Wednesday 18 April 2018

If you are neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth...

This blog first appeared on the Radix website...

Well, that is how the Book of Revelation puts it (3:16), and it may be peculiarly good advice for the Lib Dems in the local elections.

I ought perhaps to apologise for returning again to the continuing mental strife between me and my own party, but I am a Liberal and always will be. It is just that I’m not quite so confident that my party is as much as it should be.

At the beginning of the month, I posed the question here: why do voters hate the centre left. I was not just talking about the UK, but right across Europe where the trend has been the same.

I have had a number of thoughtful responses from most parts of the political spectrum. They include the strange Blairite preference for symbolic gesture over actual action, or for political correctness over concrete solutions. In fact, there was a kind of consensus, as far as it went, that the centre left seemed to have – over a generation or so – lost faith in their ability to change anything.

Worse, it was almost as if anyone who wanted to change anything in reality was almost treated as an extremist.

Strangely, there have been two contributions along similar lines in the last few days – one in the Economist, on in the Spectator – which came to similar conclusions, at least about the prospects for a new centre party, which people are discussing with surprising frequency at the moment. "Britain does not need a new centre party," says the Economist, "It needs new ideas".

There is some agreement here too, and with the line that we have mostly been taking in this blog – that a new centre party set up to defend the status quo, or existing institutions, or the position pre-Brexit and pre-Trump, is doomed to failure.

It is doomed because it would require us to paper over the cracks that have divided the world – when the poor are expected to deal with mass immigration on their own, or the way that free trade has been transformed into a kleptocratic conspiracy to make billionaires richer, or that our public services have been transformed into unresponsive, inflexible sausage machines. Do I put it too strongly? I don’t think I do.

The same lesson applies to the Lib Dems. If they simply mount a defence of the past, or become a cult dedicated to moderation in all things, then they will fade away. If they can tap into the depth of people’s indignation, accept that the world has changed, and build a platform for a participative and tolerant future, then it seems to me that there is a chance they may revive.

Above all, that means daring to get to grips with the abject failure of the current economic orthodoxy. For goodness sake, don't leave the central task to Corbyn.

Otherwise, they may just get spewn out of the mouth again.

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Thursday 12 April 2018

Why creativity is the future for the UK economy

This is a version of a blog post that first appeared on Radix:

I have just come back from travelling around Europe by train. I wanted to show my children some of it before the re-imposition of passports and border checks (or, as I told my friends, to see Europe while it's still there!)

I suppose I have come to three rather simple conclusions as a result:
  • The trains in continental Europe are effectively run, and on time, and they are clean and affordable, and above all humane – because they re not being run by the Treasury under our bowlderised version of privatisation – beyond anything I had realised before.
  • The value of the pound made the cities we visited ruinously expensive.
  • There is a clear future role for the UK – in fact we already seem to be fulfilling it: it is to be the world’s cultural and creative engine.
Let me just step back a little before explaining what I mean. Many of our stops – Rome, Venice, Vienna – were lovely, but also the worn-out husks of former empires which have not really survived the transition.

But English culture, from Shakespeare to pop, is absolutely ubiquitous. Even the Doge’s Palace in Venice is currently hosting a John Ruskin exhibition.

We may have no future as a symbolic gesture towards an imperial past (as the Leave campaign seems to envisage) or once again become the workshop of the world (which is how I interpret Corbyn’s position) – though we do need to return to manufacturing.

But we do have an economic destiny which we are beginning to fulful despite ourselves, and helped by the enormous success of English.

The question is whether we can begin to put our still sizeable resources towards the fostering of creativity on a scale we have not seen before.

We will have to stop, for example, destroying the love of reading and writing that most children start with by giving disconnected comprehension passages and then getting to focus on adjectival clauses and other guff – thank you, Michael Gove, for that.

Is there a political party capable of making that intellectual leap? Both Labour and Conservative have attracted a combination of support from people who are both angry and backward-looking which doesn’t bode well.

Which leaves the Lib Dems. And I speak both as a Lib Dem and a free marketeer (in its original Liberal sense) when I say how frustrated I am. My fear is that the party has transformed itself from its central purpose (the radical devolution of power) to a limp version of itself, committed to compromise in all things. Except possibly on the EU, which is hardly about devolution.

They have not yet grasped, any more than Labour has, how the world has changed. And if we are going to avoid an authoritarian future, they will have to take the lead in unravelling the hand-wringing, do-nothing cult dressed up as economics, which has led us to this impasse. I mean the idea that anything about the market is objectively true and unavoidable.

When Joseph Chamberlain seized Birmingham for the Liberals in the 1870s, he first had to eject those who had run the city – a group of councillors dedicated to spending as little as possible, and calling themselves ‘The Economists’.

It is time we ejected them again and persuaded the voting public, not just than something can be done after all, but that it also will be done.

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