Sunday 8 December 2019

That narwhal horn might have slowed the Johnson juggernaut

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

Heavens above, political campaigners can be obstuse and dull: I was never so aware of it as I am now. Of course, what now seems obvious to me – that people are motivated by something different to the rhetoric they are presented with – may be wrong. It is possible that I am the obtuse one after all. Yet, think back to last time around and you will perhaps see what I mean.

After the 2017 election, I found myself writing about the shift – at least in my own psyche – brought about by the change in rhetoric following the previous London Bridge terrorist incident, which took place at a similar stage in the election to this one.

It was a shift in the language from fear to pride made by the then new Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick. I wrote about it here. She allowed us a little pride in ourselves – the fact that people had attacked the terrorists by throwing beer glasses at them and at great risk to themselves, and I felt a shift in the public mood:

“It wasn’t that she whitewashed the perpetrators – quite the reverse – it was that she declined to waste airtime on them. Instead she paid tribute to the courage of the bystanders. We all stood a little taller as a result.”

I wondered then, and wonder now, whether people vote a little less cynically when they feel good about themselves as a nation or community. The think a little more generously.

There was no statement that I heard from the commissioner this time, but perhaps it is now unnecessary: the statements by the Mayor and Prime Minister about “hunting down” and “standing firm” were too cliched to stick in the memory.

The problem last time for Jeremy Corbyn is that the spirit of individual heroism was not reflected in Labour’s rhetoric, as it rarely is on the socialist left. Nor was it reflected in Lib Dem rhetoric, which it could have been – there was something individualistic about it, linked with self-help and self-determination that could easily come from anywhere on the radical centre.

That is why I have been wondering whether Boris Johnson’s somewhat cynical camaign is threatened by the narwhal horn with which a member of the public floored the terrroist.

Yet there is a clear problem about why the other parties are unlikely to grab this opportunity. The whole language of general elections is about what alternative governments can do for people. It assumes a widespread and somewhat hopeless passivity. There is no obvious election language to draw down in praise of the idea of people doing things for themselves.

There are other reasons why this is important – not least of which is that, actually (as I argue in a forthcoming pamphlet with Steffan Aquarone) our political culture feels increasing discomfort about the idea of actually doing anything. So I fear that, by the time you read this, the moment will have passed.

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Monday 25 November 2019

Stick that in your manifesto!

This post first appeared on the Radix UK website...
“There is no Country in Europe, which produces, and exports so great a Quantity of Beef, Butter, Tallow, Hydes and Wool, as Ireland does, and yet our common People are very poorly cloath’d, go bare-legged half the Year, and rarely taste of that Flesh-Meat with which we so much abound. We pinch our selves in every Article of Life, and export more than we can well spare, with no other Effect or Advantage, than to enable our Gentlemen and Ladies to live more luxuriously abroad.”
I found these words, about the economic effects on Ireland of absentee landlords in a book I’m currently reading, Simon Loftus’ excellent The Invention of Memory. That passage seems to be profoundly true, though it was written by an anonymous Irish pamphleteer in 1730 – the same year, incidentally, when the much more famous pamphlet by Jonathan Swift suggested (satirically, we assume) that his fellow countrymen should solve their poverty problems by breeding babies to eat.
So why do we keep forgetting it? Locally and nationally, money is like blood – it has to circulate. There is no relevant bottom line. And when it gets siphoned off, whether it is to Tesco in Hertfordshire, or Amazon in Luxembourg, then of course people are poorer than they should be. We all have our absentee landlords.
Yet, you won’t find anything about this vital issue in any of the party manifestoes.
We are not all voting Lib Dem at Radix (though I probably am). But I was relieved to see how much we had influenced the Lib Dem manifesto – in their commitment to schools (see our book The Death of Liberal Democracy?) and their backing for small, local banks to underpin the economy (see my blog last time).
We even seem to have provided Jo Swinson with her 1970s/1870s joke, for which I take responsibility.
But once you get past the divisions on Brexit and the rhetorical figures, there is a peculiarly disturbing set of parallels between themes in the main four manifesto – they include housebuilding, the NHS of course, innovation and green technology. They all want more police and nurses; they all want a greener prosperity,
The impression they give is that, despite the sound and fury of dispute – mainly over means – there is a great deal of agreement. This is, in fact, the mushy and un-radical centre. It is what we all tend to think these days, right down to the Tory commitment to filling potholes.
There are clearly exceptions to this (like the Lib Dem push for local banks). But it is worth reminding the politicians that what is likely to stymie their plans for house-building is a major, looming labour shortage. And that last time the UK pushed homes up to 300,000 a year, it led to slums in the sky, high rise flats, system building, too high densities, Ronan Point, structures stuffed with cigarette ends, and all the rest.
It isn’t about the numbers. So why do politicians have to pretend that it is? It is about why and how – how, for example, will you build the homes and run the NHS in a period of nearly full employment? What is your interpretation of the problems we face and your analysis of what should be done? We hear almost nothing to satisfy a radical centrist.
The Green manifesto does at least set out an analysis, with two big proposals (a Green New Deal and a universal basic income). The Lib Dems have their commitment to devolution, Labour has his opposition to privatisation and Tories have their commitment to Brexit. And yet…
I long for more of a radical organising idea. For example, here are three ways of looking at our current national malaise:
  • The sclerosis caused by an obsessive and exhausting centralisation, administratively and financially.
  • The monopolistic power of IT companies, and others like them, which is sucking out energy and money from our local economies.
  • The ‘tickbox’ system that attempts to manage all decisions centrally, and undermines their effectiveness and efficiency (see my forthcoming book Tickbox).
You will find almost no mention of these at all in the party manifestos.
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Thursday 31 October 2019

Loch Nowhere and how to save the British union

My apologies to anyone who realises, as I do, that I haven't been posting enough recently. I try to put most of my contributions here, but I'm very aware that I don't always. If there is really anyone out there impatient to hear what I think, I'm usually blogging at Radix early most weeks...

In the meantime, I have been worrying about the future of the UK after Brexit, given the enormous strains that will be put on the union.

I'm not a unionist. I don't think Nick Clegg was right when he declared the Lib Dems a unionist party. In fact, the party divided on the issue in the 1880s and the unionist bits went off and merged with the Conservatives.

But then, I also not a nationalist, and the process of division is likely to be frightening and possibly violent. I'm even aware that in parts of Wales - where people are reacting badly to being part of an English nationalist venture under Boris Johnson - they are investigating some kind of link with Ireland.

Now, I believe in these link-ups, if we can arrange them. In fact, it seems to me that the only way to save any aspect of the union is to act now to give Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland their independence in a controlled, peaceful and ambiguous way - within a national umbrella which might include the Queen, the pound and the Ministry of Defence.

It needs to be done quite soon and so that Scotland can stay in the EU if it wants to.

Two developments stand in the way of breaking the nation down further. One, we need the ambiguity that the government's virtual border system. Two, we need a better understanding of how local economies can provide what people need - so that small nations and regions can begin to go it alone.

It so happens that I have written a modern folk tale in the new collection by the New Weather Institute, Knock Three Times (which, full disclosure, my company published), and it looks at these issues, through the eyes of a man who - like Rip Van Winkle - wakes up a century in the future.

It is called 'Loch Nowhere'. In fact, I recommend the other 27 stories too, each one of them shedding light on modern crisis using older narrative styles. You can read the introduction here...

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Friday 20 September 2019

The great division - and how to escape it...

This post first appeared on the Radix UK site...

There are, said the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge – the author of Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner – “two classes of men”.

He didn’t mean, as W. S. Gilbert suggested, “either a little Liberal or else a little Conservat-ive”. Nor did he mean Cavalier or Roundhead, nor Protestant or Catholic – though I will come to them later. He meant Aristotelians or Platonists.

“Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist,” he said. “I don't think it possible that anyone born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure no born Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian.”

Just to be shockingly simplistic, he meant something like the tradition of chopping logic versus the tradition of true belief. And there maybe we can begin to see how this might relate to our great dilemma: Remainer versus Leaver.

There was a small but fascinating Twitter debate last week about the implications of a peculiar fact – that a much higher proportion of Anglican church-goers (once described as the SDP at prayer) backed Leave compared to the general population (66% in fact).

The debate appeared to conclude that there was no significance in this anomaly – but I’m not so sure. My problem is that I am, at heart a Platonist, while most Remainers are clearly veering towards Aristotelians.

We urgently need to understand this bitter rift between us in the UK, and it may be that the political forces of Leave and Remain actually represent something much bigger – a clash between two rival establishments and two rival philosophies of life.

To do this we also have to see each side how they see themselves – fighting the forces of intolerance and xenophobia (Remain) or defending our right to self-determination (Leave). We also have to distinguish between rival versions of the establishment.

Clearly the traditional establishment is now divided between the prime minister and the old left of the Conservative party, hammered out on the playing fields of Eton, which – as Noel Coward put into their mouths – have “made us frightfully brave” (though perhaps not so frightfully intelligent, it does have to be said).

But there is a sense also in which Remain is represented by a rival establishment – the technocratic nomenklatura from the Blair-Brown years, the free market realists, those who have done rather well out of the property market and would prefer not to lose it all.

Two establishments, and – as the centre ground between them gives way – we find ourselves increasingly forced to choose between two raucous, obsessive and deafly intolerant extremes.

On one side we have the roundheads, the Remainers, the parliamentarians, who regard the other side as xenophobes, little Englanders who are riding roughshod over the economic consensus built up over the past four decades – but who also fear the world of alternative facts, the failure to understand modern concerns about race, gender and sexuality.

As Aristotelians, they regard the other side as hopeless atavistic throwbacks, in thrall to superstition and prejudice, who reject the whole edifice of evidence, scientific method and professional expertise.

Paradoxically, they are also the Catholic side, defending a united Europe and against Henry VIII’s protestant upstarts, determined to sell off the social service infrastructure to their friends at court.

On the Platonists on the other side, we have the cavaliers, holding out for royal authority against an anti-democratic parliament (even, according to Carswell, “treasonous”), who regard themselves as liberators of people against tyrannical bureaucrats, politically correct thought police – stifling the voices of ordinary people in debate with a ferocious atmosphere of suffering, cynically stuck in the old technocracy of targets and tickboxes, solidified into the old mantras of market economics, global trade and agnosticism.

Paradoxically, they are also the Protestants, breaking free of a Europe still in thrall to the pope (Brussels equals Rome from an English historical point of view).

Understanding these things may make the clash easier to understand. I am not sure it makes it any easier to heal.

