Thursday, January 17, 2008

Dr Evan Harris MP, organ donation and presumed consent

Rod Liddle in the Spectator is in particularly fine form this week, denouncing the idea of ‘presumed consent’ for organ donations.

He remarks that the BMA and GMC that are often criticised because they:

fail to treat patients as human beings… they are viewed instead as an array of disembodied, problematic health issues; a dodgy ticker here, clogged-up lungs there and so on

My own view is that the correct liberal approach to expert opinion, whether from the medical or other professions should be one of respect for specific knowledge and expertise, but not one of uncritical deference. Even those whose job is to heal the sick will occasionally be guilty of special pleading or pursuing their own professional interests above the good of society or its citizens. Democracy is all about lay people holding experts to account on behalf of the people.

Sadly, it comes as no surprise to see that our own Lib Dem representative of the medical profession, Dr Evan Harris MP is a great enthusiast for ‘presumed consent’ and states on his website that this is Liberal Democrat policy. I confess I hadn’t realised it was party policy, and it’s depressing if unsurprising to find this out. No doubt it was snuck through in the small print of a particularly dull policy paper, or approved in a policy motion in a graveyard slot (no pun intended) at conference.

Although Evan Harris is in many ways a good egg, and there are lots of things I agree with him about, I can’t help feeling that he is only secondarily a Liberal Democrat MP, and first and foremost a Parliamentary spokesman for the BMA.

I find it depressing, too, that my own liberal views seem better represented by a wacky columnist in a right-of-centre weekly than by my party’s spokesman on science.

PS: It is possible to show scientific rigour on medical issues without becoming a mere mouthpiece for professional opinion. Ben Goldacre’s
Bad Science blog is a good example of the genre.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Nick Clegg's speech: 'free schools' may be fine but miss the point about what's wrong with our schools

My decision to spend Saturday at the Liberal Democrat conference at the LSE left me so far behind with other pressing matters that I had no time to blog.

I get the feeling that Nick Clegg's proposal for 'free schools' has gone down better with the press and bloggers than it has with the party's local government family. As at least one person pointed out on Saturday, times have moved on since the days when schools were run by overbearing and often inefficient local authorities. These days LEAs are hands-off and light-touch, often merely passporting funds from central government to schools.

These days the powers are with governors and head-teachers. One imagines that the sort of people who might want to set up their own schools are those who are already running them. In fact, from my limited experience, I think there is some danger that school governing bodies can become self-selecting cliques not really accountable to anyone for the large amount of public money they spend.

I hope, however, that the Lib Dem local government family, LGA group, ALDC etc. don't react defensively to this in a 'councillors know best', 'get off my turf' sort of way. To do so merely reinforces the negative image that some in the party and many more in the wider world have of local government. Instead, they should engage in discussion with Nick about his proposal, accepting that it is a good and Liberal idea, but pointing out its limited application.

The more I think of it, the more I realise that no matter how good the facilities, well-motivated the staff or impressive the OFSTED reports, what parents really want from schools is that their children should fit in, make nice friends and be happy. Even exam league table results are probably less important than these things.

In this part of Hertfordshire, where there is a very strong culture of parental choice, there are at least two secondary schools which, despite their glowing OFSTED plaudits, dedicated teaching staff and state of the art classrooms and sports facilities are spurned by many middle-class parents because they are seen as 'rough'. So the ideal is an academically and socially balanced intake. But it is hard to achieve this without patrician feats of social engineering, taking power away from parents and giving them to educational officials. Academic selection just provides an escape route for a few, not better outcomes for everyone. 'Selection by estate agent' is more invidious still.

Even my preferred idea of a ballot to allocate places at popular schools is no panacea, since there will still have to be catchment areas, and it will be hard to make these sufficiently demographically balanced to ensure every school has a truly comprehensive intake.

How to create an education systems that allows for diversity in provision, parental choice, a fair admission system and high quality choice is a multi-faceted problem to which I don't pretend to have the answer. 'Free schools' may well be part of the solution, but if so, I suspect they will make at best a marginal difference.

