Tag Archives: guardian

Terry Pratchett with librarian

On angels, apes and Terry Pratchett

I’m what you might call a lapsed Terry Pratchett fan. For most of my adolescence, his work was a huge influence on me. But, as was typical of my late-teenage self, I walked away when he hit his most prolific period out of indignation about “cashing in” or some such self-righteous bullshit (I like to think I have a more sophisticated and generous view of artists these days). I never went back because the backlog got overwhelming, although I still intend to at some point.

Like everyone else, I was saddened to hear of his death yesterday. Amid all the tributes and an affectionate quotes that filled my various feeds, one image particularly jarred with me. Intended as a tribute, it was this British Humanist Association image, repeating the oft-cited quote “I’d rather be a rising ape than a fallen angel”:
"I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel" Sir Terry Pratchett
There are several things I could say about this. The first thing is, that I thought it was a shame that the first thing the BHA reached for was the most divisive quote they could find. The second is that, the concept of a “rising ape” is nonsense. The enlightenment notion that we are on a progressive path from amoeba to divine being was actually pretty much refuted by Darwin himself, whose own views about evolution did away with concepts that were very much steeped in notions of progressivism such as Lamarckism. Of course, much of that was subsequently undermined by Herbert Spencer and his championing of the most un-Darwinian Social Darwinism, but we emerged from that intellectual cul-de-sac 70 years ago.

To be fair on Pratchett, this is an off the cuff quip he made, apparently inebriated, at the end of a very long answer he answered at a Guardian event at few years ago. It’s not a quote from Pratchett as much as it is a quote from the anonymous sub-editor who chose to give this clip that title. His full answer is much more nuanced:

For me, the far more inspiring quote is at the start of the same section, when he makes largely the same point in a much more sophisticated (and funny) way:

“I find it far more interesting; in a sense, far more religiously interesting; that a bunch of monkeys got down off trees and stopped arguing long enough, to build this; to build that; to build everything. And we’re monkeys. Our heritage is [unintelligible] to climb trees and throw shit at other [monkeys]. And actually, that’s so much more interesting than being fallen angels.”

But the third point I would make, via my friend James Blanchard, is that this in turn is an evolution of something Death says in The Hogfather:

“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”

Both the last two quotes are classic, brilliant, wonderful Pratchett. The first one is not. It is such a shame that the former seems to be the one that is being parroted by the media today.

Comment is freer: It’s AV or nothing

I wrote an article on Comment is Free yesterday about why people need to stop quibbling and start campaigning for AV.

Regardless of what might happen in five, 20 or 50 years time, at this precise moment you are faced with a choice between AV and the status quo. There can be no fence-sitters in the debate. I have to admit that initially I was quite uninspired by the prospect of fighting a referendum on such a modest, if meaningful, change. But two things have changed my mind…


Read it all here
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For the record…

I was a bit disappointed by Andy Beckett’s article on the future of the Lib Dems in the Guardian today. It is not that I have been misquoted – although I seem to recall saying that the number of Lib Dem MPs after the next election could be as low as 30 rather than probably 30 (a small but distinct difference). It is just that some of the potshots he makes are rather lazy ones.

I’m annoyed that he repeats the great Orange Book fallacy, that being that the book in question was written by a bunch of right wing idealogues with a specific agenda in mind. In fact, as anyone who has read the book cover to cover can testify, it is a mish mash of chapters which don’t particularly hang together. The only authentically economic liberal chapter is David Laws’ chapter on the NHS – even his chapter on liberalism is more of an overview than anything else. The rest of the book is written by people from all over the Lib Dem political spectrum. Still, the legend is more interesting than the fact, so print the legend. You can’t fault David Laws’ genius for giving his political movement a name simply by publishing a book and shouting about it six months before an election in a way that really annoyed people. At the time it looked reckless and foolish; now it looks inspired (if more than a little devious).

I’m irritated by his quoting of a comment by Joe Edwards on the Social Liberal Forum website. I don’t know Joe Edwards from Adam but if the irate text message from a reliable source I got this morning is correct he is not a Lib Dem member, resigning from the party before the election. He certainly has no association whatsoever with the Social Liberal Forum, and the biography on his blog makes no mention of party membership. Yet the article invites you to infer that he is somehow an SLFer. I thought the practice of quoting comments from blogs had been discredited by the West Wing?

Finally, just to clarify my position about the “long game” and the “short game”. I do see the Lib Dems taking a hit in popularity at the next election (assuming neither the Tories nor Labour self-destruct, which isn’t entirely impossible), but I wasn’t merely arguing that the party would crawl back in the long run. My point was that this government’s political reforms, if fully implemented, will transform UK politics for the long term and that in the long run the Lib Dems will get credit for that. And even if the party doesn’t get the credit, those reforms should be worth the hit.

