Saturday, 22 April 2017

Three condundrums the Lib Dems need to solve to breakthrough

I was as staggered as anyone else that Theresa May has called a general election in June, especially given her assurances that she would do no such thing, though I can see the logic.

On the one hand, it does provide Tim Farron with what he has been asking for – an immediate second referendum on the style of Brexit (and again she said she would do no such thing). On the other hand, the result may be a forgone conclusion – not because a great majority of the nation backs the government, but because of the slow and inexorable decline of the Labour Party.

There is a suggestion that we now have three conservative-looking parties ranged against each other. One is embracing a different future but lacks the skills, ideas or open minds to manage it. The other wants to revert back to the world in 1945. The third wants to revert back to the world in 1980.

Or does it? That is the question this blog post poses. Because on the face of it, this election provides a unique opportunity for the Lib Dems to shove Labour aside, because they have apparently no opinion on the main issue of the moment.

As a lifelong Liberal, I am obviously excited at the prospect, but three barriers loom in the way, and they are intellectual ones. To reach their potential and become the official opposition – which the Lib Dems could conceivably do – they will have to solve three conundrums that will otherwise frustrate them.

1. How to bring the Liberal Brexiteers back into the fold.
The unaddressed challenge for the Lib Dems is that their former strongholds, especially in the South West, came out strongly for Brexit last year. That implies a powerful constituency of Liberal Brexiteers, who were not beguiled by the promises of the leave campaign but still have a visceral dislike of supranational bureaucracies. This seems to me to be both reasonable and Liberal. Somehow the party needs to be able to speak understandingly and inspiringly to the Liberal Brexiteers as well as the Liberal Remainers. That is a difficult balancing act and it requires them to look closer at the motivations of those tempted by Liberalism – not for a flirtation in one election but as a meaningful lifetime commitment (this is my interpretation of the so-called 'core vote strategy').

2. Speaking for the consumers of services, not the professionals.
Until they unexpectedly became responsible for some of them in 2010, the Lib Dems had little to say about public services. One of their difficulties go back to the merger of the Liberals and Social Democrats in 1988. They have many roots in common and the Liberals always included a strong Fabian wing (they used to call them Whigs). The difficulty is that it confuses the party’s message on public services: social democrats tend to back professional judgement and processes. Liberals prefer informality and individual variation – perhaps especially when it comes to education. Somehow the party has to shun public services run for the benefit of the staff (Corbyn) and public services run for the benefit of the operators (Southern Rail springs to mind), and to articulate an approach that represents the users and the ignored and put-upon consumers of public services.

3. Speaking for and to the nation as a whole without compromising their message.


One party is looking for the enemy within, the so-called ‘saboteurs’. The opposition is so divided that their enemy really is within. The nation is seriously divided too. The Lib Dems will need to hold to their clear position on internationalism but still somehow speak for the nation as a whole. This is particularly so when it comes to economics - the nation knows that the old assumptions of economics are now over. We have dysfunctional and over-centralised banks, and tackling that is as good a place to start as any.

If they can do that, and the other two, then I predict an extraordinary result.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

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Monday, 10 April 2017

Taking children out of school and the death of Fabianism

I just posted this on the Radix website, but it applies here too...

No, Fabianism isn’t dead yet – but the flurry of debate about parents taking their children out of school does seem to mark a moment in the story of the great decline. When judges in the Supreme Court develop their own brand of Fabianism, and give parents no discretion at all, you know the end can’t be far away.

I am defining the branch of Leftist thinking here, developed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb – with a little help from George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells – as a gradual approach to social change, leaving the economic structures intact and mediated by a new cadre of professionals and technocrats who would ‘know best’.

It might be possible also to see the new dispensation, including Trump, Brexit and Le Pen, as reactions against Fabian technocracy. In fact, Le Pen pere even said so at one stage, describing his Front Nationale as the only anti-technocratic party in Europe.

This is an approach that would regard the ‘spirit of ’45’ as partly to blame for its own demise. This is controversial territory.

