Why is government so incompetent?

Every day brings a fresh example of a government policy that is not working as it intended or a public service that has gone badly off the rails. It is usually accompanied by a government press release (rarely a ministerial interview) denying that there is any kind of problem, or minimising it. No wonder the public is losing faith in the political class. When human knowledge has never been greater, our education systems have never put out more well-educated people, and our technology has never been more capable, this problem should provoke more comment than it does. What is happening?

Let’s make this abstract observation more concrete with a few examples. The Grenfell Tower tragedy showed that safety regulation for the cladding of buildings had become meaningless, and consultation with residents completely empty. The only surprising thing about the recent reports of abuse of innocent immigrants in detention centres is that the scandal took so long to emerge. The implementation of the government’s new nursery care entitlement went off the rails many months ago, and will probably lead to less nursery provision, not more – and yet the government still denies it. New regulations on data protection in the pipeline look unworkable and retrograde to everybody I have met who has taken the trouble to examine them( and that is blamed on the need to comply with EU regulations, but I wonder if other member states are having such problems?).  I could go on. And on. Everybody who has direct involvement with public services or government initiatives (in education, health, unemployment support, etc.) will have an example of rampant policy madness. Sometimes these stories are ill-founded grouching by people resisting change. Mostly they are not.

But why? There some usual suspects. Politicians like to blame the other side. So Labour (and Lib Dem) ones will label this as Tory incompetence, and claim they would do better if only they were in charge. They would say that. But one of the most egregious bits of government incompetence in recent years was on the Labour watch, and they still deny it: the macroeconomic and regulatory failures that made the impact of the global financial crisis of a decade ago much more severe than in any other major developed country. Those in power tend to blame the supposedly deteriorating quality of civil servants trying to implement their clear vision – in the way that bad workmen blame their tools, or bad generals blame their subordinates. Another common complaint is that modern politicians have less real-world experience than they used to, of running businesses or commanding troops, say. And yet there has always been something amateurish about British politicians. And there is still quite a bit of real world experience on the political front benches.

For my part I can’t help recalling Tony Blair’s valedictory article in the Economist in 2007. Consider this quote:

The state today needs to be enabling and based on a partnership with the citizen, one of mutual rights and responsibilities. The implications are profound. Public services need to go through the same revolution—professionally, culturally and in organisation—that the private sector has been through.

The first bit is classic Blair. It sounds very good and liberal, but it isn’t clear what it actually means. It is used to dress up the second bit: that public services should learn from the private sector, and reflect the revolution that the private sector has been through. Well I was, in small way, a standard-bearer of that private sector revolution. I led the transformation of the various operational units I was responsible for, with massive advances in efficiency and improved customer service (certainly in the reduction of mistakes). But here’s the thing: since Tony Blair’s time that private sector revolution has shown its dark side (already evident when I was working, up to 2005). We are now being assaulted by examples of private sector incompetence that match those I have been complaining about in the public sector. The biggest by far was unfolding as Mr Blair was writing his article: the great financial crisis of 2007-2008 that climaxed with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. The levels of misjudgement in so many financial firms is completely breathtaking. Governments and regulators contributed (especially in Britain), but often because of pressure placed on them by businesses.

It’s worth mentioning just a few modern examples of commercial incompetence. In Europe we are reeling from the problems at Ryanair, where changes to pilots’ holiday rosters have caused thousands of flight cancellations. This has parallels with Southern Rail’s travails earlier this year, after they played with staff rosters – with the trouble wrongly blamed by the company and government on the trade unions,who are admittedly making things worse. Americans are alarmed about massive data breaches at credit firm Equifax. It is not hard to find other examples.

Perhaps the problem is for public services and government in Britain is not that they have learned too little from the private sector, but that they have learned too much. Or they have learned the wrong things (I can vouch that they could learn many good things…). The dark side of private sector transformation might be called “simplify and exclude”. A simple business model is much easier to manage than a more complex one, and in its own terms it is more efficient. It also makes increases in scale easier to manage. And it can benefit the world as a whole by cutting out wasted duplication. I did a lot of this at work – especially when my firm took on outsourcing contracts for operations in financial services. But even then the dark side was evident. If it didn’t fit the model, you excluded it. This leads to two distinct problems.

The first problem is tunnel vision. People running large businesses with simple operating models simply lose the capacity to engage with the complexities of the real world. The public is becoming increasingly aware of this as it tries to deal with problems and engage with larger businesses – it is harder and harder to have a meaningful conversation with anybody. This increasingly marks our engagement with public services too. This isn’t helped by what Douglas Adams called the SEP field in his hugely perceptive A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – a powerful cloak of invisibility. SEP stands for Somebody Else’s Problem. One prominent victim of the SEP field was Labour Chancellor and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, as the great financial crisis developed. He (or some of his apologists) complained that part of the problem was responsibility for handling finance was split between the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Financial Services Authority – though it should surely have been clear that it was his Treasury that was responsible for the system as a whole.

The second problem with Simplify and Exclude is the revenge of the excluded. This is much more of an issue with government and public service than it is with big business. The inconvenient people who do not fit your simplified service model do not disappear. Very often their needs are left unmet and they come back to deliver bigger problems later. Children excluded by schools are more likely to become drug addicts and indulge in crime and antisocial behaviour, for example. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), perhaps the biggest champion of Simplify and Exclude in government,  may celebrate that is has driven many people of their claimant rolls, but it is has no understanding of why. It has not attempted to to solve the underlying problems of worklessness – it has just made access to benefits more restricted. That just means more trouble for everybody else. Knife crime and acid attacks are rising here in London – it is hard not to think that this has something to do with the simplification of services in the DWP, as well as youth provision, employment and policing. This is closely linked to funding cuts (“austerity”) of course, but I am convinced the problem is much deeper than the lack of public funds. It is the narrow way in which public servants are approaching the problem.

At the heart of this is a trade-off between scope and scale. In order to improve the scale of services it is usually necessary to simplify the scope. But by reducing the scope you make them less effective. The answer, in public services, is to bring together services for different things around the needs of individual citizens. You can only do that by devolving political responsibility to a much more localised level. More people are realising this – but few are ready for the change in political culture required to drive it through.

 

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Information technology is enslaving us: we must learn to master it

I have a new hobby horse: the politics of information. The development of information technology is transforming our lives, but the politicians are being left behind. This is becoming at least as important as economics and finance to the way we live our lives.

But we amateurs face a problem. The IT industry obfuscates everything in jargon and tech-speak. It is easy to get intimidated. In the FT Gillian Tett draws a parallel with the finance industry before the great financial crisis of 2007-08. It is liable to end just as badly. We really must try to hack back the thicket.

