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Brilliant day at the Stratford River Festival

Stratford on Avon’s first River Festival for thirty years was a huge hit today in the scorching sunshine. It was great to meet the good folk from the Avon Navigation Trust, including Clive Matthews, which will unite the Lower Avon Navigation Trust and the Upper Navigation Trust. I was personally thrilled to be shown round by Councillor Trevor Honeychurch, one of the organisers, and to meet so many people who wanted to vote for me in the General Election, which is expected next year.

The festival happened on the Rec ground — the large, green space on the south bank of the Avon, opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre — which was one of the key battlegrounds in last year’s district council elections. Councillor Honeychurch made defending the Rec a key plank in his campaign, and voters responded by electing him.

Taxpayer, voter, citizen or stakeholder?

Here’s another question to try at home. Are you a taxpayer, a voter, a citizen, or a stakeholder? Of course, you are quite possibly all four, but which are you really? The nuances are quite different — but if we allow ourselves to be guided into one or other, the consequences are profound.

It was Aristotle ((Politics, Book V)) who suggested there were six kinds of government — three good, and three bad. Good governments, he suggested, were monarchies, aristocracies and polities. Bad governments were tyrannies, oligarchies and — indeed — democracies. That’s probably an arrangement which would surprise most modern people, but Aristotle uses the words in a slightly (or entirely) different sense. A monarchy, to Aristotle, was government by a single benign ruler, whereas tyranny was a government by a single, selfish, ruler. Aristotle’s monarchy had no particular connotations of hereditary monarchy, though he probably would have naturally seen things in that light. After all, he was tutor to Alexander, who rose to power because his father was Philip of Macedon. Aristocracy, to Aristotle, was government by the few noble — that is to say, by those who were better, more virtuous, more able to govern. We would probably talk about a meritocracy. An oligarchy was government by a few who acted selfishly. A democracy was government by the commoners, acting selfishly, whereas polity was a society governed by all for the benefit of all. Or more or less. You don’t want to spend too much time in Aristotle, because he goes on to expound the importance of slavery as an institution.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years, and we see the American presidential system showing some signs of the single, benign ruler. Some would say that Tony Blair was taking us fast down that route when in office. Let’s explore that for a moment. The problem with a single, benign, ruler, is that he can still be singly, benignly wrong. It’s a brave man today who would defend the second Iraq war, but, at the time, it was clear that Tony Blair really believed it was the right thing to do. The Blair government was often accused of spin and playing games, but it was when Blair acted in good conscience and with enormous conviction that he made the greatest mistake of his premiership. Blair talked incessantly, at least in the beginning, about a stakeholder society, and this is a notion which fits well with his style of premiership. The single ruler will make the decisions, but everyone has a stake in their outcomes, and so we ought all to behave well together, because this will result in better outcomes.

The term ‘stakeholder’ betrayed — I think — more of the Blair agenda than it was intended. If you have ever used the simple business tool the stakeholder analysis, then you will know that stakeholders are categorised by their interest and their influence. Those with high interest and high influence are engaged, those with low interest and high influence are kept informed, those with low interest and low influence are, simply, ignored. In a stakeholder society, the monarch, overlord, president, executive prime-minister, or what you will, makes judgements about who he can safely ignore, and who he must assiduously court — in other words, his courtiers. Take away the ruffs and frills of the court of Elizabeth I, and you see something alarmingly close to the stakeholder economy which existed under the government of Tony Blair in the time of Elizabeth II.

I suspect nobody alive today would defend aristocracy as a form of government if that meant allowing hereditary peers to lead us. But our civil service — a shadow government if ever there was one — is a meritocracy: a self-selecting government by the few brightest and best. We could argue about how bright and how best civil servants really are, but their entire framework, recruitment process and rewards system is designed to promote the most able at the expense of the least able. Given the amount of power which senior civil-servants wield, we should accept that, at least to some extent, we live in that very aristocracy.

But think again. An oligarchy is government by the few acting selfishly. But this is exactly the way in which we behave when we describe ourselves as ‘the taxpayer’, at least, if we do so to distinguish ourselves from benefit-claimants, asylum seekers, children in school, students in college, or pensioners. I’m always astonished when I hear people describe themselves in those terms, but I hear it often. Do we really believe that payment of taxes makes us more able or deserving of being allowed to run the country? And, if we do so, do we really want to make money the measure of all things? One would hope not. But, in the light of the recent MP expenses and second-jobs scandals, we give a strong impression that the only thing we are looking for in our politicians is cheap, value-for-money, bargain-basement politics. I don’t, won’t, and never have defended MPs who pilfered the public purse for personal profit. But the more we focus on that particular aspect of their conduct, the more we push ourselves into the mould of a tax-payer oligarchy.

