Thursday, 11 October 2018

Liberalism, literalism and the war against imagination

"Liberalism made the modern world, but the modern world is turning against it. Europe and America are in the throes of a popular rebellion against liberal elites, who are seen as self-serving and unable, or unwilling, to solve the problems of ordinary people. Elsewhere a 25-year shift towards freedom and open markets has gone into reverse, even as China, soon to be the world’s largest economy, shows that dictatorships can thrive."

So begins the plea for radical liberalism in the Economist a fortnight ago, and it continued with a diatribe against the kind of liberalism that has become "a complacent elite" that might have come out of my book (co-written by Joe Zammit-Lucia in 2016), The Death of Liberal Democracy?

I know that the Economist regards itself as being a bulwark of liberalism, but it has been largely in the somewhat narrow sense in which Margaret Thatcher's government was liberal. Yes, it gave away council houses to their tenants - but never built any more, so rather undermined the effect. And the particular lassitude that has overtaken this branch of liberalism has happened - not so much because of the importance of markets - but because they were unable to think about anything else.

Radix is a liberal thinktank in a slightly different, though related sense - it is not a Liberal thinktank, as I am occasionally reminded by my colleagues (I fear I may be more Liberal than liberal these days). But liberals are guilty as charged above because they too often ceased to be interested in the problems of ordinary people.

The Liberal Democrats never stopped being interested but, largely I think because of the influx of social democrats, they too often sound like a strange cult dedicated to the preservation of existing institutions, whether they are effective or not.

What we have not done so far is to approach the problem from the other end, so to speak - from a definition of 'populism', though Corrado Poli had a go at this last week from an Italian point of view.

I don't believe, for example, that there are really any parallels between our populists and the Populist Party which emerged in the Midwest in the 1880s and 90s, and gave us in the end little more durable than The Wizard of Oz (the Populist platform included a critique of the gold standard). Though they did unravel into a kind of white supremacy in the end.

Our populists are selling a peculiar and deeply illiberal commitment to old-fashioned states and borders. that makes them the reverse of liberals. They also have a simplistic literalism which has spread through society and emerges in peculiar places.

I speak here of the horror at Chuka Umana's injunction to "call off the dogs" - I don't know how many times I've heard Momentum members shaking with rage ("He called us dogs!"). or of the idea that you can fight racism or right the wrongs of slavery by pulling down a few statues. Or even, dare I say it, some of the defences of #MeToo, which - despite the importance of the movement - suggest that the new generation of boys must pay the price of centuries of sexual abuse.

All of these seem to me as literal and as dangerous as Trump. They are also profoundly illiberal. Perhaps it is time we liberals got together and began the fight back. because populist appears to be getting in everywhere.

I was inspired by David Bollier's lecture for the Schumacher Centre in Kansas, when he talked about the war against imaginationHe was referring to the same kind of market literalism that the Economist has occasionally represented, and I absolutely endorse that. But he might equally well be referring to the wider literalism that derives from populism and has us all in its clutches.

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Friday, 28 September 2018

The Munich crisis eightieth anniversary this weekend

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Here’s the main point: this weekend marks the eightieth anniversary of the Munich crisis, the moment when the UK prime minister Neville Chamberlain gave away a chunk of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany – with some slightly unwilling help from the French.

As it turns out, by flying to meet Hitler and Mussolini in Munich on 29 September, Chamberlain also unwittingly caused the cancellation of an army plot to kill Hitler – when the team was armed and in position and waiting for their order to storm the Chancellery.

I have three reasons for being interested in these events. First, my great-aunt, Shiela Grant Duff, was Observer correspondent in Prague until shortly before them. The Observer was an appeasement newspaper in those days, so she had resigned a few months before.

Second, my book Munich 1938 came out some months ago. It was intended to make the case that this was the great British mistake of the twentieth century, for a new generation that never knew the arguments.

Third and finally, because of the article I wrote for the Guardian today, where I compared Munich with the Salzburg summit, and – by implication – Chamberlain with Theresa May. It was one of those pieces where the arguments flew around in the comments ‘below the line’. It is worth reading that section alone for a cross-section of views – worrying perhaps that Chamberlain gets rather more sympathy than I believe he should.

