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Liberal Hero of the Week #88: The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart

February 13, 2015

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Jon Stewart

Presenter of US Comedy Central’s satirical The Daily Show
Reason: for promoting sane political discourse.

Jon Stewart, presenter of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (he really was born to present it), this week announced his retirement after 16 years at the helm. To US liberals, he’s something of a hero; to conservatives he’d be a bête noire if they could stomach the use of the foreign label.

A Democrat sympathiser, he rose to fame during the Bush II presidency, skewering the Administration’s response to 9/11 and the conduct of the second Iraq war. But that’s not why I’m nominating him as a Liberal Hero. Rather, it’s for his consistent pleas for reasoned political debate, civilised discourse.

Most famously, he did it when he confronted CNN’s Crossfire, accusing its theatrically disputatious presenters of “political hackery” and of “hurting America” by deliberately reducing news coverage to a verbal punch-up. A decade on, his arguments still hold up. Incidentally, a few months later Crossfire was axed — it never quite recovered from his pin-sharp questioning (it really is worth watching the following exchange in full if you haven’t seen it before):

But Jon Stewart didn’t stop there. Six years later, as US politics became ever more entrenched in its self-identification as a divided “Two Americas”, he helped launch the Rally to Restore Sanity, an attempt to reassert the reasonableness, which attracted some 215,000 people.

Here’s how he closed it, with an appeal not so much to some kind of mushy unity, but to respecting political differences without presuming on other folks’ bad faith. He was talking about America, but it applies just as much to our (admittedly much more toned-down) political debate here in the UK:

… we can have animus and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of the main tools in delineating the two broke. The country’s 24-hour politico-pundit-perpetual-conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen, or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire and then perhaps host a week of shows on the sudden, unexpected flaming ant epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing. …

Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains while we get things done, not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done. Most Americans don’t live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals, or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do, often something they do not want to do. But they do it, impossible things every day that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

Jon Stewart is a rare combination: an idealistic satirist, who wants to provoke politicians and the media to be better, to live up to their own intelligence rather than dumb down to what they assume the public wants. I don’t think we have an equivalent in the UK, where satire equates to slagging everyone off because. But we can hope.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #87: Daniel Hannan

February 7, 2015

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Daniel Hannan

Conservative MEP for South East England
Reason: for his support of localism.

Former Labour Lord Chancellor once pithily said of the “West Lothian Question” — Tam Dalyell’s famous formulation that it cannot be right for a Scottish MP to be able to vote on England-only matters, but not for an English MP to vote on matters affecting Scotland — that the best way of dealing with was not to ask it. As an answer, though, it takes the pith.

David Cameron was, therefore, right to say immediately after the result of the Scottish referendum, when Scots narrowly but decisively rejected independence, that: ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland – and now the millions of voices of England must also be heard. The question of English votes for English laws – the so-called West Lothian question – requires a decisive answer.’

And this week he revealed his answer: a rather insipid compromise which allows MPs for English seats to have a veto on tax, and issues like schools and health, which affect only England. Though this would thwart the apocalyptic scenario envisioned by some of his more excitable right-wingers — that Labour could push through laws in England thanks to the votes of its Scottish MPs (if it has many left) — it falls well short of empowering local communities to make their own decisions. As the Lib Dems pointed out:

We need to ensure fair English votes on English matters. But we cannot have a debate about devolving greater powers to nations without also considering how we give local areas more power. Devolution and localism must go beyond Westminster. Up and down the country, citizens want change that reflects their local needs and circumstances.

If we agree it is right to give the five million people in Scotland and three million people in Wales a greater say over their local services, then we cannot, for example, ignore the five million people in Yorkshire who have the same rights to local democracy and empowerment. It is disappointing the Conservatives are not supporting our proposal for ‘Devolution on Demand’, which would give more powers to the English cities, counties and regions – especially places like Cornwall and Yorkshire.

But I expect talk of radical devolution of powers from my own party. It’s rarer to hear it from others. Kudos, then, to Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP for South East England, who made clear his own support for localism this week:

The affinity and identity that is the prerequisite for a successful democracy can be found more strongly in English counties than in some entire nations. Hampshire is an older political unit than France. I don’t see any powers that might be devolved to Holyrood under devo max that could not be handled by English county and metropolitan councils. Voters in New Hampshire control their own taxation, welfare and criminal justice systems. Are their cousins in old Hampshire uniquely incapable of self-government? …

England has the weakest local government in Europe. The only EU state whose councils raise a lower proportion of their expenditure is Malta – which is close to being a single extended conurbation. As our local authorities have become enfeebled, turnout has fallen and potential council candidates have been put off. Localism – including tax-raising powers for counties and cities – would restore honour and purpose to council elections.