Homes of the great Liberal leaders

In a feature on famous ancestors of twenty-first century personalities, The Word magazine mentions that actress Helena Bonham-Carter has recently bought the Oxfordshire home of her great grandfather, the Liberal prime minister H.H. Asquith.

I imagine this must be The Wharf at Sutton Courtenay (pictured right). Despite his image as very much an establishment figure, Asquith came from a relatively modest middle-class background and was never particularly wealthy. Indeed, he declined the leadership of the Liberal party in 1899 in favour of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman because the need to earn his living as a barrister to support his family meant that he could not give enough time to politics.

The Wharf does not look particularly grand, but even so its upkeep was too much for Asquith's widow Margot, who sold it in the 1930s , claiming to be 'dog poor'. Call me sentimental, but I like the thought of the house being back in the family. I was saddened to see, while on holiday in the New Forest a few years ago, that Malwood, home of the nineteenth-century Liberal leader Sir William Harcourt, is now in institutional use by a utility company or similar and bears not even a plaque to mark its first owner. Campbell-Bannerman's home, Belmont Castle is now a Church of Scotland 'eventide home', although I haven't been there to see whether there is any reference to 'C-B'.

The loss to the country of Liberal prime minister Lord Rosebery's seat at Mentmore Towers, which contained one of the great collections of art and furniture in Europe, in the 1970s is testimony to the philistinism and incompetence of the Callaghan government. It is still standing and was for many years the headquarters of the Natural Law party. The other Rosebery pile, Dalmeny House on the Firth of Forth, is still lived in by the Seventh Earl, and is open to the public (although apparently closed for refurbishment during 2008).

Gladstone's home of Hawarden Castle in Flintshire is still owned by the Gladstone family, but is not open to the public, although I am lucky enough to have seen inside his study, the 'temple of peace', when I attended the 'Gladstone Umbrella' conference at St Deiniol's library (which houses Gladstone's collection of books) last summer. Lloyd George's boyhood home, Highgate, in Criccieth is part of the Lloyd George Musuem.

I doubt whether it is Helena Bonham-Carter's intention to keep The Wharf as anything other than a private home. But perhaps she might be persuaded to open it occasionally, for example for Heritage Open Days, the annual event in which properties that are normally closed to the public open their doors for one weekend. As an Asquithian, I would make the effort to go.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Activist-bashing – don't let's start!

Jonathan Calder and James Graham have each commented on the ‘anti-activist’ spin given by the Guardian to Nick Clegg’s speech on education at tomorrow’s conference.

It isn’t clear whether this angle came from the reporter or a briefing from the leader’s office but, if the latter, they should call the dogs off now unless they want to make life difficult for their boss.

Most conference delegates want to support the leader, especially a newly-elected one, and are inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt on new policy initiatives.

Furthermore, recent experience on tax, post offices, Trident etc. suggests that if the leadership treat the members properly, explain their policies, campaign on them and engage in debate inside and outside the conference, they are likely to carry the day.

The vast majority of activists will listen with an open mind to the arguments. But they don’t want their votes to be co-opted in favour of a right-wing project, nor to be blackmailed on a test of loyalty to the leadership. If their opinions are treated with respect, they are more than likely to back the leader. But if the policy proposal is presented as the leader taking on the activists, they may think, ‘Do they mean me?’, turn all difficult and vote the ‘wrong’ way.

Of course, as I often say here, there are those within the party who sometimes give the impression that their views have not moved on much since 1979. But it is unnecessary for the leadership to go out of their way to bait and antagonise them. It is one thing to put forward a policy that Tony Greaves doesn’t like, but quite another to suggest it’s a good idea because Tony Greaves won’t like it. A lot of people have a soft spot for Tony, even if we don’t agree with him.

