I’ve decided that from now on any policy I expose on this blog or elsewhere will have to have to have gone through a ‘people test’ first. This will determine what their effects will be on people, so we can be sure these policies won’t cause any harm to people. I’m not going to make any specific definition of who these people my test will apply to are, but rest assured that I am committed to supporting people despite not coming up with this gimmick vitally important test until now.

Yes, I’ve got the idea from David Cameron’s ‘family test’ that he’s promising to subject all new policy to, without actually specifying what definition of ‘family’ he’s using. I suspect he’s not applying Conrad Russell’s subjective definition – ‘those groups are families that believe that they are’ – but I also doubt he’d have the courage to stand up and say who he does and doesn’t include in his ‘family test’. It thus becomes more meaningless political twaddle, as he might as well be proposing a ‘people test’, given that he won’t (publicly, at least) exclude anyone from his definition of ‘family’. He’s blowing the dog whistle again, hoping people won’t notice that he wants some people to think he’s happy to screw over certain parts of the population if they don’t fit his definition of ‘family’.

The question is will anyone – a journalist today, an MP at PMQs when Parliament comes back from recess – be willing to put him on the spot and ask Cameron what he defines a family as, and who is not included in his ‘family test’?

,

vote for nobody 2Former MP Tony Wright has written an odd piece for the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, that tries to disagree with arguments that politics in Britain is broken by seemingly accepting most of the arguments that it is, then claiming that the fact some reforms have happened over the past few years means that things will work out all right. To me, it feels like he’s arguing that it’s not broken because it’s been stuck roughly back together with a flour-and-water paste that he insists is actually superglue.

It’s prompted me to finally sit down and write down a few thoughts I’ve been having on what I think is a slow breakdown of the British political system. I think one mistake Wright makes – and he’s not alone in it, as I’ve written about before – is to confuse politics and the political system, assuming they’re one and the same. It’s a common and understandable solipsism amongst politicians to believe that what we do is the only thing that properly counts as politics, but I think that’s one of the sources of problem. By believing that politics can only include that which is contained within the existing political system, we assume that the system is capable of containing everything that’s ‘political’. (That may be a tautology, but these are still very rough thoughts)

However, what if the system isn’t capable of doing what’s expected of it? What if the system that was broadly capable of representing political opinion in the past has become completely outdated? Sure, there have been patches and tweaks, such as the ones Wright points to, over the years but these have not addressed the fundamental problems within it. It’s like insisting everything’s fine with your car because you’ve replaced the carburettor, while ignoring that it can’t go faster than 10mph and needs ten litres of fuel to get to end of the road.

I think of this as a slow breakdown because I think it’s the culmination of a long process that began in the 70s (and possibly before) but the system has managed to conceal that – and will likely try to pretend that things can still be fixed with tweaks. The system worked on the principle of there being two main mass-membership parties that sat on either side of the class divide (in line with Pulzer’s 60s observation: “Class is the basis of British politics; all else is embellishment and detail.”) The problem stems from the fact that the pillars that system rested on have crumbled away. To look at some of those factors in brief (it might take a full series of posts to cover it in any reasonable amount of detail, though):

Class is no longer the main driver of British politics. That’s not to say that class isn’t important in Britain but that other forces and other cleavages in society are much more than ‘embellishment and detail’. Old cleavages, such as the core-periphery divide, have re-arisen, class itself has evolved into a more complex issue, and new issues have arisen that may divide society but aren’t reflected in the parties.

Political parties have not changed. The usual claim here is that parties have changed, but I think the issue is that they’ve only tweaked and patched, not made a fundamental change. One of the drivers behind mass-membership parties was that they provided social opportunities in a time when there were a lot fewer ways to spend your free time. As those vast networks (that were apolitical a large amount of the time) have withered away, the nature of political parties has not changed in response with some imagining the days of mass membership and participation can be restored. Parties are still being run as though they are still mass parties, when they’ve become more like cadre parties (or to borrow Peter Mair’s term, ‘cartel parties’).

The electoral system doesn’t allow voters to be represented. One of the reasons I think of this as a slow breakdown is that you can see it emerging in the election results of the 70s, when the big parties started watching their share of the vote slip further and further away from 50%, yet not seeing this slippage represented in the share of seats and power won. Moving a bit closer to the present, one reason that the 1997 election is pivotal is that it’s the last time a single party won more votes than there were non-voters. Voters have consistently moved away from the two-party model, but the electoral system continues to prop it up.

There are other issues too – media that prefers personalities to policies, local government that’s trying to deliver for 21st century communities based on 19th century boundaries, the belief that anything that’s worth doing should only be done centrally – but my time today is limited.

What I do want to say in conclusion is that I see and hear people talking about political issues all the time, but because we restrict our definition of politics to ‘that which is represented within the political system’ we tend to not recognise it as such. However, this then turns into disengagement from the system when people don;t see the issues that are important to them being represented or discussed there. I think this tendency has been accelerated by the internet and social networking, but this is just the culmination of a process that started long before home broadband and smartphones. Just tweaking the existing system and claiming it’s completely fixed isn’t enough. We need a system that reaches out to everyone, not one that imagines those it can’t reach have nothing worthwhile to say. To paraphrase Adrian Mitchell, most people ignore most politics, because most politics ignores most people.

, , , ,

Officials count ballot papers in WitneyWriting on the LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog, Steven Ayres looks at where UKIP’s vote came from in the 2014 local elections, and what this might mean in next year’s general election.

It’s an interesting piece, but it brings me back a thought I’ve had recently with regard to UKIP’s chances next years and whether analysis is factoring in the effects of differential turnout and the motivation to vote of UKIP voters.

One assumption that we tend to make in projecting local election results forward to a general election is that the different turnout at the two elections can be ignored as a factor. We know that general elections have larger turnouts that local elections, but we assume that the voters who turn out at local elections are a proportional sample of the voters who’ll turn out at the general election. As an example, imagine a constituency with four parties where 20,000 people will vote at a general election, but only 10,000 of those will vote at the preceding local election. At that local election, we get the following result:

  • Party A: 4000 votes
  • Party B: 3000 votes
  • Party C: 2000 votes
  • Party D: 1000 votes
  • The tendency is to assume that the percentages of votes received in that election represent the share of opinion amongst the wider electorate and that thus amongst the general election electorate of 20,000 Party A will have 8,000 voters (40%), Party B will have 6000 voters (30%) etc. We assume that the 50% who will turn out for the local election is drawn equally from the parties – a Party A voter and a Party D general election voter both have a 50% probability of voting in the local election.

    The reason I’m writing this in relation to UKIP votes is that it seems to me that projections of what UKIP might do in 2015 assume that their voters turned out at the same rate in 2013 and 2014 as did supporters of the other parties. I’d need to go back to some of the polling from before May’s elections to confirm this, but my recollection is that it showed UKIP supporters were much more likely to intend to vote than those of other parties.

    To go back to the example, we assume it represents voter intention amongst the wider population, but what if each party’s supporters had a wildly different likelihood to vote at local elections? For example, if Party A’s supporters were 80% likely to vote at local elections, while Party D’s were only 20% likely, both could actually have 5,000 supporters amongst the general population. Extrapolating a general election result from a local one when the parties have had differing levels of turnout is not going to produce accurate forecasts.

    To return to the UKIP question, one thing I have noticed is that while they have had relatively high percentages in some elections, they’ve not gone beyond around x% of the total electorate. By my calculation, the share of the electorate UKIP have got in high-profile elections recently is:

  • Eastleigh by-election: 14.7%
  • Newark by-election: 13.7%
  • 2014 Euro election (East of England): 12.4%
  • 2014 Euro elections (East Midlands): 10.9%
  • 2014 Euro elections (national share): 9.4%
  • Rotherham by-election: 7.3%
  • Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election: 6.7%
  • South Shields by-election: 6.4%
  • My suspicion – and it’d take a lot of time with a lot of polling and election data and a stats package to explore that in more depth – is that UKIP’s peak support within the electorate is somewhere around 15%, but they are much more likely to turn out at all elections than voters for the other parties are. Thus, in elections with a lower turnout, their higher propensity to vote and our tendency to assume that those elections are a mirror of voters as a whole makes them look more of a threat in the general election than they will actually be. However, in a general election with turnouts of over 60%, it’s very hard for a party that can’t get more than 20% of the electorate to win a seat. That would require winning a seat with 33% of the vote or less, and while that’s possible, it’s very rare.

    UKIP’s dilemma for next year is that their best chance of winning seats comes if a) there’s a low overall turnout in a seat, allowing the higher motivation of their voters to be a factor and b) there are multiple parties competing for a seat, thus making it possible to win with a low share of the vote. However, seats with strong competition between multiple parties are unlikely to have a low turnout because of the amount of campaigning that’s done in them. It seems that UKIP are very good at getting out the vote, but they’ll need to broaden the number of people willing to vote for them to have a serious chance of winning a Westminster seat.

    , ,

    When David Cameron says


    Do you think he remembers this?

