'Popular, radical but realistic policies'

'I do know that that we have been hitting the right buttons on issues that matter to ordinary people

It’s nearly over; a very late night tonight, the Leader’s speech tomorrow morning – which, of course, will be brilliant and then it’s back to Bath.
 
If you’ve never been to a party conference you would be amazed by the stamina of most delegates. We’re up early for breakfast meetings and from there we attend some of the main debates, maybe give a speech or two, squeezing in fringe meetings through lunchtime. Then, even more debates, meetings or training sessions until late at night and finally the partying and, as Lembit pointed out, the real political debates truly begin. So I’ll be going back to the real world with my political batteries thoroughly re-charged but in need of a rest.
 
At the conference you are in a strange bubble; almost oblivious to the world outside. For the past few days – as the party’s culture, media and sports spokesman – I’ve been immersed in issues as diverse as the distribution of Lottery funds, preparations for 2012, the future of ITV, the role of creativity in education and the challenges faced by our rugby clubs. But I’ve not had time to see or hear the news or to read a newspaper (except the clippings I’m handed showing only the daily press coverage of the conference).  I’m out of touch with anything else. I don't even have any idea what’s happened in the Archers.
 
But I do know that that we have been hitting the right buttons on issues that matter to ordinary people. Certainly our policies on tax cuts for average and low income households have been well received. So was our debate, involving Graham Le Saux, on the way football fans are losing out with the high cost of watching the game on TV and rip-off prices for season tickets.
 
We even debated and voted for the possible re-introduction of standing in top flight football games, subject to strict safety criteria. Our decision got generally favourable press coverage. The Sunday Express, however, did what Liberal Democrats used to be accused of doing: trying to have it both ways. The main article had people accusing me and the party of being “insensitive”, “crackpots”, “a severe embarrassment to Nick Clegg”. Meanwhile, a few pages later the editorial claims, “Liberal Democrats should be applauded for re-opening a debate that has engaged football fans for the past two decades…Shouldn’t clubs have the option of having a section of their ground for fans to stand in?”
 
As I drive back to Bath for a few hours sleep, I’ll reflect on how far we’ve come in developing popular, radical but realistic policies that reflect debates being held over drinks, and in living rooms, far beyond our little bubble in Bournemouth.  

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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear