OK, after too long away from this post series, I’m starting them (and the Time Machine and Cerebus) posts up again, assuming my aching hands allow me to. For those who don’t remember, a few months ago I started a series of posts on what Liberalism is, what direction it needs to go in in future, and what the future direction of the Lib Dem party should be.
I’m starting those posts again now, and I’m going to spend the next few posts in this series talking about how Liberalism is distinct from the current political orthodoxy — as I said in my last post in this series, Liberalism is only in the centre if the top of a pyramid is in the centre of its base, and one of the things I want to do more than anything in these posts is to explain where Liberalism departs from the current political consensus.
So before I go into that, I need to look at what the current political consensus is. I’m going to talk below about what I think both the Conservative and Labour parties — and the centrist, moderate, elements within the Lib Dems, for that matter — have agreed on for at least the last twenty years. Please feel free to disagree or correct me in the comments — what I’m doing this for is so everyone’s on the same page in the future essays.
As far as I can tell, every government in my lifetime, and almost every prominent politician has believed:
That there is little wrong with the current political system — that we “need to get people engaged”, but that the way we are governed should be tweaked at best. Those tweaks should, ideally, be cargo-cult copies of some out-of-context aspect of the US system.
That political power should be centralised, and controlled by as few people as possible. Prime Ministers should be de facto Presidents, cities should have elected Mayors with power over Councils.
That house prices should be kept as high as possible.
That taxes on wealth should be lower than taxes on income.
That the highest form of humanity consists of “hard-working families” — family units consisting of two adults, both working more than forty hours per week, and a small number of children — and that any minority groups only have rights in so far as they wish to approximate being a hard-working family.
That the rights of those minority groups should be decided based on the opinions of self-appointed “community leaders”, rather than on any basis such as equality or fairness.
That as far as possible economic power should be concentrated in the hands of monopolistic rent-seekers — that lip service should be given to the concept of markets, but that that lip service should never get in the way of the smooth transfer of state assets to monopolists (with state liabilities, of course, remaining with the state). Any laws to which those monopolistic rent-seekers object must be altered.
That immigrants are the current accepted scapegoat, and thus must be punished at the maximum level possible while still ensuring a steady flow of them.
That mental illness doesn’t exist in any sense worth caring about.
That any limits to the power of the government over the individual are irritants that must be removed.
That the government has a right to all possible information about anyone it wishes to know about.
That it is the proper place of the government to interfere, not only in behaviours which are actually harmful to others, but in activities which are only harmful to the individual, or which cause no harm whatsoever but which others disapprove of.
That the primary purpose of education is to prepare people to be workers, with a distant secondary purpose of inculcating “British values”, and that there is no third purpose.
Not all governments have held all these principles to the same extent — the 1997-2001 Blair government went against a couple of them, as has the coalition government to a greater extent than it is ever credited with (largely because for many of the rest of them it’s gone even further than previous governments), but I think that’s a largely accurate description. Next time, in a week or so, I’ll start looking at the Liberal alternatives to some of those positions.
One of the things I’ve been seeing a lot recently is the repetition by people who should know better of the idea that what we need in British politics is primary elections. It started with the Tories, who are more prone than most to a disease that affects almost everyone in Britain — fetishising the United States, especially those aspects of it we don’t really understand, to the point that they want to make cargo-cult versions of everything American — but I’ve recently seen it being brought up, apparently seriously, on Lib Dem Voice of all places, where it’s been suggested that open primaries should be compulsory and that we should demand this in future coalition negotiations.
Now, I have no problem with parties choosing to use primaries if that’s what they wish to do, but compulsory open primaries would be such a ludicrously stupid idea it’s hard to know where to begin.
Firstly, the Lib Dems already have a policy that would, were it to be enacted, solve all the problems that primaries supposedly solve — STV. Advocating two mutually exclusive solutions (and you can’t have both) to the same problem would make no sense whatsoever.
There are no problems that primaries solve that wouldn’t be solved by STV, and they have a large number of problems that they bring about. If you have compulsory primaries, how are they administered? Who pays the cost of the primaries and, if the government, how can you avoid that being in many cases effectively government subsidised partisan campaigning? Do you let the Bring Back Birching, Legalise Marijuana and Close All Schools Party run a “primary” with only one candidate? If not, how do you force them to get a second candidate when they only have one member? If you do, how do you stop the Tories also running a primary with just one candidate?
But the most important problem is that it is solving the wrong problem. The problem we have at the moment is that people aren’t getting their voices heard when it comes to who represents them in Parliament (a problem which STV would solve). Primaries don’t solve that — they instead give people a voice in deciding who represents *a particular party* in *an election campaign*.