    But then, Boris doing something nasty, crude and thuggish, then trying to get out of it by doing the ‘lawks a mercy, silly Boris, ho ho!’ act is a perfect summation of his career.

    ,

    One of the small highlights of the recent World Cup for me was the BBC showing the official FIFA World Cup films on BBC Two on weekend mornings. In the 1982 film – G’Ole! – there’s a moment near the end when the camera pans over the crowd for the final and shows a Colombia 1986 banner, the only time that tournament ever appeared on camera.

    Colombia had been selected to host the 1986 World Cup but withdrew from hosting later in 1982 because of a host of domestic and economic problems. In the words of President Betancur: “We have a lot of things to do here and there is not enough time to attend to the extravagances of Fifa and its members.” Colombia 1986 is the only time a country has not hosted the World Cup after being awarded it.

    Luckily for FIFA, there do still remain several countries willing to attend to their extravagances, and indeed will compete to provide more and more extravagances in order to get to host the World Cup. That’s why there was heated bidding for the rights to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and why some have cried foul after they were awarded to Russia and Qatar. Since they were awarded, there’s been constant criticism of the Qatar 2022 decision, and recent events in Ukraine have also made people question whether it’s right to host the 2018 tournament in Russia and Nick Clegg has called for it to be taken away from them.

    Unlike the complaints about Qatar, the arguments given for having the 2018 World Cup are almost entirely political, based on the recent actions of the Russian Government, though they tend to ignore that world sporting bodies are generally autocratic institutions themselves and don’t really respond to that sort of argument. Despite the fact it opens up a lot of other questions – should British clubs refuse to play in Russia in UEFA tournaments? If FIFA don’t change their minds, should the home nations boycott 2018? – it’s a legitimate thing to propose.

    However, if you want to scupper your entire campaign very quickly, what you shouldn’t do is this:

    Talking about the situation in Ukraine, Nick Clegg raised the question on whether Russia should host the World Cup in 2018:

    “He (Putin) can’t constantly push the patience of the international community beyond breaking point and still have the privilege and honour of receiving all the accolades in 2018 for being the host nation of the World Cup.”

    In light of Russia’s actions, one option could be to bring the World Cup to England instead.

    If you agree, sign this petition.

    We the undersigned call on England to host the 2018 World Cup instead of Russia.

    That’s currently on the Lib Dem website, and suddenly turns it from legitimate concerns about Russia to one of the countries beaten by Russia in the 2018 bidding trying to get revenge. It weakens the case against Russia hosting it by associating it with England getting the tournament instead and thus makes it into a contest of two countries, not weighing up the merits of one.

    The reason I brought up Colombia 1986 at the start of this post was because when the decision was made to not have the World Cup there, it wasn’t because another country had stepped forward and said ‘we’ll do it instead’. The decision to not host the tournament and the decision of the location of the replacement were separate, and if FIFA were to decide to take it from Russia, there’d surely be an open process (well, open by FIFA standards) to decide the replacement, as happened for 1986 (with Mexico selected over the USA and Canada). One could also look at the ongoing dispute over Qatar 2022, where the USA (probably the most likely location for it if it doesn’t happen in Qatar) are being very careful not to put themselves forward as the alternative, but instead are keeping the debate about whether it should be in Qatar at all.

    (I’d also question if England was able to host the tournament on such short notice, given the suggested new stadiums and expansions proposed in the original bid. If Russia were to lose it, and it was to stay within Europe, the most logical new host would likely be France, given the work they’re currently doing for Euro 2016.)

    This might just be an overenthusiastic staffer at Great George Street getting carried away and starting off a petition without thinking about it, but it’s a huge own goal. If you want to make the case against Russia, you should do that, and not confuse the issue by trying to fly an England flag at the same time.

    , , , ,

    russellliberalism(If you’ve missed the previous posts in the series, they’re here: Index, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and the original post.)

    After nine posts and a lot of words, we’ve come to the end of my odyssey through An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, and I hope it’s been of some interest. It’s been an interesting exercise for me, as it’s a good framework for examining liberalism, and the way Russell frames his vision of it allowed me to take a step back from current discussions and conceptions of liberalism to take a wider view. Progressing through the different chapters, I’ve picked up on a few different ideas that run across the book and the conception of liberalism I’ve developed from it, which I’ll go through.

    Liberalism as radicalism. By starting back in the 1600s, Russell’s historical account of liberalism doesn’t begin with it as an already accepted and prominent ideology. He points out that British liberalism arose from a turbulent and revolutionary century when all the old certainties had been turned upside down, and early liberal thinkers and writers were on the side of those seeking to overturn the older, not those who wanted to maintain it. This sense of radicalism and of seeking to do things differently is a thread Russell picks up again and again, with the implication that the aim of liberalism is not merely to reform power, but to change it utterly.

    Liberalism is concerned with power. I found this one of the most refreshing and interesting ideas from the book. We can too often become obsessed with the idea of liberalism as being about freedom that we forget about the existence of power, or simply wish it away, assuming that it will simply wither away once we have solved the problems of freedom. The problem with this vision – especially when it slides into libertarianism – is that it can tend to assume that the state is the only power that we need concern ourselves with it. To reach its potential, liberalism has to recognise that power – and particularly unaccountable power – can exist outside the state, and indeed the pattern of the future may well be that we need to be more concerned with that form of unaccountable power than traditional state power.

    Liberalism evolves. Again, this comes from Russell’s historical analysis, but it frames liberalism as an adaptive philosophy, centred around core principles. Starting from (and always keeping) that principle of controlling arbitrary power, liberalism has been shaped by circumstance, picking up new ideas along the way, but never letting them become its entire focus or overwrite the initial purpose. That’s why talk of ‘classical liberalism’ as though it’s something that can be held up as a yardstick for assessing the value of contemporary liberalism is meaningless. To claim there is some pure form of liberalism that others must be subservient to is to miss the point of it.

    Liberalism rejects utopias. Or, liberalism does not believe the ends justify the means. This does not mean that liberalism joins conservatism in denying that things can improve or that people can’t make a utopia but more that we cannot know or predict what utopia will be like until we get there. Decreeing that there is only one way, and we must get there elevates the importance of the end above the means, and allows illiberal measures to slip in from the sides. This can happen for good intentions, but it’s easy for those intentions to be corrupted into a Platonic utopia, where everyone is happy and fulfilled because they’re told that this is the only way they can be happy. A liberal society is an open society, and any power within it must be open to question and be able to be shown to be wrong.

    Liberalism needs diversity. If the key to liberalism is to reject that there’s any one central authority that can be correct for everyone, then it needs that plurality of voices within it to provide alternatives and to challenge ideas. To come up with a way that’s good for everyone, everyone’s voices must be heard and no one can assume they can speak for someone else with a different experience to them. A diversity of power at different levels is also important – it may be that one solution doesn’t fit everyone and we need to try different things to see which is the best.

    Liberalism must persuade and convince. This sounds obvious – what ideology doesn’t want to persuade and convince? – but we must always remember that consent is a vital part of liberalism, and a vital part of making power accountable. This isn’t just about getting their passive support, but rather their active participation in creating a liberal society which has to be built by the people, not for the people by some elite who know what’s best for them. A truly liberal society can make power accountable by ensuring everyone can control it and participate it, but to build that we need to go out and convince people it’s a good idea, not just sit around and tell ourselves how good we are.

    I’m sure I’ll talk about these and other issues more over the coming weeks and months, but it’s been an interesting and an enlightening experience. For me, the most interesting part is to frame liberalism as politics about power, and the implications that come from that. I think we are sometimes very simplistic about power and its implications and tend to assume that going in with good intentions is enough to overcome the strategies of embedded and unaccountable power, and on others we become so obsessed with one form of power that we forget that there are other sources and forms of power that we strengthen by pretending they’re not important.

    I think modern liberalism is often comfortable talking about freedom, but uncomfortable when it comes to talking about power, especially in admitting that power exists outside the state. This is shown a lot in a belief that shrinking the state is automatically freeing people, ignoring that removing the protection of the state opens them up to the whims of far more unaccountable and arbitrary powers. It’s also seen in the belief that a free market is intrinsically a good thing, not something that has the potential to be good, but also the potential to be corrupted if power within it is allowed to centralise and dominate.

    Beyond these, I think we also need to think much more deeply about how liberalism adopts to the threat posed by climate change (and ‘pretending it’s not happening’ is not a response). Is it possible to develop a fuller ecoliberalism in the light of an understanding of the power we can wield over the environment, or do we continue with an environmentalist liberalism that regards it as an issue of policy and management, rather than one of fundamental principle?

    These are important issues that we need to address as we move forward, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to them. What I do hope is that those of you who have read this have found it interesting, and that it’s helped to spark off your own thoughts. Liberalism is not something carved in tablets of stone that can never be changed or altered, it’s a living thing that we are free to debate, discuss and persuade others to adopt, and I hope I’ve done a bit to encourage some more debate.

    , ,

    20130527_112202(This is the sixth 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, 3, 4, 5, 6 and my original post on the book is here.)