I’ve been here before. Back in the 1990s I was appointed Director of Information Systems by my firm, in spite of having no direct IT background. I was nearly suffocated by the jargon and tech-speak. But gradually I came to realise that IT wasn’t as complicated as people were making it out to be. In fact it wasn’t fundamentally more complex than the average office filing system in pre IT days, and it was dealing with much the same issues. If you stuck to firm logical ground, the techies would retreat. I found a world dominated by bluff and which reasoned in a series of attractive sounding non-sequiturs. People were watching each other and saying whatever they had to to fit in. With just a little clarity of thought you could get a long way.

So I will take a deep breath and start to think about the world of information systems and technology, even though it is a very different one from where I left it in the 1990s, or even in 2005, when I stopped working with information systems professionally as a user.

And so to the basics. How do we, as people, manage information? We do two basic things. The first is to gather data from the world around us. The second is to process that data into information that we can use to achieve goals both passive (looking out for danger) and active (finding food, say). All this requires us to be both aware and focused – two things that tend to be mutually exclusive. How humans (and other animals) do this is a very complex process that is only very loosely understood by scientists. The interesting thing is that at its core is a duality – the outwardly referenced right brain, and the inwardly focused left brain. I am currently reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary which builds a substantial intellectual critique of the modern world from a right-brain left-brain duality. At this stage, though, all I want to say is that the outward/inward duality is central to the understanding of how we deal with information.

This duality is recognisable in the way modern technology works. Here I think it is useful to distinguish between what I would call “big data” and “useful data”. Big data is the amassing of data from many sources. In the modern age this is often from such things as video footage, photographs and sound recordings. But big data is not directly usable to achieve anything. To do that it has to be reduced to patterns and digits that are useful data. The big modern development is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to achieve this. Previously, useful data was mainly gathered through human input.

There is one key point that needs to be understood about the useful data sitting in computer databases. It works on the principle of distillation. It is an infinitesimal subset of the real world, and even that is before you deal with problems of reflecting time. To move from the real world to this data requires a series of simplifying judgements.In practice this means that data does not multi-task well. To be efficient the data has to be referenced to a particular need, and it will serve other needs less well. And yet the pressure to make such data multi-task is enormous. And this leads to widespread problems.

Lets take an example. One commonly used bit of data is the British postcode. It is designed to delineate postman’s walks to organise mail delivery. It is not designed to reflect insurance risks, for example – but it is often used for just that purpose. As an example I was told by an eminent geologist about how he was asked to assess landslip risks in a town’s postcodes. He found one code which consisted of a valley with no homes in it, with the edge of the town where people actually lived. The landslip risk in the valley was high, but in the town it was negligible. So how to rate the risk for that postcode? According to the rules he was being asked to abide by, he should rate it as high. And yet that would mean that the homes in that code would be overcharged for their insurance. He refused to do it; but doubtless the insurance company found somebody more compliant. Why should they care about a bit of collateral damage? That kind of problem  predates modern IT, but technology allows it to proliferate in multiple hidden ways.

That perhaps illustrates the scale of the challenge that IT presents to liberal values. We as individuals are being made to conform to a world of arbitrary categories, because that is more convenient for systems builders. Instead of technology giving us more control over our lives, it is forcing us to conform to somebody else’s will.

But humans can be masters of technology, rather than being slaves to it. That is the liberal challenge.

 

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Have the Lib Dems reached a Battle of the Marne moment?

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Following the fortunes of Britain’s Liberal Democrats is a niche interest these days. So much so that this Lib Dem blog spends most of time commenting on other things. But the party conference in Bournemouth has just ended, and I was there. Something needs to be said.

The party’s fall from mainstream politics has been dramatic. It peaked when the party was in coalition, with four cabinet ministers, in 2010 to 2015. At that time the party was scarcely out of the news. This year the party’s autumn conference rates hardly a mention. In yesterday’s London Standard, on the day of the the leader’s closing speech, the party got no coverage in the news pages. Absolutely nothing. This is not especially surprising. The party has but 12 MPs, a a tiny scattering of council leaderships, and single-figure poll ratings. In much of the country it can’t even scrape together enough votes to retain its deposit. Still, its position is much stronger than other minor parties that have hit hard times: Ukip and the Greens.

Why is that? The party’s infrastructure is much diminished, but it still dwarfs that of the other minor parties. It has even seen a membership surge, meaning that the conference was well-attended and lively, even if all the lobbyists and sponsors were absent. The party has been here before and progressed – notably when I attended my first conference in 1990, when it polled at a similar level to the Greens, the continuing SDP and the continuing Liberals. Furthermore its team of MPs has more government experience than Labour’s entire front bench. And its ideological space, internationalist liberalism, is unchallenged in Britain’s political system. And yet it is very hard to deny the pessimistic conventional wisdom, nicely summed up in this Economist Bagehot column.

But the party’s leaders remain determinedly optimistic. Could this be a Battle of the Marne moment? This was the early turning point in the First World War, after the Germans had driven the French and British armies into headlong retreat, and the fall of Paris beckoned. The French general Ferdinand Foch was promoted to lead the fightback, and famously said: “My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking.” The tide was turned, and France saved. The wider point here is that retreat can bring opportunity. Your opponents become overstretched and exhausted; meanwhile your own communication lines are tighter, and you become more cohesive. There are at least some elements of this for the Lib Dems.

The party’s main opponents, the Conservative and Labour parties, do show signs of overstretch. The former are stuck with a mediocre leader because they can find nobody better; they are saddled with implementing Brexit, and with being on the wrong side of demographic trends. The easiest votes for Lib Dems to win these days are disillusioned Conservatives. Labour are in many ways in much better shape but remain a fragile coalition with incompatible views; I will write more of them after their conference next week. And the Lib Dems’ main competitor on the political fringe, the Greens, look in even worse shape. They made a serious strategic error to occupy more conventionally left-wing social justice territory, and have been crushed by Labour’s revival, after briefly threatening to eclipse the Lib Dems in the coalition years.

Also the party itself is more cohesive. It is not constantly undermined by the pleas that this or that policy line will upset this or that local community in a Cornish Lib Dem seat. Those conservative rural voters have now gone elsewhere. As have inner city voters. The party is now more tightly focused in Britain’s suburbs, allowing it to sharpen its appeal and take greater risks.

And the party has its General Foch too, under its new leader, Vince Cable. As even the Economist admits, he is easily the more intelligent that the main party leaders. That intelligence was on display in Bournemouth. There was practically no question thrown at him to which he did not have an intelligent answer. Unlike his predecessor, Tim Farron, he is no tub-thumper; you would not call his speeches rousing. But he is facing up to some of the most difficult issues that confront the party. The biggest of these is the party’s stance on funding higher education. Up to 2010, the party did well amongst students by promising to abolish tuition fees, including a dramatic pledge by almost all MPs not to vote for any increase. The party promptly ditched this in coalition, and Labour has exploited this ruthlessly ever since. Vince’s fingerprints were very much on the volte-face, unlike Tim. At the time he argued that the new policy was a graduate tax by another name, but to no avail. This demographic of younger voters will be vital to the party, and it fits well with its liberal-international outlook. It will hardly be easy to turn the corner and win them back, but at least Vince is tackling it head on.

Vince’s speech yesterday was quite remarkable in another way. We see a lot of dumbing-down in modern politics. This was evident in the deliberate obfuscations and lies in the campaign to leave the European Union (not really made better by claims that the Remain side were hardly better…), and above all by the triumph of Donald Trump in the United States. And yet Vince Cable persists in treating his audiences as if they are intelligent human beings. Surely the politics of misleading sound-bites, fake news stories and hyping victimhood must play itself out? Vince is betting that it will.

Still, the challenges for the Lib Dems remain huge. They need to rebuilt the party’s base in local government – but with a new membership who so far are showing little interest in such patient and painstaking politics. The party’s internal organisation remains weak, and it is not clear that the new leadership know how to address this. And, of course, the other political parties’ commanding position is based on the ruthless logic of Britain’s first past the post voting system.

I can offer sceptical observers no hard evidence that the Lib Dems can change their fortunes. But I do know that I will continue to work for it.

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Liberals must address the politics of information or sinister forces will prevail

In my last post I urged the Lib Dems to think beyond Brexit. I suggested that the party should develop radical new ideas on the politics of information and technology, following a recent essay by Paddy Ashdown. But that was all very abstract. What does this actually mean?

Information and technology are throwing up difficult issues that affect practically everything. And yet liberal politicians seem to be in various stages of denial – and that may let more sinister forces make the running. Let me touch on just four issues to illustrate my point: fighting crime; cyber security; making the NHS more efficient; and tackling the cyber monopolists.

According to popular myth, crime is always getting worse. Statistically that looks like nonsense (except cyber crime, which I will come to) – but the nature of threat is changing, and a lot of people worry about it. Top of the list is terrorism, and especially Islamic extremist terrorists. Increasingly police forces are using information technology to fight these crimes. And these largely depend on gathering banks of data (DNA profiles, mug shots, video camera footage, email records, and so on) in order to identify criminals and terrorists.  Liberals, fairly consistently push back. But it is far from clear that the public is against this banking of data. It looks like a good way of stopping the bad guys.

I am sure that the liberal position on this needs to be rethought. Society has changed, including attitudes to privacy, and old-fashioned techniques for fighting crime are losing effectiveness. But the threats of excessive state power are real enough. False positives happen, and that can lead to a quagmire of circular investigation procedures with nobody taking responsibility, and a potentially permanent stain on reputation, all for a completely random cause. Perhaps it is better to reform the management and oversight of security services so that false positives can be dismissed rapidly, rather than throwing sand into the wheels of justice? That’s a half-baked idea – but by simply pushing back and dismissing the danger, liberals are in danger of losing the argument. And if that happens the advocates of unchecked state control will win out.

Cyber crime is definitely growing, and we struggle even to recognise it. It seems to be invisible in the crime statistics. We don’t bother to report the attempts to defraud us that come to our email inboxes and telephones daily. Further, we depend increasingly on online databases, and yet there are sophisticated hackers out there who often get ahead of those charged with data security. Can we leave it to the market to keep up with the hackers and ensure our security? Or shouldn’t the state be more involved in establishing data standards that will make life much harder for criminals?  I hear no politicians, liberal or otherwise, who want to talk about this except the odd injunction that “somebody must do something”. But action for action’s sake will simply lead to regulators making life harder for the innocent while doing little to tackle the real criminals. And we can’t rely on state agencies to protect liberal values while dealing with the problem either – their solution is always to appropriate more arbitrary power to themselves. Liberals must get involved.

For a different angle, consider Britain’s National Health Service. The NHS is chronically inefficient. Large organisations are best dealing with simple problems; our health is infinitely complex. One aspect of this inefficiency is record-keeping. Our health records are fragmented, adding to medical risks and causing delays to treatment. And we can’t check whether patients are entitled to treatment without making everybody feel like foreigners in their own land. Technical solutions to this depend on creating a single central NHS file for everybody from birth. There have been attempts to develop this, but, quite apart from the difficulties that afflict all ambitious IT projects, there is a big problem. This central record will contain highly personal and confidential data. How on earth to stop it being stolen? If it is voluntary it will lose much of its power. We are back to the problem of hacking. Once again liberals shout about protecting privacy and individual choice without coming forward with constructive solutions. And the NHS is collapsing under the strain.

Another feature of the 21st Century world is the enormous power of a small group of businesses who are able to harness network effects to create a virtual monopoly. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon spring to mind immediately. Apart from Amazon, these businesses are starting to pile up enormous profits. And yet they are also innovative and constantly improving their offering – so unlike classic monopolies, especially state-owned ones. What should governments do? On the one hand excessive power is accumulating to people who are not properly accountable tot he public. On the other hand most types of intervention risk reducing the benefits of modern technology available to ordinary people. Liberals need a new angle on the problem.

And I could go on. Fake news; tax avoidance and evasion; automation and the destruction of stable, secure jobs for the majority. All these are 21st Century problems to which liberals have few new ideas. And there are opportunities too. Technology has the possibility to abolish poverty and allow everybody to achieve a more fulfilling life. It is very interesting that Germany’s Free Democrats (see the the FDP minimanifesto for the current general election) have chosen the more optimistic gloss. This party has rebranded itself, based on the idea that politics need to be rethought in the modern information age. Whether they are targeting the right things is another matter – to some it may simply look like re-badged neoliberalism. But keeping the message positive is probably the right tactic.

The liberal agenda should be an enabling one. We want people to benefit from the many things technology and information-sharing can offer. But we need to give individuals more control. And we need to prevent the state growing into something that suppresses freedom and democracy in the name of security – as is happening in China, Turkey and Russia, to name but three. Neither do we want the world turned into an open market for abuse and bullying, in the manner promoted by Breitbart News. Sinister forces will prevail unless liberals start to make the running.

This will need fresh thinking. Some newer technological developments – blockchains for example – may offer answers. But it will not be easy – there will be trade-offs. Privacy against security, for example. We need the intellectual framework to manage these trade-offs.

I will try to practice what I am preaching. I am not especially well-qualified to deal with the politics of information, but I will give it a try. I don’t know where this journey will end, but I hope to provoke further thought and discussion amongst my readers.

