Authors: Robert Brown and Nigel Lindsay
Robert Brown and Nigel Lindsay consider what the pandemic has revealed about our economy and society, what needs to change so we can build back better, and the big questions that now need to be addressed.
Coronavirus has changed the world - leaving many challenges but also huge opportunities. When the crisis recedes, there will - briefly - be opportunities for major reforms – environmental, economic, social, political and personal.
Lockdowns have had an unintended consequence - creating a global experiment in reducing pollution. The Alston Report notes that “Key elements of the post-war “Beveridge social contract” are being overturned …much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed.”  And as Ian Kearns has written, there is a chance to build “a new civic capitalism…shaped to pursue public interest goals”
The moment must be seized to make radical changes in political and public thinking, to restore confidence in democratic politics, to abandon the old issues of identity and selfish nationalism and to create a new domestic and international order based on partnership, the equitable and sustainable sharing of wealth and resources, human rights and civic commitment – to build a new world based on Liberal values. But the window of opportunity may only be open for a very short time, and real change will have to be fought for against ruthless and battle-hardened enemies.
As in a war, innovation, change - and expectations - have moved up many gears during the crisis. People have been guaranteed basic income, food, shelter and jobs by the State in a way previously regarded as impossible; the UK Government has put in place financial packages costing £100 billion in 2020-21 and loan guarantees of up to £330 billion to prop up business and society; the value of frontline services has been rediscovered. We must ensure that we rethink the fundamentals of the contract between government and the people accordingly.
Since the pandemic arrived our democracy, government and response capacity have been exposed and found wanting – in procurement, in families operating with little or no margin of security, in the gap between government announcement and on the ground reality.
There is a one-off chance to re-set on a new basis. This new world must be sustainable, environmentally responsible and with social justice built into our economy and our society. There are lessons to learn from the pandemic about how we live our lives, organize the workplace and the economy, the way we teach and learn. The neglected strictures of the Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur (the Alston Report) must be heeded, and the selfishness and cancerous power of unrestrained globalism re-moulded to the public good.
There is a parallel to the middle of the last war when great minds produced the Beveridge Plan, the concept of the United Nations, plans for the welfare state, Keynes’ work that led to full employment and the Bretton Woods system and the ECHR. Beveridge in particular sought to design to create a comprehensive system of social insurance 'from cradle to grave'.
Let us now invite some of today’s great thinkers to address the urgent questions that face us now. We set out these questions below and call for imaginative academics and others to answer them in a way that is informed by Liberal values and analysis. Some existing policy proposals will continue to be relevant – but it is clear too that the old policies by themselves are likely to be too timid, too inadequate and too parsimonious to meet the needs of the changed world.
This paper is offered to the Lib Dem party leadership, to the Scottish and Federal Policy Committees, to those charged with developing a new vision for the party and most of all, to party members everywhere. We hope that discussion will reveal people to do the necessary thinking and develop more ideas for them to grapple with.
New radical, innovatory ideas are required.
Liberal Values for a New Age
A healthy democracy needs core values of trust, integrity, tolerance, truth, openness and respect at the heart of its public discourse – virtues signally lacking during the Brexit debate and sadly also during the Government response to Covid 19.
But Liberal values encompass much more – based on the powerful dynamic of human rights, they focus on the public interest and a vibrant civic society; dislike of the monopoly power held by global companies; our trusteeship of the planet and of the world’s resources – physical, intellectual and of people; a belief that everyone regardless of background should have the fullest opportunity to fulfil their potential in life; and that social justice must be a prime motor for re-engineering the economy. When we talk of sustainability, we mean too a burning desire to avert the climate crisis and the careless destruction of the physical and biological ecology of our planet.
The Alston Report had already identified how poverty and a harsh public ethos has fractured the post-war social contract and embedded gross inequality in our society. Coronavirus was experienced by rich and poor in very different ways – many of those fighting the disease and maintaining frontline services are amongst the worst paid in society; the impact of lockdown both in Britain and even more so in 3rd world countries was greatest on the economically disadvantaged.
