Wednesday, January 06, 2010

My Liberator article on Nick Clegg's The Liberal Moment

I never did quite finish my series on Nick Clegg's pamphlet The Liberal Moment - the last posting on it I can find concerns chapter 7.

But I did write an article on it for the latest issue of Liberator.

Man of the Moment

Nick Clegg became leader of the Liberal Democrats without most of us knowing very much about him or his politics. He entered the leadership contest with Chris Huhne as the favourite and fought a favourite’s campaign by declining to become involved in detailed policy discussions. Before that he had served a term as MEP for the East Midlands and then inherited what is probably the nearest thing to a safe seat that the Lib Dems possess.

He did speak at a Liberator fringe meeting while still an MEP, advocating what he termed “crunchy” liberalism and attacking over-regulation, but he was careful to confine himself to matters that were the concern of the European parliament and not to trespass on the concerns of his Westminster colleagues. Even since he became leader, it has been hard, despite such apparently guileless outbursts as “our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter”, to say what Cleggism is or even which causes are closest to his heart.

So the appearance of The Liberal Moment is welcome. Published by the think tank Demos, it is billed as being about the future of “progressive” politics. Nick argues that:
progressives are to avoid being marginalised by an ideologically barren Conservative party, bereft of any discernible convictions other than a sense of entitlement that it is now their turn to govern, then the progressive forces in British politics must regroup under a new banner. I believe that liberalism offers the rallying point for a resurgent progressive movement in Britain.
The arguments that there is a free-floating progressive spirit at work in British society that has sometimes alighted upon the Labour Party and sometimes upon the Liberal Party or the Liberal Democrats never convinces, but in the course of the pamphlet we do discover more about our leader and his political views.

Perhaps because he is writing for Demos and aiming his words principally at a socialist audience, Nick is at pains to argue that Labour and the Liberal Democrats are essentially on the same side or at least face a common enemy. So he draws a distinction between progressives and conservatives:
At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation. At the core of conservative thought is a determination to preserve, protect and defend. Conservatives are primarily governed by caution about the unintended consequences of change, reluctant to change the status quo, especially to alter the social pecking order in society. Conservatives tend to believe we are at risk of decline if we don’t protect things as they are; progressives tend to believe we are capable of more, and better, if only we change the way things are.
This sounds inspiring and probably reflects the way that most Liberal Democrats would differentiate themselves from the Conservatives if asked, but there are several problems with it. The first is that much Liberal Democrat campaigning is precisely concerned with preserving, protecting and defending, whether it is saving local post offices, opposing new housing development or standing up for village schools. The second is that an awareness of the unintended consequences of change is not confined to conservatives, because it is precisely what differentiates liberals from socialists; certainly, Nick is very aware of these consequences in this critique of Labour later in this pamphlet. The third problem is that the conservatives’ support of the free market often leads them to adopt policies that undermine society’s pecking order, but it would be unfair to expect anyone to unravel the contradictions of conservatism in a single pamphlet – you would be struggling if you had a whole library to do it.

Nick also offers an historical argument to support the idea of progressivism as a force in British politics. He adopts Roy Jenkins’ idea that there was a tragic split on the left around the time of the First World War and cites Peter Clarke’s book Liberals and Social Democrats as evidence of this. This is a work that was often referred to in the Alliance years, but it is questionable whether those who referred to it had read more than the title. Certainly, it was something of a Rorschach test: those who supported the Alliance project saw it as evidence that liberals and social democrats used to be the same thing, whereas those who thought themselves radical liberals were thrilled by Clarke’s rediscovery of a forgotten ideology quite separate from social democracy.

As Nick tells it the progressive spirit – which functions here as a sort of anti-conservative Holy Ghost – alighted upon the Labour Party after World War I, with the Liberal Party lost in a new collectivist world. This is an odd argument: this collectivist world was as much Lloyd George’s creation as anyone else’s, and Lloyd George had a better grasp of collectivist remedies in the inter-war economic crisis. Besides, it is clear from this pamphlet that Nick is an instinctive anti-collectivist, so it is not clear why he is so keen on Labour’s adoption of this approach. The problem must lie with the whole idea of “progressivism”, but there is something wonderfully eccentric about a party leader writing (or at least putting his name to) a pamphlet that discusses the Liberal Party's performance in the 1923 general election in some detail.

