Friday, 16 March 2018

Four Go In Search of Big Ideas

I am one of the The ‘Four’ who came together 60 years after George Watson’s book The Unservile State unleashed a host of radical, liberal and distributivist ideas. We believe the time has come for a new initiative, building on those ideas and new ones for the world we now inhabit.

Our excellent Independent Bookshop
is stocking the book
We are angry and frustrated about the state of politics in Britain, it is too short term, too tribal and fails to face up to some of the big challenges that confront our nation and our planet.

The new book, which is available from Broadhurst’s Bookshop in Southport, attempts to look at some of those issues. We approached people from across the progressive political spectrum to contribute. I am pleased that we got an excellent response. Independent academics, politicians from different parties and none were involved, they put aside party differences to discuss important issues.
As the introduction to the book, Four Go in Search of Big Ideas, makes clear that ya-boo culture in politics is stopping progress:

Helen Flynn editor, is joined at the launch by
Prof David Howarth and Rt Hon Ed Davey

‘Challenging conventional wisdom is hard work, particularly when it’s embedded in public opinion or party stereotypes. We need to break down the barriers between political tribes which inhibit open discussion on big policy issues such as those addressed in this book. Many of these ideas are broadly shared by people of a progressive perspective across party boundaries. Our goal is not just to win political office and to manage the system within the constraints of existing opinions and prejudices. We want to create a shared analysis of problems and a new political narrative so that we can forge a new future based on very different attitudes.’
Please support Broadhurst’s our local independent bookshop, but if for any reason you can’t get there the book is online at

There are three main sections of the book, Economics, Welfare Society and Climate Change and a final essay on Europe

I was chiefly involved in the first section for which I wrote the introduction and which includes essays by Professor David Howarth, Stuart White, David Boyle and Vince Cable. This section clearly follows on from the Unservile State. The first two essays grapple with maldistribution of ownership and challenge the current rights that accrue to ownership in the British economy. Both draw on the long radical tradition including Mill, Keynes and Meade. This was dominant tradition in the party of my youth. At the time of George Watson's book a battle for the soul of our party was being fought out between those who wanted to turn the party into a 'free market' economic sect and social liberals under the banner of the Radical Reform Group. A generation later the proponents of the 'sect' re-emerged with the Orange Book. David Howarth's magisterial reassertion of the social liberal position is worth the £9.50 by itself, but in addition we have Stuart White rehearsing the importance of that tradition and challenging us to reconnect with those ideas.

I shall return to the final essays by David Boyle and Vince Cable but for now here is and extract from David Howarth:

Professor David Howarth, formerly LibDem MP for Cambridge, contributes to the new Social Liberal Forum book with a powerful, closely argued essay on Liberal economics. This an extract:
Here is a puzzle: if JS Mill, JM Keynes and James Meade were all Liberals and economists, what is a ‘neo-liberal’ economist? One might have thought that it would be someone who updated their thought to consider new facts and new problems.
In a highly successful example of propaganda and disinformation, ‘neoliberal’ has come to mean the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. But those doctrines are anything but ‘neo’. They hark back to the era before Mill. We need to rectify names. Instead of ‘neo-liberals’ the followers of Hayek and Friedman might be called ‘paleo-partial liberals’.
The next step is to reclaim the Liberal tradition. That was the avowed aim of the editors of the Orange Book, but what some of them seemed to mean was not updating Mill, Keynes and Meade but abandoning them in favour of paleo-partial liberalism. Admittedly the diagnosis was not entirely wrong. The Liberal Democrats, as a political party, had wandered a long way from the Liberal tradition and had succumbed to various forms of conventional wisdom.
But the most distinctive feature of Liberal policy was its stance on corporate governance. From Mill onwards, through the Yellow Book to support for codetermination, Liberals argued for a different way of organising firms, not as hierarchical structures dominated by the owners of capital but as partnerships between labour and capital, incorporating democratic representation. James Meade provided a continuation and deepening of this tradition that should have formed the basis of the merged party’s position.
The Liberal Party showed interest in another intellectual movement pre-figured by Mill, ecological economics and rejection of GDP growth as a universal measure of success.
The way forward, as seen from the early 1980s, was a new synthesis of old themes: economic policy should be aimed at political liberation; the market is a useful tool but not a God; the aim of political liberation encompasses reform of the internal organisation of firms on a more democratic basis; and the search for endless environmentally damaging economic growth is a painful phase elongated by mistakes of policy. Added to those older themes a newer theme was awaiting incorporation, the theme of community, which was the centre of the party’s community politics but whose economic consequences were never fully thought through. The value of voluntary association and small scale collective effort as an alternative to both the market and the state was implicit, but the economics of community remained largely unspoken.
But that new synthesis did not happen. Instead the party drifted into dull conformity with a centre ground between paleo-partial liberals and conventional macro-economics. Eventually the Orange Book took the party so deep into that conventional wisdom that it became indistinguishable from other parties ‘of government’ (which was, of course, its purpose).
Regardless of why the new Liberal synthesis failed to materialise in the previous generation, it is now time to revive it. That means above all reclaiming the name Liberal. The Liberal tradition in economics is that of Mill, Keynes and Meade, and now Ostrom, not that of Hayek and Friedman. The question is where it goes next.

1 comment:

  1. Just had my copy delivered, looking forward to a good read which puts some hope ahead of us following years of terrible government and terrible politicians.


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