Would a Miliband victory be good for the Lib Dems?

Here’s a paradox. Britain’s political party leaders are the most mediocre, as a set, that I can remember. At least in 2010 we had Gordon Brown: a disastrous prime minister, but one who at least had the moral authority to help lead the world from economic disaster in 2009. But next year’s General Election looks to be the most interesting contest for a very long time. The shame for Liberal Democrats like myself is that we are bit part players, hoping to hang on to most of our parliamentary seats, but without playing much part in the national debate. But the rise of Ukip means that three-party dynamics remains potent. But perhaps the Lib Dems longer term prospects are better?

To start with, we have an unknown effect from the Scottish referendum later this month. Whatever the result, this will surely change dynamics north of the border in ways that it is difficult to predict. The Westminster elite hardly dare confront the possibility of a Yes vote, though the race is tightening and this is a real possibility. They have contented themselves with promising extra devolution for the Scots, without addressing the implications for England. If the Yes result comes, the Westminster politicians will have nobody but themselves to blame.

The constitution of the UK (note this not a “Scots question” – it affects us all) remains the most important issue hanging over our politics, including next year’s election. But for a moment I want to join the Westminster chatterers and put this to one side (the chatteres’ favourite website politicalbetting.com seems to think that the forthcoming Clacton by-election is more important than the referendum), and consider other dynamics.

Over the summer the Conservatives had looked quietly confident, and I shared that confidence on their behalf. They faced a strong challenge from Ukip, whose message appeals to many of their activists, but they seemed ready for that. David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU is highly credible, and it is good bone to throw to potential Ukip defectors. Meanwhile they can promote scare stories about letting Labour in, and also blame the government’s more unpopular policies (to the right) on their coalition partners, the Lib Dems. The Euro election results in May seemed to support this confidence; Ukip were rampant, but Labour’s performance outside London looked lacklustre. Ukip were as much a problem for Labour as the Tories, and Labour’s message to Ukip supporters was (and remains) confused, unlike the Tory one.

Alas for the Conservatives their plan seems to be falling apart. The Tory MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, defected to Ukip, resigned his seat, and has caused a by election which he intends to contest under his new party’s banner. Clacton is a stronghold of the disaffected, white, aging, excluded working classes that is Ukip’s core constituency; a victory for Ukip looks certain. This gives Ukip real momentum. But, worse, it emphasises the divisions within Tory ranks between the more sensible moderate types represented by David Cameron, and what liberals regard as a lunatic fringe, whose strength has grown. This will encourage Tory voters to defect to Ukip, and discipline within the party to break down. That could scare off donors. Add this to the fact that the electoral system is weighted against the Conservatives, and they party’s challenge is looking steep indeed.

Which shifts the focus to Labour. That party has a clear hope that it will win the 2015 election by default. They have swept up a lot of former Lib Dem voters, and it seems certain that they will hang on to them. If the Tory vote sags because it is undermined by Ukip it looks good for the party. Labour faces its own challenge against Ukip, but generally in areas where they have very large majorities. There is an excellent article in today’s FT by Matthew Goodwin, who has been following Ukip’s rise closely. He may well be right that Ukip poses a severe long-term challenge to Labour in its northern heartlands, where its organisation is weak. But even he admits that this is more of a problem for 2020 than 2015.

So Ed Miliband’s Labour party could secure an outright majority after next election. And then his problems will really start. He is bound to disappoint his left wing supporters, including those Lib Dem defectors. The British economy remains fundamentally weak and unable to support the size of public sector that these supporters seem to feel is their birthright. There are no quick answers to this underlying weakness, and many of Mr Miliband’s  ideas will make things worse, not better. Neither will he please the grumpy working class voters to whom Ukip is appealing. There will be a sense of betrayal among one group of their supporters, and panic amongst the Labour machine politicians in northern towns, who have taken their power base for granted. And the question of Scottish devolution’s affect on England will need to be faced, or, worse, the impact of Scottish independence. The party would surely be overwhelmed, rather like the Conservatives were after 1992.

But the Conservatives will not be much better off. They will remain divided between pragmatists, who lean towards EU membership, and idealists for whom the EU represents all that is bad. The party is likely either to lurch to the right or fall apart. Ukip, feeding off disillusioned Labour voters, will rise relentlessly.

You could hardly define more propitious circumstances for the Liberal Democrats, provided they stay away from any temptation to form a coalition with Labour. Labour will end up by prolonging many hated coalition policies, vindicating the party’s record in coalition. Meanwhile the rise of Ukip will create a strong anti-Ukip political backlash. As the Tories fail to contain their right, and Labour panics over its loss of working class votes to Ukip - this backlash will present a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, in a highly dynamic four-party play. This opportunity would be best exploited by a new leader. It would be ideal if this was a commonsense, well-grounded female - a Birgitte Nyborg. Alas I cannot see such a choice being available (my preference, Dorothy Thornhill, Mayor for Watford, is unlikely to be in contention). But the opportunity for a comeback is palpable.

What should the Lib Dems do now though? It has little choice but to stick to its guns in the coalition, and concentrate on winning any parliamentary seat where local strength is sufficient to make it winnable. This will mainly be about denying seats to the Conservatives. If things go very badly for the Tories, they may start to pick up some centrist voters from them generally – though that’s a long shot. But they must remember: the opportunities will be after 2015, they should do nothing that will make that comeback harder.

Interesting times indeed!

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Learning from the Rotherham scandal – this should be a moment for humility

The big story in the British news media this week is the Rotherham child abuse scandal. This was occasioned by a detailed report from Professor Alexis Jay. This revealed that some 1,400 children and teenagers had been sexually abused from the 1990s by gangs in this Yorkshire town. The perpetrators were largely from the Pakistani and Kashmiri community and the victims were vulnerable white girls, many in care. Council officials and police ignored repeated reports of this abuse. Similar things seem to have been occurring in other northern towns, as well as further south. The revelations have provoked anger.

But instead of trying to understand the implications of this many-faceted issue, most commentators have used it as a battering ram to push forward their own political agendas.

The right wing agenda, promoted by the press, is to blame “political correctness”. This is because the allegations were initially treated as racist, and treated circumspectly for the sake of “community cohesion”.  Implicitly they suggest that the problem was the fault of an immigrant community that was not dealt with robustly enough. Behind this lies a distinctly racist, anti-immigration agenda. But this narrative is at best incomplete. One of the main reasons that allegations were not taken seriously was that the authorities had a shockingly low opinion of the victims, who were treated as “sluts” and authors of their own fate. There is nothing politically correct about such old-fashioned, macho attitudes.

The left wing agenda is well expressed by this article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian. This downplays the racial dimension, which she says is but one part of a much wider problem of powerful men abusing and denigrating powerless women. Perpetrators are from all races, as are the victims. She then goes on to blame the “neoliberals” for running down children’s services – in spite of providing evidence from her own experience that shows the problem dates back to well before the neoliberals got going. And you would hardly describe Rotherham’s council leaders and the South Yorkshire Police as part of the neoliberal establishment.

But while both lines of attack are self-serving, both also have a grounding in truth. The paternalist, we would say misogynist, attitudes of the rural communities from which the perpetrators were descended were part of the problem. And fear of allegations of racism clearly influenced the authorities. Abuse of young girls goes much wider than this ethnic minority, as does a reluctance for the authorities to act. Overstretch in social services hardly helps.

And it is very easy to use the scandal to go after your favourite villains. In my case it would be the Labour elites of northern cities who run their fiefs on a clientalist basis – including with the self-appointed leaders of ethnic minority groups. And weak and incompetent police leadership. There is plenty to go on for such a line of attack.

But that too would be incomplete. I think we owe it to the victims to question our own attitudes and practices, not just those of people we don’t like. A large part of the problem also lay with middle-class liberals. Getting to grips with this problem involved crossing two boundaries that we hate to cross. First is criticism of ethnic minority groups, which we fear will be seized on by racists to stir prejudice.  And second, about which comment has been strangely silent, crossing a class barrier. Victims and perpetrators are largely working class, and these formed the power base of council leadership that failed to act. We are reluctant to get involved across the class barrier, and treat working class communities with general incomprehension.

And that is one reason why it took so long for the problem to be taken seriously at national, as opposed to local level. This is clear from an interview given by Andrew Norfolk, the Times journalist who eventually brought the story to light, on BBC Radio 4′s Media Show . The liberal elites did not want to know, and accused him of racism. This account is backed up by others at the fringe of the story, consider this piece by television journalist Samira Ahmed.

The lesson is this: we are all part of the same, cosmopolitan community. We should not let the barriers of class, religion or ethnic heritage stop interchange and conversation, based on facts. Showing respect is not about treating people with kid gloves and not asking too many questions. We should be open to criticisms of our own values and practices; but we should not be shy of challenging others in an appropriate way. And above all, no individual, of whatever class or ethnic origin, should be treated as “trash”. Even if we don’t like them.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

The revenge of the 50-somethings. Is this why productivity is sinking?

Last weekend I met up with a number of other 50-somethings. Only one of us was still working. The universal advice to her was that she should stop as soon as she could. It wasn’t worth it. Anecdote is no substitute for serious analysis, but it can offer some interesting insights. Economists usually ignore the idea of satiation – that enough is enough – because this wrecks their mathematical models. But it is a growing fact of life in the developed world, and one reason why it is unrealistic to expect everlasting economic growth.

Of course, many 50-somethings are not as lucky as me and my friends. They have inadequate pensions and other savings; they are forced to keep working, and may well have to do so long after their state pension kicks in at 65 to 67. There were two common factors to our group: no children and property ownership – though by no means all of us had had well-paid jobs. There are plenty of others in the same boat, even if we are a minority.

What was striking was how we had found that work had become demoralising, across a spectrum that covered high-flying project management through to ordinary clerical. And looking for new jobs is even worse. The youngsters are pushing ahead, with all their politics and superficiality. Competence and people skills are devalued compared to bluff and fast-talking. Age prejudice is rife in recruitment markets, but impossible to prove case by case. Such sentiments are largely “grumpy old man” (though most of us were female…), rather than substantive; no doubt our predecessors felt the same about us. But work used to be the centre of our lives, providing us with purpose, a social life and the wherewithal to consume.

But now we’d rather move on. Even if that means constraining our consumption somewhat – though our generation are the ones sitting on high value property, which helps quite a bit. We will retire early if we can. Many of us are winding down, into part-time work, often thinly disguised as self-employment. This pattern of reduced work level can continue until well into the 60s and even beyond.

Is this showing up in the economic statistics? This is difficult to say. Overall workforce participation is increasing, including the older age groups. This suggests that the number of people who have dropped right out of the workforce is less than those who struggle on after retirement. But the number of self-employed has been rising sharply, and we have what economists call the productivity puzzle. Labour productivity is not rising in the way technological progress suggests it should. Perhaps the winding-down of the 50-somethings is part this.

Economists stress about this. They had assumed that steady economic growth, arising from improved productivity, was simply a law of nature. When growth fails to materialise, they condemn this as a policy failure, looking to fiscal or monetary policy to correct it. But when low growth arises from free choices made by the public to produce and consume less, this is not a policy failure. But it does create policy problems – especially over the affordability of debt. It would be better for all if economists would stop whinging and help us to understand and address these policy challenges. Low growth future is here to stay. Because that’s what people want.

Share
Posted in Economics & Finance, Politics UK | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Arab world must find its own way

Two weeks ago I wrote a long essay on Israel, which focused mainly on the Israeli government and its wider network of support. But Israel is simply an actor in a wider drama centred on the Middle East. Today I want to look at this wider drama, and to focus on the Arab world. That is because this drama has drawn in the Western democracies, and we need to see a bigger picture. My main message is that we must find a way of stepping back, and letting events take their course, apart from clear humanitarian interventions.

Who are the Arabs? The narrow definition encompasses the native peoples of the Arabian peninsula, and their descendants, such as the Bedouin tribes that are scattered across a wider area. But I will opt for the wider version, for whom the Arabic language and Islamic religion are the defining characteristics. These are spread across North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, and then through “Greater Syria”, which includes Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, and then, of course, the Arabian peninsular.

The heyday of these Arabs was an era that I will loosely call the Caliphate, when, in the Middle Ages the Arabs could claim to be the centre of the civilised world. They constituted an empire ruled by people who could trace their succession back to the great Prophet. This empire collapsed, most notably with a Mongol invasion and the sacking of Baghdad in 1258. In due course the Arabs came to be ruled by the Turkish Ottoman empire. This empire weakened progressively through the 19th Century and finally collapsed in the First World War. It was replaced by period of European colonialism of varying degrees (deep in Algeria, largely absent in the central Arabian peninsular). The modern era begins as this colonial rule was shaken off, but succeeded by a series of states whose boundaries were defined by the colonial powers.

Things have not gone particularly well for these countries in this modern era. In spite of their great inheritance, their economic development has lagged. While they do better than the African countries south of the Sahara, Turkey and the European parts of the former Ottoman Empire have mainly done better. They have usually been ruled by strong men in highly paternalistic and corrupt regimes, with or without token references to democracy. Many have been marred by civil war, of which the worst were in Lebanon, Algeria, and, ongoing, in Syria. The western powers have been unable to resist the temptation to meddle, most egregiously with the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

These wars mark a struggle for identity after the Ottoman and colonial eras. This has two aspects in particular. The first is the obvious one that Arab countries want to become strong, prosperous countries, like their European neighbours – but have unable to do so largely through the ineptitude of their rulers. Some Arab countries are very prosperous, of course, courtesy of oil and gas resources. But high average wealth in these countries masks otherwise underdeveloped economies. This underdevelopment has caused frustration and a crisis of confidence.

