Sunday, 25 January 2009

Civil Liberties (and lack of them) update

First of all, I got this from NO2ID a few days ago (with a few bits deleted):


Hi everyone,

The government is trying to remove all limits on the use of our private
information by officials. This means taking your information from
anywhere and passing it anywhere they like - including medical records,
financial records, communications data, ID information.

The Database State is now a direct threat, not a theory.

Clause 152 of the Coroners and Justice Bill, due for its first debate
in the Commons on Monday 26th January, would convert the Data
Protection Act into its exact opposite. It would allow ministers to
make 'Information Sharing Orders', that can alter any Act of Parliament
and cancel all rules of confidentiality in order to allow information
obtained for one purpose to be used for another.

This single clause is as grave a threat to privacy as the entire ID Scheme.

Combine it with the index to your life formed by the planned National
Identity Register and everything recorded about you anywhere could be
accessible to any official body.

Quite apart from the powers in the Identity Cards Act, if Information
Sharing Orders come to pass, they could (for example) immediately be
used to suck up material such as tax records or electoral registers to
build an early version of the National Identity Register.

But the powers would apply to any information, not just official
information. They would permit data trafficking between government
agencies and private companies - and even with foreign governments.


We need you to do three things:

1) Please ask everyone in your group and/or on your mailing list to write straight away IN THEIR OWN WORDS to their MP via - do it this weekend, if not before. The Bill is being rushed through Parliament, even as we write.

Get everyone to ask their MP to read Part 8 (clauses 151 - 154) of the
Coroners and Justice Bill, and to oppose the massive enabling powers in
the "Information sharing" clause. The Bill contains a number of
controversial provisions, but to the casual reader it appears mainly to
be about reforming inquests and sentencing. It is due its Second
Reading in the Commons on 26th January 2009.

Request your MP demand that the clause be given proper Parliamentary
scrutiny. This is something that will affect every single one of their
constituents, unlike the rest of the Bill. There is a grave danger that
the government will set a timetable that will cut off debate before
these proposals - which are at the end of the Bill - are discussed.

2) Write letters to your local papers. Also, put out a group press
release saying you have written to your local MP (once you have!) and
pointing out that this will affect every one of his or her
constituents. Highlight the fact that the information sharing powers in
this Bill are overwhelmingly unpopular.

A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times on 18th January (details here: shows that the public opposes these new powers by a factor of 3 to 1 *against* - 65% of people asked said they would give government "too
much power", only 19% thought not.

The government can't pretend a popular mandate for what it is doing.
And it is a mechanism designed to by-pass Parliament in future. It is
being done only for the convenience of the bureaucrats.

3) Tell as many people and other groups (local political parties, union
branches, the WI, churches, mosques, temples, etc.) as you can. And
find out more yourself. We have created a new page on the website
dedicated to 'data sharing' which contains links to the key documents
and a brief explanation of each.

Please read it, and pass on this link:

Let your friends, family, colleagues and anyone who might share our
concerns know that the battle for their privacy is happening NOW. The
more people we reach, the more we hope will act.

We really can't afford not to win. Good luck!

Matilda Mitford NO2ID Local Groups Coordinator
Phil Booth NO2ID National Coordinator

This sort of activity by the Government makes me think that, whatever the result of the next General Election, they deserve to lose it. It has come to a pretty pass when the Conservatives, who oversaw repeated attacks on our civil liberties during the Thatcher/Major years, can now pose as the pro-civil liberty party. However, NuLab seem to think campaigning on 'security' is a way of saving themselves at the next General Election. The trouble for NuLab is, the more they campaign on 'security', the less secure people appear to feel. Repeated data loss scandals cannot have helped public confidence ('is that a computer disc I see on a train seat in front of me?).

Magna Carta: Did she die in vain? (to quote Tony Hancock)

It would also appear that appealing to the Government to defend civil rights will not get very far, however erudite such appeals may be, as Tom Holland's is:

Golden thread, national myth: Those behind the new Labour revolution are beginning to realise that to discard our heritage is also to betray the origins of many of our liberties. The question is how to interpret the meanings of those liberties for modern political life
Tom Holland, New Statesman, 18 December 2008

The makers of The Devil's Whore, Channel 4’s recently screened extravaganza set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, must have been especially excited by the arrest of Damian Green. Certainly, it is hard to know what more the Metropolitan Police could have done, short of donning floppy lace collars and pursuing parliamentarians across Marston Moor, to highlight the topicality of the drama’s themes. The centrepiece of the first episode was the notorious attempt by Charles I to seize five troublesome members from the very Parliament House itself.

"All my birds have flown," intoned the actor Peter Capaldi, looking resplendent in a flowing Cavalier wig - for Charles, who was always a stickler for good manners, no matter what his other faults, had naturally made sure to enter the chamber without a hat. The police who arrested Damian Green seem not to have been quite so sensitive to protocol. No wonder that leading Conservatives, scarcely able to believe their luck, should have hurried to anoint their immigration spokesman a martyr for liberty, a hero in the grand tradition of John Lilburne and John Pym. "This," warned Michael Howard portentously, "is the sort of thing that led to the start of the Civil War."

A bit rich, it might have been thought, coming from a man whose tenure as home secretary had suggested that he would rather have relished the reintroduction of the pillory. And yet, instead of laughing at Howard's analogy, commentators gave it so much airtime that now, several weeks on, it has become a virtual given. MPs in particular have shown themselves to be hugely keen on it - and on the left as well as the right. Perhaps this is not wholly surprising. Principle is invariably the stronger when fused with self-regard. That parliament is the guarantor of British liberties, and that an assault upon its privileges is an assault upon all the British people: here are presumptions fit to energise any member, Labour no less than Tory. A respect for history does not have to be the mark of a Conservative, after all - a truth so self-evident that already, well before the fingering of the Ashford One, it was serving to generate improbable alliances across the party divide.

Prior to Green's arrest, the single most bizarre political event of the year was surely David Davis's forcing of a by- election in his own constituency of Haltemprice and Howden, in protest against what he saw as the government's infringement of civil liberties - a démarche enthusiastically backed by none other than that old leveller, Tony Benn. Both men, attempting to explain what appeared to many a thoroughly quixotic venture, made great play with abstract nouns - "freedoms", "rights", and so on - and yet it was evident that their truest inspiration derived not from political theory, but from their understanding of Britain's past.

Just as the revolutionaries during the Civil Wars, even as they set about turning the world upside down, had claimed to be fighting in defence of their country's ancient laws, so too did Davis and Benn. "This Sunday," Davis announced in his resignation speech, "is the anniversary of Magna Carta, a document that guarantees the fundamental element of British freedom, habeas corpus." Parliament, by tamely kowtowing to the 42-day detention plan, had shown itself to be not the defender of British liberty, but rather its jailer. As Benn, shaking his head more in sorrow than in anger, put it: "I never thought I would be in the House of Commons on the day Magna Carta was repealed."

In January 2006, in a speech to the Fabian Society, Gordon Brown, then chancellor of the exchequer, had spelled out in language no less emotive than Benn’s what he saw as the essence of the country he would soon be leading. There was, he argued, “a golden thread which runs through British history” – and where did the thread begin, if not “that long ago day in Runnymede”? And who better to continue weaving it – by implication – than the Honourable Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath? Two years on, even as civil liberties campaigners continue to cast him as King John redivivus, the Prime Minister surely retains the invincible conviction that if anyone is the true defender of Magna Carta, it is himself.

All of which might seem to suggest, with both supporters and opponents of the government's anti-terrorism legislation busy laying claim to the legacy of Runnymede, that one side must have it badly wrong. But this is not necessarily so - it is well to remember that Magna Carta has always been hedged by ambiguity. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely what enabled it to be sealed in the first place: the ability of both the king and his enemies to find in it what they pleased. "No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined," declared its most famous chapter, ". . . except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land." A teasingly Delphic statement: does the second clause serve to buttress or to qualify the first? It is not entirely clear. Either it is freedom from the oppression of unjust legislation that is being prescribed, or else it is freedom under the law, a subtly different thing, because laws may always be changed. The tension between these two interpretations has persisted ever since the tents were first packed away at Runnymede - nor, evidently, has it been settled now. The "golden thread" of British liberty remains what it has always been: a thing of glittering and tantalising ambivalence.

All of which, to many, has long been a source of frustration. What value the mystique of Magna Carta and its centuries-old inheritance, when it is capable of being interpreted in such mutually opposed ways? Yet it is possible to argue that what it may lack in clarity it more than makes up for as a myth. If it is true, as the political historian Benedict Anderson argued, that a nation is an "imagined community", then what gives shape to a nation's collective imaginings is inevitably what most effectively reflects the widest possible spectrum of its people's principles and beliefs.

That is why the most potent national myths of all have invariably been those most susceptible to multiple readings - and most capable of evolving in response to change. For that, the surest evidence this year lay not in Britain, but across the Atlantic, in another democracy with an enduring taste for self-mythologisation: the United States of America.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer." So spoke President-elect Barack Obama in his victory speech. A politician of the centre left, the son of a Kenyan goat farmer, an African American, he signalled, with his very opening sentence, that he was subscribing to the time-honoured narrative which had always served to burnish his country's elevated sense of itself. Unsurprisingly, among those hostile to the very notion of the nation state, and to the United States in particular, this served to raise the odd eyebrow. Writing in the New Statesman in November, John Pilger complained that Obama's oratory was nothing more than the honeyed expression of the "brainwashing placed on most Americans from a tender age: that theirs is the most superior society in the world". Even blunter was Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second-in-command. The president-elect, he sneered, was like a "house slave". Rather than labouring in the cause of a universal caliphate, as his Muslim heritage might have inspired him to do, Obama had instead bought into the per nicious ideology of those slave-owning hypocrites, the Founding Fathers. Black he might be - but he was no less the white man's stooge for that.

A bleak and bitter assessment. No doubt, as Obama himself has wryly acknowledged, he is indeed doomed to disappoint. And yet one can acknowledge as much while still recognising in his invocation of the venerable archetypes of American patriotism something nobler than a betrayal of the colour of his skin. After all, far from
casting a veil over slavery, he opted, in his very first speech as president-elect, to make it the climax of his address.

The historical narrative Obama delivered that night, rich with allusions to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and the Gettysburg Address, could hardly be reckoned to have redounded un ambiguously to his country's credit: for the achievements that it chronicled would never have been necessary without America's original sin. Yet the speech, far from subverting the founding myths of American democracy, served ultimately to buttress them: for a myth is hardly diminished, and may even be enhanced, by being framed as a tragedy. "That's the true genius of America, that America can change. Our union can be perfected." Here were convictions as old as the Republic itself, and yet, coming from Obama, they hinted at darkness as well as light: of how America, having originally betrayed her own noblest ideals, must continue with her quest for expiation.

It goes without saying that there are many Americans - white, patriotic, moose-hunting Americans - who viscerally disagree with this reworking of their nation's founding story. That, however, is precisely the measure of the narrative's astounding potency: that it can serve to stir the souls of both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama, Republican and Democrat, evangelical and liberal. Even beyond the limits of the party system, on the radical fringes of which both Pilger, and possibly even Ayman al-Zawahiri, would presumably approve, the paradigms of American history have maintained something of their implacable grip. When Gil Scott-Heron, that bard of black militancy, eviscerated American mythology in his classic song "Winter in America", his anger was all the more savage for being blended with such evident disappointment. The constitution, in Scott-Heron's reading of American history, has never amounted to anything - and yet it remains, for all that, "a noble piece of paper". Winter in America it might be - and yet always there is the ghost of the summer that should have been.

The role given to Britain in this American master-narrative has usually been an inglorious one. What King John was to Magna Carta, George III was to the constitution of the United States. Yet it is telling that Scott-Heron, in the very opening line of his great song, should have chosen to name-check the Pilgrim Fathers. If it was colonists from Britain who brought both land-hunger and slavery to the New World, then so, too, did they bring what would end up as the ideals of the infant Republic. An interpretation of Magna Carta which saw it as "such a fellow, that he will have no sovereign" served as no less of an inspiration to the Thirteen Colonies than it would to rebels against absolutism during the British Civil Wars and the Glorious Revolution. What should lie embedded within the Fifth Amendment to the US constitution, that "noble piece of paper", is the most celebrated of Magna Carta's chapters: a guarantee that "no person shall be . . . deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law". Woven into the very fabric of American history, then, is that very same "golden thread" which Gordon Brown, in his speech to the Fabian Society, had identified as British: the "golden thread" of liberty.

No wonder the soon-to-be prime minister showed himself to be not a little jealous of Yankee grandstanding. “Even before America made it its own,” he protested plaintively in the same Fabian Society speech, “I think Britain can lay claim to the idea of liberty.” The speech itself, with its tortured analysis of “Britishness” and its proposal for a national “British Day”, was almost universally derided as a floundering expedient, a desperate ploy to stop Brown’s fellow Scots from leaving the United Kingdom, and radical Islamists from blowing themselves up on Tube trains. Yet, in truth, there was a sadness about it, and a sense of loneliness which marked it out as the very opposite of cynical. Brown’s tone was that of a man labouring to jerry-build a Skoda, who suddenly realises he has had a Rolls-Royce sitting mothballed in his garage all along.

For almost a decade, the government in which he was such a dominant figure had been promoting a vision of Britain as a blissed-out, baggage-free place, one far too hip to bother with anything so terminally un-Cool Britannia as the past. If that attitude presented new Labour with some fairly obvious targets - fox-hunting, Black Rod, and the like - it also obliged them to trash the Labour Party's own heritage. It was not only Clause Four that had been cheerfully junked. So, too, was the venerable narrative that had enabled an old romantic such as Tony Benn to believe himself the heir of Wat Tyler, the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Heroes of the common people such figures may have been, but they were dead, they were white, they were European, and they were mostly male. Certainly, to the Young Turks of new Labour, it appeared hard to imagine anything less expressive of cosmopolitanism or diversity than Our Island Story. Only Gordon Brown seems to have paused, to have had second thoughts, to have wondered, in his customarily earnest way, whether there was not possibly the risk of losing something important along the way.

And he was right to wonder - as the campaign against his own anti-terror legislation, ironically enough, has served to suggest. After all, despite the best efforts of Davis and Benn, the person who has most tirelessly invoked Magna Carta over the past few years is decidedly not an Anglo-Saxon male. It is pushing things, perhaps, to cast Shami Chakrabarti as the British Barack Obama; and yet there is no question that, just like Obama, she is invoking themes and narratives that have hitherto tended to be seen as hideously white. It was the failure of our history to reflect today's multicultural reality that originally persuaded the government to brand Britain as a "young country" - as though the thousand years and more that have passed since its constituent kingdoms were first established could simply be magicked away. Chakrabarti's term of office at Liberty has served to emphasise just how otiose the whole manoeuvre was. By praising the "golden thread" of the nation's inheritance in terms that would embarrass many a white liberal, she and her fellow campaigners for civil liberties have disinterred a venerable historical narrative, one that sees the flow of our traditions much as Wordsworth did, as "the Flood of British freedom". In doing so, they are illustrating once again what has always been the key to understanding radicalism in this country: that it looks for inspiration not in the future, but in the past. As another poet, even greater than Wordsworth, once put it: "I did but prompt the age to quit their cloggs/By the known rules of antient libertie."

Evidently, we live in a sceptical, deconstructive age. The identification of Britain’s evolution with the march of enlightenment – what Herbert Butterfield, back in 1931, termed “the Whig interpretation of history” – has long fallen from academic favour. Meanwhile, in universities and secondary schools, the teaching of history is becoming ever more modular and fragmented, while in primary schools, if the government’s senior education adviser Sir Jim Rose has his way, the subject will soon cease to be a distinctive field of study at all. And yet, against the odds, 2008 should be remembered as the year in which Our Island Story made a spectacular comeback: not as a fantasy of the heritage industry, but rather as a storm-centre of political life; not as a triumphalist narrative, but as one shaded by disappointment no less than achievement; not as a thing uncontested, but as the very stuff of urgent, furious debate. A story, in short, that might well merit a measure of reconstruction.

Come the New Year, the government will announce its decision on whether to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. If, as expected, expansion is given the green light, a whole village will need to be obliterated: not only houses, but pubs, a school and a church dating back to the Domesday Book. Such is progress, perhaps; and yet not even the most rabid enthusiast for air travel would argue that the whole of Britain be concreted over, that the entire country be transformed into a mere transit hub with shops. Yet that is what we may well end up inhabiting, should we forget the history that has shaped us, the narratives, the themes and, yes, the myths as well.

We live in an age when the issues that have shaped the grand sweep of Britain's past - issues of security and personal freedom, of identity and dissidence - are coming back into ever more pressing focus, of no less interest to the terrorist suspect banged up in Belmarsh than to the Eurosceptic brandishing a Union Jack.

To let the memories of Our Island Story fade is not to give a vote of confidence to a progressive and multicultural future, but to diminish it. To paraphrase 1066 and All That - it risks seeing more than History come to a.

Tom Holland's "Millennium: the End of the World and the Forging of Christendom" is published by Little, Brown (£25)

Indeed, the evidence that the Government wants to move headlong towards a 'National Security' state, and to get its Big Business buddies to join in:

Private firm may track all email and calls: 'Hellhouse' of personal data will be created, warns former DPP
Alan Travis and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, Wednesday 31 December 2008

The private sector will be asked to manage and run a communications database that will keep track of everyone's calls, emails, texts and internet use under a key option contained in a consultation paper to be published next month by Jacqui Smith, the home secretary.

A cabinet decision to put the management of the multibillion pound database of all UK communications traffic into private hands would be accompanied by tougher legal safeguards to guarantee against leaks and accidental data losses.

But in his strongest criticism yet of the superdatabase, Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, who has firsthand experience of working with intelligence and law enforcement agencies, told the Guardian such assurances would prove worthless in the long run and warned it would prove a "hellhouse" of personal private information.

"Authorisations for access might be written into statute. The most senior ministers and officials might be designated as scrutineers. But none of this means anything," said Macdonald. "All history tells us that reassurances like these are worthless in the long run. In the first security crisis the locks would loosen."

The home secretary postponed the introduction of legislation to set up the superdatabase in October and instead said she would publish a consultation paper in the new year setting out the proposal and the safeguards needed to protect civil liberties. She has emphasised that communications data, which gives the police the identity and location of the caller, texter or web surfer but not the content, has been used as important evidence in 95% of serious crime cases and almost all security service operations since 2004 including the Soham and 21/7 bombing cases.

Until now most communications traffic data has been held by phone companies and internet service providers for billing purposes but the growth of broadband phone services, chatrooms and anonymous online identities mean that is no longer the case.

The Home Office's interception modernisation programme, which is working on the superdatabase proposal, argues that it is no longer good enough for communications companies to be left to retrieve such data when requested by the police and intelligence services. A Home Office spokeswoman said last night the changes were needed so law enforcement agencies could maintain their ability to tackle serious crime and terrorism.

Senior Whitehall officials responsible for planning for a new database say there is a significant difference between having access to "communications data" - names and addresses of emails or telephone numbers, for example - and the actual contents of the communications. "We have been very clear that there are no plans for a database containing any content of emails, texts or conversations," the spokeswoman said.

External estimates of the cost of the superdatabase have been put as high as £12bn, twice the cost of the ID cards scheme, and the consultation paper, to be published towards the end of next month, will include an option of putting it into the hands of the private sector in an effort to cut costs. But such a decision is likely to fuel civil liberties concerns over data losses and leaks. Macdonald, who left his post as DPP in October, told the Guardian: "The tendency of the state to seek ever more powers of surveillance over its citizens may be driven by protective zeal. But the notion of total security is a paranoid fantasy which would destroy everything that makes living worthwhile. We must avoid surrendering our freedom as autonomous human beings to such an ugly future. We should make judgments that are compatible with our status as free people."

Maintaining the capacity to intercept suspicious communications was critical in an increasingly complex world, he said. "It is a process which can save lives and bring criminals to justice. But no other country is considering such a drastic step. This database would be an unimaginable hell-house of personal private information," he said. "It would be a complete readout of every citizen's life in the most intimate and demeaning detail. No government of any colour is to be trusted with such a roadmap to our souls."

The moment there was a security crisis the temptation for more commonplace access would be irresistible, he said.

Other critics of the plan point to the problems of keeping the database secure, both from the point of view of the technology and of deliberate leaks. The problem would be compounded if private companies manage the system. "If there is a breach of security in that database it would be utterly devastating," one said.

Not surprisingly, the EU is getting in on the act as well:

Police set to step up hacking of home PCs
David Leppard, The Sunday Times, January 4, 2009

THE Home Office has quietly adopted a new plan to allow police across Britain routinely to hack into people’s personal computers without a warrant.

The move, which follows a decision by the European Union’s council of ministers in Brussels, has angered civil liberties groups and opposition MPs. They described it as a sinister extension of the surveillance state which drives “a coach and horses” through privacy laws.

The hacking is known as “remote searching”. It allows police or MI5 officers who may be hundreds of miles away to examine covertly the hard drive of someone’s PC at his home, office or hotel room.

Material gathered in this way includes the content of all e-mails, web-browsing habits and instant messaging.

Under the Brussels edict, police across the EU have been given the green light to expand the implementation of a rarely used power involving warrantless intrusive surveillance of private property. The strategy will allow French, German and other EU forces to ask British officers to hack into someone’s UK computer and pass over any material gleaned.

A remote search can be granted if a senior officer says he “believes” that it is “proportionate” and necessary to prevent or detect serious crime — defined as any offence attracting a jail sentence of more than three years.

However, opposition MPs and civil liberties groups say that the broadening of such intrusive surveillance powers should be regulated by a new act of parliament and court warrants.

They point out that in contrast to the legal safeguards for searching a suspect’s home, police undertaking a remote search do not need to apply to a magistrates’ court for a warrant.

Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, the human rights group, said she would challenge the legal basis of the move. “These are very intrusive powers – as intrusive as someone busting down your door and coming into your home,” she said.

“The public will want this to be controlled by new legislation and judicial authorisation. Without those safeguards it’s a devastating blow to any notion of personal privacy.”

She said the move had parallels with the warrantless police search of the House of Commons office of Damian Green, the Tory MP: “It’s like giving police the power to do a Damian Green every day but to do it without anyone even knowing you were doing it.”

Richard Clayton, a researcher at Cambridge University’s computer laboratory, said that remote searches had been possible since 1994, although they were very rare. An amendment to the Computer Misuse Act 1990 made hacking legal if it was authorised and carried out by the state.

He said the authorities could break into a suspect’s home or office and insert a “key-logging” device into an individual’s computer. This would collect and, if necessary, transmit details of all the suspect’s keystrokes. “It’s just like putting a secret camera in someone’s living room,” he said.

Police might also send an e-mail to a suspect’s computer. The message would include an attachment that contained a virus or “malware”. If the attachment was opened, the remote search facility would be covertly activated. Alternatively, police could park outside a suspect’s home and hack into his or her hard drive using the wireless network.

Police say that such methods are necessary to investigate suspects who use cyberspace to carry out crimes. These include paedophiles, internet fraudsters, identity thieves and terrorists.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said such intrusive surveillance was closely regulated under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act. A spokesman said police were already carrying out a small number of these operations which were among 194 clandestine searches last year of people’s homes, offices and hotel bedrooms.

“To be a valid authorisation, the officer giving it must believe that when it is given it is necessary to prevent or detect serious crime and [the] action is proportionate to what it seeks to achieve,” Acpo said.

Dominic Grieve, the shadow home secretary, agreed that the development may benefit law enforcement. But he added: “The exercise of such intrusive powers raises serious privacy issues. The government must explain how they would work in practice and what safeguards will be in place to prevent abuse.”

The Home Office said it was working with other EU states to develop details of the proposals.

Also visit the Democracy Movement's blog for further info.

I do not know, apart from public outrage, if anything can be done to stop these moves towards a 'National Security' state. I hope the whole ID Card circus can be stopped before the next General Election. I have a feeling that, particularly in the current economic climate, the sheer cost of the scheme will force the Government to abandon it. That is my hope. My big fear is that if ID cards were to be up and running in time for the next Government, it would be kept by the incoming administration- the temptations of power and all that...

I'm working the day it takes place, but on February 28th, I would encourage people to go to the Convention on Modern Liberty if they possible can. I don't think it will have all the answers, but it might just be the start of something worthwhile.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

More Mutualist Notes

The Banking Bailout's Intellectual Guru Is Revealed (Seen Here Demonstrating His Theories in Practice)!

I'm currently reading Kevin Carson's Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, which I think has the reputation of being 'The Das Kapital of Modern Evolutionary Anarchism'. I've still to finish Mr. C's magnum opus, as there is a lot to take in...and my brain has largely forgotten how to absorb serious economic theory (as opposed to slogans) in one go. In fact I've left the opening part, the most theoretical section, largely alone, and sort of made my way through the historical and 'what is to be done now?' sections.

However, after those caveats, I'm glad I'm reading it, as I think embracing Mutualism is the way forward. As the state in Britain, the US and elsewhere is getting increasingly exposed as just means to prop up Big Business financially, I think there is a space now for an anti-corporate, non-statist alternative to Actual Existing Capitalism to make its voice heard and challenge the status quo. Mutualism seems to be a good a starting point as any for trying to achieve this.

To be frank, there has not been a lot of calls from the British Left for a Mutualist approach to the current crisis. Indeed, with the British state nationalising (totally or in part) much of the banking/financial sector here, there appears to be wind (sailing, not scatalogical, metaphor intended!) behind those on the British Left whose answer to every economic or business problem appears to be a call to nationalise the sector or company in trouble. There is nearly invariably accompanied by a simultaneous call for 'workers control' of aforesaid firm or sector. Thus far in the current crisis, the British state has not heeded those calls, and without some sort of employee or consumer representation, the moves by the state to intervene in the financial system can be seen as merely state capitalism, as the Independent Working Class Association has pointed out.

Intellectual Guru demonstrates 'Plan B'...

Furthermore, I think the Left (here and elsewhere) has to think beyond putting forward nationalisation as the answer to all problems. There are some sectors ie the utilities, the railways, the Post Office, the NHS where I cannot see how corporations can do a better job than the state. That is, Actual Existing Corporations, as opposed to those pie-in-the-sky enterprises Politicians, Think Tanks and Journalists seem to think run erstwhile public services. However, even in the public sector, there needs to be more than just state ownership, run (often at arm's length) from Whitehall. Tony Benn wrote back in 1980 that 'We have had enough experience now to know that nationalisation plus Lord Robens does not add up to socialism' (Arguments for Socialism, quoted in Geoffrey Foote [1986, Croom Helm]The Labour Party's Political Thought, p.330). Hence it should be pretty obvious that a state-owned bank headed by some failed ex-financier who sends Christmas cards to Gordon Brown and Tony Blair is NOT socialism either. There needs to be some sort of representation of employees and consumers in the running of public enterprises. This is not just 'a good thing' for socialists to support. It is essential that state-owned enterprises have some democratic input from those who work in them, and use their products, otherwise further down the line the claim that 'we are returning to the 1970s' or 'modelling the economy on the old Eastern Bloc model' will come to the fore and derail any moves towards a post-corporate society. Writing in the early 1980s (In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, Verso Press, 1983, p.49), Perry Anderson wrote about the need for a quite detailed exposition of what a socialist society would look like, as:

' is quite clear that without serious exploration and mapping of it, any political advance beyond a parliamentary capitalism will continue to be blocked. No working-class or popular bloc in a Westernsociety will ever make a leap in the dark, at this point in history, let alone into the grey on grey of an Eastern society of the type that exists today. A socialism that remains incognito will never be embraced by it.'

Over a quarter of a century on, the need for a non-statist vision of a socialist society is even more pressing, and I think Mutualism can play a large part in creating such a vision.

While contemplating writing this post, I came across the following article. At the very least, it shows that Mutualism does occur in real life, and does suggest that it is a way for the Left to move forward:

Citizenship in action
Swiss firefighters are a living rebuke to right and left: society does exist, but is best left alone
Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The Guardian, Thursday 22 January 2009

A week before Christmas my son and I were skiing in the Swiss resort of Mürren and staying at the Eiger Guest House run by Alan and Véronique Ramsay-Flück, a Scottish-Swiss couple. At breakfast one day Alan was nowhere to be seen. It transpired that he's now a Swiss citizen and a member of the village fire brigade, who had been called out at 4am to deal with a fire raging in a barn a few miles away. A dramatic picture in the next day's local paper showed the barn had burned out but that they saved the farmhouse next to it.

We were suitably impressed, but there was more to it. What had happened that night was something increasingly rare in my own country: citizenship in action, not to say co-operative mutual aid. The fire brigade in Mürren - as in other towns and villages, in some parts of the US, and in social-democratic Denmark - isn't professional but amateur, in the best sense of the word. The firefighters are part-timers, carrying pagers for call-outs. Their only reward is serving their community.

Our nearest equivalent is the wonderful Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which may not think of itself as making a political statement but does. The lifeboat crews are unpaid volunteers. And the whole organisation receives no state support but is entirely funded by public donations. If the behemoth of the modern state is one pattern for society, the RNLI is another.

And so is much of Swiss society. One of the more pleasing things, if one comes from our damp little island and is condemned to talk with an accent that defines caste, is that everyone in Mürren sounds the same. Educated people read books and papers in literary German, but doctor, plumber, postman and teacher all speak the same Schywyzerdütsch, the impenetrable local Swiss-German dialect.

Over the centuries, people with several different languages and religions found a way to live together peaceably in Switzerland. The army consists of every adult man, with his uniform in a cupboard at home; that citizen force was formidable enough to make Hitler think twice about invading. And by way of a decentralised confederal structure, democracy works in a most practical way, with decisions taken at local level.

To praise Swiss localism, or voluntary institutions, is to risk being called rightwing, but that's curious when you look at it. Every kind of "little platoon" is in truth a rebuke to both left and right. Since the 19th century, critics of the ever-growing state called themselves liberal individualists, a misnomer which ignored the obvious truth that most forms of creative human activity are collective. A Cornish lifeboat crew and an Oberland fire brigade refute dogmatic individualism and "vulgar-Thatcherism": there is such a thing as society. The real distinction isn't between individual and collective, but between the voluntary and the coercive.

And yet for that reason those amateur platoons are a rebuke also to the left - or at least to state socialism. In either its Leninist or Fabian forms, socialism assumed unconsciously that people could not or would not deal with their lives by their own initiative and through co-operation unenforced and unregulated by the state. Even the moderate socialism of our own Labour party was all too clearly based on the belief that the lower classes were too backward, feckless and idle to look after themselves and had to be taken care of, whether they liked it or not.

In that respect, the modern welfare state took over from older repressive institutions, and in the process helped eviscerate the finest thing Britain has produced: the voluntary institutions of the self-helping working class. That splendid anarchist writer Colin Ward once made the point by contrasting the very names of the two kinds of organisation in 19th-century England: "On the one side the Workhouse, the Poor Law Infirmary, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in Accordance with the Principles of the Established Church; and on on the other, the Friendly Society, the Sick Club, the Co-operative Society, the Trade Union. One represents the tradition of fraternal and autonomous associations springing up from below, the other that of authoritarian institutions directed from above."

If anything, the RNLI and the Mürren fire brigade are exemplars not of greedy capitalism or some crazed Ayn Rand war-of-all-with-all, but of anarchism, and Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid". And if a "left" has anything to teach in the coming century, it won't be the authoritarian tradition which sees the the state as the answer to all problems, but the spirit of free mutual co-operation that believes that people can help each other - and will actually do so if left alone.

I can imagine someone asking what the Swiss fire brigade has to do with life in Blighty in order to put down the idea of Mutualism taking flight here. Well, there are political traditions here which, at the very least, overlap with Mutualism. I have mentioned before Meredith Veldman's Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain: Romantic protest, 1945-1980 (1984, Cambridge University Press) and did promise to come back to it. In this case it is to refer to Veldman's volume to show that there are English political traditions which lend themeselves to being, at least, intellectual fellow travellers of Mutualism.

G.D.H. Cole: Mr. Guild Socialism

There is, for instance, Guild Socialism, which was taken up by leading socialist thinker G.D.H. Cole. He became a supporter of Guild Socialism as it 'offered me a kind of socialism that I could want as well as think right', since it saw people 'as having personalities to be expressed as well as stomachs to be filled.' (p.25)Cole saw Guild Socialism as attempting to realise 'a union of industrial self-government and community control' (p.26). He also believed that 'democracy had to be small, or broken up into small groups, in order to be real' (p.28). Cole and Guild Socialism is also discussed in the Foote book on the Labour Party's political thought. This shows that although Cole believes the nation-state to be supreme in national matters, such as foreign policy and defence, it had no right to interfere in those areas not common to its citizens, such as religion and industry. Cole says 'the State itself should only be regarded as an association- elder brother, if you will, but certainly in so sense father of the rest.' (Foote, op cit, p.115.)

G.K. Chesterton: Mr Distributism

Returning to Meredith Veldman's tome, it is possible to identity 'distributism', as advocated by GK Chesterton, as another intellectual fellow traveller of Mutualism. A caveat must be made here. When I was younger there was two things I associated Chesterton with: (i) 'The Father Brown' detective stories and (ii) a reputation for anti-semitism. From what I've read, I think Chesterton was pretty anti-semitic in outlook for most of his life. However, when the Nazis took charge in Germany, this changed, as his Wikipedia entry suggests:

In 1934, after the Nazi Party took power in Germany he wrote that:

'In our early days Hilaire Belloc and myself were accused of being uncompromising Anti-Semites. Today, although I still think there is a Jewish problem, I am appalled by the Hitlerite atrocities. They have absolutely no reason or logic behind them. It is quite obviously the expedient of a man who has been driven to seeking a scapegoat, and has found with relief the most famous scapegoat in European history, the Jewish people.'

The Wiener Library (London's archive on anti-semitism and Holocaust history) has defended Chesterton against the charge of anti-Semitism: "he was not an enemy, and when the real testing time came along he showed what side he was on."

Chesterton condemned the Nuremberg Laws, and he died in 1936, as the Hitlerite antisemitic measures were temporarily decreased due to the Berlin Olympics, long before lethal persecution by the Nazis would start.

Sometimes one needs to see the possible consequences of a particular attitude before one rejects that attitude.

Like Cole, Chesterton was a firm believer in political and economic democracy, or distributism, as Chesterton saw it. As Veldman says, Chesterton thought men should be trusted to make their own decisions that concerned their lives and societies, rejecting the idea of there being a 'stupid public'. He thought real democracy depended upon participation, which could only be really secured in a decentralised, locally controlled system in which each citizen could see that their opinions and actions mattered. (Veldman, op cit, pp.33-34) Chesterton believed that 'The best and shortest way of saying it is that instead of the machine being a giant to which the man is a pygmy, we must at least reverse the proportions until man is a giant to whom the machine is a toy.' In economic sectors where large-scale tehcnology was essential, Chesterton advocated worker shareholding so that machinery belonged to each worker (ibid, p.35).

I realise this post is rapidly advancing into Outer Space, so I'm going move into the home straight. It was from the start more a way of putting various bits and pieces into the blogosphere that any Grand Synthesis...'Studies in Mutualist Political Economy' it is not! I will try and finish Kevin C's magnum opus before the whole economic edifice collapses and I have to finish it by candlelight in a London tube tunnel, and return to Mutualism once again!

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A Crisis of Legitimacy?

Just a thought...

To keep this blog ticking over I'll putting up a few a few pieces, loosely connected by a theme, which I've put up on Facebook in the last couple of months and should have really posted here.

Yesterday evening I was thinking of putting a couple of articles up connected to the theme of how the economic downturn (perhaps that's putting it mildly) has challenged, or might challenge the hegemony of the unholy alliance of Big Business, the Political Class & Mainstream Media which has dominated Britain and other Western countries in the last couple of decades. Then I saw this today:

Britain loses faith in economy: Global poll shows UK least likely to trust politicians, banks or markets
Julian Glover, The Guardian, Wednesday 14 January 2009

British economic confidence has been shattered by the financial crisis, according to a unique international poll published today. It shows that people here are now less likely to trust banks, the stockmarket or the government's economic management than people in comparable nations.

The research, carried out by WIN, an international network of pollsters including ICM in Britain, used professional polling techniques to assess public opinion in 17 countries, including the major G8 economies as well as China and India.

On most measures, British people emerged as among the most pessimistic of the 14,555 people questioned around the world.

Remarkably, confidence in the banking system appears lower in Britain - 4.2 out of 10 - than in bankrupt Iceland, which polled 4.6.

While around a third of citizens in developing economies such as India and China say the economic situation in their countries could improve in coming months, more than three-quarters of people in Britain expect it to worsen.

Pessimism here is slightly deeper than in competitors such as France, Spain and Germany, and equal to Japan.

British people are also less likely than average to think that their government can manage the situation, despite Gordon Brown's bank interventions and fiscal stimulus.

Asked to rate their trust in the government's management of the financial situation, British people award the government 4.5 out of 10, below the worldwide average of 5.2 and just ahead of Iceland on 4.4.

Only Germany and Japan are gloomier, scoring 4.0 and 3.0 respectively in the poll which was conducted before Christmas and published today.

These results may reflect the severity of the British position as much as any particular distrust of the British government, and the ICM data was collected before some more recent government initiatives were announced. But they do bring into question the prime minister's claim that Britain is particularly well placed to weather the economic storm.

Several of Britain's competitors are more optimistic about their government's capabilities. Americans award 6.3 out of 10 overall, possibly as a result of the changed mood in the weeks following the presidential election.

Asked about their personal financial situation, however, rather than prospects for the country as a whole, British people are more upbeat.

Not surprisingly, pessimism about personal finances is greatest in Iceland, and lowest in fast-growing economies such as India. Britain comes 10th out of 17 countries on personal finance: most people here say their incomes will either decrease (25%) or stay the same (48%) over the next 12 months.

The British are more likely than many to think that this could be a good time to buy a house: 28% say so, against 39% who say it is a bad time, which still leaves Britain towards the top end of the international table, seventh out of 17.

However, trust in financial institutions such as banks in Britain is particularly weak, probably as a consequence of the scale of government intervention in banks required since the collapse of Northern Rock.

