Last night, Vince Cable gave the annual John G Gray Lecture to the Scottish Liberal Club in Edinburgh. John G Gray was a leading Scottish figure in the fightback from near extinction in the middle of the last century. He was at one point the only Liberal councillor in Scotland. Vince observed that at the same time as he was successfully fighting a ridiculous proposal for a ring road in Glasgow, Gray was doing the same in Edinburgh, making sure that a proposal that would have damaged much of the city’s heritage never came to fruition.
The subject of his talk was Brexit, Trump and the Crisis of Liberalism. He set out four things that we should do to stop the “insidious” politics of populism and nationalism taking root.
Firstly, he looked at some of the reasons for populism taking hold. History has many examples, from the South Sea Bubble, to the Depression to the 2008 crash, of economic heart attacks being followed after some years by populism. When people lose out, they turn to the extremes and we have over the past decade seen the fall in post war living standards. Significantly, the measures used to keep the economy afloat, low interest rates and quantitative easing, ensured that pensioners’ savings didn’t grow. That resulted in discontent and nostalgia became a powerful emotional driver.
He warned that as the populists fail, the search for a scapegoat would turn on the judiciary and the other elements which underpin our democracy. He highlighted the Daily Fail’s talk of the enemy within – where the Lib Dems were top of the list. Populists do what they can to delegitimise anything that gets in their way.
A common ploy of populists, which we can see from Farage, Trump and the Brexiteers, is to present themselves as the voice of the people. They claim that only they can do the people’s bidding.
We know that Vince is good at predictions. After all, he said the 2008 crash would happen years before it did. What many may not know is that in 1994, he wrote a pamphlet for Demos in which he explored issues of globalisation and identity politics. He mooted the possibility of a General Election fought over the EU, immigration and Scotland.
So, what do we do about it all. The first thing was not to despair. The populists, where they are winning, are doing so by very low margins, but liberals in places like the Netherlands and Canada are winning too. En Marche and Macron give France a powerful liberal force.
Liberals need to tackle identity politics by recognising the validity of identities – and people can have many. He talked about his own local area where people would variously identify as Punjabi, Sikh, Londoner and British. Celebrating multiple identities is important
I’ve long thought that conversations on the doorstep are the best weapon in getting the liberal message across. Vince said that back in the 1970s, it was the local engagement of the Liberals which helped rebuild us on a national level. The Liberals, he said, were the ones who came round and collected recycling – even then being ahead of the curve.
The third requirement in tackling populism was political and electoral reform so, simply, that people got the Parliaments they asked for. Later on, under questioning, he added that this was more necessary than before as parliamentary democracy has “decayed to a dangerous degree” with Corbyn’s Labour providing no opposition. We faced a constitutional crisis, he says with an effective one party state in England and across many councils such as Manchester.
The final element of our populism-busting toolkit was what he described as “economic activist government.” He said that we must not be shy about governments using the levers of the state to create greater equality. We absolutely have to help the casualties of globalisation. He talked about his efforts with the Workers’ Educational Association to provide education to middle aged people to give them the skills they need in today’s economy. The state needs to do more to encourage social cohesion in an age of great inter-generational unfairness, when people’s jobs and pensions are not as secure as they used to be and it takes two full-time incomes and borrowing to the hilt to be able to afford an average home. Social Democrat redistributive policies were essential to combat this.
Questions: safe spaces, experts, and can Brexit be stopped?
There was time for questions afterwards. One strand was around the Govian denial of experts and increased polarisation and lack of exposure to opposing points of view. Vince was scathing about the idea of “safe spaces”, and said that attempts to suppress debate in universities were “absolutely dire.” He added that he had been partially successful in stopping Theresa May’s attempts to ban radical Islamic speakers – not the sort who advocate terrorism, of course, but those whose ideas need to be challenged. He argued that open debate was an essential liberal response to populism and all people needed to accept that they were going to be offended.
The drift way from disciplined thinking and the disregard of experts in fields like climate change was very worrying.
I sensed a softening of his position on Brexit since last Summer. Then, when I saw him at the Book Festival in Edinburgh and when he wrote here, he was pretty much of the opinion that Brexit was going to happen and we should get on with it. Now, he says he sees a small chance that it can be reversed although he is not wedded to the idea of a referendum on the deal – he reckons that a General Election would give people the opportunity to have their say.
He finished by saying that all politics should engage our emotions, not just the populist sort. Liberalism could and should engage heart as well as brain.
All in all, it was an excellent and stimulating evening. Vince as ever was thoughtful and though-provoking. It was encouraging to see such a packed room with lots of new members, including some brand new people, there as well. I did feel quite guilty as I kept seeing posts on Facebook saying “I’d so love to be going to see Vince but canvassing for the local elections is more important.” I hope that this gives those people who were out on the frontline a bit of a flavour of what went on – and in producing it, I’ve been forgiven for not being out on the doorsteps.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings