Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

William Wallace writes: Higher Public Spending: the big political taboo

A recent Financial Times op-ed  argued that the UK should now recognise that the Ukraine conflict has imposed aspects of a war economy on the UK – shortages, rising prices, disruptions in supply – which require serious changes in economic policy.  The business pages of the serious press urge higher public investment, spending on education and apprenticeships to raise our woefully-low labour productivity, and government intervention to promote innovation, resilience against supply-chain shocks and sustainability.

Defenders of the NHS point to its much lower spending and staffing per head than comparable European countries half that of Germany and the Netherlands, far fewer doctors and nurses per head and less than half the number of hospital beds – which as the Financial Times says ‘reflect political choices, not what is affordable.’  State schools have been similarly underfunded for many years.  Teachers’ salaries, like nurses’, have been held down to a point where recruitment and retention is difficult.   Conservative MPs and others call for higher defence spending in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Anyone serious about the ‘levelling-up’ agenda knows that it cannot succeed without a very substantial and long-term financial commitment: an additional 1-2% of GDP over a decade or more.

Yet Conservative MPs, backed by almost all political commentators outside the Guardian, still call repeatedly for cuts in taxation.  Their reactions to Rishi Sunak’s latest emergency package have expressed dismay at the rise in taxes it involves.  Sunak is still promising them that he will find a way to cut taxes before the next election, although neither he nor anyone else says anything about what cuts in spending that would imply.  And the Labour Party is silent on the subject, fearing that the Mail and the rest of the Tory press would love to label them again as ‘the high tax party’.  I saw a Labour leaflet in Wandsworth in the local election campaign that promised that if Labour won control of the Council it would keep Council tax at the same low level – a similar promise to what Tony Blair pledged for national taxation in 1996-7.

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Wallace: Undermining the roots of our democracy

If you’ve read Sally Hamwee’s account last week of the way that the government pushed the Nationality and Borders Bill through both Houses of Parliament, and of the failure of the Labour Party in the Lords to stand up against some of its most illiberal elements, you won’t be surprised to hear that the same happened at the end of the parliamentary session to the Elections Bill – rightly condemned by Alastair Carmichael in an article for the Times as ‘undermining the roots of our democracy.’

The Bill arrived in the Lords with a report from the Commons Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, drafted after it had been through the Commons, which declared the Bill ‘unfit for purpose’. Ministers simply ignored the committee’s criticisms. They similarly ignored the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life on Political Finance, published last summer, and the earlier warnings of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia Report that the Electoral Commission needed stronger powers to prevent foreign funding and influence corrupting UK campaigns.

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Wallace: Who’s patriotic now?

Liberals are too nice to go for our opponents in the way they go for us. But now is the time to throw back at them the insult that they are patriotic and we are not. Who is more committed to this country: those who work in its public services, educate its young and hold together its local communities, or those who play around with the financial markets, hold their wealth as far as they can offshore, own properties in other countries and share in the privileges of international elites?

One of the most effective epithets in the Brexit camp’s dismissal of ‘Remoaners’ was the claim that those who continued to argue for a close relationship with our neighbours were ‘people from anywhere’, betraying the honest loyalties of the good ‘people from somewhere’ who preferred England and its eccentricities to foreign ties. Theresa May used the argument repeatedly. It comes straight from the right-wing populist playbook: blaming the ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’ of the intellectual classes for popular discontent, thus distracting attention from the activities – and great wealth – of financial elites, and the negative impact on ordinary citizens of private equity takeovers and the tax avoidance.

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Are policy motions at Conference too long?

All active Liberal Democrats know that the messages you write on a leaflet have to be clear and short.  So why when we come to party conferences do we insist on debating motions which are astonishingly long and complex?  I challenge most attendees at party conferences on whether they have read through the full texts of all the motions.

I have just ploughed through 1,000 words of a motion for Spring Conference on an issue I care strongly about – having already read the much longer and more detailed policy paper to which it relates.  What we want from conference motions is the equivalent of an executive summary – the headlines of our detailed policies, brief and clear enough to be put on the back of our leaflets, ideally: 3-400 words at most.   But the established style of LibDem policy motions is far longer and more intricate.

The crush of business in the Lords has made me acutely aware of the need for brevity and focus in making speeches.  A generation ago peers (and MPs) were permitted to luxuriate through lengthy speeches of 20-30 minutes; in Victorian times Parliament would listen to speeches of an hour or more.  Now we have ‘advisory timings’ of 3-6 minutes in many debates, with 10-12 minutes for front-bench speeches.  I’ve therefore had to learn to count the number of words in a draft carefully, to prioritise points and to cut out things I would like to add but are only of secondary importance. At around 130 words spoken a minute, 1,000 words takes between seven and eight minutes to deliver in a speech – twice as long as the conference chairs are likely to offer someone from the floor.

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William Wallace writes: Can we campaign on local democracy

One of the assumptions of political campaigning is that voters are not interested in political machinery.  Schools, hospitals, trains and buses, yes: Councils, regional authorities, elected mayors and voting systems, no.  But have we now reached a point where this has changed, where it might even help us to include in this year’s local election campaigning arguments for stronger local authorities and less dictation from Westminster?

In the much-delayed Levelling-Up White Paper Michael Gove has promised ‘devolution’: by which he means imposing elected mayors, with limited local scrutiny, on most urban areas that haven’t yet accepted them, and ‘governors’ on rural counties.  Governors are what empires send out to keep distant districts under control, while money and power remain at the centre.  Ministerial treatment of almost all elected mayors except Ben Houchem (Teeside’s Tory mayor) has been patronising – expected to do Whitehall’s bidding and be grateful for the Packages of money they are offered.  Michael Gove treats even Andy Street and Andy Burnham with disdain; Grant Shapps has attacked Tracey Brabin and Dan Jarvis (West and South Yorkshire mayors) as ‘irrational’ for their criticisms of the Integrated Rail Strategy.

This Tory government is irrationally against public service (and public servants) in general, and autonomous local authorities running local services close to ordinary people in particular.  One of the many scandals of the past 3 years is Johnson’s instinctive preference for outsourcing companies to run Test and Trace when the pandemic erupted, ignoring the public health officers with their established local knowledge and contacts across the country – who would have organised a better scheme at a fraction of the vast among of money paid out to these multinational firms.  Education is micro-managed from Whitehall, in partnership with academy chains, with intermittent attention to what local parents want.  ‘Levelling Up’ is packaged as hand-outs from the centre, with competitive bids and ministerial discretion to favour places with Conservative MPs.

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Who will deliver on Levelling Up?

Apart from the rumbling crisis developing around No.10 and the Prime Minister’s behaviour, the launch of the Levelling Up White Paper will be one of the defining moments between now and the next election.  Already delayed by disagreements within government, it’s now promised by the end of January.   If it’s a damp squib, deflating the hopes of voters in ‘red wall’ seats that Boris and Brexit would transform the poorer towns and cities of England, many of those seats will be lost again next time.

Many Conservatives cling to what cynics call ‘hanging basket’ levelling up: offering money in small packets to tidy up town centres, to bring back local pride and confidence.  Over 100 packages of funding are now on offer, through competitive bids biased in favour of Conservative-held and target seats.  Local authorities are spending money they can ill-afford writing bids for sums as little as £250,000 a time.  The maldistribution of levelling-up funds is a scandal in the making. 5 of the 10 most deprived LAs – Blackpool, Knowsley, Sandwell, Hackney and Barking – have reportedly received none; most other LAs have received far less than they have lost in core funding since 2016-17.

Gove would like to be more financially expansive – but the Treasury and Tory right-wingers are resisting. In his model central government will remain firmly in control.  This government distrusts local democracy.  Gove has talked of power for directly-elected mayors for cities, and ‘governors’ for counties, under central government direction, with a sharp reduction in numbers of councillors and local scrutiny.

The Liberal Democrat response needs to be robust.  The scale of the challenge of reducing regional and individual inequalities in the UK is such that it needs a long-term commitment to investment in a linked group of policies: education, from pre-school to FE, infrastructure and transport, local innovation and regeneration, and the revival of local public services.   The budgetary cost will require higher taxes, fairly distributed and carefully justified.  The need for consistency over 10-20 years means that an effort must be made to build some cross-party consensus, so that it will continue through changes of government.  And it MUST be led by local government, locally accountable – not dribbled down in penny packages by ministers and officials in London.

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What a mess! The Brexit fiasco

Brexit has not been done. There never was an oven-ready deal. Whatever Johnson thought was ready for the oven is now burnt to a cinder.

It’s time to use ridicule to explain how this UKIP-Tory government has made such a mess of Brexit. Five and a half years since the Brexit referendum, and Liz Truss has just become the sixth minister in charge of getting Brexit done. The public are beginning to understand that Johnson did not have a clue what sort of Brexit he wanted when he was campaigning to leave and is now struggling to come to terms with the failure to deliver.

A succession of incompetent ministers have attempted to reconcile the Leave campaign’s contradictory objectives. We started with David Davis – who went to meetings with Michel Barnier without any briefing papers. He lasted nearly two years as Brexit secretary. Olly Robbins did most of the work, reporting to Theresa May, against a backdrop of hostile briefings from Tory MPs. Dominic Raab picked up the poisoned chalice when Davis and Johnson resigned over May’s Chequers package. He lasted four months, a period distinguished only by his admission that he had not understood how important the port of Dover was.

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Tax to invest, or cut taxes to neglect?

The weekend media have been full again of Rishi Sunak’s promise to return to tax cuts before the next election: cutting income tax and VAT further to win over – as Conservatives hope – wavering voters. But is it possible that the majority of voters would now prefer good public services, and targeted spending on long-term projects, to tax cuts that will squeeze public services further?

