Monday, 20 July 2015

Liberalism Part II - Faith, Feelings and Farron!

This kind of follows on my previous comments on the basics about Liberalism (hence the title), with particular reference to the questioning of new Lib Dem leader Tim Farron commitment to Liberalism and Gay Rights issues following the questioning of his private religious beliefs with regard to whether homosexuality is a 'sin'

Much has been made of Tim 'not answering the question', but in my opinion he has answered it, and answered it very well. He has made it clear that he is not a religious leader qualified/employed to make such public pronouncements on matters of 'sin', that as a Christian he believes that we are all 'sinners' anyway, and that he has an absolute commitment to Liberalism and supporting equality for everyone, including LBGT+ people (whatever his private beliefs may or may not be). That, to me, seem like a perfectly reasonable and thoroughly Liberal response.

Of course, the question was deliberately framed as a 'yes/no', following the slightly irritating modern 'journalistic' habit of framing a question in such a way, but based on a premise that the interviewer knows that the interviewee can't possibly give such an answer to in those terms. It seems, unfortunately, to have become a common device, and one that everyone should be aware of. Personally, I don't think that is 'trying to get to the truth' at all, but just trying to trap someone into either making a 'gaffe' by seeming to say something controversial that they don't really mean, or by making them out to be 'evasive' if they won't. It often comes with constant interruptions of 'but you haven't answered the question', meaning that, whatever answer they are giving, they haven't answered it in the limited terms around which the question was knowingly constructed so that they couldn't (and also meaning that nobody gets to hear the actual answer that they are trying to give, of course)! It's pretty cheap and transparent bit of trickery, designed purely to produce something 'sensational', in my opinion.

Another particularly bad recent example was the interview with Labour leadership candidate Corbyn, where he (understandably, in my opinion) 'snapped' at a 'journalist' for doing exactly that, and not letting him actually respond to the question. I guess this all goes back to the infamous Paxman-Howard interview, where he repeatedly fired a yes/no question that Howard thoroughly evaded - the fundamental difference, of course, is that it wasn't on explaining/justifying matters of 'opinion' as the Farron and Corbyn questions were, but on a matter of simple historical fact about whether he had actually done a particular thing. That is something entirely different (and entirely reasonable to frame in a 'yes/no' way), but it seems that too many 'journalists' are now obsessed with creating a name for themselves in the same kind of way, but by using questions of opinion framed in a specific manner that they know their victim can't possibly accept. Journalism is an important part of the political process, and journalists do have a vital role in holding our politicians to account and getting them to present a true picture of what they stand for, and they have to consider whether they are actually doing that effectively, or simply trying to create needless controversy for their own ends.

Setting that aside, what I really wanted to talk about was Liberalism itself in this context - what is 'Liberalism', and how does it work? We are all human beings. We all have our own private sets of opinions and natural feelings. The point for me about being a Liberal is not somehow becoming inhuman such that we have no natural feelings, but realising that we have to recognise and overcome private feelings in the way that we deal with others, and in the way that we treat others and the issues of diversity and equality. It's not about promoting our own private view above others, or promoting the interests of our own 'group' over any others - quite the opposite.

Let's take another example - it is entirely understandable that, on a private, human level, some people are suspicious of 'religion' and/or Christians and their views. It's something perfectly natural to human beings to based things on their own experiences, or the experiences of people that they feel are 'like them' in some way. A gay person, for example, may very well have been, or seen others being, treated badly in some way by some religious people who claim to base their views and actions in elements of their faith, and judge and condemn others, effectively forcing their views onto other people. That's natural - people who have been abused by a certain group are quite likely to be suspicious of people from that group, especially when they start talking about their private religious views.

In that kind of context, the point of being a 'Liberal' to me is to overcome that kind of private issue - it is a natural, fear or experience based response to circumstances, but it doesn't have to dictate the way in which we deal with people or deal with issues of Rights, Equality and Divesrity. Indeed, like every other human on the planet (or elsewhere!), I have my own 'issues' in that sense - as someone who grew up as a member of what is now often referred to as an 'alternative subculture', I and my friends (and others of our 'group') have been harassed by street preachers, condemned by religious leaders, dismissed as 'evil', and so on. I can certainly be suspicious of what some people will justify in the name of their religion when it comes to how they view people who are, in some way, 'people like me'. When it comes to equality, I have to look past that and realise that in an equal and diverse world we have to be free to hold our own private opinions - as long as it's not being forced on anyone, that's fine. That HAS to apply to EVERYONE, including those who have private opinions that I do not agree with or even that I am naturally slightly suspicious about.

Another group that I could be said to have an entirely natural and past experience based 'aversion' towards would be what are now generally referred to (in a derogatory way) as 'chavs'. I have been abused by 'them', physically attacked by 'them', chased down the road be 'them' wielding metal bars and shouting 'freak', for no other reason than the way I looked and the music I like. 'They' didn't like the fact that I was 'different', and they were abusing me on that basis, and indeed I an still subjected to 'what on earth are you' type stares by 'them' on a fairly regular basis for not conforming to their idea of 'normal' in the way that I dress. Every year I spend a weekend at a rock festival with 'people like me', and not getting those stares, whispers, abuses and even threats, and having a weekend of being a 'freak among freaks' is, believe me, great personal pleasure and absolutely blessed relief!

To me, however, the point of being a Liberal is realise that you have to overcome that kind of natural feeling. You have to be able to treat everyone as an equal individual of equal individual merit - to not simply react to negative personal experiences and feelings by returning them 'in kind' - to not treat those 'groups' any differently to how I treat 'my own', and especially when it comes to the 'public' treatment of issues of diversity and equality.

I'm not a Christian, but to me it is entirely reasonable for a Christian to hold a private, personal, faith-based belief for themselves but to be able to overcome that in dealings with others, and with matters of equality. I really don't see that there is an issue with someone privately believing that someone else is a 'sinner', but overcoming that and defending absolutely their right to 'sin', and to 'sin' equally alongside every other kind of 'sinner' in the human race. That's what being a Liberal is all about. It's not about defending the rights of one particular 'group' against or over another particular 'group', or promoting one's own personal, private feelings over everyone else's views about how they should be, it's about defending the rights of every individual from every group equally. It's about defending the rights of the individual to live their lives according to their own opinions, as long as they aren't interfering with anyone else's life in doing so. It's about doing so, no matter what private, personal feelings a person might have about another 'group' and their choices and private opinions.

Tim Farron is a Christian. He might very well believe that I am 'wrong' in my choice of atheism and 'the devil's music', and that, as a result, I am a 'sinner' and/or that ultimately I will have to answer for my sins before the Lord. That's up to him - I don't care! It makes no odds to me whatsoever, as long as he is not forcing that opinion on me by dictating how I should live my life according to his own private views. Likewise, I personally think his religion is a load of total nonsense - I don't believe in his God (or any other gods), and I think he is completely wasting his time and energy in believing and worshipping and so on. It's not my business to condemn him on that basis, though, or to blame him for the illiberal actions of some of his 'religion', or to tell him that he doesn't have the absolute right to live his life how he chooses and to hold whatever personal beliefs he likes as a entirely private matter. As a Liberal, I will absolutely stand up for his right to follow his religion and hold whatever religious beliefs he likes, as long as he doesn't seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else, or justify illiberal measures for everyone on the basis of his private beliefs (which he has never done, as far as I am aware). I might have my private views on his faith, and my private issues with my past experiences of some who professed a similar faith, but that should be my problem, not his!

Of course, I do recognise that there are sometimes issues that can create a measure of conflict between private beliefs and public measures. We can overcome our own natural biases in the way that we act, but there still might be direct personal conflicts on particular specific issues that force us to recognise that, if nothing else, our own personal judgement may be somewhat clouded. Under those circumstances, we have to accept the existence of such an issue, and allow individuals to not have to positively vote for something that conflicts them on a personal level in some way. The correct response under those circumstance is, in my opinion, for a person to be able to step back from the conflict and abstain. I don't have an issue with that at all. I'd be concerned if 'faith', or some other private opinion, had led a 'liberal' to campaign actively against a measure that other liberals considered to be something essential for equality and diversity, but I have no concerns over someone stepping back at the final point because of a personal, private conflict, and just not actually positively voting for a specific thing that caused them that private conflict. It's not 'illiberal' to know when your own judgement is may be compromised because of a private issue and to step back accordingly and let others make the decision - quite the opposite - it's entirely Liberal, in my opinion, to realise the need not to stand in the way of progress despite a personal conflict. Being a Liberal is not about denying your own humanity, it's about realising it and overcoming it to treat everyone else as equal human individuals.

There is another associated issue that sometimes comes up, too - that of diversity of representation. Of course, we should have a diverse group of elected representatives, and our current set of MPs is not diverse enough - I don't think anybody would deny that! However, I simply do not agree with the assertion made by some that a representative cannot effectively represent the interests of a group to which they do not belong. Being a Liberal is, for me, about overcoming the fact that you are a personally an individual, and representing the diverse interests of everyone equally.

To put it another way, Liberalism is absolutely not about promoting 'Gay Rights' or 'Christian Rights' or 'Alternative Subculture Rights' or 'Women's Rights' - it is absolutely the opposite of that, in a sense. It is about recognising and promoting the rights of every single individual EQUALLY. That includes recognising that not all groups are currently treated as equal, of course, and that some specific groups effectively therefore need to have their interests promoted so that they can attain that equality, but it should never be about promoting one specific group's interests over another. It's about promoting EQUALITY and DIVERSITY. We are all individuals deserving of equal respect and treatment. We are all a member of multiple 'groups', of course, and we are all different - we are therefore all a minority of one!

