Author Archives: Peter Wrigley

J K Galbraith and the Liberal Society

A friend who hoards his newspapers for years has just passed on to me an interview by Roy Hattersley with JK Galbraith in the latter’s 90th  year (1998)

The article is headlined “Sage of the Century”* and there is no doubt that, after Keynes’s  death, Galbraith  was the pre-eminent economist of the second half twentieth century.  He got most things right (including opposition to the Vietnam War) and many of the issues raised in the interview are as relevant today as they were  a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, having ignored his views provides a good explanation as to why we are now in our present  dire predicament.

The following quotes (in italics) are from the article;

To The Affluent Society we owe the prediction of “private affluence and public squalor.” Which we can see all around us, in spades after the Margaret Thatcher inspired dominance of the inadequately regulated market since 1979.

Galbraith’s first success was his analysis of “The Great Crash” of 1929.  In 1998 he predicted: “A sump will surely happen again, sooner or later. . .they are a normal feature of the market.”  

Well, it did happen again, in 2008 and we are still paying for the consequences.  Keynes was in favour of “animal spirits,”  but I think he had in mind investors in the “real economy” rather than manipulators of the financial markets, allowed to over-reach themselves by Mrs Thatcher’s Big Bang.

“The poor are politically emasculated.  They don’t vote so they don’t have a strong expression in Congress or the White House.”  

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Fighting where we can’t win (yet)

In the coming election the we will be focussing  (sic) on the Blue Wall seats where we have a chance to beat the Tories.  I have no quarrel with that, although it does leave those of us who have spent most of our lives fighting Labour feeling a little bit out in the cold.  I accept that  the priority in this election must be to restore our position in Parliament as the third party.  The penalty of being fourth has become plainly evident in the last nine years when, however sensible and relevant our parliamentarians and spokespersons have been, the media have barely noticed.

However,  if  (when) the prioritising of the Blue Wall  has proved a resounding success, that does not mean the rest of the UK can be neglected.

Liberal Democracy is in danger, not just in this country through the shredding of the “good chaps theory of government” by Johnson and his cronies, but in other parts of the world, not least in part of Europe, South America, and, perhaps most dangerously of all, in the USA.  As one of the nations that has pioneered both Liberalism and Democracy, we, the inheritors of the tradition, have a duty to fight for its survival.

For this reason, I believe it is important to use the coming election, not to attract votes for token candidates of whom the electorate might never hear of again, but to attract activists who are inspired by our values – once they know what they are.

So we should not waste the “free post”  which is the great gift of general election to distribute leaflets excessively highlighting the families, hobbies, virtues and worthiness of our candidates and how they will fight valiantly for the re-gilding of the town-hall clock and other hot local topics.  Rather we need to spell out the values that are fundamental to Liberalism.  I suggest the following five areas.

A Fairer Britain

Britain is one of the most unequal societies in the developed worldAt the top are a few with immense wealth.  At the base children live in poverty though most live in families with at least one working adult, our Health Service is starved of resources and our schools are crumbling and  underfunded, limiting the chances of many for a fulfilling life.  Our care services are totally inadequate.

We are still one of the riches countries in the world, so this is not acceptable.

Liberal Democrats would fund the health, education and care services properly and provide a much more generous social security safety net for those, deserving or not, who  fall through the cracks.

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Growth: We’re there!

I can’t find out when Gandhi said: There is enough for everyone’s need, and not for everyone’s greed,” but it must have been before 1948 because that’s when he died.  Yet, still 80 or so years later, rather than concentrating on better sharing of the world’s munificence, we are still looking for yet more economic growth as a free pass for “enriching” everyone without anybody paying the price.

The measurement of an economy’s growth via its GDP is largely a post 1945 obsession.  When he was the UK’s Chancellor R A Butler alerted us to the fact that, if we could achieve growth at the rate of 3% per year we could double our standard of living in 25 years.  Harold Wilson and the Labour party, in the campaign for the general election of 1964, promised all sorts of wonders, and they wouldn’t cost us a penny: they’d be financed out of growth.

Waring shots about this painless panacea were fired by the Club of Rome and its publication of “The Limits to Growth” in 1972.  The earth’s resources are finite and  more and more production risks poisoning  it .  It’s not a question of “Will the planet survive.” It almost certainly will, but not necessarily life as we know it, or perhaps any life at all.

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Thoughts on “For A Fair Deal”

“For a Fair Deal” is the party’s pre-manifesto policy paper, to be debated at the Brighton Conference. You can read it in full here.

You’d think that, after 13 years of Tory misrule, and with the clowns in charge of the asylum for the past four, an opposition policy paper for the next election would be suffused with anger, outrage and frustration. Instead, this paper, to be discussed at conference, reads like a bland wish-list from some nice people. But, there again, maybe the working party has judged the mood of the electorate better than I. Look …

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Be Prepared

Liberal Democrats did well in the local elections and talk of our holding the balance in the next parliament is in the air.

In this article I don’t wish to argue for or against becoming a partner in the next government, or supporting it with confidence and supply, or commenting from the side-lines.  My purpose is to urge the party to prepare for the possibility and suggest some ground rules which might avoid the disappointments (to put it mildly) which followed from the 2010 arrangement.

They are:

  1. Whatever is offered, and by whom, we should make it clear that we will take

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Something is wrong

I was born in 1937 so lived through the War, though I don’t remember much about it. I suppose I had a deprived childhood in material terms (sweet ration only 2oz a week; second-hand toys, if any; Fair-isle pullover darned at the elbows, short pants patched): but so did everybody else so it didn’t really matter.   I had a loving family and I was never really hungry.

In my post-war formative years my generation was proud of the leading role our country and armed forces had played in defeating fascism, and continued to play as one the “top nations” in founding the UN and establishing an international economic system designed to create a more peaceful and prosperous new world.

We believed our country had, through adventurous exploration and deeds of derring-do, built a worldwide empire which we were now preparing for self-government and independence based on the admired Westminster system as established by the Mother of Parliaments.  Justice, based on Magna Carta, was dispensed with the scales tipped in favour of the defendant. Our universities were internationally admired and, having given the indusial revolution and railways to the world, we continued to be at the forefront of innovation, having discovered penicillin and invented both television and the jet engine. The BBC was a source of impartial information and a vehicle for both light and serious culture and entertainment which was admired throughout the world.

What was not to like?

Yes, I know, that summary contains a lot of rose-coloured simplifications, not least the importance of the part we had played in the defeat of fascism compared with that of others, especially the USSR.  But that was the over-all story as we understood it.

Half a century later the story is different.

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Liberalism or Die

The best definition Liberalism I know was spelled out by Timothy Garton Ash in a Guardian article on 29 November 2004.

Liberalism, properly understood (is) a quest for the greatest possible measure of individual freedom compatible with the freedom of others.

That’s all there is to it if we understand “freedom to” (live and eat decently, get educated, achieve our potential, participate in society, debate our differences in a respectful manner) as well as “freedom “from“ (want, fear, coercion, domination, exploitation).

We now know that Fukuyama was wrong to declare the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy in 1989. It is virtually non-existent in China, and on the back foot in India, severely dented by continuing Trumpism in the USA and populist nationalism in parts of Eastern Europe, and our own government is systematically removing its building blocks in the UK.

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Where next?

It beggars belief that a party led by the most incompetent, lying and self-serving group in modern times can carry not quite all, but most, before it in an election. What are we to do?

First, thank goodness for those who have held back the Tory tide: Labour in Wales, those glorious patches of the UK where Liberal Democrats and Greens have prevailed and, the Scots who remain unimpressed by Tory falsehoods.

But overall the picture is dismal. How can this well-educated and well-informed electorate vote for a group who almost on a daily basis betray all that is decent and honourable about our country?

There are two options. Either there’s something wrong with the electorate or something wrong with the opposition.

