Contributor(This is the third in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2 and my original post on the book is here.)

To start, a disclaimer. I’m a heterosexual white cis middle class man living in an advanced industrial economy, and as such I’m the beneficiary of more unearned privilege than perhaps 99% of the people who have ever lived, so it’s entirely possible that this post will include lots of inadvertent errors and omissions. There are things that, because of my position and experience, I do not and probably cannot understand, so please feel free to point out where I get things wrong so I can do better in the future.

In keeping with his previous chapters, Russell’s account of liberalism’s support for diversity takes a historical approach. For him, it begins with opposition to the power of the Church and its desire to force all to conform to doing things in one way only. He sees liberalism as defending ‘the rights of the under-privileged, whoever they may happen at that time to be.’ There is a subtle critique of this historical process running through the chapter, however, as he notes that there were many times when people were too busy congratulating themselves over one victory to note that there were many more battles left to fight. He notes, for instance, some of the sexism (both overt and subtle) that prevented the struggle for women’s suffrage being taken seriously for years, but then turns the issue around to note that there may well be subtle and unconscious biases that we hold and may be mocked for in the future.

This element of self-criticism is important, because I think it relates to a trend in contemporary liberalism. We can be very good at identifying oppression or discrimination, but we sometimes act as though merely identifying it is enough in itself to solve the problems it has caused. We’re eager to point out that we’ve spotted and apologised for the overt discrimination of the past, but we’re often reluctant to accept that the legacy of that discrimination still has effects, both overt and subtle, in the present. There is a tendency to think that because we are so much more enlightened than our predecessors that we must therefore have solved all the problems, ignoring the fact that our predecessors felt similarly, and our successors will no doubt think the same of us.

For Russell, diversity exists as a key liberal value because of liberalism’s commitment to pluralism. Diversity is about celebrating the difference between individuals, and recognising that is important to allow people to be different, and that society does not seek to limit them because of that difference. Russell points out that liberalism is concerned about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that merely saying that everyone has an equal opportunity does not make it so.

Liberalism wants to see everyone fulfil their potential, but their potential as they see it, not as what society defines for them. Diversity in liberalism is important because it recognises that no one has the right answer for how everyone should live, and it’s a mistake to try and force a way of life on people. It comes back to Russell’s initial point of how liberalism is about power, and freeing people from the use of power to oppress them. However, it’s also about recognising that their are many ways in which individuals can be oppressed and restricted by many different forms of power. It’s entirely appropriate for liberalism to want to use the power of the state to liberate individuals from those other powers, and not to just limit our championing of diversity to saying the state won’t oppress you, but you’re on your own if something else does.

There’s an important point to be made here about the importance of linking the theoretical and the practical, of making our commitment to diversity mean something in practice instead of just being good works. Russell points out that this is a long-standing issue – Liberals in the late nineteenth century were great champions of the working class, but in many cases were notably reluctant to promote and advance working-class candidates, which eventually led to the creation of the Labour Party. As I said earlier, there’s a tendency within liberalism to assume a rational process and that once we’ve identified a problem, everyone will accept that diagnosis and fix it. If that doesn’t happen, we can then get quite defensive and assert that it’s obviously not our fault that something’s going wrong because we’ve identified our problems and fixed them.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m aware that I’m striding into the issue carrying tons of privilege with me, and I don’t want to start using that position to decree solutions to other people’s problems. Indeed, deciding that we know how to solve other people’s problems – rather than listening to what they want, then helping them achieve it – may be one of the reasons those problems still exist. There can be a sense of noblesse oblige in the way we can haughtily lay down solutions and expect others to be grateful we’ve noticed their problems and are now going to solve them for them, no matter how much they might be capable of solving them for themselves if we let them.

I’m going to finish this post with one of my favourite quotes from Russell in this chapter about pluralism, which manages to perfectly capture a liberal principle about the freedom of individuals (which we’ll look at in a later post) and make me wonder about the circumstances in which he wrote the book:

What two young men of seventeen do in bed in private is nothing to do with me, but if they then play their stereo so loud that I cannot continue to write this book, that is something to do with me.

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baran_networks(This is the second in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The first post in the series is here and my original post on the book is here.

Russell uses his chapter on pluralism to discuss two issues for liberalism: the dispersal of power, and the celebration of diversity. While I understand how his historical view of the development of liberalism does link the two, tracing it from the challenge to the power of the Church and liberal support for Nonconformism, I’m going to give both issues separate posts to avoid confusion by conflating them too.

As a liberal principle, pluralism emerges quite naturally from the desire to control the power of the executive I discussed in the last post. If one wants to prevent a single source of power from coming to dominate all, then why not have a series of different powers at different levels? This idea of dispersing power may seem obvious to us now, but was a radical proposition in the time when monarchies were trying to make their power absolute.

The principle of consent is also important in developing a liberal pluralism, rather than a devolved feudalism. It is possible to separate power and still retain an absolutism, when that power is arranged by a strict territoriality and hierarchy. Each power could be absolute in it’s own small realm, but then subservient in the realm above it. The principle of consent required to create legitimate authority, however, means that all power in any realm relies on the participation of the people within it. The liberal vision of pluralism is not one single power dividing itself up and creating order on the way down, but a mass of power that begins with the people creating the power structures they wish from the ground up.

For me, this is a vital issue for British liberalism and one where we’ve dropped the ball and not paid it much attention. Our conception of power is that it belongs to the people and is consensually given to the state in order to achieve good things on behalf of everyone. However, the British state is still constructed on the basis that all power resides in the centre, and while it can be devolved to lesser bodies, they still remain under its control. If there’s one thing seven years in local government has taught me it’s that a local council is not regarded as a body created by the people of an area, but as an arm of the centralised state, expected to do what its told, with the only freedom being in areas where the Government can’t be bothered to act itself. ‘Localism’ is merely the ability to decided locally just how much you want to agree with the latest directive from DCLG, not the power to say no to diktats from the centre.

As Russell points out, this is directly contrary to the spirit in which local government developed in the UK. While it wasn’t democratised until the 19th century, British local corporations and boroughs were run by figures who came from the community they covered and were generally not imposed by the state upon those areas. A huge number of social reforms, especially in areas of sanitation and education were brought about by local governments acting on their own initiative in that golden era of municipal liberalism. This is still a pattern we see in countries with a federal structure, where local government takes the powers they feel they need, not sitting by and waiting for the government to give those powers to them. This creates a true pluralism of power based on consent, and one that I believe would provide a much more useful basis to review and reassert the powers and abilities of local government than a centrally-imposed localism.

Another important principle here, and one that’s not discussed as much as it was when Russell was writing, is that of subsidiarity: ‘a Russian egg model of political power, in which it is held in a series of containers, one inside another, ranging from the United Nations at one end down to the parish council or an individual family at the other.’ It’s an important part of pluralism, where we assert that it is not simply important that power is dispersed but that it is used at an appropriate level to perform the task required of it. This is again based on consent, where those over whom the power is exercised determine the level at which it should be exercised, not a mighty central power choosing where it hands its power down to. This does not have to symmetrical, either – and indeed, a true test of whether power is being dispersed in line with subsidiarity is the degree of asymmetry – for not all areas will want the exact same powers. One can see this in the original structures of local government in Britain, where different corporations and boroughs did different things, depending on what they saw as important, and still applies in the USA where can one see wildly different amounts of power available to different local governments within the same state, let alone across different states.

PLuralism and subsidiarity may not lead to an arrangement of power that appears ‘efficient’ to those wanting to see strict hierarchies of power, but by dispersing power based on individual consent, we create a much more liberal arrangement of power, based on consent and individual need, rather than the needs of the centralised state. This does not mean an end to governments, or a belief that everything can be done at one level, be it local or multinational, but that we need to be continually asking ourselves whether decisions are being made in the right place where they will be most effective. We control the power of the over-mighty executive by bringing power as close to the individual as necessary for it to be used efficiently, and in the next post I’ll look more at how pluralism promotes the power of the individual.

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As you might have noticed, the Government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill has been causing a lot of consternation over the past couple of days, both in terms of its content and in the way it’s been suddenly announced and rushed through Parliament. There’s been a lot written about it in that time, and so rather than try and write my own post about it, I thought I’d gather together some links to make it easier to inform yourself quickly.

Drip, drip, drip – the emergency surveillance law erodes our civil liberties – David Allen Green sets out a legal perspective in the FT (free registration required)
Don’t call this the surveillance status quo – it’s a cross-party stitch-up – a succinct account by Mike Harris in the Independent
We should be ashamed of these emergency surveillance powers – James Baker on Lib Dem Voice
Cameron and Clegg’s cynical surveillance trick – Ian Dunt on Politics Home
Liberal Democrats and #DRIP: naive or nefarious? – Alex Marsh weighs the evidence, but either outcome isn’t good
Threat of legal action not terrorism behind calls for emergency data retention legislation – The Open Rights Group make clear why this is happening. There’s a lot more on their blog too.
UK rushes through invasive surveillance laws as intelligence agencies go on trial – a response from Privacy International and Amnesty International
Privacy and/or Security? – From the Law Society Gazette
Dissecting the emergency Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – Graham Smith looks in depth at the provisions of the Bill and how it compares to existing law
DRIP: A shabby process for a shady law - Paul Bernal on how rushing this through means no one has the chance to scrutinise it or its implications in full.
Lib Dems have cause to be concerned about the data retention bill – Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group writes for Lib Dem Voice to point out the flaws in the bill and why it doesn’t fulfill some of the promises about it.
Just what Internet services could #DRIP cover? – a Storify by @rgarner that shows the scope of the legislation.
The DRIP myth list – from the Open Rights Group
Emergency Surveillance Law A Blow To Privacy – from Human Rights Watch

And for balance, some pro-DRIP arguments from Lib Dem Voice – Norman Baker MP, Lord Paddick and Mark Pack.

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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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