leviathan_2_crop(This is the first in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. My original post on the book is here.)

“Liberalism is and remains largely about power.”

It feels rather apt to be writing this post on a day when the Government – with the consent of the Opposition – has announced it will be rushing through new laws to get around the fact that what it was doing before was ruled to be illegal. However, I want to write about this issue in more general terms rather than focus on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill.

Putting power at the centre of his vision of liberalism is an interesting step for Russell to take, but one that fits entirely with the view of a historian, rather than a philosopher. Principle is important, but those principles cannot be divorced from the historical context in which they emerged and the circumstances that have kept them relevant since. In recent years, I’ve seen much debate by liberals on what the size of the state should be, but not a connected debate on how powerful it should be. There is an assumption amongst some that if one makes a state smaller in economic terms, it will automatically be less powerful, as though economics is the only thing that matters.

This view is countered by the the ideas that came from the New Right, captured perfectly in Andrew Gamble’s description of Thatcherism as being concerned with ‘the free economy and the strong state‘. The power of the state is not measured solely in what it can do for the economy, but in the myriad other ways it can effect people lives. For instance, one can see many on the right who advocate both for a small state and the return of the death penalty and for me, giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies is a much more fundamental ability to control than the percentage of GDP it uses.

The corollary to this is that liberalism is not anarchism or libertarianism, in that it recognises that that there are situations in which power needs to exist. This links in with Russell’s historical approach and an acceptance that power already exists, that we’re not in a tabula rasa where we can create whatever we wish to see from scratch. It’s a pragmatic position rather than an idealistic one, but it’s also about the application of principles to the situation at hand. Russell sets out the history of British liberalism as a series of small triumphs that have taken us far from the original starting point in service of the central principle of controlling power:

I do not believe that my ancestors intended (excluding hereditary peers from the Lords) when they set the Exclusion Bill in motion in 1679, yet it follows logically from the challenge they then launched to the principle of power based on birth. This is only one example of among many of the way an apparently simple general principle, if held firmly and as a central conviction, turns out to have all sorts of implications of which its founders were unaware.

The rationale for the control of power is that all power must rest on consent, and thus it flows upwards, given from the people to the state, rather than freedom being granted to the people by the state. This again goes back to the seventeenth century and the events and arguments there that motivated Locke to set out his treatises on government. Again, a simple principle leads to lots of unexpected ramifications over the centuries.

Russell (and liberalism generally) does not dispute the right of the state to exist, but does question the legitimacy of its actions if the executive power is concentrated in such a way to enable it to be abused. Democracy is a tool for creating a state that can be constrained, but democracy has to be seen as a continual process, rather than an occasional event – one cannot claim consent purely on having an election every four or five years if that state is free to do whatever it wishes between those votes. The question that is to be answered here is that if we agree that some power is necessary, how do we make it acceptable and controllable? Russell’s answer to this – in common with many other analyses over the years – is that Britain, at least, has not yet found an answer to this question, if indeed a permanent answer can be found. What may be acceptable limits for the state in one generation, may be seen as far too lax (or even too strict) to a future one.

The implications of this are more than simply asking what is the role of the state and how it can best carry out that role. To go back to the quote I began this post with, liberalism is not about the state, it is about power. When the building blocks of liberalism were first being laid down, the main powers were the state and the church, but we have seen lots of other sources of power emerge in the time since then. For liberalism, all power should be controllable and accountable, and this is where it diverts from the minimal state vision, for while it’s own power must be controlled, the state can and should have a role in making other forms of power accountable and controllable. Power in this sense does not necessarily have a tangible form either. Social and economic pressures beyond those of the state, the church or the corporation can oppress the individual and limit their freedom, and it is perhaps to fight those amorphous powers that we need to create some power greater than ourselves.

But a lot of that detail is for another time, as I plunge into more depths and examine the implications that flow from seeking to control power, but please feel free to continue the debate in the comments.

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I was pretty surprised when they announced that the start of this year’s Tour de France would be in Yorkshire. That it would come back to Britain was no surprise but the Yorkshire bid had seemed to come up quite late in the day and seemed doomed to lose out to Scotland. Edinburgh seemed a much better backdrop for a Grand Depart than Leeds, after all.

That, though, was to assume this would follow the format of previous Grand Departs outside France. The formula is pretty simple – a prologue time trial around the host city that shows off all its best sights, then one or two generally flat stages to take the race back to France. The Tour has started using road stages rather than time trials for the opening stage in recent years, but only when it started in France.

What Yorkshire showed is that you can use the Tour to promote a whole region through the Grand Depart, and that the race organisers are willing to throw in tricky stages as part of it. Stage 2 shook up the race much more than a prologue time trial would have done. Dozens of riders could have ended up in yellow after Sheffield, rather than the Martin or Cancellara battle in a time trial.

Having millions of people lining the route, and making the start of the Tour a massive event across another country means we’re now going to see more Grand Departs following the Yorkshire formula. The format for the next Grand Depart in Utrecht was already agreed as the traditional prologue and flat stages formula, but the next time it goes outside of France (likely to be in 2017 or 2018) I think we’ll see somewhere that wants to set up a much more interesting start. Barcelona’s been mentioned as a possible destination, but what we could see is stages that get to roam across the whole of Catalonia.

It also means the Tour’s next Grand Depart in Britain is a question of when and where, not if. I’d expect it either in 2020 or 2021, but there’ll be lots of places now thinking they could follow Yorkshire’s example. Imagine a start in Edinburgh that rolls out through the hills of the Borders followed by a stage in the Lake District? Or going to Wales for a thrash through Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons? The Tour of Britain has brought out big crowds on Dartmoor for its stages there, and that could be the centrepiece for a bid from the South West.

Finally, what we also saw on Sunday was that the Pennines offer a great platform for a race. There’s surely the scope to build on the success of the Grand Depart and organise a regular one-day classic that could follow a similar route and create some great racing in the style of Liege-Bastogne-Liege? (You could even make sure the route takes in Lancashire and Yorkshire and call it the Tour of the Roses) Britain still doesn’t have a World Tour race, and as the Tour of Britain’s unlikely to make that step up, this could be a real legacy from the Tour de Yorkshire.

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Taken a while to put this list together, as you might be able to tell from the differing ages of the links…

Axelrod & matches – Chris Dillow uses Labour’s appointment of David Axelrod to point out that most successful management is strongly context-specific and not necessarily transferable.
Metropolitan bureaucrats ate our counties – Flip Chart Fairy Tales on just how bizarre the DCLG’s latest pronouncements on ‘historic borders’ are. The campaign for the restoration of Winchecombeshire starts…somewhere else.
The Manic Street Preachers: “I’ll always hate the Tory party. But now I hate Labour, too” – Interview with the band as their latest album is released.
The board game of the alpha nerds – An introduction to Diplomacy, which is the best, most frustrating, most challenging and most annoying game I’ve played. (If you want to try it, PlayDiplomacy.com is a good site)
What’s the point if we can’t have fun? – “Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?”

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_275126_conrad_russell300Writing about Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism the other day prompted me to think more about the version of liberalism he describes. One of the things I appreciated in his book was the way he placed liberalism, and particularly British liberalism, in a historical context. This isn’t surprising as he was a historian rather than a philosopher or political scientist, but it does feel sometimes that people present liberalism as something that only emerged in the nineteenth century, ignoring the important of Locke and the debates of the seventeenth century in its emergence. There are important liberal thinkers before and after John Stuart Mill, and Russell’s historical account reflects that.

It’s also interesting to note how Russell’s account downplays the role of economics in liberalism. Again, this contrasts with the current vogue for claiming the existence of ‘classical liberalism’ based around Millian ideas of liberty and laissez-faire economics. Russell’s vision of liberalism is one that has the control of power and the promotion of the individual at its heart, with economics a tool to be used to achieve those ends, not an end in itself. For me, that’s a much more interesting vision of liberalism than one which places economics at the heart of everything and embraces the fetishisation of work (especially ‘hard work’) that’s such a feature of modern political discourse.