Since we cannot “dissolve “ the electorate and find another, indeed it would be pompous and presumptuous to want to do so, we must look to the opposition, including ourselves.

It’s too early to tally all of the votes cast on this Super Thursday, but it is a fair bet that the total number of votes cast of what might loosely be called “progressive forces” (Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and many nationalists) will exceed the votes cast for the Tories.(In the “Landslide election of 2019 which gave Johnson his 80 seat majority, and ignoring the nationalists and others, it was 43% Tories and 46% “Progressive.”)

Either we allow the Tories to use their money, their control of much of the media, and their shameless disregard for truth to hang on to the reins of power for another couple of decades or we get together to stop them.

Yes, I know, this will provoke groans about “siren voices” from some of our stalwarts who have tried to work with Labour and been rebuffed by their self-righteous assumption that Labour and Labour alone have the recipe for the good society and we should get off their patch and let them get on with it.

But it is time to stop mentioning that and look for the possible foundations for a Progressive Alliance.

I believe it would be possible to form a united front under the broad umbrella of Truth, Fairness and Opportunity.

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Trump and Johnson: our unfortunate special relationship

Last Wednesday, 28th October, the Guardian ran one of its rare single topic double column Leaders devoted to an excoriating denunciation of Donald Trump and his Presidency. Here’s a selection of the words and phrases used:

leader least equipped; divided country; not…a fit and proper person; brazen disregard for legal norms; propagated lies and ignorance; cruel and mean; agenda of corporate deregulation; tax giveaways for the rich; narcissist; devastating lack of empathy; growing gap between the level of competence required… and… ability; cronies whose mob-like fealty to their boss; post shame politician; one rule for wealthy elites and another for the

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Public Health England: some questions

In addition to the obvious inadvisability of scrapping and restructuring the nation’s arrangements for maintaining public health in the middle of a pandemic, the creation of the new National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP) opens several cans of worms.

First Public Health England (PHE) itself.  It was created by David Cameron’s government as a result of the Andrew Lansley  “reforms “of the NHS in 2012.  These were hugely controversial, and bitterly opposed by Labour, who saw them as a means to facilitate yet more back-door privatisation of the NHS. Be that as it may, it is, or rather was, a Conservative creation, their own and no-on else’s.  If they think it needs to be scrapped after less than eight years of operation, then this demonstrates that Troy ineptitude is not confined to the current amateurs.

In 2012 we Liberal Democrats were in coalition with the Conservatives, and we voted for these “reforms.”  The decision was not taken easily, and I understand caused great anxiety to our members in the House of Lords, who were eventually won over by the Labour Peer, Lord Warner.  He was a former health minister in the Blair/Brown governments and assured our Lordships that the “reforms” were all right.  It later transpired that Lord Warner had financial interests in BMI healthcare, which owned 54 private hospitals and clinics in the London area.

The problem this episode exposes is that we Liberal Democrats did not then, and do not now, have the financial resources to employ sufficient researchers and experts to give reliable and impartial advice, and often need to rely on tainted advice such as the above.  Along with Proportional Representation, when we next have influence on the government we need to include the adequate and independent financing of political parties so that all parties have the resources to subject the government of the day to informed scrutiny.

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Say no to HS2

I suspect a lot of leading Liberal Democrats have been railway buffs from childhood and will be appalled at the suggestion that the HS2 scheme might be scrapped. I am not a railway buff, though I confess to a brief period as an Iain Allen train spotter.

However, way back in 2014 a fellow Liberal Democrat, Quentin Macdonald, moved a resolution at our Yorkshire and Humberside Region annual conference which proposed what seemed to me a very convincing, and much less costly, alternative which he had developed with another railway expert, Colin Elliff. This they called High Speed UK. It had a much higher degree of connectivity with the existing network than HS2, hence being of much greater value to a whole series of northern towns and cities, rather than just Birmingham, and, if the links ever get built, Manchester, Liverpool, Wigan, Sheffield and Leeds and York.

Details of the scheme can be found here.

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Public mind manipulation

There’s a report out today  calling for the regulation of targeted political advertising.  I heard this  in a BBC review of the papers, but it isn’t mentioned in theGuardian and  can’t find it on the Internet, so I don’t have the details.

However, this is a serious matter and regulation is urgently needed.  Sadly, it is probably too late to bring in relevant new laws before a snap general election or even another referendum, so it is vitally important for the public to be fully aware of what is going on.

A recent article by Peter Pomerantsev  in the Guardian tells of a world of “dark ads, psy-ops, hacks, bots, soft facts, deep fakes, fake news . . . trolls.”  I don’t pretend to understand what most of these are but they are sent digitally not to the population as a whole, but to carefully targeted audiences.  The target does not necessarily know from whom the message comes, nor who else is receiving it, or an entirely different message.

The result is that the recipients are deceived into believing that there is a consensus of opinion where none actually exists.  Maybe this helps explain the narrow lead for Leave in the 2016 Referendum

Apparently, the person in charge of targeted digital messaging for the Vote Leave campaign i was a Thomas Borwick. According to Pomerantsev:

 the most successful message in getting people out to vote had been about animal rights.  Vote leave argued that the EU was cruel to animals because, for example, it supported farmers in Spain who raise bulls for bullfighting.  And within the “animal rights” segment Borwick could focus (sic) even tighter, sending graphic ads featuring mutilated animals to one type of  voter and more gentle ads with pictures of cuddly sheep, to others.

It’s  a world away from “Question Time” the “Today Programme,” “Newsnight,” election addresses and, indeed,  Focus.  the Tories are said to have earmarked several millions to digital advertising since Mr Johnson became Prime Minister.

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Letter to Vince Cable – UK military action in Syria is not justified

Embed from Getty Images
This letter is in response to Vince’s request for feedback on the Syrian question

Dear Vince Cable,

Thank you for giving we members an opportunity to forward our views to you on the possible military intervention by the UK in Syria.

This is an extremely difficult problem which seems to place us in a lose-lose situation. If we do not intervene we appear to stand by impotently whilst terrible wickedness takes place, including the internationally illegal use of chemical weapons. If we do intervene there is a strong possibility of making a bad situation worse, as has already happened in similar circumstances in Iraq and Libya.

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Agenda 2020 Essay #11: What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today

Editor’s Note: The party is currently running an essay competition for members of the Liberal Democrats, to submit 1000 words on the theme “What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today.” The deadline for contributions is 2nd November. If you would like us to publish your submission, send it to [email protected].

For me, being a Liberal Democrat today implies sympathy with and a willingness to work for the following beliefs.

LIBERTY comes at the top of the list, with the John Stuart Mill constraint that we are free only to do what doesn’t harm others. This means that we value variety, welcome people with different cultures and religions and believe that diversity enriches society.  We resist unjustified and indiscriminate state surveillance into our private lives.  Where the preservation of liberty clashes with our other beliefs, such as equality, then we try to put liberty first.

In the fields of EQUALITY AND WELFARE, we believe that all individuals should be equally valued as human beings.   Hence we believe that the state has the dual function of both preventing some people becoming too rich (by progressive taxation) and providing a generous safety-net for the poor, so that all have the ability to reach their potential and participate fully in the norms of  the one society.    We believe access to a social security safety-net sufficient to secure a decent standard of living is a right.  In the past we have favoured a citizen’s income and may well do so again.

Faith in DEMOCRACY is at the root of our values. Liberals Democrats believe that people can be trusted. (Both Conservatives and Socialists alike believe at heart that we need to be coerced).  We want to see parliamentary reform, so that the people’s representatives have genuine control over the executive; reform of the electoral system by the introduction of proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies; an elected second chamber representative of the nations and regions, to which power will have been devolved; and vital local government.  All political power should be exercised at the lowest possible level.  We are devolvers, not centralisers.

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