A Post-Election Reckoning for British Politics

Leaving the European Union on January 31, 2020, will be UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s repayment of the debt he owes to the many Labour supporters who “lent” his Conservatives their votes. But “getting Brexit done” won’t be enough for the Tories to hold on to their parliamentary seats.
LONDON – Speaking outside No. 10 Downing Street following his emphatic election victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson thanked long-time Labour supporters for having “lent” his Conservative Party their votes. It was a curious phrase, whose meaning depended entirely on context. The Tories had breached Labour’s strongholds in the Midlands and North East England on the promise of “getting Brexit done.” Leaving the European Union, as Britain will on January 31, 2020, will be Johnson’s repayment of the debt he owes these voters.
But “getting Brexit done” won’t be enough for the Tories to hold on to their parliamentary seats, as Johnson recognized. The Conservatives, he said, will need to turn themselves once again into a “one nation” party. For its part, if Labour is to regain its heartlands, it will need to find a way of reconnecting with its alienated supporters.
What this double reconfiguration entails is reasonably clear. The Conservatives will need to break with Thatcherite economics, and Labour will need to loosen its embrace of minorities and minority culture. Both will need to move back to a middle ground. The libertarian dream of a free market in both economics and morals does not resonate with an economically interventionist but socially conservative electorate.
Brexit was a reaction to economic betrayal, the British version of a European-wide revolt by what French President Emmanuel Macron called the “left-behinds.” This label is precisely right as a description, but overwhelmingly wrong as a prescription, for it suggests that the future is technologically determined, and that people simply will have to adapt to it. The state’s duty, according to this view, is to enable the left-behinds to board the cost-cutting, labor-shedding bullet express, whereas what most people want is a reasonably secure job that pays a decent wage and gives them a sense of worth.
No one would deny that governments have a vital role to play in providing people with the employment skills they need. But it is also governments’ task to manage the trade-off between security and efficiency so that no sizeable fraction of the population is left involuntarily unemployed.
Guaranteed full employment was the key point of consensus of the Keynesian economics of the 1950s and 1960s, embraced by right and left, with the political battle centered on questions of wealth and income distribution. This is the kind of dynamic center the Conservatives should try to regain.

Any Toryism that seeks to be genuinely “one nation” must acknowledge that the fiscal austerity that the Conservatives imposed on the country from 2010 to 2017 caused great and unnecessary harm to millions of people. The Tories must show that they understand why austerity was wrong in those circumstances, and that the purpose of the budget is not to balance the government’s accounts, but to balance the economy at full employment. Deficits and surpluses reflect the state of the economy. This means that no effort should be made to cut the deficit when the economy is shrinking or to expand it when the economy is growing, because that produces deflation in the downswing and inflation in the upswing – exactly the opposite of what is needed. George Osborne’s greatest contribution to Toryism now would be to explain where and how, as chancellor of the exchequer, he went wrong between 2010 and 2016.
A party pledged to govern from the center should implement policies to stabilize the labor market. These should include a permanent public investment program aimed at rebalancing the United Kingdom’s regions and “greening” its infrastructure, together with a buffer of guaranteed public-sector jobs that inflates and deflates automatically with economic downturns and upturns. The beauty of the second lies precisely in its automaticity, guarding it against the charge of being at the mercy of vote-hungry politicians.
Together, these policies would limit business fluctuations, rebalance the economy geographically, and lay the ecological foundations for future growth. What they imply is a deceleration of the rush to automate and globalize, regardless of social cost.
Labour, for its part, needs to recognize that most of its voters are culturally conservative, which became clear with respect to Brexit. The election result disclosed a culture gap between Remainers and Leavers, which for a subset of London and university-campus-based Remainers amounted to a culture war between a politically correct professional class and a swath of the population routinely dubbed stupid, backward, and undereducated, or, more generously, misinformed. One symptom of this gap was the common media depiction of Johnson as a “serial liar,” as though it was his mendacity that obscured from befuddled voters the truth of their situation.
Political correctness ramifies through contemporary culture. I first became aware of a cultural offensive against traditional values in the 1970s, when school history textbooks started to teach that Britain’s achievements were built on the exploitation of colonial peoples, and that people should learn to feel suitably apologetic for the behavior of their forbears. Granted that much history is myth-making, no community can live without a stock of myths in which it can take pride. And “normal” people don’t want to be continuously told that their beliefs, habits, and prejudices are obsolete.1
In the continuous evolution of cultural norms, therefore, a new balance needs to be struck between the urge to overthrow prejudice and the need to preserve social cohesion. Moreover, whereas the phrase “left behind” may reasonably describe the situation of the economically precarious, it is quite wrong as a cultural description. There are too many cultural left-behinds, and their cultural “re-skilling” will take much longer than any economic re-skilling. But such re-skilling is not the right prescription. Metropolitan elites have no right to force their norms on the rest of the country. Labour will need to remember that “normal” people want a TransPennine railway much more than a transgender future.
In short, just as the right went wrong in forcing economic individualism down people’s throats, so the left has gone wrong in its contempt for majority culture. In the UK, the price for elite incapacity in both areas has been Brexit; in Europe and the United States generally, it has been the growth of populism.
Economic and cultural utopians alike are destroyers: they want to tear down what has been built in order to create something more perfect. The dream of perfection is the death of statesmanship. Politicians who aspire to govern on behalf of the whole community should aim not for the best possible result, but the best result possible. Continue reading “A Post-Election Reckoning for British Politics”

