Welcome back to The Sharpener

The danger in writing a relaunch post like this is that it will slip into pretentiousness – and in places it almost certainly does. This place is, after all, simply a blog like any other, so its significance is limited, and any claims to high ambitions and ideals are, ultimately, only so much wishful thinking. Yet with input from both its team of contributors (now around 30 strong) and its readers through the comments sections, the hope is that The Sharpener can achieve something of real value.

This blog was born, after several weeks of behind the scenes discussions and planning, on the day the Labour party won their third consecutive term in office under Tony Blair. The near inevitable onset of Labour’s Historic Third Term™ was obviously not the reason for setting up The Sharpener, but was nonetheless a subtly significant indicator that some of the problems that we wanted to address were very much real.

After eight years in office, Labour still had no real opposition. After eight years in office that had already seen wars, scandals and mass protests, they could be returned with a large parliamentary majority on just 22% of the vote, and STILL hardly anyone was complaining. After eight years in office, they still largely controlled the nature of Britain’s political debate – in style as well as substance.

After Labour’s 1997 landslide, in the real world political debate seemed to have begun a slow shuffle towards a rather ignominious end, yet online it began to boom. A bunch of people from all political backgrounds began to discover message boards, chatrooms and – later – blogging, and started ranting, first into the ether, then to whichever poor souls came within virtual earshot. Labour supporters, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Socialist Workers and unaffiliated yet politically interested people from all over the country and all walks of life slowly began publishing their opinions online. Through the medium of blogging, people who would never have met in the real world had begun to argue about politics in a way that had never before been possible.

By the time The Sharpener started up, the world of British blogging was beginning to attract notice from the press – the MSM or “Mainstream Media” which the American political bloggers, who had started experimenting with the new medium a couple of years before it took off in the UK, had often held up as one of the many enemies that the blogging “little guys” should rail against. The Guardian had already started up a few blogs of its own, and over the last year other papers and magazines have followed.

“The MSM” may remain a pathetically awful term, but if one thing is certain, it’s that blogs remain anything but mainstream, despite all the column inches they have attracted over the last year or so. When we started The Sharpener, blogging was (and is still now) a very new form of publishing – one where if you’ve been going a year you’re a veteran; three years and you’re very nearly the blogging equivalent of an institution. No one knew or knows quite what to make of it, and debates as to its impact – real or imagined – raged and still rage. Because even now, after all the press coverage, hardly anyone reads blogs – and of the many millions in existence, the majority remain illiterate and boring.

Yet if you’ve delved into the world of blogs at any point, as you evidently have if you’re reading this, then you’ll know that there is also some genuine quality out there online. There are writers who deserve wider recognition, ideas being explored that deserve attention.

The Sharpener was intended as a place to bring together some of the best British online political writers – from every viewpoint – and provide a handy forum not only for them to shape their arguments, but also to encounter new ones. It was aimed to be a handy one-stop showcase of some of the best writing talent in the world of British blogging. At the same time, where many comments sections of blogs attract heated debate, we hoped for ours to remain more rational – and for those who joined in to retain open minds. In short, we wanted to provide a blog that was better-written than average, and which could avoid the internet’s ongoing curses of trolling, infantile insults and flame-wars.

“Flaming” was never going to be welcome at The Sharpener, personal attacks were never going to be tolerated, and – most importantly – the dogmatic repetition of party lines was always going to be politely highlighted for the unthinking received wisdom that it so often is. If someone couldn’t defend their position with a combination of fact and rational argument, we hoped that this less confrontational atmosphere might help them to reassess their views and formulate new ones. We weren’t out to convert anyone to any particular viewpoint, just help everyone to challenge their own preconceptions. (I did warn you this was going to sound pretentious…)

During the last year, The Sharpener has managed to achieve much of what it set out to do. The posts here have, generally, been more considered and better crafted than on many other blogs, providing a great showcase of the quality of writing that can be found online – and the comment section debates have generally been more restrained, thoughtful, and enlightening than can be found throughout much of the rest of blogland.

Nonetheless, for the last few months, the frequency of posting has dropped, and engagement from both readers and contributors has tailed off with it. With a combination of a new lick of paint, some new writers – both familiar and less so to regular readers of British political blogs – and, we hope, the dedication and enthusiasm these should bring, the aim is to revive this place as somewhere where people of any political stripe can come and debate civilly.

When it comes to blogs, as with newspapers, the tendency is often to read only those whose opinions are similar to your own – exceptions often being made only in order to look for a heated argument over a point of ideological disagreement. At The Sharpener we hope to challenge preconceptions and provide a constantly shifting, surprising and – hopefully – interesting range of opinions on every topic that could conceivably be seen as “political”.

While the three main political parties in the UK may, since 1997, have all seemed to be struggling for the same centre ground, this does not mean that the range of political opinion in this country has got any narrower. Even within the parties themselves, there remain huge differences of opinion on every issue going. Yet it often seems to be the nature of modern political debate that the full range of views and approaches are rarely aired for fear of alienating potential supporters. This is hardly healthy, so we have tried to reflect the diversity of political opinion – and of political approaches, with economists being joined by internationalists, scientists by public relations specialists – in our range of contributors.

In the process we hope to provoke debate, and help all concerned reconsider their opinions and approaches, so that those who would once have demonised their political opposites may come to realise that nothing in politics is a case of black and white. Tories are not all evil capitalist public schoolboys, economists are not all detached bean-counters who view everyone as statistics, old Labourites are not all flat-cap-wearing wannabe communists, PR people are not all about style over substance, Lib Dems are not all sandal-wearing hippies, Eurosceptics are not all rabid xenophobic nationalists, and Blairites are not all insincere smiling drones. (Probably…)

But without engaging openly and honestly with each other, none of these groups will be able fully to understand their political opponents. And in politics as in war you should always, always know your enemy – because there’s only so long you can get away with misrepresenting their opinions before this intellectual dishonesty will become clear. If you profess to have an interest in politics – even in its broadest possible sense – you really have no excuse for not trying to understand differing opinions, and there’s only so long you’ll be able to get away with parroting the same views over and over again.

The Sharpener will, hopefully, be a place for the whole range of British political opinions to come together and feed off each other. No, we don’t really expect any proper politicians to join in (though they’d be more than welcome) – all we do expect is for everyone who takes part to treat each other, and each other’s opinions, with a little respect.

And now, with the pretentious and patronising relaunch post out of the way, welcome back to The Sharpener. Play nice.

  1. Wolfie said:

    Just one comment. The colour of the links in the side-bars does not contrast enough with the background, I have good eyesight but find them difficult to read. You might want to re-think that colour-scheme.

  2. Wolfie said:

    Much better, thanks.

  3. Sunny said:

    Whoop whoop!

  4. Ooooh! The new layout’s pretty!

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