If we suggest that a person cannot represent the interests of groups to which they do not belong, we are saying the the only way to be a truly 'Liberal' representative is to actually be every single individual in the human race at the same time! That's obviously nonsense.

Likewise, if we suggest that nobody can be a truly 'Liberal' representative unless they have no personal, individual, private feelings, we are saying that the only way to be a truly 'Liberal' representative is to not be an individual human being at all! Also nonsense, of course.

The key to Liberalism is equality, and ensuring that everyone is treated equally, no matter who they are. It is recognising that everyone is an individual, including one's self, and that all individuals must be equal under the law and by treatment, whether or not we as individuals happen to like or agree with their personal choices. It can be no other way, and that means that every individual is equally entitled to their own private opinions and feelings, and is equally able to be a good, 'true' Liberal as long as they acknowledge their own humanity and overcome any private feelings they might have when it comes to how they deal with the issues of equality and diversity, and treating every individual as an equal individual.

Everyone is equal, and should be treated equally. Everyone is equally able to be a good, true 'Liberal' if they understand that and act accordingly. It doesn't matter whether they personally happen to be straight, gay, Christian, atheist, metalhead, chav, male, female, black ,white, or absolutely anything else at all, and it doesn't matter what private opinions they hold on that basis, as long as they understand that to be liberal is to overcome such private opinions in the way that you act, and the way that you treat other people and issues of equality. Liberalism absolutely isn't about gay people promoting 'Gay Rights', or Christians promoting 'Christian Rights', or alternative subcultures promoting 'Alternative Subculture Rights', or women promoting 'Women's Rights', it's about EQUALITY and DIVERSITY, and EVERYONE recognising, promoting and working toward the EQUAL Rights of EVERYONE!

The answers that Tim Farron has given to the questions about his private beliefs demonstrate clearly to me that he understands the difference between his private faith and feelings and the 'public' issues of equality and diversity, and how Liberalism should represent and promote them. I just don't see why there should be any concern on that. To be truly 'Liberal', we all have to overcome our own private feelings and natural biases and opinions, whether they be based in religion, or with regard to the religion of others, or anything else. In my opinion, that's what Liberalism is all about, and Tim Farron has said and done nothing that makes me doubt his absolute commitment to Liberalism in any way.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Britishness Day - an alternative suggestion

Remember that idea? Gordon Brown was a huge fan of it. Thankfully it never happened, and hopefully it never, ever will, but I thought I'd just lay out me feelings on why I think it is so utterly and fundamentally wrong, and what we could do instead to make everyone feel like they 'belong' as a truly valued citizen of the United Kingdom.

The UK is not a 'nation'. It is a 'family of nations'. This is a concept that many people seem to struggle with - we are not bound together as a 'Nation State' as some other European Nations became bound together (in various ways) during the 19th century development of the modern states. Of course, as a family we inevitably have some areas of broad agreement, and have adopted some of the elements of the cultures of our close neighbours, but we remain distinctly different, with cultural backgrounds of our own.

This has ALWAYS been the case - these islands have throughout history been the very definition of a 'cultural melting-pot'. I think it is fair to say that we have now generally settled into a pattern of 'nationhood' around the current borders of the different nations that comprise the UK, although anybody who underestimates the importance of identities such as those in Yorkshire and Cornwall, for example, do so at their peril!

There are, I think, two main factors that seem to have driven the modern campaigns for 'Britishness Days' and similar attempts at making us all 'feel' like we are 'One Nation', and all 'the same'. One is the fear of the rise of so-called 'Nationalism' (there's a whole world of difference between borderline-xenophobic 'Nationalism' and civic 'Secessionism', but the details of that's a subject for a different post!) among those pesky smaller UK nations, and the other is related to immigration and how to 'integrate' those with roots and origins in, perhaps, far distant lands and their cultures.

Both of them, though, essentially hark back to a massive mistake of the past, and in some cases quite recent past in dealing with the differences between the 'internal Nations' of the UK. In the past governments have made many efforts to 'unify' the UK in various ways, trying to force everyone to 'assimilate' to the prevailing 'culture' (and language), which is always, of course, the dominant culture (and language) of the majority in the largest of our nations, and the 'governing class', so very much based on that of England (John Major, for example,was fond of using 'cricket on the village green' type language for 'our national traditions' in his 'Back to Basics' campaign, but then calling it 'British' as an attempt to be 'politically correct' with regard to the other nations of the UK - he missed the point quite spectacularly!).

Any attempt at assimilation, particularly state-sponsored assimilation, will only achieve two related outcomes - resentment and resistance. Such attempts are morally wrong, of course, but they have also been shown historically to generally be pretty ineffective in the UK context. How many generations of Welsh people were told that their language barred them from holding official office, or even just held them back in life? How many attempts were there to wipe it, and its associated culture of Wales, out 'for the good of the people'? Coming on for a thousand years of trying to make the Welsh 'become English' in one way or another, and, despite the effect on the language in particular, all of them have failed. Likewise the idea of banning the visible vestiges of Highland 'Scottishness', and so on (different context, of course) - utter failure. These things do not work - the people of the UK do not all conform to the same identity of 'Britishness' - they never have, and they never will.

The more that someone tries to make them do that, the more they will rebel against it and hold on to their cultural 'roots', and rightly so - nobody has the right to impose 'culture' on others, or to tell them that the culture they are imposing is either in some way 'superior' or 'necessary' if they want to live in a certain place or get on in the world. Indeed, I have little doubt that the same is true of those who (quite rightly - why shouldn't they?!) hold on to elements of their own cultural identities that may have come to these islands relatively recently. It's human nature - people are generally wanting to be part of a culture in which they feel they belong, so to speak - one that is 'evolving', of course, but 'evolving' is not the same as 'disappearing', and even that is not the same as being 'pushed out'! Pushing people to 'conform' to an imposed view of 'identity' is only playing into the hands of those who would like to cause trouble (on all 'sides') - it builds resentment, and from that it creates the circumstances for reaction and resistance (and counter-resistance, of course, and a rise in the far right in politics).

The real strength of the UK is that we have thousands of years of experience of such cultural diversity - it might not have always been dealt with very well, of course, but we can learn from those mistakes. We can do things differently. In order for everyone to feel like they 'belong' in the UK and are welcomed as UK citizens, and even have some kind of affinity for the UK as a state entity, we don't have to make them feel like they all need to be culturally the same - quite the opposite, in fact. We need to demonstrate that our strength lies in our diversity.

The absolute worst thing we can do to preserve our 'national unity' is try to artificially create some kind of 'national unity', as we would be doing with any kind of 'British National Day' - that might sound counter-intuitive, but we need to understand that people are diverse and different, and that that is how it should be in a free society where people come from many different kinds of cultural backgrounds. Instead of showing our 'unity', we should be actually celebrating our diversity.

So how do we begin to change that understanding in a tangible way? Well, I'm going to suggest an alternative to 'Britishness Day', based on the example of one commonly-celebrated occasion in the calendar of many people across the UK, regardless of their own cultural identities and origins. We all, I'm sure, know about the 'plastic paddy' brigade who come out to celebrate 'Irishness' on St Patrick's Day, with the cheesy marketing nonsense of particular drink brands, and the inevitable awful accent attempts and leprechaun outfits. As much as I'm sure it slightly irritates many Irish people, I think it's actually a very positive thing to be positively celebrating the culture of a fellow nation, even if it is in a very 'plastic' and 'false' way, and is based as much on 'friendly banter' as on real understanding (and as a family, we should be able to enjoy a bit of mutual banter between ourselves, and I think most of us generally do!).

Most people, of course, don't think the Irish are all ginger-bearded leprechauns who just go around all day saying 'begorrah' to each other! They know it isn't real - in a sense it doesn't matter, though - it's not actually reinforcing a stereotype because it is all knowingly false, and it is a very positive celebration that generates positive feelings towards Ireland, and can be used as a vehicle for introducing other, more genuine cultural elements to the wider world. In fact, it is probably one of the reasons why Ireland has become so successful in marketing itself and its culture to the wider world.

Nobody feels in any way either an 'outsider' or a 'traitor' by being 'plastic Irish' for the day, and nobody feels embarrassed celebrating a culture and nation that isn't their own, and that is how I think cultural diversity should be celebrated. At the moment it's almost as if we all seem to be too afraid of causing offence, or too prone to taking offence, if we are seen to be celebrating something other than 'unified Britishness' (or see others doing that), and I think that is completely the wrong way around.

So why don't we follow the same principle towards other nations within the UK? The people (and politicians) of Wales have long been calling for a bank holiday on St David's Day in Wales, but that has been blocked by politicians from over the border in the neighbouring country. I'm suggesting we go further - let's make St David's Day a bank holiday celebration across the whole of the UK, and do the same for all of the 'National Days' of the generally accepted nations of the UK. It will be cheesy, it will contain banter, it will all be 'plastic' and 'false', but ultimately I don't think that is actually a bad thing at all. Of course, it would mean rearranging our bank holiday calender, but it's probably about time that that was looked at anyway, since the distribution of them through the year makes little sense at the moment.