A former Conservative leader, Michael Howard, once called for “smaller government and bigger people”. He was talking about shrinking the state, rather than parcelling it up. But bigger people is a good, liberal aim. Best of luck to Daniel Hannan in persuading his party of localism’s merits.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #86: Benedict Cumberbatch

January 30, 2015

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Benedict Cumberbatch

Actor
Reason: for standing up to prejudice.

Context matters. So do intentions. Which means that when Benedict Cumberbatch this week used the word ‘coloured’ — provoking one of those wearily predictable storms — it needs to be read with the other words surrounding it:

“I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change. Something’s gone wrong, we’re not representative enough in our culture of different races and that really does need to step up a pace.”

The context makes clear that he considers discrimination against actors on the basis of their race to be a wrong needing righting; his intention is to stick up for those who encounter discrimination.

But, to some (by no means all), his use of an outmoded word more normally uttered by grannies and Daily Express readers, was the real outrage. He quickly issued an abject apology: “I feel the complete fool I am and while I am sorry to have offended people and to learn from my mistakes in such a public manner please be assured I have.”

As Nick Cohen pointed out in The Spectator:

After the battering he has received, I doubt if Cumberbatch will take the trouble to argue for fairer treatment for ethnic minority and working class actors again. Pursed lipped prudes, who damn others for their sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic language, while doing nothing to confront real injustice, are characteristic figures of our time. As characteristic are well-meaning people abandoning good causes because they cannot take the prudes’ condemnations.

It’s not that language doesn’t matter: it does. (Don’t dare call me anti-semantic!) It’s why most of us try and use terms which are accurate, appropriate and don’t cause needless offence — both to avoid inadvertently hurting others’ feelings, and also to avoid our point being lost in a blizzard of recrimination.

But context and intention matter more. There’s more than enough prejudice out there that needs fighting without turning on those already on the same side.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #85: Ruth Davidson

January 25, 2015

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Ruth Davidson

Leader of the Scottish Conservatives
Reason: for sticking up for human rights

Raif Badawi, last week’s Liberal Hero, is too ill from the first 50 lashes he was subjected to by the Saudi authorities to have faced the second 50 or the third 50 that should by now have been inflicted on him. Had he recovered from his injuries he would still have 850 lashes to endure, in addition to his 10-year jail sentence for setting up the Free Saudi Liberals website.

This week saw the death of the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah. It also saw fulsome tributes paid to the King from leaders around the world. A “deeply saddened” David Cameron paid tribute to his “commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”. Flags were lowered to half-mast at the houses of parliament and at Westminster Abbey: “a church honouring the leader of a country where conversion to Christianity is a capital offence,” as The Spectator acerbically observed. (Though, I merely note, that’s the kind of thing that happens in a church established by the state.)

It would be unfair to pin all the blame for Saudi Arabia’s continuing medieval theocracy on King Abdullah. As The Economist noted: ‘By Saudi standards, Abdullah was a moderniser, appointing the first female government minister and in 2013 appointing 30 women to the Shura Council. These moves drew protests from the puritanical Wahhabi clerics and parts of the devout population, as well as reformers who point out that women are still unable to drive or fraternise with men who are not relatives. Free speech is curbed. A number of Saudis are pushing for religion to have less of a grip on the public sphere, the results of which are strict laws on blasphemy and a ban on cinemas.’

Yet the rush to eulogise jarred, jarred badly. The death of a head of state is not the moment to grand-stand about human rights failings, but nor can they be ignored in favour of bland encomia. Pretty much alone among senior politicians, Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson stuck her head above the parapet:

Too right, which is why she’s this week’s Liberal Hero. That is all.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Hero of the Week #84: Raif Badawi

January 16, 2015

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Raif Badawi

Saudi Arabian writer who created the Free Saudi Liberals website
Reason: for standing up for free speech against an autocratic regime

A lot of people have spoken up for free speech in the days since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris. It’s easy for us. The worst most of us can expect if folk disagree is a bit of flak on Twitter.

