Tag Archives: liberalism

clean water

Why the Lib Dems need to be saved from “true liberalism”

I’m in the odd situation of having a vote in the Labour leadership elections via my union, but having much more interest in the Lib Dem contest (and no vote). A lot of this is because I know the players individually, but at least part of it is because the debate isn’t being framed in the depressing and soul-destroying way the Labour one is. Are they really going to spend the next three months arguing about Tony Blair, how much they hate poor people and how much they love rich people? Save me.

The Lib Dem discussion is much more positive. Up to a point. Thus far, I’ve seen them obsessing too much over policy, which isn’t going to be decided in this election, and largely ignoring strategy, which is the main issue that will be decided. I’ve heard much more about strategy from Farron than Lamb, and that’s to his credit. But he hasn’t fully addressed my concerns from four years ago about his take on organisation (he has to some extent with his talk of learning lessons from groups from 38 Degrees); and significantly, his grand vision of reviving community politics didn’t actually come to much, and I’d like to hear him account for that as well.

But at least he’s talking about it. I’ve heard significantly less about organisation from Norman Lamb, and that’s troubling because the party he hopes to take over is going to have some crucial organisational tasks ahead of it.

There’s been a subtle but persistent campaign from Lamb supporters to attack Tim Farron on policy grounds. They like to post articles on their social media pages about how you can’t trust him because he abstained in certain votes in the House of Commons on same sex marriage, and his wobbliness on assisted dying. All of this is wrapped in a crucifix-shaped bow. Because, ahem, you know, he’s a Christian (nudge nudge, wink wink). Speaking as a pretty anti-clerical atheist, I find that somewhat distasteful.

This goes hand in hand with an emphasis on what a great, or indeed true liberal Norman Lamb is:
Tom Brake endorsing Norman Lamb

The term “true liberal” brings me out in hives. There is of course the implication that Tim Farron fails some kind of purity test; attacking a Christian for failing to have the right values is almost too ironic for words. But there is also the sense that this is a continuation of the ruinous direction the Lib Dems have gone over the past 8 years.

People have rightly been praising Charles Kennedy’s legacy over the past week. It’s refreshing to hear, because under Nick Clegg’s leadership, we had a steady trickle of articles and comments implying that Kennedy had achieved nothing but corrupt the Lib Dems from its true purpose. Indeed, Richard Reeves famously called on social democrats and social liberals to leave the party and join Labour; far from distancing himself from this proposal, Clegg would go on to make him his Director of Strategy for the first two years as Deputy Prime Minister.

For years the senior party line informed us the history of Lib Dem philosophical thought was this: a century of unbroken tradition in the vein of Mill and Gladstone; something something welfare state (shrug); 20 years of social democrat muddle and confusion following the party merger in 1987; a return to our liberal roots with Nick Clegg’s election in 2007.

In fact, the intellectual schism happened almost a century earlier; whatever your views on Gladstone, he would never have had any truck with the 1908 People’s Budget. As the Liberals struggled with how to respond to the rise of Labour, they went on to spend decades locked in ideological debates between the “new” (social) liberals and classical liberals (who, to make things more confusing, are often regarded these days as “neoliberals” or describe themselves as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative”; so much for terminology). This sort of, kind of ended when the National Liberals split in 1931 and slowly merged into the Conservative Party. Obviously, you can’t sum up the entirety of Liberal history in a sentence, but the attempt to paint “social democracy”, which all too often was used as code for our proud social liberal heritage, as an alien and recent intrusion was one of the more disturbing aspects of the Clegg era.

When I see talk of “true liberalism,” I see a continuation of this trend. Liberalism is a broad and messy philosophy, in which often there is no absolute right answer. A “true liberal” appears to work on the premise that this isn’t the case. I’ve learned to deeply distrust “true liberals”. In saying this, I’m aware that I’m open to charges of hypocrisy, given that I’ve argued in the past that the Lib Dems have cast the ideological net too wide in embracing classical liberals alongside social liberals; but it is because I accept that it is a broad philosophy that I reject the notion that there can be such a thing as “true liberalism”. By all means argue that the party should have a narrower ideological base, but doing it from the position of there being only “one true way” is just going to get you into inward-facing ideological rows.

