Friday, May 07, 2010

Presidents vs Parliaments and electoral reform

Brief reflections on the aftermath of the UK general election
The UK general election took some interesting twists last night. It was really a loss for every party, except perhaps the Greens (who gained their first ever seat) and the BNP (who tripled their vote share). The Conservatives received the most seats (306 of 649), but fell short of the outright majority they seemed so certain to achieve a few months ago. There was a significant swing against Labour, but it was not uniform or strong enough for a clear result, leaving them with 258 members. Despite slightly increasing their share of the popular vote, the Liberal Democrats lost seats and ended with 57. The Conservatives now claim the moral right to form government, having claimed the most seats and the highest proportion of the popular vote (36%), but Labour has the constitutional right as incumbent to try to make arrangements for a coalition government, and a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition can claim over 50% of the popular vote, despite also falling short of a majority needed to govern without challenge.

I am sure that the debates and negotiations will continue over the next hours and days. Will the Conservatives reach an agreement with the Lib Dems and form a minority government? Will Labour be able to cobble together a coalition with the Lib Dems to stay in power? Will the UK see another election before too long? Only time will tell. But the election does highlight some interesting aspects of the electoral system here.

The UK has a parliamentary, rather than a presidential system, which means that the PM is ultimately selected by the parliament rather than the people. The immediate object of any election under such a system is not to pick a new prime minister, but a new parliament, one of whose tasks is to find a party or coalition of parties whose leader can gain the support of, or at least not be actively opposed by, a majority of the parliament. This means that the negotiations currently underway are themselves an important part of the system. There is no need to assume that a hung parliament is itself a crisis of some kind. Many countries have been successfully governed by minority parties or by multi-party coalitions. There is nothing necessarily superior about a two party system.

However, the real problem that this election has again highlighted is with the first past the post voting system, which disconnects vote share from seats. One party with 36% of the popular vote can gain 47% of the seats while another with 23% ends up with less than 9%. The 2005 election was little different, with Labour gaining a huge majority of seats from under 40% of the popular votes.

And so, as I said in my previous post, there are other pressing issues for the UK, but this period of uncertainty brings with it an opportunity for electoral reform. Here is a new campaign from an interesting alliance of 18 organisations - including dedicated reform groups as well as Christian and major environmental organisations. They are calling for "a Citizens Convention to be convened to decide on a new voting system to be put to the people in a referendum."

As always, it easier to be in opposition, where criticism can outstrip constructive efforts. Will this disparate coalition find sufficient common ground to put forward a workable alternative to the current flawed model? That too, remains to be seen.

UPDATE: For those who believe that reform still matters, even if there is no perfect system, apart from the petition mentioned above, you can also sign one here


Al said...

I am still not sure that the system is all that broken. We vote for local candidates, who represent political parties, rather than for the parties directly. The present system ensures that a local constituency is represented by the person that the greatest number of voters supported. This personalizes the process of government more and maintains a bond between the national and the local that a proportional representation system would not be so good at maintaining (perhaps this is one reason why we don't feel represented in the same way by our MEPs).

Also politics is already dominated enough by special interests. A PR system would probably make this even worse.

byron smith said...

Notice I did not directly advocate a PR system, as I am less familiar with it, though am getting some experience of a mixed PR and local candidates system in the Scottish Parliament (which I believe is what is used in a number of European countries). Preferential voting at least means that minor parties are not disadvantaged by people being forced to consider tactic voting. By avoiding the problem of split votes, preferential voting means you end up with the candidate preferred by the majority of voters, rather than simply the candidate that the most voters put first.

I don't think there is a single perfect system (and I'll be interested to see if all the various reform organisations can agree on a single model), but I do think that first past the post is not amongst the better options.

byron smith said...

In case it wasn't clear, I do agree that a local connexion to one's representative is a good and personalising thing, and it would be a great loss if any reform scrapped it entirely. One of the very interesting aspects of the results was the great variety of outcomes across locales. This was an election where local issues mattered and led to vastly different outcomes in different electorates, rather than a single narrative dominating across the entire UK.

As for feeling represented by MEPs, again, as a foreigner, I am certainly no expert, but I wonder whether history, cultural imagination and the relative novelty of the EU experiment might be more significant than the method of voting.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...


The MMP-based proportional representation system (used by New Zealand) ensures two things:

1. A vote for the parliament (to determine proportional allocation of seats).

2. A vote for a local candidate.

steph said...

As a first time voter in the UK I would have voted Green as I am living in a horribly conservative electorate with no candidate I couldn't. So I voted LibDem. Greens are the only party who support nuclear disarmament and troop withdrawal. Not to mention all their other sensible policies.

However 'New' Labour haven't lost their 'moral mandate to govern' and Cameron claims, and the Torys don't have the right to seek to govern first as Clegg is suggesting. More than 64% of voters voted for a left wing party and presumably want a left wing government. Forget the number of seats. It's the people that count. And if you include the high number of potential voters who didn't vote at all (as it isn't compulsory to vote here) I betcha they aren't likely to be Tory supporters. I think the fairest voting system is MMP - two votes, one for candidate and the other for party, but if the Torys take control there won't be any reform.

I just hope Clegg is playing games with Cameron in order to get more out of Labour. I can't believe people voting Tory. Remember the iron lady - you'd think people would learn...

At home (New Zealand) I vote Labour for the candidate and Green for the Party to ensure we get Green seats in parliament which will be Labour led.

byron smith said...

The NZ system is somewhat similar to both federal and state elections in Oz, though rather than having two votes for a single chamber, there are two houses, with an elected upper house based on proportional representation and a preferential vote for a local candidate in the lower house.

Forget the number of seats. It's the people that count.
I'm afraid not. It's actually the opposite. Though the disparity between them is a sign of a system that can be improved (I don't say that it is broken).

More than 64% of voters voted for a left wing party and presumably want a left wing government.
The Lib Dems have variously described themselves as either centre-left or centrist. So calling them "left-wing" is perhaps only partially correct. And the fact is that people vote for candidates from a variety of parties, not simply for left or right wings, so aggregating the popular vote is at best only a secondary measure of an election.

The right of Labour to attempt to form government is not based on a moral argument from votes, but on the constitution (i.e. convention). Ironically, it is the party that claims to conserve such tradition that is attempting to sidestep it.

Greens are the only party who support nuclear disarmament and troop withdrawal.
Although their policies are not identical, a case could be made for Lib Dems also being strongly in support of nuclear disarmament, and the other two major parties are committed to a slower, less unilateral form of nuclear disarmament.

That said, the Greens do have many excellent features to their manifesto, for instance, pointing out the ecological impossibility of the endless growth which all the major parties assume as a central plank. I am pleased that they succeeded in gaining their first seat.

PS My comment about the BNP was only in comparison to 2005. Compared to how much they might have expected or hoped to win even a few months' ago, they too had a disappointing election, missing out on a seat and losing many local councillors.

steph said...

Lib dems have clearly said the support nuclear deterrents and troops on foreign shores. I'd be interested to hear otherwise. When I say left wing here I mean left of Tory. And Labour are more conservative than Lib Dem. But although Labour and Lib Dem are centrist at best (they're actually no more left from the NZ National Party where our minority Act Party is a better reflection of the torys), they're left of the tories and I think you'll find that their supporters voted against tory.

Obviously it is the seats that count but equally obviously to me, MORALLY, it is the people that count.

It's irrelevant what Labour's supposed right to seek a government is based on. More people voted against tory, and more people voted for a party (or candidate) that wasn't right wing.

Al said...

One of the things that interests me is the idea of representation that underlies the present system. The current form of representation is far more rooted in locality. That is great for many people. However, in an age where many people are quite footloose, locality can factor far less into people's sense of self. A system that allowed for slightly more variegated forms of representation might be a good thing.

Current forms of representation retain strong bonds between locality and representation which is a good thing for certain constituencies with fairly stable populations. However, for constituencies like City of Durham, where I live, with a large student population, many of us are less invested in particularly local concerns.

I have lived in four different constituencies over the last ten years (Stoke-on-Trent Central, Bridgend, Fife North East and City of Durham). In a couple of years' time I will most probably be moving to another (if I don't move out of the country). If representation is primarily about locality, I feel a bit guilty having as much of a say as people who have lived here all of their lives and who will still be living here in ten years' time. However, as a British subject, I am no less worthy of representation, but a locality-based system of representation won't serve people like me so well.

David Palmer said...

I wonder how many normally Tory voters deserted the Conservative Party and didn't bother to vote because the Party had slipped its conservative moorings, so that in the end there wasn’t much difference between the parties and their leaders.

In Australia we have a much clearer demarcation, certainly so at present, between Labour and the Coalition which seems a much healthier position to be in, helped by a better Parliamentary system – proportional, seat by seat, in the lower house and proportional in the upper house for a combined and equal number of seats on a State by State basis, as well as compulsory voting. However, no perfect system exists.

What I liked about the UK system, living in the UK in the 1980’s was the way candidates, certainly at local council elections, went door to door seeking our vote.

I do agree with Steph that Labour and Liberal Democrats, both being parties of the left are more natural allies and therefore should have a crack at governing, but presumably other parties would need to be brought on board to get a necessary majority, which may be a problem?