 

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The Lib Dems must look beyond Brexit towards 21st Century liberalism

Last week I wrote about the strategic cul-de-sac that Britain’s Conservatives find themselves in. I will write of Labour, whose strategic grasp is well ahead of all the other parties, later. But we are coming up to the Lib Dem annual conference. What of them?

Alas the Lib Dems seem no better at political strategy than anybody else. They (I could also write we, as I am a party activist) had some real momentum at the start of 2017, with the strange quiescence of Jeremy Cobyn’s Labour party. But the general election in June changed all that. The party organised itself around a clear message on the main issue of the day – Britain and the European Union – but to very little effect. While the party held up reasonably well against the Tories, it folded wherever it came under any pressure from Labour. Where I live, in Battersea, the Lib Dem message could have been tailor made to succeed, and yet it was Labour that reaped the reward of locals’ anger at the Tory Brexit strategy – they took the seat with a lightweight campaign and an unknown candidate. I did not receive a single piece of Labour literature.

But was the party’s weakness merely tactical? People who suggest this say that Labour made irreconcilable promises to different groups of voters and will be found out. And the party’s advocacy of a second referendum on Europe was simply an idea ahead of its time. As Brexit rage rises (and pretty much anything that goes wrong can be blamed on Brexit), the public will look again at the party’s consistent line on the matter.

For a different perspective read former leader Paddy Ashdown. This is a pair of articles (I link directly to the second) moaning about the lack of direction in the party. Paddy is not particularly coherent (he doesn’t pretend to be), but I do think he is on to something. Here is the penultimate paragraph:

I have concluded that all this is so, not because we have really lost our intellectual curiosity, but because of the dead hand of Brexit. I admit second place to no-one when it comes to fighting for the best Brexit we can, and preferably no Brexit at all. I am proud of our Party’s clear position on this defining issue. But is our obsession with Brexit in danger of distracting us from what kind of country we want Britain to be, whether in the EU or out of it? For me the heart of liberalism is our crusade for the empowered citizen, not the powerful state. This is a radical disruptive and insurgent idea. But where is it? When did you last – at Conference or outside it – hear us arguing that case, debating new ideas to make it happen or proselytising it before the court of public opinion?

Liberal Democrats are united by an open view of people and cultures, and a suspicion of nationalism and strong state power. These values point to sympathy with the European Union, if you view it as a restraint on state power rather than an extension of it. But the EU is a pragmatic solution to the problem of European states needing to cooperate more closely. It is not an ideology – or a new nationalism. While I do feel a certain pride in European identity, it developed long before the UK joined the union, and it is not a nationalistic pride, that seeks to diminish Americans, Russians or Chinese. Campaigning over EU membership is a tactic and not a strategy – and this is something that Labour, whether by accident or design, have grasped more clearly than either the Conservatives or the Lib Dems.

So what is the point of the Lib Dems strategically? Are the party’s values best promoted by a separate political party, or by factions within larger political groupings, i.e. the Conservatives, Labour or the SNP in Scotland? Few liberals can see a future in the Conservatives these days. One Lib Dem I knew who moved to them a couple of years ago has dropped out, unable to take the strain. I don’t know the SNP well enough to comment on them – they have tempered their nationalistic defining theme with inclusiveness. The real problem for Lib Dems is Labour – because that is where most political active liberals are now going, especially the younger ones.

The critical issue here is the question of state power. The point that unites almost all successful Labour politicians, from Tony Blair to Jeremy Corbyn, is that they view a centralised state, under democratic control, as the solution to most problems. This is one of the critical debates of our time. And liberals are not pulling their weight.

One the one side we have advocates of a strong state. The most important of these worldwide is the Chinese Communist Party – and they are picking up a substantial following throughout the world. Democracy is viewed with suspicion at best. On the other you have nationalists, who seek to create culturally homogeneous nations where individuals suffer minimal state interference – and the state’s main role is to keep the rest of the world at bay. Established political parties in the developed world, such as Britain’s Labour and the Lib Dems, belong to neither camp, but they are struggling to put forward a coherent alternative.

Paddy Ashdown does point towards the sort of places where liberals should be looking to develop a compelling vision for the 21st Century – centring on information and technology.  While I struggle to make sense of his “four dangerous ideas”, they are all attempts to push the debate on in this direction.

And there is an opportunity for the Lib Dems here. While Labour is picking up some of the 21st Century agenda (not least in the way it organises itself, especially its party-within-a-party Momentum), much of it either has a statist mindset, like the Chinese Communists, or harks back to the 20th Century and its swathe of secure jobs in manufacturing and administration.  I have not heard much from Labour on critical issues of privacy, ownership of data and ways that state power might be restrained.

If the Lib Dems can win the race to develop ideas for a 21st Century state that is truly liberal and democratic, then the party will have a clear purpose. But if all it does is bang on about Europe, it will, eventually, vanish.

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The Tories are agonising over Brexit. They should be more worried about housing.

The true test of leadership is strategic focus – trying to work their organisations into a favourable position over the long term, and then making tactical (short-term) choices accordingly. British politicians of all parties are very bad at this. Advisers who tout themselves as “political strategists” offer no more than tactical advice, on messaging or the use of social media, for example. Strategically the Conservatives have dug themselves into a hole. And I’m not talking about Brexit.

The current Tory predicament arises from their poor showing in June’s general election. This was despite what they thought was an unassailable tactical advantage – Labour appeared weak, and this was amply demonstrated in local election results. And yet that tactical strength covered a strategic weakness, which Labour was able to exploit. While Tories like to blame tactical ineptitude for their failure (and there was plenty on offer), those tactical failings were born of that strategic weakness.

What on earth am I talking about? The land, and who owns it – a theme that has dominated British politics for centuries. The Conservatives have a well-crafted appeal to people who own their own homes, and other assets too. This is what Mrs Thatcher grasped in the 1980s. She extended home ownership through the sale of council houses and loosening restrictions on mortgages. The latter had an important side-benefit: it pushed house prices up, and made home-owners feel wealthier, and more inclined to think that all was well with the world.

All Labour could do was copy the Tories. This Tony Blair did this brilliantly. But this was a triumph of tactics; Labour won three elections, but had nowhere to go after that. Collapse beckoned in 2015 as the party found that a vaguely left of centre appeal was neither fish nor foul. But, in 2017, the worm turned.

By now the scale of property prices has put ownership beyond the reach of most people who neither have property already, nor have an inheritance based on property wealth. There are two types of reason for this. First is that the building of houses where people want to live has not kept pace with demand. Politicians have guarded greenbelts ferociously, following the wishes of local electors. Little new social or public sector housing has been built. Commercial builders seem more anxious to profit from the purchase and sale of land than satisfy demand. Some economists look no further – but the ease with which people can borrow money must also have contributed. When I bought my first property in the 1980s, lenders restricted loans to 2.5 times salary and covered only 80% of the value. Restrictions are fewer now. Interest rates are also much lower. This has surely pushed prices up.

But whether or not you think that loose money or low house-building is the problem, there is an ever growing body of people who are forced to rent their homes, and are pessimistic about ever being able to buy them. The Conservatives, in the meantime, continue to lavish their attention on those who already own property. They were heading for a backlash, and this arrived in June. The Tories did especially badly in London and the South East, where property prices are highest.

Most Tories simply ignored this trend: David Cameron, their leader until last year, was especially bad at this. His only response was to try and subsidise first-time buyers, which just inflated property prices some more. He made no serious moves on social housing or on easing the lot of those forced to rent. But some Conservatives seem to have recognised the issue. One person who seemed to was George Osborne, Mr Cameron’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. His answer was to to see if he could stoke up property prices outside the south east, by strengthening the economy of north England in particular.

Mr Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, also has a sense of the problem. She proved stern on inherited wealth, and on tax-funded handouts to older people during the election. Whatever the strategic virtues of this, she made no attempt to woo younger voters with any real hope that she was on their side. She was simply attacking the Tory base. Meanwhile she has diluted Mr Osborne’s “Northern Powerhouse” strategy. It was an attempt to cover the party’s strategic weakness that led to the tactical error in the Conservative manifesto.

Meanwhile, Labour’s more stridently left wing appeal under Jeremy Corbyn  has turned out to be a good place from which to woo those forced to rent. Tory attacks on Labour were designed to motivate older voters, who have bad memories of left-wing politics – and they have passed younger voters by.

It will not be easy for the Conservatives to dig themselves out of this hole. They have started to grasp that more house building is needed, and that they can’t rely on private sector developers to accomplish this. But there is a problem. If houses are to become more affordable, then house prices will have to come down. The alternative prospect, of strong wage inflation alongside stable house prices looks implausible. But falling property prices will hurt their base, for whom the value of their property is a cornerstone of their wellbeing. This looks fatal – though if the party can find a way of boosting regional economies and drawing growth away from the south east, the evil day will be postponed.

It is much easier for Labour to take on what the country actually needs: more building of houses. The public sector will have to do the heavy lifting here – anathema to Tories. A large chunk of this new housing should surely be social housing, directly alleviating the worst social pressures. But public sector housing doesn’t have to be social housing – the government could take on strategic projects the private sector is unwilling to – and perhaps address builders’ abysmal productivity while they are at it. If it works, such building will reduce rents, and then the capital value  of land.

At the moment most political commentary centres on Brexit, and the pressures this is creating within both major parties. That is important enough – but housing may turn out to be more important still in the long run.

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The most important Brexit negotiation will be amongst the British people

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There is very little decent media coverage of Brexit here in Britain. Mainly it is two groups of opinionated people trying to annoy each other, or at least to keep up their own side’s annoyance levels with the other side. Actually I have more time for the British negotiating effort than most Remainers, and more optimism that something sensible will emerge in the immediate aftermath. But Britain’s long-term destination remains unclear. And that is only right in the circumstances.

Right from the start I predicted that the key would be a transitional arrangement whereby elements of the Single Market and the Customs Union (not the same thing) would continue for long after the formal exit date of 29 March 2019. The British government is inching towards this conclusion, as a series of position papers published over the summer makes clear. Over the weekend Labour backed this idea too. The logic is overwhelming.

The British way is often said to favour gradual evolution over revolution. British democracy emerged step by step, without a revolution like France or Russia. Britain’s engagement with the European Union was similarly gradual. So gradual, in fact, that many Britons did not realise how much they had become attached to it until the Brexit referendum was lost. Of course this is exactly what opponents of Britain’s participation had predicted all along – the takeover would be incremental until a federal United States of Europe emerged by stealth. It follows that Britain’s disengagement is going to need to be equally gradual – or else we will have that destructive chaos that revolutions bring with them. The more so as there is no consensus vision on what a disengaged Britain should look like. Democracy takes time.

If Britons are coming to appreciate this, the other EU governments, and EU institutions, are being inscrutable. They insist that the arrangements for separation must be agreed before the terms of any future relationship are even discussed. The British government’s position papers were an attempt to get the conversation about the medium-term moving in spite of this arbitrary approach. They may well have succeeded. EU leaders may dismiss these position papers, and in some cases deride them – but the agenda has moved on. That was all that was intended.

The EU side will never admit it, but this is because logic is overwhelmingly with the British government on this. The exit negotiations are focusing on three critical subjects: financial obligations, EU citizens living in the UK, and the Northern Ireland border. In each of these Britain’s future relationship has an important bearing. This is most obvious in the case of Northern Ireland. This depends heavily on on future customs and migration arrangements. But the rights of EU citizens are tangled with the issue of the future role of the European Court of Justice and future arbitration arrangements. And even the financial obligations (the so-called “divorce bill”) can be finessed if some parts of British membership effectively continue beyond March 2019, along with the sort of financial contributions made by Norway and Switzerland for access to the EU market. The EU negotiators will be forced to talk about these things.

The EU needs a deal on Brexit for at least two reasons. First is that commercial disruption could threaten jobs within member states – thought the Brexiteer claim that the other EU countries need Britain more than the other way round is nonsense. Second is the situation of EU citizens who are living in Britain, and the status of Britons living in other EU countries. A legal limbo would be a major headache for everybody. On the other hand the EU governments do not want Britain to continue with all the rights of EU membership and not the obligations. That will make them wary of a transitional deal. But given the precedents set by Norway (in the Single Market and European Economic area), Switzerland (who have similar rights based on a number of separate agreements) and Turkey (in the Customs Union but not the Single Market), it should not be hard to finesse this. Indeed people may ask what the point of Brexit was, and that will suit the EU governments  – in fact the point of Brexit, if there is one, will take time to emerge.

And meanwhile Britain must slowly decide what it actually wants.  There are three main competing visions, which I will name after their role models: Singapore, Switzerland and Japan.

The Singapore idea is favoured by quite a few of the Brexit-supporting elite – those businessmen who came out in favour of Brexit, supported by a number Conservative MPs, and one or two theoretical economists, like Patrick Minford. This is that Britain becomes a global trading entrepot, with a regulatory light touch, and a strong national focus on competitiveness and low taxes. But this is a fantasy, partly because of Britain’s physical location and industrial hinterland – but mainly because there is no sign of democratic consent for this way forward. It would require an authoritarian state to implement (as it does in Singapore, after all) – and Britons do not like being dictated too – as the Brexit referendum showed very clearly.

