From the London session on ‘Can liberty survive the slump?’
DAVID EDGAR (Chair): This is “Can Liberty Survive The Slump?” and I’m David Edgar, and I’m a playwright. And I’m going to introduce the speakers and then ask them to talk for the proverbial five to seven minutes and then possibly I will ask a couple of supplementary things, or perhaps not, and then open it out. It is quite a short session, it’s an hour and quarter, so everybody is going to have to be disciplined both up here and down there.
Over lunch, somebody said the great thing about the breakout sessions was how informal they were, and we are obviously going to have to try and be informal in this slightly Nuremberg Rally situation. Moving from left to right in a strictly locational sense, to say Will Hutton’s The State We’re In put him ahead of the curve on the financial markets is a triumph of British understatement. He’s been a severe critic of bankers since well before it was fashionable to be so. He writes wisely and often surprisingly on financial and other matters for the Observer, for which he was Editor-in-Chief, and his latest book is on China. He is also the Chief Executive of The Work Foundation, which is the sponsor of this session.
I first met Suzanne Moore when we were both involved with Marxism Today – this was a long time ago, before she moved to the Mail on Sunday via the Guardian and the Independent, a trajectory only a little less intriguing than it would have been had it been in the opposite direction. Her recent targets include Harriet Harman, Carol Thatcher, Jacqui Smith and the demonisation of social workers, and I am all in favour of an attack on that.
Kate Hoey is Labour MP for Vauxhall and a former Minister of Sport. She is in favour of hunting but against Trident… Perhaps I shouldn’t say “but”, I should say and against Trident, foundation hospitals, tuition fees, ID cards and extended detention without trial.
Vince Cable is deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, and their Shadow Chancellor. During a brief golden period when he was acting leader of his party, he coined the best Parliamentary joke, I think, since the Lib-Lab pact in the late 70s was described as “the night of the long spoons”. His joke, of course, was Gordon Brown proceeding effortlessly from being Stalin to Mr Bean. He has been a fierce critic of the City and his other favourite issues include health and environmental issues, particularly relating to airports. And his latest book on the economic crisis, The Storm, is published in April.
For me, I guess the sea change of our times on this topic was indicated most graphically when the Conservatives came to their conference in Birmingham eager to spend a week blaming the broken society on the poor, and finding themselves instead having to blame the broken economy on the rich. I guess this session is about the consequences, the fact that Sir Fred Goodwin has taken over from Karen Matthews as most hated person in Britain. This morning at the breakout session I attended, Paul Rogers, Tom Porteous and Timothy Garton Ash all warned that economic recession and its impact particularly on the division between rich and poor world, but also the division within particular economies and societies, may lead to a rollback of the human rights gains of the post-war period. And some of us may agree with that on this panel and some of us disagree. In countries like ours we see an immiserated middle section of society, perceiving itself as facing a pincer attack from above and below, which were of course the animating conditions for Nazism in the 1930s. I guess one question is whether rising unemployment, destruction of people’s savings and the presence of easy scapegoats will have similar effects, are already having similar effects, on mature democracies as it had on the fledgling democracies of the 1930s. I imagine that issue will come up, but I am sure many others will as well, and a very various and intriguing panel. I would like to start by asking Will Hutton to kick us off.
WILL HUTTON: Thank you. Well, this conference does take place in economic terms against an astonishing economic background. Just last week we learned that in January, Japan’s industrial production fell by 10%. It fell by 12% in December, it fell by 12% in November – in other words, it’s fallen a third in three months. Japanese exports in January fell by an astonishing 46%.
Spool across the Pacific to the United States of America, and over the three months, the last quarter of 2008, their exports fell by 24% and their GDP declined at an annualised rate of 6.2%. There are astonishing falls in industrial production in the European Union, big falls in Britain, for goodness’ sake. In Britain, the Bank of England says that the decline in GDP between summer of 2008 and summer of 2009 will be 4%, and it will carry on falling after that, so that it will fall in total about 6% in 18 months. Between 1929 and 1933 in Britain, over a four-year period, GDP declined by 5.5%. So GDP in our country is declining faster than it did in the early 30s, in a shorter period of time. And as Charlie Bean, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England alerted us, there’s a 75% chance that that’s too optimistic.
I think… In many respects, I am beginning to think that what is taking place internationally is graver than what took place in the early 1930s. The fall in house prices, the rise in unemployment, the collapse in wealth – you can see it yourselves with your own eyes just in Britain, and it is an international phenomenon. It is the result of an extraordinary ten-year period before that which in many respects was more extraordinary again than the period in 1920s in Wall Street. When Galbraith wrote his book on the Great Crash about leverage in American investment banks and margin trading, that was child’s play besides what we saw in the last ten years. In June 2007, just a month before Bear Stearns had to declare on July 31 three of their hedge funds bust, and the following day Banque Paribas said the same thing, one quarter of the balance sheet of American investment banks was being turned over every day, re-financed every day in these wholesale money markets that everyone thought were like the sea: here to stay. They have rolled back, those investment banks, all of them are no more. In Britain, the building societies that used to borrow in those markets cannot do that any more. We are watching the most spectacular implosion of credit and asset prices. The UK commercial property market is shut. There hasn’t been a significant deal in UK commercial property for four or five months.
What’s the impact of all this going to be for liberty? For the way things are going to trend?
Well already, internationally, you can see that the auguries are not terribly auspicious. In the European Union, are we going to put our hands in our pockets – the British, the Germans and French – to bail out the East Europeans and the Austrians in particular, where there is a first order crisis going to emerge in the next three months? Is there enough European solidarity to do that?