Nick’s views
Even if we reject the idea that is intermittently presented as its key, there is much to be learned from The Liberal Moment, particularly about Nick Clegg. The thinker that emerges from these pages is instinctively in favour of liberty and local control, optimistic and at ease with policy development from Europe.

Take the chapter on green issues. Although it is titled “The Environmental Crisis”, it is free from the “We’re all doomed” rhetoric that dominates discussion in this field. Nick deals principally with the problem of meeting Britain’s future power generation needs without increasing CO2 emissions. He does not want to see an expansion of coal our nuclear generation: instead he sees microgeneration as the answer, with local opposition to developments like wind farms being overcome by giving communities as stake in them:
it was the people, not the government, who did most of the hard work, putting up much of the capital and making the commitments necessary: by 2001 over 100,000 families belonged to wind turbine cooperatives, which had installed 86 per cent of all the wind turbines in Denmark. By 2004 over 150,000 were either members or owned turbines, and about 5,500 turbines had been installed.
You cannot fault Nick for his liberalism here, even if you doubt that wind power will fill the whole of this new generation gap or that it will be so easy to accept people to accept what would amount to a vast industrialisation of the countryside.

When he turns to the economy Nick is more conventional and there is little here that we have not heard from Vince Cable over recent months. He attacks Labour for pushing for the deregulation of financial markets and doing nothing to curb spiralling levels of debt in the British economy. He goes on to criticise the centralisation of power in the inner circle of government, which is relevant here because, in a neat formulation, "winner-takes-all politics produces winner-takes-all economies". Then Nick calls for a reinvention of the banking system, dispersing power within the sector: "regulation must match the scope of financial institutions and operate across borders where necessary, recognising that no one nation state can adequately control multinational businesses". And there must be a limit to the size of banks too - those that are too big to fail are too big.

Add a name check for the Glass-Steagall Act and you will probably conclude that, while this is all good stuff, it is nothing we have not heard before. So it is good to see Nick finish his economic chapter by rediscovering the lost Liberal cause of employee ownership of companies. In the old Liberal Party this policy appealed to both Victorian individualists and 1960s syndicalists. But in the SDP years it was allowed to dwindle into the belief that if people had a few shares in the company they worked for they were less likely to go on strike.

There is the inevitable chapter on constitutional reform: there are too many quangos; Britain is too centralised; we need a written constitution; donations to political parties must be capped; and we need electoral reform. All of it true and worth repeating.

“Progressivism” makes a return in the chapter on “the social crisis”, where we are told that there is “one principle that pierces right to the heart of everything progressives stand for: fairness”. The concept of fairness is popular with focus groups, but that is because we all believes are views are fair; it is not that Conservatives oppose fairness, it is just that they have a different conception of it from other people. This makes it hard to believe that fairness can penetrate to the heart of anything.

Nick goes on to make his familiar point that "a child born today in the poorest neighbourhood in Sheffield will die on average fourteen years before a child born in the most affluent neighbourhood a few miles away". If I read that once more I shall be tempted to ask why he got himself selected as PPC for that affluent neighbourhood.

Familiar too is Nick’s remedy: the pupil premium scheme whereby schools will be funded more generously if they accept children from poorer backgrounds. Universities’ enthusiasm for foreign students suggests that educational establishments will be keen to accept students who bring a higher income, but I have never seen it Nick explain how he would sell this policy to middle-class parents who would be simultaneously paying for this scheme and seeing their children from the best schools because of it. Everyone agrees we need more good schools, but if the pupil premium does no more than redistribute children between the existing good and bad ones, it is hard to see that it will be popular with voters or begin to justify the claims Nick routinely makes for it.

Who do you think you are?
Nick Clegg faces a problem in that the public does not know him well and that those who do recognise him probably imagine that he is very like David Cameron. Team Clegg is obviously aware of this and tried to counter the impression in Nick’s speech at Bournemouth with a weak joke about Brad Pitt. The Liberal Moment suggests that what makes Nick Clegg different is his European background and that the roots of his liberalism can be found there too.

In the age of Alastair Campbell and The Thick of It the conventional wisdom is that politicians must at all costs appear ordinary, but maybe the real Nick Clegg is more interesting than he has been allowed to appear so far? He might go down better with the public if they were allowed to see more of this side of him.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A very useful and interesting review; thanks