Saturday, 27 December 2014

Full review of Unlocking Liberalism with additional thoughts-no website, no e book not alot of a launch...

 I have been posting my review of Unlocking Liberalism in instalments. Below is the full version with added observations.

Firstly I should record what an excellent initiative this is and how impressive are the collection of authors that Liberal Futures have gathered.
Secondly given how impressive the book is and how professionally it has been produced and the quality of the writing it is a mystery to me why the group did not invest a fraction of the time and effort they had put in to launch the publication. At no cost they could have had a website /blog to stimulate the discussion. Working with partners they could have had a launch at Glasgow, Liberator or SLF would have been obvious collaborators. And they could have also published online-not necessarily the whole book but releasing one or two of the essays as 'teasers' would have worked and I suspect more than paid for itself in increased sales. None of that should detract from the positive things about this project.

Unlocking Liberalism: Life after the Coalition, published by Liberal Futures.

Leave that bundle of Focus undelivered by the door, switch off the phone and send your apologies to all the time boring meetings; there are more important things to do. A new book of essays has been published by a group of Liberal Scots. Its self-proclaimed objective is ‘….to re-establish the anti-establishment, challenging, coruscating radicalism which is our party at its best…’ The editors Robert Brown, Gillian Gloyer and Nigel Lindsay have brought together an inspired group of thinkers who bring us the hope that there is life for radical Liberalism after the travail of the past five year.

The standout essay of the collection is Nigel Dower’s on Liberalism. He takes the ideas associated with New Liberalism and the writings of Hobhouse and Green and makes them fresh and relevant for this generation; greened, decentralised and internationalist. He contrasts these radical liberal ideas, which are predicated on social justice, with the fashionable libertarian ideas which underpin the small state and ultra free marketeers and their allies in the Chicago School of Economics. It is an impressive contribution and lays a solid foundation for the ideas that follows.

The dozen or more essays that follow examine five areas: The Financial Crash and its Aftermath, the UK, Europe and the World, Strategy, Power and Values and Geographical Justice in a Global Age. The Editors make clear the challenge we face, it is, as Lindsay says quoting Jo Grimond -to be on the side of the governed not the government. It requires a programme the offers ‘hope and opportunity, enhances freedom and life chances’.

There is a grotesque disparity of wealth and income in our society and that directly impacts on people’s opportunities to fulfil their potential; or as the 1928 Yellow Book asserted; the end of all our policies was that men and women ‘may have life and have it more abundantly’, take your pick but economic disadvantage undermines that aspiration for too many of our citizens. In line with Dower’s essay this is identified as a key barrier to building a liberal society. Time and again the writer return to this issue. 

In the section ‘The Financial Crash and its Aftermath’ the full extent of our economy’s failure to deliver prosperity for all is laid bare. Liberator readers will be familiar with the SLF Plan C for the economy and that approach is advocated here. The failings of the banking system and the continuing need for radical reform are rehearsed with ideas for establishing a network of regional banks ‘arranged as mutual or co-operatives’. These ‘would have close links to local businesses and a stake in their success’ -very similar to the Basque Caja Laboral Popular Cooperativa de Crédito which impressed Grimond and which he saw as a model for the Highlands.

The maldistribution of income is repeatedly challenged. Wages for Super Managers have surged ahead far beyond the point that is justified by the contribution they make to the enterprises they head up. They sit on each other’s remunerations committees ratcheting up the ‘going rate’.  For large numbers of other people wages have stagnated or fallen in real terms.

Liberals in the post war years predicted this development.  The Unservile State, a collection of essays that helped launched Grimond’s radical ideas and was the first major Liberal publication since the Yellow Book drew on ideas of decentralisation and Distributism. In it Peter Wiles essay ‘Property and Equality’-discussed the growing divorce between legal ownership and management control. In ’56 Anthony Crosland in the Future of Socialism had looked at the significance in both practical and ideological ways. For him it underlined the irrelevance of the traditional socialist plan for state ownership. Wiles thought differently, absentee ownership through limited liability meant ‘the absentee shareholder in a modern limited company was the possessor of a mere scrap of paper which entitles him to a certain payment by a remote and unknown agent’. Shareholders rarely exercised power and control it had passed to managers separate from owners. This may have meant, as Crosland said, that state socialism was dead but it also precluded the Liberal aim widespread employee ownership and industrial democracy.

It was on these authentic Liberal ideas that Liberal Leaders from Grimond through to Ashdown built. In his 1985 book David Steel set himself the task of winning the intellectual argument against Thatcher’s new free market Conservatism. Like James Meade, who contributed a chapter to the book, Steel recognised that wages were not growing as fast as the dividends received by the owners of capital. The fear was abroad that cheap labour from new economies, the impact of automation holding down wages and the consequent reduction of the bargaining power of workers would lead to unemployment and insecurity. Steel advocated a ‘substantial part of the average person’s take home pay should not be expressed as a regular wage but as a share of profits or value added in the company to which he or she has contributed’. Meade argued another way to redistribute income from property was for the state acquiring a share and distributing the income either as a citizen wage or through ‘the payment of social benefits on more generous terms’.  When these ideas are added to long standing Liberal proposals to break up concentrations of wealth through levying inheritance taxes on those who receive bequests rather than on the estate, we are approaching the goal of ‘Ownership for All’ and the economic security and independence that results.

In the published Liberator review I did not have the space to explore how those authentic alternative liberal ideas could be developed. I have long been concerned that we have concentrated too much on redressing poverty and insecurity by handing out doles rather than addressing the underlying problem- the misdistribution of ownership. To significant extent since Paddy stepped down as Leader these ideas has lost out to the assertive and well funded policy coup led by what is popularly, if not accurately, known as the Orange Bookers.  
Despite the indifference of our party to effectively pursuing Ownership for All there has been some academic interest. Stuart White has summed up the contribution that could be made to mainstream politics by that alternative liberal vision in a recent article . The ideas are further fleshed out in the free ebook 'Democratic Wealth' and readers may find chapter 10 of particular interest.

As a Young Liberal 40 plus years ago I was used to hearing Richard Wainwright tell Liberal Assemblies that  the end objective of our economic/industrial policy was that labour should hire capital. Paddy in his book Citizen Britain took up that idea writing that 'in some cases, the present situation will be reversed…with workers employing capital and even hiring their own management’

White points out in his article that 'Liberals argued that capital’s authority in the firm ought to be limited by workers’ rights to consultation and participation in structures of co-determination. The right of capital to control the firm is not absolute. The right to invest in a firm is conditional, on this view, on accepting workers’ rights to share in authority at various levels of decision-making. Participation rights here can include representation on works’ councils and on firms’ governing bodies. The rationale for this was again in part about alleged work relations and productivity, but also about inherent justice. In the words of one Liberal party report from the 1960s' ( which I am guessing was Wainwright's one and only published pamphlet):
Just as there is a difference between a citizen and a mere subject, so there is a difference between an employee who is simply hired by his company and one who shares, officially and formally, in the ultimate power to determine the company’s aims and call its directors to account.

At every Glee Club we sing The Land, the essence of the Georgist plan is explained by White as

'One strand in the liberal philosophical tradition, for example, argues that natural resources such as land are fundamentally the property of all. If individuals wish to use those resources for private purposes, they may do this. But they must pay the community for the privilege. Taxes, e.g., a land value tax, can be used to ‘charge’ natural resource users for their appropriation of part of the commons. The funds can then be recycled to citizens as a basic income, reflecting their right to an equal share of the underlying resources.'

 I was critical of Stephen William's idea of handing out bank shares when the state owned banks are sold off. My preference was for them to be established as mutual. The experience of privatisations and de mutualisation of Building Societies is that it does nothing redistribute ownership in the long term. In pretty short order the shares were hovered up by the usual suspects. Professor Meades ideas od establishing a citizen share as an option is still very attractive. We have bank privatisation, fracking licences and who knows what else coming along. There is now some practical experience with these ideas from Alaska where the citizen dividend is working 

The writers of the Unlocking Liberalism identified the big issue of social inequality. We now need to come up with a plan that permanently redresses the unbalanced way that ownership is understood in Britain. This is the big debate we have not had. The ideas of Professor Meade and other Liberal like Elliot Dodds have much to teach us.



