Wishful thinking from a natural born worrier

The Future of Politics, by Charles Kennedy (HarperCollins, £17.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Charles Kennedy has produced a thoughtful book. No doubt it is meant to act as a retort to those still content to see him as "Chat Show Charlie", the politically lightweight star of Celebrity Countdown, Through the Keyhole and other gems of daytime television.

Charles Kennedy has produced a thoughtful book. No doubt it is meant to act as a retort to those still content to see him as "Chat Show Charlie", the politically lightweight star of Celebrity Countdown, Through the Keyhole and other gems of daytime television.

It is refreshing to see a political leader taking the time to write about what Tony Benn used to call "the ishoos", rather than using the publishing trade to carry on vicious feuds (as most of the Cabinet seem to). It is also a pleasant novelty to see a politician volunteering mistakes, as Kennedy does when he confesses his regrets about not wanting his party to debate the legalisation of cannabis and other drugs. The bravery with which he has now spoken up about something that, as he says, has touched almost every family in the country deserves praise. Kennedy is similarly heroic in owning up to the way that, when it comes to "legislating in the labs", most MPs appear hopelessly out of their depth dealing with such ethically loaded issues as gene therapy and cloning.

All that said, however, The Future of Politics does still fall into a certain tradition of ephemeral books about politics written by serving politicians, few of which have had lasting impact. The title recalls, perhaps self-consciously, two of the very rare exceptions: Anthony Crosland's The Future of Socialism (1956), the revisionist treatise that provided the nearest thing the Labour Party had to a modern, coherent intellectual framework; and Jo Grimond's The Liberal Future (1959), which helped to launch the Liberals' first postwar revival.

But most such books weren't worth the bother. Who remembers Harold Wilson's Purpose in Politics (1964) - a title that acquired a mocking quality after a few years of his vacillation? And as for The Blair Revolution (1996) by Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle (a former Lib Dem), with its eerily premonitory subtitle "Can New Labour Deliver?", who would want to remember that? Its authors pointedly complained about politicians who are "only in it for themselves".

Give or take the odd fee for after-dinner speeches to the British waste-recycling industry, no one would suggest that Kennedy is in it for himself. He is worried to the point of distraction about low public regard for politicians and the depressingly low turnout for recent elections. He is also understandably fretful about social justice, the environment and the challenge of globalisation, and even finds time to "imagine if a Hitler or a Saddam Hussein had the power to make clones of himself". You wonder how he sleeps at night.

Kennedy is much longer on questions than answers. Or rather, he finds it easier to say what needs to be done than how: "let's get some brains together and think creatively about ways in which we can foster a civic society"; "we need a totally joined-up approach to the environment"; and "citizens must start safeguarding each other's rights and freedoms." Well, yes. But how?

Much of the answer, despite his protestations, is good old-fashioned tax'n'spend. There is a great deal of enthusiasm for fuel taxes, for example. For the rest, Kennedy seems too reliant on the kind of administrative gimmickry that has rarely made much impact: a social justice audit for government bills; a race tsar; a pensioners' tsar and so on. Yet he asserts that "any government that cares about innovation has to strip bureaucracy and jargon to the minimum."

He does much better when he explores experiments that are interesting, if all too rare, examples of communities "empowering themselves": local credit unions to fend off loan sharks, and even local exchange and trading systems (Lets) - now the Liberal Democrats' favourite conversational narcotic for the unwary. There is much that is stimulating in this book,but, just occasionally, it reminds one of an old jibe Harold Macmillan aimed at his opponents: "As usual, the Liberals have offered a mixture of sound and original ideas. Unfortunately, none of the sound ideas is original and none of the original ideas is sound." But at least Charles Kennedy tried.

Comments