Armour-Plated Liberalism

Liberalism, Churches and Funny Pictures

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Where Howard Zinn's "A Peoples' History" falls short (Professor Sam Wineburg)

The influence of Howard Zinn on modern left-wing interpretations of America seems, to me, to be exceptionally strong. Yet, as Professor Wineburg eloquently and devastatingly points out, the nature of the history that Zinn offers students today suffers from a lack of complexity and nuance. Further, this lack of complexity is compounded quite often simply by his being flat out wrong, or under-researched, on key turning points in American history.

I’ve whined and lectured and hectored before on the importance of nuance and complexity in politics; the same must be said for history. I have not always lived up the standards I have expected of others, something that will doubtless happen again. But I still think it right to strive for a standard in politics wherein we understand that the other side is not evil, but wrong. Sometimes, this means surrendering our temptation to lurch into a moral outrage at issues close to our heart - wars, rights and so on - and considering closely the thought processes of others we reject as irredeemably evil.

His Grace the Archbishop of Westminster was at the receiving end of an outburst from myself in our kitchen yesterday morning over his comments on equal marriage. Yet he is wrong, not evil, on this issue. His beliefs point him to an interpretation of love different from my own, and denouncing him as a malign force because of that does not create a situation wherein we can build a future for this country that includes both people of faith and a whole variety of sexualities. It is not easy to admit that a man who does not want me to marry, nor sees my love as equal to that of a heterosexual couple, is not evil - but I do not genuinely believe he is so. Wrong, yes. Misguided, yes. But absolutely not evil.

To declare His Grace an evil man is to turn history into a mockery, to reduce the grand sweep of humanities’ common experiences to a political trinket and to demean the victims of the few thousand people in all human history we might say approach the actual status of the truly, irredeemably evil. It is to play to tune of Zinn’s orchestra; history is about the weak being good and right, and the powerful being evil and wrong. It is not - it is about the blind fumbling forwards of a whole species, sometimes into dark alleys, sometimes into the broad sunlit uplands of Churchillian rhetoric. It is not comforting to admit that history is not an endless progression of virtue, nor is it destined to be. It forces us to admit that those in power are as falliable as we; and, on the other side of that coin, that they make as much of circumstances as we ourselves would have done in their shoes. 

I do not believe in a politics of cosy goodness and irredeemable evil, nor a history of the same. I believe in difficult choices, in common ground between all manner of people and in the creation of a climate wherein we can disagree without denouncement. I reject out of hand those who preach that intolerance of those intolerant of them is the cornerstone of politics. It takes a colossal force of will to stick to this path - a force I do not always possess, and a clarity I often fall far short of in many ways. 

Howard Zinn and Archbishop Nichols are wrong, but they are not evil. If we take away nothing else from 2012, let it be this - we must allow good men to be wrong, or we will destroy our politics and our history in the search for a purity that does not, and can never, exist.

Filed under Howard Zinn History politics UK USA people wrong right good evil

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You’re still interested in the same things you were interested in when you were 9 - LEGO, jelly and playing with your friends. The nature of the games has changed, perhaps…
Jonny, my office mate. I love this guy.

Filed under Jelly LEGO childhood I cannot even

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The End of the Welfare State

Briefly - is it time to stop talking about the “welfare state” and give it a new name to reflect a new vision of its role and purpose?

This idea I owe to my office mate, who suggested that the problem with the name “welfare state” is that it suggests one can rely on the state for everything, at the cost of one’s own responsibilities and livelihood. Such a system breeds resentment among those who imagine themselves to be outside the purview of the system, whilst weakening the impulse to work and self-improvement among those inside it. In essence, it distorts incentives and narratives and creates an unhealthy vision of the state from both supporters and opponents.

Names are, after all, important things - they signify what we expect something to do as well as what it is. The Ministry of Defence’s name is a case in point; we expect the Armed Forces to defend us, though what they are defending, how they do it and why they do it are contestable things, we are generally opposed as a society to aggressive war for the sake of war. They can symbolise and even create cultures, I would contend.

To that end, my office mate suggested a new name for what we currently call the welfare state - the agency state. The meaning here is two-fold:

  1. We, as taxpayers, view the state as our agent, discharging our social duties to our fellow man through the use of our taxes to provide services we cannot. 
  2. The primary role of the state is to encourage agency in those who receive its help; to press people to take charge of their own lives and equip them to do as much.

Thoughts, comments and suggestions are very welcome!

Filed under welfare state politics Britain Liberals Conservatives Labour domestic politics social policy

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International Men's Day (19/11/2012)

Today is International Men’s Day, with the theme this year being focused on men and health issues. In a world where average life expectancy for men remains lower than for women in the majority of countries on the planet, where the victims of war are still overwhelmingly male and where finding good male role models can be a real struggle in the raising of children, I think it’s important to have a day to talk about this stuff.

I’ve long had a problem with the argument that dealing with women’s issues means that men’s issues will be dealt with as well, automatically. It strikes me that this argument does nothing to actually engage with men - rather, often, it pushes men away by seemingly deeming them to be either an enemy to be reproached or an idiot to be lectured. A joined-up approach; where we recognise that issues facing men are often as urgent and difficult as those facing women on account of their gender; is essential. 

