Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

UBI, a new social contract and citizen identity

We can’t avoid facing up to the issue of citizen identity – the visibility or invisibility of citizens to the state, the impact of the digital transformation on the collection, retention and integration of public data, and the safeguards that need to be built in to prevent its abuse. The private sector has already moved a long way down that path. A thriving sector of data scientists now works on aspects of personal verification: of age (for access to adult content online, for purchases of alcohol, for concessions for pensioners), financial status and probity, confirmation of qualifications and certification of address.

The government has been behind the curve on these developments since the Government Digital Service’s ‘Verify’ proposals ran into resistance six years ago – from Whitehall Departments unwilling and unauthorised to share data, and from Conservative ministers dithering between a private-public partnership and the hope of making a profit from access to public data. That’s leaving significant groups of citizens and residents increasingly excluded, as both government and private sector move online.

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Lord William Wallace writes…Winning the argument on higher taxes

We need to focus on how we handle issues of taxation.  Opinion polls now show, for the first time in decades, that more voters favour raising taxes than cutting them.  That does not mean, of course, that such a majority is in favour of themselves paying more tax; there’s a natural tendency to support increases that fall on others, above all on the richest.  

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it was evident that the UK’s tax base was too low.  An ageing population, low levels of public and private investment, salaries in the public sector kept lower than in the private, local government, schools, hospitals, prisons and police all strapped for funds, all indicated the need for higher public spending.    The massive public spending which the pandemic is requiring – and will continue to require for months to come – adds to the pressure for an overall increase in taxation.

This is an existential issue for the libertarian right, strongly entrenched in the Conservative Party and its associated think tanks.  The mantra of the Taxpayers Alliance, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), and others is that it’s impossible in the UK to raise more than 40% of GDP in tax, at most, and that for the economy to flourish public spending should be reduced to around 35%.   Their aim, of course, is to curb public spending by reducing public revenue.  Rishi Sunak has just promised to bring ‘the overwhelming might of the British state’ to bear on the pandemic and its economic legacy, in his speech to the virtual Conservative conference.  That’s anathema to his party’s right-wing.

The Institute of Economic Affairs has just published a new briefing paper which addresses the COVID-19 debt burden, the UK’s problem of low productivity, and recommends – deregulation and tax cuts, rather than increased investment in education and training for our workforce and in public infrastructure.  I thought the Laffer Curve had been discredited long ago; but the IEA depends on the illusion that cutting taxes increases growth to resolve the contradiction between cutting revenue, promising a balanced budget and raising public spending.

So what should we be saying in this right-wing dominated debate?  Starmer’s Labour is likely to be as cautious about sticking its neck out on this as on Brexit and other issues. Pledging an extra penny on income tax signals our willingness to raise revenue to underwrite higher public spending; behind that our economic team can prepare detailed proposals on other taxes, allowances and charges to support our next manifesto.  Green taxes, capital taxes (including on houses) must also be part of the mix.  If we were still in the EU, we would be coordinating our approach to the high-tech tax-avoiding companies, as well.

The IEA argument that a higher level of tax is unsustainable rests on their claim that tax avoidance blocks further revenue.  So we should go for the City of London’s tax avoidance industry, and call for the government to ‘take back control’ of the offshore network of UK dependencies and territories which facilitates its operation.  Germany and the Netherlands support successful mixed economies with levels of public revenue and expenditure several percentage points higher than the UK; so also does Canada, among English-speaking countries.  Many of the Conservative Party’s biggest donors are non-doms or offshore billionaires: we should highlight the close links between leading Conservatives and these major tax avoiders.

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We must fight to recapture the political narrative from the real establishment

One of the classic right-wing populist tricks is to convince voters that they are not part of the elite establishment, and that another group is. Conservative MPs, city bankers, editors of right-wing newspapers, offshore billionaires, are not the establishment: it’s ‘the liberal elite’ who are the corrupt and arrogant establishment, against whom Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and their fellows have been defending ‘the people’.

Charles Moore was attacking the establishment in the Spectator the other week. That’s a former editor of the Daily Telegraph (when he was Boris Johnson’s boss), educated at Eton and Cambridge, now appointed to the Lords, but nevertheless claiming to be on the side of ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. Howard Flight, a director of various city financial companies and a former Conservative MP, launched a bitter attack on the establishment in a speech in the Lords – apparently believing that he is an anti-establishment figure. David Goodhart (son of a wealthy Conservative MP, Etonian) is launching his new book, Head, Hand, Heart: the struggle for dignity and status in the 21st Century at Policy Exchange, the largest and most influential right-wing think tank, generously funded by anonymous British and foreign donors. He argues that the liberal elite’s meritocratic dominance has deprived care workers, bus drivers, factory and supermarket staff of their dignity and status.

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William Wallace writes: Active citizenship

The Financial Times is the most politically liberal national newspaper – sadly, read only by a fraction of those who get the Daily MailMartin Wolf’s ‘Big Read: the New Social Contract’ in the FT of 6th July laid out very clearly the links between active citizenship, stable democracy, and limits to economic inequality:

Citizenship…is the tie that binds people together in a shared endeavour…  In today’s world, citizenship needs to have three aspects: loyalty to democratic political and legal institutions and the values of open debate and tolerance that underpin them; concern for the ability of all fellow citizens to lead a fulfilled life; and the wish to build an economy that allows the citizens and their institutions to flourish.

Liberal Democrats have not been sufficiently vocal about the drift within the UK to passive citizenship and populist central government.  Local democracy has been squeezed; civic education is minimal; political campaigning is increasingly dominated by well-financed professional advisers.

But Wolf is concerned to analyse the economic factors behind the decline in democratic activism and open debate.  He notes the decline of the skilled working class with the collapse of the UK’s industrial base, the importance of education in gaining employment and worthwhile incomes in the post-industrial economy,  and the consequent widening gap between rich and poor.  He also underlines ‘the inordinate growth of finance’, ‘the decline of competition’ and increasing corporate tax avoidance as banks and corporations have consolidated and exploited offshore loopholes.  The result has been ‘a strong sense of unfairness’ in our society (and in other countries), and the exploitation of ‘coalitions of the disaffected’ by populist groups.

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Ditchley Lecture – Saturday, June 27th

Democracies can die. We’re witnessing authoritarian governments elsewhere in Europe undermining judicial independence, manipulating media, limiting parliamentary scrutiny of government actions and hobbling opposition activities. It couldn’t happen in Britain, could it? Are you sure?

Commitment to open society, toleration of diverse opinions and opposition, and effective checks and balances on government, are core elements in political liberalism. Constitutional and limited government was also a core element in Edmund Burke’s concept of Conservatism. Constitutional Clubs in English towns institutionalised the association between Conservative values and our unwritten conventions. But the government we have now has thrown much of that side of Conservatism away.

Michael Gove’s long and carefully-prepared Ditchley lecture, on Saturday, June 27th, had a populist and authoritarian tone. ‘This government was elected on the basis that it would be different from its predecessors’ – from Theresa May’s government as well as the rest. As David Frost explained in a similar lecture four months ago, the majority that Boris Johnson won last December (of seats, but not of course of votes) has given them the mandate to reject the Brexit package May was negotiating, and insist on a hard defence of the UK’s sovereignty from European influence. Gove sees this government as representing ‘the people’ – explicitly, the ‘forgotten’ people who provided the majority in 2016 – against the metropolitan elite: the ‘somewheres’ against the ‘anywheres’ (he quotes David Goodhart) who ‘tend to have different social and political values from other citizens.’

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The Johnson Government and democracy

Today’s Conservatives have a very crude idea of democracy, and no concept of local democracy at all. Those who watched the government’s daily press conference on June 11th will have heard Matt Hancock appeal to British citizens to do their ‘civic duty’ by observing their government’s latest revision of the rules for social distancing. He then went on to welcome the new test and tracing system, and thank Serco and Sitel for the part they had played in setting it up.

I had watched successive scientists commenting on the days before about the unavoidably local basis of …

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William Wallace writes: The next coalition?

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Rather than beating ourselves up about the record of the 2010 Coalition, we should be thinking about how we would handle the next one.  In the 2019 election campaign our leader promoted the fantasy that we could sweep into government, in spite of our structurally-hostile electoral system, on our own.  Look forward to the 2022-4 general election, and contemplate its possible outcomes: a Labour landslide, overcoming their 124-seat deficit to gain a clear majority on their own (a huge mountain to climb); a continuing Conservative majority, smaller than now; or a no-majority parliament, in which we and other ‘minority parties’ would have to decide how to negotiate for stable government to continue.

If no party won a majority of seats, most of our current members would instinctively prefer to support or join with the Labour Party in constructing an alternative to near-permanent Conservative government.  But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that this would be significantly easier than working with the Conservatives.

We’ve tried Lib/Lab cooperation three times in my political lifetime. After the 1964 election, when Harold Wilson’s majority was marginal and support for Labour shaky, Jo Grimond offered outside support. Wilson responded with warm words.  But when opinion polls turned up for Labour, Wilson famously mocked the Liberals in his speech to the Labour conference, campaigned for a decisive majority, and in the 1966 election ended Grimond’s hopes for a ‘realignment of the left.’

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Over-centralisation and the response to Covid-19

England would have managed its response to the Covid-19 epidemic better if our local government had been stronger, and encouraged to play a larger role. Liberal Democrats should now be arguing, even more vigorously than usual, that over-centralization leads to failure on the ground.

The first wave of testing centres was outsourced by the government, through a non-competitive contracting process, to one of our largest consultancy firms. The consultants’ understanding of regional and local geography was evidently limited, and their assumption that all health workers would have their own cars and would be willing to drive long distances for several …

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William Wallace writes: Capitalism and tax

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In case you missed it, the Times  on April 20th carried an article in its Business section entitled Business must adopt a new social contract as we reinvent capitalism (£).  It was by Jimmy McLoughlin, who was a Downing Street SPAD from 2016-19.  That’s right: a self-declared ‘free market Conservative’ who advised both Theresa May and Boris Johnson has now said, on his return from a visiting fellowship at Stanford University, that

It is time for a new social contract between business, government and society.

The business pages of both the Times and the Financial Times in recent weeks have become increasingly radical: sharp criticisms of executives taking bonuses while laying off workers, of opaque offshore accounting methods concealing the ownership of properties and companies, of the absence of coherent business leadership during this crisis.  A government which dismissed the CBI as a ‘remoaner’ organization is now hoping that the appointment of a new director-general will revitalise the organization.  Three years after Economists for Britain suggested that we could do without a significant manufacturing sector, ‘Made in Britain’ has become a vocal part of the current debate.

McLoughlin’s list of changes in approach that are needed includes the proposal, anathema until now for the small-state think tanks of the right, that “business needs to suggest where taxes will rise.”  He calls for businesses to play a stronger and more visible role in their local communities, to build closer links between business and academia, and to support greater ‘cross-pollination’ between universities and government through a British version of American White House Fellowships. He accepts that opinion polls now show declining trust in private business, and that the capitalist model needs ‘to go through its most drastic reinvention.’

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Review: Future Politics

Beyond the coronavirus emergency, other major issues need attention.  Whether we like it or not, the digital revolution is transforming our economy, our society, and our political life.

Our party contains many committed privacy activists, and a heartening number of data scientists, to inform our debate.  One of the several LibDem data scientists I’ve recently met lent me Jamie Susskind’s weighty volume on Future Politics: living together in a world transformed by tech, published 18 months ago (thank you Samie Dorgham).

It’s a very ambitious book, ranging from Aristotle and J.S. Mill to Tim Berners Lee and Silicon Valley.  Its central message is that ‘the threats to liberty are unprecedented’, but that active engagement by principled defenders of an open society can hold in check ‘the supercharged state’ and the private monopolists of the internet.

He details examples of the rapid spread of misinformation on social media, and of ‘the engineering of consent’ through detailed targeting of voters.  Well-funded professionals – political technologists, as the Russians call them – can shape public perceptions.  He explores the algorithmic injustice that flows from incomplete data (often leaving out marginal groups) and (often unconscious) bias.

The billionaires of the digital revolution are almost all white, male and American, displaying varying degrees of naivety or arrogance about the impact of their networks on political and social life.  Women, ethnic minorities, black and Asian faces, are all under-recognised.  When algorithms are refined through machine learning,  repeatedly analysing accumulated data, social injustice accumulates as well.

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Conservatism and nationalism

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Some anecdotes throw sharp light on underlying realities.  Nick Timothy’s reflections on his experience as a fiercely loyal adviser to Theresa May as Home Secretary and Prime Minister, Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism (just published) provides a classic example.  After the uncertain outcome of the 2017 election, May told Timothy and his equally fierce colleague Fiona Hill, “The donors think you ought to go”, and fired them both.  She didn’t say that she thought they should go, or the Cabinet, or the party chairman, or the parliamentary party: the donors were the key voice and influence.

Money counts in British politics.  It counts much more than it used to, because the Conservatives have found ways of getting round the rules loosely monitored by the Electoral Commission, in using the resources of its professional HQ to influence constituency campaigns, through paid-for mailings, targeted social media, etc..  LibDem and Labour activists have heavily outnumbered Conservatives on the streets and doorsteps; but the Conservative machine has enormously outspent us.

When British politics returns to something like normality, we will press in Parliament for a tightening of the rules on campaign spending – and press for the suppressed report on Russian interference (and funding) in British politics to be published.  But the Conservatives have a strong interest in resisting rule changes, even as they move to redraw constituency boundaries to entrench their advantages.

Liberal Democrats are too nice to turn back the attacks our opponents direct at us.  Right-wing media and political ‘technologists’ have created a popular image of ‘the liberal elite’ as a powerful establishment which lacks the gut loyalty to Britain that Tory nationalists claim as their own.  Theresa May’s version of this, borrowed from David Goodhart, was that the liberal elite are ‘citizens of nowhere’, dismissing the small-town rootedness of the ‘citizens of somewhere’, who regret the pace of change and the swamping of English traditions and values by globalization and immigration.

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Lord William Wallace writes …The impact of the coronavirus epidemic on British political debate

By the time we come out of the Coronavirus epidemic, the context of British politics may well look very different.  It’s hard yet to tell how far the dominant narratives will have changed, but some shifts are already occurring – many positive for Liberals, some not so easy to adjust to.  Positive changes include:-

  • Recognition that government is a complex, and constitutional, process, not a matter for populist slogans. Boris Johnson on March 16th said that Britain’s strength as ‘a mature liberal democracy’ was that we could manage to bring together broad national consent to difficult measures to combat the epidemic.  That’s a phrase he would never have used 3 months ago, when he was talking of ‘the will of the people’ and ‘people versus Parliament’.  This will make it harder for Right-wingers to push through the curbs on parliamentary and judicial scrutiny they hoped for through the planned commission on the constitution.
  • The libertarian drive to shrink government is over. The PM accepts that active government is essential, including economic planning and industrial strategy.  6 months ago Rishi Sunak was repeating the Taxpayers Alliance mantra that there’s a ‘natural’ ceiling to government revenue and spending at around 37% of GNP.  Now he’s become a full-blown Keynesian, mobilising public spending to support economy and society.
  • International cooperation has trumped nationalist assertion. Viruses don’t respect national sovereignty; sharing information with other governments, their health services and research laboratories, are self-evidently needed to combat the pandemic.  Johnson’s conversion here is reluctant and incomplete; he’s still committed to leaving the European Medicines Agency (risking delay in access to new drugs) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (set up with UK support in the wake of the Sars epidemic).  But we can mobilise this argument against our Vote Leave government.
  • Experts have regained the government’s (and the public’s?) respect. The PM has to listen to the Chief Medical Officer and others, and restrain his instinct to crack jokes about serious and complex topics.  Experts are ‘the liberal elite’ whom populists denigrate, who look at evidence rather than gut instincts.
  • The idea of ‘the public interest’ is back; and of civil servants as working for the public, national interest.
  • Public service broadcasting is demonstrating why it’s a national asset. The BBC is a trusted source of information, and a link between political leaders and public in a crisis – something that the USA lacks and is suffering from.
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William Wallace writes … Liberalism is under attack

Liberalism is under attack. It’s time to defend its principles; and I hope that Ed Davey will lead the charge at our Spring conference next week. As Rob Davidson wrote on LibDem Voice last week, ‘liberalism and liberal democracy is facing an existential threat’ – both in England and globally.

Most Liberals do not read the Spectator, the Telegraph or Standpoint, which portray an alternative intellectual universe, in which conservatives decry ‘the liberal elite’, against which they stand for community and nation. A network of well-funded think tanks, with close links to neo-conservative think tanks in Washington, reinforces this blend of nationalist nostalgia, assumptions of Anglo-Saxon transatlantic affinity, cultural reaction and anti-Muslim prejudice: the Taxpayers Alliance, Policy Exchange, the Henry Jackson Society and others, with combined budgets larger than our party’s central income.

Repetition of the claim that Britain’s elite is liberal, and that these well-funded researchers, their rich backers in the City and offshore and the government which they support are insurgents against the dominant and corrupting liberalism of our society, feeds populist resentment. It supports attacks on the BBC as inherently left-wing, on universities and academics as having lost “the faith of the nation in some critical areas” (to quote a new Policy Exchange report), on Anglican bishops for failing to defend traditional moral principles as they see them.

Rob Davidson also pointed to the emergence of a global network of self-labelled ‘national conservatives’, strongly supported by right-wing American money, which idolises Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’. The recent ‘NatCon’ conference in Rome, which included a number of British Conservatives, welcomed Orban as a keynote speaker. One of the other speakers told the conference that the current Pope has ‘given up his spiritual role to become political leader of the international left.’ This is the politics of unreason, in which one may even cast doubt on whether the Pope is a Catholic.

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Revisiting Citizen ID

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It’s deeply heretical for a Liberal Democrat to question our long-held opposition to formal verification in the relationship between the citizen and the state.  But there are at least three reasons why Liberal Democrats should now be considering a shift in our long-standing opposition to some form of citizen ID.

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A party of ideas

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The Liberal Democrats, a recent LibDem Voice posting declared, ‘are the party of ideas.’

Except that we’re not very good at spelling them out, or at getting them across in the political debate, at present.  And that leaves us at a major disadvantage in national politics, since few voters and not enough journalists know what we stand for.  ‘Stop Brexit’ has now run out of steam.  Polls show us as credited with a positive approach to climate change, but little more.

When I joined the Liberal Party as a student, 60 years ago, a popular but cruel description was that we were an intellectual think tank, generating ideas that other parties then took over.  It had been true of Beveridge, Keynes, even Lloyd George.

Tudor Jones’s new and excellent intellectual history, The uneven path of British Liberalism, underlines our huge debt to Jo Grimond and those around him, in setting out domestic and international agendas that gave the party a new credibility after a long and incoherent decline.  His articulation of our internationalist approach, and its foundation in cooperation with our neighbours instead of nostalgia for empire and global status, still stands against the ‘global Britain’ illusions of Brexiters.  His domestic priorities – local democracy, mutuals and cooperatives as providers of public services, local enterprise and active citizenship – are less well remembered.

We have a great many new members who buzz with ideas about policy, from harnessing technology to rebuilding public trust in democracy.  But we lack the resources at the centre to bring them together.  In the gentle and amateurish politics of the 1960s party leaders had time to sit down with intellectuals and discuss ideas.  (Grimond was wonderful at that, with students as much as professors and expert journalists.)  In the 24-hour news round today our small band of MPs are fighting for coverage on passing issues, with limited time to step back and reflect.  And our small policy staff necessarily focus on parliamentary priorities, and on the slow collective processes of policy development managed by the Federal Policy Committee.

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Lord William Wallace writes…We should welcome a Constitutional Commission, and do everything we can to influence it

The 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised that ‘in our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission…to look at the broader aspects of our constitution.’   The Queen’s Speech confirmed that promise.  We should welcome this with both hands, and use it to challenge the government’s agenda with our own. 

Boris Johnson wants to reassert executive power against parliament.  The manifesto’s criticism of ‘the failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit’ shows impatience with criticism and debate.  Dominic Cummings wants to cut through the cautious policy-making of the civil service and impose radical changes to central government.  Right-wing think tanks have attacked judicial review and the Supreme Court.  He manifesto wants to maintain our current voting system, but tighten up on postal voting and voter identification.  We have a very different agenda – but a Commission will give us the opportunity to press our case against theirs.

The British constitution desperately needs critical examination and reform.  Johnson has broken several of its accepted conventions, and now that he has a majority wants to break more.  Popular alienation from Westminster politics is widespread. The Tories’ manifesto promise that ‘we will ensure…that every vote counts the same’ refers to redrawing constituency boundaries, not to any adjustment of the voting system.  Liberal Democrats, along with any NGOs, have called for a constitutional convention.  We’re not being offered exactly what we want – but we should grab hold of what is on offer and do our utmost to reshape the government’s assumptions.

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Lord William Wallace writes… Labour and the Liberal Democrats

Labour at Westminster is angry with the Liberal Democrats. They were – several Labour peers have insisted – moving slowly towards accepting that there would have to be a confirmatory referendum. And they felt that Boris Johnson would end up with no other way out than to accept such a referendum. And now, they complain, we have ‘given’ the Conservatives the election they want.

Don’t fall for this Labour narrative, if you hear it from a Labour activist near you. Their underlying fear is that they are in no state to win an early election, so the …

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Review: Official Secrets – and contemporary parallels

Go to see ‘Official Secrets’.  It will remind you of the hard choices Liberals have to make in swimming against the tide of the received wisdom of the public debate.  And it will remind you that we stuck out our necks, against the received wisdom of almost the entire media, both the main parties, and much expert opinion, in challenging the case for the Iraq war.

The film is about Katharine Gun, a GCHQ employee with doubts about the drift towards the invasion of Iraq, who leaks (to the Observer) a memo from the US National Security Agency requesting material on representatives of states on the UN Security Council that could be covertly used to pressure them into supporting the US motion to authorise the use of force against Saddam Hussein.  It follows the subsequent investigation, her arrest, the involvement of Liberty in her defence, and after a lengthy delay the government abandonment of her prosecution on the first day of the trial.  There is much detail on the pursuit of reliable counter-evidence to contest the government’s case, the interaction between journalists and lawyers in London and Washington, and the uncovering of information on how advice to our government on the legal case for intervention had been altered under pressure from the US Administration and No.10.  

It’s well constructed; it links the personal tensions and agonies with the wider political context.  Several well-known living people are portrayed – some more sympathetically than others.  Good triumphs in the end, after much skulduggery.

It’s easy to forget how risky we felt it to be at that time for us to contest the dominant narrative of weapons of mass destruction and a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qu’aida.  The film shows even the Observer editor and many of its senior staff resisting the plausibility of covert efforts to fix UN authorization and evidence being twisted.  I remember going with Ming Campbell  to a briefing, on ‘Privy Council terms’, from two very senior intelligence officials, and having afterwards to assess how far we had been persuaded by their presentation.  Charles Kennedy had to resist strong pressure from Blair’s government, and weigh up the costs of being attacked by most of the press against the case for refusing to accept the government’s rationale for war.   We stuck our necks out, without complete confidence that we knew what was happening; but our instincts proved right.

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Review: The Wolves in the Forest, tackling inequality in the 21st Century

The relationship between liberty and inequality is one of the central tensions in liberal philosophy – and one of the defining lines between economic and social liberalism.  So it’s highly appropriate that the Social Liberal Forum have published a collection of essays on this theme (edited by Paul Hindley and Gordon Lishman), taking its title from Lloyd George’s promise when presenting his ‘People’s Budget’ that there would be a time when ‘poverty…will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests.’

Peter Hain contributes a sharply-worded essay on the Liberal Democrat record in the coalition, accusing us of abandoning the legacies of Keynes and Beveridge, though recognising that the previous Labour government had also failed to challenge the conventional wisdom of ‘mainstream economics’.  Other contributors reclaim Keynes, and Hobhouse, as major Liberal thinkers.  Paul Hindley insists that ‘individual liberty cannot exist without social justice’; and adds that the distinction between social democracy and social liberalism is that the latter are committed to spreading power as well as wealth.  Gordon Lishman reminds us that spreading power and status at work is also a long-held Liberal theme – badly neglected in recent years.  Robert Brown notes that a Liberal citizen community must be politically and economically inclusive: ‘People must feel they have a stake in society.’

Several contributions explore the different dimensions of inequality – from Britain’s sharp differences in regional prosperity to wide gaps in educational provision and social aspiration, to continuing inequalities for women and for ethnic minorities.  James Sandbach traces the differential impact of cuts in legal aid and access to justice on already-disadvantaged citizens; Chris Bowers argues that poorer people suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation.

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Lord William Wallace writes… Brexit endgame?

This feels like the endgame for Brexit – and quite possibly for Boris Johnson. Briefings in Sunday papers on how the prime minister will refuse to resign when Parliament next votes him down – remember, he hasn’t won a single vote yet – to force the Queen to dissolve Parliament and let him fight an election on the ‘betrayal’ of Brexit suggest that he doesn’t expect the latest negotiations to succeed, and doesn’t know how to evade the terms of the Benn ‘Surrender’ Act.

The tactical judgement of Johnson’s advisers is that they can win an election on these terms, …

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Lord William Wallace writes: How do we renew our battered democracy?

This is as huge a constitutional crisis as anyone could imagine. A Prime Minister without a parliamentary majority has attempted to avoid parliamentary scrutiny by closing Parliament for all but the last two weeks before we are due to leave the EU, with or without a deal.

The Supreme Court has defended the sovereignty of Parliament against a Prime Minister who lacks a parliamentary majority. Lady Hale’s judgement was very firm: ‘the effect on the fundamental democracy of our country is extreme’. Parliamentary accountability – the continuing process of dialogue and scrutiny of government policy – is ‘at the heart …

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William Wallace writes: As seen from Westminster

Parliament is back – and humming with rumours of plots about hijacking the order paper, conversations with disillusioned Conservatives, and speculation about when the election will get under way.

Outside (on Tuesday afternoon, and into the evening) there are hundreds of demonstrators, the overwhelming majority of them opposed to Brexit.  The arrival of the Yorkshire for Europe group, marching behind a tuba down the middle of the road, was a highlight for me; but when I went out to greet them I found Devon for Europe flags, a piper playing the Ode to joy on his bagpipes, and sustained chanting of ‘Stop the Coup’ all round the media on Abingdon Green.

The Remainers are a happier crowd than the minority of Brexiters, which makes a definite impression on those who come in and out of Westminster: threats, shouted claims of conspiracy, placards reading ‘Traitors in Parliament’ don’t win wavering hearts and minds.

Inside it’s impossible to say what will happen from one hour to the next.  We have welcomed Philip Lee crossing the floor to become the sixteenth Liberal Democrat MP in this Parliament – and wonder if there may yet be one or two more to follow in the days that remain before prorogation.  The Prime Minister looked rattled at times in answering questions on the G7 Statement on Tuesday afternoon: more like the stand-up comic that he should have been than the statesman that he aspires to become. I’ve talked in the corridors with MPs and peers of both the ‘old’ parties, who are as consumed by the situation as everyone else.  I found one Conservative I knew and liked struggling between his conscience and his loyalty to his party.  I was happily surprised to find a Labour MP already thinking about some form of informal arrangements at local or regjonal level if it comes to an early election.

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Lord William Wallace writes….Boris Johnson think rules don’t apply to him

We now face a really nasty government, hell-bent on leaving the EU without a deal.  What Boris Johnson described only weeks ago as ‘a million-to-one chance’ has now become the central planning assumption for No.10.  Johnson’s airy language about a rapid re-negotiation has evaporated; he has refused to visit even Dublin, and has made no effort to talk directly to prime ministers he casually offended when he was foreign secretary. He is focussing instead on blaming the EU for refusing to accept the UK’s demand to drop the ‘Irish backstop’, even though the British government has no alternative workable proposals on how to manage the Irish border after Brexit.  He and his advisers calculate that, in a slickly-presented election campaign, enough British voters might blame foreigners to carry this right-wing version of Conservatism back into office, without looking too closely at its own contradictions.

On top of this, our new government is threatening a constitutional crisis.  Briefings by No.10 staffers remind journalists that the expectation that a Prime Minister will resign in the event of losing a vote of no confidence ‘is only a convention’.  The British constitution is built on conventions, and on the expectation that honourable politicians will observe them. But Boris Johnson is not an honourable politician.  On resigning from Theresa May’s government, he broke several clauses of the ministerial code: the Daily Telegraph announced he would be resuming his handsomely-paid column three days after he resigned, in defiance of the code’s requirements to wait a month before accepting other posts, to consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before doing so, and not to announce the move until the committee had pronounced.  As an Etonian master commented, Boris Johnson does not think that rules need apply to him – even constitutional rules.

This is a Vote Leave government, not a Conservative one.  The appointment of Dominic Cummings as chief of staff, and the recruitment of special advisers from the 2016 campaign team and from the clutch of interconnected right-wing think-tanks grouped around the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Institute of Economic Affairs, makes its ideological direction clear.  During the Vote Leave campaign several Conservative MPs tried to remove Cummings and Matthew Elliott (previously the director of the Taxpayers Alliance) as campaign directors: they saw off the plotters successfully.  Cummings despises most politicians – including Ian Duncan Smith, whom he served as director of strategy for 9 months before resigning, labelling the then-Conservative leader ‘incompetent’.  He has referred to the European Research Group of MPs as ‘useful idiots’, and no doubt considers the opportunists in the Cabinet who have hung onto Johnson’s coat-tails – Matthew Hancock, Grant Shapps, Amber Rudd – to be worse than that.

Close ideological and financial links with the libertarian right within the USA are evident.  Liz Truss, the former Young Liberal who has now embraced free market libertarianism, spent part of her ministerial visit to Washington last week with the Heritage Foundation and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, learning about deregulation and tax cutting strategies.  Ministers are flowing to North America, rather than to our European neighbours, for consultations on future relationships.  Matthew Elliott has joined the Treasury as special adviser to Sajid Javid – who once claimed that Ayn Rand, the American philosopher of selfish individualism, was his favourite author.

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Lord William Wallace writes….Money, money, money

Liberal Democrats achieve remarkable successes on the foundation of determined campaigning, enthusiasm, and passionate promotion of liberal values.  But money also matters.  And shortage of money, compared to Labour and (above all) the Conservatives, is one of the major obstacles to a political breakthrough.

Last year our federal party raised £6.2m, and spent £6.5m.  That meant some painful cuts in staffing, as well as missed opportunities in media projection, campaigning, and organisation.  Those who complain in commenting on Lib Dem Voice postings that our media team are failing to make the most of our rise in the polls do not know how small our media team is at present, and how wonderfully effective they are for their size.  We could do with a larger leader’s office, a larger policy development team, and a much larger team of regional and field organisers to help and support local activists in their campaigns.  But all that requires money.

Press reports on problems within the Labour Party’s headquarters have noted that Labour has over 400 HQ staff.  Lib Dems currently have 60, working flat out to support the party throughout the country, to service our members, and not least to make sure that we fulfil all our legal obligations as a regulated political organisation.  

Labour had significantly expanded its paid staff between 2016 and 2018, and also doubled the size of its leader’s office – partly on the back of the impressive surge in party membership, which (as reported to the Electoral Commission ) brought in £26m in fees in 2017.  This was still, however, less than a third of its total income.  Fundraising and donations, most importantly from trade unions, brought in £25m, public support for its role as a major opposition party (‘Short’ and ‘Cranborne’ money) brought in £8.5m, and conferences and other events contributed most of the rest.  The slump in Labour’s membership in 2018-19, together with a decline in donations, has now left the party with a widening gap between increased spending and declining income.

The Conservatives are more like a centralised campaigning organisation than a membership-based party.  They declared an income from membership subscriptions in 2017 of only £835,000: that’s a little more than £6 per member on their estimated membership.  They received more in legacies than that.  But the bulk of their income comes from major donors: a total of £30m in donations in 2017, much of it in five- or six-figure sums from a few hundred individuals.  J. C. Bamford, the excavator company chaired by Lord Bamford, is one of its largest donors, giving £1.5m in the three months before the 2017 election.  Labour analysis shows that a high proportion of major Conservative donors are hedge fund managers; others include wealthy Russians, and Middle Eastern millionaires, with homes in London.  EC figures show that the Conservatives received £7.5m between October and December 2018 from 230 donors: more than our entire income last year.

The Brexit Party is a limited company controlled by Nigel Farage.  It reports £2.75m in online donations (each below £500, thus not reportable to the EC) through PayPal in the first half of 2019, as well as several larger donations – including £200,000 from Jeremy Hosking, a City financier who finances a number of right-wing causes.  The Financial Times on July 26th reported that Farage  has just launched ‘World4Brexit’ at an event in New York, attended by leading figures on the hard right of US politics (Peter Thiel, the CEO of PayPal, is a supporter).  Farage is already attacking the Electoral Commission for querying his fund-raising methods, claiming ‘an Establishment stitch-up.’

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Lord William Wallace writes…How do we beat the libertarian, populist right?

Could you envisage putting together ‘an informal alliance of the centre left’ in the (highly possible) run-up to a general election this autumn?  The phrase comes from Labour’s David Blunkett, setting out the case for attempting this in the Mail on Sunday (July 14th). He argues that we face the threat of a parallel informal alliance between the Brexit Party and a Johnson-led Conservative Party, with the Brexit Party not standing in seats held by right-wing Tory Brexiters and focussing their money and efforts on Remain-supporting Labour, LibDem, and nationalist constituencies (and any surviving Conservative Remainers).  This would threaten a landslide of seats won, despite a majority of votes distributed among contending left of centre parties. 

In our cruelly unforgiving electoral system, a campaign in which four parties (now including Farage’s Brexit Party) capture 20-25% of votes each, with Greens and nationalists splintering votes further, could see many seats won on less than 30% of votes cast.  If the Brexit Party were to put up candidates in only selected seats, with an informal alliance with right-wing Tories not to oppose them, it could produce disproportionate gains for those who want not only a hard break with the EU but also to cut taxes and welfare further and shrink the state, while their competing opponents collected wasted votes in separate piles.  Blunkett’s ‘killer fact’ is that, at least on the evidence of recent polling, the combination of Conservative and Brexit support adds up to around 45%, whereas Labour, LibDems and Greens together add up to 47%.

In the surreal atmosphere of current Westminster politics, party loyalties are already crumbling.  One Conservative MP told me the other day, with apparent pride, that his children were now voting Liberal Democrat; one Labour MP did her best to persuade me that the Liberal Democrats had a real chance of winning the two neighbouring seats to her own constituency, and should concentrate their efforts on those rather than her own.  When the Conservatives are polling below 30%, and with Labour falling in some polls below 20%, it concentrates minds.  

We too must adjust our perspectives.  Fighting a Johnson-led Conservative Party and a Corbyn-led Labour Party, we can raise our sights beyond the 60-odd seats we thought we might regain.  One of Labour’s long-term pollsters has just declared support for the LibDems on the grounds, amongst others, that we could well emerge from a messy election as the largest party, with 200 or more seats.  But that still leaves 450 seats we might not be able to win.  What should we do in these?

Any form of cross-party alliance negotiated from the top would be impossibly difficult – whatever David Blunkett might propose.  Labour’s National Executive would never countenance such an arrangement, let alone the ‘common platform’ that Blunkett thinks should underpin it.  My response to Blunkett’s proposal, posted on the ‘Left Foot Forward’ website, has attracted more purist denials and anti-LibDem comments than supporters.  It’s hard enough to negotiate constituency priorities with the Greens: their target seats and high local memberships overlap with ours, so it’s hard for either to give way.  And in many cities and industrial towns, Liberal Democrats are the major opposition to Labour, with hostility on both sides and hopes that we will take seats off them  In Scotland and Wales strong nationalist parties make for further complications – though note that Plaid Cymru has stood down in our favour in Brecon and Radnor, alongside the Greens.

Iain Brodie Browne and I opened a discussion on cooperation with other parties at the Social Liberal Forum conference on July 20th.  Responses varied according to how existential a threat to Britain’s social contract and future prosperity the election of a hard right Tory/Brexit Party majority would present.  Those who see this threat as overriding loyalty to different parties argued that we have to try to strike bargains with other parties and with independents, however difficult it may be.

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Lord William Wallace writes…Fighting for liberal values

Putin has paid us a compliment.  He’s defined politics as a conflict over values, with liberal values as the enemy that authoritarian regimes like his define themselves against.  He’s full-throated in defending autocracy against democracy: government by diktat, authoritarian leader as father figure, leaning on nationalist myths and ‘traditional’ values for legitimacy. A regime underpinned by force, disguising huge gaps between the privileged rich, close to power, and the poor.  Viktor Orban (in Hungary) and other rising authoritarians haven’t yet gone quite so far: he defines his style of government as ‘illiberal democracy’, retaining some of the outer structures of popular participation while bringing media, universities, and much of the economy under state control.

Many 19th century liberals were optimistic about progress and education leading almost inevitably to enlightenment, tolerance of diversity and minorities, the rule of law and an open society.  The 20th century taught liberals that these achievements can never be taken for granted, and have to be promoted and defended by every generation.  And that’s not an easy task: it’s a complicated argument to defend minorities and minority rights, to talk about the importance of law and political processes, when much of the population is more concerned about economic insecurity and more attracted by the easy promises of charismatic populists.