Angela Merkel says we must co-ordinate the bonds we issue and was given a kind of quiet diplomatic raspberry by the rest of the European Union. There’s a real sense of “sauve qui peut” at the moment. The Americans shrank from protection in the physical stimulus measures, but Sarkozy says he’s not going to put any money behind the French car industry if the French car industry then starts locating production to the Czech Republic, against completely the spirit of the free movement of goods and the whole purpose of the European Union. Everyone knows the story of the 1930s. When unemployment climbs as precipitately as it does and when the safety net is at weak as it is, people blame the other. The person that is outside the national community, outside the tribe. They blame other races, other ideologies – anyone but oneself. And in Britain, let’s be brutal, unemployment will rise by a million by July or August of this year, and I think may very well rise another million after that. We have, over a 25-year period, made the Social Security net incredibly threadbare. Compared with the early 1980s, for example, when you were made unemployed in the early 1980s, broadly speaking you were asked to live on two fifths of the average wage. And we got through that in relatively good order, with people actually quite frightened about social unrest, and there were riots in places like Toxteth. Spool forward 25 years, and we are asking them to live on a fifth of average earnings when you go on Jobseekers Allowance, which is £60.50. Remember, the average wage in this country is £25,000 a year. It’s an absolute calamity. And I think that as escalating numbers of people find that the social safety net is as threadbare, hard questions are going to be asked of the way in which our affairs have been run this last ten years and the way they are going to be run in the future.
There will be, I think, demands for vengeance. To pick up David’s point, I really like the evolution of… We have heard about the undeserving poor, we now have the undeserving rich. I think there will be… I think the kind of way we all feel about Sir Fred Goodwin’s pension is going to become a generalised anger about the way things were run.
And this could go either way. This could be a moment for the left or it could be a moment for the right. But whether right or left, the likelihood is it is going to be, the conversation will be about closure, it’s going to be about more state, it’s going to be about more surveillance and intrusion, less openness and it is going to qualify not just economic liberties, many of which got us into this place in the first place, but actually political liberties. I think that there will be the rise of parties all over Europe which will be extremely unpleasant, and I think there will be extremely unpleasant evolutions in places like Japan, where I think the LDP is completely imploding – it will be the right that actually takes over in Japan. In Russia, I think the situation is getting extremely noxious, and even nationalist forces to the right of Putin are in the ascendant. That is the terms of trade in our times.
To finish, I want to say this. I think that it behoves us at this convention, and people who think along these lines, to argue our heads off that actually the way through this recession, and the way through to prosperity on the other side, is actually to recommit to the great Enlightenment traditions. I think the reason why we got into this mess was that we didn’t have sufficient checks and balances inside the banking system. We didn’t have enough… The constitution, if you like, of capitalism was neglected, and left to free-market fundamentalists to argue the toss. There must not be, resiling from that world, a migration to a world of authoritarian statism on either the left or the right. A world of checks, balances, pluralism, entrenched liberties, and deliberation, justification, many voices. It is that kind of discourse that actually is the, is the genius if you like of Western societies, and if we resile from it faced by a slump, we won’t get to the other side without, I fear, protection, closure and more slump and even war.
So it’s an absolutely crucial moment to assert the case for Enlightenment values – to dare to know, to stay open, to understand the kind of fundamental value of free men and women deliberating over whatever challenge it may be – for our generation, a world depression. Thanks.
DAVID EDGAR: Suzanne Moore.
SUZANNE MOORE: Hello, everybody. I just want to say a few quick things and to cheer you up after that. I am obviously in a difficult position here because I am in danger of outshining Will and Vince with my in-depth knowledge of the economy. So I am not going to try and do that. I am going to talk about the culture and what the recession might mean for our civil liberties, and how we have got to this position. And I do want to think of some reasons to be cheerful. I think today is a reason to be cheerful – just look at the numbers of people here, and not to just talk about what we have lost, but talk about what we might gain.
One of the reasons I can remain slightly optimistic is because all around us now, people are making the obvious connection between what has been regulated and what hasn’t been regulated. What hasn’t been regulated are the huge financial institutions, what has been over-regulated is our private lives, and people are really feeling this, they are actually feeling it. This is no longer theory, this is no longer stuff that obscure columnists write about. We feel it. My child can’t sing What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor because there must be no reference to alcohol in school. To take my child to my local high street I have to have a CRB check, I have to be police checked. It costs the school £35, it makes me feel like a potential paedophile. I’m her mum. I mean, these are everyday things people feel they don’t like, they are objecting against.
How did we get to that position? We didn’t get to that position just because of the recession. We have been in that position for about ten years. I was trying to work out how we got there and I don’t have the answer, but one of the things I think that has happened is that we keep hearing that all the traditional institutions, political institutions, all authorities have lost power, and that we don’t trust them any more. Well, in that case, how come they have even more power than ever? I mean, it’s a contradictory thing that’s going on. What’s happened is that there has been this whole layer of experts brought in, experts in every field. Culturally… I mean, culture always precedes political change and if you watch TV or read newspapers or anything like that, you will know that you have an expert telling you how to live almost every single part of your life. They will tell you what not to wear, what not to eat, what not to smoke, what not to drink. We are all infantilised. We are all on the naughty step. That is what culture has been telling us for the last ten years and we have all bought into that in some way. But the message is also that we need protecting, not really from terrorism, but ourselves. That is where we have lost a lot of, you know, real, real personal liberties, and the idea is that if we are left to our own devices, not only will we be fat and smoke or get ill, we won’t look ten years younger, we won’t be able to clean our houses, we won’t be able to pluck our eyebrows or we won’t even know how to have sex unless somebody actually explains it to us. That might seem trivial, but in a time of accelerated cultural and social change, these experts have become authority figures. I see them as very much part of the restriction of individual liberties, as these people who know best.
And these people will also benefit in a recession, believe me, because they are already writing books on how to survive the recession, how to eat less, grow your own vegetables. There will be even more of these experts. And we must resist all expert advice – I am telling you that.
But we are actually asking, I think – again, this is a reason to celebrate – who has been given freedom and who has lost it. And we can see, I mean, it is these bankers, it is this guy with the ridiculous pension. He has been given enormous amounts of freedom while other people have struggled. Just going to the bank, nobody could phone their own banks any more. We have become incredibly passive about this, and now we have lost… You know, that’s what we’ve lost.
Many of us are just simply bewildered about the security measures we are asked to be involved in on a day-to-day basis. I stand in airport queues all the time – not all the time, but every time I go to an airport. I can’t understand why my lipstick is all right but my lip gloss is a threat to humanity. I just cannot understand it and nobody seems to be able to explain it to me.
And what I hope is happening is that there is a general resistance to these absolutely insane security measures and that it is coming… I see it because I have got teenagers, I’ve got 20-year-olds, coming from young people. And actually some of the ways it comes from young people are ways that we old people don’t like. It is a reclaiming of public space, it is a culture of public intoxication which British people are extremely good at. It’s one of the things we do really well – we go out, we get smashed. We go out in public. It is our public space, we do not need people telling us not to do this, in my opinion. It is part of what we’ve always done. And young people are at the edge of this, they will fight this. You know, the new police act – if you have a party, even at my age, if I have a party with more than 20 people, in police terms that’s a rave. That’s called a rave. I mean, it’s just insane. But young people are finding ways round it and they’re also finding ways, as they always will, around this incredible culture of surveillance.
One of the things that has happened is that the surveillance means that public space is locked down. Any group of teenagers is now a threat. More than two teenagers together constitutes a kind of, you know, everybody has to leave the country. It’s absolutely locked down. And I think that the whole CCTV culture, which of course has bought about its own fashion… Why do we have this fear of hoodies, why do people wear hoods? So that you can’t see them on CCTV. You reap what you sow. And CCTV has been the New Labour answer to replacing society. Instead of watching out for each other, we think these things are watching us, and it is not the same thing. We do have to reinstate the feeling of community.
In this brave new world we have this insane interventionist government whose only model is surveillance. And Labour has been appalling at making… Well, it could have easily made, and Will has made, an argument for a quite benevolent state. Instead of saying that the state is CCTV cameras, it could say it is when you go to the doctors and when you send your kids to school. It could have made that argument, it could have made the safety net argument. But it hasn’t. It’s created the space for Cameron to come in and say “We won’t have the state, we’ll have society.” That what is he will do, and I hope society does exist when Cameron gets in and means that we all start looking after each other, but I am not sure it will. The recession means that we actually have a chance to think about new ways of doing things, and organisations like NESTA, for instance, are talking about the 1930s, the Depression and how that actually spawned the New Deal and the creation of modern welfare, and how we actually have got a chance of reorganising our whole social system. It is not all doom and gloom.
And I think that one of the great things about today is that it has brought together a coalition of right and left, of quite different groups of people who want to talk about liberty. I think this will be the issue. I think the left-right divisions are becoming more and more meaningless. And one of the things that really struck me about the election of Obama, and it strikes me about today, is that we have people here talking about the enshrined rights of the Magna Carta, and these ancient liberties, but doing it on Twitter. I really like this combination of the very old and the very new. And when people talk about how Obama got in and how his campaign was fantastically run by people who understood technology – when you talk to those people, what really happened was, yes they did use the web, they were on their Blackberries the whole time to find out who might vote for him. What they found out was what kind of person that person would respond to, and then send them round to knock on the door. It was a combination of technology and old-fashioned knocking on the door, and a campaign that could use technology with, you know, face-to-face interaction.
That is the space that I think we have to take for ourselves if we want to fight for liberty. A combination of yes, use this all this technology that surrounds us, try to understand it, try to work with it – young people certainly do. And the political classes can legislate all they like but that will not stop, you know, our young people going out doing what they do. It will not stop the Daily Mail taking pictures of them and saying it’s the end of the world. I don’t think it is the end of the world. I think any attempt to curtail liberty always begins with, I’ll just throw this in, it always begins with policing female sexuality, which is why you’ve got endless pictures of girls with their skirts up in the Daily Mail. We’ve got to fight that. You can’t be very high-minded about it. You can care about Guantanamo Bay, but you do have to also care about young people pissed in the streets – it is all part of the same thing. I want this recession to, if it gives us anything, make us think about the key thing, which is what is the redefinition of public and private space. That is what is really happening here. What’s public, what’s private. We’re very muddled. We have allowed what I think should be private to be made public, we have allowed the public to be completely neglected. I would hope that somehow we can have a discussion and move forward, and we can use really really old-fashioned methods and really new ones as well. Thank you.
DAVID EDGAR: I mean, interesting notion that the recession is, might actually have some good by-products in terms of what we are talking about today. Kate Hoey.
KATE HOEY: Thank you. I welcome very much the Convention, the huge turnout this morning and the fact there seems to be now a feeling amongst people who have struggled over the last number of years to… Who have been so angry about what has been going on that finally people are getting together. And this could be the beginning of an all-party fightback, because I think liberty crosses party politics. You find in the House of Commons the most amazing allies on some issues, and on other issues you find yourself totally amazed that other people are not supporting something that you think is just a fundamental principle of human rights.
Now I want to make it clear, like Suzanne, that although I had an economics degree something like 40 years ago, I am not an economist. I’m finding it quite daunting sharing a platform with someone who I think has been presented as being the best Chancellor we’ve not yet had. However, I want to start by saying that the topic, can liberty survive this slump, perhaps really the question – Suzanne has dwelt on that a little bit – that should we be actually saying, could the slump actually save liberty? Could the depression save liberty? I am looking at that from the perspective of, if I look back on what has happened over the past decade and during a Labour Government, a Labour Government that got elected with a huge amount of goodwill and support in 1997, with everything, everything at its door, in the sense that it had that support. And yet in that decade we have seen so many fundamental challenges to our human rights and liberties. That was at the time of an economic boom, and yet we’ve lost all of that.
A wonderful document that’s come out and I’m sure you will have seen, by the University College Research Unit, listing all the bits of legislation that have gone through in the last ten, eleven years – unbelievable when you look at all of that. Another big one arrived at my door this morning. We get bills sent through to us when we’re at the stage that we’re ready to discuss it. This is the new policing and crime bill. Hundreds, literally, of pages of clauses and new clauses. Now there are some good things in that bill, as there’s been good things in all the other bills, but there’s always a lot of bad things. And the problem with the way we scrutinise in Parliament is that we never actually get the time now to go through in detail, and some of the best scrutiny, of course, has come, ironically, from the unelected House of Lords. I think what we have seen is a drip, drip attack over the past ten years.
