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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