Not so in Saudi Arabia. Not so for Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashes — 50 lashes every Friday for five months — who called for free speech on his website. Amnesty International describes his case:

Raif’s sentence stems from his creation of the website ‘Saudi Arabian Liberials’, which he envisaged as a forum for political and social debate. He was subsequently charged for content he had posted to the site, including an article published on Valentine’s Day 2012 in which he was accused of ridiculing Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice – as well as failing to remove ‘offensive’ posts by other contributors.

Raif was arrested in June 2012. In May 2014 he was found guilty of breaking Saudi Arabia’s strict technology laws and insulting Islamic religious figures by creating and managing an online forum. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, a fine of 1 million Saudi Riyal (over a quarter of a million US dollars), and prevented from using any kind of media or travelling until 2034. Raif simply championed free speech.

The Guardian has published excerpts of Raif’s writings. Here’s what he said in May 2012 about the nature of liberalism.

For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.

Often I use the term ‘Hero’ in this column metaphorically. Not this time.

You can support Amnesty International’s petition calling on Saudi Arabia to

Stop flogging Raif Badawi
Release Raif immediately: he is a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for exercising his right to free speech
Overturn Raif’s conviction and drop all sentences against him.

by adding your name here.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Heroes of the Week #83: Charlie Hebdo, #jesuischarlie

January 9, 2015

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Charlie Hebdo

French satirical newspaper
Reason: sticking up for the right of people everywhere to provoke, to stir, to offend

Am I Charlie? On one level, almost certainly not. I wouldn’t have drawn the cartoons they drew: mockery of religion and deliberately offending others isn’t my thing.

And if I had received a death threat I’d probably have been more than tempted to shelter indoors, rather than keep on running headlong into the storm.

‘Je suis Charlie’ is not a statement of fact (a rather obvious point to have to make), but a declaration of solidarity with the right of those who’ve chosen a different path to pursue it without fear.

Three articles have stood out for me in all that’s been written this week. First, some brilliantly unequivocal words from The Times’s David Aaronovitch:

This is the deal for living together. The same tolerance that allows Muslims or Methodists freedom to practise and espouse their religion is the same tolerance that allows their religion or any aspect of it to be depicted, criticised or even ridiculed. Take away one part of the deal and the other part falls too. You live here, that’s what you agree to.

Secondly, Nick Clegg has highlighted a point too often forgotten by those who look to the law to defend them from offence:

Some of those who died on Wednesday had drawn cartoons which they knew were offensive to others. But no one ever deserves to be killed just because they have caused offence. This is the bottom line: in a free society people have to be free to offend each other. There is no such thing as a right not to be offended. You cannot have freedom unless people are free to offend each other.

And finally, here’s Kenan Malik angrily tearing into the ‘fake liberals’ who imagine they are protecting minority communities when they legislate to censor what they consider to be offensive:

What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions; writers, cartoonists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Pakistani cartoonist Sabir Nazar, the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, exiled to India after death threats, or the Iranian blogger Soheil Arabi, sentenced to death last year for ‘insulting the Prophet’. What happened in the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris was viscerally shocking; but in the non-Western world, those who stand up for their rights face such threats every day.

In reality – in our crowded, cosy, day-to-day lives, when it’s easier to nod along with the demands of the offended wanting to silence the offensive because we fear being thought insensitive – few of us are Charlie.

This week, we’re all saying #jesuisCharlie. But life moves on. The challenge will come next week, and the week after, when the horror of Paris has receded, and a group-with-a-grievance once again tries to salami slice the principle of free speech (“we’re just asking that people use their freedom responsibly”). Perhaps the hashtag we need is #jemesouviensCharlie?

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum. It showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

Liberal Heroes of the Week #82: David Willetts and Douglas Carswell

January 4, 2015

Liberal Hero of the Week (and occasional Villains) is chosen by Stephen Tall, Research Associate at CentreForum

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David Willetts

Conservative MP, former universities minister
Reason: for opposing his party’s plan to cut back the numbers of overseas students

So often this column is a toss-up: do I make person X a ‘Liberal Hero’ for opposing a madcap policy, or person Y a ‘Liberal Villain’ for dreaming up said madcap policy in the first place? Generally I prefer to accentuate the positive, and that’s why David Willetts is this week’s Hero, instead of Theresa May a Villain, for opposing the home secretary’s proposal to restrict the numbers of overseas students.

The Conservatives are, you may have noticed, desperate to show they have cut net immigration in an attempt to see of the electoral threat from Ukip. This has proved a bit tricky as the official statistics from the ONS show net migration at 260,000, higher than the 244,000 recorded in 2010 when the Coalition came to power.

(NB: the commitment to cut net immigration was never a Coalition target; only ever a target set by the Conservatives within the Coalition… A point emphasised by Lib Dem business secretary Vince Cable in one of my favourite quotes by him.)

So Theresa May has hit on a quick fix: requiring foreign students to leave the country at the end of their courses. Yes, that’s right: the leading candidate to be next Conservative leader wants to impose greater regulation on higher education, one of this country’s leading export industries reckoned to earn more than £10 billion for the country. How’s that for striking at the principle of free movement of goods, services and people? (Let alone the free exchange of ideas.) The party of freedom — really?

Fortunately, there are saner voices in her party. Former Conservative universities minister David Willetts — one of the last One Nation Conservatives still around, and someone who should, quite frankly, have already made it into the Liberal Hero canon before now — has made clear his contempt for Mrs May’s plan, writing in The Times of the importance to this country of overseas students:

More than four million students every year leave their home country to study: of those almost half a million come to the UK. There is a global trend for more students to study abroad. We should aim to increase our share of this growing market. But if we implement the latest idea from the Home Office for new restrictions on overseas students, we would not only miss this golden opportunity — we would be acting in a mean-spirited and inward-looking way. …

We already have a very strict regime for post-study work, so a graduate can only stay to work for up to two years if it is a “graduate job” with a licensed sponsor and paid a minimum of £20,300. This is more restrictive than our competitors. It is easier to find a job above the pay threshold in London. We should remove the incentive for overseas students to leave Manchester or Newcastle to work in London by setting lower minimum pay rates for post-study work outside London. That would follow up George Osborne’s exciting vision for a “northern powerhouse”. …

The future is more openness and more mobility. We must seize the opportunities created by the world’s appetite for British education.

Quite so. The genuinely puzzling thing about Mrs May’s latest purported crackdown is that there is a far easier way to cut the number of overseas students included in the net immigration figures: stop counting them as immigrants. After all, few of the British pubic think they should be classified as immigrants. Even Ukip thinks it’s a nonsense. As British Future’s Sunder Katawala puts it:

Government policy is to attract more international students and to increase our share versus Australian and American competitors. Including something that you want to increase, in a category that you want to reduce, makes no sense. The public think so – and since UKIP, the Liberal Democrats and Labour all agree on this, it is difficult to see what is stopping the Conservatives from joining them.

It shouldn’t need Two Brains to understand this. But I’m glad he’s there pointing out the nonsensicalness of this policy to his party. Let’s hope Mrs May is listening.

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Douglas Carswell

First elected Ukip MP
Reason: for telling his party it should stop its offensive dislike of foreigners and adopt a serious internationalist agenda

On the face of it, 2014 has been a staggeringly successful year for Ukip: the party won a national election (May’s low-turnout Euros), and saw its first two MPs elected at by-elections.

Yet it was also a year of failure for its leader, Nigel Farage. Instead of broadening Ukip’s national appeal, he ended up re-toxifying its brand with casually xenophobic and sexist remarks. As a result, Ukip is further away than before from achieving its goal — the UK voting to withdraw from the European Union in any future referendum — because its leader opts to preach to his 15% of zealots, rather than reach out to the majority in Middle Britain.

One man understands his leader’s strategic error better than most: recent convert, Douglas Carswell. Writing in the Daily Mail, the Clacton MP invokes a feel-good, Reagan-esque ‘Morning in Essex’ weltenschauung:

There has never been anything splendid about isolation. It was our interdependence that put the Great into Great Britain – and it is what sustains our living standards today. In such a world, a dislike of foreigners is not merely offensive, but absurd. … Far from being a party that tolerates pejorative comments about people’s heritage and background, Ukip in 2015 has to show that we have a serious internationalist agenda. We stand to realign our trade relations precisely because we wish to join in with the rest of the world. Increased interdependence is going to mean ever greater labour mobility – not just between countries but between continents.

His ‘Bright Purple’ brand of Ukipperism won’t win my vote — but it’s intellectually coherent and electorally plausible. Farage’s golf bore protest-schtick can take Ukip only so far; Carswell’s actually looking to build a majority for positively rejecting the EU. And he knows that to do so, Ukip must shed its “a bit racist” image, must engage with modern Britain as it is. Quite liberal, quite heroic. Which is why he joins David Willetts as this week’s other Liberal Hero.

* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.

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