Enter the second theme: the Islamic faith. The Arab world is not completely Islamic, but Islam is central to their identity. And so, with the failure of secular, nationalist dictatorships, Arab peoples have been drawn to an identity that is more explicitly based on their faith. Fundamentalist interpretations of the faith have been gathering momentum, marked by a return to traditional practices, such as the closeting of women and brutal punishments. Fundamentalism has been promoted by Saudi Arabia, using its oil wealth. This has been based on their highly traditional Wahhabism. But this has spiralled out of their control, as extremist groups, such as al-Qaeda and Isis have taken these ideas to a logical conclusion, but without reference to the Saudi state, which they regard as corrupt and hypocritical. I will call these groups Jihadis. We need to be a little careful here. The Christian equivalent of the Islamic doctrine of Jihad is a crusade. The correspondence between the two terms is rather good – conveying as it does anything from an entirely peaceful campaign to deal with mundane problems like litter, to a full-blown war. Jihad itself is a perfectly functional part of the architecture of Islam that has much positive potential. But not if it translates into eulogising violence, as the Jihadis do.

But the Jihadis are by no means the only form of militant Islam, and Wahhabism by no means the only fundamentalist one. Three other groups are worth mentioning. The first is based on the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement of Egyptian origin which includes Hamas, which rules Gaza and which is propagating war against Israel. This has its origins in the early to mid 20th Century. It has developed highly secretive practices, from generations of evading state suppression. This makes the movement particularly difficult for outsiders to grasp. One of the unfortunate aspects of this is that it impossible to take the statements of their leaders at face value. They have a long record of saying one thing and then apparently changing their minds – something which undermined their credibility when they briefly took power in Egypt under President Morsi. A further Militant movement is based on Shia Islam (all the rest are Sunni); this includes the highly effective Hezbollah in Lebanon. Shias are a minority in the Arab world (though a majority in Iraq), but they draw strength from backing by Shia (but non-Arab) Iran – and this movement is clearly well-led and effective. Finally it is worth mentioning Salafism, a Sunni fundamentalist (but not militant or Wahhabi) movement particularly strong amongst the rural poor cross North Africa. Salafists advocate a return to highly traditional Arab practices, but their methods are peaceful persuasion and politics, not the violence of the Jihadis.

Ranged against this assortment of fundamentalists and militants are the Arab strong men, who seem to be able to rally all those who fear the politicised Islamic movements. They make full use of state structures and institutions, like armies and secret police. By and large they remain in power. But at the cost of corruption, oppression and continued economic underdevelopment.

The problem for us as westerners is that there is almost no room for movements that we find congenial. Ordinary Arabs (to generalise absurdly) seem to see the western powers as part of the problem. Westerners seem both decadent and contemptuous of the Arab Islamic heritage. Their identification with Israel and colonialist days does not help. The fundamentalists see democracy as a means of seizing the reins of power, but not as a thing of value in itself. The strong men see democracy as in a similar but opposite light: a threat to their regimes.

So what are we supposed to do? The strong men are asking us for military support, because they brand the Jihadis as a terrorist threat to the West. They have support within our security services, for whom these militants are seen as the main enemy. And yet the Jihadi threat to the West seems to be diminishing. They gain little from their terrorist assaults in Western countries. They would rather their recruits came to the Middle East where the real war is being waged. Excessive Western involvement simply increases the flow of recruits. Now that our troops are finally pulling out of Afghanistan, the Western effort should mainly focus on propaganda – to show disaffected Muslims that these wars are brutal affairs that are not their business, and to persuade them of the opportunities they have as constructive members of our own societies. We need to move away from the idea of war. Funnily enough, the media savvy of Jihadis like Isis is playing to our advantage. It is easy enough to use their own material against them.

Is there hope? I think there is. As the Western powers withdraw, it is becoming clearer to Arabs that their problems are largely of their own making – and that a culture of victimhood, however much it is apparently justified, is getting them nowhere. Fundamentalist and militant Islam is step in the wrong direction. They need to forge a new understanding of the Islamic religion that is more workable in the modern world, but still confident of its heritage. One that embraces democracy, accepts diversity and celebrates the equality of women. We might call it liberal Islam. But we liberals have to be very careful. The Arab peoples need to feel that these ideas are a natural progression of the Islamic faith – and not an import. We can’t help them with that. Something like this a slowly taking shape in Tunisia, and we have to wish them well. I firmly believe that the tenets of Islam are susceptible to this form of interpretation.

The Western world must stand ready to provide humanitarian support for the inevitable series of disasters that the region faces. We should provide logistical support to any efforts that promote a peaceful resolution of conflicts. But we should back off from military interventions and seeing the Middle East as one front of a “War on Terror”. It will take time, but the Arab peoples really need to work this one out for themselves. And the sooner they understand that their fate is in their own hands, the sooner any resolution will arise.

Share
Posted in World | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Rethinking Liberalism 7: what are the liberal blindspots?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I started this series of essays because I thought liberalism, to say nothing of Liberalism, was at a low ebb and needed some fresh thinking. I started with the easy bits. Big questions, like the future of capitalism, but not ones that make liberals particularly uncomfortable. This is an old strategy to deal with something big and difficult. If you clean up the easy bits first, what remains looks less intimidating. But I have been a bit underwhelmed with the results, which are well within the spectrum of ideas that are regularly discussed by liberals. After a few weeks break, including a refreshing holiday, I think it is time for a change of direction.

All political philosophies have difficult bits: areas where the principles conflict with each are, or seem inadequate in the rough and tumble of the real world. Socialists want to clamp down on businesses to stop exploitation, and yet crave the tax revenues that will only come if you give businesses some serious rope. Conservatives yearn for a less intrusive government, but are annoyed when they find this gives people the freedom to behave in what they see as antisocial ways – and on which their views tend to be very narrow-minded. Liberalism is no exception. Liberals have blindspots.

I call them blindspots because most liberals behave as if these difficulties aren’t really there. Many have created a sort of alternative reality in which these problems don’t arise. Or they simply change the subject. But this is damaging in two distinct ways. First, it means that we don’t talk about many issues that bother people, and are therefore perceived to be weak or lack credibility. Second, when liberals do get their turn in government, and have to confront these intractable problems, liberal ranks are torn apart. The pragmatists are seen as betrayers of liberal principles; the fundamentalists are seen as people who will not come out of their alternative universe to confront the real world. The British Liberal Democrats in the last four years are a case study in both of these phenomena.

But even identifying what these blindspots are is hard. Because we rarely talk about them in any depth. We seem afraid of what we might find if we do. But this blogger is not running for electoral office, and so should be less frightened of tackling difficult issues. I think my time in this series is most constructively spent identifying and discussing these issues – in the hope that liberals can, in due time, work their way through them to an updated political philosophy. I feel a bit inadequate to the task. I have not read great tracts of John Stuart Mill or even Conrad Russell. But then, maybe spending so much time reading great men can be part of an evasion process.

Anyway, today I will make a start. It is time to move from the abstract. What are the liberal blindspots? Here are few problems to get us going:

  • Dependency. Liberals feel that people should have equal chances. Poverty is usually not a choice, but stems from some form of bad luck. So we offer help to redress the balance: cash handouts, subsidised housing, and so on. But very often this help creates a relationship of dependency between those being helped and the state. This does not worry socialists – but it does worry liberals because dependency is disempowering; it reduces freedom.
  • Free riding. Liberals like rights to be unconditional, since that gives individuals the maximum power. But that creates the opportunity for free riding: people who take but do not give back. Since many rights (health care, education, minimum housing standards, etc.) cost money, the opportunities for free riding are manifold. Progressive taxation, asking the rich to pay more, makes things worse. Free riders not only undermine the financial viability of entitlements, they undermine the sense of community solidarity that underpins unconditional rights.
  • Oppressive communities. Liberals like the idea of strong local communities. These balance the need for a strong central state. They give individuals more weight, and a greater sense of control. Members of strong local communities are generally happier than those of weaker ones. The word “community” even gets into the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution – the place that the party’s core values are set out. And yet strong local communities are not liberal, open places. They often  promote uniformity and are hostile to outsiders, especially those from other cultures. For many liberalism is a reaction to the oppressive nature of strong communities.
  • Multiculturalism. This is closely linked. Often immigrants form strong local communities that don’t gel with their neighbours, and challenge liberal values. Conflict often ensues. This is a worldwide problem; neighbouring communities from different cultures may live side by side in peace for a long time, and then there is an explosion. The mechanisms of liberal democracy don’t seem equal to the task. And yet forced integration is illiberal.
  • Fighting crime. There are bad people out there, who have no interest in promoting a prosperous, inclusive society. They want to steel our money, or even kill us as participants in some imaginary war. These people adapt quickly to the modern world. But liberals often seem more interested in theoretical notions of privacy belonging to a different age.
  • Postcode lotteries. Universal rights create expectations that vital state services should be more or less the same everywhere. Strong local democracy suggests that different local communities should be able to make different trade-offs that match their own priorities and preferences. But this creates variations that are derisively referred to as the “postcode lottery” – your actual entitlements to universal rights depending on where you live.
  • Managing businesses. Businesses are at the heart of our society; we don’t just need them, we need them to be prosperous and innovative. This is at the very heart of any strategy to combat poverty. But liberals often see businesses as a threat, to the welfare of their employees, their customers or anybody that gets in the way. Liberals dream of cooperatively owned businesses, grounded in their local communities. And yet, valuable as such businesses may be, they do not provide a credible template for the majority of forward-looking enterprises that society needs.
  • Migration. Migration of people from other countries provides a flashpoint for most of the issues already mentioned. And yet it is undoubtedly a dynamic force, and a vital escape valve.

I’m sure I could go on. The agonising of liberals over events in Iraq and Israel shows liberals in a bit of a post-colonial muddle – though that affliction is hardly unique to liberals. Still we have enough to get started.

Just looking at the list of problems, I think a can see the outlines of a more general one. Liberals paint a picture of an ideal society, based on Goldilocks local communities with just the right amount of cohesion. We want all countries to follow that idea. But we also believe in universal rights; a fundamental equality of all people. And yet many of these people want to use these rights to take themselves and society in a different direction. Perhaps they have an alternative ideal; perhaps they just want to promote themselves in what they see as a rat race. We are getting to two muddled – the society we are trying to create, and the what should apply to everybody in the diverse here-and-now. And we do not address the issue of how a liberal society coexists with others made up of people who have freely chosen something different.

In this light liberals need to rethink their cherished framework of universal rights. That is what I will attempt in future essays. I’m feeling uncomfortable already. Good.

Share
Posted in Rethinking Liberalism | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Don’t blame Tony Blair for rise of ISIS

The rampages of the ISIS terrorist group (also known as The Islamic State) have taken the lead in our news, pushing Gaza and Ukraine down the agenda. They present a truly chilling spectre as they murder or push out anybody that does not adhere to their religious doctrines from the territory they control. Many thousands of Yazidis and Christians are at risk. And, faced with the horror, people want somebody to blame. The Left want to trace this back to 2003 war in Iraq, started by President George Bush, with our own Tony Blair as his principal cheerleader. That is muddled and unhelpful.

That war was ill-advised, and usually considered to be against international law, which some value more than others. The premise was that Saddam Hussein was a threat to international security, and a brutal dictator; he should be replaced with something more congenial. But the level of threat posed by Saddam was woefully over-estimated, and the western powers had no well grounded plan to replace him, and chaos resulted. ISIS grew out of that chaos. That much I can agree on.

But it is too much to suggest that Messrs Bush and Blair are the main cause of the rise of ISIS. Consider three arguments:

  1. It would have been only a matter of time before Saddam’s regime collapsed. And that would have led to chaos anyway – as the Shias tried to take over, backed by Iran, and the Sunnis fought back. This is what happened in Syria after all, without any helping hand from the western powers.
  2. Indeed the collapse of Syria is what gave ISIS their head start; they used Syrian territory as a base from which to attack Iraq.
  3. When the US withdraw, they had engineered a sufficient reconciliation between the Sunnis and Shias, so that the former were not open to recruitment by ISIS.

In fact if you are looking for blame there are two factions or powers that come further up the list than the western powers.

First there is the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In a bid to consolidate his personal power, he dismantled the Sunni-Shia settlement, and weakened the Iraqi armed forces. Only his personal power base matters to him. He did this in spite of advice to the contrary from the US.

Second there is Saudi Arabia. They have used oil money to promote their intolerant and traditionalist Wahhabi version of the Islamic faith – in opposition to more tolerant forms that had previously prevailed through much of the world outside Arabia. ISIS have simply taken the logic of Wahhabism a few steps further; they are not backed by the Saudi state, but they do attract money from rich Saudi individuals, and those inspired by Wahhabi teaching. While the left rages about how close the US is to Israel, they seem strangely silent about the relationship with Saudi Arabia, a country whose influence on world peace is highly corrosive.

People in the West, especially the left, seem to indulge in a sort of post-colonial arrogance. They assume that everything that happens in the world is the responsibility of the western powers, and if something bad happens, they look for western politicians to blame. But the rest of the world has a life of its own. The peoples of developing world nations should be taken seriously in their own right, and treated as responsible for their own actions. The colonial days are over.

ISIS are one dimension of a world that is taking shape outside the control and influence of the western powers. They are a thoroughly modern movement, in spite of their references to medieval practices, such as beheading opponents and marginalising women. The original Caliphate was much more tolerant – and indeed many of the communities now being liquidated are survivals from that time. But they seem to strike a chord with many angry people across the world. In due course ISIS and movements like it will collapse under the weight of their own contradictions. Personally I find the complete inability of mainstream Arab countries to establish decent, effective state structures a much more worrying phenomenon.

 

Share
Posted in World | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The unfolding tragedy of Israel/Palestine

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

It has been a terrible few weeks in Israel and Gaza. My Facebook account is full of people condemning Israel’s bombardment. A lesser number of commenters try to defend Israel’s actions. I am not planning to join this chorus of condemnation. I want to take a step back and look at what is happening, and ask where it is all heading.

What about me? I am not Jewish. I had a lot of Jewish friends at school in the 1970s, where I was highly sympathetic to Israel. In 1979 I volunteered for a few weeks at a kibbutz on the border with the Gaza strip, and took the opportunity to visit the city. I have friends who are both Jewish and Muslim, and I like to see the best in both traditions. In this drama I have identified more easily with the Israelis, who seem to be people more like us, than with the Palestinians and their tendency towards darker versions of the Islamic faith. And that, more than anything is why this post examines the actions and evolution of the Israeli state rather than its aggressors.

