Interesting times

What a week it has been. Between the Greek crisis, the anniversary of 7/7, and the budget, just the first three days were hectic. And then from there we had budget fallout, the unfolding situation in Tunisia, a Chinese banking crisis and, of course. more Greece. As a new week starts, it remains entirely possible that the embattled country will crash, or be forced, out of the Eurozone and maybe the EU.

What made the week even more remarkable was that I spent it in the Guardian’s newsroom, having won work experience at their Student Media Awards. So far it’s been fantastic; I’ve gained experience researching, contacting press offices and using the newswires. I also get to sit in on the meeting where they decide which story goes on which page of the next day’s paper; a journalistic skill in itself. Excitingly, I’ve also been allowed to write – covering Nicky Morgan’s response to a sexist photographer, Ian Duncan Smith’s fist-pump, and giving a student’s reaction to the budget. All being well, another piece I wrote will run in the society pages of the actual paper in August. Of course, I enjoyed this writing immensely.

But by far the highlight of each day is the 10am conference, where senior staff and editors gather for a discussion of the day’s events. Katherine Viner, editor-in-chief, always starts the meeting with a list of the previous day’s successful and enjoyable pieces – on Friday my student piece made the grade! Then it’s on to a fascinating discussion of the top stories. With staff giving explanations, sharing opinions and making predictions, I can almost feel my brain soaking up knowledge. I am very proud to say that I contributed to a discussion about why politicians feel able to ignore young people. Despite the fact that my heart was pounding away, it wasn’t a small achievement for someone who does not enjoy public speaking. If only I could have kept it up when Katherine Viner briefly spoke to me afterwards, but inevitably the cat got my tongue.

On Tuesday, Yvette Cooper came to conference to give a small speech and answer questions. Although this was very exciting, as an unconvinced floating voter, I wasn’t expecting to be too impressed. But impressed I was, both with her principled moderation which does not pander to her party and her strong feminism (I’d probably support a feminist in any stripes). I’d like to see her take David Cameron down a peg or two. Andy Burnham, one of her competitors in the Labour leadership election, is coming in next week; it’ll be good to see how he compares. I never thought I’d be in a room with top politicians at the age of 20, but there I was.

I have had a great week, topped off with the news that I got a first in my second year of university. I am looking forward to another week on news and then another on the comment desk. With negotiations between Greece and its European creditors on-going, it could be an interesting time to be in journalism.

A day of contrasts

I failed to keep up with my writing challenge towards the end of term, as seeing friends and celebrating took over. But I came home yesterday; a day whose events require some sort of response.

It is hard to know what to say. With terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France, it was a horrible day for many. Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the attack in Kuwait and which is possibly linked to the other two, is succeeding in terrorism’s ultimate goal, the creation of fear. It is also succeeding in dominating the agenda; not a single newspaper today led with the EU leaders’ summit and the summit itself was knocked off course. Critical issues such as the Mediterranean migrant and Greek debt crises became second-rate issues, and David Cameron can forget his ridiculous renegotiation agenda.

But it is Tunisia, once the beacon of the Arab spring, that will suffer the most. It’s smooth transition to democracy after the 2011 revolution was short-lived; the elected government was forced to hand over power to a non-partisan coalition following the assassination of several prominent opposition figures. Now, despite the country’s long history of moderate Muslim belief and secular government, Islamist groups are taking hold – and bringing terror with them. Of all the countries whose citizens have gone to join IS, Tunisia’s contingent is by far the largest and it doesn’t have the infrastructure to stop them returning. In January several gunmen attacked the famous Bardo museum, and yesterday 37 tourists were killed on a beach. The government is inherently unstable, and because of the increase in violence Tunisian’s fear a reduction in tourist numbers, the backbone of the economy.

If Tunisia falls apart, it will just be one of several countries in the region. The chaos spreads from Libya across to Syria and Iraq and down to Yemen. IS is quickly becoming a regional and perhaps global threat – attacks from Australia to France have been linked to the group. And as yet, no one knows how their growing influence can be countered.

