Wednesday 20 May 2015

Perils of centralism: don't ignore the emerging Liberalism from the right

Listening to the fall-out from Steve Hilton's proposal that bankers should earn packages in line with senior civil servants suddenly flung me back five years to the start of the coalition, when I proposed something similar to a packed meeting of Lib Dem special advisors and parliamentarians.

An icy cold fell on the room as they looked down the table at me.  "How would you do that?" someone asked, with a tone that was if anything even cooler.

"Tax their bonuses at 95 per cent?" I said hopefully, and a little interrogatively, but I had lost my audience.  Nobody replied.  The core of the Lib Dems was already re-shaping itself around what Whitehall regarded as the practicalities - which pretty much ruled out discussion about anything...

(a) The coalition partners would veto,
(b) That would fall foul of the Treasury, or
(c) That fell outside traditional assumptions or existing legislation.

I learned something in that exchange.  It made sense to be overwhelmingly pragmatic at that time, and I forced myself to Think Practical, which was extremely good for me.  But we need to do more than mould ourselves around the immediate circumstances, at least if we're going to meet the challenges of the future.

Listening to Steve Hilton on Start the Week, the previous day, also flung me back to my mood at the beginning of the coalition years, aware that he was a radical at the heart of the coalition machine - and that seemed at the time to make some things possible.

I know he has come in for criticism from most sides.  Former Lib Dem SPADs have been less than complimentary about him in the last few days.  One leading Conservative even called his ideas juvenile.  Actually, I believe his emphasis on rebuilding institutions to make them more human is extremely important, even if the details may not be finalised (he says quickly, to reassure the former special advisors).  It may even be the most important new political theme.

I've written something along parallel lines myself, in The Human Element.

But just for a while, in those first few weeks in 2010, I began to hope that a combination of Liberal radicalism and Hilton-esque Conservatism might actually amount to more than the sum of their parts.  I hoped there might be changes we could make with the Conservatives that it would have been hard to do with Labour - radical devolution, genuine diversity in public services, major banking reforms....

For a moment I wondered whether we might actually set services free from central targets (we actually turbo-charged the targets as 'payment by results' contracts).

I wondered whether the Big Society might genuinely shift resources towards more informal mutual support inside public services (actually it turned out to have few intellectual roots, and to have ignored what was
already being pioneered).

I even wondered whether we might, as we certainly should have done, break up the dysfunctional banks to create a more effective lending sector, as every other country in Europe has (we didn't).

These didn't happen.  But it is interesting that there is an emerging critique of institutions from the political right that looks remarkably Liberal (see what Douglas Carswell wrote today about spreading power).

So this is my conclusion about the debate about 'Liberal centrism' which I appear to be conducting with Stephen Tall.

Unless the Lib Dems can articulate this much more clearly and powerfully than they have done in recent years, instead of worrying too much about staying in the middle, other parties on all sides of the political divide will do it instead.  Then the precise business of pinpointing the centre ground won't matter.

In the meantime, I've ordered Hilton's book More Human (published tomorrow).  He and I are using the same language and I want to see if we're talking about the same bundle of ideas.

I'll report back when I've read it!

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