Drugs policy – sending the wrong message

One of the most frequent arguments against a more liberal drugs policy is that liberalisation would ‘send a message’ that drugs – even hard drugs like heroin and cocaine – were not harmful.  This, so the argument goes, would lead to people trying these substances who would never have done so before, thereby leading more people into addiction.  This is apparently the reason for David Cameron’s opposition to even seeking Civil Service opinion on the subject, with today’s Sun reporting him as saying that “I don’t want to send out a message that somehow taking drugs is OK or safe.”  The idea that the criminal law should be used to ‘send a message’ – to set a moral guideline, regardless of the consequences or practicality of its enforcement – is in general a bad one which leads to bad law.  But it is a legitimate question to ask in this case.  Evidence from Portugal suggests a possible increase in the proportion of the population having ever used illegal drugs; similarly, there is plausible evidence of increased uptake of cannabis in some jurisdictions where it has been legalised.

But if the law is there to ‘send a message’, it should be asked exactly what message is being sent at the moment.  It is forgotten now, but many who in the 1960s argued in favour of legalising homosexuality – and, to a lesser extent, abortion – argued from the position that the widespread flouting of the law brought the legal system into disrepute.  When one-third of the population admits to having tried an illegal drug, and one in five young people say that they’ve used drugs in the past year, this is a real concern.  (Social stigma and fear or prosecution probably mean that these numbers are greatly underreported.)

Furthermore, from personal experience* I would suggest that the irrationality of our drug laws, and the exaggerated claims often used to defend them, lead people to underestimate the dangers of hard drugs.  Two examples.  The first is somebody I knew at school – someone very bright but rather wayward – who, after taking at a house party what had been sold to them as ketamine, passed out and had to be revived by paramedics.  (We didn’t call the ambulance until they stopped breathing because we were afraid that they would end up in trouble – another disadvantage of criminalisation.)  I remember them saying beforehand that the dangers of ketamine were small, and while I don’t know for sure that they were influenced by government drugs policy, the fact that cannabis – which for my knowledge has never nearly killed someone – was rated as a Class B drug while ketamine was then Class C might have contributed to their thoughts.  The other is a friend who briefly became an occasional cocaine user.  When I found out, I had to explain to them – and, again, this is a very well educated and intelligent person – that cocaine was highly addictive and damaging.

When you lump together a group of substances which have little to link them except social disapproval, and rank them with very little correlation to social and personal harm, you send out a confused message – as is fitting, given our country’s confused conversation on illegal drugs.  This message underestimates the dangers of alcohol.  It brings the criminal justice system into disrepute.  And it also leads many to underestimate the harm caused by illegal drugs.  Some message.  Perhaps David Cameron ought to consider whether it’s worth perpetuating a failed drugs war if this is the best argument he has.

*As it happens, I have never used any illegal drug, unless you count a little underage drinking from the age of 16.

The living members of Nixon’s enemies list

On Tuesday, a great American hero passed away.  Ben Bradlee was the Executive Editor of the Washington Post from 1968 to 1991, but he is best known for his newspaper’s dogged pursuit of the Watergate scandal and its publication, with the New York Times, of the Pentagon Papers.  With the death of another Watergate protagonist, I asked myself – how many of the names from Richard Nixon’s enemies list are still around?

The enemies list, compiled by several of Nixon’s White Office assistants, listed those who were considered to be the most dangerous opponents of the President.  (In fact there were two lists – a shortlist of twenty names and a longer ‘master list’ of more than 200 people and institutions.)  The list, while not written by Nixon himself, reflects many of his well-known preoccupations and prejudices.  For instance, the black congressional delegation are included en bloc.  It is also rather idiosyncratic – it turns out that Ben Bradlee was not included in it (although the Washington Post’s proprietor, Katherine Graham, appears  twice).  In contrast, two national farming organisations are listed, alongside Beltway reporters and liberal celebrities, for reasons which aren’t immediately obvious: Robbie Simpson on Twitter suggested that it might be because of farmers’ hostility to the price controls which Nixon imposed in the summer of 1971.  The purpose of the enemies list was to provide a basis for official harassment: “[to] use the available federal machinery to screw our political enemies”.

My list of living enemies was constructed with the help of Wikipedia and Google.  Those with an obituary or some other evidence of death I have obviously excluded; of the rest, I only included those with online evidence of recent activity.  There are six individuals whose status I have been unable to determine by this method – they have been excluded.  (They are Charles Palmer, James Laird, John Pierson, Holmes Brown, George Hillman, and George Drennen Fischer – information either way about these or any other individuals would be gratefully received.)  For those included in the shortlist, I have included Charles Colson’s comments on them.


Birch Bayh – A Democratic Senator for Indiana from 1963 to 1981, Bayh is the father of Evan Bayh (Democratic Senator for Indiana from 1999 to 2011).  He currently resides in Maryland and continues to advocate for a number of political causes.

Fred R. Harris – A Democratic Senator for Oklahoma from 1964 until 1973, Harris ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976.  He went on to teach political science at the University of New Mexico, where he now lives.