Watching the news yesterday, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Indeed, I am partially convinced that it is; a sentiment I express regularly. And yet, on a day of supremely bad news, we also got what is possibly the best news of the year. After a decades-long struggle for LGBT rights in the US, the Supreme Court declared that same-sex marriage is mandated by the constitution itself. And with that, gay marriage became legal in every state in America, red and blue alike. Perhaps as special as the granting of equal rights to LGBT people was the reasoning used by the judges, who found that the combination of the ‘equal protection’ and ‘due process’ clauses of the 14th Amendment to find a right to enjoy the privileges of marriage regardless of sexual orientation – basically ruling that gay couples are exactly the same as straight ones in the eyes of the law. Same-sex couples simply deserve “equal dignity”.

Such positivity amid so much misery was something to see and perhaps was a cause for optimism. But the contrast between the day’s events only served to highlight the two worlds that exist. In one, people are routinely killed by groups seeking to return life to something resembling the 11th century, where the ideas of human rights and democracy do not exist. In the other, there is a continual if slow push for progress and, at least in theory, the values of tolerance and equality are predominant. The question is how we can best help those left behind and make sure more people can celebrate a judicial ruling rather than mourn the victims of terror.

20 lengths of backstroke and a little frustration

Along with my writing challenge, I have also set myself the task of going swimming a couple of times a week. There seems little way to bring writing into swimming, so here I attempt to bring swimming into writing.

Swimming to me is a contradiction. In one sense, it is freeing; being able to use my body semi-properly is good and rewarding. Progress can be remarkable, and I am proud that I can swim despite a disability that could suggest otherwise. Recently I have been doing about 20 lengths of backstroke in an hour; not much for some but a pretty decent achievement for me. It is also the only form of exercise I can access easily (I don’t count physio!) and it is unbelievably good for me: stretching out my twisted and often sore back and making my muscles work. When I swim, using my body for other things becomes easier – even things as simple to most people as standing up. Swimming works such wonders that I should do it all day every day. But I don’t.

Part of this is a stubborn aversion to anything I am told to do for the sake of my body, which I tend to regard as a lost cause (not in a depressing sense but in a past-the-point-of-caring one). There’s also the practical reason of having other things, like work or have fun, to do – swimming generally takes it out of me for the whole day, meaning I waste many hours for one hour of exercise. In term time, it very seldom seems a good use of my time and so sometimes I don’t go for months at a time.

This contributes to the other reason for my avoidance of the pool: frustration. It may be a nice feeling to use my body sometimes, but only if it decides to play ball, for which there is no guarantee. Cerebral palsy is strange because it affects you differently every day, so something which seems easy one day, like controlled breathing, is almost impossible the next (cue major spluttering and inward dark muttering). This is entirely demotivating and can, on tougher days, remind me of the dislike I have often felt for my body. Cerebral palsy also means that without practice you lose the ability to do things really quickly and quiet dramatically. This doesn’t just mean I get a little slower or lose a bit of form. It means that while I used to be able to do a whole length of breaststroke, I can now hardly do it at all. So once I haven’t been swimming for a while, I lose the enthusiasm to go – I know that I will struggle and become frustrated. You can see how this easily becomes a self-perpetuating problem.

I was once told that if I did enough training I could have been a Paralympian, Given my hostility to the idea of exercise, this was and is somewhat laughable, but I do wonder if constant training would have allowed me to overcome the frustration I often feel in the water. But I chose my academic and writing career instead and am immeasurably glad that I did. Still, it wouldn’t kill me, or lead me to fail my degree, if I went swimming just a little more often.

Want a Democrat? Back Hilary

If you thought that the UK general election was a drawn out affair, steel yourself now. The next US presidential election won’t be held until November 2016, but the parties are already in election mode. Why? Because before the campaign-proper starts next year, candidates have to compete in primaries to win the nomination to be their party’s presidential nominee. Effectively, a successful candidate has to win not one but two elections.