Martin Wolf in the Financial Times the other week argued that ‘we have to accept higher taxes to fund health and social care’, pointing out that the UK is still a modest spender on health compared to similar states. But it’s not just health that needs investment. The ‘Levelling Up’ agenda implies a generational commitment to higher investment in education, infrastructure, and economic innovation in the UK’s poorer regions. ‘Red wall’ seats the Conservatives won in 2019 will be lost again if all that happens is a trickle of money for specific local projects.

The contradiction between Sunak’s fiscal austerity and Johnson’s and Gove’s grand ideas about levelling up is becoming the deepest fault-line within the Conservative government, and a major threat to its credibility. November’s announcement of cutbacks in investment for northern rail was greeted across the region as a betrayal of promises to promote economic revival.

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Liberalism and Freedom of Speech in universities

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill moves slowly through Parliament, Liberal Democrats are having to grapple with contested assumptions about freedom of speech and its limits. This is a culture war bill. The polarization of American politics is seeping into Britain. Britain has become a far more liberal society over the past 50 years. We must resist attempts to push the clock back.

The Bill starts from the assertion that universities are incapable of defending free speech. It asserts that a new ‘free speech champion’ and a new right to sue universities are required to restore this freedom for those (staff, students, or visitors) who claim to have been denied the right to speak. It follows Policy Exchange papers, and articles in right-wing papers, that assert that university staff are now overwhelmingly left-wing, that they indoctrinate their students, and that academic culture has a chilling effect on staff who hold divergent views.

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Bending the Constitution: can we make this a campaigning issue?

Austin Mitchell, a wonderfully maverick Labour MP, once described the British constitution as ‘whatever the government can get away with.’. A government with a big Commons majority can get away with a lot, so long as the polls remain in its favour. This government, above all this prime minister, has got away with a great deal so far, and intends to push its advantage a good deal further through changes in law and electoral regulation now before Parliament. As one of his Eton teachers remarked, Boris Johnson does not think that rules and conventions apply to him.

Press commentators have noted …

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William Wallace writes…Promises of tax cuts deny reality

Rishi Sunak reassured the Conservative Party conference on Monday: ‘Yes, I want tax cuts,’ though not until public finances have been ‘put back on a sustainable footing.’ That’s code for cutting public expenditure and public investment. The substantial proportion of Conservative MPs who believe in a small state repeatedly call for tax cuts without saying where they would cut spending. IN committing to balancing the budget Sunak is committing himself to cutting spending as well – or breaking the manifesto pledge not to raise taxes again. He will be well aware that Republican Administrations in the USA have repeatedly run rising deficits as they cut taxes but failed to cut spending.

Liberal Democrats should resist any temptation to criticise the Conservatives for raising taxes. We should condemn them vigorously for raising taxes unfairly – for hitting lower-paid workers through raising National Insurance while sparing higher earners. Fair taxation has to be progressive taxation, oriented to take more from those who have more. The UK is more sharply unequal in terms of both income and wealth than almost all other developed democracies except the USA. Repeating ‘give us tax cuts and a smaller state’ sweeps aside the social and economic challenges that the UK faces.

Like other developed democracies, we have a rising number of elderly people drawing pensions and using health and other public services. We have cut public spending on education and training well below comparable countries, with results that are apparent in our shortage of skills. We have invested too little in housing and public infrastructure for decades. Transition to a more sustainable economy, including moving toward net zero carbon emissions, will require major public as well as private investment. The UK has also invested much less in scientific research and development than other leading states. Boris Johnson has promised to make us ‘a scientific superpower’, but has not yet explained how that will be funded.

And then there is ‘Levelling Up’, which is becoming the defining measure of Johnsonian government – and the likeliest source of public disillusion at the gap between easy promises and poor delivery. Long-term reduction of regional inequalities cannot be achieved without higher investment in education, local as well as long-distance transport, the revival of local government and public services, housing and local enterprise. That’s a huge agenda, reversing decades of neglect by successive government, and requires a sustained increase in public spending.

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Lord William Wallace writes….News from the front of the Culture War

It’s worth reading the right-wing media to try to understand where the policies our opponents are advancing come from. In the Sunday Telegraph some weekends ago Simon Heffer was encouraging Michael Gove to continue to fight ‘the Blob’, which for Heffer includes the staff of the NHS as well as school and university teachers, most civil servants and others in the public sector, theatres, museums and charities, the BBC (of course), and the clergy of the Church of England – a large chunk of our population, possibly even a majority of its university graduates. On September 26th Eric Kaufmann warned the Telegraph’s elderly readers that ‘Britain’s education system and cultural institutions have succeeded in shaping the worldview of millenials, which will make conservatism unelectable.’ The task for Conservatives is therefore ‘to change the direction of the culture’ before too many young people have been indoctrinated by ‘woke’ radicals.

Robert Shrimsley’s Op-Ed in the Financial Times in July was headlined ‘Tory culture war is fight for a new establishment.’ He notes that ideological Tories realise that ‘the Conservatives have lost the establishment and with it many of the shapers of society’s values’. He adds the judiciary and big business to their perceived progressive ‘blob’. He discerns ‘an attempt to create an alternative establishment, … that much of what happens in society happens outside of government and in places where conservatives feel outnumbered.’

The struggle to regain ground stretches from reorienting the BBC, through reshaping cultural institutions through public appointments, to bringing Britain’s universities under tighter control. The appointment of Nadine Dorries as Culture Secretary demonstrates that public appointments will be a central focus for coming battles. The next chairs of OFCOM, of the Charity Commission, of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others will be chosen with careful regard to their ‘anti-woke’ stance. The Equalities Commission and the Office for Students have already been reoriented; British Museum trusteeships have been fought over, and other similar bodies closely examined.

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How does the UK finance ‘Building Back Better’?

If the UK ‘s economy and society are to recover from the shock of the COVID pandemic, the damage inflicted by Brexit and the after-effects of several years of austerity, it needs a long-term increase in public investment. Boris Johnson has promised to ‘level up’ Britain’s poorer cities and towns, to ‘Build Back Better’ after Brexit and COVID, and to tackle the costs of social care. The Brexit campaign promised to spend more on the NHS. British chairmanship of the Climate Conference in November will risk embarrassing failure unless our government commits to an ambitious programme to move towards Net Zero.

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Libertarians and Liberals

The difference between Liberals and Libertarians is that Liberals position liberty within community: the limits on individual freedom are set by consideration for others.  (In this Liberals follow J. S. Mill, Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and many others.)  Libertarians reject the idea that individuals are rooted in communities.  They are for individual freedom without qualification.  For them the pursuit of individual self-interest provides the dynamic for economic growth and personal freedom; state interference only limits both.

Reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought out these differences in British politics.  Liberals have regretted the emergency powers that government has resorted to, but recognised that the situation required extraordinary measures.  We have focussed on accountability for measures imposed, limits on how long they would last for, and a preference for voluntary compliance where possible.  Libertarians, inside the government, writing for the Telegraph and sitting on the Conservative back-benches, have resisted lockdown when the evidence strongly supported it, have refused to wear masks whenever and wherever they can, and have urged the government to put the economy first and social considerations last.  The exaggerated rhetoric from the Tory right has touched hysteria.   William Wragg, currently Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, recently declared that the restrictions of lockdown were an “abomination” that “you’d expect in a Communist country.”  (I hope the Hazel Grove Liberal Democrats will keep that quotation for future use.)

Boris Johnson, you may remember, was heard to have claimed that the success of the Oxford team that developed the Astra Zeneca vaccine was driven by ‘greed’.  He thus swept away the possibility that scientists and doctors might be driven by concepts of public service rather than a simple desire to get rich.  It’s notable that so many of those who dominate the Conservative Party have made their careers in high finance: a world in which large egos make for success and considerations of social responsibility are secondary at best.  Saj Javid, one of the most successful self-made men in the Conservative Party, spent several years working for Chase Manhattan in New York, before becoming a director of Deutsche Bank International.  He has spoken of his agreement with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose influence on libertarian Republicans rested on her celebration of the selfish individualism of dynamic men.

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Politics and gardening

Politics and gardening don’t easily mix. I remember ruefully discussing this with Councillor Stuart Galton as I was giving out the prizes at a West Yorkshire Allotments event years ago.  Long before that, Ian Stuart said it to Helen and me in 1973, standing in our spare room and looking at what we had just achieved in our Manchester garden after two years of limited political activity (triggered by discontent with Jeremy Thorpe’s leadership and the drift within the party).  He’d moved in for the duration of the Manchester Exchange by-election, where our good friend and university colleague Michael Steed was candidate.

Several weeks of campaigning, with a succession of Young Liberals sleeping on our floor, did for the garden for the rest of that year.  Reviving the Manchester Liberal Party, with Helen becoming chair and me agreeing to become candidate for the Moss Side constituency, through two general elections in the spring and autumn of 1974, ruined our garden for the next year as well (and threatened to ruin our careers).  When we moved to London, we restored a neglected garden, planted several fruit trees and even kept hens.  But then I stood again for a Yorkshire constituency through two elections, the fruit trees grew too large and the weeds invaded the vegetable patch.

Local elections present the greatest challenge to the political gardener.  Just when you should be planting out vegetable seedlings, watering devotedly, and keeping spring weeds down, there are leaflets to deliver and doors to knock on.  Miss that stage in the gardening year, and you will be struggling to catch up for months afterwards.  A by-election in June or July is as dangerous a distraction: weeds proliferating everywhere, and the peak of the soft-fruit season, with picking, processing and freezing to be done before everything becomes overripe or the birds eat them.

