Tag Archives: commentariat

Suzanne Moore and freedom of speech. So. Much. Nonsense.

lynn_1802176cTry as I might, I can’t stop getting annoyed by the whole debate surrounding Suzanne Moore and her continuing feud with the so-called “trans cabal” (this isn’t really an article by the way, just a series of random points – but at least it is mercifully shorter than my last effort).

Yesterday, Moore wrote a bizarre article in which we sought to argue that her persecution at the hands of transgender and queer activists is a freedom of speech issue.

What’s got her and, for example, Padraig Reidy at the Index on Censorship, jumping up and down is that the International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone tweeted on Sunday that she thought Julie Burchill should have been “sacked” for her Observer article attacking transgender people. Now, for the record, I don’t think Featherstone’s intervention was very sensible. As has been pointed out by others ad infinitum, Burchill is a freelancer and any intervention by a government minister was bound to end up a distraction – and so it has proven. Both Reidy and Moore have leapt on this as an example of state censorship and proof that Leveson report is dangerous nonsense that will lead to government interference of newspapers. The fact that this was a junior minister who is a member of a junior coalition partner just expressing her personal opinion (and the fact that Leveson wasn’t actually arguing for a government body to regulate the media but rather self-regulation underpinned by a statute to be overseen by the judiciary) gets ignored amidst all the shrieking.

The fact is, this is not a freedom of speech issue. The Observer did not take down the Burchill article (and I agree with Jane Fae that it was counterproductive for them to do so) because of Lynne Featherstone or any other government minister’s intervention – you can bet they’d be shouting about it right now if they had done so. It will be interesting to see what they say about it on Sunday but right now it appears that the editor John Mulholland took it down for the exact same reason he put it up in the first place: good old fashioned venality. They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind.

I’m highly suspicious of people who are quick to leap up and down about Featherstone’s intervention being somehow sinister and an attack on civil liberties, while being so blithe about the assymetric power dynamic between Moore and her critics. There are a lot of pissed off trans and queer people out there right now who feel that Moore has been using her considerably privileged media platform to utterly misrepresent them in this debate. Again, Stavvers sums it up better than I could. What I don’t understand is why Moore is sticking to her guns in terms of her right to express her “anger and pain” while at the same time is so utterly blind at the fact that the people who are furious with her are doing exactly the same thing. At the end of her article she writes:

So I regret not making it clearer that we need both love and anger to be free. And you may continue to hate me, put me on lists, cast me out of the left. Free-thinking is always problematic. But if you take away my freedom to love, be intemperate, silly, angry, human, ask yourself who really wins? Who?

Yet it has been clear from the get go, that the problem has been her capacity to love in the first place. She escalated this row, and she continues to do so on an hourly basis on Twitter. As Deborah Orr said in response to her latest (at the time of writing) explicit troll:

The most telling line in Moore’s article is when she compares Featherstone to being a “humourless, authoritarian moron” (my emphasis). She isn’t the first to imply, or even express out loud that the problem at the heart of this debate is people who just “can’t take a joke”. Usually claims of humourlessness are the preserve of people like Jeremy Clarkson in their unending defence of “banter“. I’ve seen an awful lot of people over the past week making pretty similar defences, only suggesting that it is only transgender people and their friends who need to “get over it”. For some reason we are supposed to feel great at the progress we’ve made in fighting cissexism, homophobia and racism – yet we are meant to accept that trans people are an exception it is fine to laugh at and casually dehumanise. The debate seems, at its heart, to be between people who see this as an intolerable contradiction and people who don’t.

Finally, if we are to believe that this is a freedom of speech issue, and that Lynne Featherstone represents an oppressive, authoritarian government determined to crack down on the freedom of expression, why is it that the same government has just this week agreed to scrap Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986? Both Padraig Reidy and Suzanne Moore chose to ignore this inconvenient little factoid. In the case of Reidy, and the Index on Censorship, they have failed to acknowledge this at all on either their blog or weekly email newsletter. Perhaps this is because it’s a little bit of state oppression that never really affected journalists? Throughout this week I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that the real anxieties at the heart of this debate are rooted in professional self-interest rather than any genuinely noble concerns about the state of democracy; I’ve seen very little to shift this notion.

Suzanne Moore and ever decreasing circles

Suzanne-Moore-006I’ve been pondering over whether to write a post about identity politics-centred twitterstorms for a while now, but each time I get close to doing so, I back off. The reason? A fear of getting engulfed in the same maelstrom that I’d be commenting on. That in itself is probably a good reason to write, but I think I should start off with a number of disclaimers.

