Sunday, 20 May 2007

Response from Simon Jenkins

I have had a response from Simon Jenkins to my letter about his comment piece in the Guardian last week suggesting that it is time that the Liberal Democrats disbanded.

He actually sent it on 14 May 2007, but as my spam filter is not as discerning as the readers of the Guardian; it junked him, and I have only just come across the replay in my bulk mail.

His response is frankly shocking:

Dear Tom Papworth

Thank you for your most interesting email. I have almost no quarrel with anything the Liberals have ever said. But if they disbanded and split into their more Labour and more Tory wings, think how clear-cut each general election might be.

With best wishes

Simon Jenkins

I have a suspicion that this is a standard reply, as it shows little evidence that he has read my letter. As I explained to him, the antithesis between left and right (Labour and Conservative wings , as he calls them) is archaic and does not represent the three competing philosophies that have shaped political discourse in Britain for two centuries: conservatism, liberalism and more lately socialism.

To say that he has almost no quarrel with anything that the Liberals have ever said, but nonetheless propose their disbandment, seems positively bizarre to me. It is usual in politics to support a party with which one almost always agrees.

As for how clear cut a general election could be, he has missed an obvious solution. Why not disband both the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party, along with all the minor parties. Then general elections would be very clear cut indeed, with the Conservatives winning 646 seats and nobody else holding any. This is the sort of clear cut result one gets in places such as Cuba and North Korea, and leads to executive power that is in no way “diluted [and] unstable”, though one might wonder how it is to be held accountable.

Sir Simon clearly places the clarity of the outcome above the contestability of the result. I disagree. The fact that individuals may choose to demur from the cosy consensus of two-party politics (those rare “Sincere friends of freedom” to whom I referred in my letter, in homage to Lord Acton) is healthy and valuable and should be encouraged.

That a plethora of political parties should compete with one another is essential if politics is not to result in the inevitable failure of that always accompanies duopoly. Duopolies always result in the provision of identical products by identical firms: on the rare occasions when different firms ran trains between the same cities, they ran them at the same times and charged the same ticket price, leading to no discernable difference for the customer and so no real competition. As Gordon Tullock explained in The Vote Motive, political parties in duopoly act in a similar way, gravitating towards the “centre” as they seek to capture the votes of the median voter. This results in stultifying consensus of the type we saw between Conservatives and Labour in the third quarter of the last century, and (as Sir Simon himself showed) between the Thatcherites and New Labour.

Yet while Sir Simon is clearly unhappy with the Thatcherite consensus, he actively decries the one major party that would seek to undermine that consensus and return power to local authorities (a big theme of at least two of his recent books). I can only believe that this is a result of cognitive dissonance: though the evidence is before his eyes, he cannot (or does not wish to) overcome the established thought-patterns that fused in his mind in an earlier era.

That is a shame. The Liberal Democrats will continue to have a role in British politics as long as liberty is threatened by conservatives that fear progress and socialists that want to govern it; as long as the other two political parties in Britain subscribe to dirigisme and social engineering; and as long as majorities are allowed to dictate to individuals. With his strong support of localism and his having “almost no quarrel with anything the Liberals have ever said”, Sir Simon would be an ideal supporter. Instead, his talents are wasted supporting a party with which he clearly has greater disagreements. Our loss is also his.


Andy said...

I agree entirely with the thrust of what you say above, but one little nit-picky point:

I can only believe that this is a result of cognitive dissonance: though the evidence is before his eyes, he cannot (or does not wish to) overcome the established thought-patterns that fused in his mind in an earlier era.

The term cognitive dissonance was coined by Leon Festinger to explain changes in beliefs, not their staying the same, "fused" or otherwise. His theory states that contradicting cognitions serve as a driving force that compels the mind to acquire or invent new thoughts or beliefs, or to modify existing beliefs, so as to reduce the amount of dissonance between cognitions (can you tell I'm revising for psychology exams?!).

As such, it would be plausible to say that Jenkins's position should cause a cognitive dissonance in him (not be a result of one), and that in order to lessen it he has two options: 1) To become more friendly towards the Lib Dems, and 2) To try to justify his dislike of them with some other line of reasoning. He seems to have gone down the second route, although not terribly successfully. This may be what you meant, but if it was, I couldn't tell.

js said...

This is how Herr Jenkins replied to me:
"Thank you for your email. I can assure you I am as liberal as the next man, but having tried to persuade the liberals of the case for drug law reform, direct election in local government and local income tax, and watched them back off from everything, I am convinced that the place to argue the case for liberalism is within a party with some prospect of attaining real power."

...except he has been subverted into becoming an agent for the destruction of his stated cause.

The volume of recent anti-LibDem articles suggest there is a concerted back-room campaign among similar soft-liberal sell-outs of a certain age.

Since the tide has turned there is a waking realisation that they were deluded by ambition when they made their pact with the New Labour devil in order to evict the previous regime, but it is now down to them to try to save their sinking ship, as their (well-paid) positions depend upon it: they made their bed, now they must lie in it.

Policy is no replacement for principle - as the means are never justified by the objectives, they determine them (which is the whole purpose of procedure).

We could pity Jenkins as he disintergrates into incoherent senile impotency, but we should thank him instead for offering a salutary example of the pitfalls in a career prostituting one's pen!

Julian H said...

Ah, Gordon Tullock, he of Budget Maximisation theories and more famously a key character in Julian H's Masters dissertation. I vaguely recall stumbling across his Vote Motive work; nice to see it being tied in here.

Jenkins is a fool.

Tabman said...

Jenkins is not the only one deluding himself that the Liberalism in which he purports to believe is being dished up by New Labour. His stable-mate Will Hutton also has form in this area.

Tom Papworth said...


Thank you for the clarification. I wonder if you can tell me what the term is for an inability to accept or process information that runs counter to one's existing beliefs?


Andy said...


I'm afraid nothing springs to mind right now, but I'll get back to you if and when it does!