Sunday, December 15, 2019

GUEST POST Why am I a Liberal Democrat?

Simon Beard explains, with help from Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Clarkson.

It seems to me that Liberals have a peculiar obsession with self-justification. Keynes first posed the question "Am I A Liberal?" (he was) in 1925, and many have asked it, or something like it, since.

Indeed, Bertrand Russel felt called to provide two justifications "why I am not a communist" and "why I am not a Christian", while even Margaret Thatcher's favourite Liberal Fredrick Hayek wanted to explain to his readers "why I am not a conservative".

This is hardly surprising. Liberals are, after all, in favour of the individual, while Liberalism is a social movement. We are not natural joiners we Liberals, and so many of us feel the desire to consider ourselves apart.

Yet still, we recognise that what we believe in is worth believing, and what we fight for is worth defending. I think this may be part of the reason why so many 'ordinary people' claim not to know what the Lib Dems 'really believe’. It is not that we do not believe in things; but we feel slightly awkward about it and would really rather discuss something else.

So why am I a Liberal?

First and foremost, I think I am a Burkean. Edmund Burke is often held up as the grandfather of British Conservatism, but that is a load of piffle. Burke was a radical of his day who fought against empire and privilege. He simply did not accept the justification being offered for the French revolution, and that meant he was disowned by other radicals of his day.

Burke's philosophy is not easy to encapsulate in a few words, but let me try. Burke believed in government by agreement and consent; he was a proponent of the social contract. However, in contrast with the doctrine of the time, he saw this agreement as not primarily between the rich and the poor, that would be manifestly unfair. Instead, he proposed a contract between the generations.

Each of us, in turn, takes the place of a dependent child, an independent adult and a supportive elder, and Burke thought that we should view society in this light. He also believed that what the social contract was fundamentally about was building and maintaining institutions that allowed people to get along. However, ultimately, these were only means to the end of a fully flourishing society. As he wrote:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.
When the state takes it upon itself to disregard these institutions and reorganise society around one big idea (as the French revolutionaries tried to do) Burke believed that the social contract was violated and society would fall apart. Now, of course, we might make the same point about our stewardship of the environment, and I think Burke would have agreed.

Finally, Burke believed that when we engage in politics, we do so person to person, not thought to thought or idea to idea. Thus, we should choose MPs who we trust to act wisely, not those who would merely represent some pattern or ideal that we share.

Burke was not quite a Liberal in the modern sense of the term, but he certainly was never a Conservative. He was a passionate social humanist, and one of the most profound thinkers our country has produced.

To Burke, I owe my distrust of those (like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn) who seek to remake our country according to their own designs and who view the institutions we have built up as mere obstacles to be overcome.

Secondly, I am a utilitarian. In my heart and soul what I most believe is that any policy, any choice, must be justified on the grounds that it will benefit the people affected by it, by making their lives fuller and better and contributing to their wellbeing.

However, I am a utilitarian of the school of John Stewart Mill, who saw so clearly that happiness could not be bought or sold or counted or controlled, but had to be cultivated. Our joy, he wrote, will 'come like the air that we breath', but only when we are liberated, supported and empowered, with good health, education, work, a nourishing environment, social connections and a flourishing culture.

I was part of the Federal Policy Committee on Wellbeing and Quality of Life, and one of the things I wanted to say in our report was that government has a huge role to play in supporting people's wellbeing, but that so often people's experiences of the state where that it made them unhappy, by forcing them into a social straitjacket or failing to deliver on its promises.

To the utilitarians, and especially to Mill, I owe my belief in an empowering and enabling state whose job it is to provide people with education, healthcare and financial support, but also to allow them to be who they most want to be. A state that cultivates everyone's garden, but allows their flowers to bloom as they will.

The Liberal Democrats are consistently the party who plan to give most direct support to the poorest in society - while the Conservatives choose to ignore them and Labour focus on implementing their grand schemes - that is as it should be.

Thirdly, I am a Georgist and a Social Liberal. Power, as well as wealth, is distributed incredibly unequally throughout our society, and in so far as we need reform, it should be primarily aimed at removing the blockages built up over centuries to preserve this status quo.

The philosophy and economics of this get terribly complicated; even I struggle with the level of cultishness that can surround them (and that's before we get to the School of Economic Science, an actual cult).

However, two key points are 1) that we pay far too little attention to the distribution of the ownership of land (nature) and its implications on how our society is structured and 2) that corporations are given the same, if not more, protection in how they act than ordinary people and are allowed to get away with massive corruption, even though are without emotions, social connections, family ties and love for humanity and the world around them.

This is not merely about redistribution; it is about calling out the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that lie at the heart of government policy, making it serve the interest of a tiny fraction of the population. Every classical Liberal, from Smith to Mill, envisioned a market of free individuals trading fairly, while every new Liberal, from Green to Beveridge, understood that the distortions of land and corporate power meant this had never been realised.

Yet, somehow people still feel able to describe the deregulation of markets as if it made them freer, rather than more totally controlled by a few special interests.

To the New Liberals, I owe my support for the voices of the small, for small business against big business, for renters against landlords, and for communities against developers. I also owe them my commitment to introducing Land Value Taxation and stronger restrictions on corporations.

These things matter even more than redistributing money, yet they are routinely overlooked by other parties. I think this is also why I am so glad the UK still manages to maintain a third party of national significance and wish we would introduce an electoral system that did not reduce everything to a binary choice, because there is always another perspective on any argument and it needs to be heard.

Fourthly, I am a supporter of human rights. In that old Liberal phrase, I believe that everyone is created equal and endowed with inalienable rights, and I mean everyone and I mean inalienable. Asylum seekers, single mothers, convicted criminals, disabled people, even straight, white, older men, all have the same fundamental rights.

Among these are the right to exist, publicly and as themselves, to pursue their own lifestyle and to play as full a part as possible in society. We must give prisoners the vote; we must give asylum seekers a decent level of support; we must allow gang members to express themselves culturally; we must ensure that everyone can walk the streets safely at night and that people can have a reasonable expectation of being able to get away with making mistakes.

Why? Because we are all human, we are all persons, we fundamentally have more in common than what divides us. And at heart, as those who first codified human rights after the second world war realised, these rights are ultimately protections against the power of others, and in particular the power of the state.

Rights should always stand outside the law and hem it on all sides. From these thinkers, I take an instinctive horror of anyone who sets up groups in opposition to each other, or who adopt dehumanising language for anyone – be they terrorists or billionaires.

Finally, I am an internationalist. Of course, that means I believe in nations, in groups of people who share a culture, a social ideal and a way of life. The hard-straight lines of the state must always be made to bend around the people it claims to serve.

However, it also means I believe that the boundaries of nations and peoples are flexible and fluid and that we realise the best in ourselves when we are open, tolerant and diverse and when we work with others to form a closer international union.

I understand that for many, we need to stay in the EU for economic reasons, for its social and environmental protections, or for peace and security; and I value all these things. However, ultimately, I am with Jeremy Clarkson, of all people, who said:
Whether I'm sitting in a railway concourse in Brussels or pottering down the canals of southwestern France or hurtling along a motorway in Croatia, I feel way more at home than I do when I'm trying to get something to eat in Dallas or Sacramento. I love Europe, and to me that's important.
I love Europe too (though I also love America), and I love what it stands for. I love my village, and my county, and my nation, and my country but I also love that 28 countries have joined together and are trying to form something bigger than themselves. I cannot give up on loving that, and nobody has any right to tell me to do so. Our party cannot give up on loving it either, and that is why I love it too.

This recent election really got me down; not just because of the result (though that was terrible) but because of the way everything seemed to get lost in the question of who could win or who could stop Brexit.

Please Liberal Democrats, do not forget who you are and why you are like that. Do not give up on your history and values and fall into the lie that this was simply a numbers exercise in tactical voting.

We are Liberals, and we have every right and reason to be so. Jeremy Corbyn is not, nor is Nicola Sturgeon. That does not make them bad people, but when it comes to fundamental questions of politics, philosophy and economics, I think it makes them wrong and I feel perfectly justified in saying that!

Simon Beard has a PhD in philosophy and works at the University of Cambridge's Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. He has twice stood as the Lib Dem candidate for Dartford and tweets @simon_beard.

Rediscovering the Liberalism of the left-behind

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Populism, all right-thinking people agree, is a Bad Thing. Yet in the far-off days when I was a Liberal activist and then councillor, there was a definite populist strand to our campaigning.

We were the people who stood up for the unfashionable end of town. We were the people who stood up for the voters against council ruling groups and senior officers.

I remember doing a survey on council house repairs here in Harborough and being told the next day that the council offices were thronged with people we had encouraged to make complaints. I was proud of that.

Somewhere along the way we have lost much of that spirit. As Peter Sloman reminded us in 2017:
If the party’s sociological heartland is middle-class and cosmopolitan, its geographical heartland lies in the windswept constituencies of the Celtic fringe. It was here that Nonconformist farmers and shopkeepers stuck with the party through the 1940s and 50s, and that the party found it easiest to turn votes into seats during the 1970s and 80s. 
Jo Grimond spent most of the 1959 campaign holed up in his Orkney and Shetland constituency; fifteen years later, Jeremy Thorpe had a cable installed so that he could address press conferences at the National Liberal Club from his seat in Barnstaple. 
From the 1970s onwards, 'community politics' campaigners also established the party as the main challengers to Labour in a string of northern towns and cities hit hard by deindustrialisation. By 2010, the Liberal Democrats ran the council in Liverpool, Sheffield and Hull and had MPs in Bradford, Burnley and Redcar.
I have too much personal nostalgia for the Liberal Party of the 1970s and 80s to be an objective judge, but I do think we need to rediscover what Peter Sloman calls the Liberalism of the left-behind.

Peter asked me on Twitter yesterday whether I thought the gains made in the West Country by the Lib Dems in May's local election were a sign that we were beginning to win back the support of our former 'left behind' voters.

If they were, Thursdays results there suggest we still have a long way to go.

Alt-J: Taro



Sounds interesting, but what's it about?

Gary Winchester Martin explains:
I did a little bit of research and found that the song "Taro" describes the life of Gerda Taro and her life partner Robert Capa who both died separately covering wars in the mid 20th century. 
Gerda died during Battle of Brunete on July 26, 1937 while Robert died several years later in 1954 by stepping on a land mine. The song Taro describes the events and the reunion of the two in the afterlife.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The crypt beneath St Wystan's, Repton


Repton is a village in Derbyshire whose church is dedicated to St Wystan.

As we have seen, both Wistow in Leicestershire and Wistanstow in Shropshire claim to be the site of Wystan's original burial and the subsequent miracle,

What is sure is that young Wystan's bones were later moved to Repton and lay in the crypt beneath the church that is now named after him. The crypt dates from the early eight century.

Early in the 11th century his bones were moved to Evesham, whee they were lost when the town's abbey was sacked at the Reformation.

The remarkable crypt at Repton remains, even if it tries its best to defeat photographers.








John Arlott: "One of the great English radical Liberals of the 20th century"

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On the BBC website you will find a radio programme entitled John Arlott: Cricket's radical voice. And it is a desperately good programme too.

As its blurb says:
It is not an exercise in nostalgia about a man universally considered to be the greatest cricket commentator and 'the voice of an English summer' it is an exploration of Arlott as a political figure both inside and outside the world of cricket. 
John Arlott's politics can best be summed up as those of a radical liberal, and he twice stood unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Party. But he would have found obedience to the party whip difficult, and he rarely adopted a party political stance during the many years that he appeared on the panel of the BBC Home Service's Any Questions. 
He appeared with such people as ... Michael Foot and a young Margaret Thatcher; and he attacked the political orthodoxies of both left and right. He always championed the 'common man' against the power or money or privilege.
Thanks to James Tarry for putting me on to it.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Six of the Best 899

"We need an agenda that’s more like an unconference – an opportunity for us to have open discussions, big and small, about where we are, where we want to be, and why we want to get there. Let’s have a blank slate and talk properly about what we’re doing." Nick Barlow believes the Lib Dem spring conference should not see business as usual.

Johnny Lyons argues that Isaiah Berlin's ideas have lost none of the bit of relevance.

"Prehistoric sites cannot, and should not, be viewed through a Brexit lens, whether leave or remain." Kenny Brophy does not appreciate seeing Jacob Rees-Mogg in a stone circle.

The lost rivers of London are well known, says David N. Lerner, but all cities have them. Opening them up offers a way of bringing back water and nature.

Katy Waldman of the New Yorker chooses her best books of 2019.

"The first songs most people hear as children are nursery rhymes and lullabies. The first songs Ahmet Zappa heard as a child were the shock-treatment tracks on Hot Rats." Jim Farber on the 50th anniversary of the Frank Zappa album.

GUEST POST Political parties must be rooted in their communities once again

Mike Gayler points a way forward for the Liberal Democrats - and any other party that will listen.

I'm not a Liberal Democrat. I'm not a member of any political party, although I was a Labour Party member sometime in the early 1980s.

My leanings are Green, and in 2019 I voted for my local Liberal Democrat candidate in Charnwood, as I believed that she had a good chance of giving the safe sitting Conservative a bit of a fright. It was not to be.

I think you can see that although I'm not a natural Lib Dem supporter, that I'm sympathetic to the party as serious contenders for - if not power - at least to hold a government to account.

My thoughts on where next for the Liberal Democrats could, I suppose, be transposed into almost any other movement, but only the Liberal Democrats (and possibly the Greens) seem to have the motivation to consider a different way of doing politics and take on the established duopoly of Labour and Conservative.

What I hear repeatedly is "politics has nothing to do with me," "politicians don't listen to us," "they don't know what it's like for ordinary people" - and I think those things too.

But I understand that politics affects every corner of mt life, and I know how to contact my councillors and my MP, and I can appreciate that local politicians have jobs and mortgages, and that MPs must be tempted to live in the Westminster bubble. But does it have to be like that?

I've recently read a BBC article about one town's Labour, Conservative and Liberal clubs and how they are no longer affiliated to the organisations that gave them their name.

And this is the failure of every political party: how it has become divorced from the communities that they serve. No longer are political parties part of the community in any real sense. They have become 'other'.

The opportunity to redress this is the window between now and the next major election. It won't be easy and it won't be popular with every activist. Ordinary people - the ones disengaged from politics - need to see people like themselves volunteering at food banks, picking litter, challenging antisocial behaviour and identifying themselves as Liberal Democrats making a difference in their area.

Liberal Democrats need to be at school gates asking what the issues affecting parents are, at mosques and churches to understand the troubles of minorities, and talking to the homeless and dispossessed.

They need to do these things to prove that politics is about the everyday, to show that 'politicians' are everyday people like themselves, and are listening to the ordinary people.

A Liberal Democratic food bank - why not? A Lib Dem community minibus - why not? Lib Dem litter picking - why not? Lib Dems are on your street corner ever first Saturday - why wouldn't they be? Lib Dems taking food parcels to the tents of the homeless in our park - why wouldn't they?

Why not, and why wouldn't they be? Because it's too much effort! Because it would cost too much! Because the Liberal Democrats don't believe in community and the people in those communities? Prove me wrong!

Mike Gayler is a volunteer lock keeper and retired healthcare scientist.