Regardless of who forms the next Government, their backs will be truly up against the wall. The UK debt situation is terrible – borrowing money from o’seas to keep up a standard of living that the nation hasn’t earned on its own account. Some very tough decisions will be required – look no further than Greece. Maybe not as bad as Greece, but at this point in time, from where I'm sitting it doesn’t look pretty.

Al said...

In response to Steph, it is important to note that research suggests that, unlike at previous elections, under an alternative vote system, about as many Lib Dem voters would opt for the Conservatives as would opt for Labour. Votes for Lib Dem candidates are no less votes against Labour as they are votes against the Conservatives. It makes perfect sense, in light of this fact, that Clegg should talk to the Tories first.

Jonathan said...

Byron, it's worht keeping in mind that most of the vote share/seats disparity you refer to is actually more to do with the single-member/proportional representation issue than the first-past-the-post/preferential questions. I wholeheartedly agree that first-past-the-post is a problem, but we can have just as much vote/seat silliness in Australia.

As it happens, any possible system must have some apparently imperfect features
The difference between the NZ and Aus systems is not only the separate houses - it's also the fact that proportionality applies to the total, including the local members, not just the members without a local electorate.

byron smith said...

Jonathan - thanks for clarifying. I'm no expert on the NZ system and my knowledge is based on a couple of chats with a local Kiwi (I guess I could have spent a few minutes on Wiki...).

You are also right about the vote share/seat share disparity under a preferential system (just look at the Joh Bjelke-Petersen years in Queensland politics), though I do think that for other reasons a preferential system is superior. I entirely agree that there is no perfect system, but there are better and worse ones.

Al - If you feel bad for getting as much say as a local, at least you are a citizen! I get a vote here without being one. But I take your point. I suspect we need more theological work on place.

BTW, how is Durham? How much longer do you have to go? And are you blogging somewhere these days since Adversaria?

David - Regardless of who forms the next Government, their backs will be truly up against the wall.
Indeed - taking power at this point may well be a poisoned chalice for whomever seizes it, especially since they may or may not have the stability (minority or coalition) to make the tough choices.

Can you say more about the ways in which you see the Tories as having abandoned the conservative tradition? I don't disagree, but I'd like to hear more.

Steph - It's irrelevant what Labour's supposed right to seek a government is based on.
The constitution is irrelevant? I agree that it is possible for Brown to not press his right (which seems to be what he's doing, and it may well be a good move, especially if the Conservatives turn out to be unwilling to meet the Lib Dem requirements for electoral reform), but the fact that the UK has generally had a strong respect for constitutional conventions is in my opinion one of the real strengths of its system.

Al said...

Byron, things are going well here in Durham, thanks. I am not blogging much nowadays. Most of my thoughts are limited to extensive private correspondence and my studies.

I think that David is right in pointing out that the Conservative Party has slipped its conservative moorings. Cameron has presented himself as the ‘heir to Blair’ and is more interested with dialoguing with the Lib Dems after the election than he was with dialoguing with the exiles from the Conservative Party in UKIP before the election. He might well have had a majority had he sought to heal the rift with former Conservative voters who now support UKIP. This blog has a list of some of the figures:

Cameron has also alienated people in his party by calling supporters of grammar schools ‘deluded’, by jumping on the political correctness band-wagon (his tokenist favouring of women for shortlists and cabinet positions, voting to force Catholic adoption agencies to close, for instance) and putting his weight behind the homosexual agenda (wanting to compel faith schools to teach it and seeming to favour gay marriage), among other things. He seems committed to dragging the party into the centre, and seems to care little for those on the right of the party.

Anonymous said...

Hi Byron,
From a theoretical standpoint, you may be interested in Arrow's impossibility theorem, which can be interpreted as saying that no fair voting system exists. The Wikipedia article gives a nice summary:

Rob T

byron smith said...

Thanks Al.

Rob - thanks for the link. I agree that no perfect system exists, but as I've said, there are degrees of imperfection. Reform matters.

byron smith said...

PS Avaaz also have a petition for UK electoral reform here.

David Palmer said...

I think Al has answered your question for me, Byron. I think if I were still in the UK, I'd have voted UKIP.

My son reckons that there has been a sea change in general UK mindset such that a Margaret Thatcher with her espousal (more or less) of Victorian virtues would no longer receive much support. Given the calamitous state of the British economy Brits may have to rediscover some of those old fashioned virtues if they want to make their way in the world.

I suggest Gertrude Himmelfarb’s The Demoralisation of Society and Callum Brown's The Death of Christian Britain as well worth a read.

Jonathan said...

Byron, the disparity happens even without Bjelke-mandering, whatever you make of that. Look at the 1998 federal election, or even the situation facing the Greens.

Preferential systems can still throw up situations where there is a reason to vote 'tactically', but a lot less often than a first-past-the-post. I certainly wasn't impresed in 2005, when my electorate seemed even more complicated than the results suggest.

However, that is quite separate from the disparities mentioned in this and the previous post. Introduction of preferential voting could easily make them look worse as the LibDems gain votes but not necessarily seats. In the short term, it could conceivably be Labour who would gain the most.

byron smith said...

Jonathan - Once again, you're right. Preferential is quite different to proportional, and there are benefits and costs between them, of which I'm not fully persuaded either way (and so tend towards some kind of mixed system like AV+ or the Australian system of (more or less) preferential in lower and proportional in upper). What I am quite happy to say is that either (or a mix of them) is better than first past the post.

I'm not very familiar with the complexities of your electorate in 2005, but I'm guessing that you think the Respect candidate would not have won in a preferential ballot, since Labour might have gained more Lib Dem preferences? Or am I over-reading? However, I did notice that you had the option this time of voting for the Pirate Party!

Al - In your listing of Cameron's move away from some traditional Tory positions, do you see this as a good thing or not? Although I've read quite a bit of your biblical and theological writings, I can't remember much about your politics.

David - UKIP: are you more attracted to their rejection of CC or of the EU? Or both?

byron smith said...

PS Jonathan - Introduction of preferential voting could easily make them look worse as the LibDems gain votes but not necessarily seats.
They might gain primary votes, but the whole point of preferential voting is that these votes would not be "wasted", since even if they failed to gain a seat for the Lib Dems, their secondary and tertiary preferences would still make a difference. I think you're correct that Labour would benefit, though I wonder if the Tories might have picked up a couple of extra close seats with preferences from UKIP, especially since Lib Dem preferences would certainly not all go to Labour.

Al said...

Byron, no, I don’t see it as a good thing in many respects. I appreciate much of Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ vision on paper. For instance, his greater attention to the reality of social alienation (e.g. his use of Polly Toynbee’s ‘camel train’ analogy for society) is important, but I think that he gives too much ground to political correctness and egalitarianism in so doing. Boris Johnson’s description of Toynbee is humorous, yet apt: “[she] incarnates all the nannying, high-taxing, high-spending schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain. Polly is the high priestess of our paranoid, mollycoddled, risk-averse, airbagged, booster-seated culture of political correctness and ‘elf ‘n’ safety fascism.” I hope that Cameron gives no ground to this.

A ‘Big Society’ (as opposed to Big Government) approach is something that I see as a good thing. It doesn’t treat an unfettered market as our saviour (capitalism’s cycle of desire has demoralized society just like the welfare state), and it is more likely to encourage responsibility and a growth in a generous form of independence (which surely should be our goal when helping the poor but physically able within our society). I think that our ideas of the market need to be reconfigured, but I believe that the primary restraints upon the market must arise from society itself, rather than from government imposition.

What I am really looking for is a revival of mutualism on the local level. I would like to see the twin forces of the market and the state limited in their power to shape communities, as communities start to complexify their social space with guilds, powerfully socially active church communities, independent schools, robust family life, etc. A greater attention to locality goes against the logic of capitalism (which abstracts from space), and the state (which simplifies it and imposes a universal and uniform order upon it), and can make us more aware in other respects (most particularly ecologically). I think that the rise of social alienation is best tackled, not by government attacks on wealth inequalities, but by the encouragement of a more complex social space (and this isn’t really government’s business – government just needs to step back from certain areas). I believe that a Christian approach to social alienation is less about government redistribution (which can often merely produce greater alienation by mediating society’s relationship to its poorest by professionals and experts), than it is about creating institutions in which people from across social divides are present to each other, and the encouragement to mutual concern that this creates.

I think that our social vision must be guided by a substantive account of freedom, rather than by the prevailing views of freedom in terms of unrestrained avarice or a rejection of all moral and social controls upon our sexual behaviour, for instance. My political and social vision is primarily one that needs to be implemented on the local level, through the development of the strengths of families and local communities and the discouraging of reliance upon government. I believe that we create freedom for each other by means of such mutuality. I guess that you could call me a small government, right wing communitarian, with libertarian sympathies.

Al said...

