Should I apologise for supporting the Euro?

The this week’s FT Janan Ganesh suggests that those who supported Britain’s entry to the Euro back in the late 1990s and early 2000s should own up to to their error and apologise for it. He feels that the arrogance of that generation of Europhiles is undermining the pro EU case as we face a referendum on membership. Well he won’t have me in mind. I am not a prominent politician; I wasn’t even blogging in those days. But I did have an opinion – and that was that that the country should be part of the Euro – though not at the exchange rate then on offer (about 65p per Euro). Should I hang my head in shame?

In fact this also seems to be a rather desperate line of attack by the Eurosceptics, who are at last realising to their horror that they are being out-manoeuvred. They want to discredit the whole pro-Europe cause. In today’s FT , one its other writers, Martin Sandbu, comes out with a robust defence of British entry to the Euro. He suggests that if the UK had been part of the Euro economic disaster would have been averted, because the European approach to fiscal and monetary policy would have been more pragmatically British. I have also heard a that idea suggested by a commentator from within the Euro zone, though I can’t remember who.

I’m not entirely convinced. But it at least raises the big question. It is treated as entirely self evident that the Euro is a disaster, and that British membership would have made things worse for the country. But both these are counterfactuals. We don’t know what would have happened if the Euro had never got off the ground, or if Britain had been a member.

Let’s consider the first of these. When the Euro was being formed the economies of Italy, Greece and Portugal were in real trouble. Their governments were losing the confidence of the markets; stagflation followed by hyperinflation beckoned. The Euro lifted these economies – before joining the governments were forced to bring fiscal policy under control; after joining interest rates fell dramatically. But these countries failed to deal with deeper seated problems, and eventually the chickens had to come home to roost. Membership of the Euro delayed the denouement rather than caused it. Indeed it gave these countries an opportunity to head off disaster which they failed to take. Contrast this, for example, to Belgium, also considered a bit of a basket case before the Euro, whose economy now prospers, relatively speaking at least. And for each of the other members of the  Euro that ran into trouble something similar can be said. Ireland suffered the consequences of a reckless expansion of its financial system not unlike that of Iceland, outside the zone. Iceland’s crash was at least as painful as Ireland’s. Their problems reflect underlying economic weaknesses that governments failed to tackle. The signs were there. Indeed no members inside the zone seem to want to return to life outside it, with the possible exception of Germany (and Finland perhaps).

The ambiguity of Germans is understandable. The interesting thing about that country though is that they were the only, or at least the first, country in the zone to understand the implications of membership for economic management. In the early days they realised they were uncompetitive, and embarked on a programme of “real” devaluation. This was a combination of holding pay rates down and economic reforms to improve productivity. The reluctance of other countries to embrace this style of economic management is the main failure of the Euro project.

And what of the second counterfactual? What if the UK had joined? Well the first thing to be said is that the country did not do so well out of the zone. The financial crash of 2008 was deeper, and the recovery slower, than the major Eurozone economies. Britain suffered a persistent current account deficit, supported by an unsustainable exchange rate. We were in a not dissimilar space to countries like Spain and Ireland, going through a financial boom offering the illusion of wealth while not enough was being done to fix the fundamentals. It is not so self-evident that things would have been worse inside the zone.

Or perhaps not. I would like to think inside the Euro the UK would have been locked into an exchange rate that suited exporting industries (like Germany after its reform/adjustment programme) and not so subject to financial shenanigans. That would have left the economy in a stronger position after the bust. But such an exchange rate wasSterling Euro X ratesnot on offer. The chart above shows the average exchange rate between the Euro and Sterling for each year of the currency (source: stastica.com). My view is (and was at the time) that the rate of 65p was high (or too low in terms of the graph). It was distorted by excessive government spending and a booming financial sector – there was a substantial current account deficit to show that it was unsustainable. It did not drop to a more realistic level until 2007-2008. That was too late. There was no chance that the government would have followed Germany’s example in conducting reforms to improve the real exchange rate – not while everything was rosy on the surface.

So If Britain had joined the Euro at its start or early in its existence, then the exchange rate would have been too high. Which would have made the adjustment period after the crash even more difficult. I’m not going to apologise for this because I understood that at the time (or that’s how I remember it!).

But there is a bigger issue that I will have to own up to. The design and operation of the Euro zone was flawed. There are two sustainable ways of running such a common currency area. One is part of an explicitly federal system of government, which allows substantial fiscal transfers between its members and a robust system of federal political control to match.  In this system members bail each other out if they get into trouble.To judge from most commentary, you would think that this is the only way to run the zone – and that because the European polity is not ready for such a federal system, then it will never work. But there is an alternative, where each member is not so tied to the others. Each country is left to run its affairs as it sees fit, and if it can’t pay its debts, it goes bust. It requires a sovereign insolvency regime. Nobody bails failing states out.