I am not claiming that either side is right about their fears about the other. But there are some of us still who don’t really want either side to win out – though Boris Johnson’s misjudgements have made it hard to see how the old English love of compromise can win out either.

But electorally, neither has articulated this broader agenda, because they have been too busy fighting the details of the Brexit struggle. But it is possible to imagine either being able to build  a majority by moving  a little way towards the other side – perhaps by seriously embracing the issue of climate change (a good deal more important and urgent than Brexit).

What holds them back from doing so is largely ignorance of the way the other side really is. This is therefore a reminder that the radical centre means having a clearer view "of the whole road", to quote the author of Radical Middle Mark Satin.

So let's hear it for the Re-leavers and the Le-mainers and anyone thinking outside the usual familiar tramlines, Because the solution, if there is one, lies in Robbie Burns’ injunction to ask “some Power the giftie gie us/ To see oursels as others see us!”

For my own party, it seems to me, there is an extra problem of translation. Because Liberals tend towards Platonists and social democrats towards Aristotelians. In another post, I might explain what I think the implications of that are.

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Friday 16 August 2019

How to avoid a home-grown UK Milosovic

This post was first published on the New Weather website...

Earlier this month, Indian government ended the devolved powers arrangement they had with Indian-administered Kashmir. As I write, I have no Bidea what the consequences will be. But I do know this is what nationalist governments do.

There is a rash of books coming on the market about the phenomenon of populism, and its dangers, but it actually isn’t a very good description of Trump, Orban or Brexit. The Populist Party in the 1880s and 90s began as a kind of anti-globalisation movement in the modern mould. I would describe them instead as nationalists.

There is no reason why you can’t have sympathetic populists. The opposite of populist need not be unpopulists, after all.

So, what is the opposite of nationalist? I would suggest that you look no further than the Roman Catholic concept of subsidiarity – that people should be governed as locally as possible. The European Union has made subsidiarity one of its founding principles, and it isn’t the fault of subsidiarity if the EU fails to act accordingly.

Radical nationalist change, whether it is the action of the Indian government in Kashmir or of Scottish nationalists forcing through independence, can be very dangerous. Losing the Scots from the UK would be dangerous too. Those who oppose independence may well threaten to take up arms to prevent it, as Carson did in Ulster in 1913 (“Ulster will fight,” he said, “and Ulster will be right”).

You can imagine all too easily which British politicians would play the role of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosovic to prevent the UK breakup – even though Brexit may make it inevitable.

My own party, it seems to me, has become muddled about this. Nick Clegg was wrong when he said the Lib Dems were unionists. In fact, the Liberal Unionists broke away as long ago as the 1880s on the issue of Irish home rule.

I believe in subsidiarity. So I have a proposition.

That before the inevitable victory of the SNP one day – even if it isn’t soon – let us break up the UK in such a way that we can remain ambiguous which is the nation and which the supranational umbrella.

That will mean going some way beyond home rule, so that Northern Ireland, Scotland and maybe Wales become nations in their own right, able to look after their own affairs – to join the EU if they want – but owing allegiance also to a continuing UK, with a joint royal head of state, joint foreign affairs and defence and joint management of the pound.

Otherwise our four nations will join the other 200 plus nations taking their places at the UN. The idea is that this will be a permanent settlement to the constitution, but it should allow a gradual merger between the UK and the Council of the Isles, the supranational body over set up under the AnglIo-Irish agreement, if Ireland ever wants to join in.

The role of the Royal family would also be crucial in making the shift safe from nationalistic rage. It would also flexibility and self-determination to the nations of the UK, and – because the units would be more manageable – we could also expect more effective, less imperial government. It would help us all take back control.

Most of all, it would prevent the trauma one day – now pretty much inevitable – of Scotland crashing out without a deal from the UK.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Boris, the backstop and Captain America

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

It was watching the final Avengers film with my children that gave me the clue. Sometimes I have spent many of these films in the lovely Worthing tea shop outside the Dome cinema - though I must confess that I quite enjoyed Captain Marvel and Captain America (the fact that there are too many captains here is part of the underlying issue.

So here is my proposition, the Marvel franchise represents an explosion of nostalgia in American culture that I have a feeling explains something of the parallel phenomenon of Donald Trump. In the same way, we - I use the term without irony - have elected a Latin-spouting, Churchill-imitating, harkback to a bygone age as prime minister, with a predeliction for archaic phrases shorn of their original meaning (like 'British pluck').

I have a feeling that the nostalgia represented by the back stories of the Marvel heroes - most of which seem to involve dinners in log cabins in the woods - is only part of the picture. The strange world provided by the 20 plus films - earning £22.3 billion - is rather as ordinary Americans feel: watched over by mysterious heroes, using technology beyond their understanding, yet still threatened.
The 'real' world rarely features in these films, beyond staggered policemen and screaming victims of natural or supernatural disasters.

The last credits of the last film, Endgame, seemed to bear this out, ending the saving of humanity with an extroadrinarily nostalgic piece of music, a 1945 rendition of 'It's been a long, long time' (Kiss me once, kiss me twice etc etc).

Nostalgia as a source of new ideas can be extrardinarily powerful. but without that forward-looking element, it can be, well, a bit masturbatory.

