6. Conrad Russell (1999), An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism
After the 2015 General Election, various Lib Dems shared lists of reading recommendations in the spirit of fuelling a #LibDemFightback. This one seemed the most universally-recommended, so I got it out of the University library and read it. It is indeed a very good articulation of what liberalism is about today (or was at the time of publication), and how it has evolved from its earliest recognisable origins in Whig opposition to James II’s interference in parliamentary autonomy through a series of different issues (religion, economics, personal freedoms, the environment etc.) as UK politics has changed over the centuries. I found the chapter on economics the most interesting and helpful for clarifying my own understanding of liberalism. Broadly, it points out that liberalism does not really have a clear default economic position in the way that (say) socialism does, because it initially evolved in a context where the main dividing lines in politics were not economic ones, but others – primarily religion. But because liberalism is essentially about the redistribution of power from those who are hoarding big chunks of it to those who don’t have any, it isn’t too hard to translate this to economic forms of power, and indeed there are plenty of early examples of liberals siding with the economically-exploited over their exploiters – e.g. Whig involvement in passing laws for the ten-hour working day in the mid-19th century. This in turn opens the door for a vision of liberal economics which is much more about cooperatives, mutuals, trade unions, breaking up monopolies and cartels, encouraging entrepreneurialism and ensuring level playing fields than the laissez faire approach often described as ‘classical liberalism’. I would love that vision to be more deeply embedded and widely understood in the Liberal Democrats today, never mind in wider politics – but unfortunately it is not. Meanwhile, back to the book, its big flaw is that it is unlikely to be at all accessible to anyone not already interested in liberalism and familiar with UK politics. Fair enough, it bills itself as being for the ‘intelligent person’, but that in itself is not very liberal really – hardly in keeping with the Liberal Democrats’ constitutional pledge (adopted verbatim from the Liberals before them) to ensure that no-one is enslaved by ignorance. And, as is often the case with similar riders, ‘intelligent’ is really just a synonym for ‘educated’ or ‘pre-informed’. So Russell will refer in passing to something François Mitterrand said in 1989 (I’m inventing the example, as I no longer have the text in front of me to provide a real one), without actually saying what it was or how it relates to the issue under discussion. A more accessible introduction to liberalism could certainly be written, then, and could do a lot of good by helping to ensure a broader understanding of what it actually is. As my friend Andrew Hickey, who also recently reviewed Russell's book points out, an awful lot of the people who are currently convinced that liberalism is a terrible scourge on society are actually working with a heavily distorted understanding of it, and would probably quite like the sort of thinking which Russell outlines if they knew about it. Attempting to communicate it is, of course, on us liberals, and clearly that is what Russell was trying to do. Until anyone can achieve a more accessible articulation of the same thinking, his book will probably remain the best introduction to liberalism we have.
7. Andrew Hickey (2015), Head of State
Talking of Andrew, he wrote a book of his own, and it's great! It is a novel, technically belonging to the Faction Paradox series, but I can personally attest that you do not need to have read any prior Faction Paradox stories, or really know anything about them, to enjoy it. It helps in particular that the story is very much set on Earth; though I don't know how much that is or isn't true for other FP stories – maybe they all are? Anyway, this one follows a surprise outsider's US presidential election campaign, which is clearly being manipulated by the Faction Paradox in some way, and which relates to traces of their activities also identifiable in the historical and mythic past. In order to tell this story, Andrew has used multiple interweaving narratives: different present-day perspectives on the presidential campaign, Victorian explorer Richard Burton, the 2002nd story of Scheherazade and various interpolations from non-human dimensions. This is not easy, but I thought he did it exceptionally well, capturing the various voices of his different characters distinctly and recognisably without making any of them seem over-mannered or cariacatured. For those reasons alone I enjoyed reading the novel and would recommend it to anyone. But there is of course an extra dimension of pleasure to reading a novel by a friend whose view on the world over-laps closely with your own. I recognised a lot of both the political and the online culture described, for example: in particular a female journalist blogging on a platform called 'dreamjournal', whom Andrew confirmed when I asked him was indeed based on the journalist I thought she was. He is even sweet enough to have included me in his acknowledgements at the end, although literally all I did was lend him a book of commonly-used Latin phrases with which he could pepper Richard Burton's prose. As for that presidential candidate – he's a Bernie Sanders, not a Donald Trump, but an awful lot about the campaign sections of this book did resurface in my mind during the latter part of 2016: high-level corruption and manipulation, people gradually realising that the 'no-hope' candidate is going to win, and a load of right-wing nutjobbery to boot. It's a pity real life has managed to turn out even more horrendous than what happens at the end of this book, but that's another matter. I'm really proud to know the author of such a great read.
8. John Buchan (1927), Witch Wood
I learnt of this book from the British Library's exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination in autumn 2014, where it was presented as an example of folk horror and likened to Witchfinder General in particular. It's a reasonable comparison. This story deploys the classic folk horror motif of an educated outsider coming into a small, traditional village community: in this case a newly-ordained priest, David Sempill, assigned to a parish named Woodilee. It's also set during the Civil Wars, though in Scotland rather than in England, and involves accusations of witchcraft. After those face-value similarities, though, it's a pretty different kind of narrative: essentially a historical novel concerned with how the ideological conflicts of 17th-century Scotland translate into personal struggles for its main character. On the one side, Sempill owes loyalty to the Kirk and, through its Solemn League and Covenant, the parliamentary side of the Civil War. On the other, he increasingly finds that his efforts to help the sick and the needy put him at odds with his parish leaders and church elders, who are more concerned with personal reputation and formal doctrine than actual morals or spirituality, and that his sympathies are drawn instead towards royalists and aristocrats. Witches and indeed fairies are overlain onto this, in ways which allow Buchan to highlight the hypocrisies of the parishioners and tangle up Sempill's political leanings with romantic attraction. But there is nothing overtly supernatural in the book: only a bit of paganism-cum-Devil-worshippery and Sempill's hyper-romanticisation of his girlfriend. Most of the politics and religion I could take or leave to be honest, not having any great investment in either, but the novel does contain some very engrossing sequences: Sempill's terror journeying through the dark wood at night, the utter devastation of his village by the plague, or the tormenting of an obviously-vulnerable old woman by a witch-pricker. Those are what have stayed with me, and what made it worth reading.