Primaries are complicated affairs contested on a state-by-state basis, where candidates compete for the state’s delegates at the nominating convention. Some states have closed primaries, in which only registered partisans can vote; others have open primaries, which give everyone a say – even members of the opposing party. And then there are the caucuses, which are basically more deliberated primaries. The caucuses and primaries of each state happen at various times, so the game becomes about momentum. Doing well early on in Iowa and New Hampshire is a good sign, but is no guarantee of success if the candidate’s support burns out or the campaign is mismanaged. Once the parties in each state have voted, they go to their respective conventions, where the candidates with the most delegates wins. Well, normally. Occasionally a new entry or a drop out will shake up the convention and massive horse-trading for votes will ensue. If this all sounds complicated, it is (I can only recommend watching season 6 of the West Wing).

So for the next few months, expect to hear an awful lot about the primaries. The parties couldn’t be in more different situations if they tried. The Democrats so far have four candidates (it is unlikely that any more will enter the race) and, barring major upset, will nominate Hilary Clinton. The Republican field, by contrast, just keeps expanding. So far, 11 people have declared their entrance, with a further 4 possibly preparing to do so. And there is no telling who will eventually win. Obviously, some of them are complete no-hopers (who on earth is George Pataki?) but there are several who could plausibly be nominated, ranging from Jeb Bush to Marco Rubio to Rand Paul.

Of course, the identities of the two nominees will shape the race in profound ways. But the fact is that any Democrat – from the moderate Clinton to the eccentric and self-declared socialist Bernie Sanders to the anyone-but-Hilary Martin O’Malley – is better than the most moderate Republican. Jeb Bush may wish you to believe that he occupies the centre ground, but he is in fact more socially conservative than his brother and father, the George Bushes. Marco Rubio is a darling of the Tea Party and Rand Paul intends to decimate the federal government he wishes to head. Give me Sanders any day.

Yet Sanders is unelectable in a country without a socialist tradition, and the Democrats are not crazy enough to nominate him. The best he can hope to do is pull the other candidates to the left on some key issues. O’Malley, too, can’t be president, if only because he’s too dull. The other Democratic candidate, Lincoln Chafee is unheard of and, well, used to be a Republican. And so we are left with Hilary.

We could do a lot worse. Admittedly, she presents some issues, from her hawkish views on foreign policy to the air of scandal which follows her around, whether on Benghazi or the Whitewater fiasco. Her claims to represent the middle-class are more than a little awkward when she is so wealthy. She is too close to Wall St, but what American politician doesn’t have undesirable ties to big business? The crucial fact is that she is the only Democrat with a solid chance of winning the White House. A CNN poll puts her 10 solid points above any potential Republican challenger, the kind of lead usually unheard of (Obama won by 4% of the popular vote in 2012).

So we have to forgive her faults and get behind her now, which it seems most people on the left are doing. Sanders, O’Malley and Chafee’s task now is to help keep her honest and engaged, not to pull her to a left-wing position from which she cannot win. With the Republican Party holding the positions it holds, in 2016, any Democrat will do. And that Democrat has to be Hilary.

Lessons from the year

My second year at university saw success on three fronts: more work, more reading and more writing. Somewhere along the way, I learnt quite a bit; about myself, journalism and politics. And so, having, like a lot of journalists, bemoaned the advent of the ‘listicle’ (which I still maintain should not be a word), I present you with the highlights of these lessons.