So if Boris' nostaligic package takes us somewhere new, or if other new thinking is stuggling to get out - then I am more positive about him than perhaps I ought to be. Sadly, the empty rhetoric about HS3 and its potential seems to suggest otherwise. Nostaliga can provide the basis for new understading and a critique of assumptions, which we badly need - especially for economic asumptions which are looking pretty threadbare (like the assumption that transport links do anything more than move prosperity about).

I have no problem with hope, though the increasingly cynical - not to say nihilistic and puritanical - left find it pretty intolerable. If Boris Johnson can put some beef behind his hope, he may just win through.

But there is one problem with his ability to do this. If he wants to get through these difficult negotiations with European leaders, he must put forward a credible alternative to the Irish border backstop. So why doesn't he - is it because there isn't one?

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Friday 5 July 2019

Time for a radical centre alliance to save the planet

This post first appeared on Lib Dem Voice...

“We must be more than a political party or we will cease to be one,” said the great writer G. K. Chesterton, when he was a Liberal. “Time and again historic victory has come to a little party with big ideas: but can anyone conceive anything with a mark of death more on its brow than a little party with little ideas,”

I am writing about the man at the moment and I believe he was right, and especially perhaps in the first of the two sentences.

Nor are we such a little party these days, but the ideas we articulate in public are not yet big enough, and it is what I miss from our leadership election at the moment. Perhaps that is why Andrew Rawnsley claimed over the weekend that it was as dull as a bowl of tofu.

Beyond the resistance to Brexit – not really an idea so much as a rejection of one – there are only a couple; well, two: tackling climate change (Ed Davey) and embracing hi-tech (Jo Swinson). Both are short of the hows and whats that would make either of these big ideas – something to fill the spot for Brexit when it has either happened or finally not happened.

So here is mine, and it is entirely a practical one.

The recent polls put the four biggest parties practically neck and neck, around 20+ per cent. This is a highly dangerous position for the nation because it means, under our hopeless electoral system, that absolutely anything could happen.

I have been a member of the party for forty years last May. I’ve see us sweep up and down dreaming of one more heave. I know we shouldn’t get carried away. But it now seems to me – given the polls and the high ratings of the Greens, that it is now time to forge a one-off alliance of the radical centre for one election only: to save humanity from climate change.

I have little idea as yet whether either Anna Soubry or Sian Berry are likely to play ball or not – though I believe both are persuadable, on condition we prioritise getting their existing MPs back into Parliament and give them a clear run in 20-30 other seats.

I lived through the alliance with the SDP. I’m so aware that this is not straightforward, and that the kind of open primaries – open to the voting public in the other seats – are potentially expensive and unpopular amongst political parties.

I know there would have to be a system of appeals and there are other administrative issues about expressing alliances on ballot papers under existing electoral law.

I am also aware that ignorance about each other’s parties and policies get in the way of such alliances. But I don’t think any of these are insurmountable – and the prize is potentially huge. If you add together our poll ratings as they stand now, and it would put us well within spitting distance of the 30 per cent level when we could not just govern, but change UK politics forever.

But this is where Chesterton’s first sentence is important. None of this will happen unless Lib Dems, Greens and Tigs for Change are first working side by side on the ground, not just through More United, but at ward level – achieving things by campaigning about them in a way that is easier these days when Parliament is as finely balanced as it is now.

Only that can avoid the kind of projecting of our own peculiarities and intolerances onto other parties, the besetting sin of politicians, which so torpedoes working together for people.

The truth is that they are not that different from us. This will need to be an alliance forged locally, relationship by relationship. But if we can be more than a party and achieve that, I believe we can really grab power.

So Jo and Ed – what do you think?

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Tuesday 11 June 2019

Watch out when the Conservative Party splits...

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

You can’t help noticing, looking back at the past century or so of UK political history, that a split in the Conservative Party can be extremely damaging to those who are entirely innocent of it.

Like now. Or like the period before the First World War, when the Conservatives were outrageously encouraging mutinies in Ulster against Liberal government plans for Irish home rule.

It is worth remembering who originally stoked the fires of the troubles that so beset Northern Ireland from 1969 onwards.

But there is a period of our recent history when conservatism was so fatally divided that we no longer talk about it - because the peril in which the nation was plunged in 1940 cut it short and obscured the divisions.

Yet there is no doubt that members of the UK establishment were determined in 1940 to make peace with Hitler – a prospect that was undermined when the BBC European Service took it upon itself to reject his final peace offer without reference to higher authority. They would have undoubtedly done so if it had not been for Winston Churchill snd his junior ministers.

I tell the peace offer story in my new book The Xanthe Schneider Enigma Files (published by Endeavour Quill), because – at the heart of the tale is the relationship between Xanthe, a young American crossword puzzle champion turned foreign correspondent and a former British minister who has defected to Berlin. British naval intelligence take the opportunity of asking her to keep an eye on him.

It is in short, a story about cryptography and American press people in Berlin in 1940, Athens and then Berne in 1941. It’s a good read, especially because three of the characters are Alan Turing, Ian Fleming and Ludwig Wittgenstein...

Why don't we remember these divisions, which are rather unfairly focused on Lord Halifax in the recent film? Because of the bizarre forgetfulness in which the UK establishment wraps itself afterwards, when they close ranks and celebrate the new mythology.

Which is another way of saying – beware what Conservatives will do when they get desperate.

You can read more about Xanthe Schneider here.

