Jo Swinson and the art of disagreeing well

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When I was at London University in the latter 1980’s studying History and Politics, a particular incident made an impact on me and I recall it clearly.

I was in a politics tutorial, one in which the very mild mannered, but enthusiastic, tutor, a delightful German of young middle age, had got the class to be a sort of forum for topical discussion. “What shall we discuss today, then?” He said, one day, as often he did. He was greeted by silence, as often he was!

“Any suggestions?” He said, again trying to enthuse. He was greeted by silence, again nobody very enthused. I was very enthusiastic, but said nothing, because I rarely did say anything, and was very political, elected during those university years as a President of the Student Union, and I did not want to be pushy or too showy.

“How to begin?” The tutor reflected. “Who would like to go first?” he asked. ” Shall we say..er..ladies…first?” – he suggested.

“I object to that!” A shout went out from a student wearing a “Support the Sandinistas, Free Nicaragua !” T shirt . ” Er.. Sorry, em.. what was that?” – The tutor interjected.

“That’s sexist!” the student swiftly responded. ” Em… I am very sorry… I do not want to cause offence…”, the tutor continued “It is just…an expression..to say…perhaps someone would like to start?”

“Well, I think it’s wrong and I don’t like it!” came the reply, her tone, staunch. “Er..what does anybody else think…perhaps we could have this as the …er subject of our…discussion?” – came the offer from our tutor. The result was that the session was a frank and fair discussion in which the very quiet class all seemed to come to life, in which, the gentle German tutor chaired and steered with decorum and diplomacy. The student objector, expressed herself with gusto, and all, including her, were satisfied, and civilised, too!

Forward thirty years and Jo Swinson has said recently, we have lost the art of disagreeing well. And well she might, for she is right! She, like me and most, knows, that in the era of social media frenzy, and of populist politics, calm has become noisy, sensible has become boisterous, moderate has become extreme.

As someone myself who favours working cross-party, this lost art of disagreeing well, is one I see being revived by our new leader, Jo Swinson. Her attraction to it as an art form to be developed, is something that attracted me to her, and a reason why I campaigned and voted for her.

It is all the more reason why I support her now as she begins to make headway on this journey. Some are calling her “shouty” and “pushy”. I think she is eloquent and strong. Opponents are saying, the Liberal Democrats have made a mistake. I say I and we made the right choice. There are even those who have suggested that she should keep her, in my view, wonderfully expressive hands still! I do not think it is sexism that is behind these taunts. I believe her stance would have been one Ed Davey would have gone with also, and faced his own taunting. I do believe it is tribalism and iliberalism that is at the basis of the criticism from the echo chamber. The default position is to think the worst of people. Jo Swinson just being realistic, becomes, Jo Swinson is a Tory enabler. Jo Swinson fights Brexit, has morphed into Jo Swinson backs Johnson.

It hasn’t influenced me. …Other than to make me even more aware of how good she is at what she does, the interviews given, the speech made, the view, she has, on who could actually command a majority in the House.

I didn’t think that tutor meant to be anything other than polite in a language that was not his first, all those years ago. But that class, thanks to him, found the art of disagreeing well. I think Jo Swinson has a lot to offer to help to revive it!

* Lorenzo Cherin is an actor, writer, and regular contributor to politics as a member of the Liberal Democrats. He is based in Nottingham.

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41 Comments

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Aug '19 - 1:56pm

    Sorry, Lorenzo, it is sexist and deliberately so. It would not be happening with a male leader. It is well known that many men object if women are given equal time, if panels are all female and if women are assertive.
    I fully support Jo’s stance but be under no illusions. Those who rant against her are primarily sexists.

  • David Allen 22nd Aug '19 - 2:54pm

    “Those who rant against (Swinson) are primarily sexists.”