You can see the divide on the left in their attitudes to the schools judgement: backing the local authorities which want to fine parents for any absences from the classroom. On the one side, you have the Fabian line – that children must attend school and there must be protection for them against the whims of feckless parents (broadly the social democrat approach). On the other side, there is also an attitude that parents probably know best what is good for their children and require a little flexibility (broadly the liberal approach).

In a nutshell, you have Gladstone’s famous distinction between trust in the people tempered by prudence and distrust in the people tempered by fear. I know which side I’m on, personally, but let’s leave that on one side.

Behind all this lies a conflicting attitude to education, not it’s importance but its style. Fabians will tend to back the professional educationalists who say that every moment in the classroom is precious. Liberals will tend to regard education more broadly, arguing that every moment out of the classroom is also precious.

None of this, by itself, suggests that Fabianism is in decline. What it suggests is that the inflexibility built into the system – because professionals have deemed something to be correct – is not an attitude that can survive if we want to beat the ideas of Trump and Putin. It is no coincidence that the two great Edwardian doctrines, Fabianism and Taylorism (the ‘one best way’) back inflexibility. It smacks of the age of the assembly line and economies of scale. The period we appear to be moving into is sceptical about economies of scale, aware that we have been blind for too long to the diseconomies of scale. The new age backs flexibility because it is more human, and – in the end – less expensive.

It is also sceptical that classrooms are always and every day the right place to be – and that we should maximise children’s time in them. The emerging age is also horribly aware that they are too often extraordinarily dull.

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The right to break out of standard classifications

The film Mad to be Normal goes on release next week, and this is rather an important moment - at least for me. Partly because I have been fascinated by the revolutionary psychiatrist R D Laing my whole adult life - I even went to a poetry reading by him when I was a student (he sat slumped on the floor for most of the reading).

But partly also because I have a short book out which tells the strange and courageous story of his radicalisation, as a military psychiatrist and tries to set him in the context of a period of tumultuous debate, the 1960s and 70s.

The book is on special offer this week - including 99p for the ebook versions and £4.25 for the paperback. I would love to hear from anyone what they think of it.

Laing is a somewhat forgotten figure. You might almost believe that the psychiatric establishment won (as it did - they managed to get him to resign from the Medical Register before he died in 1989). When I mentioned his theories to a group of NHS staff I was teaching recently, they laughed.

But something is stirring. Partly, of course, it is David Tennant's portrayal of him in the film. But partly also because he stands for two critical elements which are as important now as they have always been.

First, human understanding in the professions - and he stood for this at a time when psychiatrists could, without consultation, cart people off to have electric currents passed through their brains, or part of their brains removed, and often did. If they had been sectioned.

Laing is one of the reasons we don't live in that world any more, at least quite so much.

The other reason can be summed up by this paragraph he wrote towards the end of his life about the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook:

“What DSM III seems to be is a comprehensive compendium of thoughts, feelings, experiences, unusual experiences, impulses, actions, conduct, which are deemed undesirable, and should be put a stop to, in our culture. It is so all-inclusive that most items of what all the world over at all times and places were deemed to be ordinary manifestations of ordinary human minds, speech and conduct, are ruled out. We, as we used to take ourselves to be, are to be cultured out, to be replaced by a homogenised creature I can hardly recognise as a human being.”

In this respect, Laing’s radical spirit continues to this day. He knew what would happen if we standardised people, and tried to encapsulate their individuality with numbers to make them easier to process. He stood then - and stands now - for the right to break out of standard classifications, however sophisticated.

It is a guarantee of our freedom and individuality.

Do read the book if you can - you can buy it at the special price until the end of the week on the publisher's website or on Amazon. Or catch up with the film here,

See my new book Ronald Laing:The rise and fall and rise of a revolutionary psychiatristGet ahead of the Mad to be Normal film when it comes out!

Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word blogsubscribe to dcboyle@gmail.com. When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsubscribe.