, Epic or Bungie would ever describe their target audience.

Indeed it isn’t. Before I leave this point, let me just make clear that by “wholesome”, I don’t mean “family” or “kiddie” oriented, I simply mean a game that isn’t intended to appeal to the most brainless instincts in a person. I equally think that applies to innovative games with rather more gritty clothes like the new Metroid game, or, on another platform, Deus Ex. The point is not that games be brightly coloured platformers; rather, it is about what the structure and gameplay of the games says about its creators’ expectations of the audience. Equally, the Lib Dems aren’t necessarily the “nice party”, in the sense that they haven’t got the guts to take difficult decisions (they have, you will be surprised to hear!) so much as they are the party who aren’t as interested in appealing to people’s more unpleasant nature.

Next, Nintendo are a company whose numbers add up. Not for them the practice of selling their consoles at a thumping loss in the hope of making the cash back from software sales. It’s just as well; unlike Sony they don’t have a large, succesful parent company to bail them out. Why do Sony think people want to pay such a lot of money for their product? Well, because they reckon (and they’re probably right) that what they’re offering is good value for money. The trouble is that not everyone wants all the things they are selling as an indivisible package. I already have a DVD player, I don’t want a console to act as one for me. I certainly don’t want to buy into the Blu-Ray side of the format war until the whole thing has died down.

As good liberals, of course, we know that the answer to this is for non-essential stuff to be left as a choice of the buyer, leaving them the option of having the money in their pocket. Which is why the Wii was launched at £180 and each one makes Nintendo a profit, whereas the PS3 launched at £425, and still made a loss with each unit sold.

Lastly, I guess, we have the superficial points. To many people’s eyes, Nintendo have been an underdog, (even though they have never been in the business of making losses – the Edge article again:

In 1993, when a slump took profits down to a still very handsome 23 per cent of sales, The Economist was startled enough to run an editorial asking if it was the beginning of the end. For a modern perspective that seems ludicrous: it’s hard to imagine how ecstatic Sony or Microsoft, both currently shouldering multi-million dollar losses, would be to be pocketing 23 per cent of their incomes. Nor has Nintendo’s golden goose status diminished. Its latest annual financial results show a 77 per cent rise in profits – ¥74.3 billion (£310 million) from total revenue of ¥966.5 billion (£4 billion).

Similarly, the Lib Dems are seen as an underdog, despite a massive trend over the last 30 years of movement upwards in the polls and a dash for our political territory. Meanwhile, we have Sony (the Tories), who are just bad, and Microsoft (Labour), who mean well but are just so hulking and over-centralising that one can’t get too enthusiastic about them. Sega (the SDP?) have now given up as a hardware producer, and now co-operate with Nintendo quite a lot. I think this metaphor is best left for dead now, not least because, in Sony’s videogaming infancy, they flirted with Sega, which would make Sony Labour and not the Tories. Never mind.

So yeah. Nintendo are lovely. And all good Lib Dems should go out today and find themselves a Wii (stock is still short, it seems; they are selling second hand online about £280 at the moment) and copies of Shigeru Miyamoto‘s masterpieces for it. I am not on commission, honest.

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MPs Must Be Allowed To Control Their Lives Too

There have been plenty of people in the LibDem blogosphere lately saying how sad it is that there will only be two, relatively similar candidates. And they are right, it is. But I’m not sure there is much to be done about it.

If no other candidates want to put themselves forward for the position, then that is their decision, and we should respect that. Clegg and Huhne should be flattered that they are obviously perceived as such unopposable figures, but we must accept that that is the way things are. So instead of carping about what we wish was happening, can we focus on what is, please, and put the blogosphere to more contructive use?

For a start, how about getting some sort of pressure going on a policy issue? LVT anyone? I know Chris Huhne is president of ALTER, but does this mean he would do something about sorting our silly LIT policy? And can anyone tell me what Nick Clegg’s position is?

Or how about pressing for Mike Smithson’s idea of giving each leadership candidate a shot at PMQs?

Of course, people are free to blog about whatever they like. I just don’t think that adding momentum to the John Harris angle will do anything helpful. If it does anything at all.

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Good Call Steve

Well, following last night’s posting about Steve Webb, it seems that he has followed reasoning quite similar to my own in making his announcement today that he won’t be running, and indeed that he will instead be backing Nick Clegg.

Also to be noted is the Guardian’s report, which includes the following little snippet down the bottom:

Ms Goldsworthy, the 29-year-old MP for Falmouth and Camborne, felt moved to announce on her Facebook page that she wasn’t standing.

Since I haven’t added her as a friend, and since she seems not to have her profile visible to all (an unusual decision for an MP, but fair enough), I will have to take the Guardian’s word for it.

So it’s looking increasingly as though it’s just Nick vs Chris. Ho hum. That’ll be straightforward, then…

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Deciding On A False Choice

Various siren media voices are busy offering us advice on our future. Today, the Grauniad saw Jonathan Freedland making a typical stab:

For too long, there has been a benign fog where the Lib Dems’ ideological clarity should be. To the left of Labour in the north, Eurosceptic in the south-west, this muddle helped the Lib Dems bag seats. But it is surely not sustainable indefinitely.

There’s no shortage of possibilities. One scenario would present the Lib Dems as unabashedly liberal, socially and economically: they could promise low taxes and, say, the legalisation of all drugs, following the chief constable of north Wales. Such an approach would have tremendous intellectual coherence, but there are drawbacks. It could take the party into places comfortable for a thinktank, but awkward for a political party. What’s more, the rightwing postures it would entail would be too much for many activists to swallow.

Alternatively, the Lib Dems could fill the vast acres of space vacated by New Labour on the left. Taxes on the super-rich, an Iraq pullout, protection of civil liberties – it could be an appealing programme. But it would hardly play well in those southern marginals where the Lib Dems do battle with the Tories.

The risk is that Clegg or Huhne will be tempted simply to join Brown and Cameron in fighting for the evershrinking, hallowed terrain of the centre ground, saying nothing too daring on tax or equality or anything else (though Clegg deserves credit for proposing an amnesty for illegal immigrants). Such a huddle in the middle, leaving the rest of the ideological spectrum badly unrepresented in Westminster, would not just be uninspiring to Liberal Democrats. It would be depressing for British politics.

A similar way of thinking was put forward in the piece on Newsnight that preceded Paxman trying to manufacture a policy schism within the party where there isn’t really one. Currently, I can’t find a link to it. Anyway, in it, Paul Mason mocked up two “alternative” party political broadcasts to represent the two paths we apparently have to choose between, essentially highlighting those aspects of our policy which might be characterised as either “left” or “right”.

The only problem with both of these analyses (and I’m sure there are more like it around) is that at no point do they explain why the two are mutually exclusive. Why do these people find it so hard to understand that what we stand for is what Gladstone stood for, what Lloyd-George stood for, what Liberalism has always stood for: freedom, fairness and equality of opportunity. Why exactly can’t we be the party who stand against the monopolies and lump government subsidies required for nuclear power, at the same time as being the party who want to cut income tax to make way for green taxes? Why can’t we be both the party of skeptical pro-Europeanism and the party of legalising cannabis? Nobody has yet made a good argument as to why our current position is foggy, they have simply asserted that it is.

Now, I don’t deny that people just don’t understand liberalism, that they are confused because for so long the left-right axis, with its bizarre smushing together of all sorts of values and ideologies into completely incoherent “sides”, has dominated politics. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is a wholly inadequate way to categorise us, and indeed, to categorise any of the other parties.

We must not be persuaded by these voices. The position we inhabit right now is mostly right, it holds together probably better ideologically than the other parties’ positions, and by and large it is one we believe in. Of course, in selling our manifesto to a Labour or Conservative voter, we are going to emphasize the elements that we think will appeal to them. We would be silly not to. That doesn’t mean that we aren’t all fighting on the same manifesto, just that we think different pages of it will appeal more to different people; because of course they will! It doesn’t stop those voters asking us about other policy areas, and when they do so, we will of course be equally happy to defend those policies.

And let’s not allow ourselves to be told that there is only “bigger” or “smaller” government, when we know full well that every bit as important as those ideas are “more local” and “more accountable” government.

We are not here to position ourselves in relation to the other parties. We are here to argue for what we think is right. We are liberals, we believe in all those things that it says on my membership card, and that’s where we’re staying. There is no choice to be made here, and no future in either of the false choices being presented. Either of those options would turn us into a genuine protest party, little more than a cobbled selection of whinges about government policy. What makes us more than that is precisely the fact that we are self-evidently not designed to woo a particular type of discontented voter.

The other day, James Graham was on CiF, arguing that

Our political opponents like to talk about how the Lib Dems say different things to people depending on what side of the street they’re on. I don’t accept that is true, at least no more true than the way I’ve seen other parties behave over the years. What is true, however, is that there is an inclination to try and be all things to all people: to have a sprinkling of Labour-ish policies here, a dash of Tory-ish policies there, all designed to appeal to the swing voter.

It’s worked, but it has its limits. There are only so many of this kind of voter. When, in 2005, we offered the middle-class “grey vote” pretty much everything they could ever dream of on a silver platter and with a cherry on top (small print: at the expense of everyone else), the stubborn old buggers refused to be bribed.

He was right, but I don’t accept that we have a massive problem here. He correctly identifies the push for the “grey vote” as a pretty cynical move, but other than that, I don’t really accept that our policy is Labourish or Toryish. He also wrote:

The real division in the party is between what the party recognises as long-term goals that are in the national interest, and short-term populism that’s in the party interest. We have a long-term commitment to shifting the burden of taxation off income and onto wealth and natural resources, but our short-term commitments are a muddle, taking 4p off income tax while introducing a 4p local income tax. We have a long-term commitment for a progressive form of property taxation based on land values, but in the short term, we propose to scrap council tax and its requisite infrastructure. We have a long-term goal of replacing inheritance tax with an acquisitions tax, making tax avoidance more difficult and ensuring that wealth is spread more thinly; in the short term, we are cheerleaders for raising the inheritance tax threshold as much as our Tory and Labour opponents. In the long run, we want increased access to higher education for people from poorer backgrounds to increase social mobility; in the short term, we are committed to spending our limited higher education budget on scrapping tuition fees, which will mainly benefit the middle classes.

Now, those are some pretty good examples. But I would argue that in none of those cases are our policies for the immediate future notably Labour or Tory, so much as they are just motivated by a desire to translate Lib Dem ideals into practical steps which the public could easily imagine happening. Say to most people that we support abolishing council tax in favour of LVT, or that we want to introduce an acquisitions tax in place of inheritance tax, and they will look blankly at you.

I think James is (unsurprisingly) much more right than the MSM commentators, though. For them, the problem is that we need to be more like one of two things. For him, it is that we are already trying to make ourselves look like those other things. In so far as we are doing so, we should stop.