Ultimately, I would prefer an International Gender Day, or something of that ilk, wherein we can frame our conversations in terms of issues specific to our gender identity, whatever that may be - male, female or otherwise. 

Filed under men women gender social justice oh god why liberalism politics

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Tom Smith - Obituary (Telegraph)

I want to to tell you all about two men, very briefly. In the link above is my Great Uncle Tom’s obituary in the Telegraph. I never knew my Uncle Tom very well, but he worked for various aerospace companies on various projects - including the design of a British equivalent to the Space Shuttle in the 1960s. I’m very proud of him for all he designed and all he dreamt up. If you Google him, then you’ll get US patents in his name. I wish I knew my Great Uncle Tom better than I did, but sadly never got the chance.

Then, today, we had Grandad’s funeral. You won’t find my Grandad’s obituary in the Daily Telegraph, but I want to tell you about this very special man. Though, in the 5 years since my Grandma died, his health had steadily declined and the man I knew as a child faded away; I will always remember my Grandad. I’d like to tell you just one story about this calm, practical and hard-working man - a story that illuminates his good nature so well. In the final Christmas we shared with him and Grandma, he bought her an extra present, which he made sure she opened last. It was the most beautiful ring; and Grandma was utterly bowled over. My Grandad just sat on the sofa next to her, giggling away and lifting his feet in the air, practically glowing when she kissed him on the cheek. The two of them made each other so happy; and they made so much of my childhood just as happy as well.

I cannot tell you how much those two people made me the way I am today, nor can I adequately tell you just how much I miss them both. But I know I’ll see them again; and that is what gets me through.

Filed under Obituary Grandparents uncle relatives funeral aerospace NASA marriage love shuttle space

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Restoration & Renewal of the Palace of Westminster

"While the precise cost of rectifying these deficiencies is still unknown, investigations conducted in recent years indicate that it is already in excess of 40% of the insurance reinstatement value of the Palace (approximately £1.8bn). If the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild.”

I hope we can get the cash together to save this fine old building, and indeed bring her up to the standard a modern Parliament needs.

Filed under Parliament Britain UK Politics heritage Palace Westminster

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Unfashionable in the Extreme

I support an independent British nuclear deterrent. Those 7 words are enough to land me in hot water with a lot of people from across Britain. Trident is widely reviled as a symbol of the past, as a colossal waste of money and as an evil thing, a blot on Britain’s reputation in the world. Yet I believe that Britain needs nuclear weapons - nay, the world needs them - because they bring a blanket of security, ironically, without which the world today would be a darker place.

This is not to say that I believe that a like-for-like renewal of Trident is the best option, nor that I believe that the current set up of the nuclear weapons systems of this country are perfect. There are many ways we could seek to create a more versatile, perhaps even cheaper deterrent - smaller vessels than the Vanguard class, for example; missiles on warships and for aerial deployment as well. 

But I do firmly believe that nuclear weapons have been a force for peace in my lifetime, and will be again in that time. I know I am not alone in this - a very senior member of the Labour Party once told me that nuclear weapons have been the greatest force for peace in the 20th Century, and there is much to commend that argument. One of the key barriers to repeating the Great Power conflicts that so marred particularly European history over so many centuries has been the ability of those states to totally annihilate each other; and in turn be annihilated. Quite simply, it is the fear of these weapons that have kept states in line.

They have not prevented war by proxy, or smaller states engaging in brutal conflicts with one another, each appalling in their own right. But we have not seen a repeat of wars on the scale of the past; the balance of power this time is weighted down with an even more awesome (in the older sense of the word) threat than Gatling guns and barbed wire. It may only be a shade safer world than before, but in the mud and blood of international politics, that shade safer is something I would like to keep.

You see, as eminently reasonable as we may think ourselves and our common man, as bound by reason and enlightenment and civilisation as we may look into the mirror and tell ourselves we are, we remain at the mercy of the same grinding logic of power politics as generations before and generations yet to come. We are, all of us, still capable of lapsing into that state of nature that Hobbes speaks of in The Leviathan; wherein all life becomes “nasty, brutish and short.” Those like William Golding who look into the human condition and find darkness are worth listening too because they tell us so much about the way international politics, as well as domestic affairs, can be shaped by these darker impulses and heavier truths.

This is why I am an English School scholar, and this is why I continue to support nuclear weapons. By seeking to manage, not reject, power politics we can try and tame, rather than ignore our darker impulses and the immovable truth of our circumstances in international affairs. Power politics is not something we can wish away; we have seen before how attempts to do so - the League of Nations is perhaps the greatest example of this - will always end in miserable failure and the suffering of a new, more violent war as we are reminded of these solemn truths. Pretending as though power is something that can be forever ignored, or removed, or belittled is inviting chaos and our own destruction. We must understand it, work with it and try wherever possible to steer it to a better world, yes. But we must never pretend that we are so different from our ancestors that we have, or can, move beyond it.