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Academic freedom and its enemies

On Monday 12th July the Commons will debate the 2nd Reading of the Higher Education (Academic Freedom) Bill.  This Bill, which closely follows the recommendations of two Policy Exchange papers and of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, provides for the Office for Students (OfS) to regulate and enforce rules on free speech within universities, and establishes the new post of ‘Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’ in the OfS.  It gives students, staff and visiting speakers the right to sue universities and student unions for alleged breaches of free speech, with fines to be imposed.  The OfS may also impose penalties.

This is a culture war bill.  The evidence that threats to free speech in universities are greater now than they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago is thin.  The Policy Exchange papers are heavily dependent on US sources and examples – yet another example of the increasing capture of English Conservative thinking by US Republican ideas.  Gavin Williamson decries an attempt to prevent an ambassador speaking at a university – but my wife as a Young Liberal demonstrated to block the South African Ambassador speaking in Oxford in 1963.  He deplores the withdrawal of an invitation to Amber Rudd by an Oxford student society; but I recall at Manchester University in 1968 students disrupting the Education Secretary when trying to speak at an official university event.

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What’s our approach to ‘Levelling Up’?

Andy Haldane, about to leave the Bank  of England where he has long been its respected chief economist, told the audience at Policy Exchange, the Conservative think tank, on Monday June 28th that ‘Levelling Up’ should now be the central issue in our domestic politics.  That’s a radical statement, which should make Liberal Democrats think carefully about how we develop our response to this challenge.

Haldane pointed out that there are only two EU member states where inequality between the richest and poorest regions are as high as in the UK: Romania and Poland.  He noted how economic (and social) imbalances across the UK have widened over the past 30-40 years.   He did not add (though Liberals would underline) that gross inequalities undermine social order and democratic government.  His broad agenda includes investing in education and skills, encouraging local enterprise and innovation, and a far larger British Business Bank, in addition to improving transport infrastructure and housing.  And he emphasised that this agenda cannot simply be directed from the centre: it requires regional and local initiative, with substantial powers and finance devolved.

On Tuesday Sir Michael Marmot issued his latest report on regional and local inequalities, focussing primarily on England’s North-West. This further spelt out the gulf between the wealthiest and poorest in our society, including the wide differences in health and life expectancy between prosperous and deprived communities.  His agenda for change is similar to Haldane’s: investment in education, local public services, job creation and housing, in addition to the government’s current plans for improved infrastructure.  ‘We need to spend for future generations’, Marmot told the BBC.

Boris Johnson promised to level up Britain – and to ‘Build Back Better’ after the pandemic – without defining what that meant or how it would be paid for.  Others, outside partisan politics, are now spelling out what will be required if the promise is to be fulfilled.  Polls show that many who voted Leave five years ago saw Brexit as the opportunity to rebuild British industry (blaming the EU for globalization, foreign takeovers and technological change).  They also show that Johnson’s rhetoric on levelling up resounded with voters in ‘red wall’ seats.

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Should Liberals still believe in ‘free trade’?

Commitment to free trade has been one of the core elements of British liberalism for nearly 200 years.  It went along with peace through open borders and shared prosperity, with opposition to aristocratic landowners and cheap food for the working man.  There’s a picture of John Bright (joint founder with Richard Cobden of the Anti-Corn Law League) in my living room, inherited from my wife’s Liberal forebears.

The economic liberals who left the Liberal Party in the late 1950s to set up the Institute of Economic Affairs still do believe.  For them it’s an article of faith as much as their commitment to a smaller state and a deregulated economy.  Liz Truss, a student liberal transformed into an ideological free marketeer, is celebrating the conclusion of the UK-Australia Trade Agreement and promising more deals to reduce tariffs and lower regulatory barriers. Our party press office has criticised her for neglecting the interests of British farmers – not something that Bright or Cobden would ever have said.

But trade isn’t as simple as it was.

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Why levelling up is not just a challenge for the Conservatives

The pledge to ‘level up’ the left behind parts of England is key to what happens in English politics over the next 3-5 years and beyond (I say ‘English’ politics because the dominant political issues in the four nations of the UK seem to be diverging). Boris Johnson’s promises to revive the towns and industrial communities of northern and coastal England have raised expectations, and won votes and seats. But even if he calls an election early in 2023 he will need to have demonstrated that commitment in increased expenditure to retain many of the votes won over in 2019.

The difficulty of reconciling this promise with the Conservative ideology of low taxes and a constant squeeze on public expenditure has just been demonstrated by the refusal to accept Sir Kevan Collins’s estimate of the scale of investment need in schools to catch up with years of neglect capped by 18 months of pandemic. £50 per pupil, offset by a reduction in the pupil premium, presents ‘an undervaluation of the importance of education’, Collins declared as he resigned.

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Liberalism and Constitutional Democracy

The UK is sliding into a major constitutional crisis. The future of the Union itself presents the most immediate issue, with rising discontent in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. And Johnson’s casual dismissal of the conventions of constitutional behaviour, his insistence that as ‘the people’s government’ (on 43.5% of the national vote in December 2019) he and his ministers can push back parliamentary scrutiny and sweep aside reasoned criticism, is taking us down the road from liberal democracy to authoritarian rule.

Right-wing think tanks call this ‘post-liberalism’ – a kinder concept than authoritarian populism. Constitutional, deliberative democracy is at the heart of liberalism. Liberal philosophy in Britain grew out of the civil war and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, arguing for limited government, parliamentary and judicial checks on executive power, and toleration of dissenting opinions. The 19th century Liberal Party fought for home rule (devolution), elected local government and successive widening of voting rights, and education, for citizens. Minority rights, civil liberties, power spread as widely as possible rather than concentrated in Westminster and Whitehall, have been central to liberal campaigns over generations.

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Lord William Wallace writes…Defending liberal values from wealthy reactionaries

The owners of five of the six English football clubs which they planned to hive off into an American-style Super-League are classic ‘people from anywhere’: three Americans, a Gulf sheikh and a Russian who made billions out of the post-Soviet free-for-all of privatisation. But neither David Goodhart, who popularised the distinction between ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’ in his post-Brexit book, The Road to Somewhere: the populist revolt and the future of politics, nor Theresa May, who adopted the phrase in fighting the 2017 election, meant offshore billionaires by it. They were putting the blame for the loss of a sense of local community and national solidarity on ‘the liberal elite’: people like you and me.

Liberals are too nice, and too optimistic about reasoned argument, to fight back against the cynical campaigners of the hard right. Pluto-populism, in the USA and in England, has seen hedge-funders and offshore financiers fund populist politicians to discredit political moderates, telling those left behind by globalisation or confused by rapid social and economic change that it’s the intellectual classes who are to blame, not those who’ve made most money out of the disruption. Now that the public are beginning to learn about the close and murky links between right-wing politicians and casino capitalism, we need to work harder to undermine the credibility of their narrative.

I’ve just re-read Goodhart’s book. It’s astonishing that he pays so little attention to economic globalisation as a factor in creating popular disorientation. He blames social liberalisation, the expansion of university education and its inherently ‘liberal and international ethos’, and the espousal of ‘progressive causes’ like minority rights for popular disorientation. Nothing is said about the disappearance of local industries and banks, the enthusiasm with which free market ideologues sold off national assets to Gulf state wealth funds, Chinese state companies, and private equity speculators.

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Lord William Wallace writes… Working within an unreformed Westminster

The Liberal Government took the first step in reforming the House of Lords in 1910-11. Since then it’s been hard work to push constitutional reform further. Life peerages were introduced in the 1950s, creating a House of over 1000 members in which, as one Tory woman life peer once told me, ‘the hereditaries treat us like day boys’ in a public school.

Tony Blair realised that a frontal approach to Lords reform would tie up his government for months, and negotiated a partial further reform with Lord Cranborne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, behind William Hague’s back (and with Paddy Ashdown’s support). Under this, most hereditaries were withdrawn; the exempted 92 were presented as hostages until a full reform towards a directly or indirectly elected House was achieved, at some point within the next 10-15 years.

When the coalition government was formed, the Liberal Democrats demanded that the next stage of Lords reform should be included. I was the minister responsible for taking the issue further in the Lords, against the resistance of Tory, Labour and many cross-bench peers. Backbench Conservatives in the Commons refused to vote for a timetable motion on the Lords reform bill, threatening to delay other government business for months while arguments rolled on. If Labour had given active support, the Bill would have succeeded; but, as so often, Labour preferred to stick with the old rules of two party politics, and the Bill failed. My hopes of standing for the regional elections for the second chamber as a candidate in Yorkshire sank with it.

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Linking the Test and Trace scandal to local election campaigning

Conservatives despise local government.  English local authorities have been starved of funds since the coalition government began, with a sharper downward curve since 2015. The one-size fits-all model of elected mayors has been imposed on successive ‘city regions’ – in the case of Yorkshire, against the settled preference of almost all the local authorities in the region.  Worst of all, ministers bypassed local authorities when the pandemic struck, ignoring local public health officers and the local knowledge that councillors and staff embody, and spending huge amounts of money on contracts with outsourcing companies. When Russian spies poisoned the Skripals Salisbury’s public health officer efficiently led the complex response.  But ministers ignored that lesson when COVID-19 struck.

The Test and Trace scandal is potentially one of the worst that Britain has suffered since the war.  £37bn has been committed over two years, with £23bn spent so far.  Let’s put that into context.  The total estimated cost of renewing the UK’s nuclear deterrent is £30bn..  The Department of Transport’s annual budget for England in 2020-21 is £16.6bn.    £23bn is almost 10% of the annual central government transfer to local authorities, spent on a project that local authorities could have provided for a fraction of the cost.  We do not yet know how much excess profit the contractors made, but we do know that the scheme has so far been less effective than in comparable countries – and that it would have been more effective, as well as far less expensive, if it had been run by local government.

Remember all those volunteers who came forward – and who were often ignored?  And those small companies that offered to provide PPE for local hospitals, whose proposals were forwarded to central government and then left unanswered?  It’s a mark of how far the careerists who run today’s Conservative Party are from politics on the ground that it did not occur to them to use the resources of local government and communities rather than exorbitant consultants and multinational companies.

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William Wallace writes: The contradictions of ‘Global Britain’

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A year ago Boris Johnson promised that his government would undertake the most fundamental review of the UK’s international priorities since the end of the Cold War.   He promised that this would be the biggest review of our foreign, defence and development policy since the end of the Cold War, designed to maximise our influence and integrate all the strands of our international efforts.

Next Tuesday, March 16th, the first part of this ‘Integrated Review of Foreign and Security Policy’ will be published – several months later than planned.  Changes in those responsible haven’t helped: David Frost was made national security adviser, then threatened to resign, then became instead the Cabinet minister for (mis)handling relations with the EU.  Dominic Raab was distracted by the messy business of putting the FCO and the Department for International Development (DfID) together.  The Prime Minister as usual wasn’t thinking things through.  We expect a smoothly-written essay on ‘Global Britain’, without much detail on what that means in practice.  The implications for defence manpower and resources will appear in a separate paper two weeks later.

Johnson has rhapsodised on ‘Global Britain’, without ever explaining what exactly that implied.  Freed from the constraints of the EU, he saw Britain recovering its ‘buccaneering spirit’; he seems unaware that the buccaneers were licensed pirates.  He’s been ecstatic about sending a carrier task force past Singapore to the South China Sea, though he never explained what the strategy behind that would be.  Tory think-tanks have produced reports on ‘the tilt to the Indo-Pacific’, which others have labelled ‘the tilt away from Europe’.

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Defending Liberalism from the culture warriors

‘Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it. Strengthen it. Renew it.’ President Biden said that in his virtual address to the Munich Security Conference last week. He was talking explicitly about threats to Democracy across the world, but implicitly also about the threats within the United States. We should worry that liberal Democracy, open society and constitutional government are not to be taken for granted in Britain, either.

None of us should under-estimate the extent to which the US Republican Right has effectively colonised the Conservative Party. Our right-wing media takes its cue from American campaigns – on culture, free markets, ‘family values’, suspicion of government as such. Tory MPs interact with US politicians and think-tankers far more than with conservatives across the Channel. Funds flow into the UK from right-wing US foundations, companies and lobbies, supporting similar groups and promoting like-minded causes over here. The denigration of liberalism that grips the American right is echoed in London seminars on ‘post liberalism and endless attacks on Britain’s allegedly ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ – by well-connected and well-paid Conservative intellectuals who live in London themselves.

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Data strategy and digital identity

The Conservative Government promised to produce a White Paper on its ‘National Data Strategy’ before the end of 2020 – one of the many initiatives shelved or delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.  But digital issues offer both enormous economic benefits and considerable social and political risks, and technological innovation is opening up new advantages and dangers as time passes.  

Now that the UK has left the EU, there are divided opinions within our government about staying close to its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or loosening its restrictions to make it easier for security services to investigate and entrepreneurs to innovate.  So Liberal Democrat data scientists are looking at the issues raised and providing (much needed and welcome) advice to our parliamentary party.

Rob Davidson and an informal group associated with ALDES (the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists) have prepared a note on Digital Identity.  The current debate is far removed from the old concept of a national Identity Card, centrally-run by the government.  Many of us have had to prove identity, producing our driver’s licenses to prove our age, rattling off our NIC numbers, even paying notaries for verified copies of our passports to satisfy bank queries: using government-issued identifiers to satisfy private demands.  Poorer people don’t have passports, and a declining number now have driving licenses, so find it harder to prove age, credit or status.  

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Post-Brexit political campaigning

Brexit is not over. Nor have the Liberal Democrats given up on the issue – nor should you.  Ed Davey and others have taken the tactical decision that the campaigning priority now should be on the government’s incompetence across the board.  The Conservatives now ‘own’ Brexit, and are struggling with the consequences of sacrificing free access for the illusion of sovereignty.  They would love us to come out at once for rejoining: that would allow them to return to blaming ‘remoaners’ for somehow sabotaging Brexit, and avoid having to explain how they got us into this mess.

Voters are tired and confused by bitter arguments over the EU.  A clear majority now recognise the costs, and consider leaving a mistake; but there is not yet widespread support for trying to rejoin a month after we left.  Better for us immediately to focus on the detailed implications, issue by issue, and let voters come to terms with the painful reality of losing easy access to our neighbours’ countries and markets.

The Times on 21st January reported that the highly effective letter from professional musicians it had published the day before, which had led the Culture Secretary to retreat from his previously unhelpful position on future reciprocal EU working permits, had been ‘organised by the Liberal Democrats’ (thanks to our DCMS team, with Paul Strasburger in the lead on this).  Alastair Carmichael has been vocal in support of the fishermen now unable to transport and sell their fish in continental markets.  Jenny Randerson is campaigning in support of hauliers struggling with delays and paperwork.  Your parliamentary team are now stirring on the petty decision to deny the EU Representative in London diplomatic status: a gesture that will delight European Research Group MPs, but lose further good will among EU governments.

Much of what is now going wrong was perfectly obvious from the start of the Brexit negotiations, but denied by the hard Brexiteers who voted down Theresa May’s less minimalist deal and pushed for ‘sovereignty’ at the cost of all other considerations.  It may well get worse.  It won’t help us to say ‘We told you so’ to voters who are beginning to change their minds.  Better to help those adversely affected challenge the government on why it misled them on the consequences of Brexit.

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How fragile is our democracy?

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“Democracy is precious.  Democracy is fragile.” – Joe Biden reminded us in his inauguration speech. The ceremony was a cheering celebration of constitutional democracy, with the three branches of the federal government interacting to mark the change of administration.

British democracy remains fragile, without much prospect of strengthening its institutions or healing its divisions before the 2024 election.  Our prime minister wields executive ‘prerogative’ powers inherited from the Tudor and Stuart monarchies.  The queen appointed Boris Johnson prime minister, a day before Parliament rose for its summer recess.  He then attempted to prevent Parliament from sitting for an extended period, to allow himself to govern without scrutiny.  And, of course, he, many of his MPs and the right-wing press labelled the Supreme Court ‘the enemy of the people’ for ruling that he lacked the prerogative authority to do so.

The Vote Leave campaign fought the 2016 referendum with the cry of restoring parliamentary sovereignty.  Johnson scarcely conceals his contempt for Parliament and its scrutiny: whipping his backbenchers to support whatever ministers propose, pushing through bills which allow ministers to fill in the details later (under what are called ‘Henry VIII powers’), and packing friends, relations and donors into the Lords.  Ministers insist that the 43.5% vote they received last year represented ‘the will of the people’. Local government continues to be weakened, starved of funds, bypassed by contracts given to consultancies and outsourcing companies.  No wonder so many voters are disillusioned and alienated from conventional politics.  Ministers are also trying to bully the Electoral Commission, and to raise spending limits for campaigns to favour their well-funded party.

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Johnson IS Britain’s Trump

The Conservative Party is now racing to disassociate itself from the US Republican Party and Donald Trump. In the Times on January 8th James Forsyth did his best to argue that Boris Johnson was a very different politician from Trump. But he did not deny that the political, personal and financial links between the American Right and the British Conservatives have been growing closer for many years, and that right-wing foundations and think tanks in the USA have worked hard to infiltrate British Conservatism.

This first struck me many years ago, when at Heathrow at the beginning of a short parliamentary recess and waiting for a plane to Washington (full disclosure: I was going to a conference sponsored by the German Marshall Fund and the Transatlantic Policy Forum). There were over a dozen Conservative MPs boarding alongside me, none of them foreign policy specialists, going to a Heritage Foundation conference and to meet Republican Congressmen and advisers.

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Building back neglected communities

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Behind the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the EU, and the (mis)management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the question of how to revive the towns and cities of the north of England (and its other marginal communities) will loom in 2021 as one of the key issues in UK politics.  Resentment of industrial decline, followed by cuts in funding for local government, education and transport, fuelled support first for leaving the EU and then for deserting Labour.  Boris Johnson has pledged to invest in bringing prosperity back to former industrial communities.  Keir Starmer is feeling his way towards regaining their support, more by embracing their conservative values than promising massive spending.  But what do Liberal Democrats have to offer them?

This raises existential problems for all three parties.  Johnson’s promises imply a larger state, with higher taxes, engaging in rebuilding local and regional economies – anathema to the small-state libertarians who now crowd the Conservative backbenches.  Starmer is struggling to reconcile the metropolitan liberals who provide much of his activist base with the social nostalgia these communities cling to.  But we, too, are a party of university towns and graduates, liberals in the widest sense: we cannot follow Starmer in attempting to embrace rediscovered ‘working class values’, which in any case many of the younger generation in such communities do not share.

We do however have determined local activists in many of these neglected communities, with hopes of winning local elections in May or June.  So what should our platform be, consistent with our values?  Can we make the future of local democracy itself an issue that will appeal?  The Conservatives clearly despise local government: their preference for awarding contracts to multinational companies rather than partnering with local authorities to handle responses to the pandemic has been an expensive disaster. Bullying local government on school closures has been as bad.  Moving bits of central departments to ‘red wall’ seats while keeping power in London is a poor substitute for devolving power.  But we need to think carefully how best to present a case for stronger local government and less direction from London, if we want to win over discontented voters.

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