China’s Quest for Legitimacy

December 3, 2019

The conventional Western view is that China faces the alternatives of integrating with the West, trying to destroy it, or succumbing to domestic violence and chaos. But the Chinese scholar Lanxin Xiang instead proposes a constitutional regime based on a modernized Confucianism.
LONDON – Liberal democracy faces a legitimacy crisis, or so we are repeatedly told. People distrust government by liberal elites, and increasingly believe that the democracy on offer is a sham. This sentiment is reflected in the success of populists in Europe and the United States, and in the authoritarian tilt of governments in Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines, and elsewhere. In fact, liberal democracy is not only being challenged in its European and American heartlands, but also has failed to ignite globally.
Democracies, it is still widely believed, do not go to war with each other. Speaking in Chicago in 1999, the United Kingdom’s then-prime minister, Tony Blair, averred that, “The spread of our values makes us safer,” prompting some to recall Francis Fukuyama’s earlier prediction that the global triumph of liberal democracy would spell the end of history. The subsequent failure of Russia and China to follow the Fukuyama script has unsurprisingly triggered fears of a new cold war. Specifically, the economic “rise of China” is interpreted as a “challenge” to the West.
On this reading, peaceful transfers of international power are possible only between states that share the same ideology. In the first half of the twentieth century, therefore, Britain could safely “hand over the torch” to the US, but not to Germany. Today, so the argument goes, China poses an ideological as well as a geopolitical challenge to a decaying Western hegemony.
This perspective, however, is vigorously contested by the Chinese scholar Lanxin Xiang. In his fascinating new book The Quest for Legitimacy in Chinese Politics, Xiang shifts the spotlight from the crisis of rule in the West to the crisis of rule in China.
In one sense, this is familiar territory. Western political scientists have long believed that constitutional democracy is the only stable form of government. They therefore argue that China’s one-party state, imported from Bolshevism, is doomed, with the current protests in Hong Kong foreshadowing the mainland’s fate.
Xiang’s contribution lies in challenging the conventional Western view that China faces the alternatives of integrating with the West, trying to destroy it, or succumbing to domestic violence and chaos. Instead, he proposes a constitutional regime with Chinese characteristics, based on a modernized Confucianism.
Continue reading “China’s Quest for Legitimacy”

Placido Domingo: cancel culture?

‘People who do really good stuff have flaws’ said Barack Obama in a recent talk.  About the same time I read: ‘Placido Domingo has withdrawn from all future engagements at New York’s Metropolittan Opera [after 51 consecutive years] following allegations of sexual harrassment made by several women, including a soprano who said he reached down her robe and grabbed her bare breast’.[The Week,5 October 2019] Domingo’s burnished tenor and acting ability has thrilled generations of opera lovers.  At 78 it was probably  time he hung up his boots. But should he be driven  off stage by allegations of sexual impropriety?


I reproduce below two comments I received from friends, the first a man, the second a woman,  both of whom share my love of opera.

‘In my view, the primary dilemma is between a deontological understanding of ethics,  the standards of which are valid across time and space,  and a more context-bounded one. Without embracing a radical ethical relativism I wonder whether it is appropriate to totally ignore the context-boundedness of ethical behavior.  I think, we should take into account that ethical consciousness (i.e. what people consider ethical standards) changes over time,  notwithstanding the fact that some core ethical principles remain unchanged. But even if we embrace a context-insensitive understanding of ethics I wonder whether the accused persons have no rights at all. Anonymous accusations can destroy lives’ .

‘Domingo  has the following  problems:
(A.) There are a lot of complainants;
(B.) He was in a position of real power in a business notorious for that power being abused; and, worst of all
(C.) The present atmosphere, especially in the US, is not far off a lynch mob…..

I find differences of view are geographical and generational.  Our generation – you and I … have an open mind and are wary of mass judgements. Our daughters’ generation can’t  get enough of it..

In the USA, Australia and I suspect the UK  where ‘Me Too ‘ has serious traction,  I doubt there is a future for PD … [But] I expect Milan and Berlin to carry on as usual.

Fifty years ago and even more recently such behaviour was accepted.  It must be remembered  that it works both ways and it would be foolish to believe he was not actively  pursued by women working in the business. That should never be forgotten

As with Karajan who had a spotty  background for other reasons we keep watching genius at work and separate what may now be classified as ‘no go’.’

A number of interesting moral issues arise.  Should we judge the  past behaviour of individuals  by present standards? My young (24 year old) research assistant (male) is quite clear about this: ‘What Domingo did was as morally wrong then as it is  now, and he knew it.The fact that it was socially acceptable then for men to grope women is no defence. Our generation is just not as hypocritical as yours’.

I find myself in an ambivalent position. On the one hand, Domingo’s behaviour was deplorable, and should not be excused on the ground of ‘customary’ standards.

Against this is the thought that we have created a culture of exploitable  victimhood. If you’re not being sexist, you’re  being racist. The politician Rory Stewart, campaigning for the mayoralty of London, made the mistake of referring  approvingly to the mixed population of  Brick Lane, as the kind of  area ‘where three sort of minor gangsters can come up to me and tell me I am an idiot’. As chance had it, the men who had called him an idiot, accused him of racism, and  demanded that he apologise for ‘trying to take advantage of black boys when it’s convenient, then ridiculing them’. It turned out they objected to being called ‘minor’.

Curiously for a society which has thrown off  so many Puritan inhibitions we  seem to be relentlessly intent on  spreading guilt. I  prefer the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness.  Opera lovers should forgive Placido his transgressions,  and enjoy the one or two remaining years of his superb stage craft.

Letter: The UK’s failing economic model demands such bold ideas

Below is the text of a letter to the editor of the Financial Times, signed by Lord Skidelsky alongside 81 other signatories, and published on 6th September 2019.

Your series of articles exploring the Labour party’s economic agenda fails to appreciate the severity of the UK’s current economic condition, and reproduces a number of misconceptions.

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The Fall and Rise of Public Heroism

Recently I watched The Man Who Was Too Free, a moving documentary about the Russian dissident politician Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down in front of the Kremlin in 2015. A young, handsome rising political star in the 1990s, Nemtsov later refused to bend to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and went into opposition, where he was harassed, imprisoned, and finally killed. The film left me thinking about the diminished role of heroism and courage in modern life, and also about the fate of Russia.

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The Case for a Guaranteed Job

“Any government,” writes the economist and hedge fund manager Warren Mosler, “can achieve full employment by offering a public service job to anyone who wants one at a fixed wage.” Versions of this idea have received powerful endorsements from prominent Democratic politicians in the US, including presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has linked a government job guarantee to a Green New Deal. Moreover, versions of a job-guarantee program (JGP), more or less connected to green economics, have been implemented in Argentina, India, South Africa, and – whisper it quietly – Hungary under its illiberal populist leader, Viktor Orbán.

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Norman’s Last Day

The funeral of Norman Stone took place on Friday 28 June in the Deak Lutheran Church in Budapest. His son Rupert asked me to be a pall bearer and I followed the coffin up the aisle behind the prime minister Viktor Orban. Historians Niall Ferguson and Harold James, among others, eulogised him. My presence was in a sense accidental. I happened to be spending a month in Vienna and I had come over from to Budapest to see him the previous week: on the day, in fact, he died.

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