It seems to me that Israeli policy has three foundations: the primacy of force; identity with the West; and permanent ambiguity over resolution. Until now, this has been very successful, whatever one thinks of the morality. But it is looking less and less sustainable over the long term.

Might is right – the legacy of the great betrayal

Let’s start with the primacy of force. In Europe, after generations of appalling wars and murderous dictatorships, we are hardwired to think of the  peaceful resolution of problems, using the rule of an emerging international law. We believe that it is always better to try and build long term relationships based on trust, and respect legal principles in spirit as well as letter. Failed military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforce this prejudice. It is easy enough to challenge this bias as naïve. When we bump into countries that play to different rules, like Russia, we find ourselves relying on America.  But the feeling runs deep – and we are internally consistent. When the IRA started to bomb London, we did not send assassination squads in to kill Gerry Adams or Martin McGuiness, still less send in the RAF to bomb Sinn Fein premises in Dublin. We did use military force, but we agonised of its propriety, legality and proportionality.

Israelis have never shared this European bias, drawing different conclusions from the same historical events. To them the overwhelming sense from European history is betrayal. Jews trusted the non-Jewish mainstream in the 18th and 19th Centuries, when so many of them integrated into mainstream society, and trusted to the basic principles of a civilised, rules-bound society. They were betrayed. By the Russians, the Germans – and in different degrees by almost everybody else. Jews were dispensable when the going got rough.

And so, after the War and the Holocaust, the Zionists said “Never Again”. To them that meant self-reliance, and a prejudice to use military power when they had it to protect themselves. Legal principles could be used when convenient, and ignored or bent when not. I need to be very careful here; Jews, including Zionists, are as keen as anybody to support societies based on the rule of law, and in Israel non-Jews have effective legal protections which far exceed those of neighbouring societies. But in Israel the primacy of law seems to have been trumped when it comes to what they see as the existential interests of the national as a whole. [The italicised section replaces a piece of sloppy writing which understandably created offence in the original] The Israelis never trusted the international community in the UN partition in  1948, and simply took what they were able to – under attack from the Arab powers. And so it has gone on.

Back in the 1970s this looked plucky, as Israel “created facts” that the ponderous international community had to put up with and negotiate on. But after the country established complete military supremacy, it took on a more sinister aspect. Assassination continued to be part of national policy; reprisals became increasingly disproportionate. The use of force seems to have replaced all other ways of solving security problems. This doesn’t just take the form of occasional violence, but it also means placing physical constraints on Palestinian communities in Gaza and the West Bank – walls, checkpoints, economic restrictions. To Israelis these are simply pragmatic solutions to a security problem. To others it looks much more sinister.

“People like us” – the West’s front line

The second foundation of Israeli policy is relentless propaganda in the Western democracies, in Europe and America. From this they have forged a massively important military alliance with the U.S., which supplies it with weapons and logistical support. The central tenet of this propaganda is that Israel is part of the extended family of Judaeo-Christian peoples (an adjective probably invented for the purpose) – part of a great “Us”. This is placed in contrast to the hostile and foreign Arab states that surround it, who were at first portrayed as allies of the Soviet Union, and then part of the Muslim terrorist threat – but always an alien “Them”. This has some grounding in truth. Israelis, by and large, are much closer to us in values and institutions than the Arab countries. These have never been proper democracies – and as their peoples are increasingly attracted to fundamentalist visions of the Islamic faith, they become even more alien to us. Israel is presented as a “bulwark” against this alien world.

The propaganda machine has been relentless in its efficiency, supported by Jewish communities embedded in European and  American societies. Critics of Israel are accused of anti-Semitism, and are driven to the fringes of mainstream media and political discourse. “What would you do?” Israeli spokesmen ask – presenting their country’s reactions as a proportionate response to a security threat. Over time its targets might feel the messages are bit like those of a spoilt child. Everything is always somebody else’s fault. You believe them the first few times, but the inhuman monotony of the message leads to scepticism. Also the refusal to engage in serious strategic reasoning or any concept of unintended consequences is wearying.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating – and success of this messaging in America is quite staggering. It helps that many Americans don’t share Europeans’ distaste for the use of force. And while Americans are more attached than most to the rule of law – it is only American law that they really respect. International law is viewed with suspicion.

Permanent ambiguity

It is natural for policy makers to look at Israel’s situation of tension with its Palestinian population, and the world in general, and look for some kind of long term resolution. There are basically only two open to respectable policymakers: the single state and the two state solutions. In the former, the Occupied Territories are incorporated into the Israeli state, and their Arab residents are accepted as full citizens. In the second, the territories are divided, with a Jewish Israel and an Arab Palestine. Neither solution is acceptable to the Israelis. In the first case the status of Israel as a Jewish homeland comes under threat – and besides the legacy of war and mistrust presents an insuperably obstacle. I can’t think of a successful case of two such different but numerically equivalent peoples coming together in a single successful polity. But the two state solution is little better in most Israelis’ eyes. No division will satisfy the Arab hotheads, and the two states would drift into a state of mutual hostility and war. To most Israelis, the withdrawal from Gaza has proved the point – it has made the security situation worse, not better. And we haven’t even mentioned dividing Jerusalem or recognising refugee rights – which could lead to rebellion and armed conflict within Israel itself.

So the solution for the Israeli state is to maintain the current ambiguous status quo, where most Palestinians are effectively stateless, and where Israel remains in effective control of the territory. Peace plans come and go; it is not difficult to play along with them and sabotage them in due course, with the Arabs taking the blame. Meanwhile settlement of the West Bank by Jewish communities slowly but relentlessly continues. This is not good for the Palestinians, but that is simply not a factor that weighs in the calculations.

Israel’s critics often complain that the country has lots of tactics but no strategy – that they win battles but lose the war. But Israel’s leaders are a clever bunch, and they are advised by even cleverer people (including top game theorists) – and they are focusing on an existential problem. (The word “existential” comes up a lot in Israeli discourse – no doubt to distinguish their debates from the dining table discussions of Western liberals). They have simply decided that the best long-term solution is to have no long-term solution.

And things fall apart

Israel’s strategy had seemed to be working fine until quite recently. Israeli citizens continued a normal, suburban life without too much disturbance. The progressive collapse of neighbouring Arab states reduced the threat from that quarter. The security measures against terrorists seemed be doing their job. But now the pressure on Israel’s grand strategy is growing.

First, living with and containing the threat looks much more difficult than expected. The strength of Hamas is a bit of a shock: not just the sheer quantity of rockets that they managed to build up under the blockade, and keep using under threat – but the discovery of so many tunnels to aid future attacks. Instead of responding to Israel’s punitive tactics by abandoning terrorism, Israeli pressure has made their enemy more resourceful. And the civilians seem to feel they have nothing to lose by giving them tacit support. They do not believe that Israel will ever reward better behaviour. Israel are not the only ones to take on the logic of an existential war, where the ways of violence must take precedence. Israel’s operation may have secured Gaza for the time being – but at a greater cost in Israeli military lives than the threat warranted. Can they really keep on doing this every two or three years? And what if West Bank and Israeli Arabs start to take up the cause? Another problem is that dismantling the Hamas organisation, even if it is possible, only presents the threat of its replacement with more extreme and fragmented versions of it.

