I went to the annual Schumacher lectures in Bristol on Saturday, and fascinating it was. In fact, so fascinating, that it has led me to try to put into words a bit better why I feel so frustrated with political parties at the moment – even my own.
It wasn’t that I heard anything especially new – though there were some fascinating insights – it was the sheer energy in the room that made me realise how much the world outside politics is shifting.
The Schumacher Lectures have toddled along for decades on the fringes of the mainstream, but something is happening. The huge conference hall next to the Bristol City Council chamber was packed with 400 people who showed up. My own workshop on the future of money attracted 150 people the first time, and another 100 the second time I ran it an hour later. We lefties are not used to workshops on quite that scale.
Those who came were imaginative, intelligent and interesting. I noticed a number of Lib Dems in the audience too, which was reassuring (hello Paul, George, etc!) I would say they were all pretty committed to the idea that serious changes are needed in our economics and politics because of the climate, energy and financial crisis. But they also believed in the future. They know it’s going to be different.
So why do I find myself, in mainstream political policy discussions, slogging through the same old arguments about taxing, spending and the size of the state, which we were doing three decades ago?
It isn’t that the outcomes are unimportant. I’m as committed as the next person to a fairer, more equal society. But I’m also aware of how little has been achieved in the conventional Beveridge consensus, or the privatising Thatcherite one that followed it. And if Liberal Democrats aren’t in the forefront of new thinking, who is? But are we?