Firstly, this blog is primarily a means by which I seek to order my own thoughts. I welcome other people’s constructive feedback because that, in turn this helps to further order my thoughts. If people agree or are inspired by what I say that’s tremendous. What it most certainly is not is an attempt to lecture people or hector them. If you are tempted to verbally assault me for anything I write here, please consider for a moment that it may just be that we disagree (or that you don’t like what I have to say) rather than assume I am being condescending or trying to silence you. I am certainly not attempting to speak for anyone other than myself.

Secondly, my knowledge of gender studies is almost certainly defective although I do my best to look up and understand unfamiliar terms. If I get any concepts wrong here (in fact, I’ve ended up largely trying to avoid them to make this article as accessible as possible), then I’m sorry and would be happy to make a correction if you point them out.

Thirdly, I’m writing this as someone who has been a political campaigner for 18 years (Has it really been 18 years?) and in the spirit of support for cultural and economic equality for everyone regardless of their identity or background. I hope that anyone who reads this will find it interesting and useful. In all likelihood, it won’t be. Either way, please read it with that in mind rather than view it automatically with suspicion as something written by a white, middle aged, middle class, southern English man in an exclusive, long term heterosexual relationship.

Why all the disclaimers and nervousness? Because some of the people involved in this storm are people I have tremendous respect and admiration for, and I really don’t want to fall out with them. At the same time, it feels as if the battle lines have been drawn in this debate and people seem to get pigeonholed (or indeed pigeonhole themselves) on one side of the debate or the other within seconds. Rational or not, it does feel somewhat as if the odd wrong word here or there is liable to blow up in my face. From reading Stella Duffy’s article on the Suzanne Moore row, it would appear that it isn’t just white middle class men who have this anxiety.

I genuinely can’t decide whether it is to queer feminists’ credit or detriment that I’m as concerned as I am about blundering into this debate as I am in a way that I wouldn’t think twice about in pretty much any other subject (I blog on all subjects these days much less than I do, but that has more to do with a fear of repeating myself than actually offending anyone). People being mindful of the language they use is a good thing; sclerosis caused by a fear about unintentionally offending people is not. Disagreeing in public with someone you like – especially if that person is experiencing a crisis to a greater or lesser extent – is much harder than disagreeing with someone you don’t.

It’s further complicated by my indecision about to what extent I actually disagree or who I disagree with. When considering the recent rows between, for example, Caitlin Moran and her critics over the last few weeks, there have been numerous times when I’ve switched sides as a new fact here or there emerged.

Finally there is the fact that I’m not perfect, and indeed my own views are evolving. My interest in feminism over the past decade, and especially over the last five years, has increased enormously partly as I’ve changed and partly as what I perceived as a rather sterile debate has revived itself. Would I blunder into the “female political blogosphere” debate quite as cackhandedly and insensitively as I did five years ago? One of the problems with having views which are emergent, is that you are rarely confident of them, especially when there are things you are on the record of having written in the recent past which you are not entirely proud of.

Anyway, enough introspection and onto the main purpose of this article. I can’t really improve on Stavvers’ analysis of the Suzanne Moore row (at least as of Friday; it has moved on since then). For me though, the most depressing moment was when I saw Graham Linehan tweet this:


Needs finessing, but a new logo for Twitter?  on Twitpic
I know a lot of people dismissed Linehan’s views a long time ago as just another member of the privileged elite closing ranks, but I was genuinely surprised to see someone who considers himself to be on the left making such a crass intervention; this isn’t so much Jeremy Clarkson-lite as Jeremy Clarkson. Even as an adolescent in the 80s in a boys school for whom women were an alien species, Millie Tant seemed like a particular low point for Viz. The jokes seemed to be just a little bit too obvious; the target just a tiny bit too easy; the strip just a teensy bit too defensive. The implication of Linehan’s tweet was that we are going back to a point in which feminism and mainstream culture simply had nothing to say to each other and that he, as part of the mainstream, was putting as much distance between it and himself as possible.

Suzanne Moore’s wounds this week were entirely self inflicted. Her response to her critics was to give them both barrels and ended up escalating the argument from a small matter of poor taste and judgement to becoming grossly offensive in a matter of minutes. What I hope her most fervent critics have noticed however is that an awful lot of sensible, rational supporters of equality ended up taking her side. In most cases, that was a kneejerk reaction having failed to bother reading the debate, let alone what Moore herself actually said (today’s revulsion by many of the same people to the Julie Burchill article in which she does little more than repeat the thrust of Moore’s argument suggests that), but who can say they don’t depend on heuristics when it comes to taking side in a debate?