Our welfare system has provided only a weak safety net for people in crisis or difficulty. Our economic system provides neither a “strong and sustainable economy ..which works to the benefit of all with a just distribution of the rewards of success” nor “the widest possible distribution of wealth”, nor a society where “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
Liberalism as defined by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, TH Green and LT Hobhouse is by nature about optimism and hope, of belief in young people, and of the progressive improvement of society. The liberty and responsibility we believe in require the removal of disadvantage, poverty and lack of opportunity, the enhancement of human rights and the protection of people’s economic rights as much as their civic rights. Having liberty, or rights, becomes meaningful only when the conditions are in place for the exercise of those rights. And such liberty is not merely an end in itself, but a means by which a person may exercise a full range of capabilities in a rounded life. This is the philosophical basis of the civic capitalism and of the new social contract which we demand after the crisis.
The Crisis Response and Lifestyle Changes
National governments have an over-riding responsibility to provide security for their citizens. The British and Scottish Governments were badly prepared, slow into lockdown, dithered badly over the procurement of adequate PPE and testing facilities, and suffered from a lack of resilience in public and private services. Spending cuts had damaged preparations for a pandemic. A Public Enquiry is vital.
Better disaster planning and readiness for future pandemics and other crises will be vital – including a greater national and local ability of UK manufacturers to switch into making the necessary PPE or other equipment and a greater fleetness of foot by government in finding new ways to do things. There has to be surplus capacity in the system – in health, education, procurement - to cope with crisis – and that extra capacity also allows for better day to day management of services outwith crisis. We have much to learn from other countries – Germany in respect of hospital capacity, Greece in terms of containment, and so on.
Crises also require strong collective action led by government but much of which is actioned at local level. The crisis threw up a lack of information as to the capacity of local businesses to respond to and supply necessary equipment, particularly PPE. Many companies were unable to obtain certification of quality, lacked the ability or expertise to adapt or could not supply in bulk. It is questionable too whether full advantage was taken of our network of Universities and Colleges and their laboratory and research capacity.
Further, the changes in the economy which will happen in consequence of Covid 19 will need a local response, not just in training and advice but in job creation, business formation and enterprise requiring reconsideration of the role of the Enterprise Companies and an expansion of the powers, resources and skills of local government in particular. Do we need the business equivalent of the Domesday Book to establish a register of local businesses, their potential, research capacity and support needs?
The coronavirus crisis has also caused major changes in lifestyle, community response and community planning – some temporary, some long-term. These need to be reflected in our public policy and planning frameworks.
What is the future shape of work, exchange and personal life?
The continued need for social distancing is leading to more home working, a further move from cash to contactless cards, more challenges to our traditional town centres, a greater focus on home delivery from supermarkets and local shops alike and a move away from public transport to both more walking and cycling and greater car use. Large companies are realizing that they can conduct their businesses almost as well without large headquarters staff and buildings.
Home working will clearly increase. It is cheaper for businesses and some people like the slower pace of life with more time for children and no mad rush to get out in the morning. There may be fewer meetings in London or abroad and more teleconferencing - and perhaps more mask wearing in public and at work.
Reduced emissions, less travel and reduced movement of goods and more flexible work practices are amongst the benign by-products of the pandemic. There are opportunities here as well as problems – for local shops and specialist suppliers to take back a share of the market from the big supermarkets, for more co-operative ventures and social enterprises, for different models of pubs and restaurants, for restoring more streets to communities by the creation of dedicated safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists including by the reallocation of road space. A major challenge will be how to maintain an effective public transport network and create better opportunities for pedestrians and cyclists after the pandemic. The idea of the 15 minute city is taking off – that every neighbourhood should be able to fulfill our basic needs - living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying - within a 15 minute walk or bike ride.
There is potential for a radical re-think for how we plan our town centres, work, live and travel, particularly in urban areas, with less of a focus on cars and more on places where people live. Many people will want to be more self sufficient and prepared for future disasters.
The community and volunteer response to the crisis has been remarkable and the supply of volunteers has usually far exceeded the demands for help. How can the new enthusiasm and civic commitment (partly assisted by more available time during lockdown) be harnessed for the future?
What are the public policy implications of this? How can we best support trends which help to tackle climate change, support social justice and lead to greater wellbeing in society?
Question One – What opportunities exist to develop new lifestyles that better enable people to develop their own potential?
A Society that values People - A New Social Contract
Our welfare system provides only a weak safety net for people in crisis or difficulty. Our economic system provides neither a “strong and sustainable economy ..which works to the benefit of all with a just distribution of the rewards of success” nor “the widest possible distribution of wealth”, nor a society where “no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
Many families routinely operate with little or no margin of security - in food, finance or wellbeing. A fifth of UK adults have savings of less than £100. Britain’s economy remains regionally unequal and deeply unbalanced, and many firms were weak even before the dislocations of Brexit and coronavirus. Food banks and people sleeping on the streets should not be required in any decent civilisation.
Many people feel that the old social contract has broken down and that the State no longer delivers security and the conditions of a decent life in exchange for our obedience as citizens. If there is a will, we are rich enough to secure to our citizens the necessities of life.
Question Two – How can we deliver a more Liberal, more equitable, more sustainable society – where basic rights to food, decent housing, medicine, basic income and full opportunity in life are guaranteed - a new Social Contract between government and people?
The central issue is to provide a living income for all families. A successful basic or minimum income scheme should be comprehensive, non-conditional and non means-tested at the point of success. It could slash bureaucratic costs, entrench rising minimum wages, tie in with fundamental reform of universal benefits and ensure that the public purse did not subsidise low wages (as with Labour’s family credits).
Immense changes in public attitudes and health professional practice have occurred overnight – including drastically shrunken attendances at GP practices and A & E, a new emphasis on the local pharmacy, more triage, more focused medical research and more emphasis on personal responsibility for health and wellbeing. The traditional NHS was already creaking at the seams, damaged by the Lansley reforms, thrown off course by winter spikes in healthcare needs, and struggling to maintain services. The response to the crisis has been recognised as heavily influenced by lifestyle, income, socio-economic considerations and underlying ailments – the newly discovered “vulnerable group” – and ethnicity.
Our public health system is too fragile and needs to become more resilient and flexible while the grim toll of deaths in care homes and the focus on the work of home carers has thrown up another set of issues around elderly care – particularly balancing traditional home care with an effective home meals service and tackling the growing problem of loneliness.
Mental health challenges will almost certainly become more acute with a growth in agoraphobia, loneliness, and financial worries and people reluctant to return to work/school/public transport/shops because of fear of infection. This too will require new thinking.
There is a clear case now to evaluate what has happened and where it goes in terms of NHS reform –
Question Three - should we be moving to an innovative Wellbeing NHS and if so, how?
Education and childcare will raise new problems, particularly in its links with workforce planning. A need for social isolation at work and school, the loss of grandparents remaining in isolation and unavailable for childcare, and the demands of transition at the end of the lockdown raise immensely complex issues for personal lifestyle, state policy and the economy. The lockdown is unlikely to have assisted the more vulnerable children – looked after children, those with less structured or supportive parents, children with disabilities or additional educational needs.
There will be a greater emphasis on play, outdoor learning and problem-solving skills, stimulating children to use their imaginations - perhaps a move to a later school start as in Scandinavia
The education system will have to adapt to changed working practices – more home working, more IT to support children’s learning more generally (the UK seems to lag behind other countries in having comprehensive home lessons available), perhaps staggered school days.
There will be a range of new opportunities as well as challenges after the crisis – for business, for family life, for entrepreneurs, for young people. It will be a major task for politicians to ensure that the new society provides fair and exciting opportunities and life chances for everyone. It may be that there will be a growth in the creative sector and in ideas as people have more time to think, explore new hobbies and learn new skills.
Question Four – How can we build a “Future Opportunity Country”?
Re-starting and re-engineering the Economy – a new civic capitalism
We need not just to re-start the economy but to re-shape it – but what sort of economy do we want to see developing after the crisis and how should it work? We need to guarantee adequate childcare, protect against sound businesses failing, keep people safe and rebalance the economy to take account of major structural changes.
The economic orthodoxy of the last 40 years has failed. The ideas of Friedman, Hayek, and other so called “neo-liberal” (actually neo-conservative) economists have brought us the 2008 crash, austerity, sluggish recovery and massive inequality.
It is time for Liberals to make a clean break with such thinking and to work out how to re-build our economy so that it works in the interests of an equitable society rather than just in the interest of the super-rich. We need, as Ian Kearns argues, “a new civic capitalism that is shaped to pursue public interest goals”. Fortunately there are economists who think beyond the failed orthodoxies. We should take account of writers such as Amartya Sen, Ha-Joon Chang, Nick Hanauer, Naomi Klein and Joseph Stiglitz, who can show us new ways of thinking, as Keynes and Beveridge did 80 years ago.
Can the economy be rapidly re-started by a programme of construction and improvement works in our communities? Re-painting railings, fences and balconies, resurfacing pavements and footpaths, supporting community groups in improving local environments, planting flowers in parks and open spaces, refreshing shop frontages and public buildings – all will help to boost morale after the crisis and will offer employment quickly – backing people to brighten our local communities!
We must also recalibrate work, wealth and reward and build a more equal and equitable society – the public have recognised that the NHS, care workers, refuse collectors, postal and delivery workers, supermarket and front line service staff are more crucial to life than hedge fund managers or gamblers on financial services. A succession of large companies have been run for the benefit of executives rather than stakeholders, and where obscene “rewards” have been paid to people who had no real long-term interest in the success of the company, and who sucked resources out of businesses until they collapsed. Remuneration needs to be altered accordingly – and fast! And there must be no question of dividends being paid until company pension funds are in surplus.
Reform of company law and structures to better protect against anti-competitive takeovers which damage good companies and are not in the public interest is also something long pressed by Liberal Democrats. Large corporate organisations are a legal construct, enabled to derive huge wealth and power by their limited liability status. It is time to review the terms of the social contract with such commercial entities to ensure that it serves the general interest. We should also re-examine whether there is a need for greater central bank regulation of commercial banks and their lending policies.
There is a strong argument that business support should only be provided where companies are tax payers, not making disproportionate dividend payments, have company governance worker structures in place and are actively involved in reducing Climate Crisis impacts. Public aims of this kind would be strengthened by the longstanding Liberal policy of requiring workforce partnership, not least through employee share ownership. The government (that is, you and me) has paid huge amounts to businesses to keep them afloat during the crisis - and rightly so. What return shall we see on our investment? How can we avoid the old trap of public risk and private profit?
The financial sector needs much tighter regulation, and more effective prosecution of wrong-doing. There is no justice in a system which penalises a fraudulent benefits claim of £1,000 but applies no penalty to those who implement policies which lead to the collapse of a bank to the cost of many millions. How do we put this right?
Quantitative easing in 2008 was a magic money tree used mainly to support the value of investments such as shares and government bonds and in effect to increase the wealth of the super rich. Vince Cable has suggested that the resources released by Q.E. could be invested instead in communities, co-operatives, and other uses with a social value. How could this be done? Could it indeed kick-start a minimum income guarantee or basic income scheme?
The UK economy is unbalanced by its reliance on financial services – often linked to money laundering and tax avoidance facilitated by UK “Crown dependency” tax havens. These things are obstacles to secure, long-term growth. They do little for the poorer members of society, inflate London at the cost of the rest of the UK, and militate against the growth of businesses that do useful things and employ numbers of people doing them.
Question Five – How can we build an economy that is more balanced, and rests to a greater extent on productive work? How can we re-shape the economy so that it serves the interests of social justice?
Climate Change and International Partnership
Climate change is far more a threat to life, let alone our way of life than Covid 19. The skies are largely empty now and the world’s economy on pause. The result is an unexpected, though modest, bonus for the world’s climate structures.
How can we build on this and put ramping up the climate change response at the core of the re-engineered economy? It is time to be much more ambitious in creating smarter, climate-proofed infrastructure and pursuing a sustainable low-resource circular and zero carbon economy. We require a national green recovery package that will support jobs and livelihoods that will endure. It is, arguably, the implementation of these environmental changes which needs to be radical. The ideas and intentions are already there.
Achieving zero carbon may mean zero concrete, zero fossil fuels, no HS2 or 3rd runways. It may mean resurrecting the oil, airline and car industries only under strict conditions of binding commitments to drastic cuts in carbon emissions within a short time. Infrastructure investment should be on projects like tidal power and new rail technology like the Hyperloop. Ongoing growth of GDP doesn’t work for the future which requires major changes in the way we live and work.
