Monday 16 March 2015

Time for a fiercer Liberalism - especially on enterprise

Nick Clegg is right that the Lib Dems will do better than their poll ratings.  This isn't fanciful.  The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

It is true that these are unusual times and this is a strange election, but don't let the journalists get away with the idea that Clegg talking up the party is some kind of whimsy.  I would be staggered if the Lib Dem poll rating stayed down when polling day arrives.

I missed the Liverpool conference of the party for family reasons.  I've heard Clegg's final conference speech before the election and felt proud, as I was intended to.  I felt proud that the primary school results - as far as they prove anything - have never been higher for disadvantaged children as they are now.  That is a huge achievement, and the pupil premium must be at least part of the reason.

The brave decision to provide a free hot meal every day to Year 2 pupils and below will have a range of social effects too.  It is an important unifying decision which will echo down the years (a pity it wasn't used to revitalise the local food economy).

I even buy into the heart of the speech, which seems to me to have been this:

"Britain is an open-hearted, open-minded, optimistic country. Full of decent, hard-working, generous people. Buzzing with creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism. There is nowhere in the world like this country. Nowhere as gutsy. Nowhere as hopeful..."

Now, I am an author.  I know perfectly well that my pessimistic books (The Tyranny of Numbers) have consistently outsold my optimistic books (Authenticity).  I know that optimism is tough to communicate politically because it doesn't always chime with the public mood.  It needs to be mixed with gritty determination and a crusading zeal.

This is not the mantle that the Lib Dems have wrapped themselves in during the coalition years.  In practice, and for very good reasons, they have transformed themselves into a humming machine of pragmatic practicality.  Clegg himself has become an effective operator in government, squeezing the last ounce of Lib Dem influence in any situation.

The achievements in government he listed are impressive and are testament to his success.

But pragmatism doesn't win elections.  Nor does optimism, unless it is forged into a furious crusade to shake the system up which made it so difficult to get anything done.

So yes, I want to hear a note of optimism about what people can achieve, and do achieve, every day.  That is the distinctively Liberal understanding of the world.  But I want a fiercer Liberalism, which understands - not just the wrong-headedness of their opponents - but of the various systems that underpin them.

Above all, I want a fiercer Liberalism that is prepared to shake up the economic system so that all that "creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism" isn't sidelined by the big banks, throttled because of a lack of skills because of our bizarrely over-academic education system, or squeezed out by privileged semi-monopolies.

I want a fiercer Liberalism that is pleased with the achievements so far, but angry about what holds people back - and is prepared to make a major difference.

For three decades or more, the language of politics has pussy-footed around these issues - because being serious about business appeared to involve saying you will do almost nothing.

Well, times have changed.  It is time the new Fierce Liberalism, if I can discern one, accepts its historic destiny: to  rescue enterprise from the great blancmange of monopolies, speculation and banks that don't do what they are designed to do.

I hope that will be our economic platform at the election: not just to gargle with rebalancing the economy, but to put enterprise at the heart of every area of policy.

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