Yes, I'm sure certain large breweries will take it as a marketing opportunity and produce inflatable coal miner hats, plastic dragons and sheep, and all the rest of it - do you know what? Good! If a Welsh producer does well out of it, that's good for the economy of Wales, but, more importantly, if the people of the UK spend a day celebrating 'Welshness' in a positive and enjoyable way, even if it is largely based on silly falsehoods, I think that's a good thing for the UK as a whole. Let's face it - it's not like we Welsh are immune from such things as silly dragon and daffodil hats on international match days anyway, and I can assure you the Scots aren't shy of a bit of blue facepaint either (and English tinfoil 'knights' aren't exactly unknown too)! As much as they are 'false', these are not actually 'offensive' things to us - it's the stuff we do ourselves in our less serious and more celebratory moments, so why shouldn't we all join in together with each other doing it a bit more? Of course, other elements of more genuine Welsh culture can be brought into the equation over time to create a more genuine understanding of our unique culture and identity within the UK, but primarily it is all about celebrating our DIVERSITY!

And as a Welshman, might I just say that I've got no objections to wearing a kilt on St Andrew's Day and wandering around with an inflatable set of comedy bagpipes branded by some brewery or other Scottish company. I know that that isn't really what Scotland is all about, but that's the whole point - it's all just about us as a family of nations having a bit of harmless fun together in the way that any good and strongly-bound family unit would. I'll even wear the leg-bells on St George's Day, and spend my time morris dancing to the tunes of Sir Arthur Sullivan while reciting Shakespeare, or whatever! It's a bit of fun that is nothing more than a harmless bit of banter in celebrating our family of nations, and that can only be a good thing, in my opinion. It can promote a positive view, and over time even a greater understanding of why these kind of silly cultural stereotypes are so silly. In fact, we would be making fun of ourselves for our stereotypes about other more than we would ever be making fun of them doing this kind of thing!

Diversity is a good thing. Being a happy family who can celebrate our diversity is a good thing. We can't ram a the Urdd Eisteddfod down everyone's throat and tell them 'this is Wales', of course (most of Wales would rebel if we tried that, let alone everyone else!), but neither can we ram Her Majesty or World War II down everyone's throats and tell them 'This is Britain - now be proud'! That kind of nonsense just doesn't work - we have to do something that celebrates the variety of diverse cultures and traditions that we are lucky enough to have in the UK, so let's do it in a way that we already know, from the evidence of St Patrick's Day (which should also be one of our UK bank holidays, of course), will actually work!

Of course, this doesn't directly celebrate the many other cultures and cultural elements we have here on these islands, but by showing that we have a positive and celebratory attitude to cultural diversity we can encourage people to have a more relaxed view of the idea of us all being one family with different identities and cultural elements that we can all happily celebrate together. We can encourage other cultural groups to hold their own celebrations for others to join in, without the fear of forcing anything onto anybody (and, for those for whom it would be a potential issue, of course they don't all need to be alcohol-based celebrations - there are lots of other things that people can enjoy!). That's not just restricted to cultures originating more recently overseas, either - it can also relate to modern cultural developments, and so on, too - nobody has only important (to them) cultural elements from one single source.

For as long as we talk about 'Britishness Day' and the like, we are sending a message that it is somehow 'wrong' to have an identity other than the government-sanctioned idea of 'Britishness' if you live in the UK. We have got to stop doing that - it is only creating a problem of mutual suspicion that doesn't need to be there. Let's do the opposite - let's actually have as many celebrations of our diversity as we possibly can.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The party of in the middle of the other two parties!

I think most people are now aware of an issue that has been plaguing our thinking for some time - the idea of portraying ourselves, and being portrayed, as being nothing more than a party of 'between the other main parties'. The wishy-washy, in the middle, don't really believe in anything party. At it's worst, it makes us the party of dull moderation seen as not wanting to actually stand up for anything or do anything much other than stopping the extremes of 'left' and 'right'.

Of course, there is some merit in stopping the extreme elements in other major parties from getting their way, but that isn't the point. The simplistic 'left versus right' narrative, so beloved by our media, gives an impression of the Liberal Democrats as being the party without anything positive to say, and without any core beliefs to base what we might be saying upon.

We know that is wrong, of course, but we have fallen all too often into the trap of engaging with this narrative and using its language ourselves. There are obviously times when that kind of idea of moderate, not doing anything rash, maintaining a steady course without veering one way or another, can be quite appealing to the public. It can, perhaps, actually serve us quite well when times are good for people, but during tougher economic times it leaves us as the party with no real answers to the problems - or at least no answers that anybody knows about. It leaves us seen as the party with nothing to say and no idea of what direction we want to be going in, and that's not something we can ever again afford to be seen as. When the steady course seems, to the public, to not be working, being seen as the party with nothing to say apart from 'keep it steady' is not a good thing, and even when it does seem to be going OK, it still makes us a pretty bland and dull prospect.

It is a completely false impression of what we stand for, of course. The 'left versus right' narrative is a convenient one for the media - it's widely understood, it paints clear battle-lines, and it creates a 'good guy versus bad guy' scenario to be nicely emotive about (which is which depending on which side you, or a particular media outlet, happens to be on). It's a very neat narrative to present, but it leaves us as the ones with no strong convictions, perpetually being squeeze in the middle, and it always will.

I think now we need to stop using the language of 'left' and 'right' altogether ourselves, and equally stop using the language of 'the centre'. Being said to be in 'the centre' is utterly meaningless - it creates nothing more than a false impression of non-belief based on a picture of politics that we know to be overly simplistic and often even hugely misleading. At best, it persuades a few people that we can keep things steady when times are good, but that's about the limit of its potential virtue.

We need to make sure we avoid that kind of language and narrative altogether - we need to tell people what we actually stand for, and I think it's actually much simpler than we often seem to assume. Politics isn't simple, as we know - different ideologies need to be seen for what they are, and that isn't something you can do in a soundbite that sums everything up neatly in a word or two. Any slogan that short will inevitably say nothing at all of any use. Was there ever a major party of any colour that, for example, wanted to present itself to the electorate as wanting something other than a 'stronger economy and a fairer society'? Or, for that matter, a 'stronger society and a fairer economy'?! I guess soundbites and slogans are a necessary evil in modern politics to an extent, but we need to do more than that to portray a meaningful image of what we are, and we need to be seen as more meaningful than 'those in the middle guys'.

Of course, the media will be glued to their neat little two-way model, and we, quite rightly, cannot control the media. We can, however, stop using the language of that model ourselves entirely - we can stop just playing into their hands so readily. With every slogan and every soundbite and every interview and ever paper we present, we can avoid being the party of the 'centre ground'. OK, but how do we present ourselves as being distinctive and different in a simple, understandable way that reflects our actual core beliefs, I hear you ask?

We can refer to ourselves constantly as what we are - the party of 'Freedom', the party of 'Liberty' and the party of 'Rights'. That is what we are, when it comes down to it, not the party of 'in the middle'. So what of the other two major parties - how do we paint them as being different from what we are all about - after all, they will, at times, try to use some similar language. Well, the difference is in the contrast between our core belief in individual Liberty and the core belief that the two largest parties share in relative 'government authoritarianism', and that is what we can present clearly an unambiguously every time we open our mouths.

We can, and I think we should, refer to them not (as we previously have) as 'the other two parties', or 'the parties of left and right', or 'the two big parties', but as the 'two authoritarian parties'. It puts us outside of that 'left/right' thing, and completely away from 'being in the centre' - it uses a different political axis, and the one that is actually relevant to the differences between what we believe and what they believe. As much as we cannot control the media, they cannot control us - they might want to stick to their narrative, but they can't stop us from using our own whenever we speak to them, or speak directly to people (in person or via social media). We can change the language that we use. It won't stop the 'left v right' narrative, of course, but it could create another narrative that people will still be able to hear.

Our belief in Liberty and Rights for the individual is what marks us out as unique among the 'traditional' parties, and even among the now wider spectrum of UK politics. We are the party of Freedom, of Liberty, of Individual Rights, of Human Rights, and even of Workers' Rights. They are the parties of government control and authority, of 'Snoopers Charters', of 'ID Cards', of maintaining the Power of the State and the Ruling Classes (whether that be the 'old order' or their own 'new order'!) over the people. We need to present that clearly in the language that we use. We need to stop being 'the party of in the middle of the other two parties', and start standing proud as the party of 'Liberty' against the parties of 'Authoritarianism'.

As it says in the old advert pictured, 'Liberty', and the language of 'Liberty', could for us be 'The Way to Healthy Development'!

(I was going to put a picture of the Statue of Liberty or something, but I thought that would be a little cheesy and predictable. I'm sure you agree that my final sentence wasn't cheesy at all! Yeah....well, OK.....sorry - I just couldn't resist!)

Monday, 13 July 2015

Conservatives consider betraying Churchill!

The system of UK workers paying in to a fund so that they could claim payments if they were sick, among other things, was originally created by the National Insurance Act of 1911. It's been modified since to take it from the original 'sickness benefit' to the current 'Statutory Sick Pay' system, of course, but the principle of National Insurance remains very much the same - workers pay in to an insurance scheme and receive benefits in return when they aren't working (due to sickness or unemployment). Among those who drafted the 1911 Act was one Winston Churchill, then a minister in the Liberal Government, but later, of course, a Tory icon.

According to newspaper reports today, the current Conservative government seems to want to step fundamentally away from this system. Apparently, 'David Cameron is open to idea of workers saving up to fund own sick pay', and the idea seems to be being pushed by the inevitable IDS (now there's a surprise!).

Do they not realise that workers are already doing this? That is what National Insurance IS! That is what it does! That is what it is for! We already have this provision in the UK, and in general it works very well.

So what on earth are they talking about - do they want to start privatising National Insurance in some way? Do they want to step away from the idea of a national scheme where employers also pay a contribution towards such basic benefits? Perhaps that is the key point, I guess - are they wanting to replace NI with a system where contributions only come specifically from an individual employee themselves, to take employers contributions out of the system entirely?

This is obviously an extremely worrying new idea from the Conservatives in many ways, and one that rides roughshod over one a century of treating working people decently via a proper, national, contributory scheme. Not only that, it rides roughshod over the historic achievements of one of their favourite 'sons', even if he was being somewhat 'prodigal' at the time!

We need to have a proper, functioning Welfare State in order to provide the circumstances whereby people are not held back due to circumstances of poor health or unemployment. That is a very basic part of providing a level playing field so that people can have the opportunity to succeed through their own efforts. To dismantle that would threaten the very core of a free and equal society.

Are the Tories really considering going to go that far in dismantling the Welfare State, taking us back over a century to before the achievements of the likes of Lloyd-George and Winston Churchill? What about those of William Beveridge and Nye Bevan - are they next in their sights? Or perhaps, given their apparent desire to trample the great achievements of their own greatest heroes, the next step is to roll back Thatcherism!

It's not government policy...yet! We shall have to wait and see what happens!

Greece and the Treaty of Versailles

On the face of it, there may seem to be little parallel between Greece today and Germany in 1918/9. The entire circumstance of why they are having to deal with their neighbours in the international community of Europe is, of course, very, very different. However, the more time goes on the more I begin to feel that we may be repeating some of the most basic core mistakes of Versailles in the way that we (Europe) are dealing with the Greek situation.

Let's take a quick look back at the situation Greece has got itself into (and I think that we can conclude that it has, as a country, got itself into it, though there are other contributory factors). To put it bluntly, when it comes down to the very basics, it has been spending much more than it has earned in revenue. Now, of course, when fully assessing the history of the problem we have to look at the entire international situation, the banking crisis, and so on - Greece is not an island, so to speak. That's an academic argument, though - the basic fact is that Greece has reached the point it has reached, and we have to deal with the situation that it is now in.

Now I should preface any comments by pointing out that, as usual, I do not claim to have any kind of wondrous expertise or magical insight into economics generally (or anything else, for that matter). That's not why I'm going to say what I'm going to say at all! It's just that I have a growing feeling that the international community is making some fairly basic errors that have had some pretty catastrophic consequences when they have been made in the past.

The basic issue is this - Versailles and its aftermath demonstrated the possible, and indeed likely, results of pushing a people to, and over, the brink in effectively punishing them on an ongoing basis for the actions of their leadership (and even their support of that leadership). People do generally accept that if there are economic problems in a country it might lead to relative hard times and a tightening of belts and so on, but if they are pushed too hard they are understandably going to begin to want to 'fight back'. Pushing too hard creates public resentment and anger, and that is really not a good thing to have on a national scale - it creates the circumstances for a rise in extremism and perhaps even revolutionary politics.

In difficult times, the far right and far left always prosper - they seem to offer a variety of easy and emotionally appealing solutions to the very real problems. When things are good, or even just going OK, most people dismiss their radical ideas as being ludicrous, but as times get harder more and more people are looking for solutions, and more and more people begin to think that they maybe have a point (and historically they have been experts at capitalising on such feelings among the public). We are already beginning to see this kind of effect in the political landscape of Greece, and probably to a greater extent than in the UK, for example (it is certainly happening here to some extent, but not to that extent).

More radical political parties gradually gain momentum as resentment builds, and more radical governments begin to form and start to push against the measures being imposed from outside. As time goes on, it creates conflict with the international community and within the country, with different factions often demanding radically different radical solutions. There can really, I think, be little doubt that this effect, caused by the harsh terms of Versailles on Germany and its consequences for the German people, was a major contributory factor in the rise of a particular breed of politics and government, and all that came from that rise as they sought to make their country 'great again'. When you push a people too hard by grinding them into the ground ecomically, it is, I suspect, almost inevitable that they will try to 'take their country back', and defy those who are (from their perspective) 'oppressing them'.

We have thankfully, not yet reached the point in Greece that was reached in Germany a little under a century ago, but I think we really do need to heed that warning from history. It was a lesson that was learned by 1945 - the conditions imposed on Germany were very much less severe than at the end of the previous war, and rightly so. Instead of 'reparations', the post WWII emphasis was very much on 'reconstruction', and rebuilding a country that had been shattered by war. World leaders had learned from the previous experience of what happens when you harshly punish a people and push them into poverty. We can speculate that it wasn't exactly the most seamless of process, of course, with the dividing of the country for decades and so on, but generally speaking I think it's fair to say that Germany is now in a pretty good place because of it. I'm beginning to fear, though, that some of what was learned by 1945 has now effectively been forgotten.

Of course, it is a different set of circumstances that has led Greece to where it is today, but the basic principle is the same - if what is being done is effectively punishing the people, it could be a very dangerous thing. What I think we need to be doing is emphasising 'reconstruction' far more, and dealing with some of the fairly major long term internal issues that contributed to them being where they are today.

It has, for example, long been noted that some of the southern European countries did not go through the process of meritisation of their state bureaucracies in the way that is so taken for granted in much of the rest of Europe. It has also been noted that, perhaps as a result of this, there have been significant problems with issues like tax collection - to an extent, it's not just that tax rates in Greece haven't been allowing them to pay the bills for what they have been spending, but that too much of that 'theoretical' tax is not actually being paid and collected. This is the kind of issue that the international community needs to be emphasising when it comes to dealing with the Greek situation, in my opinion, rather than just looking at the figures and insisting on very 'austerity' to balance the books. Obviously a case can be made for suggesting that Greece should never have been allowed to enter the Eurozone before sorting out such internal issues, but again that is an academic exercise, because enter it they did.

Of course, some cuts and 'austerity' are ultimately going to be needed, but that's not something that should be rushed, or forced onto Greece in such a way that it massively punishes the people with a short-term economic slamming. It has to be more gradual than that. The people of Greece do need to get used to the idea that they can't go on as they used to do, because there isn't the money to do it, but pushing the country perpetually to the verge of bankruptcy, then pulling them back from the brink at the last second with a 'bailout' that imposes even more harsh financial terms is not the way to go about it. Greece, and its people, need to be given the right kind of long term assistance and opportunity to get themselves out of this situation, rather than being punished for having got into it through demands for repayment that they can't possibly meet without significant hardship.

As much as Greece, and the Greek people, have to accept that there needs to be long term change, Europe has to accept that such change will take time, and may require them also writing off chunks of the Greek debt to allow them to go through that process without the people suffering so much that they fell there is not alternative left but to push back and destabilise the country (and the Eurozone, and the EU as a whole). Whoever is ultimately 'to blame' for the crisis, Europe has to do better at realising that it is going to need to share the responsibility, and costs, of dealing with it in a balanced manner that doesn't decimate Greece and its people. Yes, it is an added cost that Europe as a whole has to accept - the costs of the alternative could be far worse, though.

Europe has to remember the lessons learned through the turbulence of the 20th century. You can't push people too far - they will fight back, and that isn't good news for anybody. We've already seen negative responses from a referendum on bailout terms, and in my opinion that should be taken as a very stark warning about how hard the Greek people are being pushed, and what therefore may possibly be to come if the emphasis doesn't begin to significantly change.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Give a man a fish - a political examination.

OK, so this isn't at all tongue in cheek at all, honest guv! Well, maybe just a little bit (!). The old adage of 'Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime' seems obvious enough, but I thought I'd take a look through the early morning mists on the water to see how it might work according to the core elements and usual practical manifestations of a few different basic political ideologies.

Let's start with Conservatism, and their customary Neo-Liberal economic strategies and maintenance of 'the old order' of power and influence. Obviously, the starting point for that has to be 'Why should we give a man anything - it's up to him to fish for himself, and if he can't that's his problem!'. Teach him to fish??!! Well perhaps, in a moderate Conservative scenario, a little 'help' may be available with the basics of fishing, at a suitable fee, as long as he pays it back (with interest) once he has managed to catch something for himself.

What then, though? Well he is, of course free to fish as much as he likes, in theory, but first he needs a rod and tackle. They are available to buy, and it is us and our friends (the already accomplished and wealthy in fishing terms) who happen to own all of the tackle shops and fishing supply companies. Finance can be used, since you don't have any fish to sell to start off with, so you now have that debt added to your debt from tuition (with appropriate interest fees, calculated to safely cover our all of our risks and exposures to any potential fishing failures). Once you have your rod and stuff, though, away you go....except that we and our wealthy friends obviously also own all of the rivers and fishing grounds, so you will need to pay us a fee - we may allow you to do a limited amount of fishing then (perhaps with finance to start off with, again with a suitable interest fee), but most of the fish is ours, of course. We can fish as much as we like, even if there's none left for you - it's your fault for not having already owned the fishing grounds yourself. How could that be our problem? We have to have control of the fish so that we can sell them to those who are, in our opinion, 'too lazy' to fish for themselves (even if that is because they have got into so much financial trouble that they've had to sell their rod to feed their kids, or simply because there aren't any fish left!).

So the end result is that our man has had to take on bundles of spiralling debt in order to get started, and can only fish a limited amount in order to make it back - he's always going to be running just to stand still, and those already in control of the fishing grounds and tackle shops (and finance companies) are going to do very nicely from him, thank you very much. As are the governing party in the scenario, of course, since they get the benefit of the 'donations' from those with an interest in making absolutely sure that those with the majority of fish and fishing rights keep them. There's a theoretical 'free market' for fishing, but a small number of privileged people/companies seem to be able to control it all, and there's no regulation to stop them because it is the fault of everyone else for not doing better for themselves.

It's not as hard as you might thing to sell the idea to 'the people', of course, since they also have friends in the press who can feed a constant stream of 'look at this lazy guy who won't fish and just expects us to give him fish' scare stories to those who are just about scraping buy with enough to eat (and are afraid of what might happen if there's any change in the system). And that's not to mention the 'them immigrants are going to steal our fish' kind of stories!

To me that doesn't seem like an attractive result, somehow!

So let's try the the Socialist alternative, then - that must be more fair, surely?! 'Redistribution of fish' and all that - sounds good! Now they are obviously starting from a basic point of 'No need for you to learn to fish, we'll do all the fishing for you and just give you the fish that you need anyway'. Of course, you may be able to get a government-sponsored fishing job to enhance your fish supply somewhat, but those in power remain firmly in control of everything remotely scaly, and they decide what fish everyone else might 'deserve'. It's still a kind of 'Give a man a fish every day and he doesn't need to fish for himself' approach.

But what if our man wants to work a bit harder to get more fish, and what if he's a particularly talented fisherman? That doesn't really matter - it's a matter of us deciding what you need, and you being given it. Everyone gets the same amount of fish - you may be able to supplement it by fishing for yourself too, but if anybody somehow gets too much we'll take it off them and give it to those with the least. Sounds fair enough at first, but then it rapidly becomes apparent that lots of people really are getting their fish without putting much effort in, while others who are trying to get more fish for their families are getting slammed for it at every turn. There's no real incentive to fish - quite the opposite, really. That's not really great for anyone, since overall fishing production will inevitably progressively spiral downwards.

So who is doing well out of this system? Somehow or other it seems to work out that there's a group in charge of dishing out the fish who, from top to bottom of the system, manage to cream off a little extra for themselves. The higher up the chain of command they are, the more fish they seem to get - those at the top have it coming out of their ears, so to speak. It's all theoretically nice and 'equal' through the 'redistribution of fish;, but since those who want to do well for themselves are effectively limited by the system, they seem to have worked out that the best approach for them is to actually be the people running the system (either by being in charge of fishing or by being in charge of negotiating terms with those who are in charge of fishing). Strange how it always seems to work out that way, sooner or later. And as the fish stocks get depleted over time, and they dish out less and less fish to everyone else, they take tighter and tighter control of the system (and society as a whole) to prevent anyone from threatening their position.

So one powerful group ultimately ends up in control of the fish - that sounds hauntingly familiar!

So, on to Liberalism, then.

Where do we start? How about the most obvious solution, by just 'teaching a man to fish', and giving him some help to get his first fishing rod so that he can get on with it. Of course, there are always some limits to resources, some of that might be through funding to be paid back (especially if he wants a really swanky rod with all the best gear!), but only at a very low rate of interest at most, and only to be paid back at a slow rate once he's getting enough fish that he can do so reasonably comfortably (and if he never manages to do quite well enough to pay it off fully, so be it).

It's up to him how much fishing he decides to do after that, of course - he's best placed to decide how much fish he needs, and whether he wants to catch extra fish to sell to others who might prefer to buy it than do so much of their own fishing. What of the 'big boys', though? Well of course there's no problem with people forming companies and working together to do fishing and provide fish to sell - that's fine, and they should be able to make a decent living out of it, if they do it well, and without being punished for their efforts. They do need to pay their fair share towards society, of course, to help with the costs of future fishing-learners, those who have fallen on temporary hard times, and those who are genuinely unable to fish for themselves. That's only right, but it shouldn't be at a punitive level for anybody.

There has to be some regulation of the fishing grounds, though, so that they can't keep anybody else from doing their own reasonable personal fishing, or even from forming their own competitor fishing companies to challenge the existing ones. That keeps the whole business of fishing fair and competitive for everyone (and at a realistic and affordable level for the fish consumers) - those who work hard and do well can do well for themselves, but not by manipulating the fishing grounds and preventing anybody else from doing the same. There also, of course, have to be some regulations to ensure that there isn't any over-fishing by anybody, so that the fish stock is maintained for everyone, and their children and grandchildren. We have to take a long-term view of the whole fishing system, and do so according to the evidence of what fishing levels are sustainable (while obviously exploring other food alternatives in a similar way).

So what's the problem, then - isn't that the obvious best solution for everyone? You'd think so, but those who do best out of the alternative systems obviously don't, and since those are the people who inevitably tend to have powerful and influential friends who would also do well from the alternatives they're going to do their utmost to discredit such a system at every turn to try to put people off from choosing it. They are always going to want to muddy the fishing waters, so to speak, so that everyone thinks they are best served by serving their preferred alternative.  It's probably made somewhat easier by always presenting a simplistic 'either/or' narrative between the two 'radical' systems, and painting the third way as some kind of 'wishy-washy' compromise that is neither one thing nor the other. It's always in the interest of both 'sides' to squeeze what they paint as 'the middle' so that people don't really understand what their solution to the problem is, and that is something the 'teach a man to fish' brigade are going to need to overcome somehow.

Oh, and a final word about a fourth group - those who want to separate their fishing grounds from everybody else's fishing grounds, and keep all the fish of their local fishing grounds entirely for their local people and away from anybody else's waters. can swim! 'Nuff said, I think.

So there we have it. An honest, serious and evidence-based assessment of the old proverb, without any hint of any kind of bias at all, honest. Judge for yourselves which version you prefer!

Monday, 6 July 2015

Community Politics in Modern Britain

Over the years, the Liberal Democrats have quite rightly been proud of our record of 'Community Politics'. However, the nature of 'community' has, I believe, changed a great deal, and we need to consider the implications and opportunities of that massive social change.

We all know that there is an army of party activists (elected, unelected, and hopefully at some point to be elected) working really hard all year round in their local areas, helping people with all kinds of problems from personal difficulties with council policies and procedures to the inevitable potholes. They do such valuable work in getting people in their area to understand that 'politicians' and 'political parties' do not have to be 'remote' figures, separated from the 'real world' and their issues, and can actually be hard working people willing and able to help them with problems, and help hold others to account. It's hugely important work, and we shouldn't ever underestimate that.

However, 'community' is not quite as it used to be in the modern world. There was a time when 'community' meant more-or-less your village, or your street, or something similar. People lived together, worked together, played together and socialised together, all the time talking about issues between themselves as a tight-knit local group. That is very often now not the case to anything like the same extent - many people do not really know many of their neighbours, they work separately from them, socialise separately from them, and do not necessarily share very much in common with the people in their immediate locality. Accordingly, that localised word-of-mouth that used to be so common is very often no longer there (although in some cases, especially in rural communities, it can be, of course). As much as some might bemoan such a change, there's no turning back the clock.

So what has happened? Well, quite simply, the modern world and technology has happened. People no longer live within walking distance of work, for example. Likewise they aren't restricted to social activities that are within walking distance of home. The meet and talk with a much greater variety of people through their daily lives as a result, and form many of their friendships based on things other than locality and family ties. That's just one kind of change, just due to improved transport and the way it has effected virtually all of our lives - there are many others.

Another that might not immediately be obvious is just the huge increase in University education - many more people leave their home towns and, as they make friends, also immediately have a network of old friends spread all over the UK. The internet is another huge social change that we cannot underestimate, of course. People now have friendships due to shared interests across the country, and across the world. Where once their interests would be shaped by their local community, now their 'communities' (and most people will be a member of many 'communities') are much more shaped by their interests.

As a result of these changes, where the humble filling of a pothole was once something that word of mouth carried around a local area, with everybody knowing who had helped get it sorted, that is no longer the case. Of course, people can learn of it via leaflets, but they will often (even if they read the leaflet, and we know that many people don't) no longer be discussing the leaflet 'over the garden wall', so to speak. Is this a massive problem that sounds the death knell for the idea of 'community politics'?

I'm going to say that it is more a massive opportunity, but one we have to recognise and take. As much as potholes are a serious nuisance, and as much as getting them fixed is still vital work, in all honesty it's very difficult to define them as being fundamentally 'illiberal' things in themselves! Fixing potholes might attract potential supporters and voters to a certain individual or group who are seen to be working hard within a local area, but it doesn't really do much to attract people to 'Liberalism' itself, or the core ideals of the party. Building up a level of personal support in that way is a very good thing, of course, but it isn't enough to bring people to us on a wider basis - we need to actually 'turn people on' to what it is we Liberals actually stand for. We're not going to get widely elected on a national platform that mostly consists of 'Ban The Pothole'!

Indeed, recent events do, I think, shine a light on the fact that we can't any longer rely on 'working hard all year round' and having candidates who are personally popular for the local work they do. We have to do more to appeal to those people who actually think like we think to ensure that they understand what it is we think (which we know many don't, of course) and support us as a result. In fact, if we can do better in that sense we might find it easier to convert some of those naturally 'Liberal-minded' people into members and volunteers in a way that is harder with someone who may thank us for dealing with their pothole, but doesn't actually agree with us on other things. I suspect there is a whole army of untapped 'human resource' (to lapse into modern business speak for a moment!) who are really 'Liberals', but don't really necessarily that that is the name for the kind of way that they think, and that we are the only UK party who also think that way.

So how do we find these people? Well, the same changes that have allowed them to form 'communities' beyond their own immediate vicinity also provide us the tools to get our messages out to them, specifically in the form of 'Social Media'. Personally, I think that the opportunities of social media have not been exploited to anything like their full potential so far, because we haven't really come to terms with this modern idea of 'community'. We have, of course, spent a great deal of time creating and sharing content around through social media, but there is always a great danger in assuming that anybody outside our existing circle (or 'Lib Dem Community', so to speak) has actually really noticed!