Although I like a more communitarian Tory vision, I think that Cameron gives far too much ground to the left, and to the gay rights lobby, for instance. I don’t think that he is sufficiently committed to upholding a society that prizes standards of excellence (his lack of support for grammar schools is related to this). In the name of inclusivism, I fear that we will suffer more of the ‘mediocracy’ that makes one yearn for the age of rampant meritocracy. Rather than taking aim on the poisonous culture of the British under class, which holds so many back from achievement, I fear that he is going to devote more effort to handicapping the successful aspirational classes. I also don’t believe that inequality is necessarily related to social alienation (and inequality is often a necessary result of the defeating of poverty). I see no reason why social inclusion cannot exist in societies with wealth inequalities far greater than ours. Social alienation is more of a result of the way in which capitalism, government, secularism and the sexual revolution have unravelled the shared spaces that connected the lives of people across social spectra. Social alienation is a huge issue that we need to tackle, but I strongly believe that we can address it without resorting to the tried and failed approaches of the left. I also think that this ‘re-moralization’ of society is something that government will likely not do very well (and I have even less faith in Cameron on this front).

On the issue of FPTP. Although I am not a fanboy of the present system, I just don’t feel that its faults are serious enough, or the merits of other systems great enough to merit a change. I am naturally conservative (with a small-C) in the sense that I want to carefully assess the merits of a system before dispensing with it and risking a change that would not necessarily leave us better off.

I also think that changing the present system would change the form of British politics considerably. The very form of British politics is based on a highly agonistic, confrontational (dare I say masculinistic?) form of politics (reflected in the character of parliamentary debate, the physical design of the chamber of the House of Commons, etc.), with a system in which only two parties can generally prosper at the same time. We generally have single party governments with a fairly coherent and strong opposition party.

FPTP voting systems tend to remove extremist parties from the system and simplifies the choice that the electorate has to make (usually to a more left wing and a more right wing party). By marginalizing all but a strong government party and a strong opposition, and promoting a robustly agonistic relationship between them, FPTP also encourages consensual politics on another level, as parties have to become ‘broad churches’ to be effective (which is one reason why Cameron has not been so successful).

Without a FPTP system (or something close) the whole ecology of British politics would change radically. There would obviously be benefits to a system that would encourage more multilateral and consensual forms of politics between the parties. However, this would most likely come at the expense of broad church parties, as consensus would probably be less likely to be maintained on that level. We would have lots more hung parliaments and coalition governments and much weaker oppositions (and the issues of the strong bond between a MP and a locality, rather than a subsection of its electorate are also important).

steph said...

Al: what 'research'?

Actually as a Labour plus Green voter at home, offered only one vote here I would have voted Labour to keep the Conservatives out but felt uncomfortable with some of Labour's almost right wing policies. So I voted Lib Dem against them, hoping Labour would get in and Lib Dem, a more left wing party, would make them ... greener, among other things. What I can't understand is how you can suggest and others as well, that conservative voters voted for a left of Labour Party instead of voting for a smaller right wing party if they wanted to vote against the Torys.

Jonathan said...

Byron, I'm simply being a pedant, not disagreeing with your main point. As far as I'm concerned, in a single member electorate, some sort of preferential system is a no-brainer. It's just a separate issue from the primary vote/seats disparity. I'm not sure who would have won BG&B in 2005 under the STV (Australian) system, but it certainly would have been better than the exisitng situation, where being sure your vote would count seemed very difficult. [No doubt the local/media wisdom in this regard actually changes the results.]

I haven't had any pirates on my ballots yet, since I'm no longer in London. I expect my next vote will require full preferences, and the part that will count will be the ordering of the ALP and Australian Greens candidates. Of course, there is also my Senate vote, which uses a preferential system in a multi-member electorate to end up with some sort of proportional representation. I think the same is true of all the other Australian upper houses (and the Tas lower house), but in other countries proportional representation determinations don't involve preferences. There are plenty of options...

Al, there's a lot that could be said for and against taking the decision making inside the party structures, and I see why you say the FPTP system encourages it. However, not all the alternatives are the same. The Australian preferential (not proportional) system might not in itself hurt the smaller parties, but the language that has grown up around is arguably one of the factors that has caused politics in Australia to be even more in the two-party than in Britain.

Al said...

Steph: I am referring to the research done by the Electoral Reform Society (, and that mentioned in this article (

Brown’s government was quite unpopular and for many getting a bad government out took priority over matters of political ideology. Reducing people’s political choices and defining political parties purely on a left to right spectrum is hugely reductionist and misleading. As I see it, most of the people that I know who voted for the Liberal Democrats did so on the basis of the Lib Dem’s positions on civil liberties, on the war, their secular, internationalist, green and liberal social values, and the fact that they weren’t Labour or the Conservatives. The Millean roots of the Liberal Democrat’s political philosophy are quite distinctive from the more socialist roots of Labour’s political philosophy.

You argue that the Lib Dems are to the left of the Labour Party. This is only because the definition of left has developed away from the old left, which is still represented in many quarters of the Labour Party. The experience of Vince Cable, who left the Labour Party to join the Lib Dems on account of the Labour Party’s ‘loony left’ may be illustrative in this respect.

The Liberal Democrat has far more of a commitment to forging an alternative to the big government policies traditionally associated with the Labour Party left. Clegg has spoken of his commitment to seek to devolve the running of public services to communities where possible. Lots of convergence with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ vision here. The Liberal Democrat has plenty of differences within its ranks and the social liberal wing would support more of a welfare state. However, the Liberal Democrats have always had a market liberal wing, represented by people like Clegg and Cable, who would be far more critical of the government’s role in this area. The internal divisions within the Lib Dems between these two groups can explain why I have friends that lean right on many issues and friends that would tend to lean left who voted Lib Dem.

Once we think in terms of a more complex political spectrum than that provided by a simplisitic left and right, different lines of convergence can be observed. As someone committed to conservative values (with a small C; I didn’t vote Tory at the election, preferring to spoil my ballot), with a strong libertarian streak, commitments to strengthening society by reducing reliance on government and hoping for a greener society, I have a lot more appreciation for Clegg’s vision of society than I do for Brown’s. The Labour government’s nanny state, its lack of faith in any human element within its commitment to an approach to government that gradually handed over the running of society to ever more complex techniques, systems and structures, and its intrusive invasion on civil liberties have led to a disillusion that Clegg and Cameron are both well situated to seize upon. Cameron has also been seeking to move his party in a more progressive direction on issues such as gay rights and his party is far stronger on civil liberties than the Labour Party. There is lots of room for common cause between the parties here. Even though on a left-right spectrum they may appear to be further apart from each other than the Conservatives and Labour, employ a form of political spectrum with more axes, and the Liberal Democrats (and certainly the market liberal wing of it) are probably closer to the Conservatives than they are to Labour in many respects. In many people’s minds (certainly in mine) the libertarian-authoritarian axis is far more important than the left-right one. Even being ConDemned is better than being LibLabbed (and, yes, for me this is a lesser of two evils issue).

byron smith said...

I'm enjoying this conversation and the deeper introduction to UK politics I've gained over the last few weeks. I quite enjoyed this post from a very thoughtful and politically engaged Scot.

steph said...

I voted LibDem too for their policies on the war, environmnent, social values etc. But they are not conservative policies. So I still don't understand how it is implied that these Lib Dem voters would be happy with the Conservatives' policies. These are not Conservative policies, they are liberal ones and I'm not looking forward to the six billion dollar cuts. NHS cuts, universities close, who will win on the rail I wonder but plenty of money on the war and nuclear tridents. Brown resigned anyway - that was inevitable - and while there are still a few old Labourites kicking around in the ranks, you can see the pure thatcherite bigots oozing from the Conservatives. Not just a few unhappy with their mediocre boy chosen to lead them and he was unpopular as you say. If it wasn't for the Lib Dems, who I knew wouldn't get power on their own but could bring Labour policies back to socialism in a coalition with them, I would have voted Green except I wouldn't have voted at all because my vote wouldn't have counted with this ghastly FPP

Al said...

Steph: The LDs did not perform as well as expected at the election. When entering a coalition with the Tories they were always going to be in a disadvantaged position in terms of bargaining power. Obviously LDs have had to compromise more than the Tories have needed to. However, by being prepared to compromise a bit, they have put themselves in a position where they can make headway on some of the issues that they most care about, such as electoral reform.

That said, there is much more convergence between Clegg's brand of Liberal Democrat and Cameron's brand of Conservative. Both party brands are looking for a devolution of big government and the welfare state, and the encouragement of a 'welfare society' or 'Big Society'. Cameron's brand of Conservatism is also more sensitive to the issue of social inequality. The market liberalism of Clegg is something with which many Conservatives can found a significant degree of common cause too. This article describes some of the convergences well ( The question is whether they can take the rest of their parties with them.

Despite the common assumption that I encounter, that the Labour Party really cares about the poor, I think that the Labour Party and its policies have caused immense damage to the poorest in our society. I am pleased that the coalition government seems to be taking welfare overhaul so seriously (indicated by Iain Duncan-Smith having the Cabinet position for Work and Pensions - IDS has done lots of work in the area of rethinking welfare and cares very deeply about it). I have witnessed too much of the effect of Labour's welfare approach on the ground to believe that it is really helping the poor as much as is claimed. I think that the present coalition could be positive on this front. Hopefully the Liberal Democrat involvement will keep social issues to the forefront of the political agenda and encourage a new social sensitivity within the Conservative Party, ensuring that compassionate Conservatism proves itself to be more than a name.