The centre of gravity within the party is probably more collectivist than I (and probably Nick Clegg too) would like. But we don’t have a militant tendency that needs to be challenged, or if we do the majority of the activists don’t belong to it.

It’s worth remembering that one reason why David Laws was not in a position to mount a credible leadership challenge whereas Nick Clegg was, despite many similarities in their views, is that through his Orange Book chapter on health, Laws appeared to have gone out of his way to antagonise the ‘average activist’. Nick had avoided this trap, while still sounding like someone with new ideas.

In the leader’s dealings with party members, persuasion will work, confrontation will be a recipe for disaster.

But, of course, it may just have been a pesky journalist looking for an angle.

The conquest of Everest – a Liberal Democrat success?

Well not quite, and to say so would, at the very least, be anachronistic.

But Sir Edmund Hillary’s death reminds me that the leader of the successful Everest expedition in 1952, John Hunt, later Sir John Hunt, later Baron Hunt of Llanfair Waterdine, was a Liberal Democrat member.

I noticed his entry the last issue of Who’s who in the Liberal Democrats published before his death in 1998. His Wikipedia entry makes no mention of his political allegiance, but according to the Dictionary of national biography, he was ennobled in 1966, sat initially as a cross-bencher, but joined the SDP on its formation in 1981. The author of the DNB entry states:

Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing had for the first time reached the summit—now surveyed at 29,035 feet. But it was to the leader that the greatest credit was due. Even though he had personally climbed to 27,350 feet in support of the two assaults, it was his battle-hardened powers of leadership and skilful planning that assured success.

I see that Hunt published an autobiography, Life is Meeting, which is available from Amazon for little more than the price of the postage. Perhaps Nick Clegg should read it, containing as it no doubt does, wise words from a successful Liberal Democrat leader.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Free markets and their discontents (or Adam Smith versus Tim Farron)

This Saturday I’m bound for the Liberal Democrat Manifesto conference at the LSE, and as part of my preparation I have been trying to read Reinventing the State, edited by Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth, which was billed last autumn as a sort of riposte to the Orange Book.

I have to confess to finding such things heavy-going. Collections of essays by practicing politicians are rarely an exciting read, usually pulling their punches. Although the Orange Book was spun (and counter-spun) as a statement of intent by those wishing to move the party to the right, it was actually quite a dull read, with only a couple of chapters saying anything that might frighten the horses.

A copy of Reinventing the State has been sitting pristine and unopened on my bookshelf for some months, a testimony to my inner battle between support for Lib Dems thinking and writing about policy and finding at any given time that other reading matter is a little bit more appealing. To force my way through it, I have deliberately chosen the section on economics, and in particular the chapters by Paul Holmes and Tim Farron, partly because they are those that I am most likely to disagree with. In doing so I think I have learned something about the Lib Dems and economic policy, although not quite what the authors intended.

Paul Holmes’s chapter is entitled ‘The limits of the market’. In some ways it suggests to me that my own views and his are not so far apart as I thought. Holmes accepts the argument of Francis Fukuyama that the free market has ‘succeeded in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity’. But his entire article appears predicated on the assumption that there are people in the political mainstream (possibly in the Liberal Democrats) who believe that there are no limits to market forces and that all aspects of human society can be left safely to the free market.

I doubt, however, whether there are any Liberal Democrats, even David Laws, Andy Mayer et al, who would not accept the notion of market failure and support the need for state intervention in order to achieve social or political objectives. There may well be disagreement about exactly when and how the state should intervene: as provider or enabler, for example; and about how public services should be held to account: by more power to local councils or more choice for citizens or both. But I doubt whether anyone who believed absolutely in an unfettered free market would think of joining the Lib Dems, and I don’t know of anyone in the party who fits that category. It seems to me that the ‘Beveridge-ist’ argument within the party is aimed at fighting an ‘economic liberal’ phantom – a caricature that doesn’t really exist.