As a self-published author myself, I know that there is a similar issue with promoting self-published books via social media - lots of people spend time re-tweeting and sharing each others posts to send them flying about the internet, but they are really only ever flying between that same closed group of people. People don't sell books that way (and many authors realise this, of course - it's a well-known phenomenon in that particular community!) - they just get nice statistics of hundreds of re-tweets that pretty much nobody's actually read at all!

We have to understand that many of the posts we have been sharing have only been shared to ourselves. Our non-Liberal friends have usually ignored them as 'yet another bit of political stuff from Cen (or whoever)'. Now and again there will be a response to a particular thing, because it speaks to a particular group of friends on a specific issue. For example, if I post something about dogs, as a member of a couple of 'internet communities' relating to dog issues, I know that some people will 'like' and/or 'share' it. I can predict almost exactly who those people will be, too. The same with other groups of my friends, and I know I'm not unique in that - most people have internet groups of friends who might all be 'on their friends list', but are actually separated into groups from this activity and groups from that activity. That's how things work now - people have their interests, and it is their interests that we need to speak to via social media.

So how do we do that? Not by creating content on 'big issues' to share that we think everyone will like and send spinning around social media - that's not going to work, because almost nobody's going to take any notice, and it's not going to get past ourselves. We need to go back to the basics of 'community politics' itself - doing things that are only of interest to a small community so that that community will share it between themselves and think positively of us and what we are saying. Just like the local fixed pothole, we need the word to be spreading just among that relatively small community rather that trying to speak to everyone in the UK at once (including those who have no interest in what we stand for anyway). Of course, that won't win us 'local' votes in a concentrated way, but we have to recognise that this form of 'community politics' is all about attracting the Liberal-minded wherever they may be in the UK. As 'community' has changed (especially, but certainly not exclusively, among the younger population), social media has effectively become 'the new word of mouth'.

What we need to do is identify those communities, or sections of communities, who we think may contain a high percentage of naturally 'Liberal Minded' people, and talk about an issue that will interest them and that is related to our core values of Liberalism. We need to find those issues that 'the public at large' really don't care much about, but that are important to particular groups. then we need to target those groups (through our own people who may be involved with them, and by using well-targeted advertising) to tell them that we are interested in their issue, even if it's not an issue that the press are ever likely to be reporting very much (or in the terms they think they should). We need to spread that specific message to the interested, but when we talk about it (in a web page, or whatever), always tie it back to Liberalism and what we as a party stand for, and give them other related issues to consider - 'we agree with us on that, do you agree with us on this?' kind of thing, knowing that some (the most Liberal among them) probably will. In that way we can draw them into our wider thinking, and hopefully gain their support (and possibly more) when they realise that we think along the same lines they do.

As an example (going back to dogs), we don't often talk about the illiberal and unjust nature of the Dangerous Dogs Act, and the concept of Breed Specific Legislation. Without going into details here, opposing it is an issue that is very easy to tie in to our Liberal values! Most of the population, of course don't agree or don't care. Even most dog owners don't. Any petition on the issue would be likely to be small in terms of raw numbers. There is, however, a group of people, often those interested in dog behaviour and training, dog rescue, and such issues, who care very deeply about it, and they care because they think it is wrong and unjust. They don't necessarily consider the term 'illiberal' in the way that we probably would, but it's very much their thinking - many of those are likely to be naturally 'Liberal', if only they knew it. If we can get 'their message' spinning around that section of their community, we can draw them into understanding why we are likely to agree on it. At the moment, they often don't see the correlation between their opinions on their issue and our general core values and principles. That link is there, though, and we can draw them into that understanding.

Another example could be the issue of 'Alternative Subcultures', and bullying, discrimination and even hate crimes related to people who choose to dress differently and listen to different music. To the vast majority of people in the UK, it's a total non-issue - after all, who cares about 'them wierdos'?! To those who are involved in those various 'communities', though, it's a huge ongoing issue that they care passionately about (and an issue that not many people seem to be very interested in). Many of them are naturally 'liberal-minded', and interested in other Liberal issues of diversity, equality, and so on. Those are just two examples that I happen to know about (because I happen to be involved with communities that are concerned with them) - there are undoubtedly many, many more such issues out there.

Obviously each such issue, and each such community, just like the old form of local 'community politics', is only likely to gain us a handful of genuine, long-term supporters who realise that they believe in what we stand for. It is still what I think we have to do if we are going to move forward as a party - we need to get into communities and show them what we are all about in the way we always have, and we need to do that in a way that emphasises our core ideals and brings the liberal-minded to the only liberal-minded party. In my opinion, although we have done fine community work for many years, we need to get better at identifying and targeting issues that are only of interest to particular communities, and we need to get better at tying everything we do into our core Liberal ideals so that people understand why we are talking about their issue (and therefore why they might agree with us on other issues).

Community has changed. Community politics needs to change. Social Media is the new Word of Mouth, and we need to use that to our advantage so that we can show the Liberal-minded that we are the natural party for them. That doesn't mean abandoning our old ideals of working hard locally, of course, but it does mean that there is another avenue for community politics that I think that we need to be thinking about.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Challenges for the Modern Town Centre

Over the course of the General Election campaign in Llanelli (where I was the Lib Dem candidate), I was asked about the issue and challenge of the Town Centre. This was, I'm sure, partly related to stories like this one suggesting that Llanelli was the 'second worst' town centre in the UK. Now that is certainly more than a little bit on the harsh side, I think, but but Llanelli, like other towns in South Wales and across the UK as a whole, definitely has some challenges to come to terms with in the modern world. I did make some inevitably brief press comments about Llanelli having to ensure that any available development money is spent wisely, and about the town needing to find its own 'USP' (Unique Selling Point), and I think that the same is very much true for all of our towns and cities. Since I have now joined the ranks of the 'bloggers', I'd now like to take the opportunity to expand a little on what I meant by that.

Firstly, we have to look back, I think, and understand a little of the process of urbanisation that created our towns as the retail centres for their areas. Without delving too far into the history books, the relevant part of the process is really a fairly simple one - in essence, people needed to buy and sell goods in a place they could get to with the transport they had. As towns grew through the Industrial Revolution, they had an increasing number of people who needed that retail service increasingly, since they no longer worked on farms and/or grew their own food to the same extent. As the market for luxuries became more common through the 20th Century, the retail sections of towns expanded in their size and scope - what had perhaps at one time been 'market towns' and/or 'industrial towns' became also increasingly 'shopping centres'. Getting any further than the town they were in, or the town most local to them, was still a massive task, so that is where they went - the towns thrived as centres of local retail for the people of the surrounding area, and expanded their capacity for that accordingly. That's all pretty straightforward.

However, things have changed a great deal in the last half century or so. Transport progressively became so commonly accessible, fast and hassle-free that that need for 'local towns for local people' (no, don't read that in a 'League of Gentlemen' voice in your mind - you know that's not what I mean!) has all but disappeared from the equation. The growth of the out of town shopping centre, with its easy and free parking facilities, really has decimated our town centres. People don't have to go to their local town, they can go to any town or city in the area to get the shopping and/or visiting experience that they want at any time. If they are living in, or near, Llanelli, or Neath, or Port Talbot, they can easily go to Swansea, or Cardiff - those towns will never compete on pure shopping terms with their larger neighbours. We can't turn the clock back, so how do we move forward in a way that will 'bring people back into town'?

Well the first thing, I would say, is to forget that idea of 'bringing people back' altogether. We won't. We can't. It ain't going to happen. Shopping habits have changed, and barring some kind of cataclysm that removes our ability to drive they are never remotely likely to change back. We can't turn the clock back on transport, and we can't wind it back to a time before 'out of town shopping' either. So who is going to use our towns now, if not those local people who used to?

Town centres are now, I think, really going to have to offer something different and distinctive to attract people from a wider area, probably on a more occasional basis, rather than relying on local people habitually doing their shopping 'in town' instead of at the big supermarket or superstore. It requires a complete change in thinking on the part of everyone involved. No longer is it enough to 'refurbish' and 'make it look nice', or just tinker around the edges with parking charges and the like - instead it has to be 'unique' and 'distinctive', and that is something that many (most, in fact) of our town centres seem to be largely failing to do.

Think of it this way - if you stand in the centre of your local town, wherever that might be, how do you know where you are? OK, pretend that it's unfamiliar - what is screaming that town's identity to you? Indeed, as an example, how would you know which town has its pavement pictured in this blog?! What makes it 'different' from the next town in the area, or a town in a different area? If I stand in Llanelli, or Neath, or Port Talbot, or Bridgend, or wherever, how does it 'feel'? What is it's 'identity'? When I leave, what is the atmosphere and experience offering that is going to make me think 'I have to go back there'? What is going to make me tell my friends 'you should go and visit that town - it's great'?

It's about much more than just putting in a nice new pavement that is just the same as the nice new pavement in half of the other towns in the region. Currently, Neath, Port Talbot, Bridgend and Llanelli (for example) have generally pretty similar styles and layouts of paving, broadly speaking. Why? It's quite nice paving, of course, where it has been recently refurbished, but it's all pretty much the same kind of paving as everyone else has (yes, I know about such things costing money, and 'different' things possibly costing more money, but I also know about the idea of 'investment'!). It's about much more than 'having some good shops', too. It has to be a whole coherent plan of making a town scream its identity at the visitor in every way that it can - through civic 'installations', aesthetics, atmospherics and also distinctive businesses - it needs everyone to buy into the whole process and work together.

