Monday 23 February 2009

Yes to national service?

Who heard the item on the Today programme about introducing a non-military national service? Admittedly it came after the surprising skewering of the Israeli military spokesman over white phosphorous, but it was important nonetheless, and covers the article in the latest Prospect by Frank Field and James Crabtree. This is why I think it is vital for Lib Dems:

1. Because none of our intractable social issues are susceptible to permanent change without an absolutely massive injection of voluntary effort by ordinary people, way beyond our current volunteering infrastructure.

2. Because in the USA, this is a leading liberal issue. Clinton used it in his 1991 campaign and found that it got the biggest cheers from Democrats.

3. Because it provides a potential way forward for national cohesion that genuinely mixes classes and cultures.

4. Because it provides a political way forward for students to earn their tuition fees rather than having to pay for them – the very least the state should owe them after national service is university teaching.

5. Because, bizarrely during the recession, we might have the political will to raise the money to pay for it. It is a good deal more useful than paying people to do nothing on the dole.

How would it be organised? I haven’t the foggiest. I find it hard to imagine local authorities managing it very effectively, but there seem to be few potential infrastructures at national level capable of delivering meaningful local engagement, training and mentoring, except possibly the military, but there are good political reasons for not asking them.

But the basic idea is deeply Liberal. That everyone has a basic need to feel useful, whether they admit it or not – to find, as Kennedy put it, a cause beyond self. There are problems for Liberals with a compulsory scheme, but there is no doubt that anything less than compulsory would simply exclude those who stand to benefit the most.

The party has flirted with the idea behind closed doors for years now, and have now allowed the initiative to go elsewhere (oh, what a surprise!). I had a go at discussing this at a Centre for Reform event in 2004 (see But I still think we should think about it more seriously. Am I mad?

Monday 9 February 2009

The meaning of Red Toryism

The Red Tory debate, the subject of a forthcoming book by the Conservative theorist Phillip Blond, featured in a fascinating column by Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian today.

I’m especially interested because I have been, in a small way, trying to suggest that a very similar mixture of small enterprise, localism, voluntaryism and anti-trust legislation against big business might be the way forward for political Liberalism. Yet here we are discussing it as the new direction for Cameron, backed by a whole range of Conservative luminaries.

I’m not saying I agree with everything Blond says, and there are some worrying areas – the strictures against immigration and free trade are ambiguous. It depends very much what he means by both, and certainly in his writings that I've seen, both get favourable and unfavourable slants.

Madeleine Bunting talks about the risks of this kind of romantic brand of Toryism, anti-Thatcher, anti-corporate (public and private), and it is certainly true that there are risks. Previous incarnations of this kind of romantic politics (Populism in the 1890s, Distributism in the 1920s, Social Credit in the 1930s) all flirted – once they had worn themselves out – with ideas we would consider dangerous.

Thinking about it a little more today, and translating it into American terms, I think the risks are clearer. Because actually this agenda is a neglected corner of Jeffersonian Liberalism. When it was used by the Left it ended up with the populist gangsterism of Huey Long. When it was used by the Right it ended up with the mildly malevolent communitarianism of Pat Buchanan. These are interesting byways, but not very attractive ones.

Only when it stays where it belongs, as political Liberalism – and I accept some of Phillip Blond’s analysis of the contradictions of liberalism – is it rendered safe. Because it is put in the context, as Jefferson intended, of the Declaration of Independence, where we hold some basic humanitarian truths to be self-evident.

So that’s my thesis. Take a closer look at Red Toryism, and be aware that the contradictions of Conservatism are also lurking, and take back those vital, neglected aspects of what are actually part of the Liberal heritage. An urgent part too: it is an antidote to the deadly technocracy of Fabianism which has been a kiss of death for so much of British policy, right and left, and which also lives on in the Liberal Democrats, seeking whom it will devour.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Faceless states

I do find it extraordinary what we will put up with from government and corporate alike.

For example. I bought a ticket down to Devon on Sunday. Nobody told me that, in fact, mytrain would not run, that I would be decanted at Exeter put into a bus, told I could not take my bulky luggage. They knew this but never told me when they took my money. They do the same to tens of thousands of people every weekend. Why doesn’t someone take them to court?

And another example (do I sound like a grumpy old man?). It is now past the deadline for filing my tax return on Friday. I met it, but if I hadn’t met it, HM Revenue & Customs would have fined me £100.

But it is also the deadline when I have to pay the rest of my tax for last year, plus half of it for this year (I’m self-employed). But HMR&C haven’t managed to tell me how much I owe.

They promised they would by the deadline when I called some weeks ago, but they haven’t. I’ve just talked to them again and asked them if they will pay me £100 for their failure. I need hardly say that they won't.

Worse, they will charge me interest from February 1 on my unpaid tax which they haven’t even managed to calculate yet, at least not in a letter to me with a paying-in slip so that I can pay it across the counter in a bank. Just imagine how they would all give me the runaround if I wasn't a grumpy old man.