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.


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.




Rethinking Liberalism 5: pensions and the state

In my previous essay I concluded that we had no choice but to tax the wealthy more, and this was the most divisive issue in current British politics. The reason for this is that state commitments on pensions and the health service, and potential commitments on social care, would force the state to expand, and for taxes to rise. The hollowing out of the economic middle meant that the wealthy would have to take up an increased share of the burden. But what are liberals to think about these state commitments? It is easy to see why socialists favour them, but less clear for liberals.

At the recent CentreForum seminar on the Orange Book, more than one speaker referred to the coalition government’s commitment to a “triple lock” on the state pension as being disastrous and illiberal. This guarantees that the state pension will rise by the higher of consumer prices, earnings or 2.5%. So as the proportion of older people grows the cost of this promise will mount. The same demographic trend means that we cannot look to economic growth to camouflage the policy’s generosity. And yet pensions are something that people should be able to sort out for themselves through saving over their lifetimes. Relying on the state just fosters dependency – and it can only be funded by increasing the tax burden, largely on people who will not directly benefit. If liberalism is about fostering self-sufficiency and independence, this is surely a step in the wrong direction?

A similar logic applies to health care for the elderly. In Britain it is widely assumed that this will remain free and funded by the taxpayer. As the population ages the overall cost rises. Greater efficiency in the state spend can only get you so far. Social care for the elderly is a similar issue, except that this is only a universal benefit in Scotland – though there it was enthusiastically supported by the Liberal Democrats.

The answer to this puzzle comes in two familiar guises: the need for a safety net, and market failure. A safety net allows people who succumb to bad luck to get back on their feet. I am sure that highly sophisticated arguments can be made in their defence, but to most people it is simply being part of a civilised society. Once families and social solidarity could have taken most of the strain, but the demands of economic efficiency have broken these institutions down; so economic efficiency, and the taxes they can generate, should provide the solution.

The safety net idea isn’t entirely satisfactory when providing for old age, however. The capacity to earn at this stage in our lives is limited, so it is rather more than a just a temporary helping hand. However, it still means that your life can’t be entirely ruined by bad luck. But everybody is entitled to the state pension, not just those down on their luck. The triple lock may be required to keep the state pension for the destitute at an acceptable level, but should it apply to everybody?

What lies at the heart of the problem is a market failure. Start with an obvious problem. If pensions are means tested, then the incentive to save is destroyed until you get past an amount that gives you a reasonable pension. Let’s use some numbers to get this into perspective. The new basic state pension will be about £7,500 per annum in today’s money. To get an annuity of this amount, indexed to RPI (admittedly a mathematically flawed measure of inflation that tends to distort upwards) would cost in the region of £220,000 for somebody of 65, the current pension age. For a forty year working life, with zero real investment returns (I’m coming to that), that £220,000 takes a saving of £5,500 per year, which is over 20% of the average rate of pay (£26,500) before tax. Average savings rates are, of course, much less than that (typically 5-10% of household income).

But surely people can earn more than o% real return on their assets? Actually most people can’t. There are two problems. First is that investment returns are very low at the moment. Central bank interest rates are less than inflation (negative in real terms). All other returns take their cue from that. The prospects for higher interest rates are bleak; that’s they way the world economy is. There are too many savings chasing too few investment opportunities. To break this stranglehold you need a combination of three things: low transaction costs of investment, an ability to take greater investment risk by spreading it, and access what economists call economic rents – income that is not earned through adding wealth to society, but by exploiting an “unfair” advantage. These advantages are usually only available to the better off. For the first two you need a decent sized starting portfolio (over £1 million, say). For the last you need some kind of economic privilege. While the economy was expanding, and before the demographic crunch, you could, in fact achieve these ends by owning your own house. Rising house prices are a form of economic rent, earned by the ownership of land, which is in limited supply. That covers an awful lot of people, but these are now a privileged elite: it is getting harder to join them.

Can’t people band together to get a better return? That is what an old-fashion final salary pension scheme used to do. Administrative costs were low (because you the calculation of entitlements is simple), and investment costs and average risk was low because there was single, large investment pot. Unfortunately such collective schemes are another victim of the drive to ever greater economic efficiency, which destroys the large and relatively stable employers who are needed to sponsor such schemes. Collective action means the state.

The state is the only institution that can take effective collective action. And, with private sector investment opportunities in such short supply, increasingly the state has access to the best investment opportunities too (consider much infrastructure investment). And they have the chance to tax those economic rents. That is the central logic behind the new triple locked state pension. A basic minimum, which the public has every incentive to improve through private saving, which will, unfortunately, rarely add up to a great deal more.

