Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Boris and the new politically-correct liberalism

This post was first published on the Radix blog...

Heaven knows, I am no supporter of Boris Johnson, but I wonder whether there may be issues – perhaps of less symbolic value – but of more importance than what he meant, or didn’t mean, about burkas.

This is not actually a post about either of them. It is about the widening gulf between what is symbolic in politics and what is genuinely important because it will affect people’s lives.

The political left has always revelled in the importance of symbol. That is because they regard themselves as outsiders.

The political right, thanks to the Thatcher government, learned from them – perhaps any powerful ideology does – and began to substitute policy gestures which symbolise action on an issue for policy that might actually make a difference. This in turn taught the Blair government some of its dark arts.

As for liberalism, it has a long history, and a ubiquitous influence, but it is not what you might call a strong ideology. It gets easily deflected as it assimilates anything which is more raucous and more trendy. It did so a century ago when the New Liberalism assimilated the Fabian ideology of centralised state action. Now it is busily assimilating the symbolic gesture, the apotheosis of gesture over real action. It has put political correctness centre stage.

Genuine liberalism certainly ought to concern itself with the rights of minorities, and women – though there are also some issues for young men that need addressing too, like their propensity to suicide.

But there is no point in doing so unless you are demanding action that will have a major effect. And liberalism at its weakest has no understanding of economics – which is why this new new liberalism is I think a Liberal ideology.

Let me be clear, before anyone puts me in the same box as Boris. It isn’t the purpose of the new new liberalism that I object to – it is their puritanical preference for gesture over action.

Yes, of course, I am not so naive that I can’t see how language shapes the world. All I would say is that economics shapes it a good deal more effectively, and I would prefer to do something that genuinely makes a difference to the lives of women and other excluded groups – and anyone else – before I get so obsessed with postmodern relativism that I forget how to act on the world.

There are three problems with this new new liberalism:

1. It over-emphasises what is offensive and under-emphasises what is effective. It prefers the divisive symbolism of removing statues to acting on the economy to make a difference.
2. It colludes in the idea that the economy is an unchangeable given, invented by God some time during the creation of the world. It sells the pass on the human creation of economics and it doesn’t need to.
3. It has no respect for history except seen through their own very modern ideology. Hence the recent call for the demolition of Nelson’s column. As if anyone is going to be better off after that.

The new new liberalism is, in short, a bastard child of neoliberalism and postmodernism, that sees no further than the horror of giving offence, at least to the designated identities one must not offend. It is a puritanical creation, shaped by a nihilistic refusal to believe in political or economic change. But that isn’t the worst of it.

It also makes the devolution of power – the central strand in genuine Liberalism – a dangerous and difficult thing to do, because it risks handing responsibility to people untrained in the language of the new elite.

That is if anyone untrained in the nuances of the new public language dares to play any role in public, for fear of offending the new puritans. That is what makes me crossest – the sheer exclusivity of the politically correct. The way it excludes women and men who have not been through the training grounds of student political playpens.

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Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The degradation of UK public services

A version of this blog first appeared on the New Weather blog:

Yes, it is hot. The heat has also added a layer of what I can only describe as degradation to our public services.

But before I describe it, I don't want to be pigeon-holed as someone who believes that all services should be managed by ministers, as they were before - say - the start of privatisation in 1984. I am not an advocate of re-nationalisation, because I don't believe it is a solution to the fundamental problems - which are that they are organised into units that are inhumanly and unfeasibly big and that they are far too close to Treasury control. A bit like handing services over to 37-year-old paint-by-numbers specialists (in my experience, everyone at the Treasury is 37).

The problem with privatisation was that it has failed spectacularly to inject the kind of flexibility and responsiveness into the management of our services, as it promised to. Nor - as it also promised, though less explicitly - has it been able to provide either staff or users with any kind of ownership stake.

Which brings me to my journey to Salisbury a couple of weeks ago. As regular readers will know (if there are any), I am a critic of Southern Rail, and their part of the journey to Southampton was bad enough - broken air conditioning, unexplained delays, you know the kind of thing.

But really, I have to say, that the GWR part of the journey was far worse. Again late, again no air conditioning and no adequate ventilation, but the few carriages were so packed - I think they had cancelled a previous train - that I saw five fellow passengers managed to find some space to stand rigidly upright in the toilet. they finally deposited us half an hour late, without any explanation or apology.

One poor foreign tourist asked me if this was normal. It obviously is. You can read more about what that is the case on Southern in my short book Cancelled!

It might be possible to dismiss this as the slow collapse of the railways, which is well-documented. Were it not for somebody sending me the following description of the court system by a barrister last week (thanks, Nick):



I was fascinated to read this and begin to understand from these experiences what a degrading experience it can be now to deal with some public services, because of the absolute contempt with which the establishment regards service users of any kind. Not perhaps because they are snobbish or useless - though some of them may be both - but because they are technocrats blinded by target data.

They peer myopically at the figures that show the basic numbers and feel reassured. The passengers arrived, didn't they? The case was settled, wasn't it? What is all the fuss about, they may think to themselves.

Perhaps it is all of these mixed up together among the current monopolists and nomenklatura who manage and regulate our services - a sort of disdain which has grown up around Whitehall and the

City for decades now, and a sad belief that the numbers that pour out of our services refer to something real.

All I can say by way of conclusion is that this situation is getting worse and it certainly isn't sustainable.

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Tuesday, 31 July 2018

The old order is crumbling - what comes next?


This post first appeared on the Radix website...

I went to the Social Liberal Forum conference last weekend and found it completely transformed – no more endless whingeing but real debate about big ideas for the future. They really had made the transition, as the Greens used to say, from opposition to proposition.

Anyone who has read my political blogs will know is how I believe the left needs to gear itself up: concentrate on the ideas; cut out the off-putting rage. See also John Harris on this.

I was there to talk about tackling monopoly and the future of liberal economics. It was refreshing. For me, at least.

But I have also been wondering, over the past week, how the transition I have been predicting for some reason would come about.

I’ve argued before that there is a four-decade cycle of central ideas in the UK. We had to change policy suddenly in 1940 when we withdrew spectacularly from the French alliance at Dunkirk, but the body of economic ideas which we needed to adopt were there waiting patiently, thanks as much as anyone else to Keynes.

Then came 1979 and another shift. If you read the cabinet papers of the period (as I have), it is clear that Margaret Thatcher herself had few ideas about what she wanted to do apart from helping homeowners (read more in my book Broke), but the revolution had been brewed by Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe and their young apparachiks, meeting in Howe’s flat in Vauxhall every Tuesday evening for some years before.

So, thanks to Trump and Brexit, the old order is now staggering again, and is probably fatally wounded, but neither administration in the USA or UK appears to have much idea about what to do instead. So where, I am asking myself, is the new philosophy going to emerge from?

There is no body of knowledge, or techniques, waiting in the corner of the Treasury ready to be picked up and enacted. As far as I know. Nor do we have long. Yes, there are ideas - but the Treasury's waiting room is empty.

It seems likely that the markets will crash again in October (you read it here first, though the latest issue of Fortune carries the headline ‘The end is near!’). Trump is too backward to know what to do. So is the current UK government.

Otherwise, there is the exhausted remains of market fundamentalism, residing at the IEA and Cato Institute. There is the equally exhausted reheated thinking from 1945 wafting about. Neither is really going to cut the mustard, as they say.

Probably the only internationally recognised body of economic ideas which would stand the scrutiny are the ideas around inclusive growth – but these have mainly taken root in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than governments.

It maybe that radicals and centrists would serve the future better, not by endlessly refighting the Brexit argument – but by making sure we have a body of ideas ready for when the roof falls in, sometime next year I expect. As I say, we don’t have very long.

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Sunday, 29 July 2018

The collapse of party government

Apologies for such a long gap, spent getting my head around the privacy business of GDPR. This post first appeared on the Radix website...

It has been de rigueur in certain middle class circles to complain about the baleful effect of political parties in government, but nobody appears to be complaining now they have all but disappeared in the chaos that now seems to be overtaking what used to be known as the UK government.

