Tim Farron and the search for an equilibrium that wasn’t there

Tim_Farron_Glasgow_2014

One of the sub-plots of the recent General Election was the discomfort of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron any time he was asked about LGBT issues. It reached its  endpoint today with his resignation. In an e-mail to party members he reported that:

To be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.

I wrote back before his election as leader, that there were issues when Farron’s faith became politically relevant. Nonetheless, I would still endorse Jennie Rigg’s defence of his actions as a public servant. I also share Isabel Hardman and Nick Cohen‘s sense that there’s something (ironically) retrograde about our unwillingness to let a man’s private thoughts stay private.

I would also stand by his performance as leader more generally.

In many ways, he became leader at the wrong moment. A personable northern bloke in a wax jacket representing a farming constituency in the Lakes who had stayed aloof from the coalition, would have been the perfect antidote to Nick Clegg in 2015. Likewise, he would have worked well in a 1997esque period of progressive harmony, in which the Party’s ambition was to defeat the Tories in individual constituencies where Labour would fear to tread. But as an alternative-alternative Prime Minister in place of the (apparently) doomed Corbyn, or as a spokesperson for upmarket remain voters? For that we needed someone urbane, a bit posh, someone who’d have convivial lunches with Times opinion columnists and get puffy columns in return, basically an Emmanuel Macron from Southwark, or a Nick Clegg from an alternative dimension where the coalition never happened.

Both of those figures being figments of my imagination, Tim Farron stepped up and, while not ideal, still made a series of broadly correct decisions. He realised we needed a clear answer on Brexit. And that we continued to need it after the vote. That decision allowed the party to (modestly, electorally and in the short term) co-exist with a Corbynism that proved to be much stronger than we imagined. Angry remainers gave both Labour and the Lib Dems opportunities to make gains off the Tories. It will also – I hope – ultimately serve to solidify the party’s identity.

Nonetheless, he still had to go. I say that regretfully and as a matter of political calculation, rather than convicition. The reason is not Farron’s views. It’s not even their potential unpopularity. They did not represent some huge inundation that would sink HMS Lib Dem, but an ongoing problem that would have required the leader and his followers to be constantly bailing out water. Using up energy that might carry the party forward to stop it sinking, is not something a party with as many head-winds as the Lib Dems could afford.

It might have been different if Farron had been more assured in his stances, but as his resignation email made clear, he was wrestling with internal conflicts. Indeed, let’s be honest, the interviews he was giving before the election made that pretty clear too. It is hard to watch them and conclude that Farron was ever going to find a stance from which he could have dodged, repeled or absorbed those questions. Had he stayed on as leader, he would have been signing himself, and the party, up, for an ongoing beating. His decision to forestall that was correct.

 

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My hurried, ill-thought through and provisional reactions to the election

Written in a rush, so expect errors of fact and grammar. Also, full disclosure I have been out of the UK since February.

General

1 – There is a (possibly apocraphyl) story that during a state visit to Paris in the 1970s, Zhou Enlai – Mao’s Primeminister – was asked what he thought of the French revolution. He is suppposed to have replied that ‘it was too early to tell’. I basically feel the same way about this election.

2 – Relatedly, this election feels like it marks a transition from one phase of British politics to another. Like when we moved from Butskellism to Thatcherism. I confess I cannot really tell what the new epoch is however (and I suspect neither can you!)

3 – Can we all just agree now that First-Past-the-Post is an unbelievably crap electoral system! Even with the two main parties winning a far higher share of the vote than they normally do, we still haven’t got one of the stable, single party governments that are supposedly its benefit.

Conservatives

4 – Regardless of my more sobre assesement of who would be a better Primeminister, I find it intensely gratifying that voters didn’t reward May’s defensive, condescending and cynical campaign.

4 – I do not envy Theresa May having to try and run a government. The Tory/DUP alliance has a tiny commons minority. A figure I saw recently was 5. By-election loses and the like will likely chip away at that. That means that she must ensure that the entire spectrum of Tory opinion is content, from the most rabid right-winger to wettest wet.

5. This is not a straightforward defeat. The Party gained a strikingly large number of seats including from Labour. That suggests that like Labour it is metamorphising. The resulting butterfly seems to have a rather Trumpian hue:

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6 – This seems like a reasonable criticism:

7 – Whatever else good comes out of this, I suspect that May and Timothy haven’t got the votes to bring back Grammar Schools. For which thank goodness!

Labour

8 – This result challenges my preconceptions about what voters in the UK would accept, as much as Trump’s victory did about the tolerances of American voters. I genuinely assumed that both Corbyn as an individual and his platform would be toxic. I was clearly wrong.

9 – However, it does not follow from the above that Corbynism is not electorally problematic. Merely, that we potentially need to substantially revise downwards the size of that problem. We should expect oppositions to gain seats. That’s what oppositions generally do. Especially, when faced with a Primeminister who campaigns with the caution of a gambler but none of the flair. Not saying that he wasn’t an electoral asset mind. Simply, that we have to explore the question more.

10 – Labour supporters do need to remember it got fewer votes and seats than the Conservatives. What many in the part have achieved is objectively impressive. However, a way milder than expected defeat is still a defeat.

11 – Speaking of which, my sense is that the next step for Labour is going to be harder. They have convinced the electorate to trust them as an implement to humble the Tories. Now, they must persuade voters to they deserve to take power in their own right. That is a bigger ask, and I don’t think they are ready yet.

