Friday, 24 June 2011

Finkelstein misses the holy grail of Richard Wainwright's liberalism

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Let us ignore the odd sensation that passed over me at breakfast this morning when I realised I was reading the same book as the Times columnist Danny Finkelstien. Unfinished Business is the title of Matt Cole's biography of the man for whom  many Liberal activists had the utmost affection and  respect -Richard Wainwright. I regret that once again Finkelstien is tone deaf when it comes to Liberals.He has previous for just not hearing the notes or catching the tune when it comes to us. He was after all an acolyte of David Owen whose dissonant atonal contribution served for a season to distract us from our task..

Finkelstien concedes that Liberal consistently held true to certain principles which he identifies as internationalism, political reform and co-operation between parties. Few would doubt Wainwright internationalism. Throughout his early life the dark shadow of  an impending war dominated politics. He worked to build up those institutions which would promote collective security which he believed could avert war. He was highly sceptical about militarism, and loyal to his internationalism especially European integration throughout his life. He would not have been comfortable with the delight that the coalition government displays in not playing a full part in  stabilising the European economy and he would have no truck with regime change as an objective of foreign policy especially if it was pursued through military action. Like most Liberals he rejected the idea of a British nuclear capacity and as Cole records he was at one with the Party Assembly when it threw out the plan of Dr Owen for a Anglo /French bomb. In these matters he was in the mainstream of the party and firmly represented those views to the Leadership-what is regrettable is that these principles are still the mainstream views of our party but there is no adequate champion of them that is heard in remote and secure corridors where the leadership dwells where only those who agree gain ready access.

No Liberal would dissent from political reform being a core principle. Britain needs it as much now as it ever did . For Wainwright this meant not only electoral reform, abolition of the House of Lord and all the familiar agenda it also meant devolution of power to the provinces of England. Unlike the Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish and Londoners we have no intermediate centres of democratically accountable decision taking. England remains the most centralised state in Europe.

But where Finkelstien's tin ear is most obvious is in the identification of co-operation between parties as one of the core principles to which Wainwright clung. Like anyone who advocate PR Wainwright readily accepted that  it would lead to coalitions. But crucially for Richard it was cooperation for a purpose. There were Liberal for whom cooperation was an end in itself. David Steel was one. For him the Lib/Lab pact's mere existence was reason enough to sustain it. He simply could not see the objection that Wainwright-once more in perfect tune with party members -made that we were failing to make policy gains. I was on the Policy Committee at the time - Wainwright was chairing -and we drew up a list of policy demands. It was the abject failure to achieve those plans that led Richard to act to end the pact. He had many misgivings about the SDP/Liberal Alliance and the merged party and wrote one of his most blistering private letters to Steel about the 'dead parrot 'policy document that Steel had sponsored with Bob Maclennan to appease the likes of Finkelstien. The Local Government unit at LPO helped break up the pacts that existed with Wainwright's support. Here in Southport we had a pact with Labour and that went as did the pacts at a parliamentary level in Bolton and Huddersfield. Co-operation between parties was not a principle in its own right and certainly not an ideology as Finkelstien asserts, it was a means to achieve political objectives.

As Matt Cole records for Wainwright the holy grail of Liberalism was industrial democracy, co-ownership, outright employee ownership. Countless Liberals could attest to the accuracy of that assertion and Cole has an impeccable source in Caroline Cawston Richard's long time secretary.  If Richard was alive today I think we can be certain that Clegg would have by now have received countless trenchant letters from him upbraiding him for ignoring this central priority for Liberals. In many ways this is a policy which Liberals championed pretty well alone in the wilderness and  whose time has now come. We hear Tories and Labour politicians talking about a watered down version of the radical policy Richard steadfastly advocated.  The aim was full economic citizenship for employees so that they have at least  the same rights as shareholders. How different British industry would have been if all the short-termism of those investing capital had been tempered by the need to gain the consent of employees for their plans. All those destructive schemes that led to takeovers funded by leveraging and other financial alchemy that had no regard to the long term interests of a business would surely have been vetoed by a workforce whose objective  was not to turn a fast buck and then be off. How different British industry would be if it looked to invest in training and research because it knew that was the way to achieve long term viability rather than simply to build short term shareholder value. How much healthier our society would be if wealth and power was more even spread. The evidence is clear that employee owned businesses do not have the same excessive wage bills for their senior staff. How much better it would be to have employees holding management to account rather than absent shareholders who want to play no part in the running of the business as long as it pays a dividend. Cooperation in business was the holy grail for Richard and as he often told Liberal Assemblies 'labour should hire capital'- a harmonious and very different road to recovery and growth than the Clegg 'plan'

Matt Cole's book can be found on Amazon or ordered from good local bookshops

This post was featured in Liberal England's Six of the Best   

Olly Grender commented on this post on twitter:
Good blog re a much missed liberal, love bit re employees......................
For which much thanks. Ms Grender seems to give marks to blog postings. David Allen Green at the New Statesman does 'excellent' postings.  Mine was 'good'. It sounds very reminiscent of Osfted. If you complete the sequence there must be 'satisfactory' and 'unsatisfactory' postings
Danny Finkelstienwho wrote the original article in the Times on 'Liberals and their Eccentric heritage' also commented on Twitter:
thank you for your fascinating post which I read with genuine interest and learned from. I take your point.....
Now that I quite appreciated, but he went on:
I am somewhat reassured by having received emails from people v close to Mr Wainwright saying they felt I had him "spot on"...and I do try to sympathise with the party and understand it. I regret if you feel I failed but am grateful for the engagement.

I suppose I should concede I was not as concise in my objections as I should have been. The first point is that I should have taken issue is the use of 'eccentric'. I did not find Richard Wainwright, his views or his actions 'eccentric' . On the contrary they were the actions of a deeply serious and principled man. Using the adjective eccentric does tend to make it feel as if Richard's life and contribution was being mocked and diminished even if it was done without malice. Now their were eccentrics around in the party-Freud, Bessel, Smith etc. There are eccentrics in every party. what do you call Harvey Proctor, Nicholas Fairburn or the Wintertons,  but I would not have put RSW in that category. I fear it was written that way to make the party sound irrelevant.

The second issue -and the heart of the posting-was what I consider to be a missed placed assertion that one of RSW's top principle's which DF likened to an ideology was a belief in inter party co operation. Now working with others in a 'non tribal' way is proper for Liberals. Nevertheless I think it is to misread RSW to say he promoted it to an ideology. He was after all one of the biggest and most consistent busters of pacts an alliances.  He was at the heart of breaking the post war local government alliances that existed across the North-here in Southport we had a Lib/Lab one but most were Lib/Con.  He sided with those who wanted to break the parliamentary alliances that let us win seats in Bolton and Huddersfield. He was key to the fall of the Lib/Lab pact and later less than enthusiastic for the SDP/Lib Alliance or the merged party. So I think he was pro working with others for a purpose but not just airily in favour of inter party cooperation in the way that Steel was. To that extent I think DF misread him.

And finally this posting was one of Lib Dems Golden Dozen this week listed in the 'most popular category'

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