There is one parallel between them: both approached their defining European summit with a bullish disregard for reality, which led in very different ways to a critical crossroads for Europe.

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Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Honouring the older generation in the age of #MeToo

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Over the next week or so, we are likely to see the next round in the Washington struggle between Donald Trump and his critics - and it isn't a very edifying spectacle. Because the approval or not for his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh involves now a confrontation with Professor Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused him of assaulting her at a high school party some decades ago.

When I say that #MeToo has become a political weapon, and a dangerous one, that is not intended to detract from the courage of Prof Ford in coming forward, when she knew the storm that would be unleashed around her. Or that the underlying purpose of #MeToo is somehow illegitimate. We certainly should take assaults against women more seriously.

But then again, these set piece battles unnerve me because of the puritanical storm that can follow them, sweeping up guilty and innocent alike in their wake (and I speak as the father of two boys who will have to live with it, when they are innocent of anything that went before).

It is that storm that I want to talk about here. Because, for every high profile gaolling, there are hundreds of retired carers, scouting staff, chaplains, teachers, therapists whose fear ratchets up a little more. We all know them - they are the generation that taught us, looked after our spiritual crises and guided us.

They are nervous, not because they have anything to hide or feel guilty about, but because they know how vulnerable they now are and how few safeguards they took decades ago, that their successors now have to take as a matter of course - making sure they keep records or that they are not alone with vulnerable young people of the opposite sex.

They know that it would only take one person with a grudge or a false memory, or heavens even a fantasy – though I know Freud’s insights are no longer considered acceptable (the populist mind rejects anything where emotions or motivations have shades of grey) – to bring their world crashing down. They know this because most of them have friends who have suffered in this way.

I know for the true believers that nobody is innocent. I don't believe that, and I also know how many of the last generation I have reason to be deeply grateful to for their generous interventions, and time spent on me when I most needed it.

I realise this is controversial, but I believe we should now introduce a statute of limitations about any case which was never mentioned before, say, 1999. That is an imperfect solution, I am fully aware. Or that the Director of Public Prosecutions should introduce very much stricter rules of evidence for cases during the last century.

Again, I know that will leave some of the guilty untried, but that is preferable to the current spreading of fear - among my parents' heroic generation. And among the very best of them too, who looked after the most vulnerable when others were out speculating on property.

That is the humane, caring way forward: we should be honouring the older generation, not making them fear for their remaining lives.

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Thursday, 20 September 2018

Socialists naive about power, Liberals naive about money

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Socialists are naïve about power; Liberals are naïve about money. That is the rule of thumb that I find myself judging current policy by – and especially when the parties that represent them are being particularly naïve.

I had the temerity to say this again in a Demos/Centre for Progressive Policy fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton and I was quite rightly contradicted.

It isn’t, as I suggested , that the Lib Dems are empty-heads when it comes to economics. It is that they tend to cling, for whatever reason, to old fashioned economic consensus of yesteryear.

Vince Cablels speech showed no signs of this, to be fair – there were bold statements about tackling the abuses that drove the nation to Brexit (what the Archbishop of Canterbury memorably called the “return of an ancient evil”).

I fear the timidity about new kinds of economics has less to do with Liberalism and more to do with the merger with the SDP in 1988, when the party came to believe at some fundamental level that to be ‘serious about power’, they needed to be very mainstream about economics.

The fear of economic crankery also runs deep in the English soul, which is a pity at times like these.
And because the subject of the fringe meeting where this conversation took place was ‘inclusive growth’, and it seems to me that this is one of the most important concepts in economic policy for some decades, steeped as it is in a radical devolution of economic power.

See the new article by Charlotte Aldritt on the subject in Prospect.

It s all too easy to judge other parties by their economic orthodoxy, were it not that the nation is desperately looking for a different ways forward capable of spreading prosperity downwards a rather than concentrating it at the top, where it is said to trickle down (but quite patently does not).

One last comment on the Lib Dem conference. They rejected an amendment backing free trade by just two votes, which means that the party remains stuck in the old free trade versus fair trade conundrum.

Part of the emerging new dynamic of inclusive growth is a commitment to antitrust, and an understanding of why and how monopoly power leads directly to inequality (see the paper read to central bankers last month in Jackson Hole). It is time that the forces of liberalism, and beyond the Lib Dems, reclaimed free trade as their central economic idea – not as it has been inverted by American Republicans as a right for the rich and powerful to ride roughshod over the rest of us, but as it originally was: as a critique of monopoly power, not an apologia for it.

The forces of enlightenment have developed a new approach to economics, and a new way of sharing responsibility for prosperity. If the enlightenment can embrace this quickly, it seems to me, then they might just have a chance of pushing back some of the darker clouds that are gathering near the horizon.

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Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Time to be a little more ambitious

This post first appeared on the Radx site...

I watched the recent film Their Finest last weekend, with Bill Nighy and my favourite actress, Gemma Arterton, and very much enjoyed it. I am fascinated by the wartime media (and wrote about it in my book V for Victory). It is a romantic comedy set around a film set, as the writing team struggle to make sense of a new script about Dunkirk, within a whole range of new constraints imposed by one authority after another.

My complaint was that as boy and girl finally kissed, he was killed by a falling gantry. It was a desperate plot device that emerged neither from events nor characters - a little like the famous cheat where Thomas Hardy condemns Tess of the d'Urbervilles because she slips the letter, not just under her lover's door, but under the carpet as well.

What was particularly irritating about their disposal of the hero in Their Finest was that the reason was obvious. It was the only way the heroine could end the film as a confident, independent young woman, earning own living/washing own knickers - which is the only ending currently acceptable to the zeitgeist.

And I thought they might, we might, aspire to being just a little more ambitious, and a little braver.
I thought of this again in the light of an unusually trenchant piece of criticism I received, anonymously of course, on the end of one of my blogs, suggesting that I should blog rather less and should never, ever, use the word I.

I've been lucky enough to avoid most online abuse (except of course when I write for the Guardian, where monsters live below the line). The first accusation is definitely correct - but perhaps should have been levelled at me in 2013/14, when I was blogging seven days a week. Even so, probably still right.

But I wanted to take issue with the second complaint. The reason I blog so much in the first person is not because I am obsessed with myself (though I am, of course!). It is because I want to relate my opinions to the lived experience of an individual.

I also think, when you say something in public, you have some responsibility to explain why you believe it and to link yourself to it in some way. Personally (again), I have a horror of bland, objective opinion which tries to pretend it came down from heaven, ready-formed.

What is the connection with Their Finest? It is that we deserve better of ourselves than to fall back on the ex-cathedra platitudes which everyone believes. We should dare to think just a little different.

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Friday, 31 August 2018

The view from Hadrian's Wall - holding off the intolerants


This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

I am currently walking along Hadrian’s Wall with my family, and very exhausting it is (in a good way), where once an early version of the European Union patrolled its northern border.

I feel like I have learned a huge amount also about England and its poor governing system – more on that another day. But I have also been chatting more than normally to my fourteen-year-old – and he asked me this: if I had the opportunity to start a new political party, what would it say?

Now fourteen-year-olds, in my experience, don’t ask questions like that very often. And, when they do, they don’t usually hang around for a considered answer – which is probably very sensible. I’m also on holiday, so this is a barely considered answer, but it will stand for now.

First of all, I would wind up the party and re-organise it as a well-funded Distributist faction inside the Lib Dems. The Distributists formed a Liberal heresy in 1912/13 and left the party, led by Belloc and Chesterton, and rejoined sometime in the mid-1950s. That badly needs an articulate updating.

So here are my top three or four policies:
  • A major investment in rent-to-own housing so that everyone who wants one can aspire to own their own home.
  • A major investment of time in anti-trust, working with the EU competition authorities, to break up the big corporates, public and private, which are sucking the life out of our regions.
  • A right to flexible service delivery, along the lines set out in my review on barriers to choice, to humanise our public services.
  • A ban on the foreign ownership of land and property, to bring down house prices and to prevent our nation being purchased by Chinese tyrants.
And while I have the power, I would also cancel the expensive Hinkley Point nuclear contract and the Heathrow third runway. Yet the moment you start re-imagining a political position from the ground up, two other truths become horribly clear.

First, there may be more important issues for the future of the nation than Brexit or otherwise, and – it seems to me at least – that people long to hear them.

Second, following along from that: what people desperately want, it seems to me again, is a government that is prepared to act on their behalf. Not to fudge or to conjure up data or to come up with symbolic gestures, but to do something effective. The lack of that – for whatever reason – over the past generation has led to the flirtation with populist phonies.

Let me put it another way. If I had the power or money to start a new political force, I would see off the intolerant newcomers by demonstrating that the era when politicians showed their own seriousness by their studied acceptance of the status quo is now over.
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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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Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Time for our monopoly regulators to get off their bottoms

This post was first published on the Radix website...
The story so far goes back to the parallels between the campaign for free trade and the campaign against slavery, which realised - especially after the 1860s when the US slaves and the Russian serfs were both released and found themselves straight back in an economic slavery - that the two belong together.

That was free trade as Liberals understood it through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Free trade was, above all else, the antidote to slavery.

Then came Milton Friedman in 1962 and others since who argued that monopoly power was rarely a problem and transformed free trade into the mirror image of itself - not a means to protect the small and challenging against the market power of their competitors, not a solution to the problem of monopoly power but an apologia for it.

Then the Liberal forces forgot that anti-trust was the lynchpin of their economic credo. Conservatives think that free trade simply means letting market power rip. Socialists don't care about it either: they prefer dealing with big companies to small ones, because they imagine they can control them (they can't).

Now, bear with me, we are getting near the present day. The last supermarket inquiry (2007) dodged these issues and allowed the Big Four grocers to carry on virtually unhindered, though they have such a grip on the UK farmers that they have largely destroyed the sector except for the biggest.

And now we hear that another monstrous supermarket merger is about to be nodded through in the usual way - and the purpose, to escape the monopolistic power of Amazon, is because the UK and US monopoly watchdogs have allowed Amazon to build up an unassailable power so that now everybody has to be a bit bigger. And despite the promises, it inevitably means worse service, higher prices and bankrupt suppliers. It means less diversity and that is good for nobody.

The American political establishment is beginning to wake up to the peril they are in from allowing a dwindling number of players to dominate the markets. They have the new Open Markets Institute. They have new figures emerging too. In the UK, where the regulators are particularly dozy - and where the establishment still seems to believe, despite all the evidence, that big is more efficient - we are a long way behind the debate.

Consequently, the regulators here will undoubtedly set some minor conditions and then nod through the Sainsburys-Asda merger, citing the importance of economies of scale in order to stand up to the internet giants. Forgetting perhaps that they are primarily responsible for creating the climate for dysfunctional giantism in the first place.

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Wednesday, 18 April 2018

If you are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth...

This blog first appeared on the Radix website...

Well, that is how the Book of Revelation puts it (3:16), and it may be peculiarly good advice for the Lib Dems in the local elections.

I ought perhaps to apologise for returning again to the continuing mental strife between me and my own party, but I am a Liberal and always will be. It is just that I’m not quite so confident that my party is as much as it should be.

At the beginning of the month, I posed the question here: why do voters hate the centre left. I was not just talking about the UK, but right across Europe where the trend has been the same.

I have had a number of thoughtful responses from most parts of the political spectrum. They include the strange Blairite preference for symbolic gesture over actual action, or for political correctness over concrete solutions. In fact, there was a kind of consensus, as far as it went, that the centre left seemed to have – over a generation or so – lost faith in their ability to change anything.

Worse, it was almost as if anyone who wanted to change anything in reality was almost treated as an extremist.

Strangely, there have been two contributions along similar lines in the last few days – one in the Economist, on in the Spectator – which came to similar conclusions, at least about the prospects for a new centre party, which people are discussing with surprising frequency at the moment. "Britain does not need a new centre party," says the Economist, "It needs new ideas".

There is some agreement here too, and with the line that we have mostly been taking in this blog – that a new centre party set up to defend the status quo, or existing institutions, or the position pre-Brexit and pre-Trump, is doomed to failure.

It is doomed because it would require us to paper over the cracks that have divided the world – when the poor are expected to deal with mass immigration on their own, or the way that free trade has been transformed into a kleptocratic conspiracy to make billionaires richer, or that our public services have been transformed into unresponsive, inflexible sausage machines. Do I put it too strongly? I don’t think I do.

The same lesson applies to the Lib Dems. If they simply mount a defence of the past, or become a cult dedicated to moderation in all things, then they will fade away. If they can tap into the depth of people’s indignation, accept that the world has changed, and build a platform for a participative and tolerant future, then it seems to me that there is a chance they may revive.

Above all, that means daring to get to grips with the abject failure of the current economic orthodoxy. For goodness sake, don't leave the central task to Corbyn.

Otherwise, they may just get spewn out of the mouth again.

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Thursday, 12 April 2018

Why creativity is the future for the UK economy

This is a version of a blog post that first appeared on Radix:

I have just come back from travelling around Europe by train. I wanted to show my children some of it before the re-imposition of passports and border checks (or, as I told my friends, to see Europe while it's still there!)

I suppose I have come to three rather simple conclusions as a result:
  • The trains in continental Europe are effectively run, and on time, and they are clean and affordable, and above all humane – because they re not being run by the Treasury under our bowlderised version of privatisation – beyond anything I had realised before.
  • The value of the pound made the cities we visited ruinously expensive.
  • There is a clear future role for the UK – in fact we already seem to be fulfilling it: it is to be the world’s cultural and creative engine.
Let me just step back a little before explaining what I mean. Many of our stops – Rome, Venice, Vienna – were lovely, but also the worn-out husks of former empires which have not really survived the transition.

But English culture, from Shakespeare to pop, is absolutely ubiquitous. Even the Doge’s Palace in Venice is currently hosting a John Ruskin exhibition.

We may have no future as a symbolic gesture towards an imperial past (as the Leave campaign seems to envisage) or once again become the workshop of the world (which is how I interpret Corbyn’s position) – though we do need to return to manufacturing.

But we do have an economic destiny which we are beginning to fulful despite ourselves, and helped by the enormous success of English.

The question is whether we can begin to put our still sizeable resources towards the fostering of creativity on a scale we have not seen before.

We will have to stop, for example, destroying the love of reading and writing that most children start with by giving disconnected comprehension passages and then getting to focus on adjectival clauses and other guff – thank you, Michael Gove, for that.

Is there a political party capable of making that intellectual leap? Both Labour and Conservative have attracted a combination of support from people who are both angry and backward-looking which doesn’t bode well.

Which leaves the Lib Dems. And I speak both as a Lib Dem and a free marketeer (in its original Liberal sense) when I say how frustrated I am. My fear is that the party has transformed itself from its central purpose (the radical devolution of power) to a limp version of itself, committed to compromise in all things. Except possibly on the EU, which is hardly about devolution.

They have not yet grasped, any more than Labour has, how the world has changed. And if we are going to avoid an authoritarian future, they will have to take the lead in unravelling the hand-wringing, do-nothing cult dressed up as economics, which has led us to this impasse. I mean the idea that anything about the market is objectively true and unavoidable.

When Joseph Chamberlain seized Birmingham for the Liberals in the 1870s, he first had to eject those who had run the city – a group of councillors dedicated to spending as little as possible, and calling themselves ‘The Economists’.

It is time we ejected them again and persuaded the voting public, not just than something can be done after all, but that it also will be done.

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Friday, 30 March 2018

Why do voters hate the centre left?

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

What is a progressive these days? I find myself asking this question constantly for a range of reasons which those who know me will understand. It isn’t that I don’t know the conventional answers. It is that I’m not sure why I find them now so annoyingly familiar.

It could be something to do with turning sixty shortly, were it not for the fact that it clearly isn’t just me.

I look at the rise of intolerant forces. Then I look at the progressive political forces ranged against them, using the same old language they have always used, and the political defences for civilisation don’t seem very strong or convincing.

These are urgent questions now that every set of conventions, economic and political, seem to be in a state of flux.

The problem appears to be that, facing voters, there is no political force so battered and defeated across Europe as the centre left. For some reason, voters have turned their back on them without mercy. They are still in power in Sweden but hardly anywhere else.

