Liberalism redux

peaceIt’s conceivable that I am just about the last Liberal Democrat blogger to post something in the aftermath of the General Election horror show. Plenty has been said. There is no doubt plenty more to say. I thought I’d add something to the mix.

A little of the comment that has emerged so far has been predictable. Those who lean to the left feel vindicated: Cleggite entryism is the root of the party’s problems, as they’ve been saying all along. Those who lean to the right feel vindicated: the mistake was to attempt to differentiate from the Conservatives and the record of the coalition government. Perhaps the most notable contribution of this type was the early response to the election result from the Social Liberal Forum, which emerged with almost indecent haste as the election result became clear. But so far we’ve not had too much of that sort of stuff.

There have been plenty of thoughtful contributions touching on what went wrong and what might happen now. [Read more…]

Speaking money

HowtospeakmoneyYesterday evening the Festival of Economics 2014 kicked off with the author John Lanchester in conversation with Izabella Kaminska of the FT. Lanchester, who is promoting his book How to speak money, had some very interesting and important things to say about the language of finance.

His key point was that the fact most people don’t understand or engage with the language and practices of finance has consequences. It means that bankers and economists are able to get away with obfuscation and mystification in order to hide their own ignorance or render opaque activities of very questionable social value. Because most people don’t really understand what is going on in finance they do not appreciate the risks that are being run or the ethics of some dubious practices. This lack of knowledge reduces public demands for greater regulation of the financial system, to the great benefit of the financiers.

But it is not simply the bankers and the public who are in the dark. Lanchester noted that last month the US bond market witnessed a seven sigma event – in terms of the volatility of short term interest rate movements. This is something which, if the models commonly used to analyze financial markets are right, is near impossible. The most obvious conclusion to draw, therefore, is that the models are wrong. So the analysts are in the dark as well. [Read more…]

Independence, devolution and power

When I first saw this tweet, late last Saturday night, my immediate and admittedly facile response was “Neither of them”. Alex Salmond was propounding a vision for an independent Scotland that was no doubt seductive for many, but was panglossian in its optimism. For me, the Yes campaign was irresponsible in the way Salmond blithely dismissed all requests for detail or serious engagement with potential risks. It was premised on a blatant failure to acknowledge the geopolitical realities that an independent Scotland would face. Cameron, on the other hand, would seemingly say just about anything, panicking and offering ever greater concessions, if he thought it might increase the chances of a No vote. The cynic might say that if Cameron’s last minute appeals were filled with emotion it was just as likely to be distress at the thought of an early exit from Number 10 as it was at the thought of the union breaking up.

I didn’t envy the voters of Scotland their choice. On one side, the picture being painted of the post-independence world was inaccurate in ways that were rather irresponsible. And that wasn’t even allowing for all the areas in which we just didn’t know what might happen. On the other side, enticements from a set of Westminster politicians who have repeatedly proven themselves unable or unwilling to deliver on such pledges and largely motivated by self-preservation or preservation of sectional interest. Who to believe?

I guess we will never know how much the various promises affected the voting. At the moment all we know is the outcome. The referendum is history.

We are beginning to see the contours of the post-referendum game. And the game is beginning to look ugly. It would also appear that a new settlement for Scotland may not take centre stage. [Read more…]

Extracting apologies from the unrepentant

Ripped PapersThe Liberal Democrats seem to be getting into an almighty tangle over the Rennard affair. Stephen Tall offers a good overview of the state of play.

It seems no one, apart from Lord Rennard and his chums, feels the outcome of the Webster inquiry is satisfactory. Many also feel the process of inquiry is problematic. Or, rather, if it is possible to conclude there are credible claims of inappropriate behaviour, but it is not possible to prove them to the required standard, and therefore nothing can be done, then by definition there must be something wrong with the process. The inquiry’s conclusion is not helpful in resolving this specific case. Nor does it help in sending the broader message that – whatever may have happened in the past – today’s party welcomes, respects and supports women.

This all compounds the original problem: the party’s woeful response when the allegations were first made.

The question is what to do now. There is most likely a case for changing internal party procedures for investigating this type of case. But it isn’t right to do so in pursue of a different outcome in the Rennard case. Applying new rules retrospectively is the worst type of arbitrary justice.

Webster recommended that Rennard apologize for behaviour that has caused distress. But that behaviour remains unspecified because details were provided in confidence. Rennard has refused to apologize. He would appear to be interpreting the Webster conclusion as exonerating him. Even though that clearly isn’t an interpretation that can be plausibly sustained.

The apology has now become pivotal. [Read more…]

Selling justice by the pound

To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.

                                                                      Magna Carta

Any country or Government which wants to proceed towards tyranny starts to undermine legal rights and undermine the law.

                                                               Margaret Thatcher

Word justice highlighted with a yellow markerWhen Chris Grayling was appointed Lord Chancellor in 2012 it raised a few eyebrows. He is the first non-lawyer to hold the post since the seventeenth century. His experience prior to becoming a member of Parliament involved television production, corporate communications and management consulting. It has been suggested that this was not perhaps the ideal background for someone occupying one of the most venerable Offices of State. It is an office that has, until now, been seen as carrying weighty responsibilities relating to the stewardship of key elements of Britain’s Constitution.

In retrospect placing Grayling in the role seems increasingly like a masterstroke, from the perspective of political expediency.

The current agenda entails the removal of access to justice for many through serious cuts in first civil and now criminal legal aid. It also encompasses the contracting out of various components of the justice system to private providers, including the bundling up of services into bigger contracts so they can be of greater benefit to larger corporations.

One might suggest that had we been blessed with a Lord Chancellor with any significant sense of, or respect for, the delicacies of the British Constitution, the English Legal System or the rule of the law, then this agenda might not be pursued with quite such vigour or relish. There would be a greater appreciation of the profound risks inherent in current policy directions. Whether the issue is Mr Grayling’s personal enthusiasm for the agenda or simply that he doesn’t have the sort of legal sensibility needed to repel overenthusiastic civil servants in the MoJ is a moot point.

Today the latest instalment in the agenda has been floated in the newspapers. [Read more…]

Hilton’s horrors

BaldnessI keep returning to Steve Hilton’s comments on the rigidities and redundancies of the senior civil service, as reported in the Sunday Times. It all strikes me as a bit rum.

Hilton was making three main points. First, that members of the Government were only finding out about some policy announcements from the media. And once they found out they didn’t necessarily agree with what was being announced on their behalf. Second, Hilton conveyed his sense that the main purpose in life for the Mandarinate is to frustrate ministers’ desires for action and change. Third, there is much activity and many decisions are taken, with accompanying mountains of paper being generated, but only a minority of it (30%) is controlled by Ministers and relates to delivering on the Coalition agreement. Hilton suggests that a similar proportion relates to “random things” and, for good measure, fully 40% of activity represents Government implementation of EU regulations. [Read more…]

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…]

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…]

Greece and the augurs of global disaster

Current events in Greece are genuinely transformational in more ways than one. Clearly the Greek economy is in a heck of a mess. It is not at all obvious whether either of the future directions on offer – eye-watering austerity, on the one hand, or default, exit from the euro and return to the drachma, on the other – offers the better economic route forward for Greece. But it is clear which direction European authorities see as better for the wider Eurozone.

Greek default would create turmoil and render the viability of the Spanish, Italian and Irish economies questionable as creditors sought to reassess and downgrade their holdings of sovereign debt. It would pose serious questions for banks across the Eurozone, in particular in France and Germany. While Greece accounts for a very small component of total Eurozone economic activity it is the symbolic significance of a default – and the profoundly negative chain of events that it could set off – that is feared. [Read more…]