Walter Mondale – Mondale, who was Senator for Minnesota from 1964 to 1976, went on to become Jimmy Carter’s Vice President, and was the Democratic nominee for President in 1984.  Mondale acted as Ambassador to Japan between 1993 and 1996 and stood as the stand-in candidate for the Democratic Party in the 2002 U.S. Senate election in Wisconsin after the death of Paul Wellstone.

Members of Congress

John Brademas – Brademas left Congress in 1981 after twenty-two years as the Representative for Indiana’s 3rd District, and went on to become President of New York University from 1981 to 1991.  The Brademas Centre for the Study of Congress at NYU is named in his honour.

Robert Kastenmeier – Kastenmeier’s career in Congress ended unexpectedly in 1990 after thirty-two years as Representative for Wisconsin’s 2nd District.  Appropriately, Kastenmeier was on the House Judiciary Committee which approved the articles of impeachment against Nixon in 1974.  He has an annual lecture named after him at the University of Wisconsin Law School; last year’s speaker was Watergate felon John Dean.

Bill Clay – Clay was one of the ‘Black Congressmen and Congresswomen’ named in the Master List; he represented a district covering St. Louis, MO between 1969 and 2001, when he was succeeded by his son, William Lacy Clay Jr.

John Conyers (‘Coming on fast. Emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman. Has known weakness for white females.’) – Conyers is still in Congress, representing West Detroit, and will celebrate his fiftieth year as a Representative next January.  As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, he also voted on Nixon’s articles of impeachment.  He is considered to be one of the most liberal members of Congress.

Ron Dellums (‘had extensive EMK [Sen. Ted Kennedy]-Tunney [Sen. John Tunney] support in his election bid. Success might help in California next year.’) – Dellums stood down from Congress in 1998 after twenty-seven years service, which included introducing the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1987.  After working as a lobbyist, Dellums returned to politics as Mayor of Oakland, CA from 2007 to 2011.

Charles Rangel – Rangel represents Harlem, NY and its surrounding neighbourhoods in Congress, as he has done continuously since 1971.  He enjoyed an influential position in New York politics and nationally as a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, and was Chair of the body from 2007 until his resignation in 2010 after accusations of ethics violation.

Louis Stokes – A Representative of a district covering Cleveland, OH from 1969 to 1999, Stokes retired as Senior Counsel at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey in 2012.  A museum of his life and work opened in 2007 in Cleveland.


Leslie Gelb, Brookings Institution – Gelb attracted the Nixon White House’s ire as Senior  Fellow at the Brookings Institution from 1969 to 1973 – ironically, he had been one of the original authors of the Pentagon Papers.  Gelb enjoyed an illustrious career as an expert in foreign relations, including a stint in Jimmy Carter’s Department of State and a period at the New York Times.  He continues to write frequently on foreign affairs.

Vincent McGee, Business Executives Move for VN Peace – Since ending his role as Executive Director of BEM, McGee has worked for nonprofits and foundations and is currently on the Board of Directors of PATH, a global health NGO.

Morton Halperin, Common Cause (‘A scandal would be helpful here.’) – Halperin, another foreign policy expert, was temporarily a member of Nixon’s National Security Council until he fell under suspicion of leaking to the press (inevitably for the hyper-paranoid Nixon White House, his phone was tapped).  He worked for the open government organisation Common Cause when the list was written, and served as the Director of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1984 to 1992, and worked in a variety of foreign policy roles in the Clinton White House.  He is currently Senior Adviser at the Open Government Institute.

Marcus Raskin, Institute for Policy Studies – Raskin continues to work for the left-wing IPS as a Distinguished Fellow in addition to teaching as George Washington University.

Sanford Gottlieb, SANE – Gottlieb, who was included because of his campaigning against nuclear weapons, continues his peace activism by occasionally contributing to publications such as the National Catholic Reporter and Huffington Post.


James S. Doyle – Doyle earned his place on the Enemies List as a correspondent at the now-defunct Washington Star, and went on to serve as a Special Assistant to Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski.  He retired from journalism in 1998.

Richard Dudman – Dudman’s reporting of the Vietnam War for the St Louis Post-Dispatch gained him a place on the Enemies List.  From 2000 to 2012 he was the Contributing Editor in retirement for the Bangor Daily News.  He also wrote an article for the New York Times in 1990 which denied the existence of the Cambodian genocide.

Pete Hamill – Hamill moved on from the New York Post to eventually become the editor of the New York Daily News, and has written for publications including The New Yorker and Rolling Stone.  He currently lives in New York.

Ted Knap – Knap was placed on Nixon’s enemies list while working for Scripps Howard News Service, despite believing that ‘Nixon, except for Watergate (a huge caveat), was a good president’.  Knap retired in 1985 and lives in McLean, VA; his Wikipedia page informs us that he has won the Virginia Seniors’ Championship twice.

Morton Kondracke – Kondracke, who had been on the Washington bureau of the Chicago Sun-Times when he was put on the Enemies List, went on to a successful journalistic career which included sixteen years on the television show The McLaughlin Group and twenty years as the Executive Editor of Roll Call.  He is, as far as is known, the only one of Nixon’s enemies to have a walk-on part in the film Independence Day.

Stuart Loory – White House correspondent for the Los Angeles Times from 1967-71, Loory went on to senior roles in academia and journalism, including being one of the founding staff of CNN.  He is currently Distinguished Fulbright Professor at the Centers for East Europe and American Studies at the University of Warsaw.