Second the propaganda offensive is losing its effectiveness. There are two problems. The first is specific to Europe. Many European countries now have significant Muslim populations, whose political weight is growing, and who the political mainstream are trying to integrate rather than isolate. These Muslims are taking Israel’s actions in Gaza as a rallying point, and uncommitted liberals are joining in, glad find an issue where they can build bridges. Unfortunately for the Israelis, appealing to this Muslim audience is much harder than the mainstream one, and they are making no serious effort. Indeed, victims of their own propaganda, they tend to see these people as part of the great “Them”. Europeans appreciate the threat of Islamic extremism – but Israel looks more and more to be part of the problem and not the solution. Talk of it as a “bulwark” seems nonsensical.

The second problem arises from the freedom of social media, which is increasingly how younger people get their news. It has proved impossible for the Israeli machine to muzzle or counter the sheer volume of unhelpful comment. Worse yet, angry posts by Israelis and their supporters wishing ill to all Palestinians get an airing, undermining the country’s carefully crafted image of injured innocence. Israel is losing the propaganda war amongst the young, even in America. And even Jewish citizens are questioning Israel’s actions. Politicians in Britain are much freer to criticise Israeli policy than at any time I can remember.

Where is this going?

So if Israel will need a new strategy, what might this be? The first thing that we can rule out is a move towards some flavour of peaceful reconciliation, in two or one state flavours, beloved of Western liberals. The opportunity for this has passed. Israel may be losing the propaganda war with the public in the West, but it commands the overwhelming support of its own public. Remember that these are no longer largely made up of European exiles – but of refugees from places with no record of liberal values (Russia, Syria, Iraq and so on), or who have grown up in Israel itself in a state of siege. The first pillar of Israeli strategy, reliance on force, is going to stay firmly in place.

But Israel may look for new allies who have fewer scruples. They are losing European nations; America may start to become more reticent. But there are alternative partners outside the West. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) are notably pragmatic in their outlook, and surely open to military and technological cooperation. Russia, China and India are also open to “robust” policies to tackle Muslim extremism. Israel’s attack on Gaza is a picnic compared to Russia’s suppression of Chechnya, after all. Israel has to tread carefully, as the quickest way of ending the US alliance would be for Israel to sell its military secrets to these emerging powers. But the opportunity is there. Israel may become less appealing to Western liberals, but they matter less in the new multi-polar world.

And that brings with it the possibility of some kind of final solution to the Arab problem: annexation of the occupied territories and expulsion of the Arabs living there. So far outside commentators have viewed this possibility as unthinkable, even for Israelis. But a growing body of Israeli opinion openly advocates it, and doubtless the rest is persuadable. And who will stop them and how? I can’t see this happening soon, and doubtless it will require further provocation from the Arab side. But if Israel can’t live with the Arabs, it will live without them. As chaos overwhelms Syria and Iraq, and Russia gets away with annexing Crimea and arming Ukrainian rebels, this solution starts to look less outlandish. This does not look like a world where liberal norms apply.

What can we do about it?

We probably cannot do much more about this than to watch and cry. But there is some value in Western liberals saying what we think the way forward should be, even if nobody outside our own societies is listening. We must show our belief in a better way.

The first thing we need to say is the Palestinians should drop their obsession with weapons and armed resistance. This just makes Israel’s final solution possible – and nobody is coming to their aid. They need to develop a line of peaceful, passive resistance and take the moral high ground. This may look hopeless, but so is the attempt to use terrorism to create a negotiating position. Negotiations need trust, and everything Hamas has done has undermined potential trust. If only they had maintained peaceful coexistence after the Israeli withdrawal, the two state solution might have seemed feasible.

We also need to slowly isolate Israel if it continues to use excessive violence to gain its objectives. We need to call for a progressive easing of living conditions for Palestinians, and to urge progress towards a two state solution. But we should reserve complete isolation for the event that Israel starts mass expulsions of Arabs from the Occupied Territories.

But darker forces are driving both Israel and the Arabs, and they are in no mood to listen to Western liberals. I have used the word “tragedy” in my title because events are taking the shape of those great tragic dramas of Shakespeare or Sophocles. Opportunities for reconciliation are missed as human emotions and miscalculations take events through to an outcome that nobody wants. Everybody is right. Everybody is wrong.

In due course, we can only hope that, like the European nations before them, the peoples of the Middle East will tire of endless violence and seek a better way. But things will get worse first.

 

Share
Posted in World | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

Austria: a social democracy that works

IMG_0311I have been on holiday to St Wolfgang in Austria in the last two weeks, which explains why I have not posted anything recently (NB the picture is of nearby Hallstatt, not St Wolfgang). This holiday was mainly about fresh air and relaxation. Political reflection was not on the agenda – but I just can’t help myself. Austria is a very interesting political case study.

The country is an overlooked success story. The area that we visited, the Salzkammergut, was pristine. Everything was neat and tidy. The state of public infrastructure, from roads to public footpaths, was excellent as well as highly extensive (hot water is supplied communally, for example – not to mention all those well marked and maintained foot and cycle paths)). This was a major tourist region, but no Cornwall, with tourist affluence co-existing alongside poverty. There was plenty of local industry, and quality medium-level jobs, tucked away on the edges of the villages.

Economic statistics bear this success story out. Income per head in 2013 was 11th highest in the world, according to the IMF – behind the USA, but comfortably ahead of Britain. Unemployment is low (4.7%), the trade balance is positive (2.9% of GDP), and there is a reasonable level of growth (1.4%). The government is in deficit, but the level of 2.8% of GDP looks much better than  Britain (4.6%). This is in spite of a high tax take (43% in 2012 according to the Heritage Foundation, compared to 39% in Britain and 27% in the USA). According to the OECD the Gini coefficient, measuring income inequality, was 0.261 after taxes and transfers, one of the lowest (i.e. most equal) in that group (Britain is 0.345, the US 0.378). The really interesting thing about this statistic is that this level of equality has been attained through redistribution. Before tax and transfers Austria’s Gini is 0.472, similar to that of the USA (0.486) and Britain (0.456). Austria taxes the wealthy highly and has a generous level of social security. It is a beacon of social democracy.

This is interesting because we are constantly told by economic liberals that high taxes and high social security is the path to doom and poverty. And, to challenge another piece of received economic wisdom, it does not even have its own currency, being part of the Euro zone. In America, you only have to mention “Europe” to a Republican, and it conjures up an image of economic failure. And yet Austria is no economic failure. It is not like France or Italy, whose economies are struggling. Why is Austria so successful? Well, I don’t know the country that well – but let me make three observations.

The first is that power is highly decentralised. Austria itself is not a large country, with 8.5 million people. It nevertheless has a Federal constitution, with nine states. These are highly visible on the ground (we were staying within a few hundred metres of the boundary between Upper Austria and Salzburg; we also visited Styria), on car number plates, and so forth. Local municipalities levy a payroll tax (about 3%) and as well as property taxes. In Britain, at least, there is a tendency to think that social democracy implies highly centralised governance, as shown by the last Labour governments highly prescriptive diktats on local government.