Political parties are private organisations, and should have the right to run themselves as their members see fit. I do not think George Osborne or Ed Balls are particularly good candidates, but that’s because I’m not a member of those parties. I do not, and should not, have the right to impose someone who thinks more like I do as the Conservative or Labour candidate. The Conservative candidate should be chosen by the Conservative Party — that’s what being the Conservative candidate means. Of course, should any party choose, voluntarily, to open their selection process up to the public, that too is their right, but if Labour say in 2015 that they are putting Gerald Kaufman up as candidate in my constituency because he is the person they think best represents what the Labour Party stands for, what right do I have, as someone who is not a member of that party, to say they should put up a different candidate?
It is the absolute right of private membership organisations to choose representatives who actually represent them, and not to have people who don’t represent their positions foist upon them. If you don’t like your Tory MP, the solution is to vote for a party other than the Tories, not to make the Tories devote time and resources to campaigning for a candidate they don’t believe represents the Conservative Party.
And if voting them out doesn’t work, because you’re in a safe seat… then we need to get in a voting system that lets you do that. And that, not copying the Americans and getting it wrong, is what we should be devoting our campaigning time to.
Last night, I found myself in tears, and thinking to myself “despite everything, I still believe in Liberalism, and I still believe that the Lib Dems are the best vehicle for it. I’m going to have to fight harder for the party”.
Which is probably not the response Steve Earle was intending to provoke.
I’ve been having a tiny bit of a crisis regarding the party recently. It’s partly been to do with stuff that’s been in the news — not just the Rennard stuff (about which I agree with Jennie), but also Clegg’s speech about immigrants, which had me spitting blood. (And it was specifically the bits about *immigrants*, not about immigration, that annoyed me. People of good will can disagree about what level of immigration should be allowed, but taking rights and services away from people who are already here is just vile.) I try to be loyal in my public statements, to accept the realities of politics, and not just to be someone sniping from the sidelines, but that really pushed me to my limit.
But mostly because I’ve been fairly unwell myself for quite a while, and had a *LOT* of personal stuff to deal with (enough that when I’ve just listed some of the “highlights” of the last couple of months people have tended to laugh because the sheer number of things going wrong has been hilarious) and I’ve had difficulty keeping to my party commitments. I’m on my local party exec, and I try to do a good job, but there are some very simple things that I haven’t been able to do recently. I hope to be able to pull my weight again very soon.
These things have combined to create a sort of “what the fuck is the point of even bothering?” attitude in me. I’ve been using up more and more energy, but having less and less actual ability to do the things required of me, and all for what seem to be rapidly diminishing returns in terms of result. I’ve been seriously questioning why I bother.
Basically, in short, I’ve been turning into a whiner.
But yesterday I went to see Steve Earle, at the conference centre attached to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. I hadn’t meant to go to the gig, actually, but my friend Emily had a workmate who couldn’t go, and so I got their ticket. I love Earle’s work, but hadn’t seen him live since about 1998 — he always seems to play Manchester when there’s another gig on the same night that I already have a ticket for, or when I’m out of town.
After a support act which reinforced my desperate desire to get out and perform music again — their guitarist played exactly like I do, by which I don’t mean “badly”, but that he had exactly the same phrasing, to a degree that was frankly spooky — Earle came on and launched into You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and I remember realising that I have never yet seen an American act play Liverpool and *not* play a Beatles song. Blondie even did it in Delamere Forest, because that’s close enough…
For those who don’t know who Earle is (which I discovered when talking about the gig in the days leading up to it is far more people than I would have thought), he’s usually described as a country singer, but like all genre labels that’s something that can describe totally different forms of music. In Earle’s case, it seems to mean “man who has both a guitar and a Texas accent”, and not much more than that — Earle’s music definitely has a resemblance to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Nesmith, or Townes Van Zandt, but no more so than its resemblance to Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits (in ballad mode), Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, or Elvis Costello, none of whom normally get called country singers.
Earle did a two-hour set, which touched on most of the highlights of his career — I Ain’t Never Satisfied, My Old Friend The Blues, Devil’s Right Hand,Goodbye, Tom Ames’ Prayer, Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and Galway Girl (which got a small number of people who had seemed rather disapproving of his swearing and songs about crime, and who had presumably only come because they knew that song from the cider advert, on his side), and the rest. He also talked a lot between songs — about the different types of song he writes (“I write those songs so that I get women in the audience, which stops my audience getting uglier and hairier, because when I look at the men it’s like looking in a mirror” — which made me laugh more than it should, because I’d been joking earlier that Earle’s current glasses/balding head/huge beard look is stealing my style, and because he said this right after Goodbye, my single favourite song of his, so it might not be having quite the effect he hopes), and about his own personal struggles (he’s currently going through his seventh divorce, though to his sixth wife — he married and divorced one of them twice).
The one area of his songwriting he didn’t go into much in the show was his political songwriting. While almost everything Earle does has an at least implicit political message, he left out most of the explicitly political stuff he did in the mid-2000s, songs like John Walker’s Blues or Amerika v6.0 (The Best We Can Do), at least until the encore.
But for the first song of the encore, he played Jerusalem, his song about the Middle East, and talked about the work he’s done there producing collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian musicians and working with anti-war Israeli activists. And he said “I don’t believe in lost causes, because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, and I turned my life around”, before talking about how Belfast had changed over the years, and how even the seemingly impossible can soon become normal in politics, and then singing:
I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say
And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find
That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem
And suddenly I understood how Earle could carry on his own political campaigning, which is mostly against the death penalty in the US, a cause that seems far more hopeless than any of the causes I’ve been involved in. And I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.
So I’m more resolved than ever that I’m going to keep campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, and that I’m going to keep pushing within the party for it to be more like it is at its best and less like it is at its worst. I can’t promise that I’ll be any more use than I have been, given my health, or that the efforts I do make will be any more successful. But I’ll do what I can, when I can, to make the world a little bit better…
The Wilson governments have not been regarded particularly highly by history, partly because of economic factors, and mostly because of the disastrous mid-70s government (which faced problems that no government could have dealt with). However, there’s an argument to be made that the Labour government in the mid-sixties was the third great radical progressive government of the twentieth century, after the Liberal government of the pre-WWI years and the Atlee government of the late 40s.
During a very brief period of time, and (at least at first) with a wafer-thin majority, the Wilson government gave its backing to some enormous changes to British society — usually because of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary (and later founder of the SDP, one of the predecessor parties of the Lib Dems) putting his weight behind a Labour or Liberal MP’s private member’s bill. Abortion was legalised, male homosexuality decriminalised, theatre censorship abolished, birching ended, divorce laws relaxed, and (most importantly as far as this post is concerned), the death penalty abolished after Jenkins gave government backing to a bill brought in by backbencher Sydney Silverman.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the last executions to take place in the United Kingdom, and I thought it deserved marking. The death penalty was popular among voters, and is still supported by a plurality, if not a majority, and this is one of those occasions which I think shows clearly that representative democracy is better than direct democracy.
So to mark the anniversary of the end of one of the most barbaric practices ever, here are a few related links.
The Howard League’s publications on capital punishment
Amnesty’s look back at fifty years without the death penalty
Reprieve — a charity that campaigns against the death penalty and repression in the US
Amnesty’s campaign to stop a man who has been on death row in Japan for 46 years and has recently been granted a retrial from being sent back to death row
And today I’m thankful that for a brief period of two years, a decade and a half before I was born, Britain had a Home Secretary who said “the permissive society is in reality the civilised society”, and who replaced the board in his office listing execution dates with a drinks cabinet…
Over the last few days, the leaders of all three main political parties have been competing to show who has the biggest dick by showing they can simultaneously bash poor people and foreigners, two groups of people who simply have too much power in this society. They’re all proving they’re real men because they can kick those at the bottom.
In particular, we’ve been hearing a lot about how Britain is simply too welcoming to immigrants, how we’re too generous to them, and how they are drains on what we must now apparently call the “welfare” system (because using the term “benefits” isn’t macho enough). “We can’t continue to have an open-door policy” say all the leaders [and before anyone starts talking about the Greens, remember that they have an immigration policy that specifically says their policy is not intended to increase the numbers of immigrants. They are no better on this than any of the major parties]. “We need to be tougher, but fair”.
Let me tell you about this “open-door policy” that we supposedly have. There are various ways that people can come over here, and the rules differ depending on where the person is coming from, why they’re coming over here, how much money they have, and so on.
I have no experience of most of these (except distantly, when I was working on a psychiatric ward with a few patients who had developed mental illnesses as a result of the asylum system, which was trying to throw them out of the country back to countries where they would be tortured), but I *do* have experience with what most people think of as one of the “good” or “acceptable” kinds of immigration.
My wife is American, and for various reasons when we got married it was better for us to live in the UK than the US. Most people I’ve spoken to about this — in fact *everyone* who hadn’t found themselves in the same position — thought this goes as follows:
We get married, she becomes a citizen.
The process is actually this [note that the process has changed, for the worse, since we did this. :
She had to go back to the US. We married over there, but if we hadn’t, she would have had to apply, while over there, for a fiancee visa. This would have cost £750 at the time — the cost now is £885. You pay that cost even if you’re turned down. That visa would have lasted six months, after which we would have had to do all the rest of the stuff below.
But as it is, we didn’t *have* the money to do that, and got married in the US. We had to pay for a marriage visa, which again cost £750, and which again now costs £885 (and would cost £1285 to do the way we did, with a same-day service at the consulate). We had to pay this in cash, because my wife is a dirty foreigner who can’t be trusted to pay by debit card or cheque, but weren’t told this until we were actually halfway through the process at the British consulate in Chicago, prompting tearful phone calls to my wife’s bank, who were thankfully able to temporarily increase her withdrawal limit.