The collapse of ideological demarcations is most obvious in the Conservative Party, because current divisions go to the heart of the great split that runs through conservatism: nationalism versus trade - and even Jacob Rees-Mogg has been gargling with the way Robert Peel divided the party over free trade in 1846 to save the country.

A similar division opened out before the 1906 landslide victory for the Liberals over imperial preference. One close colleague of prime minister Arthur Balfour described himself as "nailing his colours firmly to the fence".

It is worth remembering that divisions had reached such a bitter impasse by 1913 that leading Conservatives were working closely with Ulster Unionist to ferment armed rebellion. So if we take these historical parallels too seriously, we need to watch out. It is not impossible to see the circumstances where this history might repeat itself.

Nor are the Tories the only former ideology divided on the Brexit issue. Labour is managing to hold together via a number of increasingly messy compromises. The Lib Dems only appear united because they have entirely lost their Eurosceptic wing in the celtic fringes.

I have to say I feel increasingly frustrated, not just the failure of the Conservative Party to provide leadership, but any of the three wings in the Brexit (stay in, hard and soft) to understand anything of each other's points of view.

One side believes the European Commission is a malevolent organisation, bent on undermining UK interests, and that we therefore need to make economic sacrifices to escape their clutches. The other side believes they are saints, and that the European Union is a force for peace and harmony in the world, despite appearances to the contrary, and the only thing that matters is that we stay inside.

There is a third position which suggests that the UK economy is so vital that we have to bind ourselves for the foreseeable future to European rules which we have no say over at all (Theresa May's current position).

All three of these positions are impossible. The only way out, if there is one, is for the three sides to make a bold leap of imagination. In short, we need someone who can formulate a way forward - not a compromise: it is too late far that - but something the nation might unite around.

Unfortunately, we have bred a political elite who don't think beyond the game they believe that politics is. I hope that the time will come, when we have crawled away from this with the watershed behind us, when the electorate will take a terrible revenge on the political generation that brought us to what increasingly looks like a national humiliation.

Once the damage has been done, and we have cleared out the politicians who caused it - or failed to take adequate measures to prevent it - then perhaps we can then do what the nation does best: exhaustingly and expensively dragging victory from the jaws of defeat. Because, if it is Dunkirk all over again, the old guard has to go pretty quickly...

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Sunday, 3 June 2018

Average economic statistics and how they turbocharged Brexit

A version of this post first appeared on the Radix website...

No doubt it is a sign of age, but I find myself a good deal less critical of people who vote for so-called 'populists' than I ought to be.

I put the word in inverted commas because what they actually mean is ‘rabble-rousers’, and I don't have time for them. As Thomas Frank explained in the Guardian last weekend, populism was originally a left-wing reform movement which swept the Midwest of the USA in the 1880s and 1890s (and incidentally gave us the Wizard of Oz). It may actually be part of the answer.

I find myself leaning towards a different approach which, instead of blind panic and refusal to accept the electoral verdict (like the Italian president), we advocate a broad attempt to understand why so many voters hate the centre left – and why, in particular, all those Cornish Liberals backed Brexit.

And, when you think about it – there is one economics habit, above all others, which has contributed to the reaction against conventional expertise. Averages.

Thanks partly to the boneheaded refusal of UK institutions to contemplate the existence of regional, city or local economies, official economists have been staring exclusively at the national statistics, apparently unaware that there might be any other way of doing it. Because when you average out the prosperity statistics across a relatively equal nation, then it may mean something – but across an increasingly unequal nation, it becomes increasingly meaningless. One Abramovitch skews the whole thing.

The result has been an inevitable mismatch between what people’s lives have been like in, say, Hartlepool or Ipswich, and the economic experts who tell them with confidence that actually their lives must be improving because the national statistics say so.

It is no small step forward that the Bank of England is going to collect and publish regional and local statistics as well, and that they have set up regional citizen reference panels (a recommended by the RSA). But don’t let’s undermine the cynicism that this mismatch has caused – between the experts and their statistics and people’s lived experience.

