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.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Groan...it's Lembit again

The ability of the leadership of my party to shoot itself in - or, probably, near - the foot is extraordinary, and that arch-transgressor Lembit Opik is at it again today. In an interview reported on the BBC website he makes some rather innocuous points about the Segway personal transporter, a motorised scooter for grown-ups, in a rather silly 'protest' outside the House of Commons. Lembit, who holds a responsible position in the party usually reserved for grown-ups, believes the Segway is " flexible, convenient in rural areas as well as large cities - and environmentally friendly". As it may well be.

But how, even if this were the solution to the transport problems of the UK, does Lembit make the point? By describing it as "...biggest step forward in transportation since the Wright brothers", by stencilling (yes, stencilling) the word 'Police' on the front of one and driving it up and down in front of the House of Commons, and by claiming that adoption of the Segway would constitute, in the words of a BBC report "...a transport "revolution" in the capital as commuters turned to them instead of cars and bicycles".

Now this may be a happy, jolly little jape to Lemit, but it is making my party look silly, trivial and childish. There is nothing wrong with humour in politics, nothing wrong with eccentricity. We don't need only the high-minded Gladstones, the stoical Balfours or the reserved and patrician Douglas-Homes of this world, we do need a few clowns for colour.

Why, though, do they have to congregate in the leadership of a party making a credible claim to be considered the real opposition to the government in so many areas?

Lembit? Please think about the party before personal publicity ahead of your next stunt.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

What is left of economic policy?

One of the reasons why Downing Street is now hotly denying that Mr Brown was ever going to unveil an economic strategy to counter recession is that, put simply, 'economic policy' is pretty much emasculated now. It doesn't really exist.

Margaret Thatcher (in her various guises as arch-monetarist, supply-sider and non-interventionist) had one outstanding effect on economic policy making. She shifted the goal posts by moving them off the pitch. Instead of accepting that economic policy management is difficult, frustrating and risky and involves utilising a range of economic policy instruments, she embraced the myth of the single instrument (monetary base control from 1979-1983; supply-side fiscal policy from 1983-1989...). After all if you really don't understand this stuff, why not just pick a single lever and use it - and blame 'international circumstances' when things go wrong?

Mr Brown, of course, hasn't just moved the goal posts from the pitch; he's given them to another team. The one instrument of macroeconomic policy left to us is interest rate polcy, and he shifted responsibility for that to the Bank of England in 1997. Now you could argue that with the reforms in exchange controls in the 1980s, the restructuring of our economy through privatisation and outsourcing of public assets and services, and indeed economic growth, there are strong reasons for believing that government can do less now to avert a recession than ever before.

This is nonsense. There are still levers of influence and action that Alistair Darling could use - from effecting changes in bank balance sheets through BoE action, through to encouragement for business investment via tax credits, to changes in the purposes of planned public spending (reducing discretionary recurrent spending and increasing capital infrastructure spend, for instance) - that would, when taken together, amount to an economic strategy for coping with the effects of recession.

The belief seems to be that all of this is too hard, too risky. It makes the brain hurt. Better, then, to cushion the blow for (some of) those on low incomes and hope the rest of us can weather the storm - and be prepared to take the credit if we do.

This is politics without principle and without guts. It is artless, deficient in leadership, stumbling and incompetent, and unimaginative.