The Lib Dems will be nobodies’ patsies

With Labour activists and Guardianistas wobbling over the startling revelation that if they don’t win the election, the Lib Dems won’t win it for them, I’ve written a short article on Comment is Free explaining why that doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are about to jump in bed with the Tories and that Labour needs to get real:

If Labour is slowly waking up to the fact that the Lib Dems will be nobody’s patsies, that’s great. I like to think that Labour can bring itself back from the brink over the next 10 days and will stop arguing itself into political oblivion. As their newly exhumed supporter Elvis says, it’s now or never. What they have to wake up to, however, is the fact that there are a lot more possible scenarios out there than either a Cameron or a Brown-led government. Every time they oversimplify and insist that a Lib Dem vote is a vote for Cameron, they merely discredit themselves by mirroring the Tories who are insisting that the Lib Dems are a proxy for Brown.

Read the full article here.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Tories have decided to make this whole election a referendum on hung parliaments. Their new PEB, is unique outside of BNP broadcasts in that pretty much every sentence in it is the opposite of the truth. It could have come straight from Bizarro World or (if you have more literary pretensions) Airstrip One. New Tories, Newspeak!

I’m not sure they are necessarily wise to do this, since not only are hung parliaments popular but their arguments against them are patronising in the extreme. But while people are showing no signs of submitting to such scare tactics yet, we need to redouble our efforts to reassure them.

One thing is for sure: the Tories can no longer claim to be about change in this election, as if that argument ever had any resonance in the first place.

The Lib Dem campaign for internet freedom steps up a gear

If you haven’t already joined the Lib Dems Save the Net Facebook campaign, I recommend you do so.

Meanwhile, an emergency motion has been submitted to Spring conference. Bridget Fox has the details.

I’ve submitted the following questions to the Federal Policy Committee for the morning of conference:

1. What role has the FPC played in formulating the Liberal Democrat response to the Digital Economy Bill?

2. The Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party often finds itself having to respond to legislation that the party has little or outdated policy on. What does the FPC do to ensure that the eventual response from the Parliamentary Party is a) the result of as open and democratic a process as possible; and b) adequately consults the views of all stakeholders with an interest in the legislation?

And finally, I’ve written an article on Comment is Free about the Clement-Jones/Razzall amendment:

No doubt Clement-Jones and Razzall felt that making bad less awful was the only responsible thing to do. In fact, forcing us to choose between judges and lawyers having to interpret a bad law and ministers making it up as they go along is no choice at all. After five years of one of the most depressing parliaments in living history, the last thing the Lib Dems can afford to do is to present themselves as the nicer, slightly less unacceptable face of the establishment. Leave that to David Cameron.

Does Simon Cowell have the political X-Factor?

No, is the basic conclusion of my article on Comment is Free today:

In reality, the X Factor could only dream of having as many voters as we take for granted in UK elections. Ten million votes may sound like a lot, but it is only two-thirds the number of people who voted in the European parliament elections this year and a third the number of people who voted in the 2005 general election. The campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s Killing In The Name to deny Joe McElderry the Christmas No 1 also suggests that the X Factor can alienate the public as much as any MPs’ expenses scandal.

Read the full article here.

Comment on Clegg’s Claimed Calamitous Camaroon Coalition – Crap!

I forgot to plug my Comment is Free article which was published yesterday. In it, I give pretty short shrift to the ideas that Nick Clegg has just announced his intention to form a coalition with the Tories and that the Lib Dems should be bending over backwards to spell out their terms for a coalition of any kind:

There is no enthusiasm within the party for co-operation with the Conservative party, but working with Labour is almost as unenticing a prospect. To be seen propping up a government which has just lost the election after 13 years of office would cost the Lib Dems almost all their political capital.

For the party to put its neck on the line in this way, it would need some pretty concrete guarantees. Sunder Katwala of the Fabians has made a list of necessary policy changes that would be a good start – but thus far Labour isn’t offering any of it. The idea expressed by some other Labour supporters that the Lib Dems should be offering them some sort of blank cheque to carry on as usual on the simple calculation that the Tories would be far worse is simply laughable, and typical of the sort of pigheadedness that has got Labour into the mess it is now in.

Read it in full here.

Both Labour and the Tories keep claiming that every single idea the Lib Dems have ever had is awful and something that they would agree to over their collective dead bodies (leaving aside the ones they periodically ‘borrow’). Until that tone changes, I suggest we all take it at face value and stop worrying about coalitions – they aren’t going to happen. In that respect, it doesn’t matter what Clegg says; what matters is what Cameron and Brown are saying.

Revolution! MPs to question ministers shocker!!!!

I’m sure all the people involved are well meaning but there is something soul destryoing about this story on the front page of the Guardian today:

Lord Mandelson is set to make history by becoming the first cabinet minister from the House of Lords in modern times to answer questions in the Commons.

John Bercow, the Commons Speaker, is planning to use his mandate as a moderniser to break centuries of tradition which have kept the Commons and Lords apart in an attempt to make ministers who sit in the upper house accountable to MPs.

Nicholas Watt goes on to describe, in miniscule detail, how the convention that MPs never talk to ministers sitting in “the other place” might be allowed to address the House of Commons (note how he writes all this down, seemingly irony free, yet can’t even grasp a basic fact such as whether the Alternative Vote system is proportional or not – it isn’t just MPs who are the problem here). As long as they don’t cross the bar, they’re safe. One can only speculate what might happen if the big toe of an ennobled minister were to inadvertantly slip over the line. Chaos! Apocalypse! Revolution!

For some reason I am reminded of Egon Spengler’s grave warning in Ghostbusters not to “cross the streamers” – of course at the end of the film it becomes necessary to do that to prevent the end of the world. Somehow I suspect Peter Mandelson setting foot in the House of Commons won’t be anything like as spectacular. Or involve quite as much marshmallow (I could be wrong about that last bit, I will concede).

The normally sensible (he has a blind spot when it comes to the House of Lords, it must be said) Vernon Bogdanor doesn’t exactly help, describing this move as “radical.”

I have to admit that I’m in two minds about this myself. On the one hand, clearly the House of Commons should be free to scrutinise any minister of state, in the House of Commons, without having to worry about bars or go off to the much smaller Westminster Hall. On the other hand, I don’t think there should be ANY ministers in the House of Lords full stop.

This convention about having to ennoble any non-MP who is to serve as a minister is total nonsense. It leads to people like Digby Jones getting a peerage simply for doing five months in the Department of Business, Enterprice and Regulatory Reform (a department which itself existed for twelve months before Gordon Brown insisted on reprinting all the stationary yet again). The argument for it is that ministers must be accountable to Parliament – but they aren’t. They get to answer questions in Parliament – however lamentably – but they are only actually accountable to the Prime Minister.

If we want ministers to be accountable to Parliament then we should have confirmation hearings. Parliament should have the authority to throw out any nominee that it believes to be weak or incompetent. The quid pro quo of that would be that anyone in principle should be able to serve – and not be a parliamentarian. A side benefit, I suspect, is that reshuffles would be less frequent (as they would be become more bureaucratic) and thus ministers would be given the space to do a job rather than spend six months getting up to speed before the Prime Minister moves them somewhere else to cover up for his own failings.

Better ministers with more of an opportunity to do their job? I’m sure the reactionaries in Westminster would be outraged. It might just lead to better government for the rest of us though.

Why is Jenni Russell praising Cameron Come Lately?

Jenni Russell has written an article attacking ContactPoint, the much maligned national children’s database that the government are still insisting on trotting out. The only problem is, she has written it as a piece of Tory hagiography.

We might be able to let her off the title – Another invasion of liberty. And only the Tories are alert – as a bit of subbing hyperbole. I’ve written enough articles for newspapers over the years to know this happens. But she can’t blame the sub for the final paragraph:

Labour will not reverse this; only the Tories might. They promise to review CAF database, ditch ContactPoint for a small, targeted database, and invest in strengthening people’s relationships instead. It’s depressing that Labour supporters who believe in liberties, privacy and humanity should find themselves having to cheer the Tories on this issue.

I first became aware of ContactPoint due to Terri Dowty’s article in Liberator back in 2002. I couldn’t actually tell you when the Lib Dem’s formally adopted policy to scrap ContactPoint but the line was pretty clear in 2007. Here’s Annette Brooke raising the core concern about ContactPoint while the Childrens Act was being debated. It formed a central blank of our Freedom Bill earlier this year. Vince Cable even called for it to be scrapped in his Reform pamphlet published yesterday. The Conservatives came off the fence this June.

I think we can rely on Cameron to scrap this database since it is £200m he will badly need. In better economic circumstances, I wouldn’t be so sure. Either way, at a time when Guardianistas are habitually bemoaning how come the media don’t give Cameron a harder time, it seems odd to hand them so much credit and deny the Lib Dems even an acknowledgement.

Nick Clegg’s lost month

I’m moaning again on Comment is Free:

Sadly, the disappearance of the Lib Dem party leader each August has become an established part of the Lib Dem calendar. It used to be one of the things Charles Kennedy was regularly criticised for, the subtext often being that his disappearances were due to his drink problem, but Ming Campbell got stick for it as well. This is despite the fact that the silly season is a big opportunity for parties to set the political agenda in a period largely free of the daily grind of parliament.

I know my tendency to criticise the party on CiF annoys a lot of people but I will say this: critical articles tend to make better copy than flattering one (which means they are more likely to get commissioned). It’s better for Clegg to be talked about than not mentioned at all. And thirdly, I do always do my best to use these platforms to promote whatever the party is doing – even when I don’t agree with them.

So that, and the fact that Clegg is getting some free advice, means that I’m actually doing him a favour. Discuss.