This latter arrangement is what the Germans wanted, and it is what most Britons that supported membership wanted too. But Euro-federalists in Brussels and the southern states saw the currency as a step towards federalism. The Germans didn’t help matters by insisting on  system of fiscal rules for members – the “Stability & Growth Pact” – which is only necessary if you are heading for a federal arrangement. The idea that the system was in fact of the federal type was implied by the fact that government bond rates for the different members were almost identical for much of the Euro’s life before the crisis. This was a bad sign – and yet most European leaders though it was a good one. When crisis approached European leaders were complacent. And when things went wrong, there was muddle and confusion. This problem is still not resolved.

And here I have to own up. While I saw some of the signs, I did not appreciate the full implications of this ambiguity. I thought it was a problem that could be solved by evolution from within.

I still believe that. But the politics of EU membership in Britain are toxic enough as it is. It is better that the country is not part of the tortuous politics of the Eurozone. That is why I accept the consensus that Britain probably never will be be part of  the Euro zone. Or not until firstly the zone finds a new and sustainable equilibrium, and secondly that Britain sinks into an economic mire that destroys its self-confidence as an independent nation. Both are possibilities.

Meanwhile I am not a fan of an independent Sterling. It has a way of distracting the political elite from dealing with deep-seated economic issues, like our current account deficit, our inefficient underlying economy and our over-dependence on volatile financial flows. But, it has to be admitted, that, with the exception of Germany, the Eurozone members were equally blind to the self-same issues. I apologise for not appreciating that enough.

 

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Taking community politics to the next level. Who should be the next Lib Dem leader?

2015-06-17 21.20.17Last Wednesday I attended the London hustings for the two candidates to be the next leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats. It was a well-attended event, with up to 800 people there (not 1,200 as some have reported, though – that was the number that registered in advance). As my life still hasn’t got back to normal after my return from holiday and having the builders in, I have delayed my considered response. But here it is at last!

The two candidates are Tim Farron, MP for Westmoreland and Lonsdale since 2005, and Norman Lamb, MP for North Norfolk since 2001. Their similarities are quite striking. I find it convenient to consider most Lib Dems to be one of three camps – though all three have a strong set of shared attitudes and values, which allows constructive dialogue between them. First there are the Economic Liberals, sometimes referred to as Orange Bookers. They are part of the Westminster mainstream, with an inclination to market-based solutions, or maximising individual choice, as they might put it. This group includes the outgoing leader Nick Clegg, and it dominated the Liberal Democrat presence in the coalition government. Then there are the Social Liberals (not to be confused with social liberals, who are free and easy about other people’s private morality). These are also a mainstream strand, but they have more faith in centralised state-based initiatives, and centrally defined rights to access to state services and benefits. In the current environment this group tends to be quite conservative, objecting to most attempts to reform state spending. The former party leader, the late Charles Kennedy, can be thought of as part of this group. But both Tim and Norman are part of the third group: Community Politicians. These were important to the party’s early growth, but had been swept aside by the party as its presence in Westminster grew. They emphasise localism, and their mantra is empowering local people and communities. They see empowerment as giving people a say in decisions that affect them, rather than promoting market choice or legal rights. It is easy to see why those swept up by Westminster politics feel that this is tedious. Other Lib Dems took up local campaigning with enthusiasm, and spent a lot of time on constituency case work, referring to this as “community politics” – but they never grasped the empowerment part of the philosophy.

But it was clear from the hustings, and their track record, that both Tim and Norman are not amongst these superficial community politicians. That will make the next period of the party’s existence more interesting. But the philosophy has its limits. It isn’t well understood by the Westminster crowd of civil servants and media types – who keep trying to bring things back to nationally run services or nationally defined rights – things that leave Westminster in control. It is very hard to drive through national reforms to facilitate local empowerment. The party has not developed clear templates for doing so, nor for communicating its ideas, even to its own membership.

Also in many places Community Politics no longer provides an adequate way forward for the party electorally, if it ever did. That includes my part of London, where there is no meaningful local community to work with – or the communities that exist do not conform to electoral boundaries (i.e. people have a more dispersed and mobile circle of friends and colleagues).  Besides the party now has a bit of a credibility problem – it is seen as just another political party, out to get an advantage over its opponents rather than actually help people.