This is confirmed by the comments of both Holmes and Farron about that godfather of free markets, Adam Smith. Holmes describes Smith as believing that ‘the market rules unchallenged’. Farron is more forthright still, commenting:

Adam Smith was a great economist and Mrs Thatcher’s hero. His strong belief was in the inbuilt checks and balances within the free market and that any imperfections in the market would always be rectified by the ‘invisible hand’. This is of course a load of old guff.

To which he then adds:

Smith was right to observe that the market needs a hand, but it has to be the highly visible hand of the community or state.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this. Some might say that Farron has here cut through Adam Smith’s sophisticated argument with a devastating five-word rebuttal. If only the Sage of Westmoreland and Lonsdale had been around 200 years ago then the Wealth of Nations would have achieved a deserved place in the dustbin of history and the world would be better off for it.

Alternatively one might point out that Adam Smith did acknowledge the existence of market failure and the need for the state to intervene. He argued in favour of state activity for the purposes of national defence, provision of a system of justice and investment in public infrastructure. We should also remember that Smith argued in favour of higher wages for the poor and for universal education. He wrote in what was essentially a pre-capitalist era and that his arguments in favour of free markets were to a great extent directed at tackling monopolies, special privileges and attempts by merchants and employers to keep wages low and prices high.

It is for these reasons that Smith’s legacy is contested and can be an inspiration as much to the liberal centre-left as to the Thatcherite right. One is left wondering whether Farron has actually read anything by Adam Smith or even bothered to consult a standard reference book to find out what he actually wrote. Once again, we are dealing with a caricature of free market arguments, based on a misunderstanding of their origins. And yet Holmes, if not Farron, does acknowledge that the free market does bring benefits to society.

Why this need to set up a free market straw man to be knocked down? I think the reason is that the dominant political discourse over the past century has been between the collectivist, socialist left and the capitalist right. Thatcherites and Reaganites stole the rhetoric (although not necessarily the reality) of the free market. Since most, if not all, economically successful societies in the past century have been based on some form of market economy, there is little alternative for a serious political party than to support the free market. Yet it is tainted as a ‘right-wing’ notion and we are a left-of-centre party. So our support for market economics is in some eyes a rather embarrassing fact, something to be mentioned reluctantly, if at all, before passing on to other things. Those who talk too loudly and enthusiastically about the free market are to be regarded with suspicion – as neo-Thatcherites.

This then reduces debate within the party about economic policy and public service reform fears about right-wing conspiracies. All of which is a pity, for a number of reasons. First, that as a serious party we have to be concerned with how to generate the wealth that we want to use for socially-desirable objectives. Secondly, because market economics do have a progressive as well as Conservative pedigree and Liberals are entitled to a share of the credit for their success. Most importantly, name-calling and conspiracy theories stifles debate and reduces the quality of thinking within the party about both economics and public service reform.

So let us try to find what we can agree on, which I think is something like as follows. Free markets are pretty much proven to be the best way of generating wealth and prosperity. But if left unfettered they can and do have socially damaging consequences, benefiting the better-off rather more than the poor. So there needs to be government intervention in many aspects of social policy to ameliorate and overcome market failure. In both our economic and social policy we as Liberals should prioritise improving the lot of the poor, the excluded and the disempowered in order to create a prosperous and equitable society.

If we can agree on that, as I hope most Lib Dems could, then we can debate seriously, and without name-calling, exactly how and when solutions based on the market or state intervention, decentralisation of power to local authorities or greater choice for consumers, are most appropriate in achieving Liberal objectives.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

My late eight for '08

At the end of December I was named by Liberal England in the 'eight wishes for 2008' meme.

It's a little late, but still early enough in the new year to give my list.

1. Success for the Liberal Democrats in the May local elections in Watford and elsewhere.

2. Success too for the various sports teams that I follow - promotion for Watford, Montrose and Dundee football teams and London Scottish rugby, and some sign of emergence from the doldrums for Coventry City FC and at rugby for Coventry and Nuneaton.