This isn’t just a philosophical debate; it goes to the heart of the direction the party is likely to take. Farron apparently fails the purity test when it comes to same sex marriage. I have to admit that I too probably fail this test. I’d have almost certainly voted for it – just look at who was against it – but I’m ambivalent about state-institutionalised marriage in general (which doesn’t seem very liberal to me) and I’m very alert to a disquiet amongst some of my queer friends about the presumption that the only way their relationships can be viewed as equal is if they adopt a hetero-normative standard. But the biggest reason why I feel a little ambivalent about this policy, which Lib Dems are keen to trumpet as one of their achievements in government, is that prior to the draft bill being published, a senior Lib Dem told me that the party’s support for Tory benefit cuts was part of a deal, with them getting same sex marriage in exchange.

It isn’t that I’m some naive fool who was unaware that the coalition partners did policy deals while in power; it’s the nature of this particular deal. Was that really an exchange in which liberalism was the victor? Gay rights are important, but more so than the poorest and most vulnerable in society? More to the point, some of the most vulnerable people living on the poverty line are young queer people. Was it right to limit access to benefits for poor, vulnerable queer people in exchange for expanding the rights of (all things being equal), more affluent, middle class queer people?

The honest answer to that is, “I don’t know”. It’s complicated; not least of all because the symbolism of the same sex marriage legislation was so significant. My reason for mentioning this anecdote is less about the decision itself, which was almost certainly more complicated than just “cuts versus same sex marriage” in reality, but the cut and dried answer I got from the aforementioned senior Lib Dem. For him, it was simple. For many Lib Dems, it is equally black and white. It’s pretty clear to me that that isn’t the case with Tim Farron; is it with Norman Lamb?

Clegg had a simple answer to every problem. He couldn’t have adopted the phrase “there is no alternative” as his personal mantra more if he had had it tattooed on his forehead. If he was ever burdened with self-doubt, he was excellent at getting over it lightning fast. He surrounded himself with people who shared his world view and he confidently strode forward, completely assured that he was wholly and completely right. And yet it turned out he was wrong. Repeatedly.

Norman Lamb seems keen to present himself in the same mould and to be fair it is likely to be popular, especially in the Lib Dems who, if you’ve ever been to a party conference, you can attest love their heroes. But I wonder if that combination of narrow ideological purity and “steady as she goes” self-confidence is really what the party needs right now.

None of this is to suggest that Norman Lamb as leader would turn out that way; he doesn’t strike me as Nick Clegg Mark Two at all personally. That’s part of the reason why I find his campaign so alienating. As the party’s champion of mental health issues, he surely understands better than most how self-doubt shouldn’t be treated as weakness; to live with depression and anxiety is to live with one big ideological grey area – “true liberals” need not apply. I’m confident that there’s a less self-righteous candidate lurking under his campaign’s veneer; I just wish he showed it a little more.

Andrew Hickey on drugs: half right

I’ve signally failed to blog about what has become known as Alan Johnson’s Nutt Sack. The appalling way in which this government is sliding into irrelevance – and how Her Majesty’s Opposition is always only too ready to act as an echo chamber on matters when this government is truly, spectacularly wrong, is both profoundly depressing and barely qualifies as news.

I was interested to read Andrew Hickey’s take on the affair over the weekend. On one level he is certainly right: the degree by which drugs should be prescribed or not should not be lead by science but by the harm principle. It should be up to the individual concerned to decide for themselves if they want to take a narcotic and possible harm themselves in the process – that isn’t any of the state’s business to get involved.

…at least up to a point. Where I perhaps part company with Andrew (I haven’t read all his comments I must confess) is that I think science plays a very crucial role in deciding where you draw the line between an individual making a personal choice and an addict blindly reaching out for the next fix. Just as Mill conceded that an individual should not have the “freedom” to sell themselves into slavery so we must accept that someone physically dependent on a drug is not exerting self-control. To what degree an addict is capable of making rational decisions is very much a matter for scientists to resolve.

The bottom line is, science can’t give you value-free policy and ideology-led, evidence-free policy is equally pernicious. What you need are values and principles underpinning the science. Thus a liberal drugs policy would indeed start from the harm principle but it would rely on scientists to flesh out a lot of the practicalities. Yes, a truly liberal policy would probably result in most drugs being legalised but that in itself would lead to all sorts of questions. What should the legal limit for driving under the influence of cocaine be for instance? Would you go so far as to legalise crack? Do you impose a tax to pay for the externalities and if so, how do you calculate it? What should government policy be on advertising and public health information campaigns. There are plenty of things for scientists to investigate.

In his slightly sarcastic defence of Alan Johnson, Andrew is very wrong in this respect: Nutt was offering scientific advice within the confines of the government’s own legal framework. Within those restrictions he was offering perfectly sound advice and pointing out its inherent contradictions. Johnson hasn’t been simply applying his own principles but besmirching the very principles which the government has for years claimed underpins the existing classification system.

Ultimately, modern science poses a lot of uncomfortable questions about to what extent we can be said to exert free will. We need to engage with that debate not merely wrap ourselves in Victorian philosophy and hope it will go away.

Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

I’ve got out of the habit of blogging my responses to the Lib Dem policy consultation papers of late but the Quality of Life one caught my eye and I thought I’d have a stab at it.

My overall response is that, while I applaud the party for wanting to tackle this issue and personally consider it to be very important, the direction that the consultation paper is taking somewhat concerns me. Unlike some, I don’t think this is an area where government should not intervene, but it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve and it would be better off taking fewer, more strategic decisions than attempting to meddle with every little issue.

I’m also increasingly coming to the conclusion that equality and quality of life are flipsides of the same coin (it is no coincidence that most people who disregard the former also dismiss the latter). To tackle one is to tackle the other, and vice versa. Having entirely seperate consultations on the two areas – the equality consultation begins at the next conference – is to a certain extent redundant.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my response. I will try to contain my comments to the questions in the paper (although such questions always irritate me so I am bound to drift off topic):

1. Should government be more concerned to increase their citizens’ wellbeing than their wealth? What is the proper role of government in promoting quality of life?

The answer to the first question is most definitely yes, but few would subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book are the ones where they compare the GDP of countries with life expectency (page 7) and happiness (page 9). What these charts show are that GDP, life expectency and happiness are related up to a certain point (around $25,000 per capita) and then level off. From that point onward, equality becomes a more defining factor.

So my tentative answer to the second question is that the role of government is to foster a political economy that is both healthy and where people are relatively equal. But it is absolutely crucial that the way we achieve that equality is itself equitable.

2. Should governments concentrate on minimising misery rather than augmenting happiness? If so, do they need to do more or less?

This is a bit of a silly question. I would answer that our goal should be more about “minimising misery” than “augmenting happiness” since the latter sounds a bit too Brave New World for my taste. But I’m not entirely convinced that the government should be especially concerned with either per se.

I’ve always been wary of the term “happiness” and its utilitarian ties. I understand that a lot of people use happiness and well-being as interchangeable terms but this question somewhat suggests that the author is thinking of happiness in rather more simplistic terms.

There are a variety of things we should be seeking to maximise: liberty, self-confidence, trust in society, questioning of authority, a sense of being in control of one’s life (indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter four – others disagree). These are things we should be concerning ourselves with, not gross “happiness”.

3. Are the ways our public services work detrimental to our quality of life?

In a lot of ways, yes. Far too often they undermine our need for self-control, demand unquestioning obedience and assume that society is a dark and sinister place. They need to be as transparent, accountable and democratic as possible and controlled at the lowest possible level.

4. What additional or alternative indicators should government use in place of GDP?

There are lots of different indicators we could use. The debate about alternative indicators has been going on for at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. It hasn’t got very far, partially because I think it misses the point.

I have a far stronger indicator for the state of the economy than GDP. It’s called the Maltesers Index. I’ve noticed that over the last six months, an increasing number of shops I walk into are trying to flog me packets of sweets at discount prices. Borders appear to have forgotten that their main trade is in books. The last time I walked into a WH Smiths you could barely reach the counter for all the bargain bins of confectionary they had put in front of it. I have a fairly good understanding of the economics of why that is, but I wouldn’t want the MI to guide national policy for the simple fact that the government could massively improve their figures by banning Maltesers. This wouldn’t actually help the economy – it would make things worse. What’s more I like Maltesers.

We can find all sorts of measurements, but they will always be open to abuse because they are prone to being gamed. What’s more, they have to feel real to people. Two major quality of life indicators have dominated public policy for decades – reported crime and the British Crime Survey – yet they are rarely referred to as such. Politicians tend to emphasise whichever of the two figures that are more helpful to them (in my view the BCS is better but it isn’t without its flaws) and the result is that we tend to distrust both of them. You could say the same about unemployment figures.

The fact is, government measures lots of things. We could measure a few more things but I’m not convinced it will change much. The best indicator in my book is the record of votes cast for whom in each election. We should try having an electoral system that reflects it at some point.

5. People are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life. What role should government play here? What happens if our liberal commitments to equality and freedom of choice appear to conflict with our desire to enable to enjoy a good quality of life?

This is a question that is crying out for a “for instance”. The simple answer is “it depends.”

Yes, people are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life, but governments are too. I’m not convinced that the solution is for the government to step in and meddle with every single solution. We need the government to be looking at more strategic shifts. This is why, for me, equality is such a big deal. The evidence before us suggests that by managing this shift, we could improve a whole range of social and health indicators in a way that hundreds of government programmes have been unable to match.

For the most part, the role of government should be to mitigate bad personal choices, not to prevent them. That of course brings in the question of moral hazard and there should certainly be a cost for making mistakes. But that isn’t the same thing as letting people rot.

Drugs policy is an excellent example. We know that taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin is generally not a very good idea, leading to addiction, the risk of overdose and mental health issues. Yet all attempts to restrict this choice have backfired. Yet all the experiments involving legalisation to one degree or another suggest that such an approach leads to fewer social problems and even less drug useage. Part of the lesson here is that by allowing people to make wrong choices and picking them up off the floor when they do, we enable them to make right choices in future instead of getting stuck in a cycle of desperation and criminality.

The real challenge to freedom of choice is the much cited tragedy of the commons, but I’m not convinced that simply removing choice or even costing in externalities will be the solution. Apart from anything else, such moves are not popular and the parties that propose easy solutions are the ones that tend to win at the ballot box. Mark van Vugt wrote an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of weeks ago challenging this and proposing an alternative approach, suggesting four “i”s: information, identity, institutions and incentives. Ultimately, if individual choices tend to be flawed then it is the role of the state to help inform those choices. In the longer term that will be more effective.

Are only classical liberals interested in saving money?

I was intrigued to see Mark Littlewood’s suggestion that Nick Clegg’s latest “In The Know” initiative is evidence of his innate classical liberalism.

Maybe Mark is right and inside Clegg there is a slash and burn tax cutter struggling to come out (it certainly seems like that at times), but the idea that saving money is a preserve of classical liberal/libertarians is bunk.

Way back in January I was the rapporteur for a session at the party’s policy conference where we discussed tax and spend. There didn’t appear to be many classical liberals sitting around the table with me but one of the things that exercised us all was how to make pledges to save spending that sound authentic rather than, to coin a cliche, the usual nonsense about cutting paperclips. It ended up forming one of the main things I ended up reporting back. It was just a brainstorming session, but it generated a lot of good ideas:

A said he was sceptical about efficiency savings, citing the Gershon Review and the James Review as ineffective attempts to do this.

B pointed out that the UK government spents £123bn per year on quangoes – the savings could come out of that. He suggested scrapping pay to sit on quangoes (although C pointed out that that would mean that only the wealthy would be able to afford to sit on boards).

He suggested that the current civil service encourages people to manage as much staff as possible. He suggested giving civil servants “financial incentives to do themselves out of a job.” Civil servants who managed to come up with money saving ideas should be rewarded with a proportion of the money they had managed to save. This idea seemed to enjoy broad support from within the group.

D said that, having worked in the public sector, she was disgusted by the level of waste she had seen. Too much pointless paperwork. She called for front line workforce to be “empowered.”

E was concerned that money saving measures would lead to redundancies, but the general view was that this would free up money that could be passed on a tax cuts (or spent differently).

F suggested more extensive use of the Sustainable Communities Act “right to know” how public bodies spend money within each local authority.

(Names deleted).

I like to think that our groups’ call for giving civil servants incentives to do themselves out of a job may have helped pave the way for In The Know, although of course I have no way of knowing if this submission was actually read by anyone rather than quietly shelved.

EXCLUSIVE: Charlotte Gore is not a witch – she’s a Nutter!

Okay, it isn’t particularly exclusive, but it does happen to be true. Sort of.

Anyway, now that I have your attention, I just wanted to respond to a couple of points that came out of Charlotte’s post earlier today in response to my post about ‘airbrushing.’ More precisely, I would draw your attention to the comments which for me perfectly outline the key difference between liberalism and libertarianism. As Joe Otten points out, it seems to boil down to whether or not you are a foundationalist (in my more perjorative terminology, I describe libertarianism as ‘religion-like’ but it amounts to the same thing). Although I describe myself as a pragmatist, I don’t mean that in the strict, philosophical sense. My ‘pragmatism’ – as I outlined yesterday – is closer to critical rationalism.

The Devils Kitchen doctrine of “listen [to the evidence] and then ridicule the idiots who proposed it anyway” pretty much sums up libertarianism for me. It emerged in the 17th century and then stayed there. In that sense it is quite profoundly anti-historical. Only a libertarian could brand me a “bansturbator” and demand I get hurled out of the Lib Dems for demanding actual evidence before supporting a ban.

One thing I would take issue with is Charlotte’s claim that at least libertarianism is consistent (unlike liberalism). It isn’t that I disagree that libertaarianism isn’t consistent – it certainly is. But it is just plain wrong to argue that liberals are necessarily any less so. The comments by Joe Otten and Richard Gadsden expose how easy it is to end up in some pretty daft places if you “consistently” apply libertarian principles, no matter how much its exponents might squeal “foul” – that is hardly a strength.

The blogosphere’s obsession with libertarianism isn’t mirrored outside of it at all. It will be interesting to see if it turns out to be just a temporal fad or has some lasting impact, but either way I can’t see it ever breaking out into the mainstream. I suspect that its exponents will ultimately fall into two camps: people who ultimately decide that they can’t hold onto the strict tenets of libertarianism and evolve into liberals, and the ones who end up breaking out the Kool-Aid. I do hope Charlotte finds herself in the former category. Her admission that actual facts do matter to her, and the subsequent disapproval that she elicited suggests there’s hope for her yet.

Airbrushing: will Jo Swinson blind us with science?

Having been away for a week, I didn’t comment on the proposals to ban the airbrushing of models which will be debated at the Lib Dem conference next month.

The real problem about commenting on this is that we have yet to see the full proposals. The Lib Dem blogosphere, particularly the Libertarians, love to get terribly exercised at the prospect of banning things. It’s just not liberal! we are constantly reminded, or more precisely, it is Fundamentally Illiberal (complete with scary looking capitalisation). Personally however, I tend to take a more evidence-based approach before banging on about John fucking Mill (I think the Lib Dems should produce their own God Trumps inspired Liberal Trumps, with the Mill card always winning. It would save a lot of time). Philosophy is always reached for, psychology or sociology almost never. It is as if the last 100 years never happened. More to the point, it is as if dualism was never critiqued. Frankly, if we did all live in a state of complete seperation of mind and body, the libertarians would have a point. The fact that time and again we learn that environmental factors affect behaviour is a problem they have never come to terms with.

With all that said, I remain somewhat sceptical of this proposed policy. What exactly are we going to ban, for example? When Jo Swinson talks about “air brushing” is she talking literally or figuratively? If the idea is some tightening up of existing advertising guidelines, including a general prohibition against promoting an ideal body image to children, then I would look a lot more favourably to it it than a blanket ban on “airbrushing.” There is a real danger of confusing the medium for the message here. Is it really okay to promote images of “perfect” bodies so long as they are produced with the use of lighting and lenses rather than Photoshop?

The proposed rules about advertising aimed at adults sound, if anything, more difficult to regulate. If augmentation is okay so long as it is admitted to, how big will the disclaimer have to be? 8-point text where you won’t notice? A fag packet-proportioned 50%? Will it just be beauty products targeted or all advertising? Will film posters, Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives, have to carry the same disclaimers?

But fundamentally, where is the evidence behind any of this? Thus far, the only statistic I’ve seen anywhere is a 47% increase in under-18s admitted to hospital for anorexia or bulimia treatment. That is clearly bad, but is it a spike or a trend? And what evidence is there that such a ban would change behaviour?

In the case of restrictions on smoking there was a lot of evidence produced, over decades. You might quibble about some of it. You might argue that we went too far, or that we acted too slowly. But the debate was evidence-led. What I haven’t seen thus far is anything to suggest that a ban like this would achieve anything. What would an airbrushing ban achieve that won’t be immediately be undone by all those Barbies, Bratz and Disney Princesses? You don’t need photographs to sell fantasy to children (or indeed anyone).

I’m not against bans in principle. If a judicious ban or restriction here and there can help people exercise their own personal judgement instead of being influenced by a bombardment of propaganda, then in principle it is the only liberal thing to do. But it has to be evidence-based and in most cases I’m not convinced there really is that much evidence out there at the moment. I have yet to be convinced that the new Lib Dem policy paper is going to make a case for restricting “airbrushing” – here’s hoping that it contains, to quote the immortal words of Jennifer Aniston, a pretty damn meaty “science bit.”

Why I just can’t get enough of bannng lightbulbs

I wrote my article earlier this week on the Daily Mail’s bonkers line about a sinister EU plot to ban traditional lightbulbs primarily to point out quite how many non-facts were in the story. I should have remembered the golden rule – nonsense begets nonsense. Because the next thing I knew I was getting ticked off, not for making any factual errors, but for advancing the cause for banning things (yes Jennie, I am talking about you).

There is a certain degree of irony in this, having pontificated about the perils of banning things myself from time to time. When it comes to bans, Rob Knight gets to the heart of things:

what about when trying to control the bigger picture is just as harmf ul as ignoring it?

Well exactly. Indeed, I would go further than that. You need more justification for a ban than simply some narrow cost-benefit analyis. You can justify pretty much anything that way. Where bans are bad is when they become about bullying and forcing conformity (the tricky thing being that sometimes not banning can have the same effect).

So it is that, eighteen months down the line – and despite being a non-smoker and enjoying the benefits – I’m still not comfortable about the smoking ban. Patio-heaters, and thus a cost to the environment, have not become quite as ubiquitous as we were promised they were – although that has clearly been a problem. The fact that every single bit of shelter on the London streets now reeks of tobacco as smokers have taken up semi-permanent residence, is an unfortunate by-product but still nicer than the alternative. Why I’m uncomfortable about the smoking ban is that I simply don’t believe that the dangers of passive smoking actually outweigh the denial of the smoker’s liberty – particularly given that as a non-smoker I always did have at least a degree of choice to avoid smoky pubs, etc. I appreciate it was a balancing act but I continue to think the wrong call was made. Furthermore, the more I consider the class angle and the fact that anti-smoking policies seem to be generating a small, inevitably poor, hardcore who are more addicted than ever, the more uneasy I get. These policies are helping those who need help the least while harming the most vulnerable.

That it was a balancing act at all however, is a fact that is not recognised by the libertarian right, who only consider the restriction on the smoker as material. And this gets to the heart of why I don’t frankly have much time for libertarianism. It is a fetishised, parodic version of liberalism in which personal liberty trumps everything (except money). Libertarians have it easy; they never need to consider anything other than the fact that all bans are automatically Wrong.

Going back to lightbulbs, the calculation seems extremely one sided if you accept the need for urgent action on climate change. Incandescent lightbulbs are not a lifestyle choice but a different way of producing light less efficiently. If you don’t define their dominance as a market failure (General Electric even originally decided to shelve the design of Compact Fluorescent Lights as soon as they were invented – they were only produced at all because the designs were “leaked” and copies made), I seriously question how you define market failure. We could try taxing incandescent bulbs and try gradually phasing them out like that I suppose, but that would be even less popular.

And the arguments in favour of keeping them? That CFLs are “too dim” (they aren’t)? The interests of the snake-owning, lava-lamp demographic (even that is contested)? 33 year old studies on fluorescent bulbs based on miniscule sample sizes? Come on!

There may well be a killer argument out there for not phasing out incandescent bulbs, but I haven’t heard one yet. You’re entitled to disagree with me of course, but until you can come up with a stronger argument, implying that supporting phasing them out is illiberal is simply lazy.

Commenting Freely on Nick Clegg

My article on Clegg’s Demos speech is now up on Comment is Free:

At a time when the Department for Work and Pensions is to be put under renewed pressure, limiting talk of social justice to tax cuts is unconvincing. What’s worse, it is clearly failing to win people over. Today’s ICM poll may show us slightly up, but over the past year the trend has been slightly down. Too much faith has been placed on Vince Cable’s punditry being capable of lifting the rest of the party up with it. Vince has bought the party enormous repositories of credibility but (whisper it) he is an economist not a campaigner. We have no story; we don’t even have any strong, positive messages.

This article was written before Clegg announced his Green Road Out of Recession. So, please note my addendum in the comments!

One Year On: Orange Bookers Found Wanting

If the newspapers are anything to go by, Nick Clegg has taken the party irreversibly to the right; we are all economic liberals now.

Strange then that, on the day Clegg marks his first year as leader he unveils a policy of purist Keynsianism. Still, as the old saying goes: if you have a reputation as an early riser you can lie in until noon.

The Green Road Out Of Recession is not merely not a tax cut – it is an alternative to a tax cut. That low rumbling noise you can here is David Laws’ teeth grinding.

But I am here to praise Clegg, not bury the so-called Orange Bookers. I was relatively supportive in principle of a VAT cut; a VAT cut is better than the Tory plan to do nothing. The Green Road Out of Recession is better still.

Cobden’s complaint that the money won’t be spent immediately is, to use his choice turn of phrase “utter bollocks.” If the UK government were committed to this plan, it could start handing out cash to private contractors within a matter of days. That would mean saving real jobs at a vulnerable time; jobs and skills that no fiscal stimulus could save.

Reading through it all (pdf), it really is a great piece of policy work, matching campaign objectives with specific costings. In short, it is everything Make it Happen and Clegg’s ill-advised blagging about vast bulky tax cuts was not. On top of that, it offers economic relief in the short term followed by a boost to our environmental and social goals in the longer term. Steve Webb deserves hearty congratulations. It kicks caboose.

Fundamentally, it shows that for all his talk about not wanting statist solutions, there is still a real place for precisely that. In this case, one of purest economics, the more rightwing economic liberals simply have nothing to say. They’re whole case is built on a presumption on excess capacity and endless growth; as soon as both those presumptions go out of the window all they can do is stare dumbly.

So at end of a… variable year, I find myself with a big smile on my face. A clear sign that we are going in the right direction at last. Here’s hoping the next twelve months will have a lot more days like today in it.