Now in my view the depression will affect constituencies like mine, where there are many, many disadvantaged and poor people. And some people sometimes say to me, “Why are you so obsessed about liberty? Why are you so opposed to identity cards that you actually put it in your personal election manifesto?” And I say, yes, of course, for many people on my housing estates and in poor areas, they are struggling all the time to survive. You know, lost their jobs, social security problems, immigration problems, all of those. But ultimately, when we lose our liberties, the people who are most likely to be affected most by that are the poorest and the disadvantaged. Because if I get stopped by a policeman in my car or if I get stopped for doing something, I know what to do. I have got the ability. In many of my areas, the people who suffering most from this bureaucracy and red tape and things that have been handed down by Government and by local authorities, and this whole idea of your own personal freedom and your own personal space, it is the poorest people and the most disadvantaged who are being affected most. So I feel very strongly that this isn’t just an issue for the academics and the MPs representing the kind of rural areas, perhaps, where they feel they have less day-to-day poverty.
I also just wanted to say that one of the reasons I became Chairman of the Countryside Alliance was that yes, I opposed very much the ban on hunting. It was done for all the wrong reasons. It was nothing to do with animal welfare, it was about class, about prejudice, about a group of zealotry MPs who decided they were going to force through something. But it was about an attack on the liberty of the individual, and about a way of life in terms of countryside versus urban. I am very pleased that today this convention is stretching right across the United Kingdom and is reaching all parts of the country. One of the things about liberty and freedom is that sometimes politicians pick and choose their bits of liberty. Because they don’t like something, then that’s something they can attack. I am very clear that liberty means that sometimes you have to defend things that you may not actually necessarily personally want to support or want to involve yourself in. And we found in terms of the half million people who came out on the streets and campaigned for liberty and livelihood back in 2002 under that whole slogan, many of them were people who didn’t hunt, who didn’t particularly even think hunting was a great thing to do, but actually defended the right to do it.
One of the reasons that in fact, in the end, although the Government by using the Parliament Act – which was just amazing, after 700 hours of debate in Parliament on hunting, they finally pushed it through by the Parliament Act – we ended up with a situation where the law is not working. The law is complete nonsense, and every single newspaper in this country – and I have to say the media on that were brilliant, because in the end they saw it from a libertarian point of view and apart from the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, every single newspaper editorially said “This is a bad law, this has got to be repealed.”
So I see it from an angle that brings everybody in the country together. What I think we have to do from today is, you know, most Members of Parliament do their best. They think they are doing their best when they are in Parliament, they oppose things. We end up with a lot of bad legislation starting off with perhaps 50 or 100 Labour MPs opposed to it. As it gets nearer the crucial vote, as it gets nearer to the rebellion, a lot of them are… Not bought off in the sense of physically, money, I don’t think is handed over, but bought off in all sorts of other ways. And I think coming up to general elections, we have to be sure that you collectively, the public, the people that put us in power, have to be much much more determined to get people to actually sign up to what they are going to do or what they are not going to do. Party labels are important, party policies are important but, ultimately, I think that it is absolutely crucial that we ensure that our MPs are elected to represent the best interests of the people that they are supposedly representing. That is why all the emphasis over the next year or so, when we are getting into difficult situations, the public has recognised that the system has failed. The public has recognised that for all the talk from politicians and the bills that have gone through, we have still failed to create a system that has not allowed what has been happening now, in terms of the economy, to happen. That has to be a measure which actually warns politicians that in the end, they are not providing and giving the leadership that should be there.
And I hope that out of this today, we’ll get a movement that accepts that ultimately the individual and the right to freedom and liberty has to be maintained, and it will not be maintained just by relying on our politicians. It has to come from a grassroots, bottom-up campaign, which then will ensure the politicians listen because they know you that you’ve got the power and you are the people who vote them in or out. Thank you.
DAVID EDGAR: Finally, Vince Cable.
VINCE CABLE: I would like to start by echoing Kate’s welcome for this event. I think the challenge to us is, in a slump, which we are entering, it will increasingly be asked – implicitly or not – “Isn’t civil liberties a bit like the environment? Isn’t it one of those luxuries we can quietly park until the crisis is over?” And we wouldn’t be on the platform if we didn’t disagree with that but I think we have to go over the arguments. I’d like to say a little bit first about the civil liberties context in which I think we are operating and then about how I would envisage the economic crisis affecting it.
I think the word I reach for when I try to capture the spirit of a lot of crime and civil liberties issues that I encounter as an MP, the word is “paranoia”. Both in respect of crime and terrorism. Just a couple of anecdotes to illustrate that. On Friday – yesterday, actually – I went down to have my regular monthly meeting with the local police chief superintendent. Very good copper doing a very good job. He bought out all the tables and it’s a wonderful story – crime in Twickenham has always been very low and it’s now much lower and it goes down every month, burglary has virtually disappeared, street robbery has virtually disappeared, hardly any car burglary going on, very few assaults. It is a wonderful story. Of course, there are occasionally bad things that happen, but in any objective measure, crime is very low. But he also showed me the chart of public attitudes, which showed that the fear of crime is rising in exactly the opposite direction from what is actually going on on the ground. All the surveys they’ve done, and all the surveys I do as a local politician, suggest that crime is top of most people’s concerns. I have never quite understood – I have a pretty educated constituency – why this should be the case. I think essentially what happens is that people read about gun crime in Hackney and a paedophile in Blackburn, and they think that in some sense this is an immediate threat. Whatever the reason for it, there is this enormous disjuncture between what is actually happening on the ground, which is improvement, and people’s perceptions, which are increasingly of fear and alarm about crime. But anyway, in terms of the actual facts, there is certainly no evidence that the people I have in my constituency who are redundant hedge fund managers or estate agents are yet turning to car-jacking to supplement their income.