It seems to me that there’s a perception problem here that somehow needs to get tackled. The problem is, we seem to be experiencing a case of ever decreasing circles here. As Stavvers writes:

Privileged person nakedly articulates something privileged or wrong or harmful. It pisses off those who are harmed by it–or those who know just how harmful such naked articulations of privilege can be. We express this. We are told not to be angry, or rude, to be rational and logical. It is all derailed. The privileged person fails to learn, change, grow, be better. They act as though they are the victim of some unreasonable mob, never giving a second’s thought to why people are angry.

I understand and share Stavvers’ and others’ frustration at this. Where (I think) I disagree with her is that the answer is to plough on, getting steadily angrier, until the “revolution” arrives (ironically of course, Suzanne Moore’s article which started this latest cycle was also in defence of anger).

Notwithstanding the fact that Burchill may have indirectly helped matters by laying her transphobia bare for all to see in her defence of Moore, I don’t see this circle and widening gulf ending well for the queer feminists. The greater danger is a return to the situation in the 90s in which feminists, when they occasionally emerged blinking into the spotlight of mainstream attention at all, had nothing more to say other than that the fight had been won by a mixture of Thatcherism, Madonna and the Spice Girls. It’s been quite refreshing to see women of the generation after mine take ownership of feminism in the way that women (let alone men) of my generation largely did not. At the moment, I worry that this trend may be on the verge of reversing.

None of this is intended to let the commentariat off the hook. The target of much of this ire recently has been Caitlin Moran. Helen Lewis wrote a blog a couple of weeks ago which went through many of the Caitlin Moran controversies. I found it genuinely enlightening, and it presents a much more sympathetic figure in Moran than her critics tend to present. But if the defenders of Moore were guilty of letting their prejudices about her critics blind them to what she actually wrote, and this is a problem queer feminists must tackle, then the same can be said of Moran. She’s got herself into a rut, with people who ought to be her champions hating her. And it’s happened because she lets her temper and weakness for a cheap gag and playing to the audience get the better of her too often. She’s allowed herself to become surrounded by a group of likeminded writers who, like her, have gone from fearing the mob to actively baiting it. And in doing so, all too often she betrays the values she espouses.

Is rapprochement really too much to ask for? Is the gulf between these two sides really so great? It is terribly fashionable to say that the left likes its infighting, but I’m not sure that actually applies to more than a minority; most people just find it all rather alienating.

For the commentariat, the demands are pretty simple: have a bit of care for your language and don’t make a minority group which faces prejudice and oppression the butt of a cheap laugh, no matter how “accessible” that makes you as a writer (I don’t believe this anyway; in what way would Suzanne Moore’s article have been undermined if she’s replaced “Brazilian transsexual” with “supermodel”? If anything it would have made it more accessible). If you lose your temper on Twitter, like Moran did when she ill-advisedly told someone she “literally couldn’t give a shit about” women of colour, then expect a storm. As a public figure, you can’t complain when it leads to a load of abuse any more than any politician could do so if they made a gaffe.

And there’s the rub. Because what a lot of this row feels like to me is a group of people who are incredibly uncomfortable with the slow dawning realisation that social media, a thing they hitherto embraced as a great leveller, is leading to increased scrutiny and thus accountability that they assumed would only happen to “them” – the politicians, bankers and business people who they perceived as alien and thus the problem. It must be a horrible feeling to suddenly realise you are perceived in much the same way as the people you yourself consider to be the establishment.

As someone who, in a previous lifetime, was a relatively high profile Liberal Democrat blogger and activist, that level of scrutiny and, yes, abuse, is something I take for granted (admittedly, at a lower level). Yes, it is often difficult to deal with and you wouldn’t be human if you always dealt with it with that perfect blend of diplomacy, tact and humour that is often necessary. But however unfair much of it is, it’s a fact of life.

It is worth noting that when politicians get abuse on social media they don’t, as a rule, attempt to smear all their critics with the same brush when responding to it. A few exceptions exist, notably people like Nadine Dorries. Here then is a hint, journalists: if you invite comparisons to Nadine Dorries, you are doing it wrong. Unlike Nadine Dorries however, all too often they get away with it; their supporters simply swallow it as fact when of course it isn’t. That’s a repository of good will which is being abused. Optimistically, I’d like to think that the commentariat will simply calm down after a few years as it learns to take the rough with the smooth of social media. There is however a chance that they will simply continue to close ranks. I doubt this will do newspaper sales many favours (accountability of journalism is also a theme of the Leveson report and thus received a similarly over the top and defensive response from journalists, but I think I’ll leave that hanging for now).

For queer feminists, the challenge is somewhat more amorphous, not least of all because it is a more amorphous grouping. The fact is that there are a lot of people out there who will happily jump on anyone they disagree with on Twitter and start issuing the death threats and piling on the abuse. James Ball triumphantly spent this afternoon retweeting a number of the ones he received for making some mildly satirical comments.