    Sorry, but that just won’t do. True, a lot of sexists do exist and need to be called out. However, if you automatically label any critic of Swinson as a sexist, you just suggest that she be given a get-out-of-jail-free card for every pronouncement she makes, whether good, bad, or indifferent. The voting public won’t like that. Indeed, they might say it was a form of sexist special pleading.

  • Geoffrey Dron 22nd Aug '19 - 3:29pm

    “…Jo Swinson has said recently, we have lost the art of disagreeing well. And well she might, for she is right! She, like me and most, knows, that in the era of social media frenzy, and of populist politics, calm has become noisy, sensible has become boisterous, moderate has become extreme.”

    Correct (see Daily Torygraph comment threads) and tragic, because a willingness to disagree and yet reach consensus/compromise is going to be essential in the post-Brexit environment – sorry guys, much as I regret it, we’ll be out 31/10 hopefully with a deal.

    Urgently (because the Union is at risk), we’re going to need a constitutional convention to address such issues as the relationship of the constituent nations (W Lothian Q., completion of devolution etc.,) role/constitution of 2nd chamber, voting system(s) etc., etc. If people with as disparate approaches to government as Hamilton and Jefferson could create a constitution, in the UK we can surely summon up enough willingness to cooperate in finding a solution to the serious constitutional issues which face the UK.

    I believe in the Union and don’t want to see Jo or Ruth Davidson marooned in an independent Scotland and observing English politics (a relatively long term Tory ascendency) from a distance.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Aug '19 - 3:46pm

    Mick

    That is also correct, my view that it is not sexism that is at the basis of the critics of Jo, is not saying that there is no sexism, but this is not the main or important factor behind it. I do think that is present in the social media frenzy I allude to, but much of the attack of Jo is as much from left wing Corbyn supporters who are women, intent on prolonging the fall out from the coalition decisions and voting records.

    Geoffrey

    Agree on that and your presence as any ex moderate Conservatives, too, is a good asset, we do need compromise, and as someone in the radical, moderate, centre ground, I veer that way on many aspects, with the need to pitch ideas and policies we can have a greater degree of harmony n, and real unity.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 22nd Aug '19 - 3:57pm

    Perhaps Ed Davey would also have been accused of being a “Tory enabler”. But I’m pretty sure he would not have been constantly described as “pushy” or “shouty”. Or “bossy” or “Strident”.
    All these are words that are used far more often of women that of men. I’ve seen some of these words used in comments on Lib Dem Voice recently. The sad thing is that the people using these words probably had no idea that they were being sexist. Unconscious sexism can be the most dangerous kind. Sadly, women can be guilty of this as well as men.
    I voted for Jo, but without much enthusiasm. After the incident when both candidates said they would be prepared to “press the nuclear button”, I really didn’t want either of them, and seriously considered abstaining.
    But in the end I decided I ought to vote for the least worst option. Jo seemed preferable. Firstly, she seemed more prepared than Ed Davey was, to admit that mistakes were made during the coalition. Also, she seems to be taking seriously the need for greater diversity within the party, which is vitally important. I hope she will include aspects of diversity that are sometimes forgotten. For example, I hope she will find ways to encourage and support disabled people to stand as candidates.

  • Lyn Nichols 22nd Aug '19 - 4:12pm

    i’m relieved to hear that Jo Swinson, for whom I too voted, is aware of the art of peaceful disagreement. Compromise and a sense of the greater perspective are also necessary. It is essential that all anti No Deal MPs work together to prevent it. If that means pandering to the vanity of Jeremy Corbyn, so what? The coalition has one aim and once achieved it can move on. A Corbyn led government comprising allies from all parties except the DUP won’t be open to his more lurid plans and will probably only last long enough to permit an election so realistically he isn’t going to do much harm. I expect the patient EU will allow a further postponement for an election and hopefully a well educated referendum with sensible questions.
    I know it’s much to hope but that much postponed statute permitting the disenfranchised (15 years since they left UK) the vote, should be enacted first. My husband left because jobs in his specialisation were in other parts of the world. it didn’t stop him watching British tv every evening and cheering on the England rugby team.
    First past the post is no longer appropriate, look at the poll results posted on the LibDem site. The recent governmental manipulations of the “constitution” suggest that a written constitution is needed. The Irish and German models, the latter designed partly by Brits, should help. Some German lawyers told me long ago that they regarded British lawyers highly but not English law.
    Returning to the no deal situation. I wonder how many other people will resign the party if it destroys a compromise.

  • John Marriott 22nd Aug '19 - 4:26pm

    I fear that there is an increasing tendency in today’s social media dominated world towards a complete unwillingness on the part of many people even to consider that there might be other opinions other than their own. The classic ‘battle of the nom de plumes’ between ‘frankie’ and ‘Glenn’ over Brexit on LDV is a case in point.

    Indeed, Brexit is the perfect illustration of this change. Opinions are now so hardened that what was considered unthinkable a year or so ago, namely leaving the EU without a deal, is dismissed with shrug of the shoulders by many, who quite frankly do not appear to be capable of or willing to consider the long and short term consequences of such a decision.

    Journalists whose views many would hardly consider to coincide, such as Simon Jenkins and Peter Hitchens, have both written and talked about a ‘half in half out’ rôle for the U.K. in the EU. Surely, if you look at how people voted in 2016, that would be a reasonable conclusion to draw. In other words, Yes to trade and No to further political integration.

    However, Jo Swinson is on record as saying that, if another referendum came out in favour of Leave she would continue to campaign for the U.K. to remain, presumably on the same terms that we have now, which might be difficult if we had left, in which case that campaign would be to rejoin.

  • Geoffrey Dron 22nd Aug '19 - 4:44pm

    @Lyn Nicols – German lawyers work in the Roman Law tradition, which is top down. Personally, I prefer the Anglo-American (Common Law) bottom up approach.

    @John Marriott – rejoining will probably mean acceptance of the Euro-Federalist Agenda, which I doubt will appeal to the majority of the UK population.

  • David Allen 22nd Aug '19 - 5:38pm

    ” “Shouty”. Or “bossy” or “Strident”. .. are words that are used far more often of women that of men.”

    OK. I used “bossy” to describe Swinson’s response to Corbyn over the “interim government” idea, whereby Swinson attempted not only to dismiss Corbyn as a potential PM, but also to specify which particular alternative Labour politician he should give way to. It seemed to me that Swinson was going out of her way to kybosh collaboration with Labour, by attempting to issue unnecessarily detailed instructions which Labour would be reluctant to comply with.

    Since then, it occurred to me that a rather similar tactic had earlier been adopted by Nick Clegg, in 2010, when he demanded that Labour should get rid of Gordon Brown as a precondition for any partnership with the Lib Dems. On a separate thread, I wrote that “he set what he will have known was an impossibly high bar to cooperation with Labour.”

    Well, I think I could, and perhaps should, also have described Clegg as being “bossy”. My view is that I identified unhelpfully “bossy” behaviour, both by a male politician and by a female politician, and I objected to both.

    There is a big contrast between the demands this Party makes of Labour politicians, demands which invite the answer “No”, and the way this Party deals with Tory politicians. Yes, we make lots of routine attacks on the absurdity or apppallingness of Tory policies. But we don’t pretend that we are seriously considering working with Tories, and then demand in public that to gain our co-operation, the Tories must do things which they really don’t want to do.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 22nd Aug '19 - 5:52pm

    David Allen, perhaps you should have used the word “arrogant” rather than “bossy”. I realise you did not intend to be sexist in those comments, but the fact is that the word “bossy” is rarely used of men.

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Aug '19 - 6:06pm

    David Allen. I did not dismiss all comments as sexist. I said that those who rant against her are likely to be sexist. If you read the comments, as outlined by Catherine Crossland I am sure you will agree that they are largely the product of misogyny and sexism. It is a sad fact, corroborated by extensive research, that when women are treated equally men complain that they are being treated unfairly or that women are being shown favouritism. Also it is completely unacceptable for men to denigrate women by using words like shrill, bossy, shouty or strident when these words would never be applied to men.
    For all that most Liberals would not want it, the world is still a place where decisions are largely made by men and they don’t like women taking their rightful place as equal decision makers and thus seek to denigrate women rather than dealing with the issues they raise.
    Many non LibDem politicians are seeking to belittle our new leader BECAUSE SHE IS A YOUNG WOMAN and thus avoiding dealing with the issues she raises. Jo was elected as our leader by a substantial majority and it is our job to stand with her against the forces of illiberalism.

  • Geoffrey Dron 22nd Aug '19 - 7:03pm

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/10/labour-loses-control-bolton-darlington-councils-conservatives-local-elections

    In Bolton and Darlington Cons and LibDems are working with other parties to undo the damage done in years of Labour control

  • Mick Taylor 22nd Aug '19 - 8:50pm

    Geoffrey Dron is sadly right in at least one respect. By leaving and then rejoining we would lose all the many opt-outs we have obtained since going in 1973. He is wrong in the federalism argument. If we go back in we would have a veto – as we do now – on further changes towards federalism as these require unanimity, not qualified majority voting. Of course it depends on how long we are out as to whether the EU would become more federalist, but it’s not just the UK who are against such moves and the veto is available to all countries within the EU.

  • Geoffrey Dron 22nd Aug '19 - 9:33pm

    @Mick Taylor

    I’m assuming (as a working hypothesis) going back after GE in say 2024 (GE2019 + full term), at which point the fed agenda will have been much advanced in our absence.

  • Geoffrey Dron 22nd Aug '19 - 10:14pm

    @Mick Taylor

    Wrong thread?

    Would not re-entry mean adopting euro?

    Anyway, I’m assuming worst case scenario, but if euro it is and there have been major steps down the fed road, no way for me. Mnd you, I’m 75, so probably won’t matter.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 22nd Aug '19 - 11:38pm

    Thanks to Catherine, yes sexism, but also a sense of denigrating based on tribalism more, the comments from David Allen sensing his not meaning to accuse Jo Swinson in a way he wouldn’t , with Nick Clegg, are revealing. We can sometimes cry foul when the foul is more an accident.

    For years Joan Collins has pleaded sexism as the reasons Aaron Spelling paid John Forsythe way more than her on Dynasty, a strong charge. Not so, Spelling had signed a contract with the progressive, and very fine man and actor, to pay him more than anyone, with top billing, two years before Collins was in the show! Forsythe was much liked and respected and at fifteen years older than Collins, worthy of his status which as a man in his sixties and a gradual assent to the highest level, he earned by effort and excellent professional ways on all sets throughout his long career.Spelling employed women at the top level, even directing, rare then, Forsythe was an active Democrat who supported Geraldine Ferraro as vice president !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    We need to as ever be evidence based!

  • I welcome Jo Swinson standing up for respectful debate which I worry social media and also extreme populist politics put at risk. Jo’s comments on tackling this is one of the reasons I voted for Jo.
    Good article, I agree that cross party work is sensible, something Swinson and the party should do with either Corbyn, Harman or Clarke even though there will be disagreements

  • David Allen 23rd Aug '19 - 1:10am

    Catherine Crossland, Mick Taylor – I understand that women do face a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” dilemma when they seek to assert their views. Vigorous assertions are often dismissed as strident or bossy, while less vigorous assertions can be dismissed as timid, submissive or unconvincing.

    Mind you, nobody should ever get away with an assertion simply because they make it very vigorously (as Trump and Johnson often do), and there are plenty of ways in which over-assertive men can also be challenged. Probably the commonest jibe is that an over-assertive man is “throwing his weight around”, with the implication – perhaps fair, perhaps unfair – that the man is acting like the playground bully he might once have been. Another jibe, which generally seems to be considered more acceptable when directed at a man than at a woman, is that assertive behaviour is driven by a hormone (in the man’s case, of course, testosterone).

    I’m not convinced, therefore, that women are necessarily uniquely disadvantaged by the ways in which they can be criticised for over-assertiveness. I am inclined to argue that both sexes should face such criticism, when it can be justified.

    Where I think feminists have the stronger case is, not so much over negative responses, but rather, over the positive responses which people (of both genders, I suspect) often tend to give toward “strong” leaders. Britons relished the “strong” leadership of Winston Churchill during the Second World War, for example, even when that leadership veered toward the bombastic and the histrionic. It is hard to imagine a female leader being respected in quite the same way, and I confess I do not really understand why not. Thus, Nicola Sturgeon is to many a respected leader, but to a different stereotype than Churchill, one of quiet and effective self-confidence, rather than of bombast. Perhaps if we understood these differences better, we would have a clearer idea of what sexism and female disadvantage is really all about!

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Aug '19 - 2:43am

    @John Marriott – LibDems need to do some research in Southport, Cheadle and Harrogate to establish why they no longer hold these N of England seats and maybe get some indication of what the voters think the LibDems should be (centre-left or centre-right or whatever).

    A bit of a priority given the imminence of a GE – nearly as much as getting Jimmy Anderson back for Old Trafford!

  • William Fowler 23rd Aug '19 - 8:51am

    Democracy is being undermined and simultaneously expanded by social media, leaving politicians nowhere to hide either in their personal life or politics.

    Like all the parties, the LibDems have opposing views amongst their membership which probably cancel each other out and put them somewhere in the centre ground – it is rare they have a cause they can actually rally around (Brexit),

  • David Garlick 23rd Aug '19 - 10:21am

    Jo is right to point out that the current Labour leader cannot lead us out of the Brexit mess as he cannot command a majority in Parliament. If no other plan can be hatched then we should support him even if he fails. Better a failed plan than no plan at all.

    If I recall there has never been a time when the Leader of those pesky Lib Dems has not been attacked by the Labour lefties or the Tory righties. All mouth and no trousers people who are frightened of us? I really don’t care as we are at our best when ridiculous and spurious criticism comes our way and when that happens we are usually proved to be right.

  • @ Ian Sanderson. Good point, Ian. Amazing how those down South have remarkably little knowledge of what goes on north of the Border….. though they are always ready to pronounce on it …. having said that I once had the joy of a free bus ride in Bournemouth because the driver wouldn’t accept a Scottish note.

    @ Geoffrey Dron “LibDems need to do some research in Southport, Cheadle and Harrogate to establish why they no longer hold these N of England seats and maybe get some indication of what the voters think the LibDems should be (centre-left or centre-right or whatever).”

    It doesn’t need much research to discover the answer in one word….. Coalition. Add the loss of tactical former Labour voters, the rise of Brexitism, stoked up fear of an unlikely Labour/SNP Coalition and you have a pretty potent mix. Add a few points about Lib Dem incompetence and poor leadership and that’s about it.

    It was as much about Lib Dem frailties as about superb politics by the two main parties. If Brexit goes ahead (as it probably will) then Lib Dems need some hard thinking about what they stand for.

  • Richard MacKinnon 23rd Aug '19 - 10:45am

    Lorenzo Cherin and all commentators on his article miss the point here. We are 9 weeks from leaving the EU and all you want to talk about is the new Libdem leader, her debating style and whether she is getting unfairly treated in the media.
    Here is the issue. The art of disagreeing well requires interaction. ‘We will work with all sides but I cannot work with that man’ is the isssue.

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Aug '19 - 11:25am

    @Ian Sanderson(RM3)

    Scots law is only partly Roman Law based (e.g. in property field). Much is common law (e.g. delict/tort of negligence).

  • It’s not easy balancing your own views, your Party’s, not wanting to antagonise your base and to enlarge our target vote and often the easiest thing is to imply flexibility that can come across as weak.

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Aug '19 - 12:46pm

    @David Raw/IanAnderson(RM3) – do pack in the superciliousness, though, as you are clearly omniscient, you’ll no doubt be able to provide us with an exposition on Roman-Dutch law.

    For myself, I’ll willingly acknowledge the contribution of a great Scots lawyer (Lord Atkin) to the Anglo-American judicial development of the common law of negligence.

  • @ Geoffrey Dron. I always thought Lord Atkin was a great Welsh – not Scots – lawyer and Raymond Asquith’s pupil master…..and there’s nothing supercilious or omniscient about picking up a factual error made by a lawyer.

    Funny how touchy some folk are even though they themselves dish out Tory tabloid stuff about the Leader of the Opposition. To avoid any misunderstanding, and just for the record, I think Labour would be more electable without him.

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Aug '19 - 1:56pm

    @David Raw

    When I was a law student, I always understood that Lord Atkin (Donoghue -v- stevenson and dissent in Liversedge -v-Anderson) was a Scots lawyer.

    I made no factual error. My observation on the mixed nature of Scots law is correct. And I still prefer the incremental approach to developing law epitomised by the common law to the Code-based approach of Justinian and Napoleon.

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Aug '19 - 2:19pm

    Mods – OK, cut last para re Corbyn.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Aug '19 - 2:42pm

    @ David Raw,

    ” I think Labour would be more electable without him.”

    Who are you saying would have polled more than 40% of the vote in 2017?

  • @ Peter Martin. “Who are you saying would have polled more than 40% of the vote in 2017 ?”

    I’m not Peter. It’s 2019 and JC’s poll ratings are now very different after two years of fence sitting on the EU. It’s quite remarkable that a man with such clear radical views, many of which chime with radical liberalism, should so prevaricate on EU membership.

    I’d thoroughly enjoy his company if I was sharing an allotment with him, but I don’t think he’d know how to lead an escape from the jungle. Sorry.

  • @Peter Martin “Who are you saying would have polled more than 40% of the vote in 2017?”

    Oh frabjous day, halloo hallay!

    Back in 2017, the credulous still believed Labour was a Remain Party, and Corbyn wasn’t an anti-semitic leaver.

    @David Raw “I’d thoroughly enjoy his company if I was sharing an allotment with him”

    They say judge a man by the company he keeps. https://www.thejc.com/comment/analysis/corbyn-s-jewish-problem-1.480367

  • Geoffrey Dron 23rd Aug '19 - 6:58pm

    @David Raw – you’re right as to Lord Atkin being Welsh – me culpa. Blame an Oxford law lecturer c.1967.

    Nevertheless, I stand by my preference for the common law.

  • @ Geoffrey Dron. No problem, Geoffrey, just keep off the Scottish ginger beer.

    @ TCO. If you’re insinuating what you appear to be insinuating, and given the company I kept for over forty years includes a dad who helped to liberate Belsen, your comment is most revealing despite the fact that you hide behind the mask of anonimity.

  • Geoffrey Dron 24th Aug '19 - 7:37pm

    @Michael BG/TCO – yes, Bower’s ‘book’ bears all the hallmarks of having been put together in a hurry to for serialisation by the Daily Mail at, no doubt, a substantial sum.

    @David Raw/Peter Martin – I don’t agree with much Toby Young says (esp., on Brexit) but his assessment of Corbyn is spot on.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1084&v=L4UiNZDFsLs

    Sorry, but Corbyn ought to have no connection with any movement which has JS Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ as its central text.

  • Geoffrey Dron 26th Aug '19 - 8:20pm

    @TCO/Lorenzo Cherin

    Apparently the editorship of LDV consider that my posts exhibit a sense of privilege, so maybe I won’t fit in the LibDems

    That said, I wish Jo well – she does seem to be attracting Con Leavers like myself – political betting site and I suspect I’ll be voting LibDem in October (??)

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