    Out of all the posts I’ve done on this book, this one is going to have the least of Russell and the most of me in it because while Russell does embrace the idea of green liberalism, he was writing at a time when awareness of environmental issues was a lot lower than it was today, and it was less of a political priority too. I have also been reading Andrew Dobson’s Green Political Thought recently, so it’s possible that ideas from that may creep in too.

    One thing that struck me while looking around for some inspiration on this post is that there’s still very little out there that looks at ways to philosophically or theoretically include the environment within liberalism. One can find lots of assertions about how liberalism has a strong environmental record, and lots of talk of green policies implemented by liberals, but as the French philosopher is supposed to have said ‘that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?’

    Russell looks at the idea of sustainability, arguing that liberal attachment to the idea comes from the principle that power is a trust and trusteeship implies stewardship. This stems from the seventeenth century foundations of liberalism with Locke taking the idea from the critique of Charles I’s abuse of that trust. Trusteeship is not just about using power wisely in the present but ensuring that the environment is preserved for the future. This fits in with the principle of controlling power – if power is to exist, what is it’s proper role? We can also bring principles of internationalism and pluralism into this train of thought, perhaps embedded in the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’. It’s undeniable that protection of the environment is a global issue and needs at the very least co-ordination from a higher level, but effective action needs to be carried out at a lower level and with consent, not just something handed down from above.

    One point to make here is that while there is much literature and debate on the concept of ecosocialism, there is little or none in developing comparable concepts of ecoliberalism. (Indeed, the term ‘ecoliberalism’ seems to be used as much, perhaps more, as shorthand for ‘economic liberalism’ as it is in an environmental context.) To borrow from Dobson’s formulation, liberalism appears to have no problem with environmentalism as ‘a managerial response to environmental problems, secure in the belief that they can be solved without fundamental changes’ but balks at any attempts to move on from that to a fuller ecologism, which ‘presupposes radical changes’. This difference comes from a different understanding of the scale of the response needed to respond to environmental crisis – in crude terms, green thought holds that the crisis is so severe it can only be thwarted by a fundamental change, while liberalism holds that the crisis is not severe enough to require that level of change.

    However, I would question whether liberalism is necessarily as conservative about maintaining the status quo of society as it is sometimes depicted. As we’ve seen already, if we start from Russell’s conception of liberalism as primarily a philosophy of power and accept its radical roots, we can see that liberalism is capable of endorsing widespread change – indeed, Locke wrote to justify a change in power that had seemed completely unthinkable to many before it happened. The key, perhaps, is not the potential radicalism within liberalism but the rejection of utopias and the resistance to the idea of working towards some desired goal and elevating ends above means.

    Conversely, there’s also the question of whether green ideology/ecologism is necessarily as authoritarian as it is sometimes depicted. Much of it is based on decentralisation and doing things locally, and there’s a compatibility with liberal ideas of pluralism, internationalism and the need for actions to be taken at the appropriate level. There is an authoritarian streak amongst some greens, and it is part of some strands of green political thought which hold that the necessity for ecological action takes precedence over any other concerns which perhaps eliminates the possibility of a complete synergy of liberalism and green thinking, but I don’t feel it’s entirely impossible.

    What, then, might a more developed green liberalism – ecoliberalism – look like? I’m not going to attempt to define an entire new strand of ideology here, but we can look at how some of the principles and themes I’ve looked at already might drive it. I think it’s important for liberalism to be able to not just point to actions to show green credentials but to have a firm philosophical basis for those actions. As we see more and more information about the state of the environment, liberalism needs to be able to react and adapt to changing circumstances, and we do that best when we have firm principles to base that reaction on.

    Any ecoliberalism has to address the joint issues of power and harm, and how they apply to the environment. The problem here is that we must confront existential threats, rather than ones that we can directly see. Someone being thrown out of their home as the result of an unjust law applied buy a corrupt government is clearly suffering harm from an unaccountable power, and we can see how that can be rectified and systems changed to ensure it does not happen again. What do we do, though, if that harm is at the end of a long causal chain? Who has exercised the power that forces someone out of their home because of rising sea levels or drought, and how do we make that power accountable? And what if the harm is dispersed more nebulously across a wider population – how do we account for the harm, restriction of freedom and reduction of opportunity caused by a lack of food and water because of climate change?

