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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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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