Why? We badly need an answer. They have hardly been responsible for the shape of the economic doctrines that have dominated politics for the past four decades. It isn’t their fault – or is it? Here are my very tentative answers:

  • They compromised fatally with the vacuous and technocratic economic orthodoxy which has been allowed to undermine communities and lives.
  • They led the charge for the New Public Management of targets and other tacit forms of centralisation, which have hollowed out our services and institutions and set them against us (if you doubt me, try applying for benefits, attending an obesity clinic or phoning HMRC – just not at the same time…).
  • They have led a kind of handwringing style of politics that prefers symbolic gestures to real solutions that will actually change anything – not because they are cynical, but because they no longer believe in the practical possibility of change.
  • They abandoned families to their fate by embracing zero hour contracts just to bring down the unemployment figures – and remain stuck in a Fabian attitude that nothing business does matters very much as long as they burnish the welfare state.
  • Centre left political types are mainly behind the scourge of political correctness, which seems to have developed as a kind of language for the cognoscenti - again it is a substitute for effective action (take down the statues of historic slave-owners because you can't touch the modern ones).
Is that an adequate explanation? No, it isn’t, but it goes some way to explaining my own feelings at least.

The real problem emerges when I start to wonder what we can do about it, given that the centre left is in free fall. Because it implies a huge pressure on the fissure inside the Lib Dems.

My party represents a merger between Liberals and the very forces that are in free fall. It isn’t an answer to say that the differences between the two ideologies of social democracy and liberalism have now disappeared, because that is precisely the problem. Three decades after the merger, the party speaks social democrat very well – it is easier, after all – and has begun to forget how to speak liberal.

I wrote a blog about the continuing distinction between them here (I was told by one correspondent that I was ‘off message’, which I was quite proud of).

Over recent years of blogging, I have tried to set out a little of what being a Liberal now needs to mean, but I’m not sure I have had the slightest influence.

It is now getting late and urgent that they remember their radical roots, and slough off some of the old technocratic Fabianism which is dragging them down – before the waves finally close over the centre left.

I hope they do.

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Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Columbus and Amazon: one objective

This blog first appeared on the Radix site:
Ten years ago, my book about the rivalry between Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci was published (Toward the Setting Sun, still available!). And for me, two facts became pretty apparent – first, the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong that Columbus and Cabot worked together and then fell out. Second, their respective contracts with the monarchs of Spain and England were revolutionary and remarkably similar.

I won’t go into the details here but I have done elsewhere: what the contracts do is give them royal protection to take a slice of every shipment from the new lands they discovered. What they wanted to do was become the ultimate rentiers, extracting money from trade from the New World in perpetuity.

They nearly succeeded too. Cabot disappeared, at least from history. The court case that covered Columbus and his family’s claims was not settled for another two centuries – Jarndyce versus Jarndyce was but a pale reflection of reality.

Every generation or so someone attempts this kind of heist and we are in the midst of another one now. The campaigner Stacy Mitchell is no longer a lone voice in the USA on the threat that Amazon poses to the economy. Her new article in the American political journal The Nation now carries the headline ‘Amazon Doesn’t Just Want to Dominate the Market—It Wants to Become the Market’. That is what reminded me of Columbus.

When you allow any institution, public or private, to be the market, you give them unprecedented power, politically and economically. And you inevitably raise transaction costs for everyone.

It also corrodes those businesses which use it. This is how Stacy puts it:

“Setting up shop on Amazon’s platform has helped Gazelle Sports stabilize its sales. But it’s also put the company on a treacherous footing. Amazon, which did not respond to an interview request, touts its platform as a place where entrepreneurs can “pursue their dreams.” Yet studies indicate that the relationship is often predatory. Harvard Business School researchers found that when third-party sellers post new products, Amazon tracks the transactions and then starts selling many of their most popular items itself. And when it’s not using the information that it gleans from sellers to compete against them, Amazon uses it to extract an ever larger cut of their revenue.”

It may not seem so yet on this side of the Atlantic, where we tolerate tyrants in peculiar ways, but in the USA it is increasingly clear that Amazon’s days are numbered.

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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

The problem with imperialist public services

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...
I haven’t ever given a lecture to nursing students before, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so last week. but it was also a bit of an eye-opener. I know the NHS is formally committed to ‘co-production’ in theory – though I’m not sure how they define it – but I don’t think I had realised quite how far it has moved away from it in practice.