3. Scotland to win the Calcutta Cup.

4. Some sign that under Nick Clegg the Liberal Democrats will be more distincively Liberal, and less grandmotherly on social and lifestyle issues (smoking, drinking gambling etc.)

5. For those Lib Dems who disavow the term 'economic Liberal' to say what sort of economic policy we should have. Then at least there can be a debate.

6. For Watford's new swimming pools/leisure centres (currently under construction) to open and to have a swim in each of them.

7. To complete my Phd thesis (or at least a first draft)

8. To avoid being deleted from the Liberal England blogroll.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Clegg, commercials and children's TV

With the Christmas and New Year haze lifting, I have some quick catching up to do. So here goes: ‘Congratulations, Nick, well done! I’m sure you’ll be a great leader, but what’s all this nonsense about restricting advertising aimed at children?'

One of the themes of this blog has been the contradiction between the Lib Dems’ oft-expressed commitment to individual liberty in the abstract and the enthusiastic support that the party gives in practice to banning things or activities (see fox hunting, smoking in public places, goldfish as fairground prizes etc. ad nauseam). Such a disjunction hinders the party’s attempts to create a coherent narrative – are we instinctive libertarians or health’n’safety fascists?

It would no doubt make the Lib Dems seem cranky if we were to mount noisy campaigns in defence of the right to smoke in public etc. But Liberal Democrats should at least not be in the vanguard of calls for restrictions on personal choice and liberty. Indeed I recall a rising star of the party saying as much at a conference fringe meeting a couple of years ago. He said that our role on such issues should be sceptical and questioning of the need for things to be banned. I was quite impressed by this and went on to vote for this person to be party leader, a post he now holds.

So where has this ban on advertising at children come from and why is it prominent in Nick’s new year message? According to Paul Walter (to whom thanks for drawing my attention to this), it’s not party policy and my only recollection of it being mentioned in the campaign was as an off-the-cuff response to a question at an interview with Lib Dem bloggers.

I should say that on the issue itself I have some sympathy with Nick. I find advertising aimed at getting children to emotionally blackmail their parents rather distasteful. If I were the sort of person who wanted to ban things, this is the sort of thing I would want to ban. But following my own wish for the party to have a coherent narrative and preferring the view of Clegg the rising star to that of Clegg the leader on this issue, I will follow the former’s injunction to be sceptical and offer the following concerns about this proposal.

First, it would another example of the state usurping the role of parents and undermining their authority in looking after their children. It’s part of a parent’s allotted role to have to tell their children that they can’t do everything, watch everything or have everything they might wish. Sometimes parents will feel mean in saying no, but it goes with the job. It’s not really very liberal to say parents aren’t fit to decide what to let their children watch and what to buy them, so the state must step in and decide for them.

Second, presumably a significant proportion of commercial children’s television is paid for by advertising. If advertisements shown during children’s television programmes can no longer be aimed at the viewers of said programmes, there is a risk that broadcasters will no longer consider it worthwhile to provide programmes or channels for children. Maybe that is no bad thing. I don’t watch children’s television so I don’t know whether the programmes are any good. But a ban on advertising is likely to mean less television for children.

Third, it might be harder than one might think to decide what is advertising aimed at children and what at adults or whole families. Advertisements that seem to say, ‘You’re not a proper family if you don’t take your kids out for burger, fries and fizzy drinks every other day’ are clearly not good. What about mars bars, or computer games, or family cars? I suspect a ban would not be quite that simple.

Finally, the essential problem won’t go away, just because a certain type of advertisement is banned. Children will still pester parents for stuff – not perhaps stuff seen in advertisements, but stuff featured in TV programmes, stuff they read about in books and magazines, stuff their friends have etc. So the ban won’t actually solve the problem, which is a wider one in society about the undermining of parental confidence how to bring up their children.

So, Nick, please drop this one quickly. If you are trying to promote a liberal vision, why take a stand on a policy position which, while not exactly illiberal, has rather dubious liberal credentials and appears to conflict with our wider message?