Martin Nolan – Nolan stayed with the Boston Globe until his retirement in 2001.  Now living in San Francisco, he continues to write for publications such as the Huffington Post and SFGate.

William Prochnau – Prochnau’s work on the Vietnam War at the Seattle Times earned him the enmity of the Nixon White House.  He became the Contributing Editor for Vanity Fair in 1996.

Warren Unna – Sometime bureau chief of the Washington Post in New Delhi, Unna worked in retirement for the Calcutta-based newspaper The Statesman.  He currently lives in Mitchellville, MD.

Milton Viorst – Viorst was a freelance journalist for numerous publications, but it may have been his signing of the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest which attracted the attention of Nixon’s assistants.  Viorst later developed an interest in the Middle East and has written extensively on this subject.  He is married to children’s author, Judith Viorst.

Garry Wills – Wills’s critical biography of Nixon, Nixon Agonistes, was almost certainly the reason he made the enemies list.  Wills continues to write, particularly on the Catholic Church, and regularly contributes reviews for the New York Review of Books.

Marvin Kalb – A CBS reporter when the Enemies List was written, Kalb later moved to NBC, where he presented Meet The Press.  Kalb is currently a James Clark Welling Fellow at George Washington University, and previously held a number of positions at Harvard University.

Sander Vanocur – Vanocur moved from NBC in 1971, the same year that the list was written; he went on to hold a number of roles at CBS before retiring in 1991.


Carol Channing – Channing, who came to prominence in 1964 as the eponymous character in Hello Dolly!, probably made the Enemies List for no better reason than that she sang a reworked version of ‘Hello, Dolly!’ for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign in 1964.  She has played a variety of small parts on stage, screen and TV in the past forty years and is the recipient of three Tony awards and a Golden Globe.

Bill Cosby – Cosby was just starting out in his career in 1971, and the reasons for his inclusion are uncertain.  Cosby would go on to produce and star in The Cosby Show, one of the most popular American sitcoms of all time.  Ironically, in recent years he has become something of a conservative hero for his criticism of what he perceives as the failings of American-American men and the need for the black community to take greater responsibility for itself.

Jane Fonda – Fonda’s apparent support of the Vietcong during the Vietnam War in reality made her an effective recruiting sergeant for Nixonian conservatism, but apparently she was considered dangerous enough to merit a place on the list.  Fonda has since won two Oscars for her acting and continues to be a vocal supporter of liberal causes.

Joe Namath – As Rick Perlstein asserts in his recently published work on the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan, The Invisible Bridge, the inclusion of NFL star Joe Namath was indeed ‘exceedingly curious’ given his avoidance of politics, ‘except for his ostentatious patriotism’.  Namath, one of the most famous stars of the 1970s, was probably included by accident, a demonstration of the poor attention to detail with which the list was compiled.

Barbra Streisand – Streisand is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, having sold 245 million records worldwide.  She continues to support a range of liberal causes, including opposition to the anti-gay marriage Proposition 8 in 2008.

Dick Gregory – As a black stand-up comedian whose routine championed civil rights and who stood for President in 1968 for the far-left Freedom and Peace Party, Gregory’s inclusion on the list was almost inevitable.  He continues his activism on behalf of African-Americans, as well as promoting a range of health foods.

Business people

Ernest R. Chanes – Listed as ‘President, Consolidated Water Conditioning Co’, Chanes is little-remembered today.  He was active in some capacity in the Fund for New Priorities in the early 1970s, as this letter on the subject of US-Cuba relations demonstrates (could his sympathy for detente with Cuba earned him his place on the Enemies List?)  There is an Ernest R. Chanes living in Gramercy Park, NY of around the right age who is likely the same individual.

Lawrence S. Philips – Philips was President of the family clothing business, the Philips-Van Heusen Corporation.  The founder of American Jewish World Service, Philips lives in Palm Beach where he remains involved with many charitable causes.


Clifford Alexander Jr. – Alexander had been LBJ’s special assistant and Chair of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.  Later, Alexander would become the first African-American Secretary of the Army under Jimmy Carter, before starting his own consultancy firm.  He has spoken in recent years against the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.

Ramsey Clark – Clark was LBJ’s Attorney General from 1967-9; at the time of the writing of the enemies list, he was a partner at the law firm Weiss, Goldberg, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.  Clark has been a persistent and controversial critic of American foreign policy from Vietnam to the present day, and has offered a legal defence for Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor among others.

Victor Palmieri – A lawyer and real estate magnate, Palmieri was also Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador At Large and Co-Ordinator for Refugee Affairs and has also taught on crisis management at Stanford Law School and Harvard.  His inclusion on the list is probably attributable to a colloqium which he arranged between anti-war Harvard students and business leaders.

Robert S. Pirie – A lawyer by profession, Pirie’s work for the election campaign of Governor Harold Hughes of Iowa found him on the enemies list.  Pirie’s career would later lead him to become CEO of Rothschild, North America and Senior Managing Director of Bear Sterns.  The most recent mention I could find of him online is in connection with a secretive elite New York dining club, exactly the kind of institution which Nixon despised.

Henry Rowen – Then President of the Rand Corporation, Rowen has worked in and around the Georgetown foreign policy establishment for most of his career.  His recent affiliations with the Hoover Institution and the neoconservative Project for an American Century do not, to say the least, suggest any kind of far-left attitude.

Milton Semer – Semer is listed as ‘Chairman, Muskie Election Committee; lawyer, Semer and Jacobsen’ (Sen. Ed Muskie was thought of as a credible challenger to Nixon in 1972 and was a victim of Nixonian dirty tricks in the form of the infamous ‘Canuck letter‘).  Interestingly, it is also alleged that Semer was involved, as an agent of the milk industry, in chanelling money towards Nixon and Republican politicians in return for preferential treatment (were the authors of the list aware of this?) There is a Milton Semer of exactly the right age listed as living in Washington D.C.

Arthur Taylor – Listed as ‘Vice President, International Paper Company’, Taylor was President of CBS between 1972 and 1976.  Taylor would later found his own private investment company, and was President of Muhlenberg College from 1992 to 2002.

Sidney Davidoff (‘[New York Mayor John V.] Lindsay’s personal aide.  A first class S.O.B., wheeler-dealer and suspected bagman. Positive results would really shake the Lindsay camp and Lindsay’s plans to capture youth vote. Davidoff in charge.’) – The description of Davidoff here describes succinctly exactly why he was put on the list.  Davidoff went on to found his own professional lobbying firm, and also lobbied on behalf of New York lobbyists, which suggests he was rather good at it.  For reasons which are not altogether clear, he also had a cameo part in an episode of The Sopranos.


Derek Curtis Bok – Then Dean of Harvard Law School, it is again uncertain why Bok merited inclusion on the list.  He would go on to become President of Harvard for twenty years between 1971 and 1991.  Bok has recently written a book arguing that government should seek to maximise happiness, something which Nixon, who thrived on division, might have indeed have taken exception to.

Noam Chomsky – Chomsky’s inclusion, as a persistent and effective critic of American foreign policy, is more explicable.  Chomsky, who has retired from active teaching at MIT, continues to promote his own brand of anarcho-syndicalism while (rumour has it) spending most of his day replying to every single e-mail sent to him.

Carl Djerassi – His opposition to the Vietnam War probably attracted the attention of the Nixon White House, but it is his part in the invention of the contraceptive pill which is Djerassi’s real claim to fame.  He has also written fiction exploring scientific topics and is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University.

Daniel Ellsberg – Ellsberg was responsible for leaking the Pentagon Papers in 1971 while working at the Rand Corporation, and the Nixon administration pursued him with characteristic vigour, from a failed prosecution under the Espionage Act to a break-in at the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, and possibly even a plot to lace his soup with LSD.  Ellsberg continues to campaign for open government and against what he regards as unjust wars.

Matthew Stanley Meselson – A prominent geneticist, Meselson was likely included on the list for his work against chemical and biological weapons (though the Nixon administration in fact implemented many of his recommendations regarding the use of chemical weapons in Vietnam).  Meselson is currently Co-director of the Harvard Sussex Program on Chemical and Biological Weapons.

Jeremy Stone – Stone was, between 1970 and 2000, the president of the Federation of American Scientists, a lobbying group critical of the nuclear arms race.  Stone now lives with his wife in Carlsbad, CA.  He is the son of radical journalist I.F. Stone.

Mick Clogg and the Bedroom Tax

Imagine there were a political party – let’s call it the Piberal Lemoncrats. The Pib Lems are a minority party in government at a time of austerity, and they are trying to reform the benefits system.

The government comes up with A Policy to save some money. But everyone who’d be involved in implementing This Policy on the ground predicts that it’d be a disaster – unfair, difficult to implement, and probably won’t save much money. Lots of Pib Lem members, who work day-to-day on these issues or have experienced them first hand, think the same thing.

Nonsense, says the leader of the Pib Lems (Mick Clogg). The Policy will work, he argues, and what’s more it’s fair. Some members sort-of go along with this, to the extent that The Policy is described as socialism.

And so, The Policy becomes law and is implemented. Lots of Pib Lem councillors, who are having deal with The Policy at the sharp end, point out that it’s going terribly. They are quietly ignored, or assured that they are wrong, and told to call The Policy by its correct name. Pib Lem Conference comes around, which passes a motion pointing out that The Policy isn’t working and asking for it to be changed. Nothing happens for another year or so, except for occasionally voting against Opposition attempts to abolish The Policy.

Then, a report comes out, nice and official on good quality paper which repeats all the things that everybody, inside and outside the Piberal Lemoncrats, has been saying for the past two years about The Policy being a total car crash. “Aha!” Mick Clogg announces. “I see now that The Policy is a disaster. Who could have predicted? How could I have known before now? We should now get rid of The Policy. You see, When The Facts Change, I Change My Mind.” And he awaits praise for his wise handling of the whole thing.

Can you see why people might find the actions of the Piberal Lemoncrats and Mick Clogg rather frustrating?

Thankfully, this is a completely fictional story which could never happen in a mature democratic party in Britain.

