Unusually, coverage of last week's Lib Dem conference went some way beyond the customary chat about the party's prospects in the next general election to take in the question of first principles.
To the standard profiles of that nice Nick Clegg, a politician whom a third of the population apparently struggles to identify, were added several agonised discussions of what it means to be a "Liberal", a good century after Liberalism's parliamentary high-water mark. It is more than 40 years now since John Gross, in his wonderful book The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, suggested that in political, let alone moral, terms the word is what scientists would call a "false isolate" – there is no such thing as "liberalism", only a series of variants on it. Certainly, Liberalism's last great electoral surge – the Campbell-Bannerman administration of 1905 – produced a rainbow coalition in which free traders, imperial die-hards, radical dissenters and future members of the Labour Party were all clamorously, and sometimes contentiously, represented.
But what does "being a Liberal" or even "being liberal" mean here in 2009? In some ways, it is one of those free-floating abstracts which, like "democracy" or "freedom", seems to have undergone a 180-degree turn. Adjectivally, "liberal" tends to mean the cultivation of a vaguely permissive attitude towards personal relations or censorship, extending, at its outer margins, to the kind of fashionable relativism that wouldn't dream of trumpeting the values it believes in for fear of offending those of us who demur. "A liberal newspaper" is often a very dreadful thing, publicly espousing pluralism, tolerance and all the great kitemarks of the modern progressive charter, but making it abundantly clear that anyone deviating from the party line is a kind of futile half-wit. But a good way of uncovering the pit into which Liberalism has fallen since the days of Gladstone and Morley is to compare our local variant with its transatlantic cousin, where the desire not to offend and keep everybody happy is generally countered by a presumption that there are things out there worth fighting for, even if those fought against get hurt.
Malcolm Bradbury's early novel Stepping Westward (1966) dramatises this conflict through the misadventures of James Walker, an English writer becalmed in a mid-western university, who declines to swear the Oath of Allegiance. Walker's American hosts can't understand his timidity and his equivocations, his fundamental refusal to be drawn. As one of them observes, having read one of his novels: "Your book gave me the impression that you felt a bit exhausted, just living". Forty years later, watching President Obama in action, you feel that these attitudes have simply calcified. When an American tells you he is a Liberal, some kind of principle is at stake. When an Englishman does so, it is usually the prelude to a string of moral evasions. Poor Mr Clegg has got his work cut out.
The closest I ever got to Gordon Brown was a New Statesman party 10 years back when, sprinting boisterously up the staircase, I collided with him in the vestibule. Judging by the emails he continues to send me, though, we are the fastest of friends. "David", began one that winged in earlier this week (not even "Dear David", just that vocative salute), "Later today I will be flying to America to represent you at the Pittsburgh G20 and the United Nations". It was impossible not to be touched by this. Not only was Gordon going to America, just for me, he was taking time out to tell me about it. Abruptly, though, the focus changed, for Gordon was going to be "fighting for a lot of causes close to our hearts". Now "we" must mean members of the Labour Party, as I can't think of any other way Gordon could have got hold of my email address. "We" are apparently in hot pursuit of collective action on the global economy to save jobs, a deal to protect our planet as we prepare for Copenhagen and a new plan to provide better healthcare to people in Africa.
And so I read on, warmly approving what sounded like some first-rate schemes ("progressive internationalism ... global justice"), shaking my head over the fake intimacy, and coming finally to a valedictory promise that: "We will change the world the only way people have ever changed it – together", a sign-off so questionable that it ought to be reproduced in an Oxbridge general paper followed by the instruction "discuss". I can stand Gordon being chummy with me; I can just about tolerate the presumed solidarity, but a philosophical enquiry of that magnitude looming up from the computer screen first thing in the morning is too much to bear.
If The Spectator ever set one of its humorous competitions for the title of the world's longest but as yet unwritten book, my own candidate, just edging out Geoff Boycott's Most Memorable Matches, would be The Sensitivity of the Writer Volume One. Anyone professionally enmired in the world of books will have come across this pitfall. You spend 10 years, let us say, writing rave reviews of the works of some distinguished novelist of your acquaintance. You supply admiring profiles of them to literary magazines and talk about them on the radio. And then, all unwary, you drop a single incautious remark in the Stornoway Observer and in sears an Alex Ferguson-style blast from the metaphorical hair-dryer. We are very sensitive people, us writers, and criticism cuts us to the bone.
All these anxieties were placed in sharp relief by a trawl through Selina Hastings' excellent The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham, and in particular its account of Maugham's dealings with his one-time friend and fellow novelist, Hugh Walpole. Picking up Maugham's novel Cakes and Ale (1930), in which he features as the literary careerist "Alroy Kear", as he got into his pyjamas one night, Walpole is supposed to have finished it several hours later with an hysterical 4am call to Maugham's publisher begging him to suppress the book. According to friends of Walpole, the identification blighted the last 10 years of his life: despite a knighthood and a stream of best-selling novels, he was never the same again. There is a moral here somewhere, but I am not quite sure what it is. After all, the logical extension of the line taken by writers who deplore criticism of their work is that no one should ever say anything about anything. Maugham clearly thought Walpole a pompous ass. No doubt there are others.
It has been a bad week for splits in the music business. Not only has Dave, the amiable bass player from Chas & Dave, detached himself from Chas, but the Sugababes' Keisha Buchanan has departed the group, claiming that she was forced to leave. "It was not my choice," Ms Buchanan insisted, prior to her replacement in the ensemble by this year's British Eurovision Song Contest entrant Jade Ewen. There is another problem here, alas, not so much aesthetic – will Ms Ewen sing in a different style to her predecessor – as conceptual. Keisha, it turns out, was the last original member. All this raises an interesting legal point. Are the Sugababes still the Sugababes?
The phenomenon is not new to pop. After all, in the early 1970s something calling itself the Velvet Underground toured the UK in the absence of Lou Reed, John Cale or anyone else from the founding line-up. Like the saw which has had three new blades and two new handles, Dr Feelgood continued to perform when death and fracture had long since dispersed the inaugurating quartet. The usual case for the defence in these situations is that the group, rather than being an assembly of identifiable human beings, is merely a brand. The same argument sometimes turns up in publishing. The American writer Virginia Andrews, famously, died as long ago as 1986, but a series of freshly written novels by an entity known as Virginia Andrews TM has been crowding out the bookshop shelves for more than two decades. You'd think the Office of Fair Trading would want to take a look.
Not everybody shares the Prime Minister's enthusiasm for next year's papal visit. In particular the National Secular Society has announced that it will be co-ordinating a nationwide protest campaign. Anti-religious sentiment has a long and honourable tradition in this country, of course, but I was struck by an irresistible vision of a man, in late middle age, very probably bearded and with a rather intent expression on his face, returning to a house somewhere in north London on a Saturday afternoon to be greeted by his wife. "What have you been doing, dear?" "Oh, I've been standing outside Westminster Cathedral with Robin and Jemima shouting 'There is no God' at the nuns as they went in." "Have you? That's nice."