The Strange Death of Liberal England – all over again!

150509_DeathofLiberalism - again

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.

Banking on Politicians?

I have just read two books that should be read by anyone interested in the huge banking and financial problems that face us:

The Finance Curse by Nicholas Shaxson and John Christensen;

Just Money by Ann Pettifor

Both attack the finance industry and my brief comments on the two books are as follows:

The Finance Curse: Shaxson and Christensen compare the Finance Curse to the Resource Curse that afflicts so many resource-rich, economically-poor nations. The Finance Curse is a more complex story and as difficult to resolve. It is analysed well even if the suggestions about to solve the Finance Curse could have done with more time and resolve. This is a highly important subject that two knowledgeable writers focus on with passion. Clearly, one book will not solve the problem that has taken root over several hundred years but the world is waking up (slowly) to the issue and this book assists that wakening process.

Just Money: Focuses on how Keynes’ monetary policies have been overtaken and forgotten and how modern-day rogue banking is fleecing (as rentiers) business people and society at large.
It is a convincing account of the rentier landlords of money, the new robber barons who have put a cost to the trust that money was invented for.
If right, Ann Pettifor’s future is bleak as her need for political change is mired by the lack of ability of politicians and even business people to understand the problem – the same misunderstanding is apparent in economics. This suggests that, if she is right in her analysis and prescription, no-one will change anything – even after the terrors of the 2007 banking crash. Add to this the positions that bankers and ex-bankers hold in the Establishment and the likely future is more money being absorbed by the banking system and its “owners”.

Financialisation

The overt Financialisation of our economies have progressed to a degree that is now untenable. I wrote about this in my earlier posting in 2012: The Financialist-Political Complex where I likened the supremacy of the banking fraternity to the Military-Industrial Complex identified by Eisenhower after WWII as the key danger to society.

If that danger has been heeded and (maybe) reduced, the new danger to all of us that want to enrich society (and that includes real entrepreneurs) is banking and finance.

In my earlier posting I included the following quote from Tom Armistead:

Banks need to be returned to their primary purpose, which is to serve the real economy, as financial intermediaries between those who work, save and invest, and those who need funds to create new means of production, or to buy a home, or a car.

Yet, Ed Miliband today focuses on a break-up of ownership of bank branches as the answer – as if retail banking of this type was the problem. Ann Pettifor must be screaming at the wrong attack on the wrong enemy – it is the internationalism of banking and the rentier progress of the international banks; Nick Shaxson must be amazed at the simple-minded attitudes of politicians that go for quick sound bites rather than tackle the core issues – how massive banking centres like in the UK damage our economy.

We cannot bank on politicians clearly – they don’t understand. So, the question is who does? While I may not grasp all of the issues myself and while I may not agree with all the remedies that Messrs Pettifor, Shaxson and Christensen propose (and I propose different ones in my earlier post- like a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for banking), I am sane enough (I think) to grasp the intensity of the problem and to see that our politicians seem either not to have a clue or to be in hock to the bankers (a point I made in that earlier post).

Either way, the two books show the problems starkly but maybe we need a bunch of NGO’s and radical economists (at least as radical as Keynes) to help understanding and an economic overturn of the new rentiers that are destabilising our economies and leading to vast wealth (in money terms) going to fewer people at the top and the destruction of the middle classes.

Left-right, left-right: Parties and cliff edges

In the UK, Members of Parliament go back to work after the summer recess. All the talk is about Cameron’s reshuffle and leadership issues: Cameron is accused of acting like a “mouse”; Clegg’s leadership is under threat from his own party; the two Ed’s of Labour (Miliband and Balls) are said to be continuously arguing and that the phrase “two Eds are better than one” may not be true in this case.

More seriously, as the post-summer issues are traditionally short-term nonsense, last week’s Prospect Magazine has Peter Kellner (President of the pollsters, youGuv) writing an intriguing article on how the Liberal Democrats’ support has collapsed since the last General Election  http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/death-by-coalition/. As a result of entering into coalition with the Conservatives, their support has gone from 24% to 10% – which would result in a fall from 57 to around 10-12 seats if an election were to be held today.

While much of Kellner’s response to the polling made good sense, one aspect of the questions his pollsters asked concerns me greatly. This aspect focuses on how much to the left or right the party is.

The concern is this: surely, this form of questioning is out of date in the realpolitik of 21st Century thinking and 21st Century politics. Surely, in an age of individualism and the lobbying by NGO’s and many one-issue organisations of one issue arguments, the left / right analogy is no longer relevant?

Is politics really about left vs right anymore?

The left and right of politics were named after where the French parties sat in the National Assembly in 1789 at the time of the revolution. In 1791, the Legislative Assembly had the “innovators” on the left, moderates in the middle and the defenders of the Constitution on the right. This became the dominant march of politics in the 20th Century. Different and violently opposed political doctrines literally fought it out on the battlefield throughout the 20th Century. Fascism and Nazi-ism on the right, Communism on the left were the extremes in the battlefields of China, Spain, Cambodia, Europe (in WWII) or wherever the post-feudal wars (those that we fought up to the end of the first world war) were fought. Innovation became muddled with socialism and communism; defenders of the constitution became muddled with economic rigour and libertarianism capitalism (never the manner of the “ancient regime”).

Right and left became doctrinal and, with the fight for the rights of labour against the owner class, the 20th Century adopted the political norm.

Is economics an argument of right and left?

Now that the 21st Century is into its twelfth year, the left / right argument appears completely out of date. Sure, there are arguments about economics that will be with us forever: from libertarian, tea party protagonists all the way to Keynesian interventionists. But, because capitalism is now the standard economic and accepted model, the battle is not right vs left in economics but which form of economic model around the capitalist norm. Arguments are much less severe in developed nations and turn on moderate changes in taxation.

Much bigger issues, such as ending tax havens, transfer pricing, corporate power, corporate governance, the role of banks, corruption and many other crucial issues are stymied as politicians argue over the short-term vote catching issues – 1p or 1c on income tax, for instance.

Is the way we are governed right vs left?

Communism or socialism now only survives on the periphery. China is not a communist state – its economics are capitalist within a statist structure and the party ensures a legalist control (it is above the law). This is not communism. Russia is now a centrally controlled capitalist enterprise (run as a large corporate machine). The rest of the world operates in a democratic to quasi-democratic state. Hereditary monarchy is now mainly for the tourists and the press (celebrities within a celebrity culture).

There is little traditional right vs left in government.

Is the environment a subject for right vs left?

Here, confusion reigns. Traditional right-wingers in the UK (from a Tory mould) can be classed as conservative when it comes to the environment. They often oppose untrammelled modernity and defend the right to conserve (as “Conservatives”). Yet, they oppose green movements because they associate them with restrictions on economic growth. Roger Scruton in “how to Think Seriously About the Planet – the case for an environmental conservativism” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Think-Seriously-About-Planet-ebook/dp/B00829L62C/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1346585639&sr=8-1 puts the case for the right to take back control of the agenda.

The affects of CO2 are now disputed only at the periphery but the case for changing our ways is not agreed. This is now much more about individual nations wanting their own freedom and more about the problem of worldwide agreements – not a right vs left issue at all.

Does politics need right vs left?

Less and less people vote in general elections. Maybe the reason is that the left vs right arguments that drew people’s interest and motivation are no longer prevalent. The motivation to vote for broad platforms which mainly focus on short-term issues designed to entrap voters based on their short-term economic concerns is weak. Tradition still subjects most voters to choose their party and most political parties focus on swing votes – the 2% that Romney and Obama will work to win over in the USA, for example. The 2% that means that 98% are virtually disenfranchised!

The traditional view of politics is one where political parties are formed to organize themselves so that they can attract votes from the individuals who are not organized. This is changing.

Individuals have always formed into non-political party groupings – from trades unions to employer associations, from charities to NGO’s. Many of these groups are single-issue campaigning groups or lobbyists that work hard to influence political opinion and political parties directly and via the media. These range from economic groups to environmental, from governance to charitable, health to education – the spectrum is vast.

This third sector (usually a reference to charities, but comprising all citizen action groups, from sports clubs onwards) is not primarily left of right, but single focus – taking up an issue or cause around some issues. Their influence on government is substantial. Most Government Bills are developed as a result of significant lobbying from single-issue groups. For example, the Bribery Act came into being as a direct result of such lobbying and formal meetings between Government and a diverse range of lobby groups from CBI to NGO’s.

This means that the ancient Greek form of democracy – where every individual is supposed to have an equal say in Government – which was never the norm in most democracies as political parties formed – is now fractured into more layers. Government now relies on the lobbyists and reacts more to them than the community or study groups assembled from the general populace prior to elections.

This means that the left and right of politics (already under strain anyway) are meaningless. Single-issue groups lobby on single issues and political parties, no longer fighting on the issues of left vs right, sway as they are buffeted by those who are able to articulate the issues and now the means to communicate effectively. This means that the individual voter is now even more disenfranchised as it is only a small fraction of the population that is engaged in this process – and that, even at elections, the driving force behind vote-catching is bound to short-term or lobby focused.

A new politics?

In an era of globalization and instant communications, individual nations are less able to maintain an individualist position. Nevertheless, as the Olympics and Paralympics have shown in the UK, national pride remains important and is a reason why the Eurozone crisis will endure much longer than hoped.

However, within this national pride, it is likely to be an era when individualism is also crucial. The mass movements of left vs right are no longer relevant and single issues are much stronger in motivating and exciting.

If there is any truth in this then it is interesting to note the preamble to the Liberal Democrats Federal Constitution:

“The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

In the nonsense over cabinet reshuffles and personalities, it is probably the case that very few even know where to look for the above statement http://www.libdems.org.uk/who_we_are.aspx  – (which is found on the Liberal Democrat website after its coalition agreement – which is all short-term).

Yet, it could be the clarion call for our age – a liberal theme that is far more “of our age” than the 20th Century arguments of right or left.

If right vs left is truly out of date, then open society, balancing liberty, equality and community, individualism cherished, developing talents, creativity and the rest within a coherent community is a proper and enticing call that should be further developed. Apart from a better focus on the environment (our natural capital) which demands more from us, the preamble is not right or left – it is also not middle ground but moves the argument away from traditional left vs right.

Citizens of the 21st Century world maybe deserve something more from our governing elites that have not moved from their 19th Century models.  How we balance our competing single issues and how citizens get to have their say in the crucial issues that determine how we spend our lives is what 21st Century politics should be about. Maybe parties like the Liberal Democrats should think of the themes that will dominate thinking in the 21st Century. Maybe that is a way to get some common ground with citizens – the voters.