Saturday, 29 January 2011

Are these the most influential Liberal pamphlets of the last century ? part three

Part one here and part two here

Part Three 

I have been looking at a couple of pamphlets that have a claim to be the most influential of the last century-We can conquer Unemployment and Ownership for All. There are of course others for which I could advance the same claim: Donald Wade's 'Our Aim and Purpose' 1961 which sold an amazing 100,000 copies, Greaves and Lishman 'Theory and Practice of Community Politics' 1980 or Jo Grimond's  'Growth not Grandeur' 1961. (1961 was obviously a very good year seemingly producing more than in the whole Thorpe/Steel era) But for the time being let us stick the original two and consider how the ideas and principles that they asserted can be relevant today.

Ownership for All 1938 has as the Liberal History Group Journal 2005 records,:.......stood the test of time better than many of the so-called radical tracts of the 1930s, and many of its arguments would be regarded as mainstream, if not left-wing, today. It was a radical attack on the maldistribution of wealth and property in inter-war Britain – inequalities which it described as ‘gross and shocking’. The uneven spread of property prevented equality of opportunity, wasted social resources, reduced consumer choice and menaced democracy by providing a recruiting ground for Fascism. The report rejected outright any absolute right of property and insisted on society’s right to modify laws of inheritance to reduce inequality and spread wealth. ........ maintain and expand the social services; and to place before all the opportunities of a full life hitherto open only to the rich. In a word, the Liberal view is that it is the function of the State ‘to create the conditions of liberty’… 

I was immediately uncomfortable when Clegg seemed to be to be shifting ground on this agenda in his article in the Guardian when he seemed to be trying to ditch redistribution and presenting social mobility as an alternative rather than as a complimentary idea. This does all seem to fly in the face of the Liberal tradition in Britain back to Mill. Stuart Whites article make the same point in more depth. Clegg is simply wrong and Liberals have for generations argued for minimum wages and even a strong steer on maximum wages. Even in our globalised economy there are steps we can take to achieve greater equality of income. We should not be mealy mouth about our ambitions. When we come to look a ownership we can see how different models of the firm other that the existing dominant one based on increasing share value do militate against excessive wages.
In the same area the long standing Liberal commitment to using the state to rectify the maldistibution of wealth cannot be denied. It is an issue which engaged  J S Mill and Liberal thinkers ever since. It is central to the proposition in Ownership for All. Inequality of power needs to be addressed. It is protected by accumulations of wealth. It is bad for society. Chapter 19 of the Yellow Book begins  ...'It is a formidable charge against the existing economic order that it has divided society into a small class of owners who live by owning, and a very large class of workers whose labours enrich their owner........the fact to be faced is that discrepancies now in this country are now so glaring, and consciousness of them so acute, that the resulting discontent endangers the continuance of economic progress itself.' Both the Yellow Book and Ownership for All (OfA)have very robust calls for increase in Inheritance Taxes. 

OfA  identifies that 1% of the population owns more than 60% of the wealth.and this is blamed on inheritance, monopoly, and regressive taxation. And as the quotation shows Dodds et al  found this state of affairs 'gross and shocking'
In Britain today only about 5.4% of estates attract death duties. Right wing organisation have managed to establish the widespread belief that the figure is much higher with recent research revealing that it is widely believed to impact of between 25%-49% of estates.We could do with some robust Liberal campaigning to share the wealth. I well recall Tories telling me that inheritance tax would deter people from working hard and being thrifty. Personally I can think of few things more likely to make you idle than inheriting a fortune and not having to work! As J S Mill remarked about owners; 'why should they grow rich in their sleep, without working risking or economising' .  The authors of OfA certainly understood that the maldistribution of ownership undermined equal opportunities and had to be rectified.

Well I've got to nip out to sort a problem about the non collection of bins in Eastbourne Rd but I shall return to look at plans for creating a fair distribution of wealth and options that are available to us today.

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