Monday, 21 January 2019

It is time to remember 1918, and hold a 'multi-coupon' election

I have been beginning a debate with my friend and Radix colleague Joe Zammit-Lucia about whether or not a general election is the only way out of the government's current impasse. Quite reasonably, he suggests that the Conservative Party will never call one - to quote A A Milne, "for fear of finding something worse".

What has given me an excuse to return to the debate are the rumours emerging from the government that, like me, they believe first, that Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to talk to Theresa May has guaranteed that he would lose any election. Second, that this is the traditional way in which parliamentary democracies sort out these kinds of muddles and that is to call elections.

My main nervousness about it is that - if the parties continue to pretend that they behave as if they were all of one mind - then we will be no further forward. Voters might reasonably complain that they were being sold pigs in pokes.

So what is to be done? My proposal is that, uniquely, for one election only, Parliament should wave the deposit, so that - alongside the traditional parties - we can vote for a Soubry party of Tory remainers, a Moggite party of Conservative party of hard brexiteers, and a Starm-ite (either love it or hate it, like Marmite) of Labour remainers.

Nor should we pretend that the Lib Dems are any less divided. It is just that the Liberal Leavers have drifted off to vote for others. Even so, I know at least two Lib Dem MPs who seriously struggled with their consciences about Theresa May's last vote.

Alternatively, we could keep the deposit rules in place and pay for Brexit with the proceeds.

But to be serious, government figures have been fulminating about the 'constitutional impropriety' of MPs taking control of the agenda, as they seem likely to do today. The real constitutional impropriety is a government that is unable to enact its business but refuses to call an election.

The election almost exactly a century ago, in December 1918, was known as the coupon election - the coupon was provided to candidates across various parties who were approved by the coalition government. Perhaps what we need now is a multiple coupon election, so that every constituency includes a candidate to make the case for their version of the way forward.



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Monday, 14 January 2019

The least competent government ever? No, it's worse than that...

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Have we ever had such an incompetent government? Isn’t it so embarrassing?

That is how the chattering classes seem to be reacting to the admittedly dire performance of our own government when it came to rising to the challenge of Brexit. But I have to say: I don’t really agree with their fundamental analysis. 

The problem with Theresa May’s government is not that it is exceptionally incompetent, it is that most recent UK governments have been just as incompetent, but – for reasons that may be obvious – the members of the House of Commons are no longer going along with it.

You might even call political incompetence a great British tradition.

For a generation or more, MPs of each ruling party have casts their votes obediently for a range of wholly incompetent ideas – nuclear expansion, mortgage tax relief, public-private partnerships, rail privatisation – though most thinking people knew exactly where they would lead, and said so. Not perhaps by definition, but in the incompetent way the policy and legislation was constructed.

Suddenly, the incompetence we have been living with has become obvious because – for the first time – MPs are working together to call a halt. 

The situation does not reveal an unprecedented lack of competence – it reveals and old and very predictable kind of British incompetence.

So are British officials uniquely incompetent? Certainly not, but they are unexpectedly deferential to party leaders (or they have been until now). Also, let’s face it, the UK system of government encourages a couple of pretty useless skills – doing nothing about an obvious problem or abuse for decades, and then riding roughshod over everyone to impose some half-baked idea.

When we need politicians skilled in negotiating or listening to find an acceptable middle way – as we had to in Northern Ireland – we had to bring in an American, from where the system encourages that kind of behaviour.

I know the Americans admire our system because it encourages witty repartee. The problem is that that this is a less than useful skill when it comes to uniting the nation. Still, this is our system and we have lived with it for so long it is hard to recognise any more competent possibilities.

Our loss unfortunately. Especially when the funeral bell appears to be tolling for our system of government: a case of never sending to know for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for us.

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Monday, 7 January 2019

Misunderstanding the Munich crisis

Those fascinated by the events of Munich eighty years ago will be aware that there are two books out which assume rather different interpretations. On is by the novelist Robert Harris, who has made no secret of his pro-Chamberlain views. The other one is by me, and Munich 1938 puts rather greater weight on the testimony of the pro-Czech writer Shiela Grant Duff than he does.

Now, it so happens that I have been sent a copy of the letter sent by Shiela to The Observer three decades ago, complaining about Robert Harris's opinions back then (thank you, Penelope). I reproduce it here without further comment:

"20 September 1988

In his monstrously misleading article as your guest political diarist, Robert Harris follows the now embedded myth that what was at stake at Munich was whether we should fight for the Czechs. 

