Blogging is a strange occupation - a solitary writer in search of the sort of communion with others that used to happen in the pub, on the corner, on the bus is now engaging with others electronically instead. So much for progress.

THIS blog is about ideas - big and small - connected with one of the things I care about with a passion, namely the future of liberal thought in this country. I am instinctively a radical liberal, with a grudging belief in the value of markets but an abhorrence of statism and indifference, and a strong belief in social justice. I find Labour bankrupt of ideas, and the Tories intellectually flacid. This is my response.

I am intending always to stick to the point: there will be no rabble-rousing talk, and no wasted jibes at other parties and political philosophies.

Comments will be moderated, but anyone can leave one.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Wordle fun

It's the silly season, and I have been playing with the wonderful Wordle (http://wordle.net/) over lunch to look at the, er, shape of political thinking in the UK. Here's a tip for a way to make even Gordon Brown's speeches look more colourful:

1. Cut and paste a speech of the dear leader into Wordle at http://wordle.net/create and press 'Go'

2. Admire, collect, print and laugh at the sheer artlessness of political communication in the UK. Compare with those shown here of the speeches at the Democratic Convention, and tell me that UK political rhetoric is as clear about its purpose at that of our American cousins.

Still on the Chartist list...

Liberals will be cheering and supporting the continuing attempts by MPs of all parties, and others, to institute fixed term parliaments, but what about the old Chartist demand for annual parliaments? Of course the case for annual parliaments was made much earlier than the Chartist movement of the 1840s, but while four of the six points of the People's Charter were achieved in the last century (I'd argue that we've not really achieved 'equal constituencies, however fleetfooted the Boundary Commission may be) there is still that one glaring omission - annual parliaments.

Now you could argue that the fact of party politics, and the party nature of government, would make annual elections impossible. Every election would produce, potentially, a different government and, well, that would be awkward. Continuity of policy...long-range strategy...time to achieve our objectives. But that's all a bit like saying that you can't have the sweets you want from a pick and mix stall because the paper bag is the wrong colour.

We could have annual parliaments, easily. We could insist on parties putting up all seats for reelection annually, while retaining the present government unless a clear majority was obtained by another party. Would annual parliaments, though, have any advantages?

Well the old Chartist argument was that it would be a "check to bribery and intimidation" at a time when the rotten boroughs of England were notorious and many remained unaffected in that way by the 1832 Act. That wouldn't be an argument for establishing them today though.

I'd argue that there may be - just maybe - a couple of good solid arguments for annual parliaments worth considering:

(i) annual parliaments would make it impossible for the electorate to ignore politics; they'd have to become involved since voting would be an annual event.

(ii) it would, paradoxically, give rise to more stability in the political process. Knowing the proximity of an election, MPs would be more dutiful, governments more careful and voters more aware of change.

In all of this I am being only half serious. After all, the thought of David Dimbleby Election programmes annually is too much. Besides which, annual canvassing....?

Obama liberalism

Is Senator Obama a liberal?

At first blush this may sound like a question with a strightforward answer - of course he is a liberal, he believes in fairness, social justice, personal freedom, the responsibility of communities for their members and of their members for the community. He is, most people, would say, very much a liberal. No question.

Hold on, though. His acceptance speech at the Democractic convention, filled though it was with references to plans for changes in taxation, social security and public spending was light, nonetheless, on clearly liberal values. Instead Senator Obama talked the tactical talk of a man seeking office and keenly aware that he needs to attract those for whom the word 'liberal' makes them slightly uneasy.

So he said thigs like this:

"We [Democrats] measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put a little extra money away at the end of each month so you can someday watch your child receive her college diploma."

and this:

"We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a new business, or whether the waitress who lives on tips can take a day off to look after a sick kid without losing her job - an economy that honours the dignity of work."

This is ameliorative liberalism. It says that the liberal values of a secure and thriving society that matter are those that make middle class voters vote for this candidate.

Now, I hope that President Obama wins the election in November. The alternative is not a pleasant one for the world, let alone the people of the United States. Let's pause, though, and wait to hear more from Senator Obama before we take the tactical talk of a salesman for the genuine article. He may turn out to be a credible liberal; it is, paradoxially for a man so often feted as one, much too soon to tell.

Friday, 8 August 2008

One in three!

One in three young people, according to a survey by the Prince's Trust reported here, "do not think of their own parents as people they respect". I can't say I have ever been more moved by a single statistic about the attitudes of young people. Now we could become very Daily Mail about this and call for measures to make them show respect (National Service/ prison-meaning-prison/ 'make them clean it up' etc - choose your own favourite), but the essence of the problem is surely to do with a rootlessness of mind that is now endemic in whole generations - and not just young people.

This 'rootlessness' is now particularly strong among the young. Many of them lack confidence in themselves in this society, and express that lack of confidence in aggression and a bigger, more showy, version of teenage arrogance. This is the teenage arrogance that thinks nothing of shootings in supermarkets, the teenage arrogance that thinks nothing of robbing single pensioners at knife point, the kind of teenage arrogance that regards authority of any kind as being not protective of common interests but necessarily antithetical to your own.

How do we deal with it? It is easy to decide on solutions, and Lib Dems are announcing some of their own at the moment (see here), but solutions to youth violence are not the same as solutions to the deeper, more pervasive, rootless inaction and fatalism that grips the Jeremy Kyle generations. This isn't (for the Marxians among you) alienation since alienation is a conscious and active rejection of a social order; this is a strange mix of separateness and a dependency that leaves mothers at once indifferent to their childrens' violence, afraid of it, yet clinging to state solutions for both the violence and their separation from 'grown up' living.

No amount of brave talk about 'zero tolerance' on the one hand or "understanding the roots of young peoples' alienation" on the other will help. We need to tackle the much more grave problem of the generations of people - grandparents, parents, kids - who no longer think of themselves as influential in their own lives.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

'I have an announcement to make...'

Alistair Darling may, or may not, announce a stamp duty holiday, or pause, or redefinition...or none of the above. As a result, house sellers are up in arms, estate agents are crying foul and the government is, again, in hot water for - in this case - actually doing nothing, and still making life worse for many people.

Is there ever a case for announcing that you will do something before you do it? Well, liberals would I think argue that the pre-emption can protect in some instances. Announce today that you intend to tax immoral earnings at 20% above the standard rate and you can reduce exploitation now. The problem with it is, of course, that pre-emption is a bit like having your cake and eating it if you are a cynical political calculator. I announce that I will impose the super-tax, there is no reduction in the tax take, but I gain political kudos from the announcement. Something of this thinking must have been behind the then Chancellor's announcement ('the then Chancellor' being one Mr. G. Brown) to trail most of the budget in an earlier 'budget statement'. The Chancellor gained kudos, looked in control and open at the same time, and lost nothing. A perfect solution for a canny politician.

Let's try to avoid the cynical thought that this is the only mode of 'announcement' that has political viability. I'd like to see a whole lot more stick being used instead of expensive carrots as far as industry policy is concerned for example. If a government were really serious about fairness and equity, as well as encouraging the use of public transport, would it not announce the steps it would take if rail fares were to rise above the rate of inflation, for example? Would it not in fact have a duty to make that threat very public? Recently, in Britain, governments of all persuasions have been too timid to do this. But it is a clear, honest, and I think liberal tactic.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Richard Hofstadter

Wednesday sees the anniversary of the birth in 1916 of Richard Hoftstadter, American historian and thinker who, perhaps more than many others, gave shape to the liberal centerist critique of American affluence and its politics in the post-war world. Brilliant and engaging, his writing on a wide variety of themes (party politics, radicalism, political paranoia and populism, academic freedom and social darwinism to name a few) influenced a generation shaped by totalitarian conflict on the one hand and political conceit and self-satisfaction on the other.

I first read him in my teens and thought the pure unfussy cadences of the American east coast made him approachable, easy to read and engaging. After years away from the books I happened to dip into my two favourite the other day (The Paranoid Style in American Politics(1965) and Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963)), and my view of him has changed, slightly.

Let me explain. Yes those easy cadences were still there and yes the essays in Paranoid Style were as engaging and interesting as ever. But 'easy to read'? Perhaps not quite. Now I don't mean by that that the style or the substance was difficult. Rather, that more than 40 years after they were written these books provide an eerie echo of an era (the 1960s) straddling the uneasiness of a Cold war world and the burgeoning hope for a better future - an era in which politicians could hope to win elections by pure, unadulterated populism, from the cynical right and the calculating left. Hoftadter showed, possibly more acutely than any other historian of American thought, just how close to the surface of democratic life are the impulses to punish the non-conforming, to deny reason in order to hijack voters' anger, and to divide in order to rule. Democracy can hurt when it embraces populism, and it is uncomfortable to see just how.

In Anti-intellectualism in American Life, perhaps the most challenging argument of the two, Hofstadter showed that Americans had become used to denying the force of special knowledge, expertise and know-how. It wasn't just that intellectuals had been regarded since colonial times as dangerous but anyone setting themselves apart from a created orthodoxy or a manufactured populist concensus was deemed to be 'un-American'. Hence - and it hardly needed to be pointed out to readers - the vitriol of McCarthyism but also the hatred of the technocrat among many on the left.

Hofstadter only on rarely touched on the roots of anti-intellectualism and populism in Britain. but is it too far fetched to believe that he would have found - in the resurgence of the New Right from the 1970s, in the populism of Blair and Brown - the very same forces that shaped the condemnatory and heckling politics of the US for generations?

And is Barack Obama, perhaps, an antidote for liberals?

How to make policy through your political party...

Policy-making. Art? Science? A bit of both? The problem for all political parties in participative democracies is that the inclusiveness of policy making depends upon the inclusiveness and reach of policy consultation. So when governments seek to involve members of their parties in policy-making the results can be perverse.

Labour's National Policy Forum back in July is a perfect case in point. First stage: invite all of the activists, supporters and workers engaged in your party to a meeting, at which you encourage them to shape policy. Second stage: fight off attacks on what is and isn't ideologically 'pure', what you as a government haven't yet done because you were too timid, and the lobbying of special interest groups, and try to get some form of confirmation from the meeting on the general way ahead. Third stage: Reluctantly cart all of that back to the reality of a constrained budget, other pressing demands, the need to avoid damaging talk of 'U-turns' and 'caving in to special interests' and the like, and come up with a policy framework for government in Cabinet.

Since the 1960s most rational political parties have tried to evolve (to one extent or another) an inclusive approach to party policy making that will affect their programme in government. For Lib Dems, it has become an essential article of faith that conuslting members IS policy generation in action.

And yet...There is much to be said for the argument that consulting your members on future policy is like asking random car drivers to design a Formula 1 car from scratch by committee. I don't mean by that that car drivers might not be able to reconcile their differences, shape something that might look like a F1 car and even ape one, but they are unlikely to produce the next best thing in F1 car design. For that to happen, you need to ensure that they understood the very latest on aerodynamics, for example, and understood how to reflect that in the design of something they would only ever see others use. Moreover you would need to ensure that the car drivers who happened to prefer low emissions cars and those who were wedded to gas guzzling 4x4 cars put aside their differences and, indeed, looked at full efficiency from the point of view of the aim of a totally different driver - someone for whom fuel efficiency was about pit stops and acceleration.

Now there may be those among the leadership of many political parties who wish this sort of party member consultation would not take place and others for whom a technocratic elite would be better at doing it anyway. Neither would enable truly participative party government.

However, we do need to ask our parties - including the Liberal Democrat party, by far the most open of the major three on policy consultation and party policy making - how far consultation in policy fora can be an entirely shapeless affair, with no more than a background brief from the expertise within the party and a contribution from a hapless minister enjoined to 'put policy thinking into practice'.

Here's my suggestion (and it is an approach that, at various times, party politicians have favoured). Why not leave the broad ranging consultation as consultation so that the leadership knows what members think, but have policy proposals developed by independent policy teams - independent, that is, of the party. Those proposals could be regarded as the blueprints for that F1 car designed by the top car designers of their generation.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

'Skyl', skill and skills - how words affect liberal policy

We use the word 'skills' these days with abandon, forgetting that we have constructed it as a noun only relatively recently (oh, and by the way an etymologist should help us work out just when, and why, we started adding that 's' every time).

Skill (or 'skyl' [OE]) is a term that survived until probably the middle of the seventeenth century relatively unmolested by any association with education. A skilled person was one with a profound discernment that came from practised knowledge - not just someone who could make something, but someone who knew how to judge whether something was well made and make it himself, certainly the attribute associated with a guild Master rather than an apprentice or even a journeyman. A 'skill' was different from 'cunning' (which for centuries had no association with any disreputable), the latter word meaning that one knew something that gave one a skilled understanding. We occasionally, but now quite infrequently, talk about people 'conning' a subject.
What we didn't mean by the term 'skill' until relatively recently (mid-17th century by my reckoning) was a learned ability to produce a particular output or activity. That, for our forebears, would have been to trivialise skill. But, in the industrialised world in which Adam Smith's pin manufactory economics of labour specialism became and remains a key to industrial success that is just the relatively trivial meaning that it is essentially bears. I have 'skill' in something that differentiates my labour from yours.

In recent years we have taken this word so lightly that now we talk about 'skills' (noun) as a thing that we can 'have' or can 'get' or can 'learn'. This is learning to do something with this toolkit or this system, not learning to understand the tools and how they work or the systems of production that are possible and how they are arranged - not the type of 'skyl' that the medieval guild Master was reputed to possess.

What does all this historical etymology mean for liberal thinkers? I think it means quite a lot.

I think we have unthinkingly accepted that 'skyl' is a dirty, small-minded, uneconomic and possibly undemocratic and elitist idea. We did so probably in the early years of the twentieth century when mass production and Taylorian notions of production became commonplace.

I think that we have come to think of 'skill' in that Smithian sense as the instrument for capturing the internal economies of industrial performance. And we have certainly come to think of this new thing, 'skills' (noun, and often these days regarded as singular!), as a bundle of attributes associated with some form of economic activity that need regular replenishing.

'Skills', we are told, are (is?) in demand. What people mean when they say that is not that the profound insight of the Master craftsman is in high demand, but that now, today, we need people who can push button B or pull flange G into alignment, whereas yesterday we will needed people who can push button G and pull flange B into aligment. 'Skill' is a commodity that today only really means 'mechanical skill', the ability to fit in with a cycle of production in that Smithian pin factory in one part of the process today and another tomorrow. Technology may, of course, be the reason why we need people who can pull flange B into alignment tomorrow, but there is nothing else that distinguishes this source of 'skill need' from any other in the pin factory.

When we talk about 'skills' what we inevitably mean, it seems to me, is 'fluidity' - the ability to roll with the punches of modern competitive capitalism. We mean no more and no less than that.

So for that reason can we agree that 'skill' and 'education' can be kept in two very different compartments of policy? I really don't mind my 9 year old son being told that his education may provide him ultimately will 'skyl', but I really object to education being hijacked to provide sustained shareholder returns as technology changes or competition hots up. Let's take 'skills' off the table, and think a bit more about the precious value of 'skyl'. In all of this I know that I am sounding rather like a passionate William Morris or a Paul Lafargue, but that can't be helped.

Let's rescue 'skill' for oblivion, think better of 'skyl' and banish 'skills' from our vocabulary. For the sake of our children.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Future generations

I have been reading Nigel Lawson's rather strange book on global warming, An Appeal to Reason: a cool look at global warming and his even more curious dialogue with Oliver Letwin in the July edition of Standpoint magazine. Both pieces by Lawson are impassioned and at times intemperate (appropriately), but aside from that does he say anything that - policy differences aside - a liberal ought to pause over? Certainly the book has huge weaknesses (much for example depends upon his analysis of surface climate data for the first 8 years of the current century as an 'eccentricity' that cannot be explained by global warming theorists, while ignoring the fact that the data he uses has since been re-based by the Hadley Centre to give a more accurate picture of what's actually happening to our climate).

But there is one key point that ought to strike a chord with most liberals and it is about that old chesnut of intertemporal choice. (By the way, Lawson's discussion of it is has technical errors in presenting the economics of discounting future costs, but let's put that aside since it doesn't materially affect the value of the point he is making).

The question that I think most liberals would pause over is the extent to which we would choose to benefit future generations at the expense of our own. Is it, as Lawson says, largely a matter of moral choice rather than economics? I think he has a point.

Liberals like me are often too fond of arguing that future generations need to be endowed with some benefit by our forgoing some pleasure now and that this is a matter determined by some external necessity. 'Gosh,' we say, 'we must protect our granchildren from the prospect of not having X, the loss of which must surely be greater than the pain we'll suffer from not having it today'. It's a pure utilitarian argument, and there is nothing wrong with it.

What Lawson says, quite rightly in my view, is that liberals deceive themselves if they think that the liberal calculus isn't a moral preference rather than some abstract economic one. If we do want to preserve something for our grandchildren at the expense of ourselves that is a moral decision; but if we want to preserve something for our grandchildren at the expense of our children that is also an (albeit different) moral decision.

The question he quire rightly puts is, who has the right to make that scale of moral decision?

Can governments elected for four years ever be in a position to do it? What alternatives are there that are democratic? And how do we entrench the moral decisions of one generation with regard to the life chances of future remote generations as generational moral choices and not just the arbitrary decisions of one government to be overturned by another?