Michael Gove and the juvenile right

So, Gove is gone. Nicky Morgan is likely to continue in the same line as him, but in reality he himself (whisper it) largely followed the policy consensus over schools that has been since the Thatcher years. It was not in policy, but in pugnacity and zeal, that Gove distinguished himself. A fixation on school structures, the introduction of new metrics and structures to measure and enforce accountability, a belief in raising standards, and the weakening of LEAs to the point of obscurity – all of these are trends that can traced back to Kenneth Baker. But this post isn’t about what Gove’s achieved, but about his supporters on the right. One can’t look at them and deny that there are Tories who care passionately about social justice, who are angry at poor social mobility. It’s undoubtedly to their credit, as is the fact that they haven’t gone down the socially divisive and ineffective route of grammar or maintained schools. They’re quite nice people.

What attracted them to Gove was his avowed iconoclasm. As Shadow Education Secretary and then in office, he attacked, with a dramatic and ideological quality not seen in his predecessors, what he saw as decades of flabby anti-intellectualism and trendy leftism which he believed had weakened British schools and needed to be reversed. Moreover, the teaching profession, defended by left-wing unions, was denounced as moribund and self-protecting. The answers – reform of curriculum and testing, more independence for new schools, more control over the old – were not new. But they happened with a dizzying speed, and they were associated with ferocious polemics against at least some in the teaching profession. American liberals have a wonderful phrase for a needless attack by a Democratic politician on their own base on the left for spurious electoral gain – ‘hippie punching’. This is what Gove was doing: beating up a stereotype of a corrupt teaching establishment, with the promise of a transformation British schools.

This is really what Gove’s admirers loved, and this is what gives me pause. An alarming number of them express a certainty that his policies are correct because they’re opposed by the teaching unions who they see as defenders of mediocrity. As a product of a state comprehensive, I’ve suffered at the hands of useless teachers and dumbed-down teaching. Perhaps it’s because I understand the motivations of the Spectator crowd that I’m wary of them. Gove’s successes are not measured in children schooled, but teachers scolded. The NASUWT and other ‘producer interests’ don’t like him, so he must be doing something right. He has, to quote Andrew Marvell, ‘cast the kingdom old/into another mould’; the enemy of my enemy is a radical reforming genius.

It’s tempting. It’s also childish, drawing on resentments, prejudices and antipathies. Evidence is advanced relatively rarely; faith is often enough. It’s certainly not the job of the Education Secretary to do what teachers tell him to – it’s to make sure that kids get an excellent education. Sometimes that means standing up to the teaching establishment. But in reality, the public services are filled with people who usually care and know what they’re talking about, and teaching is no exception; if they’re complaining en masse, something probably *is* going wrong. This leads me to my second worry: so-called ‘liberalisers’ (and often self-described liberals) are ferociously supporting the man in Whitehall and the micro-management of curricula and pedagogy as long as said man (or, now, woman) is merrily punching hippies. Forgive me if, as a liberal, the idea of a wise Secretary of State knowing best and imposing a vision from above leaves me rather cold.

In reality, if you talk to teachers or nurses or civil servants, most of them will be candid about the imperfections of their various areas of expertise and would cautiously welcome the ‘right’ kind of change. And if you want to successfully introduce radical change, especially in a time of austerity, you have to work with them. I strongly believe that it makes for better policy. Yes, let’s be critical of anyone who is more interested in protecting outdated practices than in the interests of students. But for the ‘liberal’ right to support Gove almost blindly and with frightening zealotry in his campaign against ‘the Blob’ shows them to be thoroughly juvenile.

Am I a ninny?

‘PROOF THAT THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS ARE A PARTY OF NINNIES’ bellows the headline of a recent Spectator article by Alex Massie. Not an auspicious beginning, but I couldn’t resist the clickbaity title and so went on to read why exactly we are all ‘foolish or stupid’, to quote Mirriam-Webster’s definition. The answer: only 70% of Lib Dem voters, when polled, said that they wanted the party to be in power at the next General Election, with 17% hoping for a Labour majority government and 6% wanting David Cameron to govern alone. Massie then goes on to attack the Lib Dems as ‘a party that preens and congratulates itself for being ‘above’ mere grubby politics but that actually is really just about a polite form of copping-out and quitting the game’ – a rather odd conclusion given the last four years, but I suppose old stereotypes die hard.

It is, however, fair to ask why a party might not want to be in government. One answer is that the Lib Dems rely more heavily than other parties on tactical votes from people who are actually Labour or Tory supporters. But, Ashcroft polling aside, there are probably a fair few ardent supporters of the party who quietly pray for a Tory or Labour majority next time. I can think of at least three good reasons for taking this attitude:

1) We won’t get a good offer from either of the two other parties.
If there’s a hung parliament next time, I doubt that the offer from either side will be particularly generous. Cameron is constrained by his own backbenchers and the party’s right, who will be far better organised in putting forward their demands and blocking any unacceptable deal. The result will probably be a large chunk of Tory policies on the economy, public services and Europe with some of the more palatable Lib Dem demands (e.g raising tax thresholds) sprinkled on top. Labour would be more subtle – I imagine a proposition along the lines of ‘we are really very similar in a lot of areas, which is why we should just implement the Labour manifesto’.

There is also the added problem that we will probably lose maybe half of our vote and probably return between 30 and 40 MPs. Not only will the loss weaken our legitimacy in any negotiations, it would mean that we’d probably have only two or three Cabinet ministers and a large number of departments without any Lib Dem representation at all. The result would be that our influence in day-to-day governance would be weaker than it is now.

Of course, we will probably be able to implement some Lib Dem policies in these hypothetical governments. But we’d also implement a lot of illiberal policies as well which take us further away from a freer, fairer and more open society. It would therefore be perfectly sensible to reject these offers.

2) Westminster isn’t everything.
This is a trap which the leadership falls into with alarming frequency, pretending that we never ran anything more serious than a car boot sale before May 2010, whereas in fact we’ve run big cities and delivered public services in County and District Councils for years. There’s also the small matter of us running Scotland for eight years. My point is that the Westminster bubble doesn’t realise the importance of elections to anything other than Westminster in implementing Lib Dem policy. For a pro-European party, we underestimate the importance of what our MEPs did on the environment, fisheries, human rights, and trade. And given how much time our MPs and PPCs spend pointing angrily at dog crap, it’s surprising how little many at the centre seem to care about our increasing inability to do anything in local government other than send angry letters to the Chief Executive.

National coalitions hurt our vote, whoever they’re with, and the results are real. Our collapse in urban Britain from 2011 onwards means that almost all of our inner cities are now completely dominated by Labour, with all that entails for local services. In 2011, Scotland and Wales returned majority SNP and Labour governments with help from disaffected Lib Dems, with predictable results for health, education, and other key services in the devolved nations. This May, we lost all our MEPs, one of the reasons why ECR overtook ALDE as the third biggest group in the parliament. Backlash from Coalition, then, has helped our opponents and weakened our ability to implement our priorities in Holyrood, Cardiff, Brussels, and in town halls across Britain.

3) The long term fate of the party is at stake.
Can we survive another coalition, either with Labour or the Tories? The answer – in terms of having some parliamentary representation and a basic structure – is probably ‘yes’. But the possibility of setting off a death spiral, similar to that suffered by the Liberals in the Thirties and Forties, should not be discounted. Furthermore, there are large areas of the country where we are possibly already dead for a generation – again, most Northern cities and inner London, but also most of Scotland outside the Highlands and Islands – and where another Coalition will destroy our identity and any chance for recovery. An argument might be made that preserving a viable liberal force in British politics is more important than any particular short-term policy gains.

Alternatively, the existential threat to the party is actually internal. We are a divided party, and the only way that we can reform ourselves is by licking our wounds in opposition. Another five years of government – particularly with the Tories – would likely strain to breaking point the compromises and annoyed silence that is currently preventing open warfare.


I don’t think we should rule out a coalition with either the Tories or Labour after May 2015. In reality, a hung parliament would force us to choose some kind of arrangement, however loose or temporary, with either party. But I do want to kill the idea that rejecting another formal Coalition is somehow stupid or self-indulgent. I also think we should be open to a confidence and supply deal next time, as Stephen Tall has suggested, even though it has some very obvious problems. Let us say to the Spectator, then – what’s wrong with being a ninny?

(It’s So Funny How) We Don’t Talk Anymore

[Note: This was written before the European Elections and the attempted regicide against Nick Clegg. I think that the lack of enthusiasm for the botched coup strengthens, rather than weakens, my argument about the loyalism of party activists.]

One of the most thought-provoking things about my studies of Late Antiquity has been analysing how debate happens. In my research, it’s normally been doctrinal debate, usually over the relationship between the two natures of Christ. One of the things you realise very quickly is that the terms of any debate are if anything more important than the context – if you can frame them so that, for example, your opponent is somehow not fit to take part in the debate, or take umbrage at your opponent’s lack of civility, you can score easy points or even delegitimize them entirely. The terms of the discourse are also elastic, and contestable. In other words, the metadebate – the debate about the debate – can be more important than the contents of the respective arguments.

In this post, I’ll be analysing how debate occurs between different factions within the Lib Dems, and how it is stale and unproductive because of an overemphasis on policing the terms of debate which distracts from real policy issues. I will declare an interest: I consider myself a social liberal, and I am a member of the SLF. Most, but not all, of the examples of ‘bad practice’ below come from market liberals and are directed at the Social Liberal Forum. This is because, from my observation, this is generally true – both sides do it, but one side does it more.[1] However, even if this is my bias showing, I don’t think that it undermines my overall assessment. My observations come largely from social media, particularly Twitter, but I have also been informed by statements from party figures, sources such as Lib Dem Voice, and of course conversations that I’ve had in person.


We are family?

Last September in Glasgow, just before the Leader’s Speech, Tim Farron gave a short speech of the kind Party Presidents are required to give at the end of party conferences – pumping people up a little for the main act, introducing the prizes, and reminding people of the highlights of the previous five days. One thing that he said, however, stuck in my head: that the Liberal Democrats are a family, which celebrates and grieves together. This comment was admittedly made in the context of commemorating party activists who had died since the previous conference, but it rang uneasily true more generally. The small size of the party, with perhaps a few thousand active members, means that activists are more likely to know each other than in a mass-membership party, something which is only exacerbated by the Internet and social media.