In fact, Chamberlain’s concern was, above all, to prevent the Czechs from fighting for themselves, and the French from honouring their solemn treaty obligation to go to their aid should Germany attack.

Munich was only the final scenario of a policy which the British government had been following more or less consciously since it came to power in 1935. The ‘wets’ in the Foreign Office were not those who opposed appeasement, as Robert Harris seems to think, but those who concealed – or perhaps honestly did not recognise – the true war aims of German policy and the iniquity of the Nazi regime.

The Czechoslovak government realised this from the start and, with greater foresight than ourselves, immediately began to fortify its frontier, build up its army and air force, augment its massive armaments industry and tried to develop the only international security system which would have prevented the German general staff from allowing Hitler to fight a war on two fronts – the Franco-Czech-Russian alliance.

Throughout the pre-war period, we not only refused to have anything to do with this allowed Hitler to “enter his backyard” in the Rhineland, thus depriving France of this demilitarised safety zone on a frontier, and positively encouraged him to look for German expansion in central Europe. Neither Austria nor the Sudetenland had ever formed part of Germany before.

What appalled Chamberlain was not the weakness of Czechoslovakia but its strength, in the dreadful fear that, if the Czechs defended themselves, we and the French would be drawn in. The Berchtesgaden-Godesberg meetings were concerned, not with preventing Hitler from invading Czechoslovakia, but making sure that the Czechs would neither defend their fortifications, nor use their army or air force.

At 2 o’clock in the morning of 22 September 1938, the British and French ministers aroused President Benes from his sleep to tell him that, if war broke out, not only would neither we nor the French intervene, but on the contrary, would hold the Czechs responsible for any catastrophe which followed. Benes surrendered. The German armies marched in, took possession of the tanks, planes, the guns, the armament factories, and turned them against us and the French on the Western front, defeating the French and expelling us from Europe just two years later.

“A triumph for all was best and most enlightened in British life”?

Shiela Grant Duff
Observer correspondent, Prague, 1936-8"

You can buy copies of Munich 1938 on kindle and as a paperback.

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Sunday, 23 December 2018

How badly do we need Paddy now?

Of all the unlikely pieces of news that have belaboured us in recent weeks, the news that Paddy Ashdown has died - with all his drive and vitality - seems in some ways the most unlikely. I admired him enormously, perhaps too much to know him as well as I would have liked. But he was party leader throughout my six years as editor of the party's weekly newspaper, so I was often in close touch with him.

I first met him when I helped him with a green speech in 1989, after the Lib Dems were roundly trounced by the Greens in that year's Euro-elections. I remember downloading my frustration that we were still flat-lining in the polls, and I also remember the fortitude and good-humour with which he took my somewhat ill-judged exposition.

Paddy was always a liberal and a Liberal. His decision to switch the main focus of the new party from defence (the SDP obsession) to education was at least as important, in my view, as the string of by-election victories in pushing the new combined party up in the polls.

He was always fascinated by new ideas. Back to the days when he was first an MP, and rumours would circulate about the picture of his shared office with David Penhaligon, with socks drying on the lampshades on the Penhaligon side and everything neat and computerised on the Ashdown side (this was, I may say, before I even owned a computer of my own).

Two reflections from the point of view of our current national predicament...

First, the way that Paddy always managed to combine leadership with a towering rage at the illiberal uselessness of the establishment. He was always a crusader. He never operated as a cosy insider with mildly liberal views. That seems to me to be the only political way forward out of our current mess in the UK.

Second, he was a true leader in a period of history when leadership is largely missing. This was not always comfortable. The first meeting that I attended as an elected member of the party's policy committee consisted largely of the committee and the leader bawling at each other about the position he had taken on extending the remit of the highly successful joint cabinet committee with the Blair government.

Looking back, now tempers have cooled, I can see he was probably right. The point here is that he knew where he was going, based on what was possible, articulated it clearly and lead from some way in the front.

Nor was this the traditional leadership style of the English upper classes - Theresa May style - based on insisting that reality is what they say it is, with disastrous results.

Once again, Ashdown style inspiration is now so seriously lacking in the UK body politic.

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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Where are all the men?

This post first appeared yesterday on the Radix blog...