Britain ranks 16th out of 17 countries for public trust in its banks, just ahead of Germany and well behind countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and France.

Overall, people around the world tend to have a greater level of faith in their government and even in banks than in the stability of the stockmarket, which on average scored 4.0 out 10 for trust after a terrible performance in 2008.

British people are now particularly cautious, giving the markets a score of 3.2, well below America on 4.3.

Overall, British attitudes to the financial crisis are closest to other old-world economies such as France and Germany, as well as Japan.

Canada, Italy and Spain lead a middle group of more optimistic nations, while developing economies such as India are the most trusting and optimistic.

The research draws upon a mix of face-to-face and online polling, and the variation in results may be affected by this, as well as by different sample sizes.

Long-term differences in national attitudes to subjects such as property ownership, which outlast economic cycles, may also have played a part in today's findings.

But the WIN crisis index, which will now be carried out every three months, does suggest that anxiety in this country is consistently greater in Britain than in its competitors.

• The research was carried out online in Britain by ICM in November, with a sample of 1,050. Worldwide data was collected between November and December 2008 by members of the WIN network. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

We English, Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish (not 'Brits', please!) might be more pessimistic than other peoples about the current economic situation, and the ability of our betters to get us out the mess they largely created. However,there is little doubt that people everywhere are wondering whether this is as good as it gets. After years of being told that 'the market' (in fact a corporate bearpit from which Adam Smith and David Ricardo would have looked for exit doors to get out of) should be left alone and throwing taxpayers' money away to prop up those unable to 'stand on their own two feet' was wrong and expensive, the obscene amount of money which have been handed over to large financial institutions and other corporate behemoths in the last couple of years must have caused cognitive dissonance for at least some who acquiesced to the status quo- didn't it?

The ever readable Splintered Sunrise gives his view on the potential crisis of legitimacy from over the Irish Sea (picture as in original post!):

The crisis leaves our leaders without a convenient paradigm
December 4, 2008

Yes, yes, I should be doing more on the economic crisis. If I’ve been reticent, one very good reason is that I’m not an economist and, apart from generalities about the system, I don’t have any easy answers. It’s a little comforting, though, that nobody seems to have any easy answers. The political classes of the world appear to be navigating without a compass, having lost their framework but without acquiring an alternative one. You see this in the way that every government seems to have a completely different recipe for dealing with the crisis. The overwhelming impression is that they’re making it up as they go along.

The latest exemplar of this has been the big plan mooted by Barroso, at the behest of Brown and Sarko, for a massive EU-wide stimulus package. This lasted as long as it took Boss Merkel to say to Barroso, “No you don’t”, on the not unreasonable grounds that Brown and Sarko could come up with whatever plans they liked, but they needn’t expect the German taxpayer to foot the bill. Meanwhile, the Bush administration seems to be nationalising everything in sight, which will shock some leftist analysts but not those of us who always knew that the neoconservatives were never conservatives in the first place, least of all fiscal conservatives, but really big government liberals. Meanwhile again, the Chinese government has launched an enormous Keynesian stimulus plan, having obvious not got the memo about the death of Keynesianism. We’ll see in practice, I suppose, how this works out.

The cluelessness is evident across the spectrum. While Brown still claims to hove to Friedmanite orthodoxy, his big idea at the moment seems to be to encourage yet more consumer spending, while pump-priming the construction industry. I can’t see this working, for the very good reason that he’s recycling the essential elements of his voodoo economics over the last dozen years. And yet the Tories lack any credibility - a mere six months ago, Osborne was complaining about the onerous amount of regulation in the financial services industry, while Redwood argued that mortgage lenders shouldn’t be regulated at all. And to this day, Rankin’ Dave Cameron seems to believe that cutting interest rates alone will do the business. None of this is very convincing.

On the more prosaic level, we have Éamon Gilmore rowing back from his plan to thoroughly Blairise Irish Labour. Say what you like about the Sticks, they’re good at sniffing the wind.

It’s at times like this that I do enjoy going back to the Austrian economists, whose big beef - that most politicians are economic illiterates - is demonstrably true, and who do have an endearing tendency to say the unsayable. Their view is that the main cause of the crisis is cheap money, which is true, especially when you bear in mind that for the last few years the Fed has been printing dollars on an enormous scale - we don’t know how many, because Bernanke won’t say. These guys reckon the best thing for the economy would be a short, sharp recession, maybe lasting a year or so, where unsound businesses would be allowed to fail and a lot of the bad debt cleared out of the economy. Trouble is, a politician would need balls of steel to go down that road. The sharp and painful dislocations it would bring - especially in terms of unemployment - would look suicidal for anyone hoping to gain re-election.

On the other hand, the Austrians critique government attempts to provide a soft landing on the grounds that it will just prolong the downturn, especially as the underlying causes are not being addressed. There’s something to that, especially if you look at Gordon Brown’s attempt to reflate the housing bubble. I would actually argue the housing market is still grotesquely overvalued and needs to sink a lot further, but Gordon can’t say that. That would fall foul of the Brits’ attachment to the house price cargo cult, in lieu of an economy that makes stuff.

More and more I notice that the Old Right and the unreconstructed left do overlap, at least in terms of diagnosis. It’s when it comes to the cure, of course, that the divergence comes. I still believe that there is a serious role for intervention, and the main task should be to divert the economy away from the parasitic financial services sector and towards rebuilding a productive economy. That’s why the Germans have much stronger fundamentals.

This would be bad enough for the Brits. For an Irish economy that has close to zero industrial base, a massive overreliance on inward investment and a European Commission hellbent on destroying Irish agriculture… it doesn’t bear thinking about.

Not to mention Robbo and Marty on yet another tour of the States, trying to drum up investment for the North. Lord, they do pick their moment.

So what is to be done, to quote Vlad? I realise my own economic worldview is informed by a wide range of sources: Marxism, Keynesianism, Greenery, Libertarianism, Mutualism and Guild Socialism to name a few. I do not have all the answers (who does?) but I hope I sometimes ask and address the right questions and hope to meet and work with people who are prepared to think and just know that the current situation cannot go on and that we can all do better than this.

My concluding piece for this post comes from Larry Elliott, whose work with Dan Atkinson, The Gods that Failed, is a witty and damning critique of those who got us in this hole. This is a recent intellectual call to arms from him:

Wanted: the Keynes for our times. Marxists and greens have critiques of the crisis, but what about the centre-left?
Larry Elliott, The Guardian, Monday 22 December 2008

The financial and economic mayhem of the past 18 months has been a crisis for the right. Nationalising banks that have lent irresponsibly was not part of any laissez-faire script.

The prevailing economic model of the past 30 years has run out of road, just as the post-war social democratic model ran out of road after three (far more successful) decades in the mid-1970s. But it is a non-sequitur to assume, as some on the left do, that the world has changed for ever. This is lazy thinking. Without an intellectual critique of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done to put things right, matters will revert more or less to where they were before the flood.

When the post-war Golden Age ended in the mid-1970s, the right had just such a critique. It was ready because it had spent the past 30 years arguing that demand management would lead to inflation, that the strength of trade unions was eroding profits and that higher taxes to pay for bigger government was starving the private sector of investment. Most of the heavy lifting was done by the free-market thinktanks, which in the title of Richard Cockett's excellent book on the subject, were prepared to "think the unthinkable". These thinktanks were well funded by business and could draw on academics to shape the policies of the Reagan and Thatcher governments.

The contrast with today is striking. There has been no equivalent of a Chicago school for the left to provide the intellectual justification for more interventionist government. There has been scant evidence of the left-of-centre thinktanks tugging New Labour back as it moved steadily over the past 15 years towards the acceptance of market-based solutions to almost every problem. And with the exception of Jon Cruddas, Vince Cable and a handful of other members of the awkward squad, there has been no real interest in alternative thinking at Westminster.

That is why the government is ideologically bereft as it tries to manage the crisis. Labour has control of the banks but wants to give it up as quickly as possible. It wants the banks back on an even keel financially but it also wants them to slash their lending rates so borrowing returns to the levels of last year. The thinking, such as it is, amounts to the hope that with lower interest rates, tax cuts, and a few tweaks to financial supervision the clock can be turned back to July 2007.

This was not Thatcher's approach in 1979. Instead of exhorting the trade unions to behave better next time, she used the Winter of Discontent to impose statutory controls on their activities. Capital's Winter of Discontent has been much longer, much more widespread and much more damaging than the events of the winter of 1978-79, but the response has been far less robust. Indeed, this is shaping up as a missed opportunity of catastrophic proportions.

At this stage, it should be said that the non-mainstream left has been active since the Berlin Wall's collapse heralded the era of market fundamentalism, and both the Marxists and the greens have a critique of what has gone wrong and what needs to be done now. And these critiques deserve to be taken seriously. After all, it is easy to imagine Marx surveying the events of the past 18 months and concluding that the new global economic order created since 1990s was capitalism's last roll of the dice, and that the imbalances, the debt mountains and the eventual freezing up of the banking system were all symptoms of an irreparable system.

Growth fetish
The greens say this is where you get to if you make a fetish of growth. Living beyond our means not only results in higher levels of debt and balance of payments deficits, but is symptomatic of a reckless disregard for the carrying capacity of the planet. Attempting to re-invigorate an economic model built on ever higher levels of consumption is wrong.

So, the Marxists have an explanation and the greens have an explanation. Where, though, is what we might call the traditional left - the democratic socialists, the Keynesians, the non-revolutionary wing of the progressive movement. The answer is that during the 13 years of Tony Blair's leadership of the Labour party, it was pretty docile.

There could be a simple explanation: the arguments traditionally put forward by those who believed in managed capitalism, the mixed economy and regulated markets have been found wanting. By a process of social Darwinism, the ideas promulgated by the free-marketeers at one end of the spectrum, and the Marxists and the greens at the other have survived because they make more intellectual sense.

Alternatively, there may just have been a colossal loss of nerve on the left, which trickled down from a leadership demoralised by four election defeats and which saw embrace of the market as the way to political success. The control-freakery of Labour's high command meant they were not open to ideas from maverick MPs, academics or leftist thinktanks; access to ministers meant thinking not the unthinkable but the boringly predictable.

This has had unfortunate long-term consequences. The ability of mainstream progressives to develop a critique of the neo-liberal world order is illustrated by the development NGOs, which felt less obliged to cosy up to policymakers and, from the mid-1990s onwards, attacked the Washington consensus. All sorts of radical ideas were floated: that free trade might not always be good for vulnerable economies; that there was a role for an activist state in development; that privatising health and education would lead to more sick people and fewer children in school.

The crisis thus presents a golden opportunity and a threat to the left. The financial meltdown has morphed into an economic downturn of brutal severity; on the other hand, the window of opportunity will be brief, much time has been lost and there is not a lot of money around to fund blue-skies thinking. US academia at least has Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman; there is, sadly, no sign of a British Keynes for the 21st century.

Scholars, politicians and thinktanks have little more than six months to come up with ideas to influence policy before and after the election. They should concentrate on a few areas.

One would be finance, where the argument should be moved on from the need for faux-Keynesian fiscal policy to what Keynes actually stood for: permanent and tough controls on the financial sector so policymakers could pursue goals of social welfare and full employment. That means nationalising the banks, credit controls and action against tax havens - as a bare minimum.

A second would be housing, where the notion that the private sector will build enough homes for almost two million families has been blown out of the water. The government should be buying up land from stricken construction firms and organising a house-building programme of its own.

Finally, there needs to be a vision of the good society, the world the left wants to create. The free-market right has one. The Marxists have one. The greens have one. Unless the social democratic left has one - and can articulate it fully - it is finished.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Vote for a better blog than this one!

Back for 2009 after a good break from it all. Before I start blogging myself, you may see that there is a competition on the Net for blogs, which finishes on the 13th (Tuesday). You are allowed to vote once every 24 hours in each category from a particular computer and can vote from here.

It is, of course, totally up to you who you vote for. The vast majority I've never heard of, which just goes to show that (i) I'm way off the pace in the blogosphere and/or (ii) no-one in the real world gives a monkeys about the blogosphere. Anyway, there are a few blogs I would ask you to consider voting for:

In the Culture section there is Madam Miaow;

In the Comic Strip section there are two old favourites of mine: Dilbert & Jesus and Mo;

In the UK section there is Neil Clark and Olly Onions, who I think would look better in the Best Humor [sic] section. However, looking at the figures it looks like 'Mad' Mel Phillips could well win, which would forever tarnish our country with the reputation of being sexually repressed, humourless, shrill, self-righteous, mindlessly pro-Israeli windbags;

In the Middle East/Africa section there is Juan Cole's Informed Comment;

In the Fashion section (which is not really my thing but Madam M pointed me in the right direction...) I voted for Slacker Chic (who prefers Monica Bellucci to Victoria Beckham, which is ALWAYS a good sign of taste).

So please day I hope to be in contention for this, if it's not hit by a vote-fixing scandal...