Lib Dems

12 – I’ll write about my own party’s performance in more detail elsewhere. But suffice to say, what a relief! That was looking scary for a moment, a further loss of seats would have made a return to relevance into something like the ascent of Nanga Parbat.

13 – Despite my previous support for him, I suspect that Farron probably needs to go. I suspect that Swinson is the right person to replace him but I reserve judgement for now.

Sinn Fein

14 – I’m curious (as an ignorant outsider) whether they will start to face pressure from within their own community to take their seats in Westminster. I appreciate that there is a lot of history behind the decision not to. However, if the price of that is letting the DUP hold the balance of power in the Commons, then surely the temptation to start voting must be there?

Thank (the Greek) God(ess)! The DCEU is good at last

I was treating Wonder Women as Warner Bros and DC’s last chance. I quite liked their first outing, Man of Steel, and complained that it was “a shame so many people were unprepared to forgive it for not being the Christopher Reeve films.” Nonetheless, it was ok rather than stellar, so it only generate a modest amount of good will on my part. Batman v Superman exhausted all of that in one go. When I reviewed it I said it was ‘passable’ and defended it against charges that it was a ‘disaster’, I did also concede that it was a disappointment. The plot made no sense, the villain was lame and the tone ponderous. Then came Suicide Squad, which really should have been great. ‘The Dirty Dozen with Batman villains’ is a great premise. It gave cool characters to talented actors. However, once again the plot and themes were a mess and that made the whole film unsatisfying at best, and aggravating at worst. So in my mind, B v S and Suicide Squad were two strikes against the DCEU. If Wonder Women was a third, then I was out.

So it is with great relief that I can report that it is good. Very good indeed.

What works

Gal Godot is just right for the central character. Her acting is lot subtler than you would expect from someone who came to acting via modelling. For example, there’s a perceptible but hard to define difference between how she plays Dianna Prince when she’s a young women new to the world, and the older and more battle hardened version of the character. You can see in how she walks that optimism has been replaced by hard won resolution. Equally importantly, for someone playing the greatest warrior amongst a race of warriors, when she’s taking out whole battalions of the Kaiser’s forces it looks damn convincing.

Chris Pine does a standard Chris Pine performance as her love interest, which is pretty much exactly what is needed.

Wonder Woman also sustains a more thoughtful and coherent investigation of its themes than the average action film can manage. Indeed, it is so well integrated into the story that I cannot elaborate without spoilers. However, I could easily see it being fruitfully used to start a discussion in an RE class or youth group.

I would also commend the World War I setting. While literature and especially poetry have covered the conflict extensively, cinema and especially genre cinema have been less interested. The grandiose evil of the Nazis and their allies has made the Second World War a more appealing canvas for filmakers. Nonetheless, the trenches work as a backdrop to a superhero film for the same reason they work for a poem: They offer a filthy, nasty physical representation of the hell of war that familiarity seems powerless to dull.

WONDER WOMAN

What is less good

However, that setting does set up – ahem! – my two main complaints about the film. Firstly, it sticks with the odd, credibility sapping convention of depicting Germans speaking German by having British and American actors speak English with cod German accents. Would it really have been so hard to hire German actors? And is it really too much to expect Anglophone audiences to read subtitles for what are mostly very short scenes.

I also felt the depiction of German characters was rather harsh. I agree with what is now the academic consensus that the German led alliance was the aggressor in 1914. Nonetheless, the moral calculus of the conflict is far less lopsided than that of World War II or the Cold War. So it seems inappropriate, for example, that Wonder Women, makes the German use of chemical weapons a major plot point, without acknowledging that Britain and France also deployed them and that upon its entry into the war, the US hastily began developing its own arsenal.

The inevitable Marvel comparison

However, those are quite narrow issues and they do not take away all that much from the broad success of the film.

That was sort of what I was expecting even before I saw the film. Not only had the trailers been impressive but the critical response was overwhelmingly positive. However, I did wonder if the way DC had achieved this was by essentially learning to make Marvel movies. There were some indications that this might be the case, notably the apparently jokier tone. Oh and DC had recently hired Joss Whedon the director of the Avengers, to work on the DCEU.

Fortunately, that isn’t really what happened. There are definite similarities but Wonder Women doesn’t feel derivative. It may have abandoned the almost obsessively gloomy tone of its predecessors but it still doesn’t replicate the zaniness of a typical Marvel film. Indeed it feels a tad old-fashioned. That is actually rather commendable because it means that the pacing is measured, the humour relies less on quips and the visual style is more cinematic.

Indeed, for the first time the DCEU can compare itself favourably to the MCU. Wonder Woman is only the fourth film in the DCEU and it is a genuine gem. By contrast, it wasn’t until the Avengers – the MCU’s sixth film – that Marvel delivered an undeniably great film. Most of the entries that preceded it, had plenty of pleasing elements, but taken as a whole were little more than passable. Compare Wonder Woman with the MCU’s fourth film, the rather mediocre Thor. I mean Thor has its moments but it is in the main rather flat. The script is rather odd, it doesn’t feel like it has real stakes, none of the action scenes are memorable and the central romance is a bit off. By contrast, Wonder Woman is assured and impressive from beginning to end.

I am sceptical that DC can keep up this quality in its future films, but besides being entertaining in its own right, Wonder Woman also gives us evidence that we need not despair of the DCEU just yet.