This also applies in respect to terrorism. We have never had any terrorists offences that I am aware of in my part of London, but the kind of thing I and some of my supporters do is turning up to protests against airport expansion, against Heathrow. At the last one I attended, there were about 100 people, middle-aged mostly, half of them I guess Guardian readers and the other half read the Daily Telegraph. Completely innocuous, no idea of stone throwing or anything worse than that. They’d hit on a wonderful idea which was actually throwing paper darts outside the Department of Transport as a way of expressing their strong feelings. After a few minutes of this, a senior policeman who was observing proceedings read out a document that he had come along pre-prepared with, saying unless we dispersed within five minutes he would invoke the terrorism legislation. Anybody who now goes to a demonstration on aircraft noise or something comparable, or a power station – probably some of you were at those protests too – will know these are the powers that are being invoked. Another anecdote which some of you in this room will have experienced, I was approached by one of my party activists who is well in his 60s. Like a lot of Lib Dem activists, he always goes round in a tie, very polite and very middle-class, and he had been driving round Twickenham Rugby Union stadium. And he’d got a bit lost, and had been round the stadium I think two or three times. He was pulled into the side by a PCSO, one of these auxiliary police officers, and stopped and searched under terrorist powers. And held for several hours, and asked to explain why he was behaving in such a strange way in front of an important national institution. And terrorism was the fear.
And, I mean, in both these cases we have this extraordinary paranoia, completely unrelated to any objective risk or objective threat. Now so far, I have taken incidents of this kind in a… I take them very seriously and I worry about them, but relaxed on one level for two reasons. First of all because our police culture is not particularly oppressive. A whole generation of police officers have been trained to be light, to police by consent rather than fear. I think many police officers are deeply uncomfortable with the role they are often placed in and I take some comfort in that. And I the second reason I have been reasonably relaxed so far, is the sheer incompetence of the British state. If you have to deal as MPs do with the Immigration and Nationality Department or HMRC over tax credits, you see unbelievable incompetence on a daily basis. Papers getting lost, files getting mixed up. I know a lot of people get very upset about these lost CD discs and so on. I take certain reassurance that the system simply cannot manage the data it has got on us. Up to a point, anyway, the sheer lack of coherent management does provide us with some degree of protection.
But I mean, I am being slightly flippant. The point is, that in this economic crisis, I think there are respects in which the overall environment is going to deteriorate and in which the kind of powers that people do worry about could come to be invoked. I think the way I would approach this is to try to look at who is going to be affected by this crisis, and how will they react to it? I think initially, what we are seeing is large numbers of individuals who almost at random are being affected by unemployment, or part-time working. I meet many of them. Even in a fairly prosperous area like mine there are growing numbers of people who are losing their jobs, who are desperately worried about keeping their mortgage payments going. But so far they see this in very much individual terms – this is not a community being hit, it is scattered individuals in pain and confused and angry about their personal circumstances, trying to hold their marriages together, trying to keep their home. They are probably more likely to be on antidepressants than part of a militant movement. Initially, this is how the crisis is manifesting itself.
But I think one or two things will happen that will change that and make opposition more concrete. One of them is that the next wave of victims will be students. If you reflect on what is currently happening in universities, we have just been through the annual milk round and I meet quite a few lecturers, professors who tell me that their estimate is that of the current cohort who graduate in the summer, half of them will not have jobs. Some of them will find work on a part-time basis, some of them will go home to Mum and Dad, some of them will become permanent students. But there will be growing numbers, we are talking hundreds of thousands of people here, who don’t have the worries about their families and their homes, who will just have been bitterly disillusioned, and will have paid for their education in part and suddenly find that society doesn’t want them. And if this goes on for a couple of years you will have a very large army of very angry, educated, highly disillusioned young people, many of whom inhabit the inner cities of Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield and Bristol and London, and who have enormous political potential. How they’ll express it, I don’t know, but we can see that coming.
The next wave of anger will come from the public sector. Because at present the public sector is a safe haven. You probably read this morning about enormous numbers of people now applying for job as teachers – it is a safe job in a slump, and the public sector at the moment is keeping the economy going. But public sector finance numbers are unbelievably awful and all that money that’s going into saving the banks and all the rest of it, that is not sustainable. And in two or three years’ time there is going to be the most ferocious crackdown on public spending and investment, and if there’s a change of government, I think probably even more ferocious than otherwise. But I don’t want to make a party political point, but certainly in a few years’ time, the public sector will be really under the cosh. And we know from experience in this country and also in continental Europe that those are people who are better organised, more conscious of their rights and more able to protest than others. These are the groups that will start to feel the pain and will express it.
I’ll just mention one other group. It’s probably not a group in any sociological sense, but I’m very conscious of it. Large numbers of people have serious problems of debt. Much of the current crisis originates from large amounts of personal debt. I don’t know how many of you have experienced this, but I am encountering growing numbers of people who are at the receiving end of bailiffs. Just ordinary people who have, you know, they’ve got a parking fine, and they’ve moved house so they didn’t get the court notice. And then before they know where they are, there is a team of people at the front door with a sledge hammer. Under legislation this government passed in 2004, the bailiffs are allowed to use forced entry. Under legislation that went through last year, and not many people spotted it, they are allowed to use force on individuals. What is called “reasonable force”. And we are going to get growing numbers of people whose homes are going to be invaded by their creditors. And when large numbers of people realise this, and it may be in respect of a small amount of credit card debt or unpaid fines or other things of that category, which I don’t want to trivialise, we are going get some real, real middle-class anger going and this is going to add fuel to the fire.
So I don’t really have a great deal to add. All I can see at the moment are these different groups who I think will be mobilised by this crisis. One doesn’t yet know what political form it will take. It is said, and I probably would argue this myself, we are likely to see more of the politics of identity and race and nationalism and things of that kind, but certainly in the kind of area I represent the BNP are not a force. It is, I think, a more subtle thing, but we are nonetheless heading into political territory for the first time certainly in my lifetime with great numbers of people whose expectations of society are going to be severely dashed and will find an outlet for it.
DAVID EDGAR: Thank you.
As the speakers were speaking, I kind of invented a way of putting them on a spectrum between Jeremiahs and Pollyannas. And certainly it’s been gendered, I think. I thought when Vince Cable started he was going to be the third Pollyanna in a row, but it got very much more Jeremiah as it went on. So currently the blokes are more pessimistic than the women. But I think a very interesting point at the end, with the bailiff point, about the fact that actually infringements of civil liberties, that the civil liberty issue might not be one that’s parked, but might actually be exacerbated, that those infringements might actually be exacerbating tension and anger, and I am sure there are other examples of that.
We have a little while for questions and comments, with the usual rules that if you would like to, it would be helpful to say who you are.
There is a slight lighting issue here, so forgive me and wave dramatically if you wish to speak. And I think the lady in the grey at the back of the first section, yes, and we’ll probably… Might even be green, I am informed.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You’re close – it could be grey or green. Annie Feltham.
I just want to say two things. The first thing is, I would like to reiterate as an ex-civil servant, that we were always surprised when people thought it was a conspiracy, because it generally was a cock-up. But on a more serious point, I’ve spent a lot of time in overseas development, working in aid projects overseas, and I have been thinking about, you know, the extent to which my skills were useful here. And I think the big shock I had when I was looking at the community that I live in – and I live in Colchester – was that… I’m looking at inequality and can liberty survive, and levels of inequality which actually pre-date the slump. But the sorts of activities, ideas that we have been using in China and Ukraine, etc, are relevant for the poorer parts of Colchester. And my town I am sure is not as prosperous as Twickenham, but I guess we are not alone in this. And therefore the level of deprivation that we’ve got is one of the longest ongoing threats to our liberty, or rather the people who don’t have the skills to enjoy the liberty. Because you are quite right, you know – if we get in trouble, we normally get ourselves out of it. So then there is this question which I think is sort of occupying me at the moment, is how we personally use these skills that we’ve got in our various walks of life to actually address this really quite shameful… My thought was that I was ashamed of ourselves, that we’ve got these levels of inequality in this country.
DAVID EDGAR: Thank you. Right at the back holding a piece of paper.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Elizabeth Burgess. Will Hutton and Vince Cable both mentioned about, with the forthcoming depression and the economic reduction in activity, you seem to be describing more a question of the growth in extra-Parliamentary protest. Now, it seems to me that in the 1930s, if we look at Germany for example, the growth of fascism came about because of the inability of the government to actually do anything about that. Part of that was because of a discredited political class at the time. We seem to see a similar situation, a discredited political class, in this country today, when people get upset about…MPs with their housing expenses and so on. Do you think we have a political class which has sufficient credibility in this country to defuse those tensions when they happen, or will authoritarianism rear its head in that way?
DAVID EDGAR: I think that is a very good question. If I could turn to the two politicians first on that one. Kate.
KATE HOEY: I think that is a real, real danger. And you have seen it with the decreasing numbers of people who vote, turn out, particularly young people. And the feeling that politicians are, the gap between politicians and the public is growing bigger and bigger and that they don’t listen, that they say one thing and they do another and all of that kind of thing. Which you know for those of us, and, you know, I defend a lot of my colleagues because there are many of us in there who… Most people when they become an MP, they really become an MP because they want to make a difference, they want to change things, they want to do their best. Something happens within the parliamentary system, and one of the things that I think we, as particularly backbench Members of Parliament, have to be doing is kind of continuing to always remind people, you know, why they were elected and what they were elected on.
The problem with the New Labour government was that not only did it do some things that were in the manifesto that perhaps weren’t particularly things that I would’ve supported, but they were in the manifesto, what we did was do so many things that actually specifically either were in the manifesto that we weren’t going to do, or brought them in afterwards. And of course that means that the public don’t treat us with any respect or believe us, and so the danger is now that because on this kind of issue, and particularly because of the feeling that we’ve all got to work together because of this terrible economic situation, that the public generally will say “They are all the same”. And they are not all the same. The other thing we did then I meant to mention earlier, one of the things, and I remember Gwyneth Dunwoody, a fantastic parliamentarian, and myself both disagreeing with what the government were doing, was not long after we got in with that huge majority, what did we do, we brought in a guillotine. We brought in a guillotine to stop debate and to stop, you know, people being able to keep debates going in terms of laws that were going through.
Now yes, it was, when I first got in, we used to be there until one or two in the morning and that kind of thing, and it did sometimes feel a bit of play-acting that was going on. But we are now in a situation where we have put through legislation in the Commons where half of the bill, the clauses have not even been discussed in the Commons, and thank goodness the Lords have been able to spend some time on it. So you are absolutely right. But I don’t worry about extra-Parliamentary activity, provided it is peaceful. You know, I grew up in a part of the UK and Northern Ireland where extra-Parliamentary activity was something that actually had to happen to get things changed. I am not against any, I love to see when people are really being opposed in their view, them standing up and doing something, and that is when I think people, that is when politics actually begins to matter. My real view about this slump is if at last we are getting people to think we need to change our ideas, we need to look at how our politics are working, then that is not to say that there is not going to be some awful things happening in an economic depression, and I will see it more in areas like mine than many other areas, but if at the end of it we have a recognition that we need to change the way our politics works, then that could be something that comes out of it.
DAVID EDGAR: Do you want to come in on that?
VINCE CABLE: I think there are two questions about the political class. One is the issue about is it corrupt, and the other is whether it is impotent. And the latter is more important, but the first is what gets people going.
I mean, the issue about political corruption and expenses and all that kind of thing, it is extraordinarily…petty on one level. But you can understand why people get worked up about it, because if some MP seems to be fiddling their expenses to the extent of £10,000, that is something that people can relate to in the way they can’t relate to the zillions of pounds we are putting into the banking system. Those are just meaningless, extra-planetary numbers. That’s why we have as a group been totally careless about public concerns, and the lack of transparency and the unwillingness to deal with things like MP pensions has added to the cynicism. Not a great deal of money is involved, and the truth is that the vast majority of MPs are totally honest and straightforward. But there is a carelessness and lack of sensitivity that is doing us as a group no good, and it does need to be sorted.
The issue about impotence is much more important. It isn’t like, I think one of the questions related it to Germany. Unlike Brüning’s administration in Germany that preceded the Nazis, they did nothing, they just looked at the crisis. They had no idea what to do. Whereas our government, like the Americans, is throwing everything at it. Monetary policy, fiscal policy intervention in banks – they are doing lots, but it doesn’t seem to be achieving much. But I think the issue of impotence crystallises around Sir Fred Goodwin. It’s an interesting one, this. Here is somebody whose absolutely outrageous behaviour, you know, has destroyed a bank at the expense of shareholders, workers and the taxpayer. Walks away with an enormous reward, is completely lacking in contrition – what do you do about it? What do you do? He is protected by legal rights. Even if you went after him, he could simply emigrate. And the problem with the super-rich, the people who, you know, benefited in an extraordinary way from what has happened in the City, is that in practical reality they are untouchable. And what we are resorting to is the politics of the ducking stool. You know, we queue up to say they are outrageous and obscene and I’m trying to find new words, I have run out of them. But at the end of the day, you are not doing anything. And people out there understand that our powers to deal with people in a internationally mobile world are very limited. The paradox at the end of all this is that I think countries will become more nationalistic in an environment where they have to co-operate more if you are going to deal with things like tax havens. That is one of the fundamental difficult contradictions that we are going to have to grapple with.
