The Battle of Life

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In 1846, Charles Dickens published one of his Christmas stories – “The Battle of Life”. Very few remember it now, although at the time it was as popular as A Christmas Carol. While it was a romantic story, it was also a metaphor for living – a reality that the mid-Victorians daily confronted – the battle of life.

As Peter Ackroyd noted in his biography of Charles Dickens:

“…the real importance of the story is to be found in its title. The Battle of Life was a phrase which meant a great deal to mid-Victorian Englishmen: it was even something of a truism in a world for which struggle and domination were the twin commandments, where the worship of energy and the pursuit of power were the two single most significant activities, where there was a constant belief in will, in collision, in progress. Darwin and Malthus both described “the great battle of life” and “the great battle for life”, the important confusion between the two phrases materially assisting the evolutionist’s case”

 

Samuel Smiles, maybe the exponent of what are known as “Victorian values” summed it up:

“The battle of life is, in most cases, fought uphill; and to win it without a struggle were perhaps to win it without honour. If there were no difficulties there would be no success; if there were nothing to struggle for, there would be nothing to be

achieved.”

Battles of life are still fought daily – for survival, for religious conviction, for self-esteem, for self-betterment, for the rights of others unable to fight for themselves, for equality.

In the 21st Century developed world, we often think that the battle of life has been won – we are economically well-off, pretty well educated and maybe complacent about our success. Yet, on a world scale, the battle of life daily persists and it is when we are confronted by the scale of that battle (as many British people were recently in Tunisia and as many were just ten years ago in London) that we are reminded that the Battle of Life goes on unabated.

In Dickens’s time, Britain was well underway with its industrial revolution and bestrode the world as an economic power house even if its working people were poor, with little chance of benefitting from the wealth creation. This gave rise to Chartism – working people’s attempts to gain access to power but this was dealt with by the oligarchy in power at the time in Britain. Our wealth generation was based on a world as supplier and this required a growing Empire from which to extract the raw materials it needed to feed the industrial base and to sell its goods – and a labour force here and overseas that provided it with unceasing supplies to make the machinery of the factories function.

We may have come a long way since then in this country but we remain pre-occupied with ourselves. Not much has changed in terms of Government and institutions since that time. We still have a House of Lords, we retain “first past the post” voting, London remains far wealthier than the rest of the country, we retain a certain disrespect for foreigners, we still want to play a major world role (although much of that is through our soft power status). We remain one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – still with a veto power. London retains its place as a major financial centre – which many believe assists our economy but many others rue its dependency on money laundering and the part it played in the 2007/08 financial meltdown.

Of course, the world is changing around us. China is now the largest economy in the world and while its per capita wealth is far lower than the west, the fact that it is so large means that, at the centre, it can aggregate massive amounts of money that can be used by Government. This is the real power of growth and economic vitality – the ability to amass funds centrally to spend on military might and security even as millions are still impoverished. On a smaller scale, North Korea still spends money on nuclear weaponry while so many starve.

In Africa and Asia, thousands try to escape the torment of their home countries to live aboard – leading to high-risk escapes on the high seas and many deaths and the recent scenes just across the Channel in Calais.

Industry is now global. The 19th Century British labour market that kept wages low and poverty high (and on which Marx and Engels – living in London and Manchester for most of their lives – based das Capital upon) is now also global – with an international labour market that has exactly the same problems as we had here two hundred years ago: low wages and desperate health and safety conditions (that have led to hundreds of lives lost in building the stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar).

Meanwhile, it would be hard to extract much of this change from the recent General Election here. An election fought by the winning Conservatives on short-term tax breaks and a fear of the unknown – when that “unknown” was held to be Labour Party leftism and Scottish independence fears; when Liberal Democrats lost public trust over university funding; when UKIP gathered around 3 ½ million votes on the back of fear of the foreigners.

It was hard to feel motivated by the short-termism and fear-mongering that underscored that election. It was an election where Liberal Democrats were sent back to the 1970’s in terms of seats won and where they lost more votes in one election than could have been believed and when many argue liberalism should be the 21st Century political answer to all the changes and aspirations of a 21st Century world.

21st Century Aspirations – Economic Freedoms and Responsibilities

It has been educational to listen to the two Liberal Democrat contenders for that party’s leadership recently. Tim Farron and Norman Lamb, two out of the eight remaining Lib Dem M.P.’s in the House of Commons, both appeared before at the Institute of Public Policy Research at separate events.

They spoke and answered questions on a range of issues but the focus was on what liberalism meant to them.

Tim Farron told the meeting at the IPPR that he bases his liberalism on five key values: Freedom, Equality, Quality of Life, Internationalism and Reform. In his manifesto, a sixth value was added – a new economy.

Norman Lamb spoke about similar values and his experience of working as a Health Minister.

Both noted how their vision was formed by Jo Grimond and the debt they (and we) owe to William Beveridge – the man behind social services and the NHS, who identified the “five evils” of society as of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease as the drivers behind the need of government to be involved in society to a greater degree than before.

It is interesting to remember that Liberal have had to move a long way from the idealists of the 19th Century. While the Tories represented the landowners then, the new middle classes of that Century (who were behind the Free Trade movement as were the Liberals of that time) were not looking towards improving the lot of the common man (and certainly not women). The Factories Acts were gradually introduced throughout that Century as a result of pressure from outside Parliament and often against the deep-seated reservations of the capital class.

Liberals of the 21st Century now understand what J K Galbraith called the “social balance” between the public sector and the private to ensure that needs are met but that individuals are still able to model their own lives within a society that does not deprive them of aspiration and opportunity but actually seeks to improve those life chances. Liberalism also aims to ensure that the individual that lives most of their lives in “civil society” are able to do so with real freedom to enjoy and be fulfilled in that life. Life should not be just a centralized, top-down socialism nor a numbers-driven economics-only rat-race. Life is a complex mix where wealth creation is important (wealth being not just quantity of life but also quality) and so is ensuring that opportunity (such as good education, health and housing) is available to all so that individuals can become the most that they are able. When we also use our abilities on a global stage and enshrine this within the crucial notion of freedom (to believe in and voice your own views without fear), this is 21st Century Liberalism.

Because both Tim and Norman understand the critical elements of liberalism (something central to Nick Clegg – as he understood in a speech in 2012 to …but never reinforced outside that so that people would know what they were voting “for”), it is difficult to separate them on the basis of views held.

For me, the issues come down then, to this:

If Liberals want to become a force for real good in the UK (and world) and want to play a political role and not just be seen as a pressure group, they do not have to be just great campaigners, clammering for redistribution and fairness, but they have to ensure that there is a Liberal Economic Philosophy that enough people believe in.

Liberal Economics for the 21st Century

Having completely bought into all the other values of liberalism, it seems to me that the Liberal Democrats (and Liberal Party before them) have sometimes not grasped the central perceived need of most people – economics and economic freedom. The industrial revolution embedded the zeal for wealth creation amongst the capitalist class that has since become the underlying basis for how people see their lives.

Increased wealth creation has led to better health for those who are fortunate enough to live in the economically developed world and to longer and better lives. Illness does not mean death as it did in the 19th Century for us in the UK. Food is plentiful (although food bank use is on the rise) and we do not suffer from stunted growth as happens too frequently in the developing world – we suffer more from obesity. Education is open to all (albeit in different and not yet good enough for all). Our streets are relatively clean and we have a police force that is designed to serve and a set of laws that are mainly enforced without social stress. We have freedom of expression and democracy.

Much of this is down to wealth creation so that we can be said to be well up Maslow’s Hierarchy of need.

However, inequality is now increasing and the challenges of this country in a world where countries like China are now beginning to dominate economic growth are substantial. The impact is serious in areas like London where housing costs are so high because of the demand from those from overseas – many thought to be laundering questionable money through the London property market.

We also see scenes in Calais on a daily basis how those countries that are not providing economic freedom to their citizens – through corruption and war and mismanagement that leads to hunger and illness – drive their own people from those countries. This is an international problem – African migrants

So, how could Liberal Democrat economic philosophy be developed to tackle the issues that impact everyone – which everyone believes to be crucial to their lives and those of their families and within which the other values of liberalism can be seen to flourish?

We have to focus on responsible wealth creation in this country and overseas that marries the need to galvanise wealth creators (small businesses, risk-takers, new science, co-operation between public and private sector) along with a focus on great education that motivates and provides opportunity, understands how we develop sustainable growth (that assists the environment and connects us with it – not just seeing it as “natural capital” in the way that the 19th Century mill-owner saw workers as capital) and international. In the latter, we have to understand how the UK is a seller to the world and a buyer to the world but also part of that world. That world needs to ensure that the poorest are given opportunities and that sink-holes like corruption are eradicated. That equal playing field that liberalism feels so deeply is now an international playing field.

Economic freedom (the ability to grow our wealth) in a responsible way should be part of any liberal philosophy. But, it is not the 19th freedom to trade freely – it has to be a freedom with responsibilities attached. Together, economic freedom with responsibilities would help us win the battle of life that we all face.

The Strange Death of Liberal England – all over again!

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Nick Clegg made a speech on 19th December 2013 to a conference organised by the Open Society Institute and Demos which spelled out what Liberalism is about. It was poorly reported by the media which focused on criticisms of the Conservative policies on tax benefits for married people. But, it was an important speech in that Liberalism – the real third way of British politics – was, for the first time in many years, made the key topic.

In “the Strange Death of Liberal England” written by George Dangerfield in 1935, the twin political opponents of workers and capital were seen to squeeze out the rights of the individual as two opposing armies took over. This death was correctly seen as liberalism and the niceties of that philosophy were sacrificed to economic imperatives. Economic supremacy and economic growth (as measured by wages and GDP) became the real determinant in our politics and economics – a natural result of the economics of the 19th Century.

Now, western economies are relatively wealthy in pure economic terms despite the travails of the last eight years. It is the squeezed middle classes that have faced economic peril – with real antipathy to the financial “class” that seem to have acquired all the economic power. However, “austerity” economics has imperilled the lower paid and the poor on the altar of “balancing the books”.

In 2013, and in his recent resignation speech after an election that punished the Liberal Democrats for much more than cosying up to the Conservatives, Nick Clegg made the case so well. Liberalism stresses the balancing of the needs of individuals against power blocks – against totalitarianism of all kinds. “The values of the open society – social mobility; political pluralism; civil liberties; democracy; internationalism – are the source of my liberalism. And reflecting on the events of the last year, it is clear to me that they have rarely been more important than they are today.” Clegg said in 2013.

In his more recent speech made yesterday, Clegg stated that the loss of liberal values from recent politics spoke of a real risk to freedoms and the pursuit of life over entrenched interest groups. Unfortunately, this message had not been made by Liberals for 5 years (except in the odd speech like in 2013) and the mistrust held by the electorate over the decisions to become part of a Tory-led coalition along with the about-turn on University fees caused enough of the electorate to dismiss the Liberal Democrats. This party became “Tory-light” in the eyes of the young who had voted for them in 2010.

As economies struggle around the world, modern politics should be looking beyond the cul-de-sac of entrenched self-interest and power blocks to the values of the open society called up in Clegg’s 2013 speech. We should measure our rights to exist in ways that are more suitable than GDP or income measured in such straightjacket terms as numbers of £’s or $’s or Euros. Open society should be the way we measure our lives – this requires satisfactory income levels but there is more to what humans need than income to buy things that have diminishing returns to our well-being. Clegg’s speech should have been a useful starting point for what politics should be about beyond the next tax break. I hoped at the time that many would read it, that the press would begin to re-establish itself and begin to help lead the way to a new politics and economics for the 21st Century.

My hopes were dashed by a Liberal Democrat party that forgot its true centre (probably lost anyway when it joined with the Social Democrats thirty years ago) and only remembered it when it had lost.

Where does liberalism go now in the UK?

Perhaps the election throws up another route. The Labour Party’s dismay at it abject failure to ignite interest in the whole of the UK may be seen as an early stage in a change there, too. Born on the back of the struggle of the working class to assert itself in 1900, Dangerfield in his 1935 book showed clearly how that movement of labour was bound to kill off the party that had tried to represent labour up to then (the Whigs and then the Liberals) but from a middle class perspective.

Now, working people have succeeded in asserting their rights and many now aspire to middle income status. The struggle is now for all employed people to struggle in a world where the top 1% seem to be capturing the economies. They also have a mission to improve the lot of those outside of work.

For the Labour Party, this means that their traditional block of supporters seeks different outlets – Scottish Nationalist or UKIP, Green or even Conservative – where aspirations stretch from pure economic to the type of society for our children. Labour has to change to reflect aspiration – not just Tory-light (which Blairism was too close to) but something motivational. Ed Miliband talked about One Nation (a Victorian memory) that David Cameron repeated in his victory speech. This needs to be taken forward to the 21st Century and maybe Labour needs to reach out not go back into itself.

In the past, this was spoken of as a “realignment of left wing politics” but it needs a new 21st Century definition. Liberal thought as Clegg made so clear in 2013 and briefly referred to on 8th May, 2105, could be what drags the Labour Party kicking and screaming into a new mission for this century.

“The values of the open society – social mobility; political pluralism; civil liberties; democracy; internationalism” allied to safeguarding the poor and those who find it difficult to gain traction in that society, providing opportunity for all, motivating all to achieve both economic benefits and quality of life – these could be the new liberal values of Labour – and Liberals. Maybe the realignment is overdue – but, not just with left-ish ideals from the 1930’s, but liberal ideals for the 2020’s.

Liberalism and politics – short-term thinking or the fight for ideals?

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats are holding their Spring conference this week. I declare an interest. That party represents the closest thing to the ideals that I hold – the belief that monopolies of any type are bad in principle and that the state (and other potentially totalitarian groupings) should be limited in scope and the individual in society provided with the best chances to succeed.

This overly-simplified outline of Liberalism (probably not social democracy) – at least to a British formula – where society is seen as individuals and groups that must be enhanced and where over-bearing accumulation of power is to be resisted – is nevertheless a strong reason why I pay my annual subs to the party.

Against the centralist doctrines of the Labour party (where state is still seen to be the best judge of everything) and Conservatism (difficult to assess but primarily a “market is best” doctrine allied to a notion that old institutions must be conserved no matter what), Liberalism should be the politics of the 21st Century. It shouts for the spirit of individuals and civil society making changes for the better against the rigid institutions set up in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. It should be capturing the spirit of the internet age – where freedoms to communicate should be elevating transparency and openness to a new generation (and convincing the old as well). It should be screaming about how the UK fits into the future of a world that continues to change (and not always for the better), where the rise and development of China threatens the drive to democracy and transparency that has been in place since the defeat of Nazism and totalitarianism after World War II and since.

Today’s Politics

Tragically, politics in the UK is all about shopping baskets. All our attention is drawn to GDP and austerity. These issues are important – especially to those living (or just about surviving) on low incomes. The drive to change taxation at the margin (and we always talk about changes at the margin – not true in the US where a real debate on dramatic changes in taxation are taking place – see John Mauldin’s latest on this) is a proper argument but the focus on taxation and its short-term impact blots out everything else.

Liberal Democrats believe in a wide range of issues. Moving in with the Conservatives as part of the Coalition Government has been a brave move that is hitting the party hard – based on recent polls. Shifting the tax burden to free those earning low salaries to a wealth tax (although the shift is tiny) is seen by senior Liberal Democrats as working to define the party.

Ask a voter what the Liberal Democrats stand for and they will probably answer with comments about university tuition fees or other short-term decisions made during this parliament.

Today’s politics, the politics of short-term economics and counter-terrorism (or long-standing views on how to counter the perceived threats that international terrorism poses) is our staple. Politicians (and we are not blessed with the cream of intelligence in that area – they usually became bankers in the 1980’s) are hooked on short-term ideas and the next election. It was ever thus.

GDP slaves, taxation dummies, election addiction, five year parliamentarians that act like five-year olds.  In the UK we may have been better off than our EU colleagues in Greece (we do have a society that respects to a greater extent tax collection as a cornerstone) but minor modifications to our lives emphasize the conservatism of the nation –  conservatism that is likely to propel the UK backwards and means that our influence is greatly lessened as the 21st Century progresses.

Tomorrow’s politics

Political parties are under threat. Their short attention span means they are missing the evidence that is before them. People and groups in society are pursuing single initiatives to great effect. Whether these groups are organized as NGO’s or small societies or other types of organization, civil society (propelled by new technologies) are able to have a greater influence on politics than ever before. Politicians and government has to be aware of that change and make efforts to respond to it

That response has to mean that decisions must be allowed to take place at the lowest level possible not at the highest.

It must mean that politics has to “open up”and be more inclusive – that means helping those in society to understand what parties stand for – really stand for – and the world that they see ahead.

It must mean that the political parties must continuously work to make themselves relevant.

For Liberal Democrats fighting to show themselves as sufficiently different so that voters provide them with a future beyond this parliament, it seems pretty important to use the remaining three years to do two, crucial things.

First, sure – secure the short-term changes that (even if at the margin) show benefits to that area of society that is bleeding because of the poor economic conditions.

Second, and far more important in the long term, ensure that Liberal Democrats shout about the society that the party wants to have in place and the UK’s place in the world. This is not about minor taxation shifts. This has to be a society where individuals and groups have a bigger say but also where the opportunities to develop (in terms not just of how many makes of designer trainers one can buy but in terms of real education opportunities, real quality of life from birth to death, a society where large, monopolistic groups which threaten that society from inside or outside are not tolerated) are maximized.

Liberal Democracy (or at least the Liberal part of it) has a strong tradition in all these areas. The message has been obscured in its pro-Europe and pro-euro fervour and over-reliance on short-term tax issues and the obscuring of its longer-term reason for existence and how it should want to change the world.

Nick Clegg’s speech back in December at the Open Society Institute made an attempt to voice some of these issues (see https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/01/01/liberalism-and…e-21st-century/).

Politics needs to motivate and excite in the 21st Century as large movements (such as the labour movement in the late 19th Century and early 20th) are not so obvious – that does not mean it is not happening.

The movement is now about individuals and groups within civil society using whatever tools are available (and which technology is supplying) to make their case. For Liberal Democrats, the aim should be to show how it supports that key change in society and can help and nurture it and maybe lead it and make it work.