In this week’s New Statesman: The Lib Dem Conference Special

Richard Reeves makes the case for a "truly liberal party". PLUS: Robert Skidelsky on the coalition's "silent U-turn" on economic policy.

Richard Reeves: The case for a truly liberal party

In our magazine’s cover story this week, Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy – one of the most senior figures at the heart of government – writes exclusively for us on the future of the Liberal Democrats. In a substantial intervention ahead of the party’s annual conference, Reeves challenges the party to decide once and for all whether it is committed and has the courage to pursue the course that Clegg has charted. Read the full text online here.

 

Robert Skidelsky: Go left, go right... go downhill

After a “tepid recovery” from the 2008 collapse and a double td recession fuelled in part by Osborne’s austerity measures, Britain’s course to fiscal recovery looks conflicted. Political economist Robert Skidelsky takes a step back and asks: “What has gone wrong?”

It is true that a correlation isn’t a cause, but could it be that the earlier recovery had something to do with the stimulus, and the subsequent decline with the austerity? At any rate these are striking coincidences. By contrast, the United States, which escaped Dr Osborne’s cure, has continued to grow, albeit feebly.

It would be foolish to say that Osborne’s budgets have caused the slump. The charge is that his budgets, far from offsetting, have aggravated the collapse of demand that followed the banking crash of 2008. Austerity has not caused the economy to shrink, but has kept it from recovering.

Skidelsky presents the theoretic argument for fiscal stimulus as a means for economic growth, especially in an era of thrift where many citizens fear “living beyond their means”. He draws a clear picture:

The only thing they can do is to reduce their spending: that is, save more. But what happens if all households and firms try to increase their saving at the same time? Well, then the total spending in the economy will fall because everyone’s spending is someone else’s income. There will be less demand for goods and services and therefore for labour. Our collective attempts to get back into balance – get rid of our credit-card debt, as the Prime Minister likes to put it – will have made us all poorer, and, indeed, reduced the amount of saving as well, given that we will have smaller incomes out of which to save. So the economy will go on shrinking until the excess saving is eliminated by the growing poverty of the community.

New acts of saving, though virtuous for the individual, make us all poorer when the demand for new capital has declined. That is why Keynes rejected more saving as the remedy for a slump. The correct response was more spending. And if private agents lack the resources or incentive to increase their spending then the government needs to increase its own spending. This, in a nutshell, is the theory of the stimulus.

So what’s to be done? Slowly, the Conservatives have begun to acknowledge the Keynesian reality – “that to withdraw demand from an already demand-deficient economy will lead not to recovery, but to a shirking economy, a growing debt (private and public) and the need for more austerity.” He calls this acknowledgement the “silent U-turn”. He furthers:

The debate is broadly between the supply-siders and the demand-siders. The supply-siders argue that there is too little money in the economy, the demand-siders that there is too little spending power. It might seem that the two come to the same thing, but as Keynes pointed out, the holder of money has a choice: whether to “hoard” it or spend it. Those who argue that any increase in the money supply is bound to be spent on buying goods and services ignore the existence of “liquidity preference” – the desire to hold on to cash because of uncertainty about the future.

 

Aid for aristocrats

In an exclusive NS report, Jason Cowley and George Eaton investigate how some of the biggest landowners in the country are receiving millions in taxpayer subsidies each year. Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, to which each British household contributes £245 a year, the Queen was last year paid £730,628 for her ownership of the Royal Farms Windsor and the Duchy of Lancaster, while Prince Charles received £127,868, and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar was paid £273,905 for his ownership of the 2,000-acre Glympton Estate in Oxfordshire, allegedly purchased with proceeds of the 1985 al-Yamamah arms deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia.

Britain has the most unequal land distribution in Europe after Spain, with 70 per cent of acreage held by just 0.28 per cent of the population, or 158,000 families.

Read an abbreviated version of the report here.

 

Rafael Behr: Why Ed Miliband should be grateful to the Lib Dems

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr points out why the coalition hasn’t been entirely unbeneficial to the Labour agenda. Further isolating the Tories from the “already atrophied liberal wing” of their own party, Clegg’s destabilizing effect has perhaps done more to help than hinder. Behr writes:

Labour dismisses the Lib Dems’ policy contribution to government but they cannot deny that the junior partner’s assertiveness has provoked the Tory right and undermined Cameron’s authority. It has forced the Prime Minister to neglect the already atrophied liberal wing of his own party, meaning the project to modernise and “decontaminate” the Tory brand has stalled.

Then, as coalition relations soured and the intimacy of the early months threatened to dissolve Lib Dem identity, the party embarked on a strategy of “differentiation” that abetted Labour’s attacks on Cameron. Clegg’s implicit message has been that Conservative instincts are as sour as they were when the “nasty party” label hung around their necks. Coalition is meant to sweeten the mix.

Were another hung parliament to be in the draw, Miliband might have the Deputy PM to thank…

If Ed Miliband is in a position to form a government, it will be in no small measure because Clegg has hemmed the Tories into an ideological corner from where, history suggests, they struggle to reach a majority. That isn’t the reason most Conservative MPs, obsessed with the contamination of their purest policy ambitions, are angry with the Lib Dems. It is a reason why they should be.

 

Daniel Trilling: How New Labour opened the door to the far right

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Bloody Nasty People, Daniel Trilling reports on how the BNP gained a foothold in British politics: 

With first-hand reportage from England's north-west, including interviews with key figures from within the far right, he examines how Nick Griffin exploited ethnic tensions in the aftermath of the 2001 riots - and how the Labour leadership responded:

If voters in Burnley wanted the government’s attention, now they had it. Over the weekend of 15 and 16 June [2002], write Nigel Copsey and David Renton in British Fascism, the Labour Movement and the State (Palgrave Macmillan), Tony Blair met with senior strategists, chief among them his pollster Philip Gould, who warned that thousands of "angry young working-class men" were poised to desert Labour for the BNP.

[…]

But New Labour was in thrall to triangulation, the strategy which had helped the party defeat the Conservatives by occupying the political space normally held by the right, pushing them further away from the centre. What would it mean to "occupy" the space held by fascists?

Trilling challenges the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett, over his comments in 2002 that asylum seekers were "swamping" British schools - an echo of remarks made by Margaret Thatcher:

I visited Blunkett at his House of Commons office in the autumn of 2011. He denied pandering to racism. "My use of the word ‘swamped’ was specific. It means ‘overwhelmed’ and if you look at the dictionary   definition they’re interchangeable," he told me, still testy about the incident. Yet even though he now regretted his incautious use of wording, he defended the strategy: "My concern from 2001 onwards was to ensure that we didn’t allow that considerable progress that [far-right parties] were making in other parts of Europe to be reflected in Britain.

 

Plus:

Katherine Angel writes a candid piece of memoir about female sexuality and how for too long the subject has been limited by male definitions:

“Female sexuality – it’s everywhere, right? Our media are saturated with it; women pout out at us from every screen, unveil their desires in every story. Female sexuality: yawn.

But it’s not female sexuality that is everywhere. It’s not even, as many might argue, a fictive female sexuality, defined by the projections and fantasies of others. What is everywhere is anxiety about female sexuality, discomfort with female desire.”

 

Elsewhere in the New Statesman:

Our Critic At Large this week is John Gray writing on Thomas Hobbes, “an intrepid rationalist with an unwavering confidence in the power of reason – especially his own – to resolve immemorial human dilemmas”. Gray in particular reviews a new edition of Leviathan and argues: that Hobbes “had no interest in liberty or democracy as ends in themselves” and so “can be seen as the greatest exponent of enlightened despotism”.

In Books, Colin MacCabe reviews of Salman Rushdie’s memoir, Joseph Anton for our lead essay. MacCabe recalls the era of the fatwa, in which “ours was one of many houses in which Salman Rushdie was always welcome as a guest after he had been condemned to death by the mullocracy in Tehran”. MacCabe writes that “the story Rushdie tells is never less than gripping. And there are moments, particularly in his description of his now regretted reconversion to Islam, when he writes as well as he has ever done”. Read the full review here.

Elsewhere in Books: Gary Imlach reviews Tyler Hamilton’s book about Lance Armstrong and doping on the Tour de France; Isabel Hilton reviews two books on China, The End of the Chinese Dream: Why Chinese People Fear the Future by Gerard Lemos and Scattered Sand: the Story of China’s Rural Migrants by Hsang-Hung Pai; and Jonathan Derbyshire interviews Paul Auster about his memoir, Winter Journal. Auster says:

The funny thing about writing about oneself is that I’m not very interested in myself. I use my own life as an example of what it means to be human. I just think of myself as anyone or everyone. I’m trying to share my experience with others as a way of establishing some kind of common humanity. What does it feel like to be alive? Isn’t that what all writers are trying to do?

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder