Polemics weekend: 9/10 Apr 16

2016-04-10 16.02.40 cropTwice a year we get the Cambridge Literary Festival. It is what is says, a literary festival, and showcases lots of authors talking about their books. Some of these are political and I attended two this weekend which were complementary and fronted by people with strong views which they’re comfortable promoting. You might say they’re polemicists.

Number 1 was Saturday morning and that was George Monbiot. He spoke impressively without notes for a good half hour. His main thesis was that the world needs a new economic theory. He noted that Keynesianism had served the world well from the 30s until the 70s of the last century and that neo-liberalism has since then taken hold and was now failing. His other thesis was that neo-liberalism had taken over by stealth and was the cause for much of what’s wrong with the world today from income disparity on the one hand to environmental disasters on the other. George said that a new theory was being developed and should see the light of day next year. Given its likely origin we can expect it to be strong on the issue of the environment and climate change.

What’s surprising is that neo-liberalism is well nigh universal and applies as much in China as it does in the USA. I can see the impact which it has just about everywhere and wonder if there aren’t some countries with elements of policies which might suit the future. Two come to mind: Singapore and Cuba. Both are ‘benign dictatorships’, although very different from each other, and both have succeeded despite access to limited resources. Singapore’s success is more visible of course but Cuba has delivered world class education and health and social care despite being starved of external resource (its own fault you might say). So maybe there will be something in the new theory about living within one’s means.

Sunday afternoon and it was time for polemicist number 2: Owen Jones in conversation with Ken Livingstone who maybe counts as number 3. Owen unfortunately gets into monologue mode rather easily and as a result we got a little less of Ken which I would have liked more of, he was especially passionate on the  threat of climate change, and rather less time given over to the audience. But full marks to Owen for not accepting questions from an earlier heckler.

Owen’s thesis was that the UK had had 2 signal election results and it was time for a third. The first was 1945 and led to the Attlee Labour government and to the reforms which it implemented and were later consolidated by both subsequent Labour and Tory governments. The second was 1979 when Margaret Thatcher won for the first time and resulted in the implementation of ever more neo-liberal policies although we didn’t call them that then. And in the same way that Tory prime ministers like MacMillan reinforced Attlee’s work this time it was Tony Blair carrying on where Thatcher left off.

It’s another persuasive argument but of course the new government that Owen and Ken wish for is one based on Jeremy Corbyn so that I felt as the event progressed more and more like I was attending some sort of old Labour revivalist meeting. But full marks to both of them for their unequivocal support of the EU and for the disdain given to the questioner who suggested that an EU exit would be good news for the Labour party because of its impact on the Tories.

There is no doubt a need for change and the recent revelations from Panama are more evidence if ever it was needed. But are we likely to see David Cameron lead it? And why has Barack Obama not done so in the USA? If we get any of the Republican candidates as the next president we might as well say goodbye to any meaningful progress.

I guess it’s a matter of watch this space but I’m not sure there’s much reason to be optimistic.





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