I hope that Liberal Democrats policies on the war, Trident, etc. also have some effect on the coalition's approach. I am not a fan of either party in the coalition, but I think that there are a number of silver linings, and I definitely think that it represents an improvement on that which preceded it.

steph said...

It's nice that you can be so optimistic but I am very afraid. Six billion pounds worth of cuts. Health and education. You really think Clegg might have some weight in the nuclear issue? And the war? And what about improving rail? I don't - and the Dems opposed going to Iraq but once they went, they supported the war. And Cameron? Just a facade. Remember Cameron voted for Thatcher from his Oxbridge days. Labour might not care about the poor - but does he?

byron smith said...

Al - I was also going to raise the issue of Thatcher, whose ghost (I know she's not dead) still seems to haunt British politics (perhaps particularly in Scotland). As an outsider, I am genuinely ignorant so this question is no kind of accusation. You say I think that the Labour Party and its policies have caused immense damage to the poorest in our society. How many people do you include under the word "poorest"? Are you talking about working class, or homeless, or those with mental and physical disabilities, or some combination of the above? Do you think that overall, the poorest are worse off after 13 years of Labour? Were things better under Thatcher/Major? As I said, I genuinely don't know the answers to these questions, though I know the answers that many Scots would give.

I hope that Liberal Democrats policies on the war, Trident, etc. also have some effect on the coalition's approach.
From what I read yesterday, it sounds like part of the deal was that Lib Dems would abstain on nuclear votes.

Steph - And Cameron? Just a facade. Remember Cameron voted for Thatcher from his Oxbridge days.
I am no Cameron fan, but how he voted at university may or may not be a good indication of his current approach. In the end, what he does now that he is in power is what matters and will be how history judges him and his government.

Al said...

Steph: Cuts were always going to be the order of the day in this parliament, no matter who held office. They will be tighter and more immediate with the Tories in power. Spending in the NHS has been ring-fenced and should increase in real terms over the coming years. In dealing with the deficit we need to be realistic: an emphasis on cuts over tax rises is the best way to deal with the situation that we are in without causing so much economic damage (Labour would have taken a two thirds cuts and one third tax raise approach).

On the issue of the nuclear deterrent, I doubt that Clegg’s views will have much of an effect. However, both Labour and the Conservatives support it; my hope is just that in a coalition his voice will carry more weight than it would have done otherwise. Unlikely, but I am an optimist, and since I had no great expectations for any government that would result from the election anyway, I am inclined to look on whatever bright sides there are, even if they might be very slight.

I don’t have an especially high view of Cameron. Whatever one thinks of her, Thatcher was driven by deep – albeit somewhat misguided – principle in a way that Cameron doesn’t seem to be. I am not sure how much Cameron really cares about the poor, and from his personal behaviour I am inclined to think that his talk of ‘Big Society’ is more convenient party rebranding than it is strong personal conviction and guiding principle. However, I think that there are those in his party who really do care about the poor, which is one reason why I am encouraged by the appointment of IDS for Work and Pensions. For such people the Big Society rhetoric is more than just rhetoric, but a vision to implement. All power to them, I say.

Byron: I think that Thatcher left us a deeply ambiguous legacy. Much of what she did was necessary, and in many ways we are better off for her. She turned the country around in several respects, taking the country from deep pessimism and decay and leaving it far more optimistic and successful when she left. Purely judged as a leader, she is easily one of the most effective of the past century. Hardly any other person has left their mark so strongly on British society.

Her legacy is profoundly troubling in other respects, though. She had an unfounded faith in the morality of the market, and in its moralizing power. Unfortunately, the legacy of the policies that arose out of this is not that which was intended. The individualism that was central to her vision might have proved salutary in a different age, encouraging the independence of spirit and responsibility that used to characterize British society. However, society had changed, and the virtues that once guided British society no longer did so in the same way.

In post-Thatcher Britain we don’t have the empowerment of workers and producers to forge their own destiny, so much as the creation of a nation of selfish and irresponsible consumers and a less compassionate society. People have more money and fewer responsibilities than ever before. Government takes responsibility for the most important functions of society – education, welfare, health care, etc. – and the population, absolved from such responsibilities, approaches its financial resources far more as a license for hedonism, like kids with too much pocket money.

Al said...

By ‘poorest’, I am referring primarily (although not exclusively) to the British under class, or welfare class. Over the years I have had extended exposure to particular people within the under class and what one sees isn’t pretty. I have lived with (and in certain cases shared a room with) formerly homeless people, long term unemployed, recent immigrants, recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, a couple in the process of having their children taken from them, people with severe psychological problems, single mothers, and several others. Looking at many of their cases I have been left with the strong impression that the current welfare system generally does not help such people to escape their circumstances. It actually encourages passivity, demoralization and dependence. When I compare my experience with the British under class with my encounters with people living in abject poverty in Burma, for instance, the contrast is stark. The demoralization of the poor in Britain is unlike that which one encounters elsewhere in the world.

The welfare system and the public services more generally also seem to expand the more that they fail, and the more that they expand, the more people become locked into the web of patronage that they establish and the less likely institutional change becomes. Just two weeks ago a friend mentioned to me that she had just left her position as a social worker, having become convinced that the current system rewards people for remaining victims and discourages them from positively changing their condition (the same person, who came from a lower working class background and was for many years one of the most vocal Labour supporters I knew, remarked that her experience in social work had led her to consider voting Conservative).

In many respects the 13 years of Labour did not represent any fundamental change in direction from Thatcher’s Britain, but I believe that the British under class is worse off now than it was before – more dependent, passive, socially broken and demoralized, even though they may have a more extensive welfare system. We should not forgive past governments for institutionalizing such social and cultural poverty, merely because they palliated it (and the palliation of the consequences of irresponsible choices is part of the problem).

Labour tends to blame the problems of social alienation (the alienation that is widely celebrated in the under class, through pop culture, tattoos, despising of education and self-betterment, anti-social behaviour, a rejection of social and sexual mores, etc.) primarily upon inequality, to be redressed by a measure of redistribution, but it seems to me that the brokenness of Britain is more a matter of the less of mutuality than the presence of inequality. Consumerism, the welfare state, secularization, bureaucracy (in both the public and private sector), the sexual revolution and other forces have all served to break down British society and destroy the strength of the institutions that once taught us virtue and bound us together (families, churches, local communities, co-operatives, labour movements, etc.). Without these virtues and social bonds, alienation (and income inequality is also encouraged in a society where kids are less likely to have stable homes, exposure to the moral resources of society, etc.) is not unsurprising and the virtues that encourage independence and social betterment will never be learnt. Furthermore, the focus on income inequality as the source of Britain’s social problems, rather than a lack of mutuality (and Britain has always been lacking in this respect) has led to ‘solutions’ that have had the effect of further reducing mutuality in society and increasing alienation.

byron smith said...

PS Re UKIP & Monckton, here is an interesting article laying out some of Lord M's more recent terminological inexactitudes (or tactical misrepresentations, as they are also known). The amusing thing is that Monckton took Monbiot to the Press Complaints Commission, not for the whole thing, but specifically for the claim that Monckton was not a member of the House of Lords (a claim he has made repeatedly in all kinds of contexts). The PCC ruled that Monbiot is correct; Monckton is not, and has never been, a member of the House of Lords.

byron smith said...

Apologies - I was wrong and wrote my earlier comment before I had read the entire ruling. Monckton complained about pretty much every line of the Monbiot piece and was rejected at every single point, except for a passing reference to a gold pin, which had indeed been given to him, rather than having been commissioned by Monckton. Naughty Monbiot for getting that wrong.

steph said...

The new government will look after the top one percent of British society - the ones that caused the economic crisis in the first place. What happened to the issues that made Lib Dems distinctive? They are no more. You vote Lib Dem, you get the bloody Tories. Camcleggeron. I really want to say Cacleggmoron but I have too many os. They look the same - same age, height, weight, hair, ties - even their wives look the same. But the body language: it's really Lord and Butler. I read some very good articles in the Independent last night and forgot to send you this:

steph said...

Al you're right the Iron Lady left more of a mark than anyone else but you're wrong on everything else. She didn't take the country from deep pessimism and decay and leave it far more optimistic and successful when she left! She left it in tatters!! The Gulf War, pit closures, mass unemployment, lost social services etc. They evils of Thatcherism are still visible. I'm not an optimist unless it's realistic. Cameron's people ... I'm sorry, who caused the economic crisis again?

Al said...

Steph: On the whole, society post-Thatcher was far more vibrant and prosperous than it was beforehand. I stand by that statement. For much of the 60s and 70s Britain was known as the sick man of Europe. The nation’s economic growth was hamstrung by powerful unions, who bullied workers and government, and were political vehicles for their radical leadership. Thatcher came into power on the back of high inflation and waves of strikes, and a stagnating and deteriorating standard of living. Under and subsequent to Thatcher we have experienced unprecedented growth in prosperity. Undemocratic and unrepresentative union bosses could no longer terrorize workers into line, organize political and secondary strikes and have a stranglehold on the politics of the nation. Following Thatcher we have a more vigorous and enterprising society.

Although on the whole the nation was much better off as a result of Thatcher’s reforms, the cost of this turn-around was not a small one, and it was far from evenly distributed. Areas of nationalized heavy manufacturing, the pits and other such industries were decimated. Having lived for years in places heavily hit by this restructuring (I currently live in Durham), I am well aware of the social legacy of the pit closures and the deep and painful memories the events evoke. Whole communities were devastated and the social legacy remains to this day, even among a generation that no longer has a firsthand memory of the events. The change was brought about brutally (I am not a Thatcher fanboy), but it was necessary. An overstretched state, rampant inflation, incredibly high taxes, the propping up of uneconomic nationalized industry and with extremely powerful unions undemocratically forcing their will upon the country – it couldn’t go on for ever.

Thatcher killed the dream of state socialism in this country and most people across the political spectrum will admit that this is probably a good thing and run with her legacy, even if they deplore the means be which it took place. The blame for the pain of the transition can hardly be laid wholly at Thatcher’s feet: the obstinate and unreasonable resistance of union leaders like Arthur Scargill contributed much. Far from being a heroic champion of the workers, Scargill probably made their situation much more painful. Had the unions not sought so an unreasonable political power and held the country to ransom so many times before, they would have had much more worker backing, public opinion would have been far more supportive of them, and Thatcher wouldn’t have had to resort to an approach of breaking the power of the unions in order to avoid being crushed by them. When the forces resisting change are so powerful, change will always be bitter. I don’t deny that the evils of Thatcherism are still visible. My point is that, on the whole the restructuring this she brought about was necessary and that the average person in this country is better off in several ways as a result.

On the other hand, although the effects of Thatcher’s policies (although, as I argued, the tyrannical unions were no less blameworthy) were brutal and destructive of communities (in their misguided celebration of the virtue of the free market, and in the manner in which the crushing of industry led to loss of local pride, demoralization and dependency), welfarism’s effects on communities is even greater (and the British underclass and the unintended but destructive effects of the welfare state upon them pre-existed Thatcher). Thatcher sought to help the aspiring lower middle classes and to encourage a spirit of enterprise in the country. She succeeded in doing so, even though she really hurt the working classes in the process. Labour has claimed to represent the poor and yet has caused incredible harm to the very people it claims to represent, entrenching them in welfare-cushioned poverty. At least Thatcher was far more successful in what she set out to do.

Al said...

As regards the causation of the economic crisis, although it is fashionable to blame the bankers (or the government), the blame must be spread far more widely. People throughout society are willing participants in a culture of cheating, dishonesty, of living beyond our means, of short-termism, of financial imprudence and continued mortgaging of the future to pay for the present. It is this culture that led to the crisis and those who were willingly complicit in it have no right to complain when it collapses.

The current sovereign debt crisis in Greece is a good example of how people will rush to blame government when the problem lies as much with the unreasonable expectations of the populace. When people think that they can have endless goodies at the expense of the government, that they can retire at 55, with a good government pension, health care, etc., they shouldn’t be surprised when one day they find that the government doesn’t have the money any more. Although one is sorry to see a nation experience the consequences of such unsustainable public spending, people should have the common sense to see it coming. Of course, in a democratic system, hardly anyone is willing to accept cuts and expects the government to be unrestrained in its largesse towards them while taking the money from someone else. Eventually people get the crisis that they voted for. Even though such a crisis will generally hit those who are most dependent on the state heavily and leave the richest largely untouched, the only injustice here is that the rich tend to get away with it. Both parties deserve to be hit.

byron smith said...

I realise it is not the whole story, but Thatcher did also come to power just as North Sea Oil started to generate serious tax income. As I understand it, for much of the decade prior, big oil was enjoying the deal they had struck with a previous Labour government under which they didn't have to pay tax until they had recouped their exploration and development costs.

Similarly, the current state of the UK economy is not unrelated to the peaking of North Sea oil and the fact that the UK has once again become a net energy importer, having enjoyed great prosperity at least partially from oil revenues.

Not the whole story, but not an irrelevant detail either.

steph said...

I won't respond anymore. You clearly have a very narrow perspective of what happened in the Thatcher years. I've only ever heard a hard nosed Tory try to defend her before. Of course their experience was quite different too. The reality is something quite different. And suggesting that it's "fashionable" to blame the bankers and that top rich percent of the country, implying economists and others are somewhat shallow, I suggest is quite frankly naive.

David Palmer said...

It's nice that you can be so optimistic but I am very afraid. Six billion pounds worth of cuts. Health and education.

Steph, please explain why the British people should think that they can keep funding a British lifestyle (e.g. welfare, NHS, etc) through racking up overseas debt, i.e. one that they are not willing to pay for themselves? The morality of it all quite escapes me.

... the Iron Lady ... left more of a mark than anyone else but you're wrong on everything else. She didn't take the country from deep pessimism and decay and leave it far more optimistic and successful when she left! She left it in tatters!!

Steph, with respect, this is nonsense, as Al more politely points out in the following post. What age were you when Thatcher resigned at the end of 1990?

I don’t know how widespread your views are in the British populace but if they are widespread, I for one, an anglophile, despair on any prospect for Britain escaping its current downward spiral.


I'm out of touch with UK politics and not particularly aware of UKIP. I might vote for them if they are true conservatives with a heart for restoring their nation to some sort of notion of a properly functioning society willing to pay their way in the world. I remember in the 1980's voting conservative in 1987 and Social Democrat in local elections. I have on occasion like Al been forced to destroy my ballot paper. I don't ever see myself voting Labour or for the Greens (certainly in their Australian form) I could never vote for them given their support for abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage (there's an oxymoron!) and their unprincipled ramping up of alarm over climate change whilst at the same doing everything they can to prevent the deployment of nuclear power, the only known viable technology for delivering base load CO2 emission free electricity. Whether it is stupidity, or hypocrisy or irresponsibility – you can take your pick!

Al said...

Byron: Yes, that is definitely a factor in the bigger picture.

Steph: I am not wanting to present Thatcher as some sort of hero here. She isn't. I have already made clear that I believe that many aspects of her legacy are profoundly negative. I am just fed up of one dimensional (and frequently hate-driven) accounts of Thatcher and her legacy.

If you were a die-hard Tory and Thatcher apologist, I would be going on about the incalculable damage that Thatcher caused to the working class, to the way that she sowed the seeds for the irresponsibility of the financial markets with her reforms in the City, to her distrust of local democracy, to the way that her encouragement of private involvement in the public sector in many respects led to greater cost, corruption and lack of accountability, to the way that her centralization of public services has left us with a horrid legacy of state interference and target-setting in the public sector. I could go on. My point is that the truth is seldom simple. I can't think of many other politicians that would have had the character necessary to resist the power of the unions as she did.

My point is that her legacy is not entirely negative, and at the time she was faced with an ugly situation that demanded tough action. At some point the bullying union bosses had to be brought down for the sake of the nation as a whole. Hardly anyone who experienced the stagnation of those years seriously believes that Britain would be better off today if we still had the industrial structure, the unions and the labour practices of the 70s. Bemoan Thatcher's legacy all that you want, but I don't see many people out there who want to return to those days and, looking at things clearly, the changes that were necessary would always have been painful.

On the issue of the bankers, of course they are to blame. Once again I was trying to balance your picture. I never claimed that the bankers were innocent, just that the blame should be spread 'far more widely'. My point was that, comfortable as it may feel to have convenient scapegoats for the current crisis, the culture that gave rise to the crisis is by no means one that is limited to a small cabal of powerful bankers. For every predatory lender, there are several suckers who take a mortgage that they have no realistic chance of paying off. For every government with a sovereign debt crisis, there are millions of stupid people who believe that the time will never come when its irresponsible paternal state finds its credit cards cut up and they will no longer be able to benefit from its largesse.

Al said...

One further point: If Thatcher's really destroyed the country and left it in tatters, how on earth did she manage to spend more a longer term in a publicly-elected office than anyone since Lord Liverpool? Why did Labour spend so many years in the wilderness and only manage to return when they rebranded themselves as Thatcherism with a human face (Mandelson: 'we are all Thatcherites now')?

It is clear that Thatcher won the battle of ideas and that most serious people across the political spectrum will acknowledge, grudgingly or otherwise, that her economic legacy is generally something that we would do well to run with, rather than try to reverse. New Labour was the victory of Thatcherism. As Slavoj Zizek puts it:

"The true victory (the true 'negation of the negation') occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat. It occurs when one's specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy."

steph said...

Article from the Independent, this govt is not what we voted for, YouGov poll says 4 to 1 libcons self identify as 'left' over 'right wing'.

I have to agree with a lot of what you said. Two things in particular. You are right about the awful situation which led to the Thatcher government coming to power. This is basically why some people would agree with you that the country was better off as a whole at the end of the Thatcher era than at the beginning. It is also the reason why Labour had to become New Labour to be elected back into power. Secondly, you concede most of the damage done by Thatcher, especially the damage to mining communities. She also presided over massive damage to our industrial base. This is one major reason why I think your major global statements about the state of this country are all dubious, but I can’t demonstrate that they are wrong.