I find the vogue on Twitter to express a desire to “kill” or “set on fire” anyone you happen to disagree with rather odd. It’s tempting to dismiss it on the basis that the individuals concerned can’t really mean it, are being satirical and that the correct interpretation is that it is simply shorthand for an expression is strident disagreement, but I think there’s probably a bit more to it than that (I also wonder, at the risk of sounding patronising, whether it is a cultural issue and that the generation who spent their adolescence using the internet simply developed a different grammar and cultural norms which us oldies can’t interpret). Either way I somehow doubt that, on a psychological level, having 20 people superficially threaten to kill you does anyone any good in terms of developing an open mind about their threateners’ opinions.

I’m not going to go down a cul-de-sac about whether right-minded people have a moral obligation to condemn the threats; I don’t think that particularly gets anyone anywhere. What I do question however is whether the rhetoric of self-righteous anger is particularly helpful. No injustice was ever resolved without at least one person being angry enough to do something about it; that’s pretty redundant. But I question that anger itself should be celebrated in the way that both Moore and Stavvers were suggesting.

A lot of the time the expression of anger is a just massive suck on energy. But it’s actually worse than that. As a tool, the expression of anger has only ever been effective when it has hit the right target and when there have been other tools at people’s disposal to back it up. The poll tax riots worked – but only because there was a political opposition to Thatcher which reaped the benefits politically. 2010’s student protests failed because there was no other channel with which to direct the rage; ironically, the Tories did a fantastic job at getting that rage deflected on the Lib Dems and using it against them during the AV referendum (and by doing so, ensuring that the political system remains as unresponsive as ever). Anger without being connected to anything is simply the verbal and/or political equivalent of letting off a machine gun in a crowded street and hoping it will hit the right target.

I’m reminded of the Guy Aitchison / Jeremy Gilbert dialogue in the book Regeneration (which I failed to review last year), in which Guy’s explanation of the protest movement’s strategy depressingly resembled the Underpants Gnomes’ business strategy in South Park. To be fair, this confusion between tactics and strategy is hardly a problem unique to the radical left (in the Lib Dems’ case, you can replace “anger” with “Focus leaflet” and reach pretty much the same conclusion – although admittedly all those leaflets have proven themselves to be far more effective than riots), but it is a massively under-appreciated one amongst lefties (of course, there isn’t a perfect overlap between queer feminists and the radical left, but there is hopefully sufficient crossover for it to give people pause for thought).

Suffice to say, by all means hold on to your anger – you need it and it will keep you going. But if you aren’t combining every protest and attack with a concerted effort to build bridges and alliances, all you will succeed in doing is alienating people who should be your allies and burning yourself out. Don’t let your anger end up blinding you into carving up the world into some Manichean divide of light and dark, or the light will just look increasingly dim. And don’t confuse genuine anger with casual irritation, which is all an emotionally stunted individual needs to start issuing death threats on Twitter. They aren’t angry; they’re just nasty.

But the other area in which people could improve matters is in communications. Gender studies is the only field I’ve come across in which a criticism over the use of inaccessible language is quite so frequently inferred to be an attack on the field itself. To be fair, cis- is a useful piece of shorthand as long as everyone is on the same page, but if you’re trying to convince someone who hasn’t come across the term that you aren’t being deliberately obscurantist, it simply isn’t helpful. “Intersectionality” is arguably even worse. Again, it isn’t the meaning of the term that I would take issue with (although the term does appear to have drifted from referring to an area of study to referring to an agenda), just the way the term seems to be so frequently held aloft like some kind of talisman. I’ve lost count of the number of tweets I’ve read over the last year that go along the lines of “I just don’t understand why people can oppose intersectionality”. If each time someone wrote something like that they replaced the i-word with something like “awareness that all women face discrimination and the importance of solidarity” (that can certainly be improved upon, but it’s less than 140 chars), an awful lot of progress would have been made. At its heart, this row is rooted in people being defensive in their use of language; a bit of give and take seems necessary on both sides. If your aim is to bring people on the fence over to your side, then speaking in terms they don’t find alienating is a basic step. I’m genuinely confused why this appears to have become such a shibboleth.

I hope that, as tempers start to cool, people on both sides of the divide might attempt to reach out to the other side. If they don’t, then it will simply be an opportunity wasted.

UPDATE: There was an observation I meant to make in this post about the double standard when it comes to “twitterstorms” but I forgot. It was simply an observation that some of the same people who I observed dismissing the idea that abuse on Twitter could effectively silence a feminist writer then went on to defend Suzanne Moore against those selfsame awful feminists. An example is Hayley Campbell here and here, although Hayley is by no means alone. I wanted to include this point not to single people out but to observe quite how tribal this whole debate has become.

UPDATE 2: A few links which I found interesting:

HIP with Lib Dem policy

Having read Polly Toynbee’s spiteful article attacking the Lib Dems and Tories for opposing Home Information Packs, I took no small amount of pleasure to find Ruth Kelly capitulating and putting the scheme back.

What annoyed me most about Toynbee’s article was that it stuck religiously to the rote of “something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done”. In short, if you oppose HIPs, you oppose tackling climate change. The truth is though, while the energy reports are a step in the right direction, they will only scratch the surface in terms of promoting the energy efficiency of homes.

Unreported by Polly, Chris Huhne and Andrew Stunell have published their own details proposals for what to do about greening the existing housing stock (pdf). If she thinks these are terrible plans, she should say so. Instead she has simply attacked them for failing to back the government’s woefully inadequate proposals. Whatever you might have thought about her in the past, she used to be an independent thinker: now she’s become a polemical government speak-your-weight machine. It’s sad.

My sandal-wearing, yoghurt weaving, beardy secret life exposed!

The readers of The Times must think I’m a right old Liberal stereotype, thanks to Mary Ann Sieghart:

You have to read these comments through the prism of the typical Lib Dem member. In general, Conservatives adore their leader, Labour activists tolerate him and Lib Dems would rather he didn’t exist. As James Graham writes on his Lib Dem Quaequam blog, “Like most sensible people, I see party leaders as a necessary evil.” In a Utopian world, Lib Dems would be like the Greens, with nobody allowed to tell them what to do.

That’s certainly what I wrote, but I like to think I was making a slightly more nuanced point than that. To continue the quote:

[Leaders] are necessary because you need a figurehead and you need someone in the driving seat; it is far better to have someone do this with a clear mandate than pretend you don’t have leaders in the way that the Green Party does and have lots of unelected demagogues jostling like cats in a sack. But they are bad because the leader themselves invariably develops a bunker mindset and even in a party such as the Lib Dems which has non-conformism and the importance of the individual flowing through its collective veins, a cult of personality invariably develops.

My point wasn’t that the Green Party doesn’t have leaders, but that it does and pretends not to. My experience of the Greens, based on personal observation and the testimony of lots of ex-members is that the factional feuding within the party is intense with lots of individuals trying the pull the party in different directions. Having anarcho-syndicalist Derek Wall at the top of the tree one minute and glamour-puss realo Caroline Lucas there the next isn’t not having a leader, it’s changing the captain partway through the voyage.

So yes, I suppose I would quite like to live in an ideal world where leadership wasn’t necessary, but I can’t see it ever working in practice. The Green Party is proof of that, not a refutation.

Thanks for the plug though Mary, and I agree with much of what you have to say. Although you might have pissed off a lot of Lib Dems by implying that I am ‘typical’.

The Janus faces of the commentariat

You wonder what planet these people are from sometimes. Iain Macwhirter writes:

The whole point of proportional representation is that it is supposed to prevent one-party rule.

No, the whole ‘point’ of proportional representation is that seats in the chamber should reflect votes. As it turns out, in Scotland, it has prevented one-party rule. A minority executive is neither unprecedented, nor necessarily unworkable.

Despite agreeing with 90% of the SNP manifesto – everything from local income tax to nuclear power – they refused even to sit down and talk about a coalition with the SNP, unless Alex Salmond abandoned his policy of a referendum on independence first.

This was something they knew he could not do, and was transparently an excuse for refusing to negotiate the coalition that Scotland expected.

The SNP hinted at a constitutional convention to look at the whole constitutional question – something the Liberal Democrats had campaigned for in the election.

Simply not true. The price the SNP were insisting on was Lib Dem support in Parliament for a referendum on independence, and that was the price Nicol Stephen was not prepared to pay. Sure, they were prepared to ‘compromise’ by making it a multi-option referendum, something which Salmond was confident he would be able to trash with the help of his pet millionaires like Souter. The Lib Dems would have been propping up an executive that was spending all its energies on making the case for independence. Something tells me that in a parallel universe where the Lib Dems did make this mistake, another Iain Macwhirter is currently ripping them to shreds.

The irony is that, across Scotland, Liberal Democrats and SNP councillors have been forming coalitions to run local authorities like Edinburgh.

That’s because the price isn’t a referendum on the independence of Edinburgh.

Moreover, it was the week Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness agreed a coalition in Northern Ireland assembly – but somehow the Liberal Democrat leader, Nicol Stephen, couldn’t even sit down with Alex Salmond.

That’s because even a former armed insurgent like Martin McGuinness isn’t insisting that Ian Paisley has to support a referendum on independence. Just what part of this aren’t you getting Macwhirter?

Now, Alex Salmond, first minister of Scotland, is in with a real chance of propelling Scotland out of the United Kingdom. It’s a funny old world.

Really? He’s going to get a referendum? How? Planet Macwhirter is a funny place to live.

Simon Jenkins: how many points can one person miss?

I suspect that one of the things that most irks Simon Jenkins is that despite the fact that he clearly loathes the Lib Dems, so many of us have a grudging affection for the old git (okay, not all of us). Maybe we’ll end up killing him with kindness. His article in the Guardian today is a real shame because while the first half is dreadfully woolly headed hack journalism, he does actually have an important point to make.

Okay, first the dreadful hack stuff:

Ask a Liberal Democrat what he or she is for and you get only a susurration of platitudes.

Ask the member of any political party in the abstract what they are for and you will get platitudes. Clause 4 is one long list of platitudes. The Conservative Party’s Big Brain Oliver Letwin got enormous publicity for his speech yesterday that sought to define his party with lots of platitudes.

The “what are the Lib Dems for?” rhetorical question is a peculiar one because it would appear that we are the only party who are required to answer it. In truth, all parties struggle to develop meaningful narratives and definitions. At best, parties can only articulate their principles with the broadest of brushes. When Letwin claims that the Conservatives are essentially a pragmatic party, the fact remains that all mainstream parties are fundamentally a mixture of pragmatism and ideology. The precise balance at any one time varies depending on a whole range of factors. That doesn’t make his point wrong – Labour and the Lib Dems are broadly more idealistic than the Tories – but it does suggest that no crude delineation will ever be sufficient.

So to answer Jenkins’ question with an inevitable platitude, the Lib Dems are about freedom. We might disagree from time to time about how much emphasis to put on economic, social and political freedoms. Occasionally – like all other parties – we may lose the plot entirely; we certainly have a problem persuading certain people at the top of the party to talk about such things. Similarly, Labour are ‘for’ social justice, the Tories are ‘for’ continuity and the status quo. If anything they have been less consistent over the past two decades than we have.

In Scotland the Lib Dem leader, Nicol Stephen, has decided it would be inappropriate to maintain Labour in power yet has told Alex Salmond’s nationalists he will not coalesce with him. He cannot tolerate a referendum on independence. That the party of Irish home rule should reject so liberal a proposal as territorial self-determination is odd. Nor was Salmond demanding support for independence, merely for a vote on it. Under PR there is a majoritarian argument against almost any controversial decision. So what do the Lib Dems fear? Instead they have exchanged responsibility without power for power without responsibility, and are retiring to carp from the backbenches. They will smoke potency but not inhale.

Here, Jenkins gets very confused as this paragraph directly contradicts his later assertion that we shouldn’t have anything to do with coalitions in the first place. But to answer his point (which is being made in lots of other places at the moment I notice), Nicol Stephen is correct to hold out against an independence resolution because that is what his party has just been elected on a platform on. You can guarantee that the same voices denouncing us for not going into coalition with the SNP on this basis would be just as shrilly condemning us if he had done so (indeed Jenkins’ article does read as if he wrote it before the party ruled out coalition thus requiring him to shoehorn in an alternative reason for having a dig).

Why are we any more spoilers on this issue than Labour or the Tories? If a vote on independence is such a trivial matter, why isn’t Annabel Goldie not being denounced for not cuddling up to Salmond equally? The biggest crime that Stephen (and, for that matter, Mike German) seem to be guilty of is not fulfilling what other people have judged is our preformatted role as kingmakers.

It would be ludicrous to go into a government where most of the cabinet was looking at every issue through an independence referendum prism. One of the things I have repeatedly tried to point out on this blog over the last few weeks is that separatism is not a simple matter: it will have an impact on every single policy issue and will potentially have all sorts of unforeseen consequences. I’m all for Citizens’ Initiatives, and I’m surprised that the SNP have not yet called the Lib Dems’ bluff by calling them to support a Bill for a general Initiative & Referendum system, but for independence to happen you need an executive fully committed to pushing it through in fine detail. It isn’t ‘just a vote’ for the simple reason that, despite Salmond’s assertion, independence is not reversible.

Frankly, it would be foolhardy for any government that doesn’t enjoy a majority to attempt it, as I suspect the Scots are about to witness. Refusing to pander to the SNP’s dogmatism isn’t ‘undemocratic’ – it is simple, old-fashioned, common sense.

I don’t entirely disagree with Jenkins however, although I really don’t understand why he feels it only applies to the Lib Dems:

Lib Dems claim a bizarre interpretation of democracy, that the share of votes should be reflected in a share in power. This confuses quite different concepts: executive government and assembly representation. The first requires a coherent team, a declared programme and some mechanism to account for its delivery to the electorate. To this end, France and the US directly elect presidents, governors and mayors. They are checked by a second concept, that of a separately elected assembly, in which PR is both fair and just.

