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. [Read more…]

A Euro-Nightmare before Christmas

Clegg needs to ask himself a difficult question: did he come into politics to be part of perhaps the most diplomatically-inept and Euro-hostile government in modern British history?

John Campfner, The Independent, 10/12/11

The consequences of David Cameron’s refusal to agree to participate in the Merkozy plan early on Friday morning will be many and various, short-term and long-term.

Some of the domestic political consequences are already apparent. Having scented Cameron’s weakness, or a kindred spirit revealed, the Europhobe Right have taken to the airwaves to demand renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU. While, after an initial attempt to toe an agreed line, it appears that senior Liberal Democrats have decided enough is enough. Critics might say that this is coming a bit late in the day – after tuition fees, the demolition of the NHS, the targeted attack on public services and the disabled – and on a topic which will not resonate well with the general public. But Europe is a topic that holds a very particular place in the worldview of many Liberal Democrats. Of course, in response to this the rabid right of the Tory party are goading the Liberal Democrats to walk away from the Coalition, in the expectation that “bulldog” Cameron will be swept to victory after this show of strength.

The longer term political consequences are uncertain. For example, does a Westminster government disengaging from Europe make Scottish independence more likely?

The economic consequences are equally unclear. [Read more…]

On the wisdom of free capital markets

With the discussions over the future of the Eurozone at a critical phase, David Cameron yesterday started to make helpful noises about exercising a veto if British interests were not protected. And when he says British interests, it seems he primarily means protecting the status of the City of London as the pre-eminent financial centre in Europe. It is, of course, no great surprise that the Conservatives seek to protect the interests of the financial elite who are, after all, their major financial backers. But we need to hold on to the idea that it wasn’t so long ago that equating the interests of the City with the interests of Britain was being severely questioned. And those camped out at St Paul’s act as a continuing reminder.

Cameron’s comments led me to wonder how that rebalancing of the British economy away from finance and an over-inflated housing market was going.

We desperately need to take seriously the broader debate not only about rebalancing but also about the influence of the capital markets on broader social development and human welfare. [Read more…]

Keen insight into the monetary economy

Lucas Papademos, former vice-president of the European Central Bank, has now been installed as the new Prime Minster of Greece. The imminent arrival of former European Commissioner Mario Monti as Prime Minister of Italy will get the post-Berlusconi era properly under way. This is to be an era of technocratic policy-making by market-approved placemen.

Defenders of democracy are deeply concerned about the way in which this process has evolved. It is not so much that crisis has precipitated change at the top of national governments. Nor even that these countries find themselves governed by interim governments that are appointed rather than elected. More concerning is the apparent erosion of sovereignty through the overt intervention of foreign governments in domestic affairs, and the apparent concentration of European power in the hands of the eight members of the Frankfurt Group, only two of whom are democratically elected politicians.

But this is not simply a crisis of politics and the economy. It is also a crisis of economic epistemology. Of economic knowledge. Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor, observed on Friday’s programme that “The economic orthodoxy of an entire generation of politicians seems to be failing. And they don’t know what to do.” [Read more…]

Democratic deficits

Liberal democracy faces profound challenges. Radically different future trajectories present themselves. We are living through momentous times.

In Britain the media has spent the last fortnight preoccupied with the Hackgate scandal. Incremental, and ongoing, revelations have exposed the inner workings of the nexus between Westminster politicians and the tabloid media. What we witness is the political class showing an alarming level of deference to powerful economic interests. The alleged intimate connection between sections of the Metropolitan police and the tabloids raises equally urgent questions about the prevailing culture and ethics at the heart of a core social institution.

The British media has been preoccupied with this evolving soap opera involving many of its own. And the scandal has certainly opened up a welcome window of opportunity to reform relationships vital to a healthy democracy. But events unwinding elsewhere are likely to play a bigger role in shaping economic and political trajectories in the short and medium term. [Read more…]