Thursday, 5 January 2017

Liberal futures

A rather fun New Year's gift from the Liberal Democrat party, of which I am a longstanding and not terribly active member. In an exercise which is apparently geared towards drawing up the next manifesto, they've asked members to come up with a 500-word account of what Britain might look like in 2030 if Lib Dems' dreams came true.

After a year in which the future has chiefly seemed like something to be afraid of, I found it a bracing challenge. It fits my historical patterns of thought, and I also thought the essential silliness of the exercise worth embracing. So, here is the attempt at optimistic provocation which I submitted.

In the angry, distrusting, hardscrabble world of the mid-2010s, it was hard to imagine we could create an open, plural, creative, sustainable society with renewed trust in public life and without left-behind communities. In retrospect, the key realisation was that we had been too small-bore and defensive. Liberal principles offered new solutions as well as old truisms: as long as we realised we needed not just to keep democracy liberal, but also to keep liberalism democratic.

So while we fought the Brexiteers’ nationalist fantasies, our aim was less to rejoin the old, crisis-struck EU than to take the international lead in weaving the web of democratic successor relationships which we now call EU 2.0. Likewise, we pressed for an immigration policy which favoured skilled and student migration, but which recognised the economic impact of unskilled migration and faced up to the racism implicit in systematically favouring would-be immigrants from Europe.

But we also recognised that the 2010s’ immigration panic was a symptom of much deeper ills in our social and political structure. Economically, the key policy was the infrastructure surge: digital, renewable energy, transport and, vitally, housing. It stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition, but our cross-party environmental audit of the old Green Belts made it possible to unlock significant areas of land for development while fully retaining our commitment to our environmental principles. At the time, the impact on the public sector deficit seemed alarming, but it was eased by the new Green Bonds and by cautious, eyes-open PPP deals. The assault on the housebuilding oligopoly and new permissions for self-build kept pressure on house prices while beginning to improve the dismal quality of new-build housing.

The immediate effect was a surge in low-skilled, high-wage employment in construction, the major sector of low-skilled employment least subject to offshoring. That is now fading, but the broader economic and environmental boost given by the projects is only starting to show.

Much of the rest was more obvious: integrating social care fully into the NHS, replacing council tax with a land and property tax which pensioners could defer until sale, reducing micromanagement of education within a more exactingly quality-focused inspection regime, boosting research funds with a post-fee-repayment graduate tax.

But as good Lib Dems, we know that the constitutional changes were vital too. Rebuilding trust and engagement in politics was not a luxury. PR now seems less important than it once did. But while the term limits for MPs have cost us some talent, they have sharply reduced career politicians’ dominance. The new Upper House, selected entirely by lot, has been derided as reality-TV politics, but it has produced both real engagement and a new kind of democratic legitimacy. The experiment of allowing parents additional votes on behalf of their under-18 children is still in its early days, but promises to alleviate the so-called ‘demography vs. democracy’ crisis. Does anyone seriously believe that, without such decisive changes to our political culture, Scotland would be about to rejoin the UK?

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