Renewable energy should lead to lower and stable energy costs but some changes will require more electricity capacity – not least the expansion in electric vehicles. Is there a need for a National Energy Authority to be established to lead the process and ensure security of supply?
The emergency response has been more complicated because food and other necessities come from all over and manufacture is all interconnected. Is globalism a dangerous cul de sac and, if so, is there an alternative based on a more regional concept of food production, banking organization and manufacturing supply chains? Or is the danger in fact a retreat into narrow nationalism? The UN Secretary-General has warned that the response to Covid-19 has been weakened by a lack of international co-operation and international leadership.
But instead we have Brexit, a fragmentation of international partnerships and a move to purely national solutions. A potential deep recession following the pandemic could bankrupt many firms and lead to millions of unemployed, angry people. It is realistically predicted that this could lead to a rise in nationalism, populism, protectionism and new waves of migration, breeding instability, fragile states and international conflict.
For Liberals, does this mean a change in our approach to free trade and globalism? The consideration of trade and economic activity has not historically looked at the “hidden” costs. We have reduced our CO2 impact in the UK by exporting our manufacturing to China and other countries – creating not only environmental costs but also human rights issues.
Can we construct an overarching free trade structure which is nevertheless focused on more local self-sufficiency, on local and regional food and economic chains, saving air-miles, making local responses to crises more robust, supporting local industry?
It cannot be desirable that the way out of a shortage of PPE is 10 plane loads of equipment from Shanghai rather than to have local manufacturing capacity. The same must apply even more so to the situation in 3rd world countries. Has globalism become a damaging and unsustainable economic system in its present form?
The holiday industry and air travel have taken knocks from which many may not recover. Many people will shy away from long distance travel, particularly air and cruise travel, because of perceived health risks. People may well want to use their cars more rather than risking the infection perils of overcrowded trains, buses and tubes. Many companies will operate by teleconference rather than personal and tiring attendance in person at international meetings - but the crisis has shown up the fragility of the broadband and wifi infrastructure which need to be strengthened.
How can we achieve not only a generous and well-focused aid budget, but also trade policies that contribute meaningfully to international development and the welfare of poorer populations. How can we develop more robust international institutions which can tackle global challenges and stresses. There is an urgent need for international co-operation and solutions.
Question Six – How can our new economic system must recognize the inter-connectedness of the world. What is the correct balance between internationalism and localism?
Paying for it
The bill for the costs of the crisis and the shutdown has to be paid and the economy restarted (and redesigned). We would in addition like to deliver a new social contract for our country, deal better with personal life debt commitments (childcare, mortgages, university tuition, pensions and elderly care), and invest in the “future opportunity” country. The new society needs to offer an equitable deal to all sections of the community. Higher taxes will be needed; but the improved services these enable will benefit our children and grandchildren as well as ourselves.
Coronavirus has created a huge and unprecedented challenge with a shock to the economy that vastly exceeds the great Depression. It seems likely that the crisis will have caused both the UK and the world economies to crash by upwards of 25%, resulting in much reduced state revenues and increased expenditures. There are also warnings of a consequent longer term depression.
The people, businesses, assets, expertise and demands are still there though, albeit burdened by changing needs and sometimes by crippling debts created by the lockdown. The Government has taken much of this cost/debt onto the public balance sheet as a national liability.
Can the public support costs of the crisis and its aftermath be quarantined in some way to avoid the burden of debt crippling the economy and the state finances – and to enable businesses to restart without the burden of “crisis” debt? Should there be a new international agreement or framework on acceptable levels of government borrowing in the new world we are in? How can we avoid the old trap of public risk and private profit? Are there options like a state equity interest in firms to whom it has lent money or a Sovereign Wealth fund built on the quarantined debt? How can we ensure that necessary government investment tackles broader social objectives like tackling social inequality and Climate Change?
The new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in a keynote speech, has memorably called for a new Marshall Plan for the EU (financed by the EU Budget).