DAVID EDGAR: Yes, please.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hello.
My name is Kumi Naidoo and I’m from South Africa. I arrived this morning and I felt an obligation to gatecrash this conference to bring a global perspective to it. I occupy three leadership roles at the global level – on climate change, with CIVICUS which defends our society, and the I’m chair of the global part of Make Poverty History. I want to make three brief points. Firstly, I think it is critically important that this conference, while focusing on the situation in the United Kingdom, needs to recognise that if you are able to advance an agenda to win back civil liberties you will not be doing it just for the UK, but making a contribution to the rest of the world. Because when we do work in Zimbabwe for example, the Zimbabwean leadership says to us, “Why are you putting so much pressure on us? We didn’t do Guantanamo Bay, we are not doing rendition, we didn’t do Abu Ghraib, we are not trying to pass 42 days’ detention without trial,” and so on. The bottom line is, the slippage in democracy in the US and the UK and other countries that claim to be promoters of democracy have given a blank cheque to those that have more dictatorial tendencies. I want to make an appeal that this conference, this conference is very much, has a, you know, has a global component to it even though the focus has been very national.
Secondly, I think for those of us living in the developing world, we have been astonished at how overnight, virtually, the political leadership in the rich countries, including the G8, were able to find trillions of dollars, when to cancel all of Third World debt, all of Third World debt, would have been $500 billion. Why is it not possible to leverage that kind of resources that can save lives? Because we have been in a permanent recession, in a way, in many parts of the world in terms of the issues that you are talking about.
The last point is to align myself with the weak sentiment of optimism, of how we can use this moment to move forward, is to link the environmental catastrophe and the climate change challenge that we have.
If there is one thing that must come out of this crisis, my appeal would be, it is to recognise that over-consumption in rich countries cannot be sustained forever. We have to begin to question, is it just, is it fair, that what western Europe and North America spends on pet food annually can provide the entire African continent with three nutritional meals per day. We have to begin to ask ourselves whether there are patterns of consumption, the salary levels for the elite, whether in government or the private sector, and need I say even when they come from non-profit organisations, whether the levels of inequality that we have within every country in the world, which is growing, and the levels of inequality between rich and poor countries, I would argue is that not sustainable, and environmentally it is absolutely a catastrophe if we allow it to continue. Thank you.
DAVID EDGAR: Just before I come to the question at the front I would like to slightly convert that, or combine it with the question down here and ask Will, because one of the issues… Talking about Enlightenment values, is that certainly over the last 30 years we have been taught to believe that egalité is in contradiction with liberté is in contradiction with fraternité. I wondered what you felt, Will, about the future of, whether or not the ducking stool for Sir Fred Goodwin might lead to a revival of the very unfashionable idea that it does matter? That the gap between David Beckham and Kate’s constituents actually does matter more than we have been led to believe?
WILL HUTTON: The simple answer is yes. I want to say much more about this in the next session, when we talk about how we make the case for liberty.
I think that what is evident over the last… What is now evident to all, behind the story of the debt and the asset prices and the banks getting over-stretched, the bankers paying themselves extraordinary sums of money, all of it, lies running our economy and society, both domestically, and to pick up the point from South Africa, internationally, grotesquely unfairly. And it’s evident, it’s obvious that we need to run our economies and societies more fairly and more sustainably. And one of the components… There are three components of fairness, I think. One is some sense of proportionality. Fred Goodwin, even if he had been successful at Royal Bank of Scotland, should not retire at 50 years old with a pension of £675,000 a year, a pot of £16m to produce that. That is grotesque. You know, it is a disproportionality, and having failed, it is even worse. There is a second component of fairness, which is the nature of the deal, the social deal. What is the quid pro quo? What are our social entitlements, to what degree do we have to earn them, to what extent are they a matter of right and to what extent, when people get in situations of their own free will, do we say, “That’s fine, we’ll still write you a cheque”? Big issues. There’s a third component of fairness which is fair play, that what we are talking about in this convention – procedures, the way we make law, the way we regulate ourselves, the constitution in which we actually do the other fairnesses. What I think… For me, those three fairnesses are all wrapped up, they’re interlinked, they are interdependent. And if we corrupt or qualify to any degree our capacity for fair play fairnesses, for the procedures by which things are done, then we get the ourselves precisely into a world in which the remuneration committee of Royal Bank of Scotland, under the eyes of the incoming Minister for the City, Lord Myners, pays this chap £575,000, and thinks “Brilliant, we have got away with it. If he had been in office another few days he might have noticed but we have slipped it through the net.” That kind of approach… What sits behind the capacity to be so unfair, which we all call outrageous, sits an unfair process.
So for me, being better at governance matters in the public sector and it matters in the private sector. And we won’t solve the problem of gross inequality, also picked up by the lady who first spoke, unless we have better ways of actually talking to ourselves as a national community and then acting on what we decide. That will include Fred Goodwin not getting paid £575,000 for a bank that requires £45 billion-worth of our money and £325 billion of our insurance. Unbelievable.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: This is Susan. Given so many of these things have to be discussed in public, and the press have been very important in raising some of these issues, earlier today, Alan Rusbridger raised a sceptre about the parlous economic state of some of our newspapers. Is it something that you are concerned about? And what should we do about that, having been able to have some of that investigative journalism that has brought some of these things to us in our homes?
DAVID EDGAR: We have got four minutes left and I would like to give the panelists an opportunity to come back on that question and everything else. I think it is a very good one. Certainly, among the businesses that are going to go down and among the institutions that are going to go down through lack of public funding are of course institutions which are very important to us. I remember Radcliffe Harvell writing movingly about how the death of a small theatre magazine in Prague in the 1970s had a, like the Chinese butterfly, actually had a significant effect on the whole cultural ecology. So just perhaps starting with Suzanne, that and any other question you want to address in the closing moments.