But there is a crying need for new approaches to economic management, to public services and to the conduct of politics. And I believe that Community Politics is the best to start in the search for these new ideas – its distance from standard Westminster thinking is a help. That makes the party well paced to lead the battle of ideas,  while Conservatives, Labour and Greens flog their respective dead horses. This is, after all, what the party has done before from a position of political weakness: think of Beveridge and Keynes in 1945 (much good that did the party electorally).  Also, it was the approach taken by former leader Jo Grimond to lift the party from an even deeper hole than its current one in the 1960s. At the hustings, both Tim and Norman called for the development of just such new thinking.

So how to tell them apart? Tim is younger and, I would say, more energetic. The strain on the campaign trail seemed to be telling a bit on Norman – he clutched a can of Red Bull. Tim is also a good performer; he is more rhetorical, and often comes up with a telling turn of phrase and a quick joke. At a time when the party needs to energise its grassroots, he looks more up for the job. It is no wonder that he is usually considered the favourite. And he has been working for much longer to build his profile across the party membership, as party President, and at Conference.

And yet I have my doubts. It may just be a sign of being in the party too long, but I find the rhetoric grates. I don’t want to be pumped for yet another futile charge at the barricades. I want hope. I want the confidence that we are not heading up the same old garden path. And here I worry. Tim seems to respond to his audience rather than thinking things through – somebody whose words will run ahead of his achievements. Indeed, he seems more interested in the quantity of new ideas, rather than their quality and consistency – he fizzes with them. I fear that he will drop into easy protest politics, rather than taking the much harder road of developing community politics into a convincing national narrative. He seems more interested in ideas as a means to achieve engagement, rather than actually changing the way we do things.

I have much more confidence in Norman on that score. He is much more considered and willing to think things through. As an effective health minister he has experience of ministerial office in the most challenging of public services. There he championed mental health and personal budgets – two themes that will be important in future public service reform. His policy of getting the police and mental health professionals to work together to deal with people that have mental health problems shows exactly the right approach to public policy – getting multiple public services to organise solutions based on the needs of actual people, rather than abstract symptoms. But will he be as good as Tim in the outreach to and energising of the membership?

There are two red herrings in the chatter about leadership. First, which was a theme in the hustings, is that Norman was a loyal member of the  coalition government, voting for policies that Liberal Democrats disagreed with. This compares with Tim Farron’s more rebellious record, which included voting against the increase in tuition fees (which I respect him for, incidentally). I don’t think this says anything useful about either candidate. Some say that Norman is tainted by the coalition – especially when you add that Norman was Nick Clegg’s Parliamentary Private Secretary at one point. And yet Tim is quick to praise the party’s achievements in coalition and Nick’s moving speech defending his record on the day after the election. You can’t have it both ways.

The second red herring is some rather nasty chattering about the fact that Tim is a practising Christian, and that this has given him some awkwardness on such iconic social liberal issues as gay marriage and abortion. I really am worried about this secular puritanism that is present in the membership. The party must embrace cosmopolitanism – and that means taking a more understanding attitude over such dilemmas. You don’t have to be a bigot to have doubts about gay marriage – even if it helps. Tim is a liberal to his core and he will not impose his rather different perspectives on social liberal issues on the rest of us. End of story.

At the moment I am backing Norman. I think he has a better chance of promoting the new thinking on public policy that is the party’s most important task. But I would please ask his activists to back off from emphasizing his record on issues of personal conscience. This is not the right way to improve the party’s diversity.

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Charles Kennedy’s difficult legacy for Liberal Democrats

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Charles Kennedy’s tragic death occurred while I was on holiday. Charles_Kennedy_2009That was reason enough for my silence on this blog. But also, I wanted to pen a more critical appraisal of his time as leader of the Liberal Democrats. Such was the esteem in which he was held, and such the shock of his death, that any hint of criticism, especially from within the Lib Dem family, would not have gone down the right way. I hope that things are now a bit more settled.

But first I must pay my own tribute to Charles Kennedy. What impresses me most about his politics, looking back on it, is the absence of tribal rancour. When the SDP was formed in 1981, part of its idealism was the wish to move beyond the tribal nature of British politics. tribalism means the imperative of politicians to paint their opponents as evil and corrupted. Of course this tribal hatred serves to cover weaknesses and divisions in your own side. It stifles true political debate. Our party generally has failed to live up to this ideal – but Charles was an exception. And that was one the reasons that he was so widely liked, across the political spectrum and by the general public. For this achievement, I hold his memory in huge respect. I also enjoyed his quick, self-deprecating humour, and the firmness of his core political convictions.

And on another issue I feel the need to speak out. Charles’s critics on the left have suggested that his stand on the Iraq War was reluctant, and in one case “fraudulent”. And indeed to many anti-war campaigners, he did appear reluctant initially. But such campaigners have little idea of the pressures put on the man by the mainstream political establishment at the time. His advisers were pointing to some kind of meaningless triangulation which would allow him to be on both sides at once. And when he did finally make his stand, criticism from within the establishment was fierce – for a respectable political party not to be fully behind the troops in a war was considered the height of bad form. Charles deserves all the credit he is given on the issue.

My issue with Charles was with his leadership, from 1999 to early 2006. This may seem a bit strange. The two elections he fought in 2001 and 2005 were successful for the party – increasing its number of MPs. We know that this is not to be taken for granted. I had two issues. The first was that he seemed a bit “lazy” – not as active engaging with the party’s activists as he should have been. This may have been related to his illness, of course. But amongst many activists he was seen as “one of them” – part of the the out of touch and cosy Westminster establishment, seen by some as overly compliant to corporate lobbying. Nick Clegg, his effective successor (the intervening leadership of Ming Campbell did not last long) was much better on this score, though he got little credit from the activists.

But a much greater problem for me was the way the party’s policies evolved, especially at general elections, on his watch. This has been characterised as “being to the left of Labour” – and indeed one left-wing Labour MP, Brian Sedgemoor, did defect to the party. As Tony Blair’s New Labour adopted a series of policies described as “neoliberal” or “centrist”, depending on your point of view, there was a gap in the political market amongst former Labour supporters. Charles Kennedy’s Lib Dems benefited a lot from this. But to me the policies appeared not so much left-wing, but muddled and incoherent. It seemed to be wish list of things designed to appeal to these new supporters. We started offering lots of “free” things – university education, personal care for the elderly. Policies that were designed to address real gaps in the way the country was run, local income tax or political reform generally, were progressively downplayed. I actually though the party’s 2005 election manifesto was a disgrace. The impression was not unlike that of the Green Party in this year’s election. The Greens seem to have lost interest in global warming and the environment, in order to bang on about the evils of austerity, and offer free everything from the state. That too has done their initial electoral standing no harm.

This proved popular for a time, but led to the question of what it was, exactly, that the Liberal Democrats were for. For Charles’s predecessor, Paddy Ashdown, the party stood for political reform firstly, and improving education after that. He saw that the way to do this was to work with Labour, preferably in coalition. But to Charles such a stance got in the way of picking up Labour voters. He quickly dropped Paddy’s regular meetings with Labour – though these were hardly popular from most of the Labour side. And the party picked up a ragbag of policies that would be nearly impossible to accomplish in coalition, with Labour or anybody else.

The problems became apparent in 2010 when the party had the opportunity to form coalition with the Conservatives, without the real choice of working with Labour. Such a coalition looked like treachery to these newer Lib Dem supporters, and they quickly deserted the party. And although Nick Clegg had made the party’s policies much more coalition-friendly, he had not succeeded in dropping the policy on free university tuition. Indeed a pledge not to increase tuition fees was the centrepiece of many constituency campaigns in 2010, encouraged by the central campaigns department. Such a pledge could not survive coalition, and the party’s reversal came to symbolise its insincerity in its bid for political influence. No doubt Charles foresaw these outcomes of his own legacy – and he opposed the coalition with the Conservatives. A coalition with Labour, had it been feasible, would hardly have been easier, though.

Which only takes the question back to what, on earth, is the party for? If it can’t actually achieve political power, what is the point? The party must wrestle with that question now.  But the temptation will be to sidestep it. The prospect of power seems so distant now that many will like the idea of returning to Charles’s protest politics. I think that fails on two counts. Firstly it risks taking the party through the same old cycle. And secondly the Greens have stolen a march on it, and don’t have the party’s newly acquired baggage.

I think Paddy had it right. The party stands for liberal values (which, incidentally, Charles did care a lot about) in a way that the other parties do not. The party wants to change the political system in a liberal direction, especially with more devolution of political power, and more checks on the executive. I also think that the party should be at the forefront of developing new ideas of economics and public services based on more distributed power. We need to develop and sell implementable policies on these issues. And we need to work with Labour and the Greens where we can.  I am not clear on where the SNP or Plaid Cymru fit into the picture, though. The party needs to channel frustration with the political system, and the slowness of Labour to embrace genuine political and economic reform.

Charles Kennedy was a great man, and his loss is indescribably sad. We should remember the many lovely things he brought to British politics. But the Liberal Democrats should not attempt to repeat his political strategy.

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