Beyond the issue of the huge but short-term cost of the crisis, how can we pay for the longer-term requirements? Options include growing the economy to produce more revenue, inflating the currency to reduce the real value of the debt, quantitative easing, higher rates of personal tax, taxing spending, taxing wealth, borrowing and harnessing private investment effectively. Personal taxes range from relatively low rates in the USA or UK to significantly higher ones in Scandinavian countries which provide more generous schemes of pension and social security provision. Is there an appetite in the UK for such a step change?
How significant a contribution can taxation of wealth make and, in a global economy, how can it best be got at? We should look at an excess profits tax on those who have done well out of the crisis, at collecting fair tax from those who trade in Britain but declare their profits elsewhere, or taxing wealth both on an equitable basis with income, and in ways which gets at uncovenanted wealth created by community and economic activity.
These are hugely complex issues. Some measures might be justified on equity grounds but might damage economic recovery. Too heavy taxation overall or in the wrong place could inhibit investment and growth. There will be huge pressure to go back to the status quo as against building a new economy. Financial services are very important to the UK economy (and tax take) but are damaging to regional balance, democracy and equality. You can’t take extra taxes off companies which are loss-making. How do you build in an enhanced response to the climate crisis?
This challenge needs Keynes-Plus remedies and structures if it is not to lead to a generation of national poverty.
Question Seven – How can we ensure that the costs of paying for the crisis are met fairly across society, with those who have the broadest shoulders bearing the greatest load?
The Dark Economy – organized crime and its victims
Covid 19 is believed to have caused a major fall in the activities of the dark economy which creates a specific opportunity to tackle its evils on a longer term basis. Drug smuggling and distribution, people trafficking and money-laundering are hugely profitable and untaxed occupations, which leave unspeakable human misery in their trail. They can exist only where authority turns a blind eye or prosecutes only the little people. London is said to be the money-laundering capital of the world. Large banks are known to be involved but apparently no individuals are responsible. Political parties routinely promise to crack down on money laundering but repeatedly fail to do so when elected.
People trafficking, money laundering, drugs and other aspects of organized crime are brought together in prostitution and the trafficking of women. Mostly, prostitution is hidden in plain sight. Although some is still on street, over 90% takes place indoors, is controlled by a pimp, and is advertised on websites from outside the UK. Women and girls are trafficked both from abroad and from within the UK to meet the demand from buyers.
Much of prostitution is controlled by organised gangs who can make and launder a lot of money through this trade. In a 2017 BBC documentary exposed the trafficking of young teenage girls from Slovakia into Govanhill. It was estimated that just this one operation earned the traffickers £500,000 in one year.
The sex trade is about power and exploitation and male entitlement to sexual services and is fundamentally illiberal. Research has shown that 9 out of 10 women do not want to be in prostitution; most women who are involved have little or no choice at all. The Swedish approach of decriminalising the sellers, criminalising the buyers, and helping women to exit has proven to be extremely successful. The risk of being exposed to wives and colleagues has proved to be a highly effective deterrent. In Sweden, not only have the numbers of women in prostitution fallen exponentially, but so have the criminal gangs. The latest news from Germany is that their response to Covid-19 is to never reopen their brothels again.
Organized sex trading enables money laundering. It relies on people trafficking and often on drugs. Those who profit from it seem immune from prosecution.
Question Eight – Why is no effective action taken against money laundering, people trafficking, sex trading, and wholesale drug import and distribution? What effective methods are available to ensure successful prosecution and sanctions on those who profit from human misery in this way, seize the illicit profits made by the dark economy and drive it out of business?
A Better way of doing Politics - A new Democracy
There has been a crisis of democracy in recent years - marked by reduced confidence in political and social elites and brought to a head by the independence and Brexit referenda, the banking crash and austerity. It is based on a sense of loss of job security, of work status, of income levels, people’s sense that they are not being heard, loss of their place in the world.
The coronavirus crisis demonstrated a new, more confident approach to devolution by the leaders of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which will have significant implications for the future – but it showed also the necessity and the value of strong relationships and partnership across the United Kingdom and of the level of resources the UK could bring to bear. An interesting trend was the emergence in both Britain and the USA of state or regional leaders – like Gavin Newsom in California, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, or Andy Burnham in Manchester – to fill the gap left by deficiencies in national or federal leadership.