Russell’s exploration of liberalism takes works through a few distinct areas:

  • Challenging power
  • Pluralism: Multiple locations of power
  • Pluralism: the ‘cult of diversity’
  • The underdog and the economy
  • Internationalism
  • Individual liberty
  • Green liberalism
  • Rather than writing another post that tries to cover all of those issues in one, what I’m planning is to do a series of posts over the next week or two that looks at each of these in turn. The idea will be to use Russell’s thoughts on the subject as a springboard for some more thoughts of my own, to look at where this kind of vision of liberalism can take us. Hopefully, they’ll be interesting enough to spark off a bit of debate in the comments and elsewhere, and even if they don’t, it’ll be an interesting process for me to think and write about those ideas.

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    russellliberalismAs those of you who follow me on Twitter will have already seen, I’ve recently re-read Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. It was originally published in 1999 as part of a series of ‘Intelligent Person’s Guide To…’, though they now seem to be out of print and are hard to find. I found it a fascinating read, and as it is so hard to find, I thought I’d try and provide a summary of it, which will hopefully prompt some other thoughts.

    Read the rest of this entry

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    I uploaded my spreadsheet of Have I Got News For You guests broken down by gender after the last series, then today realised I’d forgotten to upload the new version. So, that’s now uploaded – and here it is.

    I guess if you’re looking for a key statistic from it, it’s the number 33.3 – one third of the guests and one third of the hosts were women in the last series, which was the first since the BBC introduced their ‘no all male panel shows’ policy. HIGNFY has stuck with that policy, but has done the bare minimum to meet it – every show had a woman on it, either hosting or presenting, but none of them had two or three. We still have to go back to the last century for a time when all the guests on a show were women, and last year for one when they were all men.

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    Richard Hofstadter and America’s New Wave of Anti-Intellectualism – Not just limited to America, of course.
    Robert Reich: “Paid-what-you’re-worth” is a toxic myth – “Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour.”
    Why American Eggs Would Be Illegal In A British Supermarket, And Vice Versa – It might not sound that interesting, but here’s a look behind the scenes at how regulation has affected food production differently on both sides of the Atlantic.
    Good Riddance, Fred Phelps – And that’s how you write an obituary for a repulsive individual.
    A nation of slaves – “Today, in the political discourse of the west, it is almost unthinkably hard to ask a very simple question: why should we work?”

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    142469 & 142925: Variation of planning conditions, Greens Yard.
    142583: Advertisement consent for new signage, Angel Court, High Street.
    142868: Advertisement consent for rebranding, Crouch Street.
    142890: Advertisement consent for new signs, High Street.
    142913: Change of use to class A5 (hot food takeaway), High Street.
    142923: Rear and front porch extensions, Kings Meadow Road.
    142940: Alterations and part demolition, High Street.
    143208: Advertisement consent for signage, Trinity Street.
    143372: Change of use from offices to hotel and restaurant, North Hill.

    You can make a statement in favour or against any of these applications on the Council website, or if you want to discuss it further with one of your councillors then please contact me or my ward colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes.

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    142128 – New one bedroom dwelling, Walters Yard
    140344 – Listed building consent for painting window frames, East Hill
    142440 and 142441 – Single story extension and garage, Maidenburgh Street
    142462 – First floor extension and garage reconstruction, Carlisle Close
    140527 – Change of use to A5 (restaurant/cafe), St Botolph’s Street
    142523 – Change of use from office to out-patient clinic, High Street

    You can make a statement in favour or against any of these applications on the Council website, or if you want to discuss it further with one of your councillors then please contact me or my ward colleagues Bill Frame and Jo Hayes.

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    The dark power of fraternities – It’s been doing the rounds because of an interesting opening, but the meat of this article on the influence of fraternities within the US higher education system is interesting.
    The True History of Libertarianism in America: A Phony Ideology to Promote a Corporate Agenda – “That is how libertarianism in America started: As an arm of big business lobbying.”
    America: Not a small business country – “There is almost no measure on which America’s small business sector stands out from those of other advanced countries.”
    The audacious rescue plan that might have saved space shuttle Columbia – It’s unlikely that it would have worked, but an interesting look at the work that would have been needed to launch an emergency rescue once it was realised Columbia couldn’t return to Earth.
    The Luton Peace Riots (1919) – ‘Can you have a riot for peace?’ asks Jim Jepps. Probably not, but this is a bit of British history I’d never heard before.

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