Twenty Questions to a Fellow Blogger Part XLII: Jonathan Calder

Jonathan Calder's blog is Liberal England, and his New Statesman column is Calder's Comfort Farm

What made you decide to start blogging?

It was because I wanted somewhere on the web to publicise my writings, including my weekly column on Westminster for Liberal Democrat News. I did have a website before I started Liberal England, but it was in the name of my alter ego Lord Bonkers. But I soon found that the blog format suited me particularly well. I enjoyed the ability to return to a subject I had discussed before and develop my thoughts on it a little further. And then there is my love of trivial connections. I also think there is a lot to be said for the original purpose of a blog as a weblog – an annotated list of website you have visited. There is nothing wrong with sending your readers to an interesting article elsewhere, particularly if it is on a site they are unlikely to have found for themselves.

What is your best blogging experience?

Getting responses to what I have written – often the nicest ones come in private emails rather than the comments on the blog. I once heard from Philip Eden the Radio Five Live weather forecaster

And your worst?

Perhaps I have been lucky, but I have not had many bad experiences. Spam comments are annoying, but even then you get the fun of being mean and deleting them. I am also a bit miffed that the Chinese government has not bothered to prevent its citizens reading Liberal England.

What do you regard as your best blog entry?

I find it hard to single out a particular one, but I am often more pleased with my postings on books and music than I am with the more overtly political ones. Sometimes I look at a House Points column or an item from Lord Bonkers’ Diary and think that, for better or worse, no one else in the world could have written that. To me that is one of the great satisfactions of writing, whether on the net or in print.

Favourite blogs?

I have learned most from Tim Worstall and Iain Dale. In particular, they taught me above all that a short post will often do – you don’t have to write an essay on everything. I find Stumbling and Mumbling the most intellectually exciting, but it would be rivalled by David Boyle’s The Real Blog if he posted more often. I also have a soft spot for troublemakers – I am far too mild mannered to be one myself – so I read Craig Murray and Stuart Syvret from Jersey (it reminds me of Market Harborough in the 1970s). Among Liberal Democrats I admire James Graham’s Quaequam Blog! for his aggression on behalf of what can be a very herbivorous party even when I do not agree with his views. And there are two non-political blogs that I never miss: English Buildings (which does what it says on the tin) and Unmitigated England.

What inspired you to go into politics?

I grew up in a small town where the local council seemed to be run entirely for the benefit of the local shopkeepers. I have been told by more than one person that it used to discourage new employers from moving here in case they put up people’s wages. When I returned here after working in Birmingham and London I decided to do something about it. In those days I was very keen on the idea of “community politics” – which was born out of a wedding between Jo Grimond’s Liberalism and the ideas of the New Left. In retrospect I am not sure if it ever cohered into a consistent ideology, and as far as it did it was lost in the Alliance and then the merger with the SDP. I gave up being a councillor years ago, but did serve on the Liberal Democrats’ policy committee for a time. These days I see my role as poking gentle fun from the sidelines.

It could be argued that you are one of the longest-serving political bloggers in the UK. How, in your view, has political blogging progressed over the past five years?

I am not sure that it has progressed. There are certainly more blogs than there were five years ago, and the constant stream of bright new voices is immensely encouraging. Yet there is no sign of blogging taking the central role in our political life that we hoped it would or of anyone in Britain making a living from blogging. Perhaps we always had an unrealistically enthusiastic idea of what blogging had achieved in America. Guido Fawkes will claim to have brought down Peter Hain, but is that really because Paul Sykes is braver than investigative journalists in the mainstream media? I suspect it was simply because he has lots of readers, so if you have some dirt on a politician and want to hurt him, Paul is a good person to send it to. One complication is that blogging has evolved in a Britain where the Labour Party enjoyed near total hegemony. The next election will be contested far more fiercely and we may see blogging developing – for better or worse – in unexpected new ways because of this.

We seem to hear less from Nick Clegg than we do of Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Why is this?

I think there are strict limits to how far you can blame Nick for this. The Liberal Democrats are the third party in the British system and, outside exceptional periods, do not play a pivotal role. Nor is Lib Dem philosophy as clear as it might be. You might say that Nick could do more to rectify this, but it is a problem that long predates his leadership. If the Lib Dems look likely to hold the balance of power after the next election, the picture will change overnight. Whether we should enjoy that extra attention is another question.

Is there anywhere abroad which you haven't been to, that you would like to visit?

I have been abroad embarrassingly few times, so this is a long list. At the top are Iceland, some of the smaller Caribbean islands and Armenia.

Is there anywhere abroad you have visited, that you would love to revisit?

I visited Bruges on a primary school and have always wanted to go back.

Who, excluding the present leader, do you regard as the best Liberal Democrat/Liberal/SDP Party leader, and if different, the best Prime Minister?

The two outstanding figures Liberal leaders in my lifetime have been Jo Grimond and Paddy Ashdown. Grimond was before my time, though many of the Liberals I respect most were brought to the party because of him. Ashdown, by force of personality, lifted the party from the ruins of David Steel’s grand strategy to the triumph of 1997. Would they have made good prime ministers? No one knows, but I see no reason why they should not have done. Certainly, they were not inferior in intellect or character to the Labour and Conservative prime ministers of their eras.

Which political figure has been your greatest inspiration?

When I was growing up and had already decided I was a Liberal, John Pardoe and David Penhaligon were the politicians I most admired. But really it is philosophers who have had the greatest effect on my political outlook. First it was John Stuart Mill through On Liberty: later it was Karl Popper through The Open Society and its Enemies. The great populariser of Popper’s thought in Britain was Bryan Magee. I recently discovered that he had been evacuated to Market Harborough during the war and had literally lived round the corner from where I lived as a teenager. If I have a political hero these days it is the Edwardian Liberal Charles Masterman. He was a rather melancholy literary figure who in some ways was not cut out for party politics, yet he took Lloyd George’s health insurance acts through the Commons and laid the foundations of the welfare state.

Favourite Bond movie?

Goldfinger or From Russia With Love.

Favorite Doctor Who?

Patrick Troughton or Jon Pertwee because they were there when I was young and because of their wonderful craggy faces – a Time Lord should have knocked about a bit.

Chocolate, vanilla, or mint?

Vanilla – I must be a grown up.

Which Band, past or present, would you most like to see in concert?

In April 1970 Eric Clapton is reported to have played a concert with Traffic in Oxford. This was Traffic in their John Barleycorn phase as a trio with just Steve Winwood, Jim Capaldi and Chris Wood. I would not have minded being there, or hearing Clapton sitting in with the Spencer Davis Group (as he often did) a few years before that.

In terms of visiting for the weekend, Oxford, Cambridge, or Barsby, Leics..?

At last an easy one: it’s High Leicestershire every time. I have cycled through Barsby and in neighbouring villages I have variously played chess for Leicestershire, visited a church to see a monument to a 19th century Liberal candidate and bought 1960s pop memorabilia which I later sold to a dealer

Favourite national newspaper?

I moan about the Guardian, but I always go back to buying it. More stories on my blog come from the Shropshire Star than any other paper. The Star is very good, but you get the impression that there is not quite enough news in the county to justify a daily newspaper. Hence the more inconsequential items it publishes.

What would you say your hobbies were?

I am not sure that bloggers have time for hobbies, and I spend a lot of my spare time writing even when I am not blogging. But I used to play chess quite well and I am still obsessed with the Shropshire hills, walking and relaxing there as often as I can.

And what would you say were your three favourite songs and three favourite books (bar the Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare)?

The songs, at least, change by the day, but how about...?

Paper Sun – Traffic
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
Itchycoo Park – Small


Bleak House – Charles Dickens
The Once and Future King – T. H. White
Vanity Fair – William Thackeray


Praguetory said…
Ha. A Chess player and from the fine county of Leicestershire. Nice interview.

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