Much of the rest of Britain’s elite favour something of a Swiss solution. This combines a strong tradition of independence and democracy with a free trading relationship with the Union, established on an issue by issue basis, and not by a bulk package arrangement like the EEA. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is not a smooth one, but by and large it works, and Switzerland prospers. But the Swiss do have to abide a whole raft of EU rules, not least over freedom of movement. It would also be a platform from which the UK may re-enter the EU in future – which is why so many Leave supporters dislike it. Personally, this is what I favour.

But most British voters who supported Brexit probably have something in mind that is much more Japanese, as do many Conservatives, probably including the Prime Minister, Theresa May. Japan is fiercely independent and conservative in its outlook. It maintains a strong separation from the countries on its neighbouring continent – China and Korea, in particular, with whom it has tense relations (though Japanese imperial expansion in the 20th Century accounts for much of that). Controls over inward migration are tight, even in the face of challenging demographics, and social cohesion is highly prized. Multiculturalism is not an idea that they take to. Governing institutions are paternalistic, and democracy is flawed, though not as badly as in Singapore. The Japanese may grumble at this, but not enough to change the system. How very British.

Britain is not Japan, and any Japanese path will have to have some very British characteristics. The first is that Britons may grumble about it, but the country has a strong multicultural dimension. This is a legacy of its Empire, much more than the EU. There is no turning back – but immigration can be slowed, and assimilation of minorities might be more muscular – though this will hardly lead to community cohesion. A further issue is economic. Japan has built up national powerhouses of manufacturing industry, notably in cars and electronics. They have levered their way into export surpluses, notwithstanding reluctant attitudes to free trade. This is a very different approach to Britain’s, which has an open economy, even by European standards. Our manufacturing powerhouses have been sold off or run business models that are so globally integrated that the companies can hardly be called British (consider British Aerospace, at once part of European Airbus and trying to persuade the US armed forces that it is really American). Building something more closed and self-sufficient, in the style of Japan, will be slow and painful. Most people would not give much for Britain’s chances – but with technology rapidly changing the way economies work, that may be excessively pessimistic – in the long run anyway.

So should Britain continue to be a part of an integrated European economy, albeit keeping more of it at arms length than now? Or should Britain stand alone and focus more on social cohesion? In London we, by and large, favour the former. In many other parts of England, and Wales, there is strong preference for the latter. That is what we will have to negotiate amongst ourselves, piece by piece. It will be a long journey. Britain’s negotiation with the EU on Brexit is but a small part of it – and its main purpose is to buy us more time.

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Universal Basic Income is a problem dressed as a solution

Slowly but surely Universal Basic Income (UBI) is becoming a totem policy on the left. Longer standing readers of this blog will know that I am sceptic. But should I be reluctantly reconciling myself to the idea in some form?

Recent impetus for UBI has come from the US, where it is favoured by high tech businessmen worried about the implications of progressive automation. They worry that there is a great hollowing out going on, with mid-skilled jobs disappearing, and the workforce being divided between a very well paid elite of professionals and business owners, and a majority of low skilled proletariat in ill paid and insecure jobs. If the latter can have their income topped up by some form of UBI, then they will be able to afford a higher standard of living, and they will be less beholden to the elite. Many businessmen think that the latest advances in artificial intelligence are about to make the problem much worse – hence the need for such an intervention.

The left is worried by similar issues. The more thoughtful are concerned by a breakdown of consent for the welfare state, where state aid is doled out based on need. If everybody is entitled to the same level of state aid (with allowances for age and disability, perhaps), then there will be less resentment by the slightly better off members of the working class against those receiving aid. Since the left is generally bereft of ideas that are not simply reinventing the 1970s, this one is getting a lot of support. The Green Party in Britain has adopted it; many in Labour (and the Lib Dems) are sympathetic.

Various small-scale pilots are being set up in America and Europe. In fact something like it has been in operation in various places in the US for some time. Alaska pays all its citizens a dividend from its natural resources wealth (the Alaska Permanent Fund). The amount is modest and variable: since 2010 it has ranged from $878 to $2,072 a year – but it is popular. Meanwhile a number of Native American reserves pay a fixed income from gambling concessions. The social effects of this are not so benign, which is no doubt why so few UBI never mention them. The money does not make up for a lack of decent jobs and social infrastructure, and the money is spent on things that do not engender long-term well-being, though enriching unscrupulous salesmen.

One thing should be very clear from any but the most superficial analysis. If the level of UBI is to be set high enough to deal with basic human needs, so that it can replace the bulk of state benefits, then taxation will have to be unfeasibly high. So high that instead of fostering consent it is just as likely to breed resentment as the current system, and a massive drive by businesses and rich people to smuggle their profits abroad to evade payment. That is before recipients of UBI start complaining that the system is unfair because their circumstances (living in a high-cost area, educational needs, health problems, disabilities) create greater need. The idea that UBI can replace a whole series of benefits with a massively simplified system is for the birds. I also think such a system would lead to alienation which would exacerbate social ills. Alienation results unless people are engaged in genuine dialogue resulting in some form of contract; the idea behind UBI is to reduce the need for dialogue and contract.

If UBI-max – the replacement of most state benefits -is ruled out, what we are left with is  much more modest. It might replace the personal tax allowance and extend it to those who aren’t working, and re-badge the basic state pension, removing it from the contributory principle (something that the Coalition advanced in the UK in 2010 to 2015). This would effect a modest level of redistribution and ease life slightly for some groups of hard-pressed. No doubt it would mean higher taxes, though some benefits might be clipped to help pay for it. I’m not sure that this is worth it – and it is hardly very radical. The tax free allowance is only worth a couple of thousand pounds a year.

But there is another approach that is worth mentioning – suggested by the former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. This goes back to the Alaska Permanent Fund. The state acquires stakes in major businesses, and especially the big monopolistic businesses that are increasingly dominating our daily lives. A dividend would be distributed annually from the income generated by this fund. Over time this fund would grow and start to produce respectable sums.

Mr Varoufakis is a socialist; the idea of states taking over chunks of privately held capital will not bother him. Others might be nervous; the state has not proved to be an effective shareholder on the whole, the less so the more management is politicised. It might also create public acquiescence with monopoly profits, compared to more efficient models. But it is an intriguing idea. It does go to the heart of the problem – the excessive accumulation of capital in the hands of relatively few people, and its control by corporations that funnel disproportionate rewards to a few. It also starts to tackle another often-overlooked problem: how hard it is for people on modest incomes to accumulate savings without them being eaten up by transaction costs. This is why so many private sector pension plans are so ineffective, and why a state-funded basic pension is such a good idea.

How would the state fund its capital acquisitions? There are broadly three ways: appropriation, taxation or borrowing. Appropriation is simply tax by another name – maybe businesses could be forced to offer shares to the state instead of corporation tax; and by the same process a minimum distribution might also be forced. There a couple of problems with this, though. First of all it would confine the fund to domestic assets, when so much of the surplus capital is held by international businesses. Second, businesses come in all sorts of legal structures, some of which are more conducive to income distribution than others. Any attempt to appropriate shares could cause businesses to evade by changing legal structures.

But a sovereign wealth fund funded by taxation or borrowing gets around the need for direct appropriation. The problem is that it would take an awful lot of money before it reached a size that it could generate an income that the public would notice. Take the UK. One thousand pounds for 60 million people is £60 billion. At a 2% yield that is £3 trillion capital value – getting on for twice the level of the national debt. Even a New Monetarist might that feel state borrowing on this level carries risks. Of course the idea is that capital growth will help to fund this over time, and if built up slowly, it would be easier to accommodate – but cash distributions would also be tiny for a long time.

All this leaves me thinking that UBI is a symptom of the problem, and not the solution. The world is becoming too dominated by big institutions, such as companies like Google or governments and state agencies. These try to simplify processes in order to make them manageable – and this leads to excessive accumulation of power by elites, in government and business – and the alienation of the majority. UBI is just another simplified solution designed to fit this general pattern. It is advocated by people that support such one-size-fits-all approaches – be the monopolist businessmen or advocates of a mighty central state (such as socialists) .What we actually have to do is tackle those excessive concentrations of power. And that is much harder.

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Neoliberalism’s three blind spots and how we move on

In my last proper post I examined the idea of neoliberalism, a set of ideas that is at the heart of modern economic policy. I concluded by saying that most people think it has failed. But how can we move on?

The first point to make is that the two central insights of neoliberalism seem as valid as ever. The first is that markets provide the best way of processing information on complex human needs and how to meet them – and they do this far better than bureaucracy. The second is that governments and regulators are beset by dysfunctional incentives – and tend to serve the interests of elites and client groups, rather than the people as a whole.

This is the starting point for those that continue to defend the philosophy, though rarely by that name. They suggest that the problems that have arisen since the 1990s have much more to do with the advance of technology and globalisation than anything else. This is a rather pessimistic view. It suggests that society in the 1990s was faced with the choice of embracing technological change, with the benefits to health and wellbeing that resulted, or a futile attempt to keep change at bay for the sake of social stability. It is hard to think of any society that has successfully followed the latter path. The collapse of blue-collar and white-collar middle-income jobs was pretty much inevitable. And countries that seem to be more successful in embracing this change, like Germany, have done so by adopting policies that have undermined their global neighbours’ attempts to do the same thing. Germany preserves swathes of middle-ranking jobs only by exporting large quantities of manufactured goods to other countries compared to what it imports. By this pessimistic view, the world is being swept forward by technological change and governing elites are powerless to stop it. We may be alarmed at the political backlash, but any new leadership that this sweeps into power will most likely make things worse than better.

There is doubtless some truth to this. It is very striking how the political backlash seems bereft of new economic thinking. The right wants to create higher national boundaries and limit free trade between countries. This thinking recalls policies that deepened and prolonged the Great Depression in the 1930s. The left wants to expand state control. The Labour manifesto in Britain in the recent general election recalls to me the failed development policies in places like India in the 1950s and 1960s before a turn to neoliberalism unleashed massive growth. That isn’t entirely fair, of course, as both left and right also indulge in some new thinking. But it is really quite worrying that the only new idea on the left that has any currency is universal basic income – an idea that has no chance of meeting the huge expectations being placed on it.

But there are clear problems with neoliberal thinking. I think the three key blindspots are capital markets, Baumol’s disease and human organisational capacity. Add these together and you get pointers to what a post-neoliberal economic philosophy might look like.

First: capital markets. Hayek’s insights on the efficiency of markets does not to apply to assets, as distinct from goods and services. The market value of assets does not reflect their future economic worth. Bubbles build and burst, creating ruin in their wake. The problem is as old as the capital markets themselves – but that does not stop these markets from causing society’s resources from being allocated inefficiently. Another problem is that asset price inflation reinforces a gap between the haves and have-nots, and, in Britain, between the young and the old. Neoliberals (like the Economist newspaper) often say that the sky-high prices of land in popular cities simply reflect the laws of supply and demand, and that we should build more homes where people want to live. Whatever the truth of this, it is surely clear that excessive levels of personal debt are a large part of the problem – as well as the issue of human organisational capacity that I will come to. This causes the prices at which supply and demand balance to be much higher than they would be otherwise.

To cut a long story short, modern developed economies (especially the Anglo-Saxon ones) place far too much reliance on private debt, and this leads to instability and inequality. The risks associated with state debt, by comparison, look easier to manage. One leg of the neoliberal system of economic management, monetary policy, is broken.

The second issue is what economists call Baumol’s disease. This idea has been in circulation for decades, and is taught to economics undergraduates. It is amazing how little its implications seem to be understood. Baumol pointed out that as productive sectors of the economy develop in efficiency, the less productive sectors bulk up in proportion. Agriculture used to account for the bulk of the British economy; but as it became more efficient it eventually sunk to a small fraction of it. The same is now happening to manufacturing. As we become more efficient the bulk of jobs will be in sectors where high productivity is impossible or undesirable. And in the current situation they will increasingly be in sectors where market solutions have been found wanting. These include healthcare, education and law enforcement. These sectors are dominated by government and the public sector. We must expect the public sector to grow, and we must learn how to manage this, rather than trying to push the boundaries of the state back.

My third issue is what I have rather clumsily called human organisational capacity. The human brain can only handle a limited number of connections efficiently. And humans are at the centre of human organisations. Artificial intelligence won’t change that; it will simple extend the reach of what individual humans can do. This human capacity sets limits to the size and scope of human organisations. Organisations that grow eventually face a stark choice. They either become staggeringly inefficient, or their operating systems have to be very lean, requiring few people to operate them. Commercial organisations are forced into the latter category by competition. Dealing with a large corporation now, like Google, Amazon or PayPal is extremely frustrating for ordinary human beings, unless you manage to stick to the automated procedures that they prescribe – which are unable to handle any degree of complexity. Modern technology is allowing these commercial organisations to extend their reach by cherry-picking things that are simple to deal with, and leaving behind the difficult ones. This is creating a hollowing-out effect that is one of the big drivers of inequality.