Surely nothing can be better than being members of a big, happy family? Well, not quite. Families can row, they can bicker, they can get on one another’s nerves. Moreover, the facade of unity and comity can become oppressive – don’t argue with your racist Uncle Fred when he starts ranting about Romanians and Muslims, he’s family. I would suggest that the idea of the party as family works similarly. We celebrate being a broad church, on the ground that We Are All Liberals Here, however fundamental our disagreements might be. But one of the odd things about the Liberal Democrats is that nobody considers that there might be downsides to the membership being split on the economy and public services, the two most contested issues in 21st century British politics. The attempt to dodge this divide is summed up in Nick Clegg’s fatuous statement that ‘we are neither left nor right, we are liberal’, something which is little more than a rhetorical flourish to distract from the substantial questions of how the modern state should be run. It is this attitude which encourages the development of a mode of internal party debate which privileges appeals to unity, inclusivity, and proper conduct. It is on these rules that debate within the party is policed, and judged by majority in the party which is not engaged in active factional disputes. Those who are judged to have broken them face disapproval – and therefore a potential loss of support for their position.


The rules of the game

The first result of this is that, in the Liberal Democrats, organisations espousing particular views on contested issues are controversial and suspect – even the name applied to them, factions, is reminiscent of violent division and crazed Trotskyites. A milder version of this is that factions are acceptable as long as they don’t try to organise within the party – for example by organising slates for internal elections or, God forbid, encourage its members to put themselves forwards to be voting reps (something which led to hyperventilation from some when SLF did it). We can see the outline of the first of the rules informally set for party debate: don’t organise too efficiently, or look like you’re trying too hard to get your views implemented.

The second is an emphasis upon penalising language which appears to exclude or insult participants in internal party debates. It is a common grievance of those on the right of the party that somebody, at some time, has told them they should leave the party or doubted their identity as a liberal. Within party discourse, such discourtesy is a blunder which can be pointed to as a means to criticising the Social Liberal Forum. The obverse is also true – Jeremy Browne’s appeal to ‘authentic liberalism’ was attacked by some on the left of the party who knew that tone policing is an easy way to discredit him.

The third stems from the fact that party activists are not, as Liberator would have us believe, particularly rebellious or defiant towards our leaders, but depressingly loyal. Poll after poll by Lib Dem Voice finds activists giving Nick Clegg positive ratings, despite his presiding over a catastrophic collapse in our vote and implementing illiberal Tory policies which make us blanch. The spirit of this can be summed up by a Glee Club song called ‘He’s Our Nick’ (sample lyrics: Sharks gotta swim and bats gotta fly/We’ve got a leader who’s hung us out to dry/He’s made us break our pledge/And pushed us nearer the edge/But thin or thick/We’ll stick with our Nick/Cos We love him.’) Many people in the party have campaigned alongside and know senior MPs personally, making criticism of them on their merits difficult. For example, dissatisfaction with Danny Alexander is commonly met with a statement that ‘everybody’s so mean to Danny, but he’s such a nice guy! Why do people always pick on Danny?’ The answer, of course, is that he’s been our man at the Treasury during a highly controversial programme of cuts and repeatedly fails to convincingly advocate and defend Liberal Democrat values in encounters with the media. ‘Personal attacks’ – which can sometimes be defined as broadly as ‘consistently having a go at the same person for a period of time’ – are therefore off limits.

So far, I’ve dealt with this all as a purely structural issue, but in reality people use these norms to the advantage of their own preferred faction. I am sceptical of the good will of people who scrutinise SLF e-mails for evidence of unfortunate phrases which might deviate from the established norms of behaviour in order to denigrate the left of the party. Similarly, attacks on party members of <insert opposing faction here> for making statements to the press because they are ‘damaging the party’ are almost always bogus if considered objectively. We are tanking in the polls for a number of reasons, from the inevitable stresses and strains of coalition with the Conservatives to a hostile press to deficient leadership, but the number of voters who will be dissuaded from voting for us by what Jeremy Browne or Naomi Smith has to say to the Guardian can be counted on the fingers of no hands. These are just a few examples of how rules of conduct – all of which flow from the notion of the party as family – are weaponized to attack opponents in internal party debates.


Case Study: Jeremy Browne

In April, Jeremy Browne, MP for Taunton Deane, released a book titled Race Plan setting out his views on how Britain can win the ‘global race’. The furore was predictable: Browne is our most ardently free market MP, and after his stint in government he had expressed dissatisfaction with the leftward drift he perceived in the party. A number of promotional interviews – including one in which he was quoted out of context as saying that the party was ‘pointless’ – only served to increase the controversy. And yet, it was an argument about very little. Partly that was because Browne published his work in paper and ink, giving it prestige but also limiting its circulation to those curious enough to shell out £5.00 + P&P – mainly his supporters, in other words. The result is that, after a great deal of chatter and a modest press tour, I still know damn all about the policy proposals he put forward. But even bearing this in mind, the discussion of the policy content of Browne’s work was strikingly absent. All I saw on Twitter was a great deal of policing the terms of debate: against personal attacks on ‘Jeremy’, and about how one’s comments were uninformed if one had not read the book. I was therefore gratified to read Caron Lindsay’s meaty engagement with Browne on Lib Dem Voice, asking the important question: what would this mean for real people in the real world? The response to this was frankly disappointing; Browne’s answer largely amounted to ‘read my book, I have good intentions’, rather than defending the merits of his proposals. How much easier it is to attack how your opponent conducts herself than to make an argument – or a counter-argument – on the merits. At the same time, as I have already mentioned, Browne’s being quoted out of context by The Times was used against him – rather than challenging his views on the economy and the public services. An opportunity for a much-needed dialogue had been lost.[2]



Clearly, then, the current mode of internal party discourse fails to bring about substantial dialogue on vital matters of policy. If we believe, as liberals, in the benefit of meaningful debate (and I hope we do), then this is pretty grave. Where do we go from here?

I would suggest, firstly, that we abandon the metaphor of party as family, and instead move towards the idea of the party as part of a wider movement. It’s a less parochial vision, and it’s fitting for a ‘party of government’ since few individual parties alone have ever brought about significant social change. Movements, however, do – consider the labour movement, or Thatcher’s Conservative Party which was surrounded by satellite institutions such as the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Murdoch press. What this means in practice is welcoming active factions as the signs of a flourishing liberal party. It also means accepting a degree of tolerance for robust debate, including a good dose of satire directed at our elders and betters (personal attacks on one’s peers, or, worse, those with less power than oneself, I regard as abhorrent and quite different from mercilessly lampooning, say, Simon Hughes or Nick Clegg). None of this means that we can’t fight elections alongside one another with conviction, or that we can’t be at least cordial to one another as one might expect in any great campaigning movement.

Secondly, I would shift debate towards empirical policy analysis. Not all questions can be answered simply on the evidence of ‘what works’. It can, however, be useful in many circumstances. For instance, has marketisation of the NHS produced greater efficiencies? At least some of the evidence suggests otherwise. Or we might look at the optimum rate of income tax to gather maximum income from higher earners. Hmmm, looks like more work’s still needed on that. And so, I am going to make a promise. The next time an asinine, content-free party spat occurs, I will not only abstain; I will research and write something, even if it’s just a few sentences, about a substantive area of public policy. I hope other people will join me – if they disagree with me, even better. We have a public services paper coming to Autumn Conference this September, and it will no doubt be controversial whatever it says. Let’s enter the realm of substantive debate, putting into place liberal values, but in a way informed by the facts. If we do that, we really will be able to call ourselves a grown-up party.


[1] From my observation, social liberals, particularly of an older generation, prefer instead to simply call their opponents ‘market fundamentalists’ or similar insulting labels, an increasingly ineffective and counterproductive strategy in a party where market liberals now make up a significant minority.

[2] This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy reviews of Browne’s book by Stephen Tall and Mark Pack; I thought both were quite astute. I did, however, think that both of them lacked a little verve – but, of course, the aforementioned courtesy norm (as well as the strictures of the book review genre) demands that the intellectual shivving be fairly subtle.

Some thoughts on Liberal Democrats 4 Change

I think Nick Clegg’s handling of the Coalition has led to unnecessary damage to our party. He has acted mendaciously on several occasions, and his market-friendly inclinations have inclined him to pass a number of reforms which have enraged our supporters, from the NHS Bill to ‘reform’ of social security. He is also despised by vast swathes of the electorate as a liar and a fraud. I think that, in the long term, our party is clearly better off without him as Leader. I very much sympathise with those who have tried this out of a keen feeling of desperation and passion for our party and the values for which it stands (one of them is a good friend). It is something which I would have signed if it had come up any time up to about six months ago. They do not deserve hatred or insults.

I also think, however, that he should remain as Leader until after the next General Election. My gut feeling is that the division will alienate our existing supporters to uncertain benefit. This is supported by opinion polling: by 62% to 25%, those who plan to vote for us in 2015 want Nick Clegg to stay as Leader. Furthermore, among those of us who vote for us now, fewer people believe that either of three leadership contenders (Vince Cable, Tim Farron, and Danny Alexander) would do a better job than Clegg. People hate Nick Clegg especially, but more broadly they think that we are tools of a Conservative Party engaging in reactionary class warfare. That is the fundamental problem.

An argument can be made that we need a change of strategy, and that Nick Clegg can’t do this. This is really at the heart of my objection: a change to a leftish, Coalition-ambivalent leader would come across as reeking of desperation, and as phoney. (How exactly Leader X should do this in practice is conveniently left to the imagination.) We would also risk throwing away what support we’ve gained for our successes in the Coalition, most obviously credit for the economic recovery. And, of course, the bloody process of dethroning Clegg and replacing him someone else – and it would be bloody – would make us look like a joke.

Finally, there is the simple fact that a majority of Lib Dem activists still Agree With Nick. Lib Dem Voice polls repeatedly show Clegg as being supported by the majority of activists – he currently rates at +10%. This suggests to me that any effort for change from the grassroots up will result in failure. I am yet to hear about a single MP who actually wants Nick Clegg out, indicating that the Men in Grey Suits will not be arriving any time soon.

We have made our bed. Not only that, we’ve sat in it for four years while our local government base imploded. Now is the time to accept that we will have to lie in it. Let’s make the best of a bad job. Let’s go into 2015 supporting Our Nick – and then let’s get someone else. But now, with the water up to our necks, is not the time to change horses.