It is impolite to talk about politics in Britain. Socially-approved opportunities to do so are few. Usually they involve small-scale discussions with like-minded people, which tend to reinforce rather than change opinions. Even our one-way "discussion" with our daily newspaper is usually within our political comfort zone.
Even if you find yourself in our greatest debating chamber, you will be disappointed. The outcome is usually a foregone conclusion. Ministers pay the merest lip-service to our Parliament, which has fallen under the control of the Executive, via the Government Whips. It is a parody of its former self.
Policy is now made in small, shifting party cliques. Once adopted, each party's parliamentary troops are marshalled to support it. If ordinary party members disapprove, their remedy is to vote with their feet. So many have already done so that the political parties have lost their fear of it. Taxpayer funding will remove the final shred of dependence on grass roots support.
What fertile ground for error. If a wrong idea takes root the chances of grubbing it up in such circumstances are low - until it is too late. Political progress in Britain therefore mainly consists of detecting, from the catastrophic consequences of their policies, the idiocies of long-retired politicians.
Politeness also allows extremism to breed unchallenged. Last Summer, an "anti-war" campaigner yelling on the streets of my home town in England was utterly shocked when I challenged her views. In British terms, she was culturally, if not politically, in the right. I should have murmured "thank you" when she gave me her vile leaflet. She therefore lives, as do many extremists, in a bubble of similarly wrong-headed people. They reinforce each other's ideas daily, yet it's impolite (or homophobic, racist or Islamophobic if they belong to the relevant protected groups) for anyone else to challenge them. Jeremy Paxman's partner's Stalinist aunt has remained in her own such "bubble" for the whole of her long life.
Can political blogging change this situation? It can certainly provide an additional context for debate. Given the social restrictions on talking politics in Britain, that's no bad thing. Blogging is an excellent medium for dissidents. We can find each other across the internet, linking to each other and creating a shifting virtual political party of our own. Following the links from any of our sites will lead you to a whole range of political opinions rarely now to be found in the traditional media.
My stats package shows where my most recent readers are. Here's this morning's map, zoomed in on Britain. What are the chances of getting those people together to talk politics? I can see that some come here from similar sites. Some of them run their own sites, some of which I read. My little band of readers is statistically insignificant, but to get a real idea of the size of this network, we would need to overlay similar maps for all the blogs visited, and commented on, by all of these people and all of the different people visiting each of those blogs.
Blogs provide a 24/7 public meeting where we can discuss different points of view and challenge them. We can equip each other with arguments from different perspectives (often very different) which allow us to take the struggle into the "real world". If you are the only libertarian in the village, everyone will rapidly have heard everything you have to say on the subject. Equipped with arguments from other libertarians on the Web, you may avoid becoming the pub bore and win a few converts.
No single one of us can move the mountain of European Statism, but the overlapping spheres of influence of even a few hundred like-minded bloggers may have an effect. Our Statist opponents are too busy fearing and condemning the phenomenon to learn how to use it. So we have a brief opportunity for our invisible networks of advocacy and support to have more effect than the off-putting street harangues, pompous pronouncements or condescending editorials that the Left considers to be "political action."
Blogs may also be able to disrupt the damaging interplay of news editors and politicians. Editors seek to prove their power to readers, listeners or viewers by making politicians dance to their tune. The politicians in turn use the editors to manipulate voters. Voters - or those from that minority that has not yet lost interest - are mere spectators. It's all very cosy. This may be why the traditional media overreacts to the blogging phenomenon; far more so than the politicians. It's hard to understand why someone like Michael White, secure in his respected, highly-paid, position would deign to notice someone like Guido; let alone appear on television with him, fermenting in disdain.
White and his colleagues mistakenly look at blogs as individual publications. This leads them to fear only the big boys like Guido. Yet he actually provides a service for journalists and politicians. Political insiders use his blog to exchange coded messages and snipe at each other in ways that would be damaging elsewhere. They get to play dirty politics; Guido gets any opprobrium.
Smaller political blogs may, paradoxically, prove to be more important agents of political change. Only, however, if each blogger sees himself not as a one-man rival to the Guardian, but as part of an ideas network. Satisfying though it is to build readership on one's own blog, it is not vital to the overall success of the political project. We should therefore look beyond our own blogs and try to see ourselves as helping to bring a political case to a wider audience; including people who never actually read our own words. It's the reach of the network that matters, not that of any given blog.
The first blogs were simply lists of links the blogger wanted to share. It may not suit our vanity to accept it, but if my reasoning is correct, the links in our posts and sidebars are more valuable than our own text. The links create the network. The links send the readers off in various directions where - over time - they may find reasons to change their world view. "Road to Damascus" political conversions are rare. Usually it takes time; lots of time.
So, if there is a point to blogging, it is not to provide an electronic soap box at a virtual Hyde Park Corner. A better aim is to be a distinctive voice in a community; to use a network of readers, commenters and linking fellow-bloggers as a political medium. That's also, by the way, much more fun.
Like the Irish monks of the Dark ages in their towers, each protecting a small selection of classical knowledge, a network of bloggers to which I am proud to belong is keeping the ideas of classical liberalism alive in the British Isles. After the Dark Age of 20th Century Statism, let's hope the political Renaissance comes soon.