SUZANNE MOORE: I just wanted to come back to this question people are raising, is there a choice between equality and liberty? I think the success of New Labour, if you like, has been to change a lot of people’s minds. Because we thought maybe we were voting for equality or that there would be less inequality. The fact that we have got widening inequality and less liberty – and Iraq – has made it almost impossible to understand… I mean, when you talk about the incompetence or the impotence of the political class, I don’t know which party you vote for if you want liberty and equality. Maybe you already know, everybody else knows, but the party that can represent the things that Will was talking about, a simple, more proportional way of rewarding people, it’s not Labour. It’s not Labour. We are at a real crunch point now, because it is going to be a Tory Government. Are they going to take forward the mantle of liberty? This is what I am worried about. I can’t see it happening, but I think that is the point we are at. What I am hoping, and what I would really like to start happening and I do see happening with young people, is that we have actually, to go back to the 60s, a counter-cultural movement, as we had against Margaret Thatcher, and it will be against the new Tory government and it will be about liberty.
DAVID EDGAR: Kate.
KATE HOEY: Well, just on the inequality issue and the question of the huge salaries some of these bankers are getting, I am amazed, in my time as a Member of Parliament, particularly in the last number of years, how much local authorities now are paying some of their senior officers. I have to go down about… It is not a personal thing, you have to go down about five tiers in my local authorities before you get to anyone who’s earning anything in the region of what an MP is earning. That is fine, you might say we don’t work as hard as local authority officers or whatever, but the reality is we are paying directors of social services, chief executives of councils, directors of education, when it used to be done by one person in the whole of London, and now we have each one well, well over 100,000, some of them 120, 150, 180, many of them earning more than the Prime Minister. And you just begin to think “Where is all this going?” And the argument used is, “If we don’t put it at this salary we won’t get the right people”. Well, I think the right people we want in public service are people who want to work in public service because they’re committed to public service. You have lost that whole ethos. Then on the media, I mean, most politicians are always complaining about the media. I think whatever you say about it, I think we have the most wonderful press in this country and you only have to go to any other country to see. I still genuinely think that. I would be very worried indeed if we lose some of the really… And we are already beginning to lose some of the really good investigative reporting. We have lost a lot of that in the BBC because they have gone into this News 24 stuff where you don’t get, the journalists are not being given the resources to go abroad and the cameramen to do the work they used to do. There is a real fear that we could end up… And the fewer good media outlets there are, the fewer newspapers, the fewer good journalists, then the more politicians and the establishment generally get away with what they want to get away with.
DAVID EDGAR: Vince.
VINCE CABLE: Just on this first point, on the media and concentration of ownership, we can see all kinds of ominous signs that the weaker newspapers will go down, that independent local newspapers are virtually disappearing. Some of the independent television and radio channels are very vulnerable, and we’ll finish up with a greater concentration of ownership. I think when one looks at what is happening in this crisis to the ownership structure across the economy, there is more and more evidence of concentration. We will have fewer banks. We will have fewer big building developers and fewer of everything, and the ones that are left will be much more powerful. If I were looking to the end of this crisis, I think one of the things we have to look out for is that what we could finish up with is a kind of Italian-style state capitalism, where you have a handful of very big powerful groups which have got enormous political power as well as commercial power. And that is relevant to the media and everywhere else. The second point David made from the chair, which is about the cultural ecology, because I mean if you take something I am interested in which is football, there was a very interesting feature this morning explaining that whereas the Premier League is to some extent protected from the slump, most of the lower divisions have football clubs that are now virtually insolvent and many of which will simply not survive. And local communities who express themselves through sport will simply lose that.
And the final point I want to make about inequality is this. I think we are into a period where people will be able to think about rougher and more radical solutions than they were able to before. Until recently I think the two things I said in public which caused most outrage, one of which was exactly the point Kate’s made about too many highly paid executives in local government, and the other one was when I suggested that people in houses worth more than a million pounds should be paying relatively more in property taxes. And people went berserk at that suggestion. But I think in this new environment, people will be willing to look at solutions that hitherto would have been be regarded as impractical, or having too much rough justice on well-off people.. Things like, for example, the Dutch idea of saying that in every organisation, there should be a salary differential of ten to one and no more between the people at the top and the people at the bottom. People say to me that that’s very impractical and you can’t make it operate, but I think in this environment, where people are becoming highly charged, highly conscious of unfairness, that kind of solution may well have, maybe the time has come for it.
DAVID EDGAR: Fearful that it would provoke mass suicide, Will Hutton has said he does not want to say anything more depressing. One final thought from me, which is I think the President… It’s on the equality, liberty thing, and it goes back to a lot of the kind of social libertarianism that Suzanne was talking about. The Obama election seems to me to be the culmination of an alliance which brought about most of the progressive reforms of the 20th century – the New Deal, our welfare state and pre-eminently the civil rights movement in America. And that was an alliance between what on the Continent they call the progressive intelligentsia and what also on the Continent they call the wretched of the earth. And I think that alliance between the Guardian-reading classes and the poor is something that is one of the things that would be the worst possible victim of this recession, and I think it is in danger from a whole variety of directions.
WILL HUTTON: We have all come to this session on recession and liberty, and I thought that last question, you really put your finger on it. I think the danger is that this recession is going to take out lots of pluralism. It’s going to weaken trade unions, it’s going to weaken regional newspapers, it’s going to weaken national newspapers. ITV are pulling out of regional news. We may only have the BBC as a news provider – Channel 4 is tiny and it’s struggling to fund itself from advertising, which is plunging. All these things weaken pluralism, weaken diverse voices and undermine a capacity to speak back to power. It’s a very dangerous moment and I thought your question put your finger on it better than any of us speakers and it really got me going. Thanks!
DAVID EDGAR: Nonetheless, the speakers were all very good, and I would like to thank them on your behalf!
(With thanks to Gillian Croft and Natalie Bracken for transcription and Caz Black for editing)