I disagree with your comments on the “nanny state”, usually a phrase used by uncaring people on the political right who want expenditure on the NHS to be cut, no matter how much damage that does. A lot of the expenditure went on very good things, such as reducing the waiting times for operations in hospitals. The last Labour government did a lot of good at this level. My good friend will never forget a hospital consultant casually telling a visiting Brazilian doctor how much more he had been able to do in the previous few years because of increased funding. He made no political comments at all, just explained what he and the Queens Medical Centre had been able to do. The sort of people whom you have been seeing are in just as pathetic state as you say, and if you know what to do about them, tell us all. They are a very big social problem, and I cannot see that either throwing money at the problem, or significant cuts, will improve the situation without someone having some more innovative and effective ideas. Rich bankers have been a major element in causing the present international economic crisis, and even perfectly correct criticism of the fact that most people borrow too much does not help. They are also behind some major problems. They are generally Tories, like the people who run the markets, which is basically why Tory policies have traditionally favoured the rich, and Old Labour had a loony left some of whose policies would have led to financial ruin. I don’t know a satisfactory way out of that one either.

Al said...

Steph: I don’t dispute that most Liberal Democrats would self identify as left rather than right wing. To be honest, I would have expected the number to be even higher. My point was always twofold. First, that there is at least one more axis on the political spectrum (libertarian-authoritarian) and on this axis Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are far closer together than the Liberal Democrats are to Labour. Thinking about the coalition purely in terms of left and right obscures this issue. Second, self identification as left wing need not mean that you would prefer Brown and a rainbow ‘coalition of losers’ over a deal with Cameron’s Tories. Brown’s government was very unpopular and so for many Liberal Democrats, the Tories were the lesser of two evils and the numbers of a coalition with the Tories made far more sense. Of course, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats would generally be more likely to make good allies. However, at the present time far fewer Lib Dems would have had the Labour Party as their second choice in an alternative vote system on account of the unpopularity of Brown’s Labour government.

I would really prefer if you would not jump to conclusions merely based upon my use of certain phrases. It is annoying when one is presumed to be an ‘uncaring’ person on the political right, merely because one uses certain expressions and raises questions about the way that we do welfare in this country (and my questions boil down to the question of whether current approaches are really helping the poor as much as we intend them to – many of these questions can be voiced by members of the Labour Party as well, Frank Field being an example of such a voice). It is even more annoying when many of the people who would make such an assumption are people pontificating in privileged comfort, who have had a lot less personal experience of the lives of the British underclass than I have. The assumption that ‘caring’ is about kowtowing to a certain set of leftist assumptions about welfare, rather than about thinking critically and carefully about the potential for harm in our well-meaning attempts to help, and actually getting off our posteriors and forging personal bonds with people in need ourselves is, to my mind, morally bankrupt.

I never said anything about cutting expenditure on the NHS, so please don’t jump to conclusions. A welfare state doesn’t have to be a nanny state. A nanny state is an authoritarian state, a state that doesn’t trust its citizens to make sensible decisions and to take responsibility. A nanny state is a state that is constantly breathing down the necks of doctors, a state that gives teachers little scope for tailoring things to the particular needs of their students, a state that tells us all what we should eat, how much we should drink, that obsesses about our safety, and shoves its petty moralisms down our throats. A nanny state is hardly a phenomenon restricted to the left. Much of the modern nanny state is the legacy of Thatcher. Destroying the nanny state could leave the services provided by the NHS intact. However, it would wipe out a whole level of upper bureaucrats and give far more power to people on the ground, like doctors and nurses.

Al said...

I don’t think that it is entirely right to say that Tory policies have traditionally been particularly aimed at favouring the rich. The Tories under Thatcher really helped the middle classes to improve themselves. Meritocracy was far more central under Thatcher and leaders within the Conservative Party generally came from or sought to identify in some way with lower middle class backgrounds. For those of us in the lower middle classes, the Tories gave us opportunities that we would never have enjoyed under Labour. For instance, I was privileged to attend an independent school under the assisted places scheme established by Thatcher’s government. My parents could never have afforded the tuition otherwise. Labour got rid of the scheme shortly after coming into office. The emphasis on inclusive approaches to education will often tend to discourage high achievers and lead to a degree of mediocrity. However, a meritocratic system will give an advantage to those who have what it takes to achieve on a very high level.

However, a meritocratic system which benefits children from middle class homes, will not help children from working class and welfare class homes in anything like the same way. Even when the exact same opportunities are opened up to such children, the problem is that middle class and professional class children are already off to a huge head start. They are more likely to come from stable families, they are more likely to have books at home, access to technology, exposure to a far greater range of vocabulary from an early age, a much, much greater amount of parental encouragement, a peer group that values hard work and academic achievement, role models of academic achievement in their parents, a more limited use of TV, etc., etc. The average working class or welfare kid doesn’t stand a chance here, which is why many of the policies associated with meritocracy were dismissed as elitist. For many children from a similar background to mine this will entail a considerable curtailing of their potential. There are few things more frustrating than being in a system that discourages excellence to ensure inclusivism.

Much of this is not about money so much as it is about culture. For instance, in many ways the privileges of my background had less to do with what I had, than with what my parents did not permit me to have: I was given the bare minimum of pocket money (and generally spend it on books that my parents bought and sold on to us at a heavily subsidized price), we had no TV, pop music was forbidden, we were given less freedom to use our time as we wanted, all of our clothes (save for some pairs of shoes) were secondhand, etc. For poorer children from strong and supportive families a meritocratic system is a Godsend (many immigrant families are like this in my experience). However, the cultures of the white British working and under classes do not generally support or encourage high achievement in the same way. This is one reason why I think that working towards changing the culture of the under class is the best way to work towards improving their lot.

I believe that the Tories’ class identity is shifting, however. The present Tory party is far more dominated by upper class people (especially former pupils of Eton). I believe that their policies are often skewed to favour the rich, and that the aspirational classes are often ignored. The values of the modern Tory Party are much less meritocratic than they have been in the past.

Al said...

Of course, there is no easy solution – both meritocracy and inclusivism have their victims. However, I fear that our inclusivist values often discourage social mobility and our unwillingness to cast judgment upon and seek to change the form of culture that pervades in the lower classes and that is often the greatest hindrance to their progress prevent us from taking the sort of action that needs to be taken. The notion that unstable families, cultural passivity, a hostility to education, anti-social values and the like are the natural condition of the lower classes is, to my mind, ridiculous. I believe that study of the history of the lower classes would amply bear this out.

Many commentators (and not merely those on the right), relate the demoralization of the lower classes to the form that the welfare state has taken in the past, and I think that they are largely right. What I would like to see is a more meritocratic system in which the social virtues that underlie achievement are far more privileged within the welfare system, and where our priority is to foster, encourage and provide for the flourishing of excellence throughout our society. I don’t see cuts or more money as the solution. What is needed is a re-humanizing of welfare in this country and a restructuring that focuses upon the formation and support of a culture of progress rather than stagnation. Rather than palliative treatment of the symptoms of a broken society and poverty, we need to address the causes.

This is one of the reasons why I was encouraged by Iain Duncan-Smith’s appointment. IDS is certainly not a cost-cutter – his approach is actually quite expensive – but he is committed to serious structural change, aimed at strengthening the culture of those dependent on welfare. The focus of his proposals on encouraging and incentivizing families is salutary. It may entail a greater social cost to single motherhood, but I am convinced that this is a bullet that we need to bite. Subsidizing the negative consequences of choices that have lasting negative generational effects may be compassionate in the short term, but it can cause severe damage in the longer term (although I would like to see more being done to make irresponsible, promiscuous and unfaithful men bear the best of single motherhood). My main concern is that the limited budget to which he will have access will prevent him from achieving what he could achieve otherwise.

steph said...

I've just noticed somebody above arrogantly and offensively asked my age - I'm 45. I was 25 when she resigned.I think I said these statements normally come from the political right. And no, the libdems are not closer to the Cons. And before the election they certainly declared they weren't. Now in the coalition they've dumped what made them distinctive. I'm sorry but your comment is far too long to reply to in a blog comment and repeats some of what you wrote before, and you seem to suggest that I jump to conclusions - the derogatory labelled 'nanny state' includes helping the sick and I didn't say you were opposed to helping the sick. And the Tory party does traditionally favour the rich. I didn't say it did not sometimes do things which benefit the middle classes - and you said that before anyway.

Al said...

Are you denying that the Lib Dems are closer to the Conservatives on the libertarian-authoritarian axis? That was my point (alongside the point that for many that axis is more important than the left-right axis). Read what I wrote again. You are paying too much attention to the left-right axis (on that axis Lib Dems are obviously far closer to Labour - I would never deny that).

The term 'nanny state' really doesn't have anything to do with helping the sick. The term has to do with a certain authoritarian or paternalistic posture that government adopts in relation to its citizens. The idea that a national health service entails a nanny state is ludicrous. We had the NHS long before we had a nanny state. It is quite possible to provide for people's basic needs without infantilizing them and to trust the judgement of medical professionals and their ability to do their jobs without lots of government interference and bureaucracy.

My point about the relationship between the Tory Party and the rich is that the relationship has changed from one in which the Party was primarily concerned and identified with the aspirational classes, to one in which it is far more openly identified with the upper classes. In the past leading figures in the Tory Party were more inclined to downplay their upper class origins if they had them. Tory Party policies have always tended to benefit the rich, but they seem to be far more directed at the benefit of the rich nowadays.

steph said...

