Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Supporting Nick Clegg

Having maintained this blog as a beacon of untopicality for some time now, I am going to mention the leadership election. I have so far resisted doing this. Although I have supported Nick from the beginning, I'm not the sort to present my conclusions at the beginning of a campaign and expect other people to follow them. It is better form to be undecided for the duration of a campaign, follow the debates, and decide at the end. I don't live up to this standard myself, so crucify me.

First let me say that Chris is a capable candidate and would make a fine leader. His desperation to make the contest about policy was right up my street - I am the sort of person who would be happy to talk about nothing but policy. That it drove him to invent differences was unfortunate, but perhaps it was worth trying. As I have an interest in environmental policy, I particularly appreciate Chris's input and sharp elbows in that area. We disagree on a few details, but if we damned people for getting any policy details wrong, we would end up praising only those who say nothing about policy at all. On the other hand, if you make policy detail your selling point, you really ought to get it right. Perhaps this is a reason not to make policy detail your selling point.

And yet, even on this core issue Chris doesn't appeal to me more than Nick. As I said in the comments at the People's Republic of Mortimer
Chris, the charge isn’t that we aren’t scoring higher than other parties on our environmental policy.

The point here is that the environmental narrative is stuck in a rut - of too much that is small and symbolic, and not enough that will make a big difference - and frankly the preference for hair shirts and gloom over optimistic determination.

Now the zero carbon paper was quite good on these points, although I do have my problems with it, and I don’t think the measures proposed would add up to zero.

I think part of the environmental fatigue is down to governments passing the buck back to individuals, when there are a few simple, if expensive, measures that could be taken to significantly reduce carbon emissions, and that it is not individual sacrifices, but successful low carbon economies that will persuade the developing world to follow suit.

A well developed message along these lines will persuade more people to vote for the party with the better environmental policies.

This is much closer to Nick's position, when he talks about the frustration people feel when they try to do their bit, and government doesn't pull its weight.

What more could we ask of a leader than that he is like us, shares our interests, and advances our ideas more capably than we can? Doesn't Chris fit this mould best? I think it would be self-indulgent to prefer Chris to Nick. Yes, Chris is like us, but not always in the best way. Similarity to oneself has a halo effect on our judgement of people. Nick, on the other hand, is less like me, and more like what I aspire to be. He doesn't let his inner politician entirely take over his brain. He really listens, really thinks, and really engages. This is better (honestly) than fishing out a relevant quote from some US president or liberal philosopher. I think - and maybe this is a quirk of my personal philosophy - that it is a slight misapplication of values to always ask "how do my settled beliefs and values tell me to respond in this situation"?

To put it another way, Mill does not justify what we say in a political discourse. Rather, what we say should be justifying Mill. The former style ossifies our beliefs, and creates a distance between us and an interlocutor. Part of Nick's magic is breaking down that distance. While I've not discussed the finer points of this angle with either candidate, I find Nick's approach far more satisfying and refreshing than Chris's.

And where policy differences have appeared, I find myself agreeing with Nick. A pupil premium, yes. Effectively take that premium away from those presently most ill-served by giving it to everyone? No. As an aside, I wonder which of these policies is supposed to be the more left-wing. Nick's which explicitly addresses unfairness, or Chris's which just spends more public money overall. While obviously more money for education would be good, budgeting is difficult, and it would add more heat than light to a leadership debate for candidates to start promising more for this cause or that.

Don't renew Trident now? Yes. Develop a new nuclear weapon? No. I am still waiting for somebody to explain to me why developing a new nuclear system is better than buying one off the shelf, or, if you are buying one off the shelf, why you would tell the salesman in advance that you are not buying some alternative. If you are going to make an issue of a disagreement you have with party policy, I would expect it to be on something a little more substantial.

I doubt policy will have much impact at the end of the day on this contest; there are some differences, but no clear water of any colour. What I suggest makes a compelling reason to vote for Nick Clegg, and for that matter, to vote for the Liberal Democrats, is the chance to reach out and build a coalition around liberalism. I quite like the talk about "British liberalism", this is in many ways a very liberal country. When we see a schoolteacher in Sudan arrested for how her children wanted to name a teddy bear, this should remind the whole country of the vital importance of liberalism, and we need to be up there with the rallying cry. It is under attack, from Labour, from the Greens, from Conservatives, from tyrants and protectionists worldwide. This is where we stand and fight.

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