Why I’m pausing for reflection

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I have been trying to post articles twice a week. In the last few weeks that has slowed down. This week I have struggled to post anything at all.  On reflection I think it’s time to pause for a while, and reduce postings to a trickle.

Why? Partly it is plain depression – though the non-political side of my life is going well enough. After multiple shocks to the political system, that is not be surprising. I still struggle to accept that Britain is leaving the European Union, that Donald Trump is the US president, and that liberal attitudes are being thrown out in favour of nothing very coherent.

But I think it is deeper than an emotional reaction – I’m afraid I’m an Enlightenment spirit that believes that reason should rule emotion. The world has changed, and the balance of political forces has altered in ways that I have not yet understood. It is tempting to impose oversimplified models on this. For example, it is commonplace to ascribe changes to a reaction of the white working classes. But that can only be a partial explanation – there just aren’t enough white working class people for it to be more than that. All successful political movements are coalitions – and it is the unnoticed elements of that coalition that may hold the key. Guilt by liberals over the struggles of many white working class people is being used as a cover for more sinister forces – and some not so sinister ones too.

And if I don’t understand what is driving this change, the consequences of change are also obscure. Many bad things are happening as a result of the Trump presidency and Brexit – but some good things might happen too through the law of unintended consequences. Breaking up the old complacent order will force many things to be rethought – and it will not just be liberals who are discombobulated. For example, Mr Trump’s recent questioning of the two-state approach to peace in Israel may be no bad thing -as it will force Israel’s politicians to be clearer about what it is they actually want – rather than just getting in the way of US policy. In another example, Russia’s propaganda narrative about confronting western liberalism loses its power if western liberalism is in retreat. The Russians are having to be careful about what they wish for. And is it too much to hope that ethnic minority campaigners, so long dependent on a narrative of victimhood and guilt, might freshen up their story when the main competing narrative is also one of victimhood and guilt? Perhaps they might spend more time campaigning on problems that they share, rather than on what sets them apart?

And so my reaction to unfolding events is, so often, “wait and see”.  The interesting stuff has yet to emerge. Here I am departing from many other liberal observers – who are content to vent a very understandable anger. I cling to an optimism. Liberalism is experiencing a backlash that is similar in some ways to that endured in the later 19th Century. That led to calamity – a nationalist blind alley that only ended in 1945 after countless millions were killed. This time I think it is different. There are many more liberals now; our values are more deeply embedded. The forces of darkness are weaker than they look. We will turn the tide. But how, and where? That remains unclear. It will require new ideas – and a new coalition.

And so I want to spend more time reflecting, and less time simply reacting to events. I will post, but less frequently.

I started this blog almost exactly six years ago. Looking back at it, that has been six years of political retreat. The crushing loss of the British referendum on changing the electoral system in 2011 now looks like a portent. I need to need to rearm and rethink to get ahead of the game.

5 thoughts on “Why I’m pausing for reflection”

  1. Six years is far too short a timescale. If you look back over six decades there has been enormous advances in social liberalism. No more capital or corporal punishment. No-one bats an eyelid over same sex couples . Racism is still there but it’s nowhere near what it used to be.

    From a more left perspective than your own, my complaint is that the Labour Party has been taken over by progressive liberals. And we socialists have supported their efforts, in fact they are our efforts too, to bring about all the progress that we’ve seen. Sure, the progressive liberals have been socially progressive and that’s really not been that difficult.

    The capitalists don’t want all that race and sexual orientation nonsense either. Why would they? It just interferes with their business activities. So it’s really been pushing on an open door.

    But that support from the socialist left has not been reciprocated by the progressive liberals on the economic front. Liberalism has translated into neoliberalism. So the condition of the working classes has in many ways gone relatively backwards. This neoliberal approach has affected everything. The Health service is creaking at the seams. The school system is performing poorly. Local councils don’t have the money to look after their libraries, parks and playing fields . It’s quite depressing to look at their dilapidated and litter strewn state. So if we could afford to look after the flower beds when the GDP was only a quarter of what it is now why can’t we afford to now? Once thriving shopping centres are no-go zones. There ‘s just a few charity shops managing to survive.

    There’s a general sense of malaise in the public sector which has got much worse since the 2008 GFC. The Tories only solution is to sell off what they can to the private sector. So I would say that a necessary prerequisite for the successful liberal democracy you yearn for has to be a successful economy. And that has to include a successful public sector.

    Not just in the UK but in the EU too. IF there’s free movement of labour in the EU and the UK is part of the EU that movement can’t be allowed to become too asymmetric. And that’s what’s happened and that’s why we’ve got Brexit.

    1. Yes I think a lot of socially liberal progress is here to stay. It will be interesting to see how more conservative cultures, such as in Russia, Africa and the Arab world move on though – the backlash is in full flood there.

      Your observations on the left are interesting. As you know, I am much more sympathetic to what you call neoliberalism. And I would certainly not say that progress in the last couple of decades in public services is all backwards. I have been most involved in education (as a primary school governor), and I would suggest that state schools now are incomparably more effective than they were 20 years ago. I would say that about aspects of healthcare to (for which I am personally grateful after my heart problems a few years ago). That’s not mainly down to neoliberalism (I think the academisation idea is a waste of effort in education) – but the previous, big state, union-dominated model was a complete failure. Public services must be more accountable to the public – that is the positive insight coming through from neoliberalism.

      Still, neoliberalism is played out. It doesn’t offer any more valuable insights. And I think we do need more publicly funded services. But they need to be much more joined-up and focused on solving complex problems than anything we have seen before. Trying to develop a new way of thinking about this is one of the reasons I need a bit of a pause for reflection.

  2. Maybe the first thing to think would be the meaning of neo-liberalism.

    This is the first few lines in the Wikipedia entry:

    “Neoliberalism refers primarily to the 20th century resurgence of 19th century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. These include extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society.”

    Except that we’ve not had the tax reductions to enable the role of the private sector to increase. It’s quite possible to favour a smaller state/larger private sector and not be a neoliberal. In fact, I’d say to anyone who did want a smaller state that neoliberal notions of supposed fiscal austerity is precisely the wrong way to achieve that goal. The resulting economic recession sends the economy into a downward spiral which results in greater demands on the state than existed previously. Plus a lot of highly discontented voters who are going to vote in very unpredictable ways, too!

    The second is to resolve the hang-ups that you share with most Liberals about Europe. Say we do manage, by whatever means, (though we might disagree what they’d be) to find the right economic policies to provide, growth, jobs, housing in the UK for everyone who is able and prepared to work. We had that in the 60s essentially.

    How could that still work if the EU is in the economic doldrums and levels of unemployment there are in double digit percentages? If we have a net annual immigration rate of 250k to 300k even though things here are far from great, how much higher would it be then? What would be the political ramifications of that?

    It’s difficult for us on the left to even ask these kinds of questions, but need to come up with some answers too. My feeling is that it is quite possible to solve the UK’s unemployment and underemployment problems but we just can’t solve the EU’s too.

  3. I completely understand your need to tune out the voices for awhile, to give yourself some quiet time to reflect on what has happened and what your response to it should be. But, don’t take too long. What the world needs now is not for the intelligent and thoughtful amongst us to go quiet, but for them to be out there asking the questions that need asking. As my beloved boy says, ‘we need the smart people to start talking more’.

    1. I will try not to be away for too long – and I still intend to post every couple of weeks. But I do want to come up with a line that is both fresh and challenging.

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