  • There is absolutely no point in reading an entire book that you don’t understand just because it’s required reading (in my case, political theory from the 18th and 19th centuries). Find one that explains the core text in intelligible English and save time, boredom and exam season stress
  • On a related note, John Rawls is god’s gift to politics students
  • Planning essays is the best way to revise
  • My academic interests lie in security studies, human rights, justice and feminism. I am probably a constructivist but I believe in moral imperatives
  • It’s probably high time I transferred my essay-planning skills to pitching articles (by which I mean: knowing what my point is before I start)
  • There is nothing as gratifying as reward for hard work
  • There is nothing as uplifting as well-loved friends making you laugh on a bad day
  • No matter how inconveniently-timed the urge to read a novel or write something is, do it and don’t feel guilty for not doing other things. You’re probably learning more than if you were writing an essay and the inspiration is fleeting
  • My heart lies with 20th century American novels, the Guardian, New Yorker and New York Times, and inexplicably compelling internet think-pieces
  • I am not an aspiring journalist. I am a journalist
  • Not to overdo things. Take a break if your brain is no longer absorbing information. Lie in if you know that extra hour will help you function at your best
  • Coffee is wonderful
  • I write best between 11pm and 1am. I do not know if this is a blessing or a curse but count me in for the night shift
  • Old friends are precious. So are new ones
  • General elections are simultaneously banal, depressing and riveting
  • Being open about my disability is, with the right people, very freeing
  • I do and don’t need a plan. I wish I knew what I wanted to do after university and what the best course of action would be, but I’m happy to take the time to work these things out – as I am always being told, I have plenty of time

Not bad for a single academic year. And at least I spared you the GIFs.

My writing challenge

It’s been a while since I’ve written. Thanks to essays and exams, time and brainpower have been in short supply. But how I have longed to blog! Yet now, with my second year at university finished and with all the time in the world, I am apprehensive. Should I gaze backwards and cover all the things I missed, or simply start again here, on the 7th June? Despite having much to say on the outcome of the general election, I think the latter option is best; old news is a contradiction in terms, after all.

In exactly a month, it will be my second day of my internship at the Guardian. I am unbelievably excited to be immersed in one of journalism’s most revered institutions – and one of the few in the UK with a strong liberal bias. The people who work there produce top quality writing, day-in day-out, and the newspaper has been involved in some of the most important investigative journalism of the recent past, from the Wikileaks War Logs, the Black Spider Memos saga and phone hacking to the Edward Snowden affair. What a record. To be able to spend three weeks there because some of them quite like my writing is pretty special. It’s also a special time for the paper itself; with Alan Rusbridger stepping down as editor-in-chief after 20 revolutionary years, the Guardian now has its first female editor (all the more reason to love it).

I hope that by the time I start there, I’ve got back into the swing of journalism. To this end I have made a daft promise to myself (and anyone else who cares): I am going to blog three times a week. I have never written so regularly, but after the boredom of exams my brain is up for an interesting challenge. In addition, I am going to try to be published elsewhere as often as possible, so if you happen to know any friendly (or mean) editors looking for a freelancer, please do let me know! This three blogs a week challenge seems a bit like climbing Ben Nevis to my current academia-boggled self, but I know that with practice it will become easier and more enjoyable. I am also reading as much as I can; the very best kind of writing prompt.

So this is post one of the challenge. The next one will surely appear soon.

Undecided

It’s term 3 here at university, which means that various unsavoury events are looming on the horizon – essay deadlines and exams creating dread in everyone’s minds. My fellow 2nd year politics students and I have been slogging away trying to write multiple essays, and it’s fair to say that at some point we’ve all wondered why. And that’s why, for me at least, the other thing looming on the horizon has come at the wrong time – yes, I am talking about the general election. I simply have not had the time to cover it as much as I’d have liked, although I did attempt to tweet my thoughts during the first leaders’ debate.

I have a small confession. Despite the wall-to-wall coverage, the fact that I am a very opinionated and my deep, potentially unhealthy obsession with current affairs, I have no idea who I want to win this election. I have in fact already submitted my postal vote as I am voting in my home constituency but I am going to honour the secret ballot and not reveal whose name I drew my cross next to (especially as for many disabled people the secret ballot is far from a reality). Suffice to say, the UK’s first-past-the-post system forced me to vote tactically and I felt slightly ill as I folded and sealed the ballot.