I see the rude question and insinuations came from David Palmer, who as a minister of religion, cannot see the morality in the existing NHS. This surprises and saddens me greatly. Perhaps his great age has forgotten what health care was like back in the 80s.

steph said...

I did read what you wrote Al although it was very long and tedious. Don't tell me to read it again. You are paying too much attention to a particular aspect and avoiding the others. Nanny state does include healthcare - see David Palmer for that. I'll be interested to see how the six billion pound cuts in government expenditure affect the rich just as much as the very poor.

byron smith said...

As I said above, I am finding this conversation very helpful. However, I'd like to make a couple of gentle suggestions to help us stay communicating well.

Al -You said It is even more annoying when many of the people who would make such an assumption are people pontificating in privileged comfort, who have had a lot less personal experience of the lives of the British underclass than I have.
Although you have said "many" not "all", your comment could be read as implying that this applies to Steph. Since you don't know each other, it may have been helpful to highlight that this may or may not apply in her case.

Steph - Al's responses, although lengthy compared with typical blog responses, are not lacking in quality or interest. I appreciate that you may not have time to respond in detail to everything he says. Nonetheless, it is commendable that he is trying to be careful to avoid misunderstanding by explaining his thoughts, which do not fit neatly into a "Tory" mould. I have no problem with him making lengthy comments. And David Palmer is not a minister of religion (Just to make it clear, neither am I, and nor is Al).

If you haven't already seen it, when Al says that Lib Dems are in some respects closer to Tories, I think that he might be referring to this concept.

David - Steph's age is not particularly relevant, since even if she were too young to remember Thatcher personally, detailed knowledge and moral judgements on history are not confined to those who were there.

As I said, I appreciate this conversation and what different people are bringing to it. Thanks and keep it up.

Al said...

Byron: Thanks for bringing that to my attention. I should make clear that I was not referring to Steph in that statement, and I am sorry if that impression was given.

The comment was an objection to the somewhat facile assumption that all opposition to the present way of doing welfare arises from an uncaring attitude towards the poor or from the self-interest of the richer elements of our society. The point that I was trying to make is that words are easy, but action is hard. The people who really care about the poor can be known by the personal bonds that they form with people in need, not by their subscription to a certain brand of political rhetoric. Many of the people I know who attack present approaches to welfare the strongest are the ones who have had the longest and most reflective exposures to the problems on the ground. A number of other people I know have had strong commitments to left wing principles in the area of welfare chastened somewhat by experience of the reality. I don’t believe that any part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on genuine concern for the needy; my point is merely that the level of a person’s concern for the poor cannot really be gauged from their words alone and that rather than focusing on whether we sound caring, our concern should be whether people are actually being helped by our approaches.

And, yes, I was referring to the political compass concept. I don’t believe that it is the only, or even the best, way of mapping political convictions, but it has a certain heuristic value and is much to be preferred over a simple left-right wing axis.

Steph: I am sorry that you found my comments long and tedious. To be honest, one of the reasons I felt that I needed to explain myself at such length was because of the speed with which you have seemed to jump to negative conclusions about my motives, and those of David in the past comments here. I have found your interpretations of previous comments of mine to be paranoid and uncharitable. When you cannot rely upon your dialogue partners believing the best and gently probing where uncertainty exists, one has to resort to far lengthier explanations of one’s position in order to avoid misunderstandings that spring from prejudicial stereotypes and the heating up of conversations merely as a result of what your dialogue partner presumes that you must be advocating.

I stand by my original point: nanny state does not include health care per se. The term has a very specific meaning. One can provide for people’s health without treating them as children and adopting a ‘nanny knows best’ attitude with them. A failure to distinguish between a state concerned with the welfare of the poorest among its population and a nanny state is concerning, precisely as it involves a weakening of our critical vocabulary in relation to the authoritarian state. The assumption that a left wing government that puts an emphasis on welfare must also be an authoritarian government is deeply troubling to me, as it entails the systematic silencing of a tradition of more libertarian left wing thought, which has an important role when it comes to criticizing the failures of the governments of the past three decades in this country.

Al said...

You refer to David Palmer for the idea that the nanny state includes health care. I fail to see where David referred to the nanny state in his comments. Looking back over David’s comments, I presume that you are referring to this statement:

“Steph, please explain why the British people should think that they can keep funding a British lifestyle (e.g. welfare, NHS, etc) through racking up overseas debt, i.e. one that they are not willing to pay for themselves? The morality of it all quite escapes me.”

This is the only place that I can see where David referred to healthcare. If these are indeed the comments that you were referring to then I am led to ask where exactly the reference to the nanny state is in the context. You seem to be begging the question, i.e. the nanny state includes healthcare because David supposedly attacks healthcare and you presume him to be committed to attacking the nanny state. I honestly don’t see a shred of logic in this argument.

The question that David raises, by the way, is a perfectly valid one that you have yet to answer. Easy as it is to rail against cuts and to talk about the need to provide for the poor, the question remains: how on earth are we going to bankroll this? There is no natural right to universal healthcare and no natural entitlement to welfare. Universal healthcare and welfare are only enjoyed in our society because we have had the resources to provide for them. The ‘right’ to them is an artificial right, created by government; universal healthcare and welfare are things that have to be given to us, they are not our rightful possession by our very nature (as the rights to life, liberty and ownership arguably are).

In a sovereign debt crisis the resources no longer exist to the same extent. Appealing to a supposed natural right to universal healthcare are welfare is futile in a context where a financially irresponsible government is about to get its credit cards chopped up. The figures no longer add up. The NHS has definitely improved the quality of service that it provides over the past decade. However, it is hemorrhaging public funds, is hardly a beacon of efficiency and we must prepare to face the possibility that the basic standard of living that we expect the government to secure for us may no longer be sustainable in coming years (even Alistair Darling admitted that a Labour government would have to cut deeper than Thatcher to get us out of the financial mess that we are in). This is not an objection to the welfare state – and even less to a nanny state – it is just an uncomfortable dose of harsh reality. In such a context we must be prepared to think more seriously about the way that welfare and health care is provided in this country, to be willing to acknowledge the possibility that the present system is unsustainable, and to take the steps necessary to wean people off reliance upon the current system to the greatest degree that we can. Keeping our head in the sand and saying nice things about how caring we ought to be to the poor just doesn’t cut it in a situation when the country is dangerously in the red.

Al said...

As for the idea that cuts should affect the rich just as much as the poor, I am not sure that this is always the course that we should follow. The government’s money doesn’t just fall from the sky like manna, but is raised through borrowing, taxation and printing. The government does not produce money (except through printing, which isn’t really ‘producing’ money in the same way as productive activity in the marketplace is), but diverts money and resources from the market to fund its services. The poor are net beneficiaries of the government’s welfare and healthcare provision, whereas the rich are paying more to fund it. When the market is ailing, it isn’t going to speed up the recovery if government simply lays a greater tax burden upon the most financially productive members of society. Rather than raising more money on the market, the money is diverted to provide for the poor and things are more likely to stagnate. The best way to decrease poverty in the long term can often involve freeing the most successful and productive members of society to make more money. High tax rates on the rich can have the effect of disincentivizing the most financially productive and can hurt us all in the long term.

The idea that lowering taxes on the rich and cutting public services to the detriment of the poor is an example of ‘taking from the poor and giving to the rich’ can be grossly misleading. It is more a matter of taking less from the rich, and giving less to the poor. The poor do not fund our society. They are not producing the money that supports the welfare and healthcare systems. The wealth is produced by the richer portions of society and the popular idea that taxes should soak the rich can merely prevent them from producing so much leaving society as a whole poorer off. Economics is not a zero sum game; wealth has to be produced. There is no big central pile of money that is distributed out by the government. In an economic crisis, encouraging greater levels of productivity by keeping the taxes that disincentivize the producers of the greatest wealth in our society as low as possible can benefit us all in the long term and most would agree that cuts rather than raised taxation must be our primary response to the economic crisis.

steph said...

While my tender 45 years is irrelevant perhaps David should consider whether his not living in England is relevant.

Neither I nor my colleague, emeritus prof who also lived long before and through the Thatcher years, have heard of this supposedly precise definition of “nanny state” before. We know it only as an abusive term used on the political right by people who don’t care for the poor and underprivileged, which makes excellent sense of it being an abusive term used abusively. I never 'jump to conclusions' you as you seem to assume - I never accused you of being on the political right. Read what I wrote. I can’t see the moral superiority in having healthcare financed by people paying for the healthcare they get. This is fine for the rich and the healthy, and for middle-class people who can take out insurance policies, provided only that an adequate insurance system is available, as it is in some western countries. It is the poor and permanently sick who suffer under such a system, as in the USA, where Obama’s rather mild measures have run into a lot of trouble from the rich, including the Christian rich. This is why the problem which I have with your comments is their selective nature. On the whole, you are right about the social problems which are still widely found.

Your experience under the Thatcher era was good, but everyone else’s was not. The government continued the process of comprehensivation, which wrecked the educational opportunities of many working-class children, and the social structure of many schools, a major factor in the production of disciplinary problems. This when other models were available, such as the close relationships between the secondary modern schools and the two grammar schools in Spalding, which meant that many children who had not passed the 11+ were able to move into a grammar school sixth form after successfully passing their GCEs, and there were no serious disciplinary problems: or the Billingham campus, which had five secondary moderns and one or two grammar schools (I forget whether they were separated by gender), which worked even more closely together. The decline in language teaching in schools, which is now a very serious problem, continued. When my colleague moved back from Spalding to a Durham mining village where the pit had been closed, he imagined that “depressed area” was a technical term, but he found that a lot of people there were depressed because of the widespread unemployment which followed the closure of the pit. The idea that most of these people could have paid for all the healthcare they needed is not realistic, they had long hospital waiting lists to cope with, and I cannot see the moral superiority of keeping them that way. The small number of children who could go from such homes to public schools did not compensate for the wreckage of the grammar schools, which was a severe blow to what you call a meritocracy. This again is why I find your comments so selective, and some aspects are quite arbitrary.

Byron: it appears to me that Al's comments are long and tedious because he is defending himself. I'm not interested in him personally and I haven't accused him of the things he's assuming I have. I'm more interested in the actual topic of discussion.

On the whole I found the age questioner, whose name I'd have to scroll up to remember and this has become far too much of a chore, to be self satisfied in his own moral superiority and thoroughly patronising and Al to be quite arbitrary and selective at times and most significantly, distastefully bossy.

Al said...

Steph: I suggest that you look online at the way that ‘nanny state’ is used in relation to health issues. The issues that will tend to come up in relation to the term are not the issues of general provision of healthcare, but in reference to attempts on the part of government to force healthy lifestyle choices or health decisions upon people, on the assumption that it knows best. This can include things such as fat taxes, food regulations, laws about wearing helmets, smoking, mandatory vaccinations, etc. (and before you jump to conclusions, I am just giving these as examples of where the ‘nanny state’ term is commonly used, not as examples of things that I oppose). In relation to the provision of health it can refer to the systematic removal of choice from medical professionals and patients as the government dictates more and more.

Although some certainly use the term ‘nanny state’ in a broader sense, the semantic focus of the term is clear and can easily be deduced by attention to the metaphor that it contains. A nanny relates to infants. She coddles them and believes that she has a far better knowledge about what is good for them. A nanny state, therefore, is a state that treats us in the way that a nanny treats her charge – like infants, who do not know what is best for themselves, who constantly need to be protected, to have their choices limited, and to have good practices forced upon them. If you look at many of the popular uses of the term you will also see that they have little to do with government’s provision for the needy and much more to do with the way that government increasingly restricts our choices, ostensibly for our own good, or tells us exactly what we need to do.

One can care for the poor and underprivileged without infantilizing them, nor do you need to adopt a paternalistic posture. Like the rest of us, the poor and underprivileged should be accorded the dignity that responsible adults deserve. There are other metaphors for state activity that could express the sort of help accorded to a responsible adult in need. I really recommend that you glance at a dozen or so, as it will make my point for me.

The association of the term purely with people on the right ‘who don’t care for the poor and underprivileged’ is unfair. It is also sorely mistaken. Nanny state language is widely used across the political spectrum (as this article defending practices associated with nanny statism points out: and it isn’t hard to find protests against the nanny state in the left wing press (e.g.; It is definitely a pejorative expression, but it is bizarre to see it as an attack on the NHS, when many of the people that one finds using it are strong supporters of the NHS, who just want to give doctors and patients a greater role in shaping the health service. I am just surprised that you and your colleague have such an unusual understanding of an expression that is so widely used. I am sure that Byron and David and anyone else following this conversation should be able to back me up here too. I don’t think that this is a particularly controversial point that I am arguing here.

Al said...

“I can’t see the moral superiority in having healthcare financed by people paying for the healthcare they get. This is fine for the rich and the healthy, and for middle-class people who can take out insurance policies, provided only that an adequate insurance system is available, as it is in some western countries.”

This point isn’t under debate and never was. The point that is under debate is David’s point: can the British people justify maintaining the status quo in a system that is beyond our means as a nation to sustain and which relies on heavy borrowing? Even though individuals may not pay for the healthcare that they get, the nation has to. When the nation is no longer able to, serious questions about the sustainability of the current form of the NHS need to be addressed. Whatever we think about the moral superiority or not of people paying for the healthcare that they get, financing a healthcare system on spiraling debt is ‘morally inferior’. This is not the same thing as an assertion that people should or can pay for all their own healthcare.

The rich were hardly the chief opposition to Obama’s healthcare reform. Much of the strongest resistance comes from people who are less well off (as this rather unbalanced article observes - - and explains in part in terms of people being duped concerning their best interests). There remains strong and widespread popular resistance to the reforms as can be seen in this recent survey ( Easy as it might be to frame this as a rich vs. poor issue, the reality is considerably more complicated. Much of the resistance flows from principle on issues such as intrusive and/or left-wing government, the paternalism of left-wing politicians, the provision for abortions, etc., or is based on the actual working of the system and the question of whether it really is the best way to provide healthcare for those who most need it. I have American friends who struggle to pay health care bills who are still strongly opposed to the reforms.

As I have stated before, I don’t want to justify the many ways in which Thatcher badly failed Britain (the damage to grammar schools being one such example). I just want to balance out the picture that you were painting. Much of what Thatcher did to restructure the economy was necessary and led to a more vibrant and prosperous Britain. This doesn’t excuse the great harm that she caused, it just highlights the contradictory character of her legacy and the fact that there is much of it that needs to be preserved and continued, even while other aspects are to be deplored.

Al said...

You claim that my comments are long and tedious because I am defending myself. Guilty as charged. Would you rather I left your claims unchallenged and unprobed? Throughout this conversation you have made a number of huge generalizing statements, with little support. You have aired stereotypes and engaged in bitter emotion-driven attacks on positions, rather than taking the time to engage with them carefully. You have jumped to conclusions, and have badly misread points that David and I have made. At many junctures you have made hardly any allowances for complexity and nuance in an assessment of the issues. My goal throughout has been patiently to present a more balanced picture. Not being able to assume that my comments would be read charitably, I have had to write at greater length than I would usually have to or want to. I have sought to advance evidence and take on board the concerns of various parties. This may come across as ‘distastefully bossy’, but my concern throughout has been to press you for balance and substance. Obviously and to some extent understandably you have a deep and visceral dislike for Thatcher and the Tory Party, but simplistic rich vs. poor rhetoric and the notion that a large portion of the right has it in for the poor and merely want to maintain their own privilege is grossly stereotypical, deeply misleading and has no more place in serious discussion than do silly rants that claim that the poor are merely spongers on the system.

At this point I am not sure that things are going to progress much further, so I am going to bow out of this discussion. Although we obviously have areas of strong disagreement and both have problems with the way that the other has approached the discussion, thank you for the interaction that we had, Steph. If I have offended you in any way it was not my intention; please forgive me if I have. Thanks also to Byron for hosting our discussion. Hopefully you will enjoy a more peaceful comments section in the future! :)

David Palmer said...

OK, clearly time to bail out.

Al, I salute your persistence and gracious responses.

Steph, I asked the question about your age, because I couldn’t believe the visceral hatred toward Thatcher that leads you to denigrate her so comprehensively. I expected you to be younger and therefore potentially excusable.

I think the NHS was a mistake. People should expect to pay something on an individual basis. In a way it is their entitlement, their dignity to do so. The UK nanny state treats people as children and unfortunately they live like children, never growing up, never taking responsibility for their own lives. Individual liberty is incredibly precious. Forget all your class warfare/envy - Americans who opposed Obama'a healthcare measures did so for various reasons, but liberty and dignity and personal integrity were front and centre - these qualities know no class boundaries. (BTW, don't assume I would have opposed Obama's reform, as I do believe in subsidising health care including safety nets and the like)

Giving something for free never works and only breeds discontent. I believe (and I live 5 years in UK) the Australian system of subsidised healthcare with patient contributions far superior to the UK system.

steph said...

ach - too bossy. scrolled down - will address the top: I have and you're wrong. Perhaps it is that I am concerned with healthcare and look for that and you are concerned more with other issues and look for those. No more time, too bossy, too long, wish you'd both stop insinuating I don't read things and I must be ignorant - as per David. I can't believe how unbelievably rude you are - my age is irrelevant and how dare you imply ignorant hatred. Oh I may be forgiven if I'm young may I and not if I lived through it. Perhaps I should insinuate you just haven't lived. Your five years in the UK - were you very poor and lower class? Or were you nice and comfortable? You can't have lived if you haven't heard REAL criticism of the Thatcher era from quite a large and even educated percentage of the population - hardly ignorant thank you very much. But your sheer arrogance astonishes me as a 'christian' minister of the church. I do not 'hate' people, I criticise the system. It was a bad time for many poor people.

I really have had enough. Byron, I like you alot and respect your polite interaction. I also appreciate alot of your green posts. I'm sorry I got involved here.

David Palmer said...

My apologies too, Byron.

Thinking over my last post, I was too hard on Steph, I just thought she needed to tone down and not be so condemnatory and one sided.

I do think Britain, a country I love deeply, and from which my forbears came has a very difficult road ahead.

(and none of these forbears of mine were wealthy, they were without exception, and this typically the case for all who have come here, poor people, but people hoping for and usually finding a better life)