Friday, April 05, 2024

Looking back at Simon Titley's writings for Liberator

The new issue of Liberator was posted on the magazine website this morning. You can download it free of charge from there - it's Liberator 422.

As well as Lord Bonkers' Diary, which I'll start posting here tomorrow, it includes an article by me on Simon Titley and his writings. The photo here was taken during our lunch in Melton Mowbray.

Does a decade make a difference?

Simon Titley was fond of claiming that he joined the Liberator editorial collective in the 1980s because it was the only way of ensuring that his articles were pasted down in the correct order. Whatever the truth of that, his individual take on politics soon became central to the magazine. He was well informed about machinations inside the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats, interested in new thinking from well beyond those parties and aware of the continuing importance of social class in British politics, when a more common view among his fellow Liberals and Lib Dems was that, yes, class existed, but it was rather bad manners to mention it.

Now that, incredibly, it is approaching ten years since Simon’s death, this seems a good time to look back at some of his contributions to the magazine. You can find a collection of them on the magazine’s website and I’ll give the issue number of those I mention so you can read more for yourself.

Let’s start with a characteristic article. In Liberator 351 Simon looked at Liberals’ fondness for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ and asked what they mean to us in concrete terms. He begins by quoting Ralf Dahrendorf’s account of being held in solitary confinement by the Nazi regime as a teenager and how he had found himself feeling “a visceral desire not to be hemmed in, neither by the personal power of men, nor by the anonymous power of organisations”.

It is that feeling, Simon goes on to say, that Liberal Democrat talk of ‘freedom’ consistently fails to convey:

It is because the Liberal Democrats have such difficulty talking about freedom in meaningful terms that I have been regularly referring to the concept of ‘agency’ in my writing. By ‘agency’, I mean the capacity of individuals to make meaningful choices about their lives and to influence the world around them. I define freedom in these terms because it is better to think of freedom as a practical ability than as a theoretical abstraction. Unfortunately, ‘agency’ is jargon in some professional circles but I shall stick with it because it encapsulates the meaning I seek better than any other word I can think of.

Defining freedom in these terms forces us to realise the extent to which the maldistribution of power is at the root of most of our political ills. It also forces us to realise the relationship between exercising freedom and wellbeing. We can then incorporate freedom as an integral part of our policies across the board, rather than tack it on as an afterthought or omit it altogether.

An insistence on agency also counteracts the classical liberal argument that market forces are the only legitimate means by which people may exercise power.

This emphasis on the importance of the lived experience of abstract ideas can also be found in an article about social class that Simon contributed to Liberator 345. In this case the experience was his own:

Rarely have I encountered worse snobbery than within the Liberal Democrats. The symptoms are wearily familiar; the snide put-downs, the supercilious smirks, the casual discounting of one’s skills or arguments. The low point came when a ‘fellow’ party member once addressed me as “your sort”.

My own experience is more benign. If I transgress the unwritten rules in something I write online, then I’m generally told a particular comment “is unworthy of me”, with the implication that I pass muster the rest of the time. I’ll admit the speed with which public school and Oxbridge ranks close is impressive, but it tells us much about why British society is the way it is.

Sometimes Simon chose less ostensibly political subjects. Here he is in Liberator 331 on the tyranny of ‘cool’, and in particular the British middle-class take on the concept, which gives us:

A world where it is no longer permissible to have hobbies or intellectual pursuits. A world where enthusiasm or erudition earns contempt. A world where, if you commit any of these social sins, you will immediately be slapped down with one of these stock sneers: ‘sad’, ‘trainspotter’, ‘anorak’, ‘anal’ or ‘get a life’.

The phenomenon of ‘cool’ has been examined thoroughly in a pioneering book, Cool Rules: Anatomy of an Attitude by Dick Pountain and David Robins. Cool is essentially about narcissism and ironic detachment. Its modern origins can be traced to American black culture of the 1940s, when young black men adopted a defiant posture as a means of defence. It was then picked up by rebellious white icons of the 50s such as James Dean. During the 60s, ‘cool’ began to be exploited by advertisers as a means of selling consumer goods and in the 70s it moved from the counter-culture into the mainstream. But while ‘cool’ people today affect an air of rebellion, in reality they are conforming to commercially-driven norms.

Because he moved back to Lincoln a couple of years before he died, I was able to meet Simon three times in the East Midlands before he fell ill. Our last meeting was at a very Titleyesque event – the Melton Mowbray Food Festival – and it will be no surprise to anyone who knew him that one of his last articles for this magazine (Liberator 354) was concerned with the decline of the dinner party, suggesting that a turn taken by some television cookery programmes might be in part to blame:

The BBC’s Masterchef (“cooking doesn’t get any tougher than this”) promotes the mistaken idea that, for any dinner party host, nothing less than Michelin-starred restaurant standards will do. It makes people feel ashamed to offer a homespun casserole, even though that is much more practical for a domestic dinner party than Masterchefs labour-intensive, chefy food. Another disincentive is provided by Channel 4’s ‘Come Dine With Me’, which creates the impression that the average dinner party consists of incompetent cooking shared with a bunch of arseholes.

If you want to see Simon’s approach to politics summed up in a single piece of writing, then I recommend ‘Really Facing the Future’ (Liberator 349), which he wrote with another of the party’s original thinkers, David Boyle. It was written in response to ‘Facing the Future’, a paper from the Liberal Democrats that had failed to live up to its title. David and Simon described their article as:

an attempt to encourage Liberal Democrat policy makers to think more radically – partly because the challenges that lie ahead require more radical thinking and partly as an antidote to the idea that party policy is at its most effective when it tentatively suggests a few tiny changes that don’t threaten the status quo. 

Liberal Democrats believe the opposite is true. The justification for the party’s existence is to think radically, to force the political establishment to recognise the real world, and to put radical change into effect. If the party does not do that, it will find that people lose interest and the supply of committed activists begins to dry up.

The Simon Titley articles I enjoyed most were the ones that revealed the machinations of those on the right of the Liberal Democrats who saw political success much as Jeffrey Archer’s novels see success in business. To them, it was the result, not of new thinking and hard work, but of a clever trick, a new alliance or a bit of clever positioning. As many of these people work in public relations, as Simon did himself, he knew whereof he wrote.

So his review of Mark Oaten’s forgotten memoir Screwing Up gives us a pretty brutal portrait of the author:

Oaten … appears to have no fundamental political values but merely jumps from one bandwagon to another. In the 1980s, he joined the SDP but can justify his choice only in terms of it not being Labour or Conservative. In the 1990s, he was an √ľberchampion of the Blairite ‘Project’ but can justify this only in terms of admiring Paddy Ashdown’s leadership. In the 2000s, he became defender of the classical liberal flame when he founded Liberal Future and the Peel Group, but can justify this only in terms of opposing the ‘nanny state’ (having presumably taken the opposite view in the SDP). In a Guardian interview on 8 January 2005, he admitted “I only really got a philosophical belief about three years ago” (i.e. nearly five years after being elected as a Liberal Democrat MP).

But Simon also discusses the book’s strange failure to mention Paul Marshall or Gavin Grant, who were important backers of Oaten’s varied projects. He also reminds us of the name of the Guardian journalist who penned a succession of articles which questioned the competence of various Liberal Democrat MPs while praising Oaten as a ‘rising star’. Who can have briefed her?

Simon also contributed a telling account in Liberator 339 of the reaction of some to the outbreak of Cleggmania that followed the first leaders’ debate in the 2010 general election campaign:

As Lib Dem opinion poll ratings soared, one cheerleader for the right-wing cabal running the campaign wrote on Facebook: “So... 26-34% in the polls, almost all the boost down to media skills and leadership not leaflets and target seats... I’ve got to ask... anyone missing Rennard...?” The complete collapse of the ‘surge’ to 23% on polling day, just 1% more than the party won in 2005, suggests there was no basis for such conceit.

To end, let’s go back to 2001 and the very first article by Simon on the magazine’s website (issue 277). Not for the last time, we find him asking why Liberals are so fond of apologising for being Liberal:

Liberals are often pilloried as timid and petty-minded. We sit on the fence and wring our hands. When we rebel, it is through self-indulgent individualism (for example, calling ourselves ‘Jedi Knights’ on the census forms) rather than confronting what matters. 

We have only ourselves to blame for acquiring this reputation. Why are Liberals so embarrassed? Why do we lack the courage of our convictions? One of the main reasons is our faith that everyone is reasonable like us. All we have to do is sit round the table and eventually we can reach agreement. If only that were so. In fact there will always be many people, probably a majority, who are not Liberals, who will never be Liberals, and whom we must confront. Beyond that, however, are groups so violent in their hostility that to tolerate their behaviour is to invite our own demise.

The contempt for Jedi Knights is an authentic Titley touch, but beyond that, I don’t know whether to be depressed or lost in admiration that his words are needed just as much today as they were all those years ago.

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