Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Homage to Catalonia - and what it means

This article is crossposted from the Radix blog...

Sometimes all you can rely on, to understand some sense of the direction events are taking us in, is a sense of history. As such, it seems pretty clear to me that the way the national authorities behaved over the Catalonia referendum guarantees that Catalonia will eventually secede from Spain.

Perhaps not now, perhaps not for decades, but eventually. What is more, it may also provide enough of a political impetus to other nations-within-nations , like Scotland, to go their own way. When firefighters have to stand between the crowds and the police to protect people, then something will inevitably change.

Nor is this necessarily a bad thing. Centrist politics has tended to be unionist. Liberals have certainly looked askance on every kind of nationalism, except possibly Irish. But something is changing, and I suspect that - among the mix - is a different attitude to economies of scale.

If your whole political system leaned heavily on the justification of economies of scale, then it made sense to subsume the parts in a greater whole. But if you recognise how rapidly economies of scale are overtaken by diseconomies of scale - as most people do now outside government - then the argument for unionism and the old-fashioned concept of nation states begin to unravel, along with all the other prevailing ideas that came along with the age of the assembly line.

I have written before about Freddie Heineken's vision of a Europe of nation states with around eight million people in them, and certainly there are successful nations and city states a good deal smaller than that.

People are frustrated with the sheer ineffectiveness of central governments, so divorced as they are from the real levers of power - which exist at very local and city level, where they exist at all (Sir Keith Joseph used to complain that he had spent his entire career trying to get his hands on these levers, only to find they weren't connected to anything). It maybe that this frustration, combined with the disillusion with the idea of economies of scale, will usher in nationhood - not just for Catalonia, but the Scots, and others. There is a similar referendum in northern Italy shortly.

What is more, if we are radical centrists, there are reasons for suggesting that this maybe a more peaceful, more effective way of governing than the current posturing of nation states and national parliaments. The days of Liberal unionism may be running out. It was after all another expression of the very nationalism it rejected.

But there is one pre-condition for success for this kind of transformation. We must retain the old national umbrellas. Without a continuing role for 'Britain', we risk unleashing the most dangerous kind of intolerant nostalgia. More immediately, we would lose the possibility of rebalancing the separate economies around the old nation, shifting resources from the rich areas in surplus to the poor areas.

If we don't do this, we risk creating a Europe of competing nation states - like G K Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill - with the big poor ones that are left behind battling with the smug small, wealthy ones. It was the lack of this very mechanism across the eureozone which has led, predictably, to the rise of the far right. The European Union could also provide it, but will they? And can they, inside the UK?

That makes revolutionary separatism, of the kind encouraged by the actions of the Spanish government in Catalonia, not just unhelpful, but downright dangerous.

We are nearly due a major shift of the political and economic mainstream - we have one regularly in the UK every 40 years - and it is worth arguing that Brexit and Trump are not the shift. They are more like John the Baptist, bearing witness to the shift. I am wondering whether the real shift, a response to the sheer uselessness and corruption of central governments, may be this radical localism.

I think it will happen, partly thanks to the police in Barcelona. But it needs to be done safely, or will will lead to the kind of bloodshed we saw in Yugoslavia. It has to be done deliberately by enlightened statespeople, slowly, bravely, constitutionally and under the continuing umbrella of the old national identities and their vital economic functions.

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Friday, 29 September 2017

Uber, Amazon and Columbus and the parallels between them

This is a cross post from the Radix blog...

It is almost ten years since the publication of one of my best books (I have to say this myself!). It was called Toward the Setting Sun and it told the interlinked stories of the three men who gave their names to the so-called ‘discovery’ of the New World, Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci.

In the process of writing it, I became convinced that Columbus and Cabot had not just known each other, but had originally been co-conspirators in their great breakthrough – which was really about intellectual property. It was the near-identical contracts, signed by them with the Castillian and English monarchs, which set out how they could protect and profit from their discoveries.

As we know now, of course, they failed to find a new route to the Indies after all. But even so, the percentage they negotiated of all the gold, silver and cod from the places they put on the map would have made them the richest men in history.

The Columbus family’s claims against the contract led to a court case lasting two centuries.

This is also a very modern story because of the ambitions of a handful of mega-rich tech pioneers, behind Google, Amazon and others, who want to cream off a slice of every transaction if they can.

The next couple of decades may well be the story of how humanity prevents them.

There is a head of steam building in the UK behind a challenge, especially to Facebook and Twitter, to take responsibility for what their platform is used for. I have some sympathy with this. If Facebook becomes a conduit for hate or terrorism instructions, then they are not innocent. They have responsibilities. If not them, then who?

The difficulty is that Brexit Britain may not have the influence alone to enforce any kind of settlement. We will see.

So when London’s mayor Sadiq Khan bans Uber from operating in the city, it is not just about Uber – it is a shot across the bows of tech innovators who believe they should have a privileged position over other enterprises, just as Amazon avoids local taxes in the USA.

This is not an anti-technology position to take. I believe in self-employment and disruptive technologies. And if Khan intends to keep Uber out, then he needs to find ways of encouraging other, more co-operative challengers to the over-priced black cabs (it was partly Ken Livingstone’s fault that only bankers can now afford black taxis in London).

But the point is the same. Uber were allowing drivers and others to be exploited. If we are going to have disruptive technology, then for goodness sake let’s find ways of making sure it is owned by those doing the disrupting.

Because truly disruptive technology would not send us right back to the age of robber barons who end up owning us all.

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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Bran the Blessed and Labour's new vulnerability

This post is a version of one published on the Radix blog.

There is a strange piece of British mythology in Geoffrey of Monmouth which I keep being reminded of. The head of Bran the Blessed (as distinct from Brian Blessed) was buried on Tower Hill in London and had a strange power to protect the nation - as long as it stayed put. King Arthur dug it up because he wanted the kudos for protecting the nation himself alone. The result: the Saxon invasion.

I thought of this as I listened with fascination yesterday morning to a slightly blustery interview on the Today programme with Labour's health spokesperson Jon Ashworth about PFI contracts and the future of the NHS in the coming winter.

He is right of course that PFI contracts were often not fit for purpose, locking a changing NHS into bricks, mortar and concrete and into inflexible contracts too. The BBC made a great deal of the gap between what he said on PFIs and what the shadow chancellor John McDonnell said, but there is no doubt that the Labour approach - knocking down the old totems - strikes a chord with many people.

To an electorate so used to the sheer impossiblism of conventional politics, this is an important shift.

But there was a weakness which brought on rather more bluster than before and it may not have been obvious. It struck me as important because it has wider implications.

The link between the NHS and social care is so broken, so urgent and so important, he was asked, why are you not calling for an all-party consensus? Why are you not promising to consult widely about it? Why - I am editorialising here - does it have to be worked out in the labyrinthine recesses of Labour's modern equivalent of smoke-filled rooms?

I have no idea if the rumours about threats to BBC correspondents are real or not, but there is a new isolationism abroad in the Labour Party. There is just a hint of intolerance which was obvious as much as anything else from Ashworth's discomfort about the question.

He said he would be happy if either Jeremy Hunt or Norman Lamb, his opposite numbers in other parties, were to contact him - but then that was not what he was asked. Why will Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party not reach out for a sustainable cross-party consensus, which they could certainly achieve?

This leads on to other questions. Why will Labour not capitalise on their popularity and make things happen now, together with MPs of other parties? Or does it make them more electable if everything remains bad until the general election?

That's why I thought of Bran the Blessed's head. I hope Labour will keep Bran's sacred head securely buried, but I don't unfortunately think they will. That makes them vulnerable from outside from the Lib Dems. It also makes them nervous.

I hope Labour realises that they would be stronger and bigger if they encouraged the kind of cross-party activity that - in a hung Parliament - can make a real difference on a range of issues. Either way, there are bigger stakes to play for now than the next UK general election.

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Thursday, 21 September 2017

How to revive the Liberal Revival - work out who the Liberals are

This is crossposted from the Radix blog.

I set out five different ways in the Guardian on Monday that we might kick start politics from a broad radical centre in the UK – by which I mean almost anything except the conventional, conservative Left and Right.

I made what might have been the mistake of starting with Vince Cable’s assertion that he might be prime minister, explaining that politics is in such flux and we might any of us.

Unfortunately, the editors started their headline with the words ‘Sorry, Vince’, which made it look a little like a slapdown. All I can say again is ‘sorry, Vince’.

The article preceded by a few hours the packed and successful Radix fringe meeting, where I spoke alongside Norman Lamb and Jo Swinson. It followed two fascinating Radix meals with the Italian professor Corrado Poli – founder of Radix Italy – about what UK politics might learn from the success of the Five Star movement there, now the main opposition.

In retrospect, one thing struck me more than anything else, and it was the way Five Star bases their appeal – not on the kind of fatuous, meaningless polling so beloved of political parties here – but on two things. First, on in-depth research about social change and the way people’s economic needs are changing. Second, on the kind of personalities who were likely to be open to their message.

This second one isn’t a new idea. It was used to good effect by the Leave campaign in the referendum. But, as far as I know, the Lib Dems have failed to think along these lines at all. I don’t know about the other UK parties.

Let’s just think about the Lib Dems for a moment. From the dawn of the Liberal Revival in 1958, it seems to me that the party became the political expression of the counterculture – from community action to the emergence of the voluntary sector, self-help and self-employment (in the early 1990s, the top ten constituencies for self-employment were all Lib Dem strongholds. This was not a coincidence).

Both the counterculture and the Liberal Revival are both now defunct terms and it may be too late to bring the two together again. But it was fascinating to see that the two attitudes the Five Star targeted in their early days was people who wanted to defend nature and people interested in complementary health.

Both were strong counterculture themes in the UK too. Both imply people who – rightly or wrongly – are prepared to think for themselves, to take action individually and collectively, rather than to passively accept everything they are told by professionals.

I don’t know if the same applies in the UK. I do know that, if the radical centre is to revive, they need to identify what kind of people are likely to respond to a radical Liberal or distinctive new message.

That means that they will also have to define their purpose a good deal better than they have done over the past generation. No more all things to all people. No more clever-clever positioning. But a much clearer idea and a much clearer sense of the kind of people who will be enthusiastic about it.

Twentieth century politics, before the Liberal Revival, was characterised by a powerful dualism – welfare versus business, unions versus management – which still traps the minds of our more conservative politicians of right and left. Twenty-first century politics is characterised by the triumph of counterculture values and … well, isn’t it time we found out?

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Is it time to turn the UK into ten separate nations?

This is cross-posted from the Radix blog...

The year 1992 saw the start of the new-look European Union and the Maastricht treaty which created it. It was also the year of an alternative proposal for the future of Europe, the much-ridiculed Eurotopia.

This was the brainchild of the beer billionaire Freddy Heineken. He suggested that Europe would be more prosperous, peaceful and equal if it was made up of 50 small states of no more than ten million people each.

Heineken’s proposal envisaged breaking the UK down into ten separate nations. Or to be precise, breaking England down into seven.

Let’s leave the European Union out of this for a moment and concentrate on the UK. I have considerable sympathy with the original premise. A group of small nations, held together lightly, would undoubtedly be more prosperous than currently arranged – for the reasons set out by Leopold Kohr in The Breakdown of Nations and Jane Jacobs in Cities and the Wealth of Nations. As long as nobody imposed the euro on them.

The problem is how you would get from here to there.

Let’s set that on one side for a moment. Because I can see the civilization, humanity and imagination that tends to emerge in smaller units, I’m not convinced that the radical centre ought any more to assume that large units are the most efficient way forward, nor the most peaceful. Nor am I convinced that Liberalism is really a unionist creed (because it certainly isn’t a nationalist one either).

I watched the Last Night of the Proms on Saturday, and sang along with the patriotic songs – partly because I wanted to encourage my children and partly because I loved it and felt proud of the peculiar mixture of pomp and informality that the English have made their own.

I wondered if there was really any contradiction between the spirit of the Last Night and a collection of ten largely self-governing nations. I don’t think there is – on condition there is a recognisably British institution to hold them together.

I have written before about the urgent need to beef up the Council of the Isles, created by the Anglo-Irish agreement and left to wither since, as an ambiguously supra-national body able to hold together these disparate islands.

As long as it could still provide for the patriotic spirit about whatever unit you happened to want to celebrate. It would need to be, as the Blairites used to put it – ‘Daily Mail-proof’.

The supranational body would provide a kingdom for the Queen. It might manage defence. It might even provide a viable central bank. It must also credibly provide a focus for the continuing patriotic spirit, for Remembrance and trooping of colours, for Last Nights of Proms. It must not be a bloodless, bureaucratic creation or it will fail.

If we can still sing Rule Britannia as, in effect, separate nations, I see no reason why this should be an impossible arrangement – especially if we can bring the Irish Republic under the same arrangement without busting it (perhaps not).

But here’s the point. I could sing with more conviction that we would never, never, never be slaves in those circumstances than I could last Saturday night. It was all too obvious then that, actually, the slave-owners are queuing up in the shape of Amazon and Google and those like them, and we have a government only too happy to bid us farewell into slavery – as long as they can preserve their continuing illusions of pride and control.

The new ten-nation UK would need to have a similar set of relationships to defend them against other potential slavers – Putin and the Chinese financiers spring to mind. But we would claw back some of that multinational, multilocal identity that the little nationalists try to paper over.

That, it seems to me, is a future Liberal objective worthy of William Ewart Gladstone. It would also provide a peaceful model for the rest of the world, which seems to me what the English were put on earth to do.


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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

'May God help us all' - a voice from the future

Cross-posted from the Radix blog.

Don’t let’s carp about the way that government has developed in the UK – there is no doubt that, in two ways in particular, they have developed considerable skills: I would summarise these as the ability to grandstand and its opposite, the ability to walk crablike to avoid potholes.

Both of these skills derive from a government system that is highly aware of short-term issues, and so unaware of long-term issues that they can only see them at all when they are broken down into short-term ones.

Ours is not, at this stage anyway, to reason why. Just to point out that issues around rising global temperatures, hurricanes and climate change are tough ones for government in the UK.

I don’t know whether the complaints about the pointless helplines, and the slow response helping hurricane struck crown dependencies in the Caribbean, are fair or not. I do know that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson failed to reassure on the Today programme, dragging out the bluster which this style of government – one without depth – falls back on in these circumstances.

Yet I had a moment of revelation over the past week, listening to the final broadcast by the governor of Puerto Rico before the hurricane overwhelmed them, where he ended with the phrase “May God help us all.”

Governments designed like ours in the UK find evasive action, or preparation, extremely difficult. It requires a grasp of reality that needs to be urgently re-engaged. Yet brute fact, and especially the brute fact of climate change, has a habit of having the final word.

Those pathetic words are ones I fear will become a feature of the modern world, as the planet heats and small island communities find themselves making last broadcasts from the abyss as the next or the next, or the next wave of hurricanes hit.

By then, of course, it may also be American cities. Imagine the mayor of Miami making a broadcast like that: we may not have to imagine it.


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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The nature of post-crash culture

This is a crossposting from the New Weather blog.

There is a truism about fish, who are said not to wonder overmuch about the nature of the water they are in, simply because they are swimming in it.

I have to say I find that pretty unlikely. There would be many other reasons why they might not think about it - fish are not known for the depth of their thinking - but I'm sure they are actually concerned.

Still, we understand the general idea - it is hard to see whatever we swim in that clearly. In the same way, the features of the age we live in, shaped by the banking crash that began exactly ten years ago, are not obvious. Because we live in it.

I found myself thinking about the most obvious beliefs we live among, and how much they are attributable to the same tremendous crisis that so dominates the economy still. New Weather had teamed up with Prime Economics to organise a fascinating seminar to mark the tenth anniversary of the first whiff of disaster, the withdrawal of three investment funds by BNP Paribas - including Ann Pettifor, Professor Daniela Gabor and the writer Frances Coppola. It was called 'Finance Shrugged'.

The first shift seemed to be flagged up by the very existence of the speakers. Ten years ago, there was a handful of outsiders who tried to penetrate the financial world, because they knew its importance.
Finance still defends itself by being abstruse, but - Michael Lewis onwards - there is now a cadre of academics and writers who understand crucial aspects of the way finance works. They are also providing a critique which is increasingly compelling.

The tragedy is that there is still so little communication, let alone debate, between the insiders and the informed outsiders.

Three other changes, now that we live in the world of Post-Crash Culture:

1. We also now have a post-ideological world, or perhaps a gap between ideologies, when nobody - not even the Treasury - believes in the old 'trickle down' certainties. It opens the way to new possibilities, just as it has opened us to the most dysfunctional reactions. But the age we live in remains ideologically lost.

2. We are in an age of security, when those who rule us believe security is more important than prosperity. So we now have banks that are in some ways less likely to fail - but they are that much less effective. The new Basel III rules make loans to small business that much less affordable. Consequently, the age we live in is also an age of growing monopoly.

3. "We used to be regarded as geeks," wrote some of those on Twitter who, like Ann Pettifor, predicted the crash. Now they are respectable commentators, if not yet respected by mainstream finance, as are others who have been able to show how previous patterns are not necessarily a predictor of the future. Because, rightly or wrongly - and largely because of the crash - we also now live in a post-expert world.


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