Britain, like many other countries, has made enormous advances in recognising liberal values over the past fifty years – in opportunities and rights for women, in attitudes to ethnic diversity and to sexual and gender diversity.  But the populist appeal to ‘traditional values’ blows a dog whistle against all this.  Populist attacks on ‘elites’, often described as ‘liberal elites’, dismiss reasoned debate in favour of gut feelings.  Michael Gove’s attack on ‘experts’ was an encouragement to the public to follow their guts and stop listening to reason or detailed argument; his efforts to return the teaching of history to ‘the national story’ would have pleased Putin.  Boris Johnson’s campaign is becoming more illiberal by the day. His dismissal of his own party’s reasoned policy on the sugar tax is a classic example of an appeal to prejudice against enlightened self-interest.

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William Wallace writes: Opportunity for Lib Dems as Labour and Conservatives crumble

It’s going to be even more confusing in the next few weeks and months.  Last Sunday Philip Hammond stated clearly that it’s no longer practical for the UK to leave the EU on October 31st, given the further delays caused by the pause for a Conservative leadership election.  A majority has then to be recreated for some sort of agreement, a bill has to pass through the Commons and the Lords, and preparations for implementation by an over-stretched civil service have to be completed.

Michael Gove has now followed Hammond, suggesting that October 31st may not be a hard and fast deadline.  The passion with which other candidates for the Conservative leadership are now pledging that they will produce a rabbit out of the hat and have everything ready in time, come what may, also suggests their anxiety that this is becoming more and more difficult to manage.  

You will have noticed wilder suggestions (from Esther McVey, Dominic Raab and others) that Parliament might somehow be bypassed, that a new Prime Minister would use prerogative powers to prorogue Parliament and let the UK leave without an agreement or a legal framework: executive sovereignty overriding parliamentary sovereignty, flatly contradicting the rhetoric of the Leave campaign.

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Some good news for the Liberal Democrats from Lord Ashcroft

Lord Ashcroft, nowadays a relatively detached observer of British politics, usefully spends some of the money he used to give to the Conservative Party on opinion polling.  He has just published his post-voting analysis of the European elections – and it has some encouraging information for Liberal Democrats.

‘The biggest single chunk of Lib Dem support in the European elections came from 2017 Labour voters (37%), with 31% coming from previous Lib Dems and 24% coming from 2017 Conservatives.’

52% of Conservatives who had switched to voting for the Brexit Party said that they intend to stay with the Brexit Party at the next general election; while…

‘Conservatives who switched to the Lib Dems say they are even more likely to stay put: 61% now say they will vote Lib Dem again at the general election, with only 22% saying they expect to return to the Tories. Overall, only 43% of 2017 Conservative voters who turned out in the European elections say they will vote Tory at the next general election.’

‘Half of Labour-Brexit Party switchers said they expected to stay with their new party at the next general election, with only just a quarter saying they expect to go back to Labour. Just over half (51%) of Labour-Lib Dem switchers currently say they will stay with the Lib Dems. Just over half (56%) of 2017 Labour voters say they will back Jeremy Corbyn’s party for Westminster.’

He doesn’t provide a breakdown of respondents by age, social class or education; and he doesn’t provide comparably detailed information on voters who switched to the Greens, which would have been useful.  But this gives us some useful targets to go for: to hold onto our new voters, through continuing contact, and through getting across to them where we stand on policies other than on Brexit.  

Our leadership campaign should help us to get other policies across, as the media (at last) give us more coverage for a contest likely to be far more constructive and less bloody than the parallel Conservative race.  Both Ed Davey and Jo Swinson have done well in post-European election media comments, and we can hope for more media attention as the other two parties’ agonised arguments over what went wrong spill over.  

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We have to defend open debate and democratic government against fears of dark forces and betrayal

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Most of us never see most of the social media that feeds conspiracy theories about the European Union. As we have all learned, the algorithms operate to feed back to consumers stories that confirm their existing views, not challenge them. When the wilder beliefs filter through into letters to newspapers, the deepest prejudices have often been removed.

A letter in the Yorkshire Post last week, for example, warned of the threat of German domination, and referred to the re-emergence of ‘militarism in Germany’. Anyone who follows German military expenditure will know that German forces are under-equipped and poorly trained, suffer from a budget allocation much smaller than the UK spends on defence, and are rarely deployed. But the anti-Brexit blogosphere, taking its cue from the Bruges Group and other sources, has latched onto German calls for a ‘European army’ – an ill-defined concept that enables them to avoid hard questions about national defence and strategic priorities – and mispresented it as a wicked German plot to conquer us all.

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What should we be campaigning for in the European elections?

So we are almost definitely going to fight the European elections – independently, or in some form of coordination with other Remain-committed parties. But what – beyond ‘Remain’ – should we put forward in our campaign?

First and foremost, we have to make the case for continuing British participation in managing relations among European governments, warts and all. We should not risk getting bogged down in discussions about how to ‘reform’ and improve Europe’s current institutions. They don’t work very well – but neither do our national political institutions, and they work much better than any other international institutions (think WTO, UN) so far created.

Our neighbours across the Channel are our closest partners in almost every way: they are our most important trading partners, they share our democratic values (with some backsliding, but then there’s some of that within the UK as well), they are vital to Britain’s safety and security. Liam Fox may argue that Australia and New Zealand are emotionally much close to Britain than the Netherlands and France – but they are much further away, and much smaller, and we can maintain close relations with them as well as our European neighbours.

Brexiters like Mark Francois wallow in the myths of Britain standing alone in World War Two while those on the other side of the Channel collapsed ‘and we saved them’. We need to go for that myth wherever we hear it. The largest contingent of foreign pilots in the Battle of Britain was from Poland; there were also many Belgian pilots, then and throughout the war. The idea that we can pull Britain away from countries which have been entangled in British history since Roman times, and follow the Trump Administration in the USA and maybe also the Russian government, is absurd.

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