Tag Archives: liberal democracy

Part 2: If we want to win elections we have to denounce austerity

So I was hesitant to get into ideological discussions but the argument often gets made that even if austerity is unpopular we must defend the small government “Classical Liberal” tradition. That argument needs to be answered- yes there has always been a laissez-faire strand of Liberalism, however, the idea that Liberalism only means small government and free markets is an idea that dates from around 1980.

Liberalism has a quite complicated and wide-ranging history from being initially associated with generosity (as in the word Liberality, a liberal act meant a generous one), to the alternative association of the French revolution (describing someone as a “Liberal” was an insult intended to suggest they were radical revolutionaries, there was no suggestion that Liberals were aiming for small government as such, just that they were anti-monarchist.). Liberalism went on to include large sections of the early Socialist movement, including such hailed Classical Liberals as John Stuart Mill. Early Liberalism was actually not very much to do with economics at all and was more part of the Whig and Republican movements that were about moving from a feudal system to the beginnings of democracy. (I heartily recommend Helena Rosenblatt’s ‘A forgotten history of Liberalism” for more of that story.)

It’s because of these political instincts and aims that when it became clear that unregulated markets were hurting people in the late 19th century Liberals changed policy rather than changing ideology. That’s where the social reforms of Asquith and Lloyd-George came from, leading into the Social Insurance systems of Beverage and the economic theories of Keynes. That’s how the Liberal party ended up to the left of the pre-merger SDP and how the Liberal Democrats ended up to the left of New Labour. It’s not an aberration, it’s just the natural place that Liberalism ended up.

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If we want to win elections we have to denounce austerity

Part 1

“Never point out your own mistakes” seems like a good political maxim, so why should we ignore it on this occasion?

Of course, not everyone agrees that austerity was a mistake at all, and some say we should embrace our coalition record. That would be a monumental mistake. Trying to embrace austerity would be like Labour trying to embrace the Iraq war, it would be untenable.

Many people point out that all the major political parties were pushing austerity at the time: during the coalition Labour boasted that the government had, more or less, kept austerity to the levels Labour suggested. Clearly this wasn’t something the Liberal Democrats were solely responsible for. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mistake though or that no one knew it was a mistake at the time. While it’s true that many economists working for large banks were very clear that government debt was definitely the problem (and noticeably not the banks themselves!) academic economists took a rather different tack- their warnings were clear and broadly, as it turned out, correct. Even the IMF famously chided the coalition for being too reckless with austerity.

Estimates of GDP per household lost due to austerity in the UK vary with from some at £4000 per household and the Oxford economist Simon Wren-Lewis’ guess being more like £10,000 per household. There is no suggestion it did anything positive. (Simon Wren-Lewis’ book ‘The Lies We Were Told’ chronicles this beautifully. Also worth seeing is the recent report from the NEF featured in Bloomberg estimating the cost at £100 billion.) The famous academic paper (by Reinhart and Rogoff) that was used as political cover for austerity in 2010 turned out to be based on a simple maths error and was ultimately disgraced. Traditional macroeconomics won out- if interest rates go to zero, which they did, governments must either increase spending or hold back their own economies- we chose to hold back our economy.

It’s estimated that around 50,000 UK citizens died unnecessarily due to austerity during the coalition with more afterwards. Which is why it sticks in the throat a little when we’re told, and I’ve heard this a few times from more coalition supporting Lib Dems, that the coalition was “the best government since 1945!” I would gently point out that that the post-1945 era includes the Attlee government, which took on the ideas of Keynes and Beverage, both Liberal party members.

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Why be a Liberal Democrat?

My family had a century of Labour Party membership between us. I left after three decades, coming home, intellectually, emotionally and ideologically, by joining the Liberal Democratic Party.

After one year’s membership, as a candidate in a marginal ward, and part of the campaign to re-elect our popular Mayor, I am writing this in ancient Rome. A timely reminder that the name, “potholes” dates from when the Anglo Saxons dug up the clay from Roman roads to make cookware and that the history of ideas matters. In particular that England has been divorcing Europe since Henry VIII. In this context, why be a Liberal Democrat?

The first reason is the need to keep the ideas of Liberalism and Democracy alive. Our broken politics and failing democracy make this challenging. But the twentieth century taught us that the twin evils of totalitarian communism and nationalism will lead to barbarism every time that the freedom, tolerance and rule of law inherent in Liberal Democracy are abandoned. The works of Sir Karl Raymond Popper illustrate why.

In The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society And Its Enemies, Popper shows us that when the pseudo-scientific certainty of authoritarian dictatorship defeats liberalism and social democracy, barbarism is inevitable. He also elucidated the ultimate liberal paradox: freedom of thought and speech is sacrosanct but there must be limits on the actions of the enemies of freedom from the left and right.

Second, we are the true children of the enlightenment. Rational, evidence-based policy is already abundant. Taken together with the philosophy above and coupled with a renewal and extension of democracy will offer the best chance of a progressive hegemony in the twenty-first century.

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Why “Global Britain” must be rooted in our liberal democratic values

The world has changed a lot over the past 30 years, becoming both more open and democratic and more prosperous. Well-being indicators of those most in need, especially in terms of health and education, have improved dramatically. But we still confront tremendous challenges, ranging from climate change to growing inequalities, especially within countries, and from conflict and fragility to migration. In addition, a profound dissatisfaction with liberal democracy and perceptions about the way it works has set in, not only in the developing world but also in countries that have traditionally been considered the cradles of democracy.

So despite the progress, it can often feel like we are confronting the greatest period of uncertainty and instability we have experienced since the second world war. As happened after World War II, the collective problems we face today require collective ways to address them. The United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the European Union itself, are all founded in the experience of what happens when the world fragments. Coming together to create rules-based regional and global communities was the answer in the post-War era. This is why it feels strangely anachronistic for the UK to press on with Brexit now – especially when considering that the EU has been the single most successful multilateral effort of peace- and state building and the promotion of development and prosperity we have known.

Prime Minister May launched the idea of a “Global Britain” in October 2016 to counter fears that the UK would become inward-looking after Brexit. The UK has been a powerful and influential player in the world stage, playing among other things a leading role in shaping the Sustainable Development Goals. But it is also the case that the EU has been a major multiplier for UK development and foreign policy – just as the UK has been a multiplier for EU development and foreign policy – and both risk losing significant leverage. So regardless of whether Britain stays inside or leaves the EU, making “Global Britain” more than a slogan will require sustained leadership and continued investment and engagement in crucial international relationships and commitments, both with(in) the EU and beyond.

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Why aren’t we doing much better?

This week’s damning editorial about current Lib Dem performance and prospects in The New Statesman will have struck a chord amongst many Liberal Democrat supporters and activists. I know that the world is unfair, and that we are mass-media-invisible, but nonetheless our lack of progress has to be a real present worry. Mucking up critical votes on what is supposed to be ‘our’ issue above all – opposition to Brexit – only compounds the sense of drift.

I’m glad that Caron Lindsay thought that Sir Vince Cable was ‘sparkling’ on Pienaar’s Politics recently but I fear that such appearances are not …

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Reform the Reformers – Part 2, Challenges in Updating Liberal Democracy

There are two types of people in this world. Those who divide the world into two types of people, and those who don’t.

The rise of left and right wing populism points reformers towards updating liberal democracy.

The remedies that left and right populists peddle are remarkably similar; one-party regimes, state control of the economy, dismantling the ‘separation of powers’, nationalism, and a rapid increase in state spending.

Less attention, however, is paid to the parallel rise of liberal, pro-democracy parties in government; Canada, Netherlands, South Korea, Malaysia, Ireland and elsewhere.

There are many lessons to be learned from liberal-democratic parties in these countries, …

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Liberal Democrats are the party where everyone belongs

What do Liberal Democrats believe? We strive for a society where everyone belongs and is free to be themselves.

Inclusiveness comes first, because freedom alone is not enough. Liberal Democrats value individual liberty, but at the same time we recognise that none of us can be truly free without the support and consent of everyone around us. And society as a whole is stronger, healthier and happier when everyone is able to play their part. We all win when we work together, while respecting our differences.

This historic Liberal tradition is today a thoroughly modern political philosophy, perfectly in tune with the …

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How long will we continue to ignore the obvious?

The Brexit referendum was a perfect demonstration of what many of us have known for a long time: emotion trumps reason – every time. In the referendum campaign, the Remain campaign mounted a campaign focused on ‘rational’ arguments – largely about the economy. All the visceral emotion was with Leave. It is not surprising Leave prevailed. What is also clear is that anger trumps fear – every time. Angry people are fired up. They rise up to do things – often destructive things. Fear paralyses. People cower in a corner and hope it all goes away.

The prevailing political mood at the moment is one of widespread anger. How should one handle it?

Last night at a political dinner, the view was expressed that what was needed was to try to dampen that anger, show people that they were being unreasonable and irrational and win them over to the moderate, tolerant, open, reasonable and rational values of liberalism. I cannot think of an approach that is more likely to fail than that one. It’s the equivalent of being faced by a furious spouse and responding with “Calm down dear and let’s be reasonable about all this.” We all know how effective that is.

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