    A potential ecoliberalism faces the same issues as liberalism in dealing with power being exerted globally while systems and structures to control that power and make it accountable haven’t kept up. Identifying the sources of power is not by itself sufficient, but merely a first step to finding the ways to make them accountable and disperse that power. This will likely mean coming up with new systems and new ideas, not just relying on the existing mechanisms we have. This is a radicalism that should not scare liberals, even if the task seems vast, because liberalism has done it before. From overthrowing monarchies to establishing the United Nations, things that would have seemed impossibly radical steps to take have become accepted and normal because people went out and made the case for them, so they could be built on consent.

    Consent and persuasion is a key issue for any ecoliberalism to address. I’ve already discussed the importance of consent and the rejection of arbitrarily imposed utopias, and it’s an important issue to address as we look towards the future. Ecoliberalism cannot lay down a certain way of doing things as a goal and insist everyone comes along on the journey to that point. Instead it has to make sure that it goes out and involves everyone in building a future that we can’t know the shape of until we get there. The message of ecoliberalism should be that we can and should protect the planet for the benefit of all life upon it, but there are many ways of doing it and we need to work together to find out which is best, not arbitrarily decide that only one way should be followed.

    Yes, I’m being vague, but this is an issue that needs a lot more thought from a lot more people than just one blogger. However, I do believe that we can move beyond a simple liberal environmentalism to a fuller ecoliberalism, and that it’s vital we do so to keep liberalism moving forward, adapting to circumstance and developing as it has done for hundreds of years.

    , , , ,

    Look, here’s a picture of my party’s leader being impressive with a world leader:cleggromney
    Yes, that’s certainly an impressive sight of him looking not at all uncomfortable with a major world figure. Or it’s a picture of him doing a weird thing with his hands while talking to Mitt Romney. That’s all right, though, as I’ve definitely got a picture of him looking confident and relaxed while President Obama is hanging on his every word, and definitely not looking past him on his way out of the room: cleggobama
    I only bring this up because apparently Lib Dem Voice and others think this is meaningful political commentary:


    Ho ho ho! Ed Miliband’s looking awkward again, isn’t it hilarious! There’s no way he’s just having a serious discussion with one of the world’s most powerful people in a time of several international crises and, by applying basic common sense, has realised it’s not a time to look relaxed and jovial.

    When they said ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ they didn’t mean that it needed its own version of Heat magazine or the Sidebar of Shame, yet that’s what a lot of supposed commentary has descended to. ‘Hey look! In this one picture we’ve plucked out of the thousands that were taken of them yesterday, politician X looks a bit awkward! That fits our narrative, so we’ll print it!’ is merely the political equivalent of ‘Are Celebrities X and Y about to break up? Look at these pictures of them out together, where we’ve only chosen the ones where they’re looking away from each other or not smiling to prove the point we’ve already decided. By the way, there’s absolutely no way that they’re looking angry or glum because what they thought was some private time has been disturbed in order for us to fill some space and attract some clicks.’

    Cherry-picking photos to make a fatuous point makes showbiz journalism look stupid, and if political commentary is going to go the same way, then we might as well give up now and replace voting with asking who’s got the best diet for fitting back into your Parliamentary suit after a recess.

    But to be fully equal opportunity, here’s a picture of David Cameron hovering awkwardly in the background while Obama plays table tennis. Happy now?
    cameronobama

    ,

    Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklin(This is the sixth 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, 3, 4, 5 and my original post on the book is here.)

    “It is only if people’s answers are their own that they will hold them with enough conviction to have any reasonable chance of acting on them.”

    Given how central issues of individual liberty are to modern liberalism, it can seem curious that Russell only introduces it as a key component quite late in the book. As I’ve noted before, though, Russell’s primary focus on liberalism as an ideology is historical, and individual liberty – as represented by Mill’s On Liberty – arrived quite late in the history of liberalism. It’s worth recalling that On Liberty is closer in time to the present day (and twentieth century evocations of liberal ideas like Popper, Rawls and others) than it is to Locke’s Two Treatises On Government. That’s not to say that liberalism didn’t care about individual rights and liberty before Mill but more that, as Russell’s general thesis suggests, liberals hadn’t worked through the full implications of their principles in such depth until Mill wrote. Numerous radicals – John Wilkes, for instance – had called for greater civil liberty for the individual, and that empowerment of the individual had been part of the Radical tradition, but it perhaps took Mill to bring it more tightly into the Liberal fold. (And as Russell points out, it took some time before his ideas were widely accepted, even within liberalism)

    It’s interesting to note how much an invocation of Mill is sometimes taken as Holy Writ (as I parodied here) and purely by chance, this link appeared on Twitter as I was writing this post. Note the key question is not ‘Do the principles espoused by Mill favour regulating pornography?’ but ‘would Mill regulate pornography?’ to which the answer should only be ‘he’s long dead, so what does it matter?’. The key point for liberalism is the principle Mill espoused, notably the harm principle:

    The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

    Like all good political principles, it’s simple enough to state but closer examination reveals its very wide implications, and it could well be argued that we are still working through the full implications of it, not least the question of what limits apply to the ‘prevent harm to others’ clause.