Governments, meanwhile, are left to pick up the pieces. But they are subject to similar limitations. They have to choose between monstrous inefficiency or simplification. As tight finances force them into the latter course, power accretes to an elite in geographically concentrated centres of power. Neoliberals tend to shrug at this, and simply say that this is price we pay for a more efficient society. But I think it points in a different direction: to towards the decentralisation of political power, and the development of local democracy. One country has taken this idea further than any other: Switzerland. But if you go there you do not find grinding poverty as people are forced to choose between local control and drawing the benefits of modern society. You find one of the most prosperous societies in the world, with economic activity geographically spread out. One key thing to note: the Swiss have not just found ways to devolve political power to relatively small units, but they have also found ways to involve their citizens in taking responsibility for the society that they live in.

All this raises many, many questions. But the overall direction of travel is clear. We need to expand the scope of the public sphere (I am being careful not to use the word “state”), but also to shrink it geographically and allow people to take more ownership of it. Markets are useful, but we need democracy too.

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Vince Cable and economics – what he says in Newswire

No time for a proper post from me this week. But I was intrigued by an article in Mark Pack’s Newswire (a Lib Dem newsletter), with an extensive quote from Vince Cable.

This shows how hard he is to pin down into conventional categories of economic thinking. But that’s for the best possible reason – he has studied and thought about the issues for a long time, and observed economic policy in practice in many different situations.

Here it is:

The roots of Vince Cable’s political beliefs

Placing Vince Cable on the left-right political spectrum never quite works because he combines both a passion for intervention to deal with market failures with a suspicion of the failings of big government. The roots of that combination are well illustrated in his excellent memoirs, Free Radical. They highlight how his work on development issues in Africa helped give him both those passions – seeing both the need for action and the consequences of government failure. Writing here exclusively for Lib Dem Newswire, Vince Cable sets out the roots of his political views in more detail.

My earliest political views were a reaction to the extremes I encountered growing up. My father was an upwardly mobile, working class, Tory who sought to inculcate some good values (hard work, thrift, respect for the law) and some bad ones (racism, which split the family when I married an East African Asian, my late wife Olympia). He died after contracting pneumonia delivering leaflets for Mrs Thatcher in the snow. My mother secretly voted Liberal, defying his instructions to vote Tory.

My best teenage friend was a card-carrying Communist like his father, a shop steward at York carriage works. His revolutionary zeal got him expelled from college, allegedly for arson. He tried to re-educate me in sound ideological principles but concluded that I was a ‘bourgeois liberal’ with Menshevik tendencies.

When I went to university I sampled both the Liberals, becoming their President, and also a student branch of the social democratic wing of the Labour party. Sensing that they were saying the same thing but using different language, I tried to achieve a merger. Both sides were outraged and the merger collapsed ignominiously, 20 years ahead of its time. I joined Labour, beguiled by Harold Wilson’s white-hot technological revolution.

As a young economist, educated by the disciples of Keynes, I was then exposed to real world economics as a Treasury official in Kenya. Experience of African development quickly taught me that textbook ideas of ‘planning’ – or Keynes for that matter – had little relevance. The state was usually a vehicle for predation and patronage. Wealth was created by farmers, especially by entrepreneurial African small-holders; by mainly Asian businessmen; and by professionally run multinationals. And then looted by politicians and civil servants

I moved on to Latin America where the fashionable nationalistic ideology of ‘self-reliance’ merely entrenched vested interests and reinforced extreme and often appalling inequalities. Much of my development writing would now be described as ‘neo-liberal’ but I think is right in that context.

The country which most influenced my thinking was India which I have visited many times over 50 years for family and professional reasons. I have seen India’s remarkable transformation, much of it based on the adage that ‘the economy grows at night, when the government goes to sleep’. I have always been torn between torn between my admiration for India’s democratic and dynamic ‘anarchy that works’ and my admiration for the technocratic revolution in modern China which has produced an economic, poverty reducing, miracle, albeit seriously illiberal.

Between the travelling I got involved in British politics and became a Labour councillor, helping to run Glasgow. The establishment was pure Tammany Hall, so I moved to the Left where the idealistic and capable people were. I marched proudly down Sauchiehall Street alongside the charismatic Communist leader of the shipyard workers, Jimmy Reid and Tony Benn, and contributed to Gordon Brown’s Red Papers on Scotland.

I led a somewhat schizophrenic existence teaching students Adam Smith’s economics in the morning and practising municipal socialism in the afternoon. I found a more comfortable place campaigning for Britain to join the EU alongside Labour figures like John Smith, for whom I later worked as a Special Adviser, and Liberals like David Steel.

My Fabian, centre-left, eclectic, version of social democracy didn’t long survive a move to London where the Militant Tendency and assorted Trots, including today’s leadership, were in control of the Labour Party. In the civil war which followed, I joined the SDP, albeit after some heart-searching, unsuccessfully contesting my home town of York in the 1983, and then the dispiriting 1987, election.

In the long period in the political wilderness before becoming MP in Twickenham I had two other formative political experiences. One was spending several years working on global environmental issues in the late 1980’s: helping to write the Brundtland Report on Sustainable Development and then one of the first intergovernmental reports on climate change. The other was when Shell recruited me into their long-term scenario planning team, later to be Chief Economist. I found the management culture admirably professional and honest, albeit conservative, and I like to think I helped to steer them towards a future in emerging economies and to a greater sense of social and environmental responsibility.

For the rest, my record as a Lib Dem MP after 1997 is reasonably well known. As an economic spokesman, my approach initially reflected the social liberal consensus of the time. The financial crisis changed everything. My intellectually eclectic background in economics helped me to see ahead and better understand the nature of the crisis, to write coherently about it – in The Storm – and to advocate correct but controversial measures like nationalisation of the banks and the taxation of property wealth.

The Coalition was a classic head-heart dilemma. My head told me that joining the Coalition was right and that we had no alternative but to address the massive budget deficit which was the legacy of a crisis of financial capitalism. My heart was definitely not with the Tories. But I found a useful role as an interventionist Business Secretary promoting industrial strategy and state-led banking, German-style innovation and training policies and applying a pragmatic, problem solving, approach to government. In a sequel to The Storm After the Storm – I set out where I think we should be going as a country, now, in terms of economic policy.

There is one more important strand in my approach to politics. I have long been interested in, and worried about, the politics of identity. Bringing up a multiracial family and fighting racism; experience of the tangled web of religious sectarianism and incipient nationalism in the west of Scotland; immersed for over 50 years in the movement to anchor Britain in Europe: these have been major, often dominant, concerns. I wrote the first of two pamphlets for Demos in the mid-1990’s on identity politics and have seen its growing influence, culminating in the Brexit vote.

My first venture into fiction, the novel Open Arms – due out in a few weeks – involves the interplay of identity politics and personal relationships. And in the real world, I anticipate that the future of the UK and our party will be determined by whether national identity or a broader, more outward-looking, more European, view of the world dominate politics.

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