Nick Clegg, liberalism and leadership

The speech on the open society Nick Clegg gave at Demos yesterday started with a brilliant encapsulation of the problems facing our society:

But our politics and economy are distorted by unaccountable hoards of power, wealth and influence: media moguls; dodgy lobbyists corrupting our politics; irresponsible bankers taking us for a ride and then helping themselves to massive bonuses; boardrooms closed against the interests of shareholders and workers. The values of the hoarders are increasingly out of touch with the spirit of openness alive in the UK.

He then went on to argue that these are some of the characteristics of a closed society and that, in contrast, liberalism is about an open society. He is explicitly drawing the idea of the open society from Karl Popper, which clearly signals the intellectual heritage, even if won’t necessarily resonate with many voters.

Clegg’s version of the open society has five “vital features”: (i) social mobility; (ii) dispersed power in politics, the media and the economy; (iii) transparency, and the sharing of knowledge and information; (iv) a fair distribution of wealth and property; and (v) an internationalist outlook.

This is contrasted with the “closed society” in which a child’s opportunities are decided by the circumstances of their birth, power is hoarded by the elite, information is jealously guarded, wealth accumulates in the hands of the few, and narrow nationalism trumps enlightened internationalism.

At this level of generality this description of a liberal society would no doubt gain the approval of many, not just those in the Liberal Democrats who crave clearer differentiation between the party and the Conservatives. But, while the speech was positive overall, it left me wanting more.

The bulk of Clegg’s speech runs through what these vital features mean in terms of a policy agenda. In the process he presents some rather crass caricatures of conservativism and, in particular, socialism, but that’s a different story.

Inevitably as we descend to the detail of policy more space for disagreement emerges. Equally inevitably, some Liberal Democrat obsessions assert themselves. Clegg places great weight on Lords reform. If it is possible to arrive at a constitutional settlement involving an elected Lords that doesn’t lead to legislative gridlock then I’m all for it. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t think this is an issue that exercises anyone outside the world of political wonkery.

In fact, I’d go further. Earlier this week the Lords received a positive reception for voting down provisions in the Welfare Reform Bill to cut benefit to underoccupying tenants in social housing. The fact that the Lords are not politicians and are willing to stand up for vulnerable and disadvantaged people against the Government’s unfair cuts, on the basis of a considered evaluation of the evidence, means that they are perceived in many quarters to be the last bastion of reason in a political system that is fundamentally broken.

Clegg spoke rather dismissively of a “veneer of expertise” in the Lords being no reason for halting reform, but I don’t think he should necessarily expect the further politicisation of the Lords to be welcomed with open arms. There is ample scope for it to be perceived negatively.

There is a little bit of a puzzle here. There are plenty of commentators in the mainstream and new media who are just throwing up their hand in despair at the ineptitude of the contemporary political class – across the political spectrum (posts that made a strong impression on me for different reasons are here, here and here). The failure to come to grips with the problems facing society is only too apparent. The narrowing of policy opinions and the absence of genuinely new thinking is undeniable.

There is a serious disconnection. On the one hand, there are many people – typically on the left – who feel that representative politics is irrelevant to them because all politicians are the same. And all the same in being broadly pro-market, pro-business, anti-“people” – against the 99%, if you will.  This is precisely reflecting the problem that the above quote from Clegg identifies. But at the same time, Ed Miliband is roundly criticised when he seeks to articulate a more clearly social democratic position because that renders the Labour party less electable.

A little while ago I quoted James K Galbraith as saying “The achievement of … conservative economics … has been to make it the ticket of entry into reputable political discussion, a rite of passage for anyone who wants to be taken seriously on the public stage”. With the arrival of deeply fiscally conservative initiatives such as In The Black Labour, as well as the German proposal for the Eurozone, this becomes ever more apparent. Without genuinely radical rethinking this is only going to get worse.

Of course, there is no real contradiction. The people who dominate politicians’ thinking and planning – the marginal and swing voters – are generally conservative, and apparently getting more so over time. As a smaller proportion of the population vote, because more people perceive there to be little point in doing so, then the centre of political gravity shifts further to the right. The so-called Overton Window narrows further. All politicians try to differentiate themselves within an effective political terrain the size of a pocket handkerchief. And more people become disconnected from the whole process.

This feels evident to me in Clegg’s Demos speech. Clegg provides a very decent diagnosis of the illness. But, as is often the case, the prescription is in many ways extremely modest. This is where the gap between many in the population and the political class opens up – no doubt precisely because of the barriers to change erected by entrenched, powerful interests. Clegg lists a range of actions, many of which are, in themselves, positive. But do they add up to an emphatic move from a closed to an open society? They feel more like tinkering around the edges. And there is a real danger in acting on the ones that are ‘easier’ for the state to achieve – such as decentralisation of state power – while leaving those that are more difficult to achieve – the deconcentration of economic power – for later or never. All that does is it reduces the ability of politicians to protect the interests of people against the depredations of large corporate concerns. It makes the situation worse, not better. Understanding social power is a challenge. Failing to understand it can lead to some rather naïve and idealistic thinking.

This is where we need to hear more, and more that is specific. It looks like the Government is going to miss a golden opportunity by not using its control of RBS and Lloyds to set out a new vision for banking on a more human and socially useful scale. That may be attributable to the forces of conservatism. We are yet to see any sort of vision for what an economy that does not hoard power might look like. And, just as importantly, how we might realise such an economy in the face of implacable opposition from those who stand to lose. If anyone is going to do this, the Liberal Democrats have to lead the way.

We live in a time when there is, I believe, a genuine window of opportunity to effect transformational change. Public discontent with the existing economic and social order is substantial – even those who are dyed-in-the-wool supporters of capitalism can see that things are not working well. Yet, with the odd exception, politicians who you would think aspire to a society rooted in a different set of priorities seem unwilling to act decisively. What we need is leadership. But where is it going to come from?

Image: © Fredy Sujono – Fotolia.com

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3 replies »

  1. I don’t expect Lib Dems can do anything other than tinker around the edges: after all, we are a minority in the Commons punching well above our weight in government and securing some genuinely momentous concessions toward liberal priorities. If we were to overstate or oversell the importance of an open society, we’d either look rediculous aspiring to the kind of power nessecary to establish it or rediculous when we fail to impliment it in its entirity. It’s hugely unrealistic to expect Lib Dems to institute radical reforms in a Siamese cabinet.

    And on the decentralisation of economic power, I find it very hard to hold corperation’s spoils against them: they hold huge amounts of power because our economic system is decentralised already. If anything, the playing feild needs more enlightened refereeing in order to ensure corperations don’t become duopolies or cartels capable of bullying smaller businesses out of the market.

    Even more significantly in the short-term, perhaps, is the present liquidity crisis holding our small/medium businesses back. Or worse, the very foundation of our service economy may well have been made redundent by advances in computer technology combined with a globalised marketplace. Credit easing, fiscal stimulus, quantitive easing and grand infrastructure projects are all that are in our arsnel for dealing with our stalling economic engine, and that means more intervention and greater exercises of central power. It’s no wonder an open economy wasn’t mentioned: it’s a plan for the good times, not the bad. Better for Clegg not to be open to accusations of wild over-optimism.

    In short, I think Clegg’s dead-on. He’s built a clear position from which to bargain for policy concessions with both the Tories and Labour without being offencive or dogmatic. I think that’s much shrewer than expecting the old boy to create an open society by screaming “Bippity boppity boo.” If you’re looking for leadership, you’ve already got it.

  2. @Toby Macdonnell – Thanks for your comment. You raise, indirectly, an interesting question. In his explicit attempt to differentiate liberalism from conservatism and socialism, I read Nick Clegg’s speech as one in which he is speaking as leader of the Liberal Democrats. I infer that you are reading him as a member of the Coalition Cabinet. If the latter is right then I agree with you, he has to have an eye to the realities of coalition politics. If the former is right then it seems to me that he is entitled to set out as bold a vision as he likes.

    A vision may be triangulated and focus grouped down to something modest that will play well with the marginal voter and won’t frighten the horses Coalition-wise – but aren’t we then back where we started?

    My feeling is that we are unlikely to agree on the question of economic power. Orthodox liberal economics holds to the narrative that the market economy is decentralised and markets are efficient. That doesn’t mean that in the economy outside the textbooks either assertion holds true. To deny that is precisely what those with economic power are hoping we’ll do. It perpetuates the status quo.

    A genuinely decentralised economy would look rather different. In that respect I think we can agree that our small and medium sized firms are being held back by lack of liquidity (but also a lack of demand/economic uncertainty). That is one of the reasons why it is a pity that the Government has not been more radical in its reform of the banking sector.

  3. I heard an interesting defence of the coalition recently – that conservative and liberal principles are perfectly compatible in a British context because both leaderships are seeking to defend and promote the British traditions of liberty.

    Just to be argumentative I added the caveat that this would be better stated if ‘because’ was replaced with ‘when’.

    And a third response came that it also depended on a perception of whether a policy is defending or promoting those ideas.

    I agree that it’s a fine line to walk between idealism and pragmatism, so its not really any wonder that so many people give up and become cynical. For me though, decapitation is no solution to wearing two hats at once.