Welcome to Shifting Grounds, a blog devoted to discussing and advocating a new politics of the common good.
We join a crowded field, but come with a distinctive message: the political and economic settlement of the last three decades is broken beyond repair and the defining task of the age must be to create a new settlement based on stronger foundations and better values. Anything less will condemn Britain to recurring crisis and long-term decline.
More than three years on from the financial crash, the implications of the recession have yet to be fully absorbed, even as its destructive effects continue to reverberate. What many seem determined to treat as just another downturn of the economic cycle, requiring minimal reform and a bit of fine tuning, is in reality the product of deep structural flaws that call for major changes to the established order.
We have lived through an era of widening inequalities and collapsing social mobility, of excess at the top combined with wage stagnation for the majority, of material reward detached from any reasonable notion of merit, of enormous speculative bubbles followed by bust – all on the promise of economic gains that to a large extent have proved illusory.
But this misallocation of our national wealth is more than just a by-product of an economy gone wrong. It is also one of the principal underlying causes of its instability and tendency towards crisis. It has rewarded and incentivised short-term speculation over long-term productive investment, it has drawn spending power from the pockets of consumers and replaced it with unsustainable levels of household debt, and it has saddled public budgets and taxpayers with the costs of social failure.
Another part of its destructive legacy has been the undermining of our national values. We have allowed wealth to become its own justification, declaring off-limits any debate about the way it is generated and distributed, and whether it serves the wider interests of society. In doing so we have created an ethical vacuum in which a spirit of irresponsible and acquisitive individualism has been allowed to run riot, metaphorically and sometimes literally. The result has been a take-what-you-can society of broken banks and broken shop windows.
An ideology that celebrates selfishness and denigrates the common good has been the moral and financial ruin of Britain. The change we therefore need cannot just be a matter of rebalancing our economy in a narrow, technical sense. It also requires a rebalancing of the values that underpin it to ensure that the public interest is restored to a central place in the economic and political life of the nation. It means that commercial objectives should be framed by values such as community, social justice and public responsibility. It means that real priority must be given to the long-term sustainability of our environment. It means putting an end to glaring inequalities of wealth and status in order to create a society in which people are, in Tawney’s phrase, within reach of each other. These are the goals to which Shifting Grounds is dedicated.
It is our contention that we have reached a pivotal moment in British history, comparable in scale to the events that gave rise to the Keynesian welfare state or the emergence of Thatcherism. It is in the nature of these moments that the ideas that give shape to the future have to be made against the grain of established opinion. Initially they meet with resistance, scepticism and often ridicule because the elites are heavily invested in the status quo and see change as a threat to their interests. It is at times like this that the parochialism of power becomes most acute. Unable to face up to what has happened, the elites reach for the familiar tools of a broken orthodoxy, prescribing bigger and bigger doses of the very thing that has brought us to the point of crisis.
The fashion for describing those who challenge the reigning ideology of market fundamentalism as “anti-capitalist” or even “anti-business” is another symptom of this elite fear and intellectual confusion. Whatever emerges to replace the old model, our economy will continue to be based primarily on markets and private property. The task is to reform capitalism in a way that reflects more faithfully the values of fairness and common decency shared by British people from across the political spectrum. It is to reward genuine entrepreneurship and separate it from the culture of rent-seeking, financial engineering and monopolistic abuse that has been allowed to undermine the best of British business.
Another important feature of moments like this is that the shifting grounds of political debate create new alignments that cut across and re-order the established boundaries of right and left. The emergence of the Labour Party a century ago drew inspiration and support not only from the radical wing of liberalism, but also from traditions on the right, such as Tory socialism. Thatcherism put down deep roots because it succeeded in drawing a significant part of the blue-collar working class vote away from Labour, albeit on a false prospectus of economic freedom.
This does not mean we accept the end of ideology, still less a sterile centrism. It means that the process by which we pass from each era to the next is more complex and fluid than the banal observation, passed off as wisdom, that political battles are fought and won on the centre ground. Where is the centre ground when Labour admits to under-regulating the banks in office and many of the most trenchant critics of irresponsible capitalism can be found among the ranks of self-declared liberals and conservatives? In the spirit of the times, Shifting Grounds will take a consciously open and heterodox approach, engaging and building alliances with those willing to make the case for a politics of the common good, whether from the left, right or centre.
We hope you enjoy Shifting Grounds. More than that, we hope it inspires you to believe that a different kind of Britain is possible and galvanises you to help bring it about.