Write a guest post for Liberal England


I welcome guest posts on Liberal England.

As you can see from this list of the 10 most recent, I am happy to consider a wide range of subjects.

If you would like to write a guest post yourself, please drop me an email so we can discuss your idea.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Monastery of St Antony and St Cuthbert in the Stiperstones 2



Let's stay in the Shropshire hills with another video about the Orthodox monastery beneath the Stiperstones.

Vote Lib Dem and save the Shropshire hills


From the Shropshire Star:
South Shropshire's area of outstanding natural beauty is under threat from a loss of biodiversity and increasing light pollution, the Liberal Democrats election candidate for Ludlow has said. 
Heather Kidd said that some animals including butterflies are now a rare sight at the Shropshire Hills area of outstanding natural beauty ... and that air pollution is partly to blame. 
The Lib Dems are recommending replacing street lamps with LEDs and issued a stark warning that "we need to act now" to protect the hills' tranquillity.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A lift bridge on the Montgomery Canal

Photo: Harry Arnold

Time for another photograph from my patchy collection of old Bulletins from the Inland Waterways Association.

We are on to May 1970 and this picture of an unidentified lift bridge on the Montgomery Canal.

Six of the Best 898

Jen Yockney says that Labour, by expending so much of its energy on attacking the Liberal Democrats, is repeating a battle plan that leads it to defeat.

"The whole language of general elections is about what alternative governments can do for people. It assumes a widespread and somewhat hopeless passivity. There is no obvious election language to draw down in praise of the idea of people doing things for themselves." David Boyle wonders if that narwhal horn might have slowed the Johnson juggernaut.

Tim Ellis reminds us that Nancy Astor wasn’t the first woman MP.

Aishwarya Kumar explains why grandmasters lose weight during elite chess tournaments.

You have probably found yourself wondering why so Many medieval manuscripts depict violent rabbits. Sad and Useless has the answer.

"Here was a story of shattered European dreams, of friendship betrayed and transactional murder, shot with all the murky, Expressionistic tricks in the ’40s noir handbook. And then over the top comes Harry Lime’s Theme: an ingenuous and wholly undisturbed tune, the kind that you might whistle to yourself whilst chopping vegetables." Jim Hilton on the importance of of Anton Karas's  zither to The Third Man.

Dan Snow is voting Lib Dem - and this is why we shouldn't be surprised

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From the Independent:
Television historian Dan Snow has endorsed the Liberal Democrats after calling Boris Johnson "profoundly incompetent" and claiming that Jeremy Corbyn is "economically illiterate" 
The BBC presenter said he supported the party's position of opposing Brexit and praised Jo Swinson as "a really engaging, exciting young leader".
Those are all excellent reasons for voting Liberal Democrat.

But, though the report goes on to say that Snow describes himself as a "floating voter", we should not be too surprised that he is voting that way.

You see, it runs in the family.

Because Dan Snow is the great great grandson of David Lloyd George.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Epping Forest to the Walthamstow edgelands: A walk along the River Ching



John Rogers is again our guide as we follow the Ching from its source at Connaught Water in Epping Forest to its confluence with the River Lea in the Walthamstow edgelands.

It turns out that Chingford gave its name to the river and not the other way round.

Johnny Kidd and The Pirates: Shakin' All Over



I am given to nominating Move It by Cliff Richard and the Shadows as the great British rock and roll record, but last time I did so someone suggested this one as a rival.

You can see his point.

Johnny Kid died young in a car crash, but The Pirates had a big come back in the late Seventies and sounded very much at home on the pub rock scene.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

A ghost in the Mansfield Road



Disappointed to find that the bookshops in Nottingham's Mansfield Road had gone, I blogged about it as soon as I got home.

A little further down the hill, I was taken with what looked as though it had once been the entrance to the city's Bluecoat School and is now the YMCA International Community Centre.

I had the feeling that the entrance used to be wider and, sure enough, when I bought a book of old photos of the city later that afternoon I found this little ghost.


Six of the Best 897

"Those of us who are left of centre in rural areas are often completely missed from political discourse, despite our long history of distinctive political belief." Oliver Craven on the Liberal Democrat pitch to the rural left.

Comfort of a sort from Richard Heller, who argues that if Boris Johnson wins on Thursday Brexit won't get done and he will soon be the most unpopular leader in British history.

"All this explains why Tory support depends so much upon the legacy vote from older people and upon the populist slogan, 'Get Brexit Done'. Their historic client base has shrunk. Sure, this legacy vote and populism might be sufficient to get them over the line next week. But the Tories’ longer-term prospects are surely poor." Chris Dillow says the degradation of middle-class work has eroded the Tories' electoral base.

Nick Tyrone rediscovers football with his children and wonders if its gentrification has something to do with Brexit.

Neil Young celebrates Britain's most prolific woman film director Muriel Box.

There are some great photos of the Par to Newquay branch over the past 50 years on the Cornwall Railway Society site.

Trivial Fact of the Day connects the assassination of President Kennedy with Harry Connick Jr

If you have ever disappeared down the JFK assassination rabbit hold, or simply seen Oliver Stone's film, you will know all about the New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison.

It was he who brought an unsuccessful prosecution against the New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw for conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.

In 1973 Garrison was defeated in the election for district attorney by Harry Connick, who was to hold the post for the next 30 years.

As Wikipedia explains, Connick intervened in the aftermath of the prosecution of Shaw:
In 1995, while District Attorney, Connick promised to the Assassination Records Review Board and at a public meeting in New Orleans that he would donate the Garrison investigative files which were still in his office. 
According to the Review Board's final report, Connick instructed one of his investigators to destroy these documents after he took office. The investigator took them home instead and kept them until he found out about the Review Board. 
A battle ensued between Connick and the Review Board after Connick demanded that the papers were returned to him and threatening to withhold the investigation papers. 
After many subpoenas going both ways, and with the help of the Justice Department, the Review Board won and all of the documents in question are in the JFK Collection.
Connick is still alive and is these days is known as Harry Connick Sr because he has a son by the same name - the singer Harry Connick Jr.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Bob Willis in Australia 1970/1

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In my tribute to Bob Willis I wrote that he had been
plucked from the obscurity of Surrey seconds to join a victorious Ashes tour under Ray Illingworth in 1970/1.
Matthew Engel tells the story more fully:
Willis made his debut for Surrey in 1969, but was still nowhere near a regular first-teamer by November 1970. Suddenly, aged 21 and expecting to spend the winter keeping goal for the Corinthian-Casuals football team, he was called out to Australia as a replacement. 
The England captain, Ray Illingworth, had never seen Willis play, but he said he wanted someone scary even if wayward, and the Surrey batsman John Edrich told him Willis was the man. 
There was no eight for 43 or anything like it, but he played four Tests, came second in the bowling averages, took some fine catches, helped regain the Ashes and generally made a good impression with his youthful zest.
In the picture above Willis is dismissing Greg Chappell, also playing his first series, through a gully catch by Edrich.

So farewell then Ironbridge power station cooling towers



Travelling to Shropshire by road, if you leave the M54 at one junction you join a road that dips sharply so that the hills rose above you.

Just as you are trying to remember some quotations from Housman, you round a bend and see the cooling towers of Ironbridge power station.

Not any more you don't: they were demolished today.

As a 20th-century boy, I still have a regard for industry on the heroic scale. I also admire the way red pigment was added to the concrete so the towers matched the local soil

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Archbishop Chichele's school at Higham Ferrers


Archbishop Henry Chichele's school stands next to St Mary's Higham Ferrers and dates from the early 15th century.

It was used as a grammar school between 1542 and 1906, before being consecrated as a chantry chapel in 1942.

Today it is noted for its intrusive skip.