I don’t know if you are married, and if so whether the first day of your married life was spent being bullied by bureaucrats until your spouse is in tears, while stuck in a city you don’t know and having to pay a month’s wages for the privilege of someone making the person you love cry, and with the possibility hanging over you that if at any time you make a wrong move you can end up being forbidden to live in the same country as your spouse, with no appeal. It’s not the best honeymoon ever.
We also had to provide multiple pieces of evidence that I had a job and could support her, that we really did have a life together, and so on. No-one in our position then could do this now, because while back then you just had to prove you were earning a reasonable amount (I was on £15,000 a year at the time), now you have to prove you’re earning more than the average wage.
But then she was a British citizen and had the right to live over here, right?
The marriage visa, back then, gave you permission to live in the UK for two years. That permission could be revoked at any time, and while you’re in the UK you have no recourse to public funds — no benefits, whatsoever. This was particularly wonderful when I lost my job three months after we married when the company went bankrupt, and definitely didn’t cause us to both develop major anxiety disorders which are still with us eight years later.
But THEN she was a British citizen and had the right to live over here, right?
No. When Holly came over, at the end of that two years, you had to apply for indefinite leave to remain, which involved further proofs (many of which we simply didn’t have, which required a lot of frantic pleading and begging on our part — anyone less articulate and willing to manipulate the system would have failed at this hurdle) and, yes, pay more money. That was another thousand pounds at the time, but now the amount you pay after two years is less, “only” £601. The reason for this is that now, after two years, you can’t get indefinite leave to remain, only “further leave to remain”, which gives you another three years, still without recourse to public funds.
If, after that time, your marriage hasn’t fallen apart under the strain of dealing with all this, the immigrant spouse, then and now, had to pay (£1093 is the current amount) to be granted indefinite leave to remain. They also have to take a test, which costs £50, on “life in the UK” — a test which covers all sorts of useful information like what year women were first allowed to own property, which I’m sure will come in very useful if my wife is ever transported back in time to the 19th century.
But THEN she was a citizen, right?
No. Despite people calling it the “citizen test”, it doesn’t grant you citizenship. You get indefinite leave to remain, and can finally claim any benefits to which you are entitled, but you have to (or at least this is how it was when we did it) wait another year after being granted ILR before you can become a citizen and get voting rights. This costs ANOTHER thousand pounds, and also involves an oath of loyalty to the Queen (something that no-one born over here has to do for citizenship).
Holly still hasn’t actually done that bit, even though we’ve been married eight years, because we’ve never had a spare thousand pounds just lying around. So she’s still not eligible to vote in the country where she’s lived for the last eight years.
(We’ve half-jokingly talked about running a campaign to get her on the Lib Dems’ elected list of suggested peers, because getting her into the House of Lords seems like the *least* complicated way to get her UK citizenship. Seriously.)
Of course, even if she did get citizenship, she still wouldn’t be “really” a citizen, because unlike anyone born here her citizenship could be stripped at whim by the Home Secretary, with no appeal.
Meanwhile, every time my wife, who has something not far from PTSD as a result of all our dealings with the immigration authorities, despite her having about as easy a time as it’s possible to have in our situation, goes to the pub, or turns on the TV or radio, or looks at the newspaper, there are people — including the FUCKING LEADER OF THE POLITICAL PARTY SHE AND I ARE BOTH MEMBERS OF, WHO KNOWS BETTER BECAUSE HE’S MARRIED TO AN IMMIGRANT! — denouncing immigrants, for the way they just come over here and take all our benefits, for the way “we” make it too easy on “them”.
Before you tell me that immigrants have it easy, try spending your life on a constant alert for what’s in the news, so you can warn your wife when she shouldn’t turn on Radio 4 in case she’s reduced to a sobbing fit by all the powerful people talking about how evil she is. Try holding someone in tears because the entire culture is telling her, constantly, that she is not welcome, and never will be welcome, in her home, no matter what she does.
Try facing the possibility that if you can’t pass a multiple choice quiz with questions like “Which TWO kings believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings': the idea that the king was directly appointed by God to rule”, “The independent police complaints body is called the Independent Police Complaints Commission in which TWO countries?”, “Which two highest-grossing film franchises have been produced in the UK (Choose any 2 answers)” and “The Paralympic games have their origin in the work of which German refugee, at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire who developed new methods of treatment for people with spinal injuries?” you’ll be deported.
Try losing your job, being unable to claim benefits, and then *still* having to scrape together a thousand pounds out of nowhere while looking for another job, because if you don’t you’ll be deported.
And then try being told that the biggest problem this country has is that it lets all those immigrants in and gives them free money.