Martin Keegan: Chris Lightfoot

March 21, 2007
Chris Lightfoot

Of very few people can it be said ``He made his country more democratic'', but Chris Lightfoot was one of them.

The nuts and bolts of how Britain is governed fascinated Chris, and he was deeply concerned about the role freedom of speech and privacy played in the various mechanisms. He believed that it took a long time to fix a country which had been messed up (not his exact term), but that it was possible, and that even a private individual might be able to make some improvement to the machinery by which he was governed. For the last few years of his life, one of Chris's occupations was involvement with the varied means of influencing our political system: voting, writing to MPs, Parliamentary divisions, public consultations, Parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, lobbying MPs, public meetings, demonstrations, petitions. These are all institutions, of differing formality, which permit information about people's preferences to influence political decision-making. Chris tried to make them work better: he helped write the Downing Street petition site, and the TheyWorkForYou monitor of Parliamentary activity. The latter is held up by Daniel Hannan MEP almost as evidence of the superiority of the British political system: that our MPs are well-watched!

Chris had a body of canonical literature: George Orwell's writings on language and civil liberties, Yes Minister, Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica, the songs of Tom Lehrer and Michael Flanders, Peter Hennessy on Whitehall, Edward Luttwak's "Coup d'état, a Practical Handbook" (2nd edition), and so on. His vision of how we are governed was a bleak one and cynical; two pieces of writing he drew my attention to were Stasiland, about the former East Germany, and one I have not been able since to locate, something Orwell wrote about the reason for writing 1984: to rebut the claim from his comrades that in a totalitarian society, the artist, the writer or the thinker will be "free in his mind", and monitoring, levelling, censoring and so on will not harm him too greatly.

The life of the mind mattered greatly to Chris. He maintained a stance of critical engagement with the world around him, always arguing, questioning and investigating, and knew that it was bad for societies if people couldn't do this fearlessly. The café below his flat was the scene of weekly intellectual jousts with his friends; you could tell when he finally agreed with you, as his lips weren't moving. In blogs and email, and in letters to newspapers and MPs, he carried on spirited and often wickedly funny brawl with his interlocutors. His blog was known as an excoriating but rigorous scourge of authoritarians, libertarians ("libertoonians", to Chris) and sloppy thinking and public deceit in general.

Two posts which should be read from his blog are Papers Displease and ... but one hundred thousand deaths is an easily-abused statistic, the former taking the ID cards debate well above the intellectual level it reached in Parliament or the press, and the latter infused with deep moral anger. Chris was a superb prose stylist, and the body count post is characteristic of his mixture of swearing with otherwise highly formal academic diction. (He was a big fan of Orwell's ``Politics and the English Language'').

Prose was not the only way he communicated ideas. Chris was interested in how information could be extracted from other information, by statistical methods, or by the sorts of inference and heuristics used by the likes of Google, Autonomy and Transversal (one of his former employers), and how information could be presented visually. His blog was well-known for its use of extraordinary diagrams, the fact even being mentioned by a great comment on his obituary post, by American teenager Neil Thrun.

Chris had a great sense of fun, and a very broad range of intellectual interests. What he found unimportant or uninteresting is intriguing. He claimed to believe that philosophy was properly a branch of and continuous with physics, and affected to claim that there was no objective answer to moral questions, though giving so much of his time to helping others is hard to reconcile with that. He was the political scientist who'd never read Rawls (Britain is producing fewer than the socially optimal number of these). He loved cute animals and hated cheese, pizza restaurants, and anywhere that he'd had bad customer service.

The first time I properly met Chris was in 1999. He turned up, uninvited but most welcome, at a JCN garden party with the words ``You're trying to take over the world, and I think you might need my help''.

There are many memories, and the café and curry-house arguments all merge into one, but two more must be shared. Chris and I attended a meeting at Churchill College about biometrics, at which the Icelandic Justice Minister and long-term blogger Björn Bjarnason was a panellist. Whereas I contented myself with taunting the postmodernists about whether ``so-called biometric "objectivity" plays an inevitably reactionary rôle in permitting (etc, etc)'' but hilariously got taken seriously, Chris gave the Minister both barrels. Bjarnason seemed to think that all duplicate asylum applications were illegitimate and that biometrics would prevent them cheaply, and Chris asked whether a Zimbabwean beaten up by Mugabe's thugs yet accorded insufficiently brutalised to stay in Iceland and subsequently sent back to be beaten up some more, should, on a subsequent application at a time when the threat to his life and person were even greater, be summarily rejected on the grounds of previous application. When he didn't get a straight answer, he just kept pressing and forcing the Minister into ever more outrageous admissions.

Chris was in his element as a public speaker. We were both invited to Norwich once to speak about identity cards, and sat in the hall of a United Reformed Church waiting for the meeting to begin and admiring a superb example of what Chris dubbed "serious communications hardware", a 1920s wooden lectern. When it was his turn to speak, he stood behind it clasping the sides magisterially with his hands, illuminating the room more than the projector screen behind him.

It is a measure of the man that at 28 he merited an obituary in The Times and the attendance at his funeral of the local MP. His legacy will be a little sliver of the credit for all the little differences made to people's lives because their politicians are slightly more transparent and accountable.

So farewell then, Chris Lightfoot, practical democrat, civil libertarian, programmer, writer, statistician, lapsed PhD student, thinker, speaker, satirist, scourge of idiots, wit, campaigner and friend. You left this world better than you found it; may you at last find peace.

Posted by mk270 at March 21, 2007 03:27 PM (permalink), 0 comments (Post | View)