It is true that the Lib Dems have no policy to decouple the executive from the legislature and are unlikely to adopt one in the foreseeable future. I would even agree with Jenkins that it would be nice if we did so. But is this really a criticism of the Lib Dems? Labour and the Tories are hopelessly confused on this point as well, it’s just that they work on the opposite misapprehension that the electoral system should be about electing an executive-by-proxy (the worst thing about this is that first past the post can’t even guarantee such an outcome – look at Canada where hung parliaments are now the norm). Don’t expect to see Cameron or Brown calling for full separation of powers any time soon.

In fact, the Lib Dems do at least acknowledge the problem. We have a longstanding commitment to reduce the payroll vote in the Commons and the Lords. We fight to promote the independence of Parliament and don’t use the whip in anything like the heavy-handed way Labour and the Tories do. I suspect there are more people in the Lib Dems who support full separation than there are in the other two parties combined.

In short then, Jenkins is attacking the Lib Dems for being both kingmakers and refusing to be kingmakers, for supporting a constitutional situation supported by all UK parties and for failing to define ourselves any better than any other party. Deadline or no deadline, he really ought to be able to do better than this.

Polly Toynbee – where do I start?

Polly Toynbee is waging her war against local democracy once again, insisting that only centralised super-states can be socially progressive and blithely ignoring the fact that all the Scandinavian countries she worships so much are far more decentralised that we can even dream.

This week, she has come up with the bizarre hypothesis that ‘localism’ and electoral reform are two mutually exclusive proposed solutions to democratic renewal. Of course, apart from the recent Tory and Labour converts to localism, the two reforms have always tended to go hand in hand. Indeed, how can you truly claim to want to bring decision making down to as low a level as possible while defending an electoral system that tends to ignore the votes of the majority of the people?

She bases her assertion on the fact that people voted on broadly national issues in the local elections, not local ones. Leaving aside the fact that I happen to think that isn’t true – the results varied wildly from council to council – why should we expect people to vote on local issues when local authorities don’t have any power? It’s not far off from bemoaning the fact that the votes cast in the Eurovision Song Contest aren’t about the quality of the music. Yes indeed they aren’t, but as it doesn’t really matter either way, so what?

If further prove were needed that Toynbee doesn’t really know what she’s talking about, she claims that the Lib Dem’s performance in the local elections was worse than Labour’s (it wasn’t), and that her preferred model for electoral reform is the Jenkins System which, erm, isn’t actually a proportional voting system. Indeed, it makes the partially proportional system used in Wales look representative.

While we’ll never know, I’m convinced that if Roy Jenkins was alive today he would be pleading for people to ignore the proposals he drafted for Blair back in 1999. They were an attempt to fudge the issue and come up with a system that Blair and the wider Labour Party would be willing to accept at a time when they were riding high with a 170 majority. Needless to say, they failed. He was too clever by half and didn’t satisfy anyone. Yet to this day I still hear people going on about it as if it were the Holy Grail. I’m convinced that in the centuries to come, whole organisations will be established to campaign for this system which no genuinely independent review body would recommend in a million years.

Toynbee’s objection to local democracy appears to be rooted in the perceived worst excesses of Conservative councils. In this respect it is entirely tribal and rooted in the typically Fabian notion that the people should not be trusted with too much democracy. Of course, with a fair voting system, the chances of the Tories or indeed any party wielding an unassailable majority in a local authority would be remote. The idea that we should have more representative local authorities but be content to leave them as glorified talking shops is faintly obscene. At least bread and circuses sounds a little more fun.

Crying Wolf about Fascism

I was deeply impressed with an article I read earlier this week in the Guardian magazine section by Naomi Wolf.

I was impressed because while individually I think she had managed to point to a lot of worrying trends in terms of US policy, it actually left me less convinced that the US was on its way to becoming a fascist state than when I started. Remarkably, it is actually less than the sum of its parts.

Her overlying thesis was deeply flawed in that while all these trends are worrying, many of them appear to have already reached their nadir and are beginning to turn around. We’re already seeing US scepticism about the War on Terror, it is hard to conceive how a law tougher than the Patriot Act might be introduced given the current balance of power in Congress and there is absolutely no suggestion of locking US citizens up in Guantanamo – itself something which the courts are making hay over. One doesn’t need to be complacent, as she suggests, to believe that the US isn’t heading towards Fascism – one merely needs something vaguely resembling a balanced view.

Could a disaster tip the US over the edge? Maybe. But then, a disaster could tip any country over the edge. It is inherently unpredictable. Making such outlandish statements is not a call to arms, it is a cry of apathy.

