I met the folk singer Pete Seeger just before he died. He was jamming outside in the July sunshine, with some young violinists, playing Ashokan Farewell. He had been attending a conference near the Hudson River about local currencies where I had just been speaking.
It was a great honour to meet him, a friend of Woody Guthrie no less, partly also because – when I was growing up – the only 45 rpm single my parents possessed was Seeger singing Little Boxes. I told him this and he told me how the author, Malvina Reynolds, composed the song driving just outside San Francisco when it came into her head – she said to her husband ‘Stop the car! I feel a song coming on…’
It is a powerful song about sprawling suburbs, but it goes beyond that in my favourite lines:
“They were doctors
and business executives
and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
and they all look just the same…”
Because Little Boxes was not just about houses, it was about minds – “tinned minds”, as John Betjeman put it in his famous poem about poor old Slough. The song is a hymn to the only kind of Liberalism I recognise, which is prepared to think outside the little boxes, even though the world thinks differently.
I don’t believe this need to encourage the kind of nihilistic approach to everything that you might hear, to choose a random example, on most BBC comedy panels – I may be showing my age here – but it is an approach to life and politics which dares to think differently and to stand out from the crowd.
I have also realised that a great deal of my writing has been about the maverick approach (which is why I’ve collected an anthology of three short books, all about people living or working differently, and daring to refuse to submit to the generally accepted tramlines of thought. I’ve called it Great British Mavericks).
I believe the centre ground in politics needs a great deal more mavericks if they are going to construct the alternative narrative they so badly need. In fact, without a hefty dose of maverick, or at least a maverick wing, I’m not sure a political party can have the three-dimensional life it needs to survive and thrive.
Going to a recent party to remember my predecessor as editor of Liberal Democrat News, my own party’s weekly paper (Mike Harskin, who died 25 years ago aged only thirty) forced me to remember the maverick force that the old Liberal Party used to be. “Obstruct the doors,” Mike used to say. “Cause delay. Be dangerous”. But where is the Lib Dem radical, trouble-making fringe now?
One of only two email comments I received from party members, after I spoke at the Radix fringe meeting at the Lib Dem party conference, accused me of being “off message”.
Well, I certainly was and was proud to be. In fact, I intend to remain so. Not because I am by nature awkward – though I am – but because I believe the centre ground is the only place where maverick thinking can emerge. And where maverick thinking can emerge, then life can thrive and we can learn and move ahead.
This is a radical thought in itself – the centre ground needs to shift from the home for those committed to the world’s existing arrangements to the home of those prepared to think for themselves. It is happening, but tediously slowly.