I am a natural liberal and economic centrist, so if I had to pick a party it would be the beleaguered Lib Dems (I seem to be a continuous holder of unpopular opinions). But it would be foolish to deny that their performance at the polls is going to be abysmal, although I am vaguely hopeful that they will still be propping up the next government and lending it some liberal instincts. So the choice is really between two equally uninspiring men and their parties, neither of whom I feel much of an affinity to. I am a political mongrel: pro-EU, in favour of (slow but steady) deficit reduction, distrustful of government but a firm believer in the safety net it provides. If I gain anything from this, it is the ability to see both sides of almost any argument (a useful skill for those aforementioned essays), but it also means I am continually arguing with myself. I am the definition of the floating voter, but neither party is winning me over. If the latest national polls are anything to go by, I am the embodiment of the country’s mood.

I am much more certain about what I don’t want to happen. Such scenarios include anything involving Ukip or the SNP (nationalism is the antithesis of my liberalism), although I’d readily take the Scots over the ‘kippers as they at least have a sense of human decency. Farage makes me feel distinctly queasy, Sturgeon would put a dent in the Westminster old boys’ club. (The Greens, though slightly barmy, appear relatively harmless, but might as well be discounted – they’re not likely to have more than one or two MPs). But I also dislike the idea of a majority government; I believe that coalition consensus-building is a good thing, restraining the worst impulses of the larger partner. Between a Lib-Lab and Lib-Con coalition, however, I cannot yet choose.

Perhaps someone will win me over during the next two weeks, and I will spend the evening of May 7th desperately hoping for one outcome over another. But it’s unlikely. At least that’ll allow me to enjoy the spectacle as a journalist, for whom, in the end, not being a partisan is probably a good thing.

And we’re off!

Today marks the start of Britain’s general election campaign. On this I have mixed feelings; any political journalist loves a good contest, with all its twists and turns, and I am no different. But there is always the potential for the worst of party politics to come out and dominate, with each side accusing each other of being ‘posh’ (Labour on the Tories) or ‘incompetent’ (vice versa), with the issues buried under screaming headlines, and reminding me why I find British politics simultaneously boring and irritating. We shall have to see.

Expect to hear Labour harp on and on about the NHS, convincing voters that the Tories cannot be trusted to look after the nation’s last remaining treasure – name calling dressed up as policy. Expect to be so familiar with Tory economic statistics that you can repeat them in your sleep (1000 jobs created per day in the last parliament, anyone?). And expect everyone to fall over themselves trying to outdo Nigel Farage’s ridiculous immigration rhetoric. It could all get very boring, especially as both PM candidates are unappealing characters whom it is hard to get behind. Despite major ideological differences, the only leader I fancy as PM is the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon – perhaps we could persuade her to jump ship to Labour.

David Cameron and Ed Miliband

Feeling inspired?

Yet this election certainly has the potential to excite. With just under 40 days to go until polling day, no one can yet call the result. Barring major upset (Ed reattempting the bacon sandwich, Cameron turning out to own most of Berkshire or whatnot), it’s going to be close. This may force the parties to actually discuss things; to persuade voters of the value of their ideas and to defend their records (indeed, Labour still hasn’t escaped the shadow of its last term). They certainly can’t rely on their images. Neither party is popular – the Tories burnt by austerity, Labour dragged down by its ever-misfortunate leader – so a majority government is unlikely.

This means that the main point of interest will actually come in the days after May 7th, when coalition-building occurs. Here, the dynamic is most different to how it was five years ago. Britain has gone from a two- to three- to multi-party system in a remarkably short period, and no one knows quite how this will play out. The options are multiple and far from promising. If Labour is the largest party, a deal with the SNP seems most logical, although the idea is so unpopular south of the border that Miliband had to rule it out. I hope he sticks to his pledge, but the lure of Number 10 may prove too strong. If the SNP are out, perhaps the Greens are in, although their early surge has burnt out and they’ve returned to the background. Next week’s seven party debate may help them regain lost ground. This is possibly the best outcome for Labour – the Greens will be pliable. Or perhaps, having forced Nick Clegg to walk the plank for his tuition fees-related sins, Labour will embrace the Liberal Democrats, its once natural allies. Despite everything this is where I would put my money – providing, of course, that the Lib Dems are not decimated at the polls.

The Tories have fewer options if they emerge as the largest party. If they are only a few seats short of a majority, they may shack up with Ukip – this is my ‘worst case scenario’ and should be yours too. Such a deal would be popular with old-fashioned backbench Tory MPs and local party activists, but would turn the leadership so green that it remains unlikely. So we could see ourselves back where we started, with a Lib-Con coalition. Many would be angry, and the irony far from negligible, but at least Clegg’s hide would be spared.

Of course, the largest party could choose to go it alone and form a minority government. This would be brave, especially for the Tories – Labour may be able to rely on a confidence and supply agreement with the SNP. It would also be quite stupid; the uncertainty would be hugely destabilising, and the government would almost certainly be doomed to failure. The last minority government lasted a grand total of five months. Let’s hope, for the sake of everyone’s sanity, that it doesn’t come to this. The prospect of doing this all again before Christmas does not appeal.

Over the next 37 days this may all become much clearer, although that would take a momentous change of feeling. As things stand, even when political journalists like me have stayed up into the small hours of May 8th to see all the results come in, it is unlikely that we will know which parties will form the new government. That will take a few more days of backroom dealing and fierce negotiating. The real question is whether, by then, many people will actually care. That is up to the behaviour of the parties.

The nuts and bolts of writing

This week I read a brilliant essay in the New Yorker. Written by one of their copy-editors, it is mainly about commas. It was a beautifully crafted, excellently punctuated piece, documenting how Mary Norris fell into a job at one of the most prestigious magazines in the world, and it resonated with me.

This is possibly because I harbour strong affection for the humble comma and the wonders it can do for a sentence. Use them wisely, and not only do they lend clarity to your writing, but they give your work rhythm and, occasionally, a distinctive sense of being yours – only you use them the way you do. Whenever I take up an editor-like role, I am vaguely exasperated by the perfusion of comma-less sub-clauses and find myself muttering darkly about matters of syntax to whomever is unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. The entire meaning of a paragraph can, I assure you, rest on a well placed comma.

It is possible that I am a little zealous in my comma usage. Sometimes I do have to take out a ‘, and’ and just put a full stop, which I find a little sad. To me, the comma is the best punctuation mark. So imagine by joy at finding an entire essay dedicated to the little squiggle.

But, of course, that’s not what really excited me about this wonderful piece. Really, it was seeing that someone could care so much about the writing process and the way that words work. Sometimes, when I am really into a piece, I am so concentrated on the idea that I only pay cursory attention to how I am portraying it – luckily for me, good prose tends to flow naturally, so I can get away with it. But during a recent idea drought, I took solace in the act of finding the best way to construct a sentence and ignoring everything else. In doing so, I came up with the title for this piece. But until I read Norris’s essay, I couldn’t get it off the ground.

Words are powerful. With the right phrase you can stoke a passion, kindle a political movement or fire the imagination. Not many other things can claim to do that. In fact, exquisite phrases, having stopped your skim reading mid-line, can stay in your memory for ever. Ever wondered why so many people can quote the last sentence of The Great Gatsby? In those few lines, Fitzgerald summed up so much of the human experience.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My bout of struggling to write worried me deeply. But now, with the ability to draft blog posts in my head as I get dressed in the morning reassuringly restored, I am left more conscious of how I am expressing myself. My fingers hover over the keyboard as I decide on the passive or active, a simile or a metaphor and, yes, whether I really need another comma. As Fitzgerald undoubtedly knew when he compared all our lives to boats, it is the nuts and bolts of writing that hold a piece together and, sometimes, allow it to fly.