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Thursday 6 June 2019

Breaking the rules to break the news of D-Day

Noel Newsome was director of European broadcasts at the BBC European Service from 1939-44, one of the few who knew the secret date for D-Day. He was in many ways the architect of the BBC;s international reputation for truth - believing that truth was a potential weapon of war. This led him into constant struggles with the authorities, which he described in his newly-published memoirs, Giant at Bush HouseHere he describes getting the news about D-Day out there...

"I had received my D-Day briefing. In the first week of June, the tides in the English Channel would be right for the great venture, and would remain so for about 36 hours. Provided the weather was all right for the air assault, the airborne landings and the sea borne invasion, the operation would take place during the night of June 4. Declarations by the supreme commander, Eisenhower, and by Churchill, Roosevelt and de Gaulle, were all prepared and recorded in advance for transmission directly the SHAEF communiqué announcing the landings was issued. This was timed for 10am on June 5 and strict instructions were given that no mention should be made of the invasion having begun until then.

All that night, I stayed in my office listening to the ceaseless drone of our aircraft heading for the continent. Early next morning, I got the news that rough weather in the Channel had prevented the assault. It had to be the next night or indefinite postponement. And we were still awaiting the arrival of the ‘V’ weapons. A nerve-wracking day passed and then another sleepless night, with the ‘planes again droning away across the city. Would it happen this time?

Soon after dawn, we began to receive flashes from the monitoring services and the news agencies, saying that the German news service was reporting Allied landings in Normandy and in the Calais area. We had every reason to believe that the reports of the Normandy landings must be correct, but believed that those of attacks in the Calais area were false, as we knew of no plans for landings there. But if these were false, might not those of the Normandy assault also be untrue? Might they have been put out by the Germans to enable them to claim, if bad weather had again prevented the invasion, that we had been repulsed?

My instructions were to wait for the SHAEF communiqué, not due for many hours even if landings had begun. On the other hand, our broadcasting services had built their reputation on the speed, as well as the accuracy, of their news. My own overpowering instinct as a newspaperman was to report the news from whatever source as soon as I got it.

Half-an-hour passed and German reports of Allied landings continued to come in thick and fast. I took the bull by the horns and ordered that we should start transmitting the German reports, with a statement that there was no confirmation of these in Allied quarters. Meanwhile, I took immediate steps to check the true position with SHAEF. This was not easy. Perhaps naturally, SHAEF was in a state of high excitement and it was impossible to get a clear telephone line for some time.

Eventually, I got through and secured confirmation that the invasion was on, that we were ashore in Normandy, and that a feint attack had been made in the Pas de Calais to sow confusion in the German defence. This was a great relief. Obviously, we could help the feint to achieve its purpose if we continued to relay German reports about the Calais attack as if confirming them. This we did...."

Read more in Noel Newsome's memoir of the war, published by the Real Press in paperback and on kindle.

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Monday 3 June 2019

The radical centre: a ten-point summary

This first appeared on the Radix blog:
“What people want in this country is action and not too much talk.” Rory Stewart
What is the radical centre? This is suddenly a more important question than it was, now that Chuka Umanna has linked the future of his Change UK party to this idea, and – even more – since Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart has embraced the phrase. So has the Lib Dem presidential hopeful Richard Kemp.
I should also explain that the idea is at the heart of Radix, which means that we have at least a claim to have been thinking about it for some time.
Part of the urgency for an answer is the rise of Nigel Farage, emblazoned across the front of the Sunday Express yesterday, boasting that he was going to “smash the system … like Trump”.
The problem here, from a radical centrist point of view, is not his animus towards the ‘system’ – we clearly need to change it, starting with the economic system – it is that smashing it without any idea how to rebuild it is precisely how we got into our current mess. This also appears to be the Trump way, dispensing with his ideologues and smashing a new bit according to what he felt like that morning.
So is it possible to counter a Trump-style populism with something popular – an ideology to tackle an anti-ideology?
One way is what the Greeks called a ‘Via Negativa’, describing the radical centre by what it is not. It isn’t a compromise between right and left. It doesn’t include a sprinkling of traditional Toryism (the birthright to power) and a sprinkling of traditional Labourism (distrust of pretty much everyone).
So what is it? Here are ten ways to start thinking about it.
1. A new economics. It means new approach to the economy, aware that our current economic institutions are centralising power and wealth – and taking it away from the enterprising wealth-creators of the future.
2. Action not endless discussion. Rory Stewart is good on this, explaining how our political culture has produced this kind of sclerosis which disapproves of doing things. There is an implicit critique of bloodless bureaucracy here, and running governments by data alone.
3. An anti-ideological ideology. It means a refusal to only act in accordance with ideology, rather as Michael Heseltine is best known for – his development corporations, borrowing a legal form that had been in turn borrowed for the new towns set up by the Attlee government in 1946.
4. Participative and clear-sighted, understanding the way the world really is, not how it is supposed to be – a view you can only really get when your government is participative at every level. The American writer Mark Satin says, in his book Radical Middle, that it isn’t a view of the right or the left side of the road but “a view of the whole road”.
5. A positive, human and humane future. That implies it understands clearly the threat to humanity posed by climate change and is prepared to act accordingly.
6. The devolution of political power. Radical centrists believe in people. That leads them to devolve power, aware that the sclerosis that so threatens us is partly to do with extreme centralisation.
7. The devolution of economic power. Radical centrists believe in the free market, but in its original sense not its modern one. It recognises that the concentration of wealth and power are not an unfortunate consequence of a free market – they are the opposite of it. If the rich and powerful can no longer be challenged by the small and powerless, then there is no market any more.
8. What is best in people. The radical centre celebrates our humanity, ingenuity, heroism and care for each other. We do so in the face of the fear encouraged by the other side, aware that either will simply recreate itself and create its own momentum. This is not a matter of events: people felt proud of themselves after the London Bridge terror attack because the Metropolitan Police commissioner encouraged them to do so.
9. Inclusive. This hardly needs saying, but it does require unpacking. Because the radical centre seems to me to regard politically correct language as a method by which those who are angriest exclude those less confident than themselves from public debate. That is certainly the effect it has.
10. Prepared to reform our failing institutions, even if they are beloved of the Left – the NHS needs serious attention if it is going to survive – by going beyond the infuriating impasse created by the British obsession with market privatisation.
Is this liberalism? It is true that it might be incorporated into liberalism more easily than other ideologies, but that may be because liberalism is older, more amorphous and more paradoxical than the others. It is also true that the radical centre draws from various ideologies – but it refuses to be limited by them either.
But then there is another paradox at the heart of the radical centre. It is an ideology in its own right, defending some of the trappings of traditional democracy. Yet is is also aware that this is one moment in human history when traditional ideology urgently needs to be set aside.
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Monday 29 April 2019

"So the climate's killing us, but at least we got to work on time!"

This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

I have written elsewhere about the uplifting effect that the Metropolitan Police commissioner has had on UK public life. So I am sorry to see her criticised by the stodgiest corners of the UK chattering class for her peaceable approach to the Climate Extinction Rebellion demonstrations in Easter Week.

I felt very much the reverse. I am not sure of the effectiveness of demonstrations of any kind, having learned about campaigning at the feet of the great Des Wilson (“Yes, I know you are making them think,” he used to say to campaigners determined to stop the traffic, “and I can tell you exactly what they’re thinking”).

But equally, the Extinction demonstrators won me around with their good humour, their sense of theatre and their creativity – and by the lack of masks and angry shouting or brain-free socialist sloganising.

Most of all, I felt inspired by the films of the police dancing gently to the beat or testing out the skateboards.

How many other nations, I ask myself, would allow this kind of cameraderie? It is in fact part of the glory of the nation we belong to that we are blessed with this kind of policing. So thank you, Cressida Dick. Keep up the innovative work.

This is not of course the point of view peddled by a cowed BBC or the Murdoch press, who are clearly the kinds of people who may say, when the climate overwhelms us – ah well, at least I got to work on time. The Times in the first few days did not even bother to find a spokesperson to quote.

Some of the most pompous (I name no names) you can read about in more detail in Richard Black’s brilliant history of climate change contrarianism Denied – which might explain why they are now just confining themselves to being pompous about demonstrators.

So would I prefer to live in the kind of country where the police recognise that people need sometimes to express their ignored points of view – and will travel with toddlers half way across the nation to do so – or one, like France, so quick to wheel out the water cannon and pepper spray? I know which one I prefer.

Nor has it served us badly. Why was there no revolution in the UK during the General Strike in 1926, for example? Because the police and the pickets would insist on playing football together. No doubt the Sunday Times would have preferred to give them a few baton rounds for the inconvenience.

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Monday 8 April 2019

A sad story of Liberalism

This blog post was first published on the Radix site...

I found myself in agreement with Norman Lamb last week that his party (and mine) was in danger of becoming an equally irresponsible version of the European Research Group on the Remainer side.

What I did find unexpected was how much agreement and symathy there was for his position in the comments below the line on Lib Dem Voice.

I also have huge sympathy with him because I feel what he must feel, this terrible sense of guilt and alienated disappointment that I find myself so out of kilter with the party I have been a member of for four decades.

I also feel a sense of huge frustration for another reason, looking back more than a century since the last time the ruling Conservatives fractured over trade policy. In the early years of the century, Joseph Chamberlain's ideas about 'imperial preference' - whether we should have as close a trading relationship with Europe as we did with the empire or not - split the Tories from top to bottom.

It was this dispute where one cabinet minister famously confided that he had nailed is colours "firmly to the fence".

What was different from today is that there was an effective Liberal opposition under Henry Campbell-Bannerman, who was able to engineer the Liberal landslide of 1906 as a result - which gave us old age pensions and the People's Budget and much else besides.

This is what I find frustrating. That Campbell-Bannerman's successors could have developed the kind of rheortic that could speak for the nation as a whole, beyond the old labels of Remainer and Leaver and could provide people with just a glimmer of hope.

I fear it may now be too late.

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Monday 1 April 2019

It may be time to see the bright side of Brexit

Let me categorise myself to start with. I voted remain in 2016, though armed only with the conviction that - if Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage wanted something - it probably made sense to vote the other way.

As we appear (at least as I write this on Sunday evening) to be hurtling out of the European Union
without a deal, I found some of my more emotional remainer friends saying it was time to embrace it.

That might be putting it a little strongly, but I have a feeling they are right. There is certainly good sense in avoiding the fixation and despar involved in going over a political cliff - if only to avoid giving the other side the satisfaction. It may in fact be time to look on the bright side, and here are a few of these...

Bright side #1. The multinationals will shun us. The City of London will shrink. Most of my remainer friends believe that both have been pretty impoverishing for the UK and the climate. So this would at least mean they can stop tweeting horrified reactions to the demise of Honda in Swindon.

Bright side #2.We will simply have to train the so-called underclass to do the tasks we have seemed unable to do for outrsleves, from picking vegetables to being doctors. And to pay them enough.

Bright side #3. We have at least the basis for healing some of the deep divisions in UK life. Not all of them by any means, but we can't survive on the current basis, especially since none of the political parties seem willing or able to generate a narrative that can supercede them.

Bright side #4. If it doesn't work, we can blame John Redwood for everything that goes wrong for the next 20 years or so.

Bright side #5. Radicals across Europe have seen our plight and their funders are busily funding community organisig at the grassroots. Which is at least a basis for rebuilding. Or so I am told.

Bright side #6. By foregoing the prospect of a second referendum, we will at least avoid the possibility of holding another one every time the polls switch back either way, and so on ad nauseum. This seems to me the main argument against a People's Vote.

Some of this is clearly a little tongue in cheek - but which bits? Is is obvious?

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Wednesday 13 March 2019

Like voting against climate change

This blog first appeared on the Radix website...

I heard an amazing radio interview a couple of weeks back with two voices from the past, Joe Haines and Bernard Donoughue from Harold Wilson’s  kitchen cabinet.

What, they were asked, would the great fudger Wilson have done if he had been Theresa May? The answer was as clear as it was elegant – he would have reached out to Jeremy Corbyn and offered him a general election in return for his party’s support getting the Brexit deal through.

I’m not sure I really would go so far as to wish we were still ruled by Harold Wilson, but it is a pity none of the players with perhaps a handful of exceptions has demonstrated any kind of flexibility along those lines, or any others.

Theresa May appears to be the hopeless victim, not so much of her personal intransigence – which is clearly not small – but the boneheaded intransigence of the British way of government. That is how we are always governed – but normally a prime minister has a majority behind them that allows them to get away with it.

It may be in fact that our prime minister’s greatest sin has been to mangle the UK constitution. Normally, if a PM can’t get their legislation through the Commons, they have to resign and make way for one who can.

That is just the way it is supposed to work. Her defiance of the rule has led to the rest of the ridiculous situation we find ourselves in.

But we can’t let other factions off the hook either – the European Research Group of Brexiteers and climate change sceptics, the Don’t Knows round Corbym and the ardent Remainers, all of whom have been hypocritically been accusing May of running down the clock while they do precisely the same thing to avoid compromises.

Even on the verge of a no-deal Brexit, there are Remainers who believe the slim chance of a second referendum justifies their avoidance of any other kind of compromise. That is seriously irresponsible.

Meanwhile, parliament is so obsessed with their own importance that they have voted against a no-deal Brexit, forgetting perhaps that this is now largely out of their hands.

It is a bit like voting against global warming, or turkeys voting against Christmas. To really avoid it, you have to act.

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Monday 4 March 2019

5 reasons why the left is still losing

I was fascinated last month while writing about the great Distributist G. K. Chesterton, to find his description of why he stopped being a socialist. Because, although he wrote it more a than a cemtury ago, it is again the main reason why I can't be a socialist, despite the fact that I  have always considered myself on the left, somewhere or other.

Chesterton's stumbling block was the “tone of bitterness [and] atmosphere of hopelessness” encouraged among socialists. And, a century on, take a long hard look at those on the socialist left that you know, and it feels remarkably similar.

It struck me that, this may be among the reasons why the left, including the centre left, is losing across Europe. Here are my others.
  1. Rage. As Chesterton implied, the peculiar psychology of socialists tends to be that they are angrier than anyone else. Every political tradition had its own underpinning profile - conservatives have a bizarre and unjustified self-belief and liberals feel somewhat left out. The anger issue is peculiarly offputting, and it does them no favours, particularly when it is linked to cynicism about most of what happens. None of this suggests that there is no reason for anger. But there has to be some openness to possibility, which is hard to do when you approach any new idea as if it needed first to prove its purity.
  2. Conservatism. In its gestures and its policy, and also in its symbolism, the left currently reaches back - not just, in the case of Corbyn, to the reheated nationalisation of the 1970s - but to the marches, placards, sloganising, demonstrations and revolutionary symbols of the Russian revolution and before. As if anything more clever that a good old-fashioned demo was somehow suspect. What for example should we call children bunking off school to demonstrate against climate change? Why did it have to be a 'strike'? Quite apart from anything else, they are the employers. And was that the most likely narrative to bring middle England over to the cause?
  3. Institutional blindness. There seems to be difficult for the left to distinguish between the purpose and the practuce of our national and institutions. If the purpose of the European Union is to keep the peace, for example, it  must be defended in its current form, even if it is failing. This is, I believe, why the left is constantly defending institutions, even when they are less than effective and some debate about reform might be a reasonable idea.
  4. Language. The rise of politically correct language, especially recently, may - as it was once portrayed to me - represent a kind of politeness. But I have a more sceptical view, since I think some excluded groups are right to see it as a way to undermine their legitimacy, and render them unable to take part in political debate for fear of giving offence. In some way, it really hardly matters what the purpose is if that is how it is understood. In the UK, it also puts particular pressure on excluded white communities, who regard this further exclusion as some kind of revenge from the chattering classes for supporting Brexit.
  5. Puritanism. Taken together, this amounts to a new kind of puritanism - one that has developed protestantism so that it now rejects all religion as supersition, and all complementary medicine too if it is unable to prove itself in the conventional way. When nearly 80 per cent of the population has some religious belief, and when many articulate adults are attracted to the claims of unconventional medicine, this is not an efective way forward.
Those are my five. They overkap in worrying ways and amount together to a kind of intolerace that now seems to have infected the Labour Party and is horribly obvious, for example, when you read comments below the political contributions, for example to the Guardian. The combination of nihilism and disapproval is remarkably unattractive.

Taken together, they also imply a different way forward, more emotional and human, less aggressively cerebral. It is no coincidence, for example, that complementary medicine has played such a role in the new political movements emerging across Europe. about which I can do no more to recommend my Radix colleagues' new book on the subject...

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Sunday 10 February 2019

Dunkirk spirit? Be careful of what you wish for, Boris...

I was fascinated by Peter Fischer Brown’s suggestion in the Radix blog that there are people in the Brexit camp who believe that a no-deal Brexit the hard way is likely to be as successful and unifying as our national escape from the Dunkirk beaches.

This was, as I said in my book about Dunkirk, during the last Brexit – when they decided their hand had been forced, and that they had to abandon their French allies.

But I wonder whether it might be worth following the parallel a little further.

The miraculous escape of the BEF from the beaches, minus their equipment – and with a little help from Hitler’s controversial stop order, was not in any sense a victory. It was bitter and tragic in terms of loss of life.

It was also the result partly of luck and partly of the extraordinary wildcard administration by Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who made it happen through sheer willpower, the sacrifice and exhaustion of his crews and a brilliantly innovative staff.

Do we have anyone of remotely the same calibre now? If so, they should be appointed immediately.

But the other key point is that the nation remained divided over the war even then, just as we are about Brexit. And, although there were few enough voices raised for staying out of the war – broadly the Brexiteer position at the time – after Dunkirk, those responsible for out humiliating exit were seriously punished by the electorate and the political class emerging below.

So if Boris Johnson and his colleagues – who have not descended to the special part of hell reserved for people who plan to leave without working out how (Donald Tusk) – think they are following in Churchill’s footsteps, they may find they are actually following in Chamberlain’s and those of the much-reviled Guilty Men of Munich.

Yes, Dunkirk was a unifying moment, but it was also a bitter one. And those who were responsible for this national humiliation were soon out on their ear - making way for those who had saved the day which they had so comprehensively lost.

Let me end with Churchill’s comment on Dunkirk that “wars are not won by withdrawals’.

I fear he was right. Even if we do have to withdraw – and I increasingly feel we must now face up to that – people will not easily forgive those who plunged us so blithely into this godawful mess.

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Monday 4 February 2019

How to find a little common ground? Honesty

A slightly disaffected Liberal writes...

When I was a teenager first interested in politics and determined to choose the odd party out, I put aside my childish idea that the Conservatives were the odd one out because they did not start with L. I began to suspect that the Liberals might be just peculiar enough for me - but what did they stand for?

I used to ask all my older relatives likely to know - I come from a long line of Liberal voters after all - and surprisingly few could answer. But there was one exception: "Don't they stand for 'three acres and a cow' or something?" she said.

I can't emphasise how peculiar this is. That a century or so after the slogan was coined, by Joseph Chamberlain's sidekick Jesse Collings, back in the 1870s, it should be all that they remembered from all the Liberal policies and slogans in a century of elections.

It was certainly a successful slogan, formulated to explain how much land a family would need to support itself - implying a call for land redistribution and new allotments. It did more than imply a commitment to self-determination, which was why it was borrowed by the Americans (they called it forty acres and a mule). It was then appropriated in the UK by a breakaway group from the UK Liberals called the Distributists, led by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton.

I pay tribute to it here because I am reminded how divided the Liberal Democrats are today - despite appearances - and how unlikely we are to remember any of their current slogans and policies in a century's time, when my own great grandchildren are searching as I did in the 1970s.

Why do I fear they are divided, when you get no clauses about this from the party's communications? Partly because  feel so divided myself, and partly because of the very obvious divisions between the party's whig or social democrat wing and its distributist one (I am here using the nomenclature used by academic community who studies such things).

I am divided myself because I am firmly embedded in what remains of this distributist wing, the elements of the party responsible for driving forward the demand for localism and self-determination. Whereas all I see is the social democrat wing clinging to our membership of the European Union, which represents neither localism nor self-determination, and in fact seems to represent clinging onto the outward firms of institutions which badly need reform.

You see my problem? Nor is it just my problem or the Lib Dems' one, I have been wondering about some of my non-Radix friends, after the announcement by Nissan that they will not be building their new model in Sunderland after all - presumably because of Brexit.

I can hear my friends tut-tutting about it even without tuning into Twitter to watch them doing so. I know they are, as I am, suspicious of the influence of big corporations in the UK economy. I know they dream of a far more diverse economy that is a good deal less dependent on trade.

Yes, I don't think anyone would want to make this shift overnight at the end of March - as we seem to be about to do. But I do want to hear some recognition from the Remain side that this is something they had also been hoping for before now.

I mean this honesty simply as a way to tackle some of the bonehanded divisions in UK , whichpolitics are now as intense as they have been at any time since anyone last used the slogan Three Acres and a Cow in anger.

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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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