We need a better way of doing politics in the United Kingdom. Politics needs a new tone – more respectful, more engaging and inspiring, more long term. It should be based on a revived concept of citizenship which doesn’t just declare arcane constitutional principles but is modern, inclusive and based on community re-empowerment. Our country would benefit from institutions that could attract a higher calibre of representatives at all levels. The way in which politics is conducted just now elevates the mediocre and deters the talented. To what extent is this a function of the way political life is reported, and of unacceptable forms of commentary particularly on social media?
There is a natural tendency to give leeway to the Government during a major national crisis but there has nevertheless been a collective failure by politicians and the media to hold government to account for decisions when it mattered - salvaged by the coruscating Sunday Times article on the background to and failures of the Government response. The failures of government across the 4 nations on PPE procurement, testing and care home deaths have not been pinned down.
Another phenomenon is the “journalism of fear” – the way in which news is presented through a prism of emotionalism. “Infectious disease is a gift to the politics of fear”. The result, magnified by social media, is an array of parallel realities in which serious criticism or analysis of government action is muted and diluted.
The lockdown has been extremely harmful to the circulation and revenue of local newspapers, the loss of which would be damaging to local democracy in particular.
Openness and transparency are integral and not appendages to a healthy and well functioning society and include the collection, ownership, publication and use of individual data. Data ownership, access and control, the data companies are unregulated and largely untaxed. The time is overdue for a robust framework to curtail the influence of corporate lobbying and vested interests in our democratic system.
In order to heal the rift between government and society, we need more constructive links between them, including a better appreciation of the role of local community. But foremost, perhaps, is the issue of trust. There is evidence that the prime minister and some of his ministers are mendacious. Authority can only be legitimate when it is seen to be honest. When it is, leadership is effective and countries work better in themselves and with each other. Legitimate authority is only possible where people feel comfortable in political structures and when they feel powerful enough to have some influence on events.
Question Nine – Trust, accountability, reporting and behaviour in politics have become more and more dysfunctional. Personal data is largely unprotected. Are there ways to limit these trends and stem the drift towards autocracy?
Scotland, Britain and the world
The crisis provides an opportunity for a new start for the United Kingdom too. A federal United Kingdom is an attractive way to harness our sense of national unity whilst simultaneously reflecting the identities of the nations and regions of Britain. It would allow an end to Whitehall centralisation and even more so, the mindset that goes with it, replaced by a constitution where the UK’s nations and regions are of equal status to Westminster, not subordinate to it. The nettle of English devolution must be grasped. Can a model of regional government be developed appropriate to the needs of England and attractive to English voters? Can we develop workable federal proposals and ensure they have political traction to deliver practical arrangements which enhance the government and democracy both of the nations and regions and of the whole UK?
British tax-haven territories should be invited to become member states of the UK in the same fashion as Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. We should have one class of citizen, one framework of democratic representation, and one system of taxation for us all – with their status as tax-havens under the cloak of British sovereignty being phased out.
The converse of federalism and decentralisation is international partnership. Brexit remains a supreme act of national folly with clear and damaging downsides. The aim now must be to help recreate international partnerships and reinvigorate international organisations; ending international lawlessness; a new deal for the peoples of the Third World – some third world countries have had huge problems in delivering lockdown without causing starvation and disease.
There is also the urgent and difficult task of reaching international agreement on what are acceptable levels of government borrowing in the new circumstances.
There has been a deficit in world leadership, most obviously in the isolationist USA, but affecting many institutions. Despite Ursula Von der Leyen’s magnificent lead, the EU did not fulfill its potential, following other issues like the Greek banking collapse and the migration issue. There remains a fundamental north/south tension at the heart of Europe. The United Nations is punching below its weight.
The crisis has seen an unprecedented restriction of civil liberties, arguably greater than in wartime. Public shaming of people on social media, over-diligent police exercise of powers, the use of drones to monitor behaviour, blanket prohibitions and the potential for surveillance and curbs on freedom based on the contact tracing app or on whether you have had antibodies or not should raise many concerns. Liberal Democrats should be at the forefront of making sure that human rights and liberty are taken properly into account
The Public Realm and The Role of the State
For 40 years, neo-conservative ideas have dominated, based on shrinking the state, outsourcing public services, making civil servants into agencies and changing the ethos to one based on competition not a public ethos.
It is time to reclaim the importance of the public realm and of civic virtues in public administration. This might include putting the public or general interest at the heart of government, abolishing the numerous agencies, quangos and outsourced services which have undermined public services and establishing a flatter pay structure in central and local government which values key staff appropriately and does not link top executive salaries to those in the commercial world.
Question Ten – What structures will best enable Scotland and the UK to develop in a way which provides civil liberties and new opportunities for their people, while playing a benign and positive part in the wider world?
The political system can be resistant to radical changes in thinking and policy. Our Party is not immune from this but our philosophy should more readily prompt new thinking. Even in our dark days, we attracted major thinkers to our cause. The challenges thrown up by coronavirus require inspiring, courageous and industrious political leadership.
Both at Federal and Scottish level, there is a clear desire for new thinking. There is a broad consensus that the Party needs a radical programme which voters can relate to - big ideas which will improve people’s lives, not just tinkering with the minutiae of policy – a campaign and a cause rather than a manifesto.
The Party has struggled to shake off the disastrous political legacy of the Coalition. Liberal Democrats in the Coalition had a number of significant achievements but are stuck with the public view that the Party were cheer-leaders for austerity and sold our souls to facilitate some nasty Conservative policies. A clear break with the neo-conservative, austerity agenda would go a long way to re-establish our position on the radical centre-left of politics and to reclaim the Liberal Democrats for the people.
Our initial Liberal Futures paper “After the Crisis” was well-received and benefitted from constructive comment and input from many people which suggests the party membership are eager – indeed desperate – for innovative and inspiring big ideas.
It has since been extensively revised and rewritten in the light of helpful contributions received from many people, to set out more clearly our approach and ideas, the potential for building a better Scotland and a better Britain from the chaos of crisis, and to pose the questions we want to ask sympathetic academics and other experts to consider.
We want to see the Party developing think-tank or other research capability to take forward these ideas and translate them into practical programmes we can deliver in government. We want to help create a major discussion at every level of the Party and fire it with campaigning zeal to promote the ideas of a new social contract and civic capitalism.
However the support of the Party leadership for this direction of travel is also crucial and there are a number of developments at leadership level, both federal and Scottish which we welcome.
Our main proposition is that the Party should harness the talents of innovative Liberal-minded thinkers to develop themes, ideas or programmes to meet the scale of the challenge. We suggested the establishment of up to three panels:
- An “After the Crisis” expert panel - to develop a new Social Charter guaranteeing basic rights to food, shelter, medicine, basic income and full opportunity in life
- A panel of economists - to produce the modern equivalent of the Marshal Plan on how to pay for it and invest in the future “opportunity country” without unduly burdening future generations
- A panel of epidemiologists, health planners and other appropriate experts – to produce a plan for a flexible, responsive, comprehensive and properly funded National Health & Wellbeing Service
There are of course other possible arrangements – but, whatever the structure, we need people who understand these issues to do heavy-duty thinking - to provide the ideas and policies and engage with politicians on the practicalities, and to provide the Liberal Democrats with the intellectual cutting edge the Party had in the days of Beveridge, Keynes and Grimond.
We have tried to pin down some of the questions and identify some tentative directions of travel which we hope are helpful – but comment on our initial short paper has already thrown up new angles and suggestions which we had not thought of or developed properly. There is inevitably a tension between an invitation to do blue skies thinking, being too prescriptive on the questions and providing the answers in advance. This should be a dynamic tension which we believe is better than offering a blank sheet of paper.
There is a huge opportunity – and a duty – for Liberal Democrats to rise to these challenges and offer innovative and attractive programmes to meet them, based on timeless Liberal values and analysis brought to bear on the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis. The world has changed and so must we! We ask our party leadership to take up the ideas in this paper, and we ask party members everywhere to continue the debate on these ideas.
Robert Brown & Nigel Lindsay – Liberal Futures (May 2020)
 Report of the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights on his visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, April 2019 - https://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/39/Add.1
 Ian Kearns – “Am I a Liberal” – Social Liberal Forum 2019
 Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution
 Preamble to the Liberal Democrat Constitution
 Sunday Times 19th April 2020 – Coronavirus: 38 Days when Britain sleepwalked into disaster