It has certainly contributed to the sense that the so-called experts don’t understand, and are not on our side. Nor is it in the least bit surprising.

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Friday, 18 May 2018

Footballers, vice-chancellors, London homes - why they all cost so much

This post first appeared on the Radix website...

I’ll tell you the answer straight away – they are all a result of too much money pushing up the prices. They are all a result of the most insane inflation.

It is peculiar, though, that – in a nation where the establishment is obsessed with inflation – we understand it so little. Nearly the entire discourse about UK house prices has been about the short supply of houses and almost nothing about the over-supply of property finance.

House prices tend to leap in periods of heavy lending, but not in periods of extreme under-supply (I’m thinking of the late 1940s). Yet for some reason, policy-makers only seem able to focus on the latter. There appears to be some kind of blockage in the English mind when it comes to interfering in the financial side of property booms. Yet there now, thanks to buyers from the Far East, appears to be an almost infinite demand.

Yet we naively think we can flatline house prices by building more. It might work better and faster if we could lend less – and limit the influx of foreign buyers.

And for some reason, we don’t see that – when the average Premier League player earns more than £50,000 a week – a similar phenomenon must be at work. We are clearly putting too much money into football.

When the average vice-chancellor pay at a Russell Group university is over £330,000, a similar phenomenon is at work. It isn’t that there are too few vice-chancellors. It is that there is too much money flooding into universities, and paid for by our children.

Something must be done.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2018

The implications for Brexit of Chamberlain and Munich


The reason I wanted to write a book about the Munich debacle of 1938 was that I heard the novelist Robert Harris talking about it on the radio - and taking a revisionist position sympathetic to Neville Chamberlain.

Having immersed myself in the subject for some months, I came to the conclusion that Harris was wrong. Yes, the Munich summit, and the two which immediately preceded it, delayed world war for a year and gave Britain, France and the Nazis time to prepare their arsenals and procedure. Yes, Hitler himself bitterly regretted the agreement too.

But there were three elements I had not been aware of before.

1. The handover of the Czech nation to the Nazis involved the deliberate brow-beating of the Czech president - demanding an answer from him in the middle of the night before a 6am cabinet meeting, while the UK press was kept in line by Samuel Hoare. There was a kind of snobbery in the way the UK establishment treated the Czechs which lay behind one of the most unjust interventions by British diplomats in history.
2. The Sudeten areas handed over to Hitler included some of the most sophisticated tank and weapons factories in Europe. Most of the tanks which pushed the British and French into the sea at Dunkirk in 1940 were originally Czech.
3. The German generals had agreed a sophisticated plot to kill Hitler the moment he ordered the attack on Czechoslovakia, which unravelled as soon as the news of Chamberlain's plea for a third summit to give Hitler what he wanted, as Chamberlain put it, "without firing a shot".

In fact, telling the story of the 1938 coup plot alongside the Munich story was a key element I wanted to achieve in my book Munich 1938.

Chamberlain knew of the plot, but did not take it seriously and - who knows - he could have been right. Where he was seriously deluded was in his belief that Hitler respected him and would keep his word. In fact, I found myself comparing him with Blair on Iraq as I had not done since 2003. The two situations are not parallel; the prime ministerial behaviour is.

Czechoslovakia would have fought, and probably the French and Russians would have fought alongside them, if it had not been for Chamberlain's willpower. It was the British, in a determined effort not to be involved too closely with continental Europe, who forced the betrayal of a whole nation.

In fact, I suspect that history shows that the British need to be involved in Europe willingly - or at least that Europe finds itself in greater danger without us. This is not national pride - the same would undoubtedly be so of France, Germany and Italy. We are one of the guarantors of European peace.

As the eightieth anniversary of the Munich summit approaches this autumn, it ought to be marked in some way. It is the fearsome example of what can happen to Europe when we, or any of the other main players, wriggle out of involvement there. This implies nothing about the EU, but it is a warning if we use Brexit to pretend we have no responsibilities for the continent we are part of.

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