I very much welcome the challenge laid down by David Boyle to the Social Liberal Forum. Indeed, there is very little in it with which I can disagree. In particular, I share the view held by David that the view that ‘everything can be solved by tax and spending’ is mistaken. I strongly believe that we need a revolution in the way that decisions are made in this country, and that we need to take a totally different approach, a sustainable approach, to our day to day lives. We need a more local, more democratic and greener way of approaching politics. That would mean a paradigm shift in the way that we think of power and economics, and these are issues which will be at the heart of the SLF’s work.
Much of David’s article is about the causes of inequality. He rightly cites centralisation, education, snobbery and passivity. In the way that David describes them, none of them are about ‘tax and spending’. I would add another to this list, which crosses over with at least two in David’s list (snobbery and education): the persistence of social class, which leads to generation on generation holding on to power that it has, and perpetuating it through networks which outsiders can seldom access. The persistence of class is sometimes about money, but it is just as often about family connections and schooling, both of which can have an enormous impact on the kinds of informal opportunities and feet-in-the-door that are so often life-defining.
However, we must be clear that there are many problems which can only be tackled if money is spent on them, as David recognises in his article, especially in the short term. I think we also have to recognise that there are clear examples of where more money works, most notably in tackling problems like long waiting times in the NHS, and in providing resources (books, buildings and teachers) for schools. In these areas, extra spending by Labour since 2001 has made a difference, and improvements would have been very hard indeed without extra spending.
Moreover, huge challenges remain which have money as part of the answer. If you are living in poverty, then one of the greatest problems you have is a lack of money. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his short story ‘The Rich Boy’, ‘Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.’ A response to this, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, was ‘Yes, they have more money’. For all that the wealthy have so many advantages and opportunities, we must not forget that fundamentally their advantages are driven by money. If we want to tackle that, then investing in public services so that all can have access to the best, regardless of their money, must be a priority. We must also not forget the people who need help now because they do not have warm decent homes, good food, clothing, and other basics which many of us take for granted. Here, the state can step in and it will take money. Moreover, let us not forget the ‘R Word’ – redistribution, which I believe should be central to any programme which seeks to tackle poverty. The Liberal Democrats are stronger on this than we ever have been, but there is more that can be done.
So the SLF must and will talk about money in relation to some policies. But we will also be addressing the many other issues that lead us to have a socially unjust and unsustainable society. We will be putting forward new ideas on decentralisaton, democracy and sustainability. It is in these, that the long-term solutions which go beyond money, can be found. A look at the many proposals in our ‘Ideas Factory’ shows how much fertile ground there already is.