We protest, strongly, if anyone tries to suggest that democracy is not the best thing there can be. Certainly, as a Liberal-Democrat, I would strongly assert democracy over monarchy, aristocracy and oligarchy. But perhaps we should side with Aristotle a little. When voters vote selfishly, we see the tyranny of the 51% majority. Voters can arbitrarily choose parties — such as the BNP — whose programme involves the removal of the rights of minorities. Voters can arbitrarily vote to punish the very wealthy, or, indeed, the very poor. As elections come up, politicians may posture on taking away the benefit rights of single mothers, or gypsies, or the under 25s who appear to be not working hard enough to find a diminishing number of jobs. If we see ourselves purely as voters, and we vote on a purely selfish basis, we discover very quickly the limits of the social contract.

The liberal-democracy in which we live, or, at least, the one in which some of us live, is made up not of stakeholders nor taxpayers nor voters, but of citizens. It is the Aristotelian ‘polity’ — a state where all participate in governance, for the benefit of all. Our participation is irrespective of the amount of taxes we pay, and also irrespective of the extent to which we contribute towards the particular kind of society that our overlord believes is best for us. Whether we have high interest or low interest in the government’s favourite programme, we can, and should, play an active role in our public life. And we should do so irrespective of whether a particular politician promises us personal advantage over our neighbours.

Taxpayer, voter, citizen, stakeholder. Just words. But their use in the daily dialogue of media and politics fundamentally shapes our perceptions. Do we care most if our MPs claim more or less expensive, or do we care most (without ignoring their expenses) whether or not they are good MPs? Do we care most that politicians offer us more, or do we care about the general good of society? Are we content to let our ‘betters’ run the country, while we enjoy the Olympic Games, Big Brother and low food prices (circuses and bread, thus)? To what extent are we prepared to use our voices and our votes to protect the unpopular — the group which is always the most vulnerable in a democracy.

We should choose our words carefully.

The politics of hate

Do you hate the Tories? Or perhaps Labour? Or (heaven forfend) maybe even the Liberal Democrats? Or — deep down — did you breathe a secret sigh of relief at the rise of the BNP, as, now at last, there was someone you could legitimately hate without being diminished as a person by that hate?

When I was sixteen, I once told my (then) girlfriend “I really hate mods”. Mods, at that time, were not first year Oxford University exams, nor modifications to video games or other software, but were the fashion alternative to ‘rockers’. “Oh dear,” she said. “I don’t hate anyone”. We later split up, and while I, through many pathways and byways, became a politician, she successfully pursued her dream of being a diplomat. Of course, I didn’t remotely ‘hate’ mods. I didn’t even really know what mods were, and it turned out later that some of my friends were mods. But, at the moment, it seemed to establish me more as a ‘rocker’ if I said I hated them.

Many years later, I was having dinner with my ex-fiancée (not the same person as the former girlfriend) and another friend. I mentioned that I was going into politics, and, knowing that she was a skilled and passionate person, I asked if she would consider running my campaign. “Oh.” She said. “Which party?”. “The Liberal Democrats,” I replied. For a moment a shadow appeared to pass across the sun (which was impossible, because we were in a Chinese restaurant in Soho where the sun never came). All the Oxford-London fell from her voice, as she said in horror, with as deep a Rhondda valley accent as I’ve ever heard from her: “The LIBERALS?” She appeared to rise to her feet (though she has since assured me that she did not), as she said again, in a voice which seemed to fill the restaurant with centuries of astonished grief and hurt. “THE LIBERALS?”

She later confided in me that it wasn’t the Liberals she hated (we’re actually the Liberal-Democrats), but the Conservatives. She later went off and joined the Labour party, and became a Labour parliamentary and European candidate. We’re still friends, and, no, this was not why we split up, which was, in any case, ten years earlier.

Especially in politics, we use the word ‘hate’ rather freely. But there are times when our distaste for our foes is really no more than ‘I hate Marmite’, and times when it is rather more. Ann Widdecombe famously said that she went into politics to fight socialism. ((She also, equally famously, appeared on Doctor Who in support of Simon Pegg’s John Saxon, aka The Master. If she had waited long enough, she could have joined Tony Blair’s New Labour to fight socialism.)) I always found this odd. If she had said ‘to fight communism’ I could have understood it. But socialism? Really? I remember that hatred between the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front in the 70s. And, of course, the undisguised hatred of the National Front for anyone who did not look exactly like them. As Britain, we somehow learned during the 1970s that hate based on race, then known as ‘racialism’, but now known by the catchier term ‘racism’, was simply wrong. But, in 2001, it suddenly became fashionable and acceptable to hate one particular category of foreigner, the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. It didn’t take long for the term ‘bogus asylum seeker’ to be melded in the popular conscious with, simply, ‘asylum seeker’, so that anyone who came to these shores fleeing persecution could look forward to disdain, disgust and derision from those they met.

It’s always easier to get people to do things if you can stir up strong passions. Hatred of the BNP will doubtless bring many people into politics over the next few years. But hate is a uniquely destructive attitude. It causes us to obsess over our enemies, to see conspiracy theories, to misinterpret innocence, to categorise other people into the hated group simply because they look or sound similar. Hate causes us to mistrust, to pre-judge and to misjudge. It develops double standards in ourselves, which become embedded in a persona of hypocrisy. It causes us to skew our own positions. When we hate, we lose sight first of truth, then of honesty, and, finally, as the rot really sets in, of plausibility. We see the entire world as a battle between what we hate and what we use against that which we hate. As times moves on, those who refuse to take sides garner even more of our malice than those who are the original object of our detestation.

Hatred twists the most normal, sensible people into a horrific parody of themselves. I’ve found things written about me on websites, or said about me in meetings, by people who have never met me, never heard me speak, and (possibly) never read a word I’ve written. And yet, simply because I belong to one party rather than another, they see me as fair game for whatever they choose to throw. But these same people are, in their ordinary lives, quiet, sensible, law-abiding, the kind of person you would be quite happy to see as a magistrate or a school-teacher, or (until you found out), your town councillor.

Not all politicians are like this. In fact, it seems to me that it is more often supporters of politicians rather than politicians themselves who pursue hatred as a vocation. After I first stood for public office — as a councillor, in a seat I couldn’t win, and didn’t want to if I did — the Labour councillor who did win came up to me and said ‘Well done lad’. After the 2001 General Election, the Tory MP who won the seat came up to me and told me that he thought it was highly likely I would become an MP sooner or later, and gave me some advice on my campaign. Not sneering, measly-mouthed advice, but sensible, valuable advice, which he had learned himself, and which I have taken to heart.

All politics is made up of temporary alliances of people who agree on some important things, and disagree on others. Part of the reason we are locked into a seemingly endless cycle of boom-and-bust electoral landslides in the UK is that our parties have become virtual armed-camps. The rhetoric of Prime Minister’s Question Time makes this quite apparent. You cannot pretend a man is the devil one day, and then plan with him how the country could be served and improved the next.

Whenever I talk about this, people start to be nervous. “If we cannot hate, should we just roll over and let our opponents have whatever they want”, they start to say. Of course not. But we need to rediscover our vocabulary. We can disagree, dispute, rebutt. We can dismantle a flawed policy, discredit a misleading piece of information, decry an unworthy attitude. At times we may denounce an opponent who has, for example, claimed for a mortgage that did not exist. Not hating barely has an impact on the range of means by which we can oppose. You can love and respect someone, and yet be quite clear they are entirely wrong. You can recognise the good in someone’s motives, and yet also recognise they are completely incompetent. And you should. The duty of opposition is to oppose. It is an honourable duty, and serves the public good. But no good is served by hating them ((that is, hating a person — it is entirely right to hate injustice, hate people trafficking, hate cancer, and so on)).

It is time to take the malice out of British politics.

Adopt our culture or leave

“Adopt our culture or leave” — my challenge to the BNP.
Nick Griffin would be hugely funny if he were a character created by Sacha Baron Cohen, rather like Borat or Bruno. But his wilfully inconsistent line is a planned and calculated programme to court ‘the plain man’. I’m not really sure how dangerous the BNP is. Their support is, after all, tiny. But I am sure that they are a slap in the face to our democratic society.

Today, the Equality and Human Rights Commission has begun a legal challenge to the BNP for its constitution and membership criteria. Speaking on Radio 4’s PM programme, the BNP’s Griffin claimed that his party was exempt under sections 26 and 27 of the Equality Act 2006. However, the Commission has pointed out in its letter the BNP does not satisfy the criteria for a membership organisation which exists for the benefit of its members.

Griffin, I think, failed to register the irony of his remarks. He declared unequivocally that the British National Party existed for the benefit of the ethnic minority English people, who were discriminated against by society. First off, English people are not an ethnic minority. According to the 2001 census, 85.7% of the population are the native ethnicity referred to as ‘White British’, while the CIA Factbook suggests that 77% of the UK population are English. But, rather more ironically, does Griffin’s party purport to represent the interests of English people, or, as the name suggests, British people? If British, then it should surely include all those with British citizenship. Or else he should be required to change its name to the ‘White British Ethnic Party’, since he can scarcely claim that his party is a ‘national’ party, if its aim is to exclude a part of the nation. If he really means only the white English, he should change the name to ‘White English Ethnic Party’.

During his Euro-election night speeches, Griffin suggested that people coming from other cultures to Britain should be required to adopt our culture, or should be required to leave.

Let me therefore replay this challenge to the BNP. Britain is a multi-racial, multi-cultural society with laws protecting all for the benefit of all.

If the BNP is unwilling to adopt our culture and obey our laws, its leaders and members should simply leave the country. I am not strictly sure which countries would welcome them.

But, there’s always Rockall.

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