Why would a relatively sane man like me (perhaps that is overstating the case) dare to risk tiptoeing back into questions of gender politics that got him so roughed up online last time?

A good question. Because this time I particularly have something to say about men, in relation to women of course.

Because despite everything, all the violence against them and the unequal pay gap and much more besides, women have one great advantage over men. Not in all times but now, in the western world.

They have a clear vision of what they could and should become. They have a clear ethic and and an overwhelming sense of themselves as women.

This is clearly not the case everywhere. There are cultures, and some of them have outposts in the UK, where women are seriously threatened. But that may have fuelled the fire in the women who are in a stronger position to act.

They have women's magazines which spread the word. They have a strong sense of sisterhood. They have books for girls about what other girls achieved when they grew up. And whether or not the patriarchy actually exists in quite the way they say it does any more, they have a clear enemy.

This is not intended as any kind of criticism. Quite the reverse. They are now more emotionally evolved than many men, let's face it.

What worries me about this is that I don't see anything remotely parallel available to men in this generation or the one coming up - and I speak as a man bringing up two boys ("You should be teaching them not to rape," I was told last time I wrote that sentence, which kind of confirms my point.)

I am not claiming any kind of victimhood here. But I believe that the only kind of gender reform that is likely to work long term is one which provides some kind of solution for the lives of both genders, so this is not just relevant to the debate - it is central to it.

I was inspired to write this by an elderly clergyman, in his eighties, whose sermon I heard a couple of weeks back, when he asked the congregation - "where are the men?" If it had been a time bank - and I was involved in setting these up sometime ago - I would know the answer: they are at home watching daytime television.

But he didn't mean where were then then - he meant where were they spiritually? And of course so many man make a major contribution in so many ways, but that isn't the point either. As a sex, we have got some work to do - to show what it is that men could and should be now and in the future.
Maybe also to work out why men are so much more susceptible to the lure of screens than women.

Not as a blueprint either, any more than women are projecting any kind of blueprint. But there is a poverty of aspiration in being a man these days, I believe,  and it is time we learned from women, with women, how to grow up.

This is hardly a new thought. But Robert Bly's mythopoetic men's movement was a bit, well, mythopoetic. Nor do I admire some of the examples of manhood that have been set before me by the media for my contemplation. Most of which seem to be some kind of encouragement for workaholism - or some other -aholism.

No, there has to be a better way - but it has to be the men who do it for themselves.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2018

What does inclusive growth mean in practice?

Since the banking crash ten years ago, it should have been clear to the most bone-headed of policymakers that there was something wrong with our economic orthodoxy.

Unfortunately, the bone-headed seem to have had a most amazing political resilience. The terrible divisions across the USA and the UK too may be one result. The silver lining - and there is one - is that, with no steer and little help from national governments, our cities have found themselves in the economic frontline.

It hasn't been easy but I believe there is a small cadre of local government leaders in the UK, as there has in the US, which has emerged prepared to think and act imaginatively. And fascinatingly, there is really only one game in town now - and it is called inclusive growth.

This is what Charlotte Aldritt says in her new essay on the subject:

"Conventional local economic policy suggests that places must build on their assets and high growth sectors. This is indeed critical. But we should not be deceived that continuing pockets of poverty are likely to be subsumed in growth in deep sea technology or biomedical sciences or gaming software design. They might help if the wealth from these successes trickled down, but the whole reason for inclusive growth is that we have seen time and again that the chances of this are slim..."

It is in short a critique of trickle down economics, which not even the most diehard orthodoxy can now sustain. The difficulty is that city leaders, all too often, simple project their own assumptions, hopes and fears onto the process known as economic growth. As Charlotte says, inclusive growth does not mean old-fashioned redistribution; nor does it mean some kind of abandoning of economics.

She describes something of the process that cities need to go through to get there - but this is difficult stuff for ultra-conservative city leaders of all political colours. Yet in inclusive growth, we have the first glimmerings of a new kind of orthodoxy altogether, post neoliberal, post third way, post Trump perhaps too. It is such an important issue for those reasons.

If you want to join in the debate about what it does mean in practice, you could spend a bit of time in those cities gearing up to do it - Barking & Dagenham, Bristol, West Midlands, North Tyneside, Oldham and so on. Or you could come along to take part in the debate in person with the Centre for Progressive Policy (I'm certainly going to be there) in London on 30 October.

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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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