Opinion: The Opportunity of a Lifetime to “Build Anew, to Build Better”

I watched with some discomfit Nick Clegg and Vince Cable’s Harrogate conference speeches. Discomfit because, whilst there was rhetoric a-plenty about how the economic crisis affords us an opportunity to, indeed demands that we must, build a new order from the very foundations, I can’t help feeling that our policy makers have not even got the keys to the JCBs yet.

Banker-bashing is all very well, and seemed popular at least in the conference hall. Yet just strengthening the new building with high-tensile regulations and restricting openings for excess while leaving the old foundations will miss the biggest opportunity of all: to redesign the very footings of the system behind this crisis and others before it. And it is a system which also underpins the entire divide between those we desire to help, currently eking out their living in the basement, and the fabulous wealth of the penthouses.

Our well-meant policies about redistribution and raising opportunity and aspiration will ultimately be utterly futile without understanding this; realizing that the building’s escalators are running the wrong way. Yes, we can and must assist those are unable to scramble out of the rubble themselves, but we must also level the site before we rebuild if that is to bring permanent benefits.

But unlike previous economic crises, the opportunity this time is not merely to rebuild familiar institutions, but establish an economic structure plan for a world radically different from that which applied in previous melt-downs. A truly globalized world of opportunities for real people; a whole new market paradigm in which we can move freely around the world; trade freely with people directly in other countries; reduce the power and influence of the intermediaries made necessary by the difficulties of communication and commerce in earlier centuries.

These outmoded intermediaries are not just the enormous trans-national corporations some so love to hate, but also the very form and extent of governments and states in which some put so much trust; and the very institutions, such as money itself, that bind them together. Yet this gives us a problem: can we really believe that our politicians, who after all make their careers out of attaining power on the current model, can imagine, let alone implement, what is now so essential?

Total, revolutionary, fundamental reform of our organizational structures to nurture the new, previously unimagined, freedoms and opportunities that could, on a more equitable playing field, be available to individuals right around the world.

It is difficult to imagine; high finance and power politics has always gone hand in hand. The very financial institutions we now excoriate have always been essential on the road to political power. The Federal Reserve system was established by Woodrow Wilson in return for the support of the richest financiers of his day. Yet even he recognized afterwards what a mistake he had made:

I am a most unhappy man. I have unwittingly ruined my country. A great industrial nation is controlled by its system of credit. Our system of credit is concentrated. The growth of the nation, therefore, and all our activities are in the hands of a few men. We have come to be one of the worst ruled, one of the most completely controlled and dominated governments in the civilized world. No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and duress of a small group of dominant men.”

There is not the space here to set down detailed prescriptions; and nor would I put myself forward, as Nick called for, as the new Wren, Keynes or Schuman. But nor do I need to: our liberal luminaries of a century ago knew the fundamental, institutionalized problems that need solving before opportunities for all in a free society can truly emerge. A hundred years later, the great monopolies of land, money and the discretionary power of the state remain largely unchanged, unchallenged. If we miss this opportunity, we will regret it for generations yet to come. But it remains for courageous politicians and thinkers with the most imagination and the most honourable intentions to grasp it.

Can the Liberal Democrats be the ones?

* Jock Coats is a Lib Dem member in Oxford who blogs at Jock’s Place.

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  • I’m with you on the ‘Build anew, Build better’ However – we had better take the finite resources of the planet into account when we build or those foundations are going to be underwater. along with the poor folks living in the Basement.

  • David Morton 16th Mar '09 - 11:23pm

    I’d be very surprised if the party really did come out for a real paradigm shift.

    Of course with over a year to go no one really knows but my working assumption is that we are headed towards a heavy Labour defeat and a Conservative Government with a working majority. If that proves to be the case then the Liberal Democrats will be presented with both a cul-de-sac and a comfort zone. My experience tells me the party is fond of both.

    1. The Cul-de-Sac will be ” can the Liberal Democrats replace Labour ? “. Journalists love process stories and its easy to see a re run of the “Peel Group” strategy of trying to move into another party’s territory while it is weak in opposition. There is more than enough space on the political spectrum for a collectivsist,authoritarian party of the left to survive if not perhaps flourish. Such voters will never be attracted to a liberal party at a parliamentary level but it won’t stop some people trying.

    2. the comfort zone is a Tory government making very unpopular spending cuts and tax rises. Its manna from heaven from a campaigning point of view. The oppertunity of reclaiming fallen southern bastions is to much for mortal flesh to resist.

    Are either the cul de sac and the comfort zone mutually exclusive with a paradigm shift as suggested by Jock ? perhaps not on paper but the party doesn’t have the resources or political capital to do all three at the same time. Delivering the ammount of Focus needed to fight paper based community politics is exhausting.

  • “Delivering the ammount of Focus needed to fight paper based community politics is exhausting.”

    Little the party does campaign-wise constitutes Community Politics.

  • David Morton 17th Mar '09 - 12:41am

    Hywel,I agree. I just thought my post was already sufficently off message!

  • “Managerialism trumps idealism. Plutocracy rules and the foot soldiers of political parties follow quietly. The big ideas are “too difficult”.”

    Or, more likely, “just wrong”. But then, we don’t know, as you haven’t actually said what you want to replace the current system with, other than ‘something better’. You haven’t actually said what your idealism involves, other than free movement of peoples and free trade, seemingly some sort of global version of the EU. Are you advocating global revolution?

  • Ah. A scion of Hayek. Tell me, can you point to any historical occasions where the comprehensive weakenings (within that nation’s legal framework, of course) of the institutions of government have produced a positive outcome? Because I’m looking at Russia, and the picture isn’t good. Closer to home, I’m looking at the FSA, and the picture is similarly bad.

  • Jock,

    My big idea is that our civilisation is probably on the threshold of collapse, due to resource exhaustion and climate destruction. I don’t feel we need any more big ideas, unless they can solve that problem.

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