The old order is crumbling – what should we do?


I went to the Social Liberal Forum conference last weekend and found it completely transformed – no more endless whingeing but real debate about big ideas for the future. They really had made the transition, as the Greens used to say, from opposition to proposition.

Anyone who has read my political blogs will know is how I believe the left needs to gear itself up: concentrate on the ideas; cut out the off-putting rage. See also John Harris on this.

I was there to talk about tackling monopoly and the future of liberal economics. It was refreshing. For me, at least.

But I have also been wondering, over the past week, how the transition I have been predicting for some reason would come about.

I’ve argued before that there is a four-decade cycle of central ideas in the UK. We had to change policy suddenly in 1940 when we withdrew spectacularly from the French alliance at Dunkirk, but the body of economic ideas which we needed to adopt were there waiting patiently, thanks as much as anyone else to Keynes.

Then came 1979 and another shift. If you read the cabinet papers of the period (as I have), it is clear that Margaret Thatcher herself had few ideas about what she wanted to do apart from helping homeowners (read more in my book Broke), but the revolution had been brewed by Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe and their young apparachiks, meeting in Howe’s flat in Vauxhall every Tuesday evening for some years before.

So, thanks to Trump and Brexit, the old order is now staggering again, and is probably fatally wounded, but neither administration in the USA or UK appears to have much idea about what to do instead. So where, I am asking myself, is the new philosophy going to emerge from?

There is no body of knowledge, or techniques, waiting in the corner of the Treasury ready to be picked up and enacted. As far as I know. Nor do we have long.

It seems likely that the markets will crash again in October (you read it here first, though the latest issue of Fortune carries the headline ‘The end is near!’). Trump is too backward to know what to do. So is the current UK government.

Otherwise, there is the exhausted remains of market fundamentalism, residing at the IEA and Cato Institute. There is the equally exhausted reheated thinking from 1945 wafting about. Neither is really going to cut the mustard, as they say.

Probably the only internationally recognised body of economic ideas which would stand the scrutiny are the ideas around inclusive growth – but these have mainly taken root in cities on both sides of the Atlantic, rather than governments.

It maybe that radicals and centrists would serve the future better, not by endlessly refighting the Brexit argument – but by making sure we have a body of ideas ready for when the roof falls in, sometime next year I expect. As I say, we don’t have very long.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Gordon Lishman, Acting SLF Chair says

    Thank you, David.
    I’m not sure that big ideas aren’t out there. They don’t even have to be new ideas. Pluralist liberal democracy is a big idea – it needs to be made fit for a digital age in which deliberation can be defined as pressing a button, similarly, the rule of law is the alternative to assaults on liberty and good governance.
    You’re right that economic life and relationships are the biggest challenge. That’s where we need to reject the overwhelming timidity of the Liberal Democrat approach on this and other policy areas, preferably working with others across the progressive left. Some of the key elements are in the section of the SLF book* to which you contributed: participation and profit-sharing; public services provided by valued workers; control of monopoly, oligopoly and cartels; legislation against demeaning and bad work conditions….. the SLF’s next big challenge is to address this broad theme.
    *Five go in search of big ideas; available from SLF website.

  2. Cllr Bob Johnston says

    Completely agreed. I personally think that the economy should be reshaped around giving greater prominence, support and protection for mutual of all kinds. It is the only way I can see how we can get away from the gangster/looting kind of capitalism so dominant today

  3. Vern Hughes says

    Bob Johnston is right. We’ve had an alternative body of ideas and enterprise sitting there for 150 years waiting to be taken up politically. It’s called mutualism, and is a natural fit for the radical centre. Social ownership not state or corporate ownership; personalisation and mutual ownership of social services not state delivery nor contractualism; rediscovery of the familial and relational in place of the individualism of the economic right and the individualism of the libertarian left.

    In response to David, I’d say there is a twenty year cycle over the last 150 years whereby mutualism is rediscovered by a group of writers and activists every two decades. They pick up the themes, can see a trajectory whereby these ideas can fill the vacuum in the centre, between left and right and yet radically distinct from both, but after a few years it becomes apparent that the fixation with the state on both left and right will not accommodate mutualist practice, and the fixation with electoral practice on both left and right precludes mutualist practice. A return to top-down statist orthodoxy then follows, and individual writers and activists are either drawn by gravitational pull back to this orthodoxy, or they retreat from politics into academia or a quiet family life.

    This pattern has occured for 150 years across the western world. It is equally evident in Australia, Canada and New Zealand as in the UK.

    To prevent the cycle repeating itself ad nauseum we need decision some organisational initiatives. In politics, everything comes down to organisation – Lenin was right on this (if nothing else). There are mutualist tendencies in several UK political parties (Blue Labour, Red Tories, communitarian UKIP people in the north, communitarian Lib Dems in the south, human society-oriented Greens). Pulling these mutualist thinkers and activists out of their statist shells so they cohere in an explicitly political agenda of empowerment of individuals and communities is the work of the radical centre.

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