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.

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Me, elsewhere

You can see my summer reading choices at Liberal England.


One of the first books I read this year was Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, which I’ve found absolutely fascinating. Westen is a clinical psychologist and a supporter of the Democrats in the US, who had been progressively frustrated over a period of years by the party’s inability to fight back against the Republican method of doing politics. In The Political Brain, he sets out to examine politics and political communications from a psychological perspective, and to propose ways in which Democrats can fight back.

Westen’s main hypothesis (as reflected in the book’s subtitle) is that emotion is a key component in successful political communication. One of the reasons Al Gore and John Kerry lost their elections was because they didn’t connect emotionally with the American public while George W Bush did. Both men believed that they had the right answers to the questions that faced America, but they were too busy convincing the voters of that case intellectually to make the case emotionally. The Republicans, on the other hand, exploited emotional appeals – especially to fear – perfectly, and thus swung the elections their way.

However, Westen isn’t arguing for Democrats to ape the Republicans in fear-mongering and demagoguery. What he does instead is look at significant academic research into how the brain works to explain why certain types of messaging are effective and others aren’t. He doesn’t argue that Democrat policy should change, merely the way that policy is communicated. The book was originally written in 2006, so there’s very little mention of Obama in it, but the point is made effectively in looking at Bill Clinton. Because he could make a powerful emotional connection with voters either through TV or one-on-one, people felt an emotional connection to him they didn’t feel to his opponents or rivals. (One thing I’ve heard in various accounts of people meeting Clinton is that no matter how trivial the encounter, he always gives the impression that listening to that person is the most important thing in the world to him at that moment)

One of Westen’s principal arguments is that the core of any political communication has to be a narrative about the party and/or the candidate, and that while having a list of worthy policies is important, they need to fit into an overall framework. However, that doesn’t mean that just any narrative will do. Westen sets out a set of rules for effective narratives that I think often get missed by people who appear to have read the book. A narrative can’t just be ‘we’re for nice things and against nasty things’ and it shouldn’t designed to appeal to everyone. Any compelling narrative has the structure of a story, and that needs antagonists to work. For instance, Westen points out that the successful Republican narrative in the US relies on demonising a ‘liberal elite’ who want to stop the brave Republicans from making America great again. Westen argues – quite persuasively – that Democrats need to take the fight back to the Republicans, though that doesn’t mean going in the same low vein as them.

In that spirit, he provides notable examples of what defeated Democrat candidates could (and should) have said in some famous circumstances. As he points out, the responses of candidates like Dukakis, Gore and Kerry to attacks on them were factually correct but didn’t connect emotionally. This was originally written and published before the 2008 US election but one key to Obama’s victory then and last year was that he was willing to take the fight to the Republicans.

Westen explains that our brains work by making networks of associations between people, concepts, images and ideas. Political communication needs to activate certain networks to be more effective, and the most effective way to activate networks is through the use of emotion. People are mostly making emotional judgements about candidates and parties based on what they perceive as their narrative long before they make ones based on specific policy points.

What’s also important about the book is that Westen writes as an academic who’s moved into politics, not as a political operative trying to justify his viewpoints and angle for more work. Usually, when he makes a point about the effectiveness or not of certain tactics and language, it’s because there’s evidence to back it up, and his wide knowledge of psychology means he can bring in studies that weren’t explicitly political but have an important bearing on the subject.

I heartily recommend reading The Political Brain to anyone with an interest in politics and political campaigning (and buying it through the link above makes me a few pennies) but it’s also prompted some thoughts on British politics in the light of it. It’s clear that there are people in British politics who’ve read The Political Brain – and some of them have even understood it – but a lot of it hasn’t broken into regular discussion yet.

I was going to take a look at some of Westen’s points and how they relate to British politics in this post, but it’s already getting quite long, and I think they’re best put into a separate post to follow this before it turns into a book in itself.

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I dropped out of the ‘reviewing every book I read habit’ while attempting it last year, and I’m not planning to pick it up. However, I do like writing the occasional book review, and as part of the concerted effort to blog here more often, expect to see the occasional one dotted in amongst the political rants.