I’m sure this is not the case everywhere, but it was a shock to someone like me who has spent most of their so-called career advocating closer, more human and more flexible relationships between professionals and patients.

I give a similar talk regularly to doctors and they seem to understand where I am coming from and, up to a point, support it. But it was clear to me that some of the nurses did not see human relationships that are encouraging as practical in their corners of the NHS.

Welcome to the world of ‘patient-centred care’.

This is the philosophy behind the way patients are treated, not everywhere, but especially perhaps in specialist centres. It means you certainly can’t challenge patients, or ask them for their help. Nor can you encourage them. And if they don’t respond to the process you offer them, you simply strike them off for being ‘non-compliant’.

It is of course precisely the opposite of patient-centred care. Doublethink, as Orwell would have put it. It is an idea borrowed partly from the economists’ version of public service choice which used to frown on encouragement from doctors in case they imposed their ideas and preferences on patients.

In fact, what I know from being the independent reviewer on choice at the Cabinet Office some years ago, the main choice people want to make in healthcare hasn’t got anything to do with where they want to be treated. They want a doctor who will answer the question”what would you do if you were me, doctor?” – the very question the economists hate most.

But patient-centred care owes itself to a dubious Treasury-inspired view of efficiency, imposed on public services as if they were imperialist outposts administering to an unreliable race, a view that also owes something to the idea that sparing the rod will spoil the patient.

The same approach to sanctioning ‘non-compliant’ service users started in benefits and now seems to have spread to the NHS. How else should we understand today’s story of the five-year-old girl who died of an asthma attack after being turned way from an emergency appointment for being more than ten minutes late. Would that have been possible if there had been a human relationship between patient and professional.

Since the days of Blair and Brown, service have teetered on the brink of an imperialist model and, if we are not careful, they may be now tumbling over. It is not at all efficient, in fact, because it is so ineffective.

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Tuesday, 13 February 2018

The strange rebirth of Liberal economics

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Once upon a time, I was a member of the Lib Dem's federal policy committee. I used to irritate Danny Alexander and other luminaries by claiming that Liberals had made no contribution to economic debate since John Maynard Keynes had breathed his last in 1946. In retrospect, this wasn't terribly helpful of me, but I believe it to be true.

I don't include in this stricture, of course, the so-called 'neo-liberals', who are not Liberals in any sense of the term. Their main contribution has been their scepticism about the dangers of monopoly power - which makes them the reverse of Liberals. In fact, for some reason - and for discussion in another column - the Liberals allowed their central idea of free trade to be hijacked, turned inside out and made to mean the precise reverse of what it originally meant.

A doctrine that allowed the weak to challenge the strong has been allowed to bundle up the economically weak, and hand them over bound and gagged into the arms of the monopolies.

So what is changing? Well, absolutely nothing in the UK I'm afraid. But last summer, Barry Lynn, working on open markets at the New America Foundation and was sacked for criticising Google. He became a cause celebre, and has a head of steam behind his campaign against the emerging monopoly power in the USA, especially among the tech companies, Facebook, Amazon and Google.

I met him again a couple of weeks ago and he believes action will soon be taken. Among the people he saw in London was Vince Cable.

The central idea in the way of reform is that idea that, if the government gets out of the way - and businesses get as dominant in the market as they can - then consumers will always benefit. Research in the USA suggests this isn't actually the case.

Economists Jan de Loecker and Jan Eeckhout have found that prices are now 67 per cent above costs when they used to be just 18 per cent, and other evidence that consolidation is driving up prices. German Gutierrez and Thomas Philippon have also found that business investment as a share of GDP has been falling – probably because of the increasing market power of companies. See how Bloomberg reported the issue.

Ever so slowly, and not so far in the UK, the tide is turning - and researchers are waking up to the great fallacy we have been living under for the past generation. But the shift still needs to conquer the regulators, who remain largely in thrall to the old fantasies of the industrial age - of economies of scale and the other temporary truths of assembly line organisation. Even in 1994, the US Department of Trade opened 22 investigations into monopoly power. In 2015, it was three. In 2014, they didn’t open any.

Still, history is sweeping back into the economics of liberalism. It is time Liberals dusted down their own explanations before it sweeps past them.

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