The second observation is that civic society is clearly very strong. You don’t achieve Austrian levels of order by government diktat and regulations alone. This requires active civic engagement – a bit like David Cameron’s “Big Society”. But what Mr Cameron failed to grasp is that big government (if highly localised) and high civic engagement work well together. Indeed, Austria’s political system looks like a bit of a stitch-up (two dull establishment parties, challenged by right-wing mavericks) - I am sure that it is high civic engagement that holds government services and public infrastructure to account, rather than the electoral process by itself. Again, Britain’s social democrats tend to view civic society as interfering busybodies with a NIMBYist agenda.

So far, this picture reinforces Liberal Democrats conventional wisdom: strong local government, linked to a high level of community engagement. The catch is my third observation: Austrian political culture is not liberal. In fact we would regard it as distinctly nasty. Ukip supporters would feel comfortable here (if you exclude the small government types). Unlike Germany, there is no public angst about Austria’s Nazi episode – though the country was highly complicit (Hitler was an Austrian after all). Immigrants face hostility. Austrians are very hospitable to visitors (more so, in my direct experience, than the Swiss, for example); but visitors go home and do not challenge for jobs and political influence. We did not see much sign of foreign staff in the restaurants and hotels – you meet more Poles in Cornwall. The EU is regarded with suspicion, if not hostility – even if it is accepted as an inevitability. Social attitudes tend to be conservative. In the hotels, the men tended to have the more authoritative jobs, with women running around as skivvies – though the shops tended to be run by highly capable women.

Perhaps the biggest question for British liberals is this. A fairer distribution of wealth and jobs seems to flow from strong local government, based on strong local communities; but is this compatible with more fluid liberal, human-rights based values? Or must strong liberal social values lead to economic liberalism, and the unequal, hollowed out society that seems to be taking root in the US, for example. Can you be both social democratic and liberal at the same time? To that critical question Austria does not provide an answer.

Share
Posted in Politics UK, Travel, World | Tagged , | 4 Comments

We need a UK Constitutional Convention and a Federal government

What happens when your normal existence comes under threat? We seem to alternate between two extremes. One is paranoia. We see this now with Jihadi extremists, where many Britons see the threat of terrorism everywhere, and are happy to vastly expand the surveillance powers of the state so that any plot can be intercepted before execution. I remember a similar paranoia over Soviet Communism in my youth, in the 1970s. But the more common response is denial. We keep going with our ordinary daily lives without thinking about it, dismissing the threat with half-baked arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. We see that with the threat posed by rampant global carbon emissions.

Perhaps to the  English the possibility that the United Kingdom breaks up, with Scotland ploughing its own furrow, does not have the sort of existential quality of global meltdown, communist takeover or even terrorist attack. That may be so, but we underestimate its significance at our peril. If nothing else, if the Scots vote Yes in their referendum in September, the negotiations over separation will dominate the political agenda for at least four years. The Union is so deeply embedded into our governance that separating the countries will have a host of unforeseen complications. And the complications that are clearly visible are bad enough: membership of the EU and NATO; Britain’s nuclear weapons; managing the currency; spitting the national debt; splitting oil revenues; and so on. Our governing classes will scarcely have time to do anything else, while the publics on both sides of the border will be inflamed by populists claiming that their country is getting the rough end of the deal. And at the end of it all England will be dominate nonsense of a country that can’t convincingly even lay claim to its traditional names of “United Kingdom” or “Great Britain”. It will be left with a tangle of Imperial era commitments, from membership of the UN Security Council, to responsibility for the Falkland Islands, without the joint enterprise of Scotland and the other British nations that brought these about. The loss of international prestige would be incalculable. It is often said that the loss of Ireland was the first step in the break up of Britain’s empire – the point at which Britain’s sense of confidence and authority fatally started to ebb away. The departure of Scotland would end aspirations to be even a second-rank world power, and no doubt poison the country’s politics for generations to come.

And yet the British establishment is taking this threat very calmly. People talk about the referendum here in England, but with little sense of its implications. And when conversation moves to next year’s General Election, the impact of the referendum on our politics is quickly forgotten. The half-baked argument used to dismiss such thoughts is that a Yes vote looks unlikely. But the Yes campaign has all the momentum. The No campaign depends on narrow, conservative arguments, put forward by second-rank politicians. Even if the Noes win, the threat of breakup remains. Supporters of the Union, on both sides of the border, need to recover the initiative. There is no more important issue in British politics.

Let us try to understand were the threat is coming from. It started in the 1970s as North Sea oil was discovered, and gave the Scots a sense that their country could be economically prosperous, even as industrial decline blighted it, along the rest of the UK outside the southern counties of England. The establishment response was Devolution: the setting up of a separate Scots parliament, to which progressively more power has been given. This may have delayed the crisis, but it has not solved it. In devolved Scottish politics the Nationalists field their best politicians against those of the unionist parties of second and third rank. An ambitious Scots politician who belongs to the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties seeks to get elected to the Westminster parliament to make his or (less commonly) her career there. Here they happily take a hand in running England’s affairs. Gradually the Nationalists have come to dominate local politics in Scotland.  Meanwhile at Westminster one of two situations occurs: a Conservative led government is elected that the Scots did not vote for, or a Labour government which does not have a majority of English MPs. This inflames politics, especially north of the border when there is a Conservative government.

At the heart of the problem is the way in which the ruling Westminster elite sees itself. The British Parliament, with especial reference to the House of Commons, is sovereign. It secures the consent of the people at General Elections, but in between times its authority should be unchallenged. It is an evolution of the medieval and Renaissance idea that kings should be absolute rulers. Our elite becomes troubled when authority seeps away to institutions such as the European Union under treaty obligations. But it would rather not think about the idea that Parliament itself lacks the popular consent that its sovereign status implies. The Scots challenge this legitimacy openly, but increasing other British people feel it too, even if they articulate it less well.

There is an obvious solution: federalism. In a federal structure sovereignty is shared between the different levels of government. The higher levels are not self-evidently more “sovereign” than lower ones. The best known example is, of course, the United States of America. There the states are not the artificial creations of the national government, only allowed to do what the national government says. In theory it is the opposite, though in practice it is a jockeying match, arbitrated by a written constitution and the Supreme Court.

In Britain this means that you would have a federal, UK government, with a number of state governments below it. What would those states be? Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, obviously. But what about England? Many people, when first considering the problem, want to establish a series of new regional states in England, of approximately the same size as Scotland, in population terms. But this really doesn’t fly. That is not how the English view themselves; such localised identities could emerge in time. The great conurbations of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Bristol show some signs of developing such identities. But what of the rest? Cornwall, though rather small in size, has a sharp (and non-English) identity and has a strong claim for statehood. But elsewhere it means drawing arbitrary boundaries which, even if they follow ancient identities like Wessex, Mercia or Northumbria, really won’t work. That is not how modern England is.

The English state would have to be England itself, with maybe only Cornwall separate. That presents some big problems of its own, of course, but I think these are more soluble than muddling on as we currently are. I will only say that the critical thing is for the seats Federal and English parliaments should be located in different cities. Only then will the separation between the two be properly credible.