Meanwhile, the various distortions of tax and regulation that inhibit private savings can be gradually dismantled. The government has started by dismantling the rules compelling people with pension plans having to buy annuities. Personally I would start to dismantle income tax relief on pension contributions, increasingly of benefit only to a wealthy elite, and which comes with a dense thicket of rules to prevent abuse. That is a formidable political challenge, though, and can only be achieved in small stages.

Because efficient long-term savings are not accessible to the vast majority of people, especially those without access to property assets, the state must intervene to fill the gap. That makes the economic liberal dream of a low-tax society an impossibility – the alternative is mass destitution, or a needs based system that will be economically less efficient. And if you add health costs and social care into the picture, the problem gets bigger.

The state must get bigger. The question is how to do this in the most liberal way?


Britian’s police: unprofessional conduct

Carol HowardFor once the BBC News’s editorial priority seemed to be spot on. Top story on the 7am Radio 4 news was an astonishing case of discrimination involving a black police officer, Carol Howard. Amongst other things, it showed that the Metropolitan Police were systematically manipulating evidence. Alas by 1pm the story had dropped right out of the bulletin. Instead the channel carried a story about a potential paedophilia scandal in the 1980s, based on some very thin evidence. But this story should not be allowed to drop from our attention. Indeed it raises many questions that should be very worrying both for Londoners and the whole country.

Ms Howard joined the Met’s elite Diplomatic Protection Group in 2012. She was quickly victimised by her boss, Acting Inspector Dave Kelly. Mr Kelly appears to have assumed that Ms Howard’s behaviour was dishonest, and instead of handling this in a professional manner, he is accused of hounding her with unreasonable complaints, and he then become “hostile and aggressive” when she invoked a grievance complaint. Ms Howard then went on to bring a complaint of sex and race discrimination. The tribunal hearing this complaint asked to see a report on the original grievance complaint – but the Met’s management edited out all references to discrimination, saying that they were not relevant to the tribunal. They then claimed such deletions were a matter of policy to protect the Force.

The tribunal found in favour of Ms Howard, and was understandably very critical of the Met. All the Met has done so far is to offer this very weak statement:

We are aware of the decision of the tribunal. We are disappointed at the tribunal’s finding in favour of PC Howard.

The tribunal’s decision will now to be given full and careful consideration. We will review the findings, take legal advice and take forward any learning or actions as appropriate.

In other words: zero leadership, but we’ll ask our lawyers how to fiddle with our procedures. They are clearly hoping the story will go away. To judge by the speed with which the BBC has dropped the story, their hopes appear to be well-founded. It is now up to our politicians to on their case. This is one area were the London Assembly can really show its worth. Here’s hoping.

But evidently no major politician has seen fit to take the case on so far – perhaps the reluctance has something to do with the rise of Ukip, and the backlash against political correctness, by older white males in particular. If so our politicians will be letting the majority of people in London down – of all ethnic groups.

Here are the questions I would like to ask:

  1. How is it, 30 years after Lord Scarman first identified problems in the police, that this kind of behaviour seems to be tolerated by middle management in the police force?
  2. There seems pretty good evidence that Mr Kelly’s conduct was unprofessional as well as discriminatory. He has brought the service into disrepute. Has any action been taken by the Met against this officer?
  3. How was it that an attempt was made to manipulate the evidence from the grievance complaint. Is it legal? Is any disciplinary action warranted against any officer? Or should a more senior officer take responsibility for unethical conduct?
  4. Have such deletions affected other complaints? Have they affected statistics produced to the public about the number and resolution of complaints of discrimination?

And then there are the wider issues. The Police are a public service, funded by us as taxpayers. A quid pro quo is that they should be accountable, with a culture of public disclosure and truthfulness. Instead they seem to have a defensive culture, where the public seem to be treated as the enemy, and openness as a threat. Furthermore, proper professional standards seem to be lacking, and the application of discipline highly selective. If officers are unprofessional, they should fear the reaction of their own superiors; instead these superiors seem to rally round. After each scandal, I hear that police morale has been hit, and I hope that this is at last evidence that they have got past of the denial stage of the grieving process for their old ways. But I may be underestimating their resilience.

I am going to leave the last word to Ruwan Uderwerage-Perera, a former policeman and now a Liberal Democrat councillor. Here is what he said in a Facebook post earlier today (quoted with his permission) (and please allow for the informality of that medium):

“The ‘Canteen Culture'” states Prof PAJ Waddington (himself a former police officer) “is often portrayed as a pervasive, malign and potent influence on the behaviour of officers. The grounds for this portrayal are, however, insubstantial and appear to rely more upon the condemnatory potential of the concept than its explanatory power.”

As a former officer myself I believe this aggressive and macho sub-culture that further stamps the belief of ‘them & us’ between the police and the policed is not only still very much alive and well, but has proven resilient to the three plus decades of criticism since is existence was acknowledged by the police service following the Scarman Report of 1981.

The ‘Canteen Culture’ as a result of its very existence is exclusionary and as such Women, BME and Gay (sworn) Officers (for support staff and PCSOs and the like are never fully accepted) either have to acquiesce to the egotistical, male dominated, heavy drinking, womanising and otherwise hedonistic culture which is supported by the ‘work hard, play hard’ mythology or they are cast aside and will be subjected to further abuse.

I add ‘further abuse’, for even perceived membership of the group means that if one is different e.g not white male and straight then one will be the butt of the so called humour anyway, but at least the victim is ‘one of us’ for the time being.

In my opinion the continuance of this sub-culture holds back the service from becoming a professional body, and means that the service will remain believing that it is not part of society, but somehow is on some ‘crusade’ to save society from itself.

Update: 3 July 10.40am

As I hoped, some traction is being made by London Assembly members on this issue, pressing London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson. Mr Johnson, to his credit, does seem to be taking the matter a bit more seriously than the Met’s senior management. He has said he will review 34 other cases.

According to yesterday’s Standard, the Met have denied that the deletions were a matter of policy. That always did sound like a bit of a middle management excuse to me. Also Ms Howard’s lawyers have called for a public enquiry. I don’t agree with that. What is needed is proper accountability, up to the Chief Constable. A public enquiry will merely drape the matter in more evasion, obfuscation over evidence, legalese, and lost time. The answer starts with leadership, and if no leadership is forthcoming from the incumbents, we need new leaders. Quickly.

And just to be clear. This story is about London’s Metropolitan Police. But the problems uncovered are typical other British police forces.



Rethinking Liberalism 4: taxing the wealthy

There is a growing view that”inequality is one of the main problems confronting the modern world. This is quite a change. Distribution of income or wealth (or indeed the difference between the two) was not a major concern in the previously dominant neoclassical economic world view. But now that the benefits of growth in the developed world go almost exclusively to a tiny elite, while median incomes stagnate, this view has become complacent. And the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty has drawn attention to the potential power of the very wealthy. This presents a major challenge for liberals.

The problem is that liberals should have no particular problem with inequality of income and wealth in their own right. We believe in individual responsibility and free choices. We have unequal economic outcomes because people want and choose different things. So what? In fact inequality is cover for a series of issues which liberals should care about. Today I am writing about one of them: the wealthy elite.

The problem is known colloquially as the “1%”, because a disproportionate share of developed world income is going to the top 1% (or 10%; or 0.1% depending on how you want to present the figures). Rather than providing evidence for this assertion, and how it specifically might apply to Britain (perhaps less than in some countries), I will take it as a given, and look at some of the issues of principle that it uncovers.

Why does it matter? To some it is a simple matter of social justice. Inequality is one thing, but the justification for these extremes is another. There is more than a suspicion that the lucky few are winning because of unfair advantages, rather than just ordinary luck and talent. But regardless of this is a further problem. This wealthy elite has the chance to consolidate its advantages with political influence, so as to rig the economy in its favour. The growing influence of big money in politics, and the enormous lobby industry in places like Washington DC, points in this direction. There is an economic problem too: excess wealth is deadweight. The wealthy do not consume as high a proportion of their income as poorer people. And only a small proportion of their savings get channelled into constructive investment  (paying people to build things) rather than various forms of speculation in pre-existing assets.

Why is the problem growing? It seems to be a case of a weakening middle. In other words it is not a question of rising poverty, but a hollowing out of the middle class. It is easy to see the culprits: technologies that automate medium-skilled jobs, and globalisation that weakens local bargaining power. Thus we have the problem: the economy becomes more productive, but the benefits do not go to most workers. Can this trend be reversed? That is a central challenge for progressive policymakers, and it is a question I will return to.

