Author Archives: Lord William Wallace

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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We need to argue for public investment in neglected UK areas AND a generous international aid budget

It’s not a surprise that a You Gov opinion poll showed 66% of respondents supporting the government’s plans for a ‘temporary’ cut in the foreign aid budget. Spending on foreign aid has been consistently unpopular with the British public for years; when pollsters ask what sector of public spending should be reduced, foreign aid outstrips all others.

Liberal Democrats hold to the argument that supporting overseas development is both a moral obligation and a foreign policy priority. But when we face so strong a negative response, we need to think carefully about how we make the case for development spending. And we need also to understand the bitterness of the ‘left behind’ in the former industrial towns of the Midlands and the North, as public spending has been cut and their local authorities have had to close more and more facilities.

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William Wallace writes…Plutocratic populism

The Anglo-Saxon version of authoritarian populism is ‘plutocratic populism’, or pluto-populism .  A Princeton professor described it, in the Financial Times last week, as ‘consisting of policies that mostly benefit the top 1%, in combination with relentless culture wars which distract from economic ideas’.  Trump is, of course, the model that he and others are describing.  But we have faced a similar phenomenon in the UK, and we need to think carefully about how to combat it here.

Money, media and loose electoral regulation fuel pluto-populism.  The US  Supreme Court’s decision to free political fundraising from the constraints that Democratic Administrations had enacted has entrenched the power of money in US politics.  Right-wing billionaires, benefitting from lax rules on foundations and favourable taxes, fund think tanks and lobbies.  The Murdoch press has also fuelled its rise, above all through Fox News, with its relentless attacks on ‘the liberal elite’, its openness to conspiracy theories and its willingness to support ‘alternative facts.’  Trump rose to political prominence through television, and has exploited social media to consolidate his appeal.

Constraints on spending in British politics have not yet broken down, but in recent elections and in the 2016 Referendum the rules have been successfully bent.  Conservative HQ sent targeted mailings and media messages to marginal seats, not accounted for under constituency expenditure.  Semi-autonomous bodies mounted media campaigns to underpin Tory messages and to influence voters away from other candidates.  Peter Geoghegan, in Democracy for Sale (2020, well worth reading), tells us that ‘College Green Group’, run by the son of a wealthy Tory MP, placed pro-SNP messages in Jo Swinson’s constituency and pro-Labour ones in LibDem target seats in the South-West, as well as similar negative messages in Caroline Lucas’s seat. 

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A critique on the events of today

British politics will hit several crunch points in the next two weeks. If Trump loses the US presidential election, the hopes of the hard-line Brexiters of a fast US-UK trade agreement will be shattered. Moreover, we must reach a minimal trade agreement with the EU, which the government will have to defend against hostile attacks from the right, or we will be faced with a No-Deal departure, with the prospect of chaos and confusion at Channel Ports in the New Year.

It’s taken me a long time to appreciate how deeply the hard-line Brexiters believe in the reality of ‘the Anglosphere’. Liberal Democrats don’t read the Telegraph or the Spectator or attend European Research Group (ERG) meetings, where enthusiasts speak and write about the EU as an ‘Empire’ which has reduced Britain to a ‘colony’ from which we are escaping – to the warm embrace of our cousins in the United States. Australia and New Zealand are also seen as key partners for future Global Britain – with Australians already deeply embedded in Whitehall. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were still a leading force in Washington politics 50 years ago, but not now. UK ministers and right-wing MPs cling to the image of America they had gained through meetings with white Republicans, and seem not to have noticed that Joe Biden is an Irish Catholic, with a mixed-race vice-presidential candidate, neither of whom have an emotional attachment to Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism.

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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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