Other gubbins

Why bother?

Last Thursday saw this blog’s first anniversary. I’ve been thinking about why I put the time into it. There are hundreds – thousands – of bloggers out there. And that’s just in the politics field. Each blogger has his or her own mixture of reasons for launching their thoughts on an unsuspecting world that is – initially at least – pretty indifferent to them. Plenty of bloggers have shared their reasons. Maybe it has become conventional to do so. A bit of a cliché. It is surely a bit self-indulgent. But there you go.

Anyway, here are my thoughts, should you be interested.

I hadn’t really planned to start writing op-ed pieces and political commentary online. My first piece – Dave the Deficit Hawk – was produced in response to an early speech by Prime Minister Cameron. I disagreed almost viscerally with his analysis of the problem facing the UK economy and the public sector’s role in it. The sheer wrong-headedness of much of what he said was, as far as I was concerned, self-evident. How to respond? Rather than just sit there seething at the stupidity on display I reached for the response that came most easily to me as a lifetime academic – I wrote some thoughts down.

The piece was primarily therapeutic. It was written primarily to get that acute feeling of annoyance out of my system. But I hadn’t thought what I’d do with it once I’d written it. I shared the piece with one or two colleagues, who thought it made sense and was saying something relevant. One suggested sending it to a national newspaper. But that felt like too radical a step. So, for want of anything better to do, I posted it on the web in the only place I had available, which was pretty obscure. I don’t suppose the piece got much of an audience at the time. It’ll probably get more hits from the link above. But I felt better for having done it. And I quite enjoyed the process.

In political terms, I am member of the Liberal Democrats and the Social Liberal Forum. I would put myself at the most maximal of the social liberal end of the spectrum of views within the party. I have no problem with the idea that there is plenty that can and should be done by the State and that the state can achieve things that are not possible for other bodies or social arrangements. On the other hand, I don’t believe that it is sensible or wise for the State to control large chunks of economic activity. One cannot assume that, by definition, the incentives in the public sector are appropriate to deliver efficient and effective services. Some things are better achieved by markets plus suitable regulation. And we must be continually vigilant regarding the risks to civil and human rights of an over-mighty state assuming ever more power for itself.

Given this perspective, it should be no great surprise that I don’t feel very comfortable under the Coalition. Indeed, most of the time I feel rather like we – Lib Dems in particular – are visiting rather alien and uncomfortable political territory.

Following that first piece on David Cameron I decided maybe I’d have another go. I was presented with the most basic challenges facing online writers starting out: What are you trying to say? And how do you find an audience who might be interested in hearing it? At that time my familiarity with the online political community was pretty much non-existent. I’d had almost no engagement with the blogosphere and the like. It didn’t take long to discover there is a mass of online material – ranging from the brilliantly insightful to the absolutely dreadful – being generated from across the political spectrum, and this was happening as a real-time commentary on political events. Is there anything sensible to add? And, if so, how do you get yourself heard?

After a couple of early pieces I concluded – to my own satisfaction at least – I probably did have something distinctive to say to someone. As for finding and building and audience, that’s an ongoing challenge for us all.

Bloggers are frequently advised that it is a good idea to post little and often if they want to build an audience. That gets readers coming back regularly in search of new material. Some of the most high profile bloggers publish brief posts two or three times a day. As far as I’m concerned that was never going to happen on a regular basis. I couldn’t justify the time. And I’m very well aware that brevity isn’t my forte. Instead I tend to post longer pieces less frequently: mini-essays more than conventional blog posts. Some of them are not all that “mini”: they weigh in at 2,000-3,000 words and are full blown essays. These posts can only really find a home in this form on my own blog. The discussion of housing policy that I wrote at the end of 2010 – Piecing together the housing policy jigsaw – was originally written as a single essay. In the end it was broken up and published at Liberal Democrat Voice in four parts of more standard blog length.

So I guess my approach differs from that taken by many bloggers. Many of my posts are informed by arguments that are circulating in the relevant academic literature. Sometimes I refer explicitly to that literature. But often I do so only indirectly. Inevitably the posts gravitate towards the material that I have to work with professionally. But given my interest is public policy, in particular the construction of political problems and narratives, that leaves plenty of scope to engage with events as they emerge.

Even though my blogging is perhaps sometimes a bit ‘academic’ I do not see much point in blogging by writing ‘academically’. That is, in a self-consciously convoluted and inaccessible way. The point is more to draw on academic argument or concepts as an aid to reflecting on events and debates that are part of contemporary policy debate as it develops – hopefully in a way that isn’t too off-putting to those who aren’t particularly interested in the academic arguments themselves.

The quality of current political debate is – on all sides of the political spectrum – rather poor. The problems the country faces are considerable. But their nature and extent are not brute facts that speak for themselves. They have to be interpreted and constructed. They can be manipulated to further implicit, and perhaps less laudable, ends. The way in which arguments are advanced and abused, the way in which evidence is presented – even invented – in attempts to persuade, the way in which policies that are inchoate – if not downright incoherent – are brought forward: these are all reasons why critical engagement with the machinations of an increasingly insular political class is more important than ever. This is what keeps me blogging.

The immediacy of blogging makes it the ideal format for such engagement. It offers the closeted academic opportunities to come down from that mythical ivory tower and engage with the contemporary policy agenda in ways that are impossible through conventional academic writing. An academic paper can take anything up to three years from conception to publication in a journal, and the response from academic peers can arrive months or even years later. With the arrival of online pre-publication and online-only journals these timescales are decreasing, but it can still be a matter of months from completion to publication. And the reach of such writing beyond the specialist audience is often non-existent. The likelihood that such articles can have any direct leverage over contemporary policy debate is extremely small.

In comparison, a timely blog post offering a rapid response to a policy pronouncement will get most of its hits and comments within two or three days of publication. And a rapid response at least opens up the possibility that something you say will connect more directly with participants in the policy debate in a way that, however marginally, has some influence over the course of events. I’ve had enough backlinks, retweets, and the like – and enough kind and positive comments on my posts – to suggest that what I’m saying is connecting now and again.

And this is what keeps me blogging. So I’m going to continue to blog not only here, but also at Dale&Co, Liberal Democrat Voice and, occasionally, the Policy Press blog. Hopefully see you again here or there some time soon.

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