There are two main ways in which such a system might be implemented. The best is for the current British Parliament to become the new English Parliament, with a new Federal Assembly located outside London, operating within a new, written Federal Constitution. But such a step is too revolutionary for our country, that likes to evolve its constitution in small steps. I suspect the number of minor legal complications that would follow would be almost as bad as those that would flow from a Scottish breakaway. I would still vote for it if offered the chance – but grumpy as the British electorate is, I don’t think they are in such a revolutionary mood.

So the other way forward is for the British Parliament to downsize and become the new Federal legislature. The House of Lords might be replaced by a Senate with members appointed by the state legislatures (which would need to incorporate sub-state governments in the case of England, perhaps). A new English parliament and English First Minister would be established, located outside London. The whole thing would be constitutionally protected by a British Bill of Rights, which might, for good measure, establish the limits of European authority, in the way that Germany’s Basic Law does. That is revolutionary enough. But I can’t see any middle way between this and the current muddle.

And how to implement such a radical proposal? The first step must be to call a Constitutional Convention in the wake of the Scottish referendum result if there is the expected No result. And perhaps even if there is a Yes and a backlash as the difficulties emerge (although if that happens, only the first of my two solutions would be viable). That is what English politicians should be calling for.

Share
Posted in Politics UK | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off

Rethinking Liberalism 6: reinventing the state

So far in my series of essays my conclusions have been quite conventional, if a little left of centre. We need to keep capitalism in a mixed economy; the state will need to get bigger to cope with the demographic challenge; we will have to tax the rich more as middle incomes are squeezed. There’s nothing here that would upset the denizens of Whitehall unduly, notwithstanding the economic liberal tendencies of some. But I think we are badly let down by our system of government. It will have to change radically – and yet the complacency of the Westminster elite is overwhelming. Liberals must rally to challenge it.

Unfortunately one of the best examples of this establishment complacency comes from our own Liberal Democrats. Back in the 1990s I was inspired by anti-establishment rhetoric from our then leader, Paddy Ashdown. The whole system was rotten, he said; we were the outsiders and only we could change it. Then, in 1997 the party arrived as a serious force in Westminster politics.  But, somehow, under the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Nick Clegg (or the brief leadership of Ming Campbell, come to that) this radicalism came to be toned down. In spite of some radical language from both of these leaders, policy was more about trimming the Westminster policy agenda here and there without counting too much controversy. Ideas, such as a local income tax, which might have meant a decisive break from the Westminster-centred way of the world, were quietly buried. By the time Lib Dems took up cabinet jobs in the current coalition, they looked very comfortable in their new Westminster ministries, with the possible exception of Vince cable, the industry minister.

And the public could sense this. My heating engineer, classic old-school lower middle-class, told me that the Lib Dems had sacrificed their principles to get their hands on the prestige of power. Mr Clegg looked as if he was enjoying themselves too much. This feels very unfair, of course. There was a national crisis in 2010, and the compromises of coalition were needed for the country’s sake. And the Liberal Democrats have stopped the Conservatives doing a lot of silly things, like cutting Inheritance Tax. But there’s a grain of truth in the accusation; what about the promise to really shake-up British politics? It’s not clear that senior Lib Dems ever wanted to do more than change the standard Westminster priorities a bit, by pushing education and redistribution up the agenda and making the odd stand on behalf of civil liberties, unless real heat got applied. If there has been any reinventing of government, it is mainly Tory ideas that are driving it. And they are about keeping the basic Westminster architecture in place, but diversifying the delivery (more private contractors and Quangos in place of top-down state hierarchies). The attempt to devolve more power to democratically accountable local bodies has been a particular disappointment. Each step forward is accompanied by at least one step back. The malign orthodoxy of the Treasury, with its insistence on a highly centralised model of power, remains unchallenged by key Liberal Democrats – or so it appears.

Why does this matter? Firstly because the pressures caused by the demographic shift have only started. I have already written about pensions. Health costs will rise too as the ratio of older people increases. And then economic growth will continue to stagnate, for a variety of reasons, including the increasing number of people entering retirement, but for other reasons too. Meanwhile the twin (and related) economic deficits of government finances and trade are unsustainable in the long run. The government has to tax more and spend less. It has to become much more efficient and effective.

The country’s direction of travel is not encouraging. Government cuts have been very painful, and the public is tiring of them. Endless privatisations are affecting the quality of service. The fiscal deficit creeps down, but it is still very large, and he trade deficit is getting worse. This shows that the underlying economy remains weak, and that growth is hardly more sustainable than it was under the last Labour government. No sooner does the economy grow, than does Sterling appreciate to undermine all the rebalancing. Meanwhile the country is sleepwalking into the breakup of the United Kingdom (even if Scotland votes No in September) and exit from the European Union, as political dissatisfaction with the status quo grows. Pulling all the usual levers of power in Westminster seems to be doing not much good.

What have liberals to say about this advancing gloom? The first point is that we want people to have as much power as possible over their own lives. That means we dislike people being dependent on the state. It is here that we differ from the socialist left, who don’t mind if the public has a permanent client relationship to state agencies, as this creates a political constituency both amongst the dependents and the employees who serve them. Liberals should recognise that in a modern society the state must play a very big role – but we also need to push back on dependency. The state should fix problems so that demand for state services reduces.

The second point is that we believe that as far as possible state structures should be fully and democratically accountable to the people they serve. The state does not devolve power to citizens, but citizens delegate power to the various levels of government. This too is difficult in the modern world. Many problems are complex and must be solved at a national and international level – and the further up power is delegated, the weaker accountability becomes.

Have we delegated too much power to transnational bodies like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation – with the threat of more as part of a transatlantic trade deal? I don’t think so – these structures merely recognise the transnational nature of problems and the need to agree international standards and laws. Countries that opt out of these structures don’t seem conspicuously better off as a result. Is Australia, for example, really a better and happier place than Britain? Its recent economic success is as much down to the luck of geography and natural resources as anything else. Does having to dig up vast amounts of prime farmland to get at the coal beneath, while poisoning the great natural wonder of the Barrier Reef, really look like freedom?

No. I think the main problem is that we have delegated too much power to Westminster, and that the Westminster elite is protecting itself rather than solving the countries’ problems. It has created a series of administrative silos that perpetuate problems rather than solving them. To tackle this we need to do three things.

  1. Establish a federal system for United Kingdom, by creating a new English parliament and English government, based outside London, and taking to itself the same set of administrative responsibilities as the Scottish government has.
  2. Radically reform the way public services are commissioned to ensure that solving problems for their clients becomes their prime driving force. This will entail a radically increased role for locally accountable agencies.
  3. Reform the country’s tax system to follow this radical redistribution of responsibilities so that every level of government controls more of its own revenues – alongside a system of transfers to ensure a fair distribution of resources.

Each of these three depends on the others. Federalism is required to break up Westminster complacency; public services will only be properly remodelled if it is not controlled from Westminster; power cannot be decentralised unless tax is decentralised too. I will pick up each of these themes in future essays.

 

 

Share
Posted in Politics UK, Public Services, Rethinking Liberalism | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off