A Britain with nuclear weapons is one that recognises these truths and seeks to work with them. A Britain that agonises over them is one that understands the conflicts that we must all face - kings and peasants - when we struggle with the nature of man and the world around us. But a Britain that walks away, that pretends power politics is something we can ignore and that thinks that a world where we are weak is one where we will still get what we want, is foolish, blind and ignorant of the world. We must be at the table in full force if we are to get the world we want, otherwise we must be prepared for a world we cannot stand. That is why I support Britain retaining the bomb; that is why I think it is money worth the spending.

Filed under Labour Conservative Liberal Democrats nuclear weapons nuclear foreign policy international relations Hobbes English School

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How nice to hear Tories called stupid, not evil (Hugo Rifkind)

Hugo Rifkind has given voice to what I’ve thought for quite a long time. Attacks on the Tories, or conservatives, or the ‘other’ in politics on the basis that they are evil fundamentally miss the point that there are very few people in the world who you could count as being truly ‘evil’ and they are not specific to one part of the political spectrum. It also betrays a staggering lack of political understanding, when you fly right past the debate and instead fixate on the uniquely evil status of your opponent.

We’re all guilty of this kind of behaviour in modern politics; myself included. But we have to recognise that this is corrosive; it turns voters off and it leads to positions that cannot be reconciled in the face of even growing national emergency. We’ve seen in the United States two parties entrenching themselves firmly on each side of the battlefield, denouncing compromise as betrayal and failing to see the other as being different, rather than evil. 

If you build your political identity around the notion that one part of the spectrum is evil; that those who inhabit it are somehow particularly malicious; then you deserve the terrible politics you will help create. If you’re naive enough, blind enough, willfully ignorant enough to short-circuit the debate so you can jump straight to the bitter moralising and the denunciations of the other as being pure evil, then you deserve the rotten leadership you will help elevate. 

The people who you often find yourself facing over the despatch box in politics are not evil. They are not incapable of emotion or thought and they are not living on a different planet to you. You may find their argument to be flawed, you may disagree with their conclusions or reject their methods. But don’t take this as being a sign that they are evil. If you can avoid that, then you can help build a politics worth being proud of. If not, then you’re really just pitiable.

Filed under conservative Conservatives Labour Liberals Liberal Democrats politics UK USA liberal

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Moving with the Times

Today’s Times pulls no punches in its assessment of the Liberal Democrats and our future as a party. It rightly, in my view, identifies the need for the party to chart out a radical, centrist trajectory - distinct from Labour or Conservative grounds. As both of those two parties seem to want to shift back away from the centre; to escape legacies of leaders they would both, it appears, like to forget rather sooner than the rest of us, it leaves a Blair-sized hole of recent lore.

I have said it before, and will say it again - we must not fool ourselves into believing we can be a centre-left party again. Those voters and that image are dashed to pieces, and desperately chasing it will only remind the public of things we have failed to do. We have done so much in government, it is time to adopt an ideological and presentational position that marks us as centrist. In any case, there is already a centre-left party in the UK; it is wealthier and larger than we, and it is called Labour.

It is no good, either, chasing oppositionalist or protest voters around, whimpering like a smacked puppy. Their support is one we have lost; and I welcome this. We must be a principled party of power, not the party that opposes because it can and so works hard to prevent itself ever being taken seriously. I suspect these voters are broadly centre-left or plain left; I have come to suspect that they are less keen on the making of the sausage than those on the right. They flee the first sign of trouble in power, because they have less patience with the way the world is. I may, of course, be wrong. But the point still stands - these are the quicksand votes, the one upon whom any success is fleeting and soon utterly lost.

To embrace a centrist position is to be in favour of reform of the state, not to further the market, but to deliver better services, greater transparency and accountability. It is to strengthen local government because it already has such a powerful role in peoples’ lives that its responsibilities should be met with power in town halls, not hoarded jealously in Whitehall. It is to propose taxes for the wealthy on the basis of the need to balance the books and stimulate growth, not the language of greed and envy that characterises left-wing discussions of such measures. It is a wide open plain, where Liberals have been before and where we would do well to go again.

There is still room for a debate here - Social, Radical, New, Green and all the other forms of Liberalism are, I would contend, ultimately naturally centrist ideological positions. We can contend over how best to deliver reform for our objectives, or what to tax to help bring our finances in order and achieve wider Liberal goals - a greener economy, for example. But we must agree that it is in the centre we can fight, and win. There are many who have not voted for us before and fit into that window well, I feel. We are foolish to chase those who have left us with the vain hope that reminding them of what they call betrayal; we would be much wiser to find new friends, and go from there.

Let us take Brighton as the beginning of this debate, and when we meet in Glasgow next autumn, let us be ready to declare ourselves as we must be - Liberal, centrist and radical.

Filed under Liberal Democrats Liberals UK Politics Times Liberalism

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Bach’s Mass in B Minor; I’ve been reading a book recently on German culture, how rich and important it is and has been, and how we need to understand Germany with a longer view than 1933-1945, with a brief mention for reunification. So enjoy this, perhaps the best creation of one of the greatest names in the history of music.

(Source: Spotify)

Filed under Bach classical Mass in B Minor German kultur beautiful music