    As Russell discusses, one of the important changes in liberalism that Mill introduced – and the implications of which have unfolded over the century since – has been the decoupling of politics and morality. That is not to claim that Mill render all politics immoral, but that following the harm principle includes the recognition that it is not the place of politics to legislate morality. This is perhaps one of the important victories – in British politics, at least – of the harm principle in the recognition that merely offending someone does not harm them. That’s not to say that battle is fully won, but the principle moves forward through a number of small victories and it’s interesting that Russell mentions equal marriage as a potential future battle, anticipating what would come over the next decade or more.

    Indeed, Russell reveals here views that were perhaps not as mainstream then as they are now, even though it was only fifteen years ago. It’s a reflection of how fast we have moved in some areas but also how he was able to work through the consequences of the principles of liberalism to understand that certain issues needn’t be contentious, for instance the simple belief that it’s not for the state to proscribe what a family is or isn’t but just to accept that those who believe they are a family, are a family. That simple principle that individuals who are harming no one else should be free to live their lives how they see fit is at the core of liberalism because it builds from the earliest principles of it. It says that there is a definite limit to all power, that it should not affect the individual without their consent, and that our strength lies in our pluralism and diversity, where the individual’s voice isn’t silenced.

    It strikes me that there is one area Russell left out of the book that might reflect the times he wrote it in. Issues of privacy, surveillance and civil liberty were on the political agenda in the 1990s, particularly with the increased prevalence of CCTV as the cost of implementing it fell, but they hadn’t reached the levels they did over the next decade, particularly after September 11th, and that probably explains why he left them out of his account. New Labour had yet to fully reveal its full authoritarian streak in 1999, and the world was still in the last flush of optimism after the end of the Cold War, and the era of the surveillance state appeared to be waning.

    Sorry, was just indulging in a spot of nostalgia for an easier time there, but it’s easy to see how an optimist like Russell might have regarded that as a battle that had been won and did not need to be fought again in the pages of his book. This, though, is another battle where authoritarian urges of the state come up against fundamental principles – and perhaps explain why it’s when they’re thought to have given way on issues like this in Government, the Liberal Democrat leadership have faced some of the biggest backlash from the membership, as he may have anticipated when he wrote

    Liberalism is what liberal members believe, and that part of their task is to remind Liberal governments of it when they become unduly tempted by power.

    Liberal principles say that the state shouldn’t have arbitrary powers over the individual and the individual has the right to live their life free of interference. Again, this is where we see liberal principles intertwining – liberalism wants to limit the power of the state and protect the individual, both of which are threatened by the desires of an over-mighty state to see everything and use that as a basis for control. It becomes a question of where you draw the line on the harm principle and if one can justify actions of restricting liberty because you feel that is the only way to prevent some possible future harm. It’s an ongoing debate, and one I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer for, though one liberal principle in any of this would be to question whether these are powers to be used in relation to individuals, groups or entire populations? One can legitimately believe an individual is going to cause harm given the right evidence, but can it ever be justified to monitor a large group or an entire population on a fishing expedition to find that evidence and justification? The liberal principle would say that no it isn’t, that it is giving the state arbitrary powers and establishing the machinery of repression.

    This is how liberalism comes to assert the importance of individual liberty. Liberalism recognises that power needs to be controlled and limited, and the ability to do that lies within individuals, which brings us to the quote I started this post with. Liberalism cannot force liberty on to people in the name of creating a free utopia, it can only inform and persuade in the hope they accept it. All power rests on consent, but that must be truly informed consent that can only come with an understanding and acceptance of liberty, not an assumption of it.

    , ,

    earth(This is the fifth 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, 3, 4 and my original post on the book is here.)

    When it comes to internationalism, Russell’s historical account of the development of liberal thought shows how the application of consistent principles to international affairs over the years have resulted in very different outcomes of liberal policy as the international situation has shifted. It’s interesting – and not at all coincidental – to note that liberalism began to form as a coherent ideology in the middle of the seventeenth century, just as the modern world system of nation-states came into being after the treaties of Westphalia. As we’ve seen from previous posts, liberalism is centred on the principle of consent, and Westphalia, in a very limited fashion initially, introduced the idea that political power did involve consent and was not merely about the application of absolute power downwards.