Smugged

A loathsome backhanded compliment in the Brendan O’Neill’s editorial in this week’s Spiked email newsletter:

Bloggers made the news this week instead of simply leaching off it. There’s talk of a ‘code of conduct’, ‘warning signs’ if blogs contain crude content. But blogs aren’t the place to go if you want erudite debate; they’re the online equivalent of a loud’n’rowdy student bar. Why would you impose codes on something like that?

Bloggers often don’t have much to say of note, but I’ll defend to the death their right to say it to their three readers.

I’m sure we’re all very grateful for their protection.

For those of you who don’t know, Spiked is the internet successor to Living Marxism, which itself was the mutant spawn of the Revolutionary Communist Party. They are very shy of admitting to this* (unlike, ahem, the successor organisation of the CPGB), but are not very shy about their sense of self-importance:

spiked is an independent online phenomenon dedicated to raising the horizons of humanity by waging a culture war of words against misanthropy, priggishness, prejudice, luddism, illiberalism and irrationalism in all their ancient and modern forms. spiked is endorsed by free-thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx, and hated by the narrow-minded such as Torquemada and Stalin. Or it would be, if they were lucky enough to be around to read it.

I occasionally dip into it because I do think writers like Frank Furedi do speak a lot of sense and are broadly on the side of the angels. But that sophomoric sense of self-importance runs through it like words in a stick of rock and makes it impossible to actually like. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a massive rant about its support for politbureau-style elective dicatorship as an alternative to liberal democracy which my internet connection sadly ate (thank the Lord for WordPress 2.1 and its auto-save function) – maybe I’ll return to this topic another time.

For Spiked to accuse bloggers of leaching off the mass media is a very queeny case of pots and kettles. The entire website is a temple dedicated to the church of print and broadcast journalism. Sure, they spend all their time slagging it off (doesn’t everyone?), but it is quite clear that they are smitten (I could make an incredibly geeky comment about Buffy and, erm, Spike, but that would be intolerable. So I won’t).

But in the meantime, I simply ask this: who, aside from myself and Jonathan Calder, actually reads the thing? Is it really in any position to cast aspersions about the number of people who read weblogs? I don’t have any stats to back up my instincts, but somehow I doubt it, or they wouldn’t whinge every other week about how they need more money.

* Having said that, there is a section expounding the glory days of the RCP and LM in their hagiographic interview with fellow ex-RCPer Mark Durkin, maker of C4’s Great Global Warming Swindle.

New Generation Network

Writing this post later than I would have liked, I’m surprised that there has been so little commentary today about the launch today of the New Generation Network, founded by Pickled Politics‘ Sunny Hundal.

I think Sunny has hit on something here, something not all that dissimilar to my own contributions on the subject recently. In my own view, what we seem to have seen over the last five or so years, is an importation of the worst kind of multicultural politics that we see at a local (particularly Northern metropolitan) level into the national stage.

When I first got involved in Lib Dem politics, I’m ashamed to say that the first campaign I worked on was a blatant and cynical attempt to court the Pakistani vote in Rusholme, Manchester. In my defense, I was young and naive, but we were also inheriting a situation exacerbated by Labour’s own approach.

I would imagine that most people who have had a similar background would recognise the technique. Find a few ‘community leaders’ from the Pakistani or Bangladeshi community, beef up their egos and work on the assumption that they can single-handedly deliver you thousands of votes, simply through talking to the right clerics and family leaders. The fact that we weren’t particularly adept at it in the mid-90s was simply because Labour had got in there first, something which held firm until the Iraq War in 2003. This wasn’t about representation, dealing with basic needs such as housing and crime, it was about buying off the ‘right’ people with things like money for religion-based community centres and ‘partnerships’ with schools in Kashmir. And it has only helped to increase tensions and divisions.

This all should have reached its nadir with the 2001 riots. Much of the reportage at the time reflected on the complete failure of both ‘community leaders’ and mainstream politics to connect with the second- and third-generation of black and Asian communities. But 911 seemed to end what looked like the beginning of a sensible national conversation about race, religion and identity. Since then, national government seems to have treated ethnic communities in a remarkably similar way to what we’ve seen on the streets on Rochdale and Bradford. And the result seems to have lead to even greater tension and lunacy such as Trevor Phillips’ monthly predictions of race riots.

So I welcome NGN, its manifesto and its unequivocal call against prejudice, for equality and for freedom of speech (in light of some of the rows I’ve had in recent months I particularly welcome the line “we reject the idea that representation should mean ‘ethnic faces for ethnic areas’, which would ghettoise minority representation.”). I would urge my fellow bloggers and Lib Dems to sign up.