A vision for the future

This week, a group of bishops from the Church of England released an open letter to politicians, in which they called for the parties to set out a “moral vision” for Britain, creating the same sense of change that was felt in 1945 and 1979. The bishops’ ideas of what this moral vision should entail may be different from what many would like, and is certainly more partisan than they made it out to be, but they are not wrong in arguing for one. With apathy high and discontent higher, this general election is in desperate need of a purpose bigger than deciding seats on May 7th. The country should use the next 80 days to have an encapsulating debate about who we are, who we’d like to be, and how best to get there. We witnessed it in Scotland over the summer – a nation taken over by the buzz of deciding its future – and it was a sight to see.

This year, I have struggled through the works of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill, among others. It has, I admit, been tough, and not the most enjoyable part of my politics degree. But if their ideas seem outdated, their writing stuffy and their relevance somewhat limited, there is one thing we can learn from these brilliant minds – a willingness, and in some cases a compulsion, to share their vision for a better society, no matter what that may entail. The public intellectuals of today (for that is what these men were) are, by comparison, parochial, although a talk on atheism, humanism and secularism by AC Grayling, which I attended recently, offered some hope. He argued, with passion and compassion, for a morality based on personal choice and respect for the choices of others.

I guess that what I’d really like to see is a politics in which a party’s leader can appeal to people like Grayling in their discussions with the public, and not be labelled an intellectual snob by the press. Instead, we must put up with soundbite populism, where Ed Miliband is judged on his ability to eat a bacon sandwich, not his interpretation of social democracy and its place in the 21st century. This is the climate in which Ukip gets away with gaffe after gaffe after gaffe, simply because no one expects any better. They can poll at 15% on the merits of Farage’s drinking habit, and although the broadsheets lament it, they don’t offer anything as an alternative.

So for what it’s worth: here’s my vision – the one that I wish someone would articulate to the public.

It starts off with a return to some of the great liberal thinkers mentioned above, and a concerted effort to modernise their once-groundbreaking ideas. JS Mill’s works should be the starting point of politics in any serious liberal democracy. Freedom of speech should be an absolute, just as he wrote; it is the only way to ensure that we’re going in the right direction. Individuality should be celebrated – and money poured into education, so that equality of opportunity becomes about raising the troughs, not levelling the crests. Every child should be viewed as a bundle of potential – especially, as Mill showed us, girls, who continue to miss out at so many stages of life.

And if we’re going to extend the liberal vision throughout the century, we need to renew the determination with which we fight society’s greatest injustices. The 20th century was the time of political rights – the spread of democracy to 120 countries (according to Freedom House), women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement. This should be the century of social rights – of women being free to control their own bodies, of LGBT+ couples’ being free to show affection in public without fear, of toleration of those with whom the majority disagrees. Instead of just vaguely hoping for some progress, wider society should harness the power and passion of hundreds of NGOs and campaign groups and really put some effort into creating positive change.

The trickier questions arise when we look outside our own culture and ask ourselves if we should expect others to honour these rights (and if we should enforce them – and how), or whether we should value our differences. On this I am still undecided – I want little girls to go to school no matter where they are born, but I am also all too aware that neo-imperialism is a nasty phenomenon and that you can’t force the adoption of values. This debate is perhaps the most central of our time, so why can’t we have it? After Paris and Copenhagen, it is more urgent than ever, as we work out just how to be a truly multicultural society.

Most questions in politics no longer have black and white answers; everything is a question of degrees. This means that we cannot simply entrench ourselves in opposing opinions and shout across the chamber – whether in the House of Commons or in the forum of public debate. Dialogue and consensus are necessary for progress. The bishops were right, politicians need to set out a new moral vision. We, as citizens, need to steer them in the right direction.