Friday, July 16, 2010

Nck Clegg's vision of a Liberal Parliament - Trust the people

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has been telling think tank Demos today of his vision for the next 5 years which he hopes will build a more liberal Britain. The whole speech has been conveniently published here.

I liked the way he outlined a distinctive liberal vision for which the traditional economic and big/small government are essentially irrelevant.

Basically who we are as liberals and the sort of society we want to see boils down to:

Trusting people - having faith in human nature;

This desire to put power in the hands of people is based on an optimistic assessment of human nature, and human capability. It is an article of faith for liberals that people with power and capability will make better choices about how to lead their lives than government, or other institutions.

He goes on to add:

I said a moment ago that individual liberty requires not only freedom from interference but also resources. Independence requires knowledge, health, money, skills – these are described by the Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen as capabilities.

These capabilities do not emerge out of thin air. So liberal societies, populated by powerful citizens, must attend to the production and distribution not only of cash, but more importantly to the production and distribution of capabilities.

That makes me think about the people who have been on benefits for a very long time, who may never have had a job in their lives. It's traditional for the right wing press to dismiss them as benefits scroungers, but what have we done as a society to equip them with those capabilities?

The education system has spectacularly failed to engage them and provide them with knowledge and skills, leaving them at the back of the queue when jobs come along. Poverty goes hand in hand with poor housing and poor health and life chances.

The benefits system is so inflexible that it imprisons them, and hopelessly inefficient at dealing with changes of circumstances, so it makes taking short term work too risky, or leaves people better off on benefits. So many are trapped in that existence although they would love to be out of it and I'm most angry about the effect on their general wellbeing of that than the money it costs.

One of the markers of success of this Parliament for me will be if we've managed to change things so that pepole in that situation are given the support and the flexibility they need to improve their lives.

I think that this is where the real difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives lies. The Conservatives think that just withdrawing benefits from people will make them work. In fact, this is an act of profound cruelty, especially when they will be completely disadvantaged in terms of employability. They need individual help, support and encouragement, tailored to their needs.

And where we differ from Labour is that we see the need for flexible, responsive, individual help and support for people - not the one size fits all, any colour as long as it's black, all-enslaving Labour view of public services.

I didn't like Nick bigging up Michael Gove. I'm far from convinced that his education reforms will actually improve things. We hear a lot of talk about the rights of schools and parents - but what about the children? I'm all for creativity in the classroom and not learning by rote of some civil servant in Whitehall, but I think Gove has gone too far. As far as the health service reforms are concerned, well, just let's say I'm glad I live in Scotland where they won't apply.

I wrote last week that I was impressed with the grown up style of politics we were seeing from Nick and I liked that this was at the heart of his speech:

The biggest change is in the way political decisions are made. Open discussion is encouraged, not thwarted. We want robust dialogue and dissent in politics: indeed, from a liberal perspective, argument is a critical tool of progress. But we do not need poisonous tribalism.

Sometimes we can agree to disagree. A compromise might sometimes be the best way forward, rather than representing a defeat for politician X and a victory for politician Y. Sometimes – and here I am going to court great controversy – we might even change our minds.

I personally think it's going to take a lot longer than one Parliament to make a meaningful change to a more liberal society and the success or otherwise of the mission is tied firmly in with the economic situation. I like the people centred narrative of his speech though and it's clear that his thinking has at its heart a genuine philosophical basis. It's a long time since we had that in Government.

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