John Harris

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Archive for September, 2011

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Lib Dem conference: what does responsible capitalism actually mean?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

John Harris discusses how to counter a rightwing ’scorched earth’ economic policy with conference delegates, including Vince Cable and Will Hutton

Evan Harris
John Domokos
John Harris
Christian Bennett

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Liberal Democrat conference 2011: Marriages and metaphors – video

Monday, September 19th, 2011

John Harris speaks to Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson, Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell, Vince Cable and various other Lib Dem party conference-goers

John Harris
John Domokos

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Now we have to rely on the right to fight the feral rich | John Harris

Saturday, September 10th, 2011

Let’s hear it for Charles Moore, the Spectator and FT. Their attacks on the feral elite contrast with a virtually silent Labour

Once again a spectre is haunting Europe. But don’t look to the left for any pointers. Instead, keep up with some very interesting voices on the right, and their increasingly feverish interest in some fundamental issues: the position of wealthy and unaccountable elites, the extent to which supposedly liberalised economies have been fixed in their favour, and a restive public mood across the globe.

It all began in July, when the former Daily Telegraph editor Charles Moore wrote a piece so against type that it endlessly bounced around the Twittersphere. “It turns out – as the left always claims – that a system purporting to advance the many has been perverted in order to enrich the few,” he wrote. Over the summer, as the same rather panicked sentiments have been voiced by a handful of other Tory-inclined observers and insiders, the Spectator has run two covers featuring caricatured images seemingly drawn from old Bolshevik posters: last week’s issue includes a piece that took sharp aim at the “undeserving rich”.

Meanwhile, some of the best analysis of where the world now finds itself can be found not in organs of the radical left, but publications followed closely by the business establishment. Try this: “Many of the revolts of 2011 pit an internationally connected elite against ordinary citizens who feel excluded from the benefits of economic growth, and angered by corruption.” That’s from Gideon Rachman, the chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times, who also thinks that 2011 might one day be compared to 1968 and 1989, in a far wider sense than the Arab spring.

Clearly, all these voices are on to something. There are obvious threads that link the Spanish indignados and protesters in Greece and now Italy with the largely overlooked J14 movement camping out in Israel’s streets and squares, and similarly neglected events in Chile: huge disaffection over squeezed opportunities and living standards, and the contrasting position of those right at the top. But if you want to understand how the mood is manifested in Britain, the best place to look is not the shopping centres that were recently emptied of sportswear and flat-screen TVs, but the quiet streets and suburban avenues where life is becoming more and more of a struggle, and a burning resentment is taking hold.

Though people are not quite raging against Rupert Murdoch, Bob Diamond and other modern bete noires, the juxtaposition of seemingly unending hard times with the unchanged life of a distant social layer for whom government has long been a meek servant is a signature part of the culture. Day after day it’s all over the Daily Mail, and highlighted by such mainstream outlets as 5 Live, TalkSport and Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine.

This is why, when spokespeople for the banks appear on radio and TV – witness Angela Knight, chief executive of the British Bankers’ Association, who took to the airwaves last week to loudly warn that new regulation would be an “assault” on her members – their words have a fingers-down-the-blackboard quality. Against the backdrop of austerity and a flatlining economy, such brass necks highlight the same tensions captured by George Orwell in 1941. The threats are different, but the basic point stands: “The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet of Goering’s bombing planes.”

Late last year, in an Ipsos Mori poll for the BBC, people were asked if their trust in bankers had been restored now banks were returning to profit; 70% said no, and only 16% agreed with the idea that satisfactory action had been taken against bankers who lost the country so much money. This mood remains, and extends into no end of other areas. Post-expenses hatred of politicians lingers. There is rampant dislike of the energy companies pushing ahead with punishing price rises, monopoly train operators who blithely ransack the pockets of commuters, and more.

Note also that when non-Westminster groups seize on the idea of a new hostility to vested interests, they attract remarkable support. The rise of UK Uncut speaks for itself. In July Compass launched an exercise denouncing the “feral elite” and announcing plans for public juries to look at reform of the banks, media, politics and the police – and attracted endorsement from 10,000 people. And do not forget: as a report by the Resolution Foundation revealed in July, the fall-out from the crash of 2008 has only been the spark; we have been building up to this for years. Over the past three decades the share of national income going to those on the bottom half of the earnings ladder has fallen by a quarter, while the slice going to the top 1% has increased by half. At the risk of sounding glib, there was always going to be trouble.

Since he finally found his voice at the recent height of the hacking scandal, these new times have been the making of Ed Miliband. Recent manoeuvring by Vince Cable suggests that some Lib Dems know exactly what time it is, and I would not underestimate that talented shape-shifter Nick Clegg. Even George Osborne has been sounding off about tax avoidance, while Iain Duncan Smith agrees that there are lines to be drawn from looters to the out-of-control elite. But here’s something interesting: besides the party leader, have you heard a single senior Labour politician channel the new mood? Strangely not.

A good deal of the politics of the immediate future will be populist, in the American sense: built around a clear idea of the resentful little guy, and a drive to tackle big vested interests. A British version won’t necessarily be pretty, and it could well be most loudly voiced by a Nigel Farage-esque voice on the right. But it will chime with where the public mood seems to be heading. The rhetoric will take care of itself, but the requisite policies are not hard to come up with: break up the energy companies, and more stringently regulate monopolies and oligopolies in transport, the media and more; defy the banks and begin their restructuring right now; finally do something convincing about tax avoidance and evasion. And obviously, rescind the 50p tax rate at your peril.

During the summer, I read a lot about that great US populist Teddy Roosevelt. Rhetoric that could easily be reworked for 2011 was there in abundance, but particularly concentrated in his Progressive party platform of 1912. “To destroy this invisible government, to dissolve the unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics is the first task of the statesmanship of the day,” it said. The words still ring true. Conference season, I would imagine, is going to be very interesting.

John Harris

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