Of course, it takes money, but there are sources of money available (even if they are never enough!), and wise investment brings visitors that bring and spend money to enable further investment - it's about more than that, though. There has to be a whole planning process involved, and a holistic approach that involves local people, businesses, councils, elected representatives, etc., etc., all working together towards the same goal of giving the town a specific and identifiable identity to attract visitors (and no, I certainly don't mean a 'corporate identity' for the road signs, purchased at great expense from some London consultancy firm!), and then progressively building on that and developing the town on that basis. It doesn't have to be 'cheesy' or 'tacky', obviously, and indeed it's far better if it isn't! It just needs to offer something 'unique' (for that area, at least) in terms of visitor/customer experience.

To put it another way, in order to thrive in the modern world of easy transport, every town has to find its own 'niche'. There is no longer any point in any town just trying to by 'the local town', or 'a nice town' - it has to be a 'something' town to attract people, decide what that 'something' is going to be, and present it in an appealing manner that brings people in and keeps them coming back whenever they want that thing that the town is offering. It's about presenting that 'something' to make visiting that town a unique experience, encouraging businesses that use and enhance that 'something' in the way that they operate, enhancing that 'something' with every new development (private or public), and so on.

Let's take an example, if a slightly odd one that isn't necessarily directly comparable to our former industrial towns in particular - the town of Hay-on-Wye is world famous, and visited by huge numbers of people from lots of different places every year. Why is that? Is it because it's the 'local town'? Clearly not! Is it because it's a 'nice town'? Well it is a nice town, but that's not primarily why people go there (and being a 'nice town' is very much easier when you are attracting lots of business, of course - a successful 'niche' naturally attracts supporting businesses to offer all the things that visitors want). It is because it has a long-defined and easily identifiable (when you set foot in the place) 'niche'. It's that 'book town' - it's full of second hand book shops, has a major literature festival to compliment that, and so on - you can't miss that as soon as you open your eyes in any street in the town. People go there specifically for that identity, go away thinking that they want to come back, and tell their friends that going there is an experience that they should try.

Now I'm not suggesting that Port Talbot or Neath or Llanelli suddenly try to become book towns or whatever, of course, but they have to find some kind of 'niche' for themselves that sets them apart from their neighbours in some way, so that people want to visit to get/experience that particular 'thing'. They can't do that in isolation, all making similar decisions, because that just makes them direct competition for each other, and they will all lose out especially since they have the much larger settlement of Swansea between them (and Cardiff not far away, in modern transport terms). So what can each of them do to attract, for example, those Swansea (and even Cardiff) people to come to their town from time to time? They each have to offer something that is different from just being 'a town' (since they will never compete successfully on that score in pure shopping terms with Swansea itself), and different from each other. They all have to work together to each find their own 'niche' - that is where their new 'market' for customers and visitors is, not the 'captive audience' it used to be in the immediate local area.

Now I don't pretend to know what the right niche for each (or any!) of those towns is - that's something they need to decide for themselves. They can look at different ideas of food, or arts, or sports, or music, or particular areas of business, or heritage, or whatever. It's up to them to identify what does, or can, make their town 'special', and 'different' from their neighbours, respecting at the same time that they need to work together to make sure they are not all trying to be 'special' in the same way.We need to develop much greater diversity among our towns.

There's not much point, for example, in Neath having a 'food festival' and a particular type of  'music festival' over the summer to attract business from the whole area if Llanelli is doing exactly the same things a week or so later - it will divide the local market for each event (since lots of people will inevitably choose to go to one or the other), and BOTH will lose out in terms of the success of their events. Why not work together, and have all of the music in one place and all of the food in the other? Why not make one a 'music town' and the other a 'food town', and build the atmosphere and business up for each on that basis? OK, that's far too simplistic an example to work effectively, but the principle is a fairly simple one - the towns of a region have to understand that they are not wanting to be in direct competition with each other, but that they should actually do things to complement each other, knowing that people will visit one town one week and the other next week (or the people interested in one thing will go to one place, and those interested in the other will go to the other, and from a wider area than their traditional 'home town' locality).

At the moment, across South Wales (and beyond) we have virtually 'identikit' towns, all trying to do pretty much the same thing as each other in the same ways as each other in the same kind of ways. I think they are very often kind of missing the point that they are trying to attract local business that no longer exists for them, while also missing the point that they are now all directly competing with each other in a way that they should all be trying to avoid doing. All of our towns are struggling to attract business and visitors. I think perhaps its time for them to realise that the world has changed, and to begin to form their developments in a way that meets the needs and opportunities of the 21st century. In my opinion, in the modern world each and every town now needs to work much harder to find, and build on, their own individual identity. I don't think it's anywhere near impossible to do successfully (though of course it will be a challenge), but I do think we all need to understand that that is what needs to be done.

Binge drinking and the drinking age obsession

OK, let's be honest here. For most of us who are 'of a certain age', we grew up in an era when the laws on underage drinking were not enforced with the rigour that they are today. Although going to a pub and drinking was not allowed for anyone under 18, the reality was that if you looked about 18-ish-or-so you were probably going to get served in many places without question. Indeed, we knew the kind of places where we were most likely to be checked or refused - town centres, night clubs and so on. In the 'local' pubs (assuming the landlord didn't know our parents and therefore our age!), things were generally likely to be pretty lax.

This has changed completely, and we have reached a point where in some places anybody who looks as if they might be under 25 (in most places it is 21) gets their ID checked just in case someone under the age of 18 slips past and gets themselves an illicit pint. Is that not just a little over the top?! We have effectively encouraged and atmosphere of 'not 18 until tomorrow? Alcohol is evil and bad and you must not touch a drop' followed the very next day with 'it's your 18th? Come in, drink as much as you like - look at our great offers on spirits...etc.'. Over the same period, we have seen a general rise in the 'binge drinking culture', and a general change in the social attitudes of many away from responsible 'social drinking' (and the 'local' pubs have suffered as a result, since they don't usually provide the same level of  'binge drinking service' as town centre bars and clubs). I think we have to question whether these things might actually be linked in some way.

Let's consider the formative drinking experiences of people around my age (mid 40s - it's OK, I'll admit it!) - of course there were some parties and some over-indulgence (and even some 'having a few cans in the park' from time to time), but actually much of that teenage early learning about alcohol and how to use it was taking place in local pubs. We were able to go to the pub, sit down with a pint in a calm and monitored atmosphere under the watchful eye of staff and adult peers who would stop anything from getting out of hand. The people around us were mostly 'social drinkers', popping out for a few pints and a friendly chat rather than 'getting hammered' and 'partying all night'. That is what we were influenced by, and what we learned to be the 'normal' way of enjoying alcohol. Of course, there were some very drunk people and some trouble-makers from time to time in the pubs, but they were usually a pain in the backside to us (as much as everyone else there for a social drink) who quickly got thrown out.

Contrast that with the formative experiences of today's under 18s - that kind of experience of social drinking is now no longer available. Of course there are some who will go to the pub with their parents occasionally without drinking, drink safely and moderately under parental supervision at home, and so on, but society still says that them drinking is 'taboo'. What better way is there to make a teenager want to do something than to make it 'taboo' in that way?! It is, of course, nonsense to think that under 18s can't get hold of alcohol at all - the reality is that they can and they will, no matter what we do to try to stop them. If we can't stop them, how about we let them do it in a reasonable and responsible atmosphere?!

I am a parent of a 17 year old (and also of a 22 year old). Would I rather he were going to the local pub and having a few quiet drinks with friends in a supervised and responsible adult atmosphere, or would I prefer that he was in the park drinking strong cider and doing drinking dares with a bottle of spirits that one of the group has managed to get hold of from somewhere? For me there's no contest! As it happens in my case he works in a pub kitchen with his mother anyway (as did his elder sibling), so thankfully it isn't an issue, but for many others really it is.

Indeed, beyond that would I rather he was learning that spirits, shorts, over-stength ciders and alcopops are great because you get really drunk really quickly, or learning that a pint lasts longer and provides better value for money to sip and enjoy while you are sitting having a chat with your mates over the course of an evening out. That's an important issue, too - in a local pub scenario where socialising is the priority rather than just getting as wasted as possible as quickly asd possible, I suspect people learn quite quickly that a few pints of draught beer or cider makes your money go further, and gives you a more enjoyable evening overall, than drinking double vodkas that disappear in a couple of minutes.

Much has been said about comparing our drinking culture in the UK with that of other European countries where alcohol is equally commonly used, but where the issues of binge drinking are much less. I think most people now acknowledge that a major difference is the way in which young people grow up around moderate alcohol consumption being a perfectly normal part of their social experience in a way which it is often not in the UK.

We have to consider, I believe, what kind of messages we are inadvertently sending with our current system - we are allowing our young people to think of alcohol as 'taboo' and therefore 'cool' (yes, I know - people my age shouldn't say 'cool' - I promise I'll steer clear of 'swell', 'groovy' and being a 'hep cat'!). We are promoting alcohol as something that is too dangerous and 'edgy' for them to be allowed to drink even in a relatively controlled atmosphere. The inevitably result of that is that they are going to try every way that they can to drink it in an uncontrolled atmosphere, and I'm going to suggest that there is then a strong likelihood of them continuing beyond their 18th birthday with that habit of uncontrolled drinking.

So how can we deal with that? Should we just go back to generally ignoring the law? I don't actually think that that is a good lesson for teenagers to learn either! There is currently (rightly, in my opinion) a strong move towards defining 16 year olds as sufficiently responsible to be able to cast a vote in elections. Why do we not extend that principle? If they can be trusted to vote, can they not be trusted to have a quiet pint of an evening, if we give them a suitable place to learn to do that responsibly?

Now I'm not suggesting a blanket lowering of the drinking age - far from it. Allowing 16 year olds to head for town to go clubbing isn't exactly going to help in the way I'm suggesting, and nor is popping to Tesco for a bottle of Value Vodka! What I'm talking about is having a different licensing definition for 'local pubs', as opposed to town centre bars and clubs, and allowing 16 year olds to drink in those local pubs in a safe and responsible atmosphere (perhaps with specific additional licensing requirements that '16+' pubs have to meet regarding staff training, operating procedures and so on). That would, of course, have a potential positive effect on the issue of so many local pubs going out of business, but that's really only an added bonus.

My main concern is that we are being so overly strict with our teenagers that we are pushing them into a dangerous form of rebellion that creates a set of attitudes that continue into their adult lives. We should be allowing them to learn, in a suitable place, that there's nothing wrong with moderate and responsible social drinking, instead of teaching them that alcohol is so dangerous that they mustn't touch a drop until they are able to go and binge on as much as they can get their hands on. We shouldn't be making their drinking influences and 'heroes' the lad down the park who can down a bottle of cheap vodka and pass out in quite the way that I suspect we currently inadvertently are.

We have to address the issues of the binge drinking culture in the UK, and I think we should try to do that in a Liberal way of encouraging personal responsibility rather than trying to impose and enforce more and more draconian rules and regulations. As I recall one TV doctor saying, 'everything in moderation, including moderation' - we will never stop people having a night out that goes a bit over the top, but I think that people who grow up to understand that drinking is something to do moderately and socially rather than it being effectively socially essential to get hammered every time you go out are likely to do it less often, and even handle it better when it does happen. We won't change things overnight with this kind of solution, and nor will it solve all of our problems with alcohol consumption in the longer term, but what I think it might do is start to bring about a change in social attitudes among the young back towards moderate social drinking and away from the current binging.

By telling teenagers who are old enough to do all of the things that 16 year olds are allowed to do (including, perhaps, vote) that we can't trust them to have a moderate social drink in their local pub, I believe we are sending them the wrong message. We are banning them from 'the fun', so that they yearn to 'take the fun to the maximum' whenever and however they can, and to continue doing so when they finally get unrestricted access to it. How about we show just enough trust in them to let them learn about drinking in a responsible way, in a controlled atmosphere, and before they are given the key to the full drinking cupboard, so to speak, at 18.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Gilbert & Sullivan - Traditional V. Modern

OK, so this post is something distinctly non-political, for a change. As someone who grew up around Gilbert and Sullivan amateur productions, and who has performed in such productions of all of their (still existing - I've never done a Thespis) works, this is, you could say, a subject of lifelong interest (quite literally!) for me.

For many, many years there have been arguments going on about how much, if at all, productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas can or should be 'modernised', and what kinds of 'modernisation' are 'acceptable'. I've engaged in such discussions many times, both with fellow G&S-type people locally and in the virtual sphere (mainly via the old Savoynet email list), and they can get pretty heated, believe it or not! Some people are very passionate about protecting their beloved Savoy operas from being 'fiddled about with', and others can be equally passionate about making changes of various kinds, perhaps in order to try to make them more appealing to the modern audience.

We've seen various attempts at 'modern' productions professionally, of course, from the musically re-orchestrated and 'jazzed-up', to the ones taking place on wierd but apparently 'artistic' set constructions, to the ones set somewhere other than where the libretto says they are set. There have also been many little things added and altered over the years in various amateur productions. Some of these things are popular among some, many are less than popular among the 'G&S purists'.

My personal feeling has always been that many of the professional 'updates' have simply been entirely unnecessary - they just haven't really added anything of value to that production. They have been change for changes sake, so to speak. Why change the orchestration - what's wrong with the way Sullivan wrote it? Why have it take place on a sloping and undulating bare set - what does that add? Why set Mikado, for example, in 'not Japan' when the lib says that it is in Japan (even if it is a pretty unconvincing Victorian facsimile/caricature of the country!) - what is that saying that is of any value to the production? I always think that these kind of things are just superficial layers, usually just being added over otherwise fairly traditional script interpretations, to make something seem 'new and different' for the sake of doing that. There's no really value added for the production - it's just an excuse for using different sets and costumes (or in the case of the first example, possibly sometimes performers who can't really sing what they need to in order to play the part!).

That doesn't mean I fall into the camp of the 'traditionalists', though - certainly not! However, if a director has reached the point of boredom with Gilbert's scripts that they feel the need to play about in such superficial ways just to relieve the monotony of the same century-old material, perhaps they ought to look for something else to direct! Gilbert was not just a fine writer of neat little comedy songs (that's a bit like dismissing Sullivan as a composer because he could write the 'rumpty-tumpty' stuff when he needed to leave Gilbert's words clearly audible, which many sadly do) - the scripts he wrote actually have a great deal of depth that can be drawn out of them if only someone were to take the time to do that instead of just buying some no doubt pretty, but largely unsuitable to the original setting, new dresses for the chorus.

 When a modern director takes on a Shakespeare play, he or she often goes through the script carefully, considering the characters and how he or she can bring them to life in a 'believable' way for the audience. That's the kind of approach to modernisation that I don't think we see enough of in G&S productions - character development and presentation in a way that is based entirely on the script rather than on the century of tradition about who the characters are. There are many characters that can be presented in entirely (or subtly) different ways from the traditional interpretations by essentially changing only the way they say the lines and interact with each other. 

For example, it has often been speculated that the Mikado could be presented with Nanki-Poo as the villain of the piece (without changing settings, costumes, etc.). Most arch-traditionalists hate the idea, of course, but many modernists shy away from taking it beyond a theoretical argument and onto the stage. Now I do remember discussing this many years ago on Savoynet emails, and actually getting the arch modernisers and traditionalists to gang up on me (not nastily, I hasten to add!) when I suggested that not only could it be done but that people should actually do it. I don't mean create a 'new tradition' for everyone to follow, of course, but merely that we shouldn't shy away from doing such things. The old 'book' should no longer be seen as somehow 'sacred' when it comes to productions, and that should extend to character interpretation, in my view.

Gilbert was an accomplished playwrite, and he know that his scripts would be open to interpretation by future directors - indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that he welcomed direction that didn't religiously follow what he had himself done with the works. He wrote many characters with different sides to them that aren't really fully explored in the traditional production, and Nanki-Poo is certainly one of those. The whole piece can be turned on its head by bringing out those other sides of various characters with in it and having them interact accordingly, and without having to change the script or the setting.

Although these are, of course, comic works, in order to do that successfully I think you have to 'play it straight' rather than make some kind of cheesy 'shock statement'. To use another example, Pirates can, in my opinion, be turned on its head by making Mabel into a dominant and manipulative (and possibly less attractive!) character (and Frederick into a bit of a wimp being caught in a trap of his own duty to her). Now you could do that by actually making Mabel a whips-and-chains dominatrix kind of character, but I don't really think that kind of 'shock tactic' is necessary, or as interesting. Indeed, I think it would detract from the actual character re-interpretation that the director is (or should be) trying to achieve.

My point, though, is that 'modernisation' in the sense of bringing new life to the material doesn't have to mean 'modernisation' in the sense of 'trying to make it more modern' by fiddling with costumes and settings in a way that isn't true to the original script. That's not to say that such changes of setting can't work well, of course - for example, I was in a production some years ago of Utopia, Ltd which was set in a small island somewhere off the coast of Wales rather than in the traditional vaguely South Pacific setting. That worked extremely well, in my opinion, because it actually added an extra dimension to play with without losing any of the sense of the script itself and how it worked overall. In other words, there was a viable dimension and point to it beyond a vague 'hey, let's modernise it' whim of change for change's sake. I also have no issue with updating the words to the odd verse or song here and there - G&S was 'satirical' in its day, and some of those references can very easily and effectively be updated.

What I'm trying to say, I guess, is that there is nothing wrong with a new G&S production being different from previous productions. Nothing wrong at all, in fact - it's something that should be welcomed, and that everyone involved at every level should by striving to achieve successfully. To me there seems to be little point in presenting a 'museum piece' (unless it is actually a fully researched and precise 'museum piece' of the details of the original production - that in itself could be quite an interesting exercise, of course). There's little point in an amateur society, for example, just doing the same old visual gags in an endlessly repeated decade-or-so separated round of productions that barely change at all. We've all seen those old productions (and if I see another presentation of the same old 'broken fans' gag I think I might actually scream!), and if we haven't I'm sure there's no shortage of videos! There should always be new ideas and new life brought in, but there are so many ways to do that without resorting to cheap 'modernisation' tactics that add little and potentially detract a great deal.

So, to sum up, go back to basics - Who are the characters? How do they (or can they) interact? How can I draw something different from the script? etc., etc. - before falling back on tacky techniques of changing the costumes and setting it somewhere where it isn't actually set. Forget the 'traditions'....all of them, pretty much! Think about everything, but make sure that you are always trying to add value by bringing out a new element rather than just trying to make it superficially seem 'different'. That is how we will get real diversity into our G&S productions without just ruining the works themselves by trying to impose something entirely different and inappropriate on top of them just to 'change things because we can and we're bored'!