But if we take the trend as a given, which I fear we must, then what can be done about it? The answer is clear: redistribution via taxation, public services and transfers. This issue divides politics like no other. On the right, we have “economic liberals”, who think that lower taxes and smaller government will unleash economic growth that will benefit all of society. On the right we have what I will call progressives (not all liberal), who appreciate that with today’s skewed power structures such growth will only benefit an elite, and will in any case be undermined by the deadweight effect of excessive wealth. Like most Liberals, I am in the progressive camp here.

Apart from the deep flaws in the economic liberal logic, progressive thinkers can see something else. The state has no choice but to grow. We have signed up to a society which seeks to (more or less) guarantee minimum levels of access to health care and old-age pensions.  The aging of developed world populations will increase the burden of these. And much of the investment needed to keep a modern economy growing, from education to roads and bridges, requires some level of state support. Meanwhile the ability of the middle classes to fund their own needs through savings is under pressure – both because their own incomes are not keeping pace with inflation, and because returns on saving are diminishing, a little appreciated aspect of the “hollowing out” process – with the exception of those able to own property in prosperous parts of the country.

So this comes back a stark truth. Taxes on the rich must rise. This serves to recycle wealth that would otherwise drop out of productive economic flows, and it helps fund the basics the state has to provide. So how to do this? There are broadly three directions: income, assets and capital gains.

Until now, most of the argument has been over income taxes, and in particular the best top rate of tax. When I started my first accountancy job in 1976, the top rate of tax was 83%, which rose to 98% for investment income. Conventional wisdom turned against the wisdom of such high rates. They dropped to 60% and then to 40% in the UK, before rising to 50% in 2010, and then being clipped to 45%. Economists are less sure about the wisdom of cutting such high rates. They did think that cutting tax rates would mean that rates of pay (for the elite) would fall, as it was cheaper to provide the same net salary. In fact the opposite has happened. This seems to point to senior salaries being more about power politics than market forces. Companies paid their executives more because they could; they did not do so when tax rates were high, because they did not like to see so much of the extra money disappearing in tax.

I can see no harm in reinstituting the 50% top rate of tax, though experience suggests that this won’t bring in a huge amount of extra revenue. Such high rates create a tax avoidance industry. There is a problem with very high rates of income tax though: they tend to entrench a wealthy elite, because they make it more difficult for outsiders to join them. The way to become wealthy becomes to to inherit rather than earn. This was the rather interesting conclusion of a quite wonderful contemporary study of the British tax system of the 1970s by Mervyn King and John Kay – which was recommended as a model piece of economic writing 30 years later by the UCL Economics department.

So should we not look at taxing wealth? This is the recommendation of Mr Piketty, who worries that the rate of return on the elite’s assets is too high, and entrenches their dominance. Such a tax would probably be about 1 or 2% per annum – which may not sound much, but is enough to dent annual returns significantly. Such a tax exists in the Netherlands, hardly as basket-case economy. A variation on this general idea is just to tax land – an idea (Land Value Tax) that has an ancient history in the Liberal movement. I personally have a difficulty with taxing a theoretical value of an asset, rather than a realised one – given that the reliability of asset valuations is weakening. But I have to admit the idea is growing on me, especially the land-only version.

A further way of taxing assets is at death. This is theoretically very sound, but too easy to avoid in practice. The rates here can be very high. In order to make this more watertight such taxes should no doubt be applied to large gifts as well. This used to be the case in the UK. But taxing legacies and gifts seems to attract a particular political opprobrium, and we have to tread carefully.

Finally we should mention capital gains: where assets and incomes meet. These are the commonest loopholes in tax systems. Aligning such taxes with income tax seems the best way of dealing with this. But this may undermine the case for an asset tax: the Netherlands does not tax capital gains.

But in discussing such details we must not miss two big and interrelated issues. The first is that our elites tend to be globally mobile. Taxing them will require growing levels of transnational cooperation. And indeed the need to tax such mobile elites puts greater importance on such transnational cooperation. The EU’s tax dimension should grow. Such bodies as the G20 need to focus on the matter too. It is not particularly surprising that so many rich businessmen are in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

Which brings me to the second issue: politics. The rich seem to be of an economically liberal mindset (which is actually a recent development, as this article in the New Yorker observes). They increasing fund political movements with an economically liberal agenda. This is already poisoning the politics of the USA. It will make taxing the wealthy harder. But not impossible. If the public understands that the alternative is to cut basic pension and health systems the economic liberals will lose. But whereas we used to think that politics in the developed world was getting dull, this growing clash of economic interests will inject real conflict into it. Class war is back.