A Dance With Dragons is obviously the fifth book in the series, so if you haven’t read the others yet, be warned that there will be spoilers. If you’re watching Game Of Thrones on TV, then this really will spoil you for stuff that’s coming up in the next season. So if you don’t want to know any more, look away now…

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(An attempt at satire. Contains spoilers for the first couple of novels in A Song Of Ice And Fire and the Game of Thrones TV series until the middle of series two)

The politics of Westeros are currently dominated by the actions of the great noble Houses. On the surface, these Houses seem to have existed in their current form for hundreds of years, but closer examination reveals that they have all moved great distances from the lands they originally occupied, even if they have renamed places within their new lands with old names to present some form of continuity with the past. All of course covet the mythical ‘centre ground’, though none know exactly where it lies.

Currently dominant, though not in absolute power, are House Lannistory, renowned for the folk saying ‘a Lannistory always gets someone else to pay his debts’. Led by Lord Camwin, they currently hold power thanks to their alliance with House Libertheon, though some are dissatisfied by the compromises this has entailed. Camwin is obsessed with his legacy and with berating subordinates for not following his orders. He has sent the impish Lord Borion to rule King’s Landing in his stead, but now wonders if that is a good idea, as Borion appears to be building his own power base there. Lord Camwin has tried to replace the House sigil with a tree, but many think it should remain a roaring (and very British) lion.

House Libertheon, known for it’s sigil of a black animal on a yellow background, can point back centuries to when its ancestors were kings, though they tend to mumble a lot when asked about what happened in between. They share power with House Lannistory, though some question whether young King Nicholas has any Libertheon blood in him, or if he is actually a complete Lannistory. House loyalists have rallied around Lord Visionis with his claim to represent pure Libertheonism and the Orange Heart of the Lord of Liberal Reform. Others look to the younger Lord Socially, and his belief that the House should work closer with House Toiler.

House Toiler are well known by their red rose sigil, and were the dominant power of the land before their overthrow by the Lannistories. They are known for their occasionally progressive attitudes towards minority groups, but also for their ability to get involved in many different wars in support of their allies. Internal Toiler politics are complex, with brother often turning upon brother – currently, one of the Maceband brothers leads the House – while other lords jockey for position.

Elsewhere, the North is ruled by House Scot, whose King Alex (his sigil a salmon on a D-shaped shield) has declared its independence, but he knows he must come south to win many battles before that is recognised. In the West, the Greylloys sometimes proclaim the independence of the Iron Islands, though some feel they should merely accept a better position in service to the rest of Westeros. The Iron Islands are known as a very wet place, whose inhabitants follow the Soaked God and proclaim that ‘what is dead may never Dai’.

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There’s just a week until the 2011 version of National Novel Writing Month kicks off, and as with all my previous attempts at it, I haven’t decided whether or not I’ll have the time to do it this year.

However, one thing I can report is that there’ll be write-in events taking place here in Colchester to support it, so if you want to take part and give it a try why not come along? They’ll be at Fifteen Queen Street on Thursdays from 7.30, or if you want that information in the form of an image:
National Novel Writing Month will be here in November. Here i... on Twitpic
There’s also a Nanowrimo Essex group on Facebook with details of events all around the county.

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2011 books: Catch up

Oops, haven’t written here for a while, and have also slipped behind on the regular reading too. Only three books finished in the few weeks since my last post, and they were:

30) A Storm of Swords by George RR Martin

The longest part yet of A Song Of Ice And Fire, and would perhaps have counted as two books if I wasn’t reading the single Kindle edition. Still very good, and an interesting depiction of a world descending into hell, with each chink of light ruthlessly extinguished as another plot comes to light.

31) Rule 34 by Charles Stross

The sequel to Halting State, Stross returns to near-future Scotland for a crime story that’s equal parts Brookmyre and Orwell. A very interesting extrapolation of current trends in society and policing, laden down with the usual rapid-fire of ideas that you expect from Stross.

32) I, Patridge: We Need To Talk About Alan by Alan Partridge (Armando Ianucci, Steve Coogan et al

The autobiography of a broadcasting legend, whose career I’ve followed since he burst to national prominence on Radio 4′s On The Hour and Knowing Me, Knowing You. It reveals just how this major talent’s career has been blighted by the jealousy of lesser talents and the short-sightedness of broadcasting management (usually at the BBC). Includes a harrowing account of his descent into Toblerone addiction – I, for one, will never look on their chocolate-honey-nougat prisms with quite the same innocence from now on – though needless to say, he has the last laugh.

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I think this may be the first time I’ve read a novel by a blogger (as opposed to reading the blogs of novelists) but if others are up to this standard, then I might have to find more.

The Ministry Of Love is, as far as I’m aware, only available as an e-book from Amazon (and for a ridiculously low price), but it might be a good reason to get a Kindle, or at least a Kindle app for some other device as it’s the sort of book that will definitely appeal to the sort of people who read this sort of blog. O’Mahony’s like a benevolent version of Christopher Brookmyre, most notably in the fact that one The Ministry Of Love‘s subplots has wandered straight in from A Snowball In Hell. However, while Brookmyre’s attitude often seems to be that the whole world is going to hell and is only held back by the work of a few decent people, O’Mahony takes a somewhat more optimistic view of the human race.

More after the cut, but there be spoilers for the novel there so don’t read if you want to approach it with fresh eyes. I definitely recommend giving it a try, though – it’s easily worth £1.14 of anyone’s money.

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With the Tour de France over for another year, I decided to stretch out the experience of it a little by reading Boulting’s behind-the-scenes account of reporting on the Tour from 2003 to 2010. He’ll be familiar to viewers of cycling on ITV4 as the main field reporter for the Tour de France, and also as the presenter of the Tour Series and Tour of Britain (which means he gives Colchester the briefest of mentions late in the book).

This is the story of how Boulting went from being an out-of-his-depth football reporter dispatched to cover the Tour (the ‘Yellow Jumper’ of the title comes from his disastrous first Tour broadcast) to a passionate fan of cycling. It’s the sort of book that could have descended into Partridgean anecdotage, but while I haven’t checked, I don’t believe ‘needless to say, I had the last laugh’ features anywhere in the book.

Rather than going into the day-by-day minutiae of each Tour he’s covered, Boulting instead presents a series of vignettes about life on the tour, most of which go on to reveal a much wider picture of one of the world’s largest sporting events. We get to see what goes on to bring the Tour to TV screens worldwide, from how Gary Imlach keeps his clothing crease-free to how much of a task it is to feed a small army of journalists every day. In the process, we see how Boulting goes from being almost entirely ignorant of professional cycling to an experienced and somewhat cynical reporter. Indeed, it’s his honesty that helps to lift this book above the humdrum, and you suspect that if he was working in a sport that wasn’t as routinely scandalous as cycling, his candidness (about doping, the personalities of some of the sport’s stars and the somewhat bizarre world of Team Sky) might see him uninvited from future events.

Boulting’s an amusing writer, and one able to keep perspective on his situation. While there are complaints about what it’s like to live on the road in France amidst a moving army for three weeks, he knows that most of his readers will envy him his job and the privileges that go with it, not pity him for it. The one thing the book lacks, though, is a definite ending. When he talks about the first rumours of Team Sky’s launch in 2008, it’s almost a foreshadowing of the end of an era, but the Tour remains on ITV4, with many of the same team who started covering it on Channel 4 in the 80s still there. For those of us who’ve been watching during those twenty-five years, it’s a good read and recommended.

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Not had much of a chance to read over the last few weeks, and when I have, my time’s been occupied by this rather detailed look at life in Britain during its time as part of the Roman Empire. The focus is a bit more archaeological than historical compared to my usual reading, but still had lots of interesting information about life during the period. Not one to read if you’re looking for a simple history of the period, but the wealth of detail does make it useful and interesting if you have the time.

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