David Steel also contributes a chapter this book reflecting on the implications of the Scottish Referendum. Hibernophiles everywhere will be delighted to see references to the Darien Scheme, Aine Satyre on the Three Estates, and phrases like ‘tachraidh na daoine, ach cha tachairna cnuic, and a proper anger at the unbalanced development of our economy to the disadvantage of the majority caused by the concentration on London. Tony Hughes expresses this well in his essay: ‘London versus the Rest’. But this is not a tartan shortbread box portrait of Scotland, it is resolutely focussed on the here and now in a country with low wages, insecure jobs and homes and where (despite the Edinburgh Parliament) political decision making can be remote and alienating. It is good to read such a robust defence of federalism entrenched in a written constitution. We Northerners could do with a similar manifesto to ward off a London answer to the English question. Glasgow may have the biggest City Deal-£1billion- but if you asked the Scots to have it as an alternative to their Parliament it doesn’t take much imagination to guess their response. We should not settle for less.


A great strength of this collection are the reflections on the constitutional upheavals that must surely come. This not only encompasses the rest of the UK but our relations with Europe and the wider world. David Steel’s thoughts based on his time as Co-Chair of the successful Scottish Convention have important pointer for those of us south of the border who wish to see powerful Regional Assemblies established and he challenges us to think again about the role of the second chamber, the Senate, in a federal constitution. But some of the best insights come from those like Ross Finnie and Robert Brown who served as Ministers in the Holyrood Parliament. I think they are very restrained given their successful time in Coalition Government. It must be galling to hear the crass comments coming from some of the Ministers in the present Westminster Government posing as the first Liberals in Government since WW1.


The Scots have a lot to teach us about how to prepare for and run a Coalition whilst keeping the party together. In this regard Caron Lindsay also has some wise things to say in her essay. It is appropriate the heading of this section is Strategy, Power and Values. It is important to affirm that entering a coalition is a political act and not just a managerial response to a set of circumstances. Nigel Lindsay in his Chapter, Future Challenges for Liberalism makes this point and goes on to say ‘Our party, which voters once identified with an agenda of reform and social justice, has lost much of the trust it had on these issues. The Party will need to work very hard, once the coalition has ended, to persuade voters that it is still capable of radical action to help the least well-off to meet their aspirations.’ The first challenge to face up to the truth of that statement and the next is to develop a new radical programme to respond to this situation. Lindsay identifies three serious threats to the possibility using political power to create the conditions in which people can exercise the positive freedom that is the objective of Social Liberalism. 

Political power is not what it once was in the new global economy. Government’s room for manoeuvre is constrained by the power of large international corporations who have larger budgets and greater power than some governments that seek to regulate them. Secondly he identifies ‘the globalisation of what we ironically call financial services, and the mass movement of money by financial institutions and hedge fund speculators over which governments have little control. The third threat is ‘the mass movement of people fleeing from despotic and incompetent regimes, which is certain to have a substantial impact on all parts of Europe over the next decade or two.’ None of these threats will be rectified by ‘leaving it to the market’.

There was little fanfare when this book was launched. There was no fringe meeting at the Federal Conference in Glasgow and no website to taken on the debate and I think that was a mistake.

Social Liberals have not been slow to fire up the debate about the future Liberalism. The Little Yellow Book (the first offering of this Scottish grouping), Re-inventing the State, The Green Book and now Unlocking Liberalism all testify to a determination to face the intellectual challenges of C21st. It also the give the lie to the comment made by Tim Farron when he told a fringe meeting: ‘my answer to those on the Left of the party who criticise The Orange Book is: write your own flippin book’. We have, and as a recent poll on Lib Dem Voice confirms the majority of Party members self-identify as members of the Social Liberal tradition.

All thing considered we have hope that after the coalition we can build a Radical Future for this party, we must hold together, add to this debate and go and deliver those Focus that you’ve left by the door.

Order Unlocking Liberalism, cheques for £11 (incl p&p) made payable to Liberal Futures 4 Church Road, Bo'ness, EH51 0EL

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