    However, while there may have been a nascent potential for internationalism in liberalism from its beginnings, it couldn’t develop into a fully-formed part of it until it became practical from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Even at that point, internationalism was primarily an idea of the elites, particularly in Britain, as mass transport and mass communication were yet to arrive on the scene and most people would have had little conception of what was happening within the rest of the country, let alone outside its borders. As Russell notes, during that period there was an alliance of liberalism and nationalism, as revolutionaries sought to overthrow the old systems to replace them with nation-states built on the consent of the people, but then the two diverged as the realisation dawned upon liberals that nationalism had released the monsters that would haunt the twentieth century. At first impression, nationalism had seemed to Gladstone and others as a way to create governments based on consent rather than authority, but time would reveal that the complexities of identity and community would make that wish impossible to realise.

    Thus, while the principle of consent remains important, in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond we can see the other core principle of liberalism at work in the international system – that all power must be able to be controlled. The principle of consent believed that control could be solely applied from below and that states would be controlled by the granting or refusing of power from their people, which may have seemed plausible to nineteenth century elites. However, the twentieth century had shown that states now had enough power (following industrialisation, mass media etc) to be able to influence and control their people. If power could not be controlled solely from below, then liberal internationalism would support control from above.

    This is how we come to have the liberal internationalism we see today, and that I touched on in the post on pluralism, where power is controlled by being dispersed and no one – especially no government – is above the law. It’s actually one of the great successes of international liberalism that so much has changed since 1945 in establishing an international system that’s generally in line with liberal principles. Perhaps there’s an interesting lesson in the way the international system has developed, in that it’s mostly been an organic and responsive process rather that’s been driven by necessity rather than by campaigning?

    That is not to say that we have a perfect system, as can be seen by either looking at the world we live in or looking at how many people are out there propounding their theories of international relations (still one of the consistently growing fields in academic social sciences). There are many liberals who are absolutely sure they know the way to fix everything – in domestic and international affairs – if only everyone would agree to adopt their specific way of doing things. This is something Russell notes, and explains why his section on internationalism ends with a Popper-esque warning against dreaming of utopias:

    All utopias depend on one person’s vision taking priority over another’s and therefore they all come into existence, if at all, by the draconian enforcement of one person’s vision on others. All utopias are potentially dictatorial. The beauty of the idealism is soon taken to obscure the beastliness of the enforcement. This is why utopias are not a liberal pursuit. A creed which is founded on consent and on respect for difference of ideals is one which can dream dreams, but when awake, it can never be utopian without abandoning its own essence.

    This, I think, is the core of liberal internationalism that is sometimes forgotten by those that use the term. It’s interesting that Russell wrote this four years before we were led into war in Iraq in service of a supposed ‘liberal internationalism’ that essentially argued that it could bring about a liberal end by the use of illiberal means. Those ends, of course, were never delivered, but even if they could have been, the true meaning of internationalism within liberalism is that it applies to everyone. Part of the lessons liberals learnt in the twentieth century was that the elite liberalism that had encouraged nationalism in the nineteenth century had been a mistake, and one of the lessons twenty-first century liberalism is learning is a similar lesson that liberal ends cannot be achieved, no matter how tempting they may appear:

    However desperate the need for haste, there are no short cuts. Desperate need for haste does not make it possible to do a job faster than it can be done. The route by consent may be painfully slow, but it is the only route which does not become dictatorial and therefore self-defeating. It may not be fast enough to do what is needed, but it is the only route there is.

    I think this rejection of utopia and promotion of the importance of consent provides a very interesting idea for liberalism in international affairs. It’s not a vision of ‘this is where we must get to, now plot a route to get us there regardless’ more ‘these are the routes available, which best represents our principles?’ It fits in with Russell’s general view of liberalism as principles that have emerged from dealing with power in reality, rather than drawing up utopian visions and then expecting to be able to conform reality to fit with that vision. However, it also rejects the conservative interpretation of ‘this is how things are, and we better not change much in case we make it worse’ in saying that things can be better as long as we hold on to our principles.

    Even though Russell doesn’t acknowledge it, this is surely borrowed from Karl Popper’s vision of the Open Society (and I sense that I may need to follow up this project with a reread of The Open Society and Its Enemies) which rejects the utopias of Plato and Marx but advocates that it is possible to make a better world if we accept that it is not a simple thing to do and we must be aware of the pitfalls of believing in utopias. We cannot use the end of a supposed liberal utopia to justify means that are not liberal, because once we abandon our principles, they do not automatically come back and forgive us our deviations. A liberal order can only be built by people acting liberally and the final shape it might take can only be based on consent.

    , ,