Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Small minds in some grey zone of human experience"

My House Points column from yesterday's Liberal Democrat News.

Risky business
In 1774 Edmund Burke (who was an Irish Whig and not the English Tory that most English Tories imagine) told his Bristol constituents that “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” In other words, MPs and councillors should do what they think is right, not what they think will be popular.

I was reminded of Burke’s words by the artwork Another Place -- the sculptor Antony Gormley's collection of 100 cast iron statues on Crosby beach. There a local Conservative councillor and prospective parliamentary candidate was quoted as saying she thought the work “brilliant”, and then persuaded the council to have it uprooted.

If you think something is brilliant, shouldn’t you be campaigning for it rather than against it?
A more complicated example was to be found on Monday when Henry Bellingham opened a debate on firework nuisance. The Tory MP for North West Norfolk (he lost the seat to Labour in 1997 and won it back in 2001) began with extravagant praise for a constituent who had collected a petition calling for an outright ban on the sale of fireworks. She was “indefatigable, resolute, determined and passionate”.

Yet it turned out that, despite helping deliver the petition to Number 10, Bellingham did not agree with her. He spoke engagingly of the pleasure he had derived from a recent family firework display. His tenuous argument was that unless the House agreed to further restrictions on fireworks a total ban was inevitable.

That counts as trying to slip your judgment through unobserved in a conspicuous display of industry.

Still, it was not the silliest argument we have heard on fireworks lately. Barry Sheerman described bonfire night as a “cataclysmic disaster” for the environment. Not just a disaster, you note, but a cataclysmic one - the very worst sort.

Never mind that the press could find no expert opinion to support him: Sheerman’s views are perfectly in tune with our times. As Anthony Gormley said of the removal of his sculptures: “There is no logic to this other than small minds in some grey zone of human experience wanting to deny the unusual … This is another example of risk-resistant Britain.”

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