Liberal democracy – in crisis?

Forgive the length of this post. But if you’re concerned about the travails of Western democracies, and where they all might lead, do read on.

There have been many books written post-Brexit, post-Trump about the crisis for democracy and specifically liberal democracy. I’ve tried to keep a count, and over recent months I’ve put aside reviews and extracts. (I’m not in the privileged position of an Andrew Rawnsley to whom I imagine all the books, and others I don’t know of, will have been sent in the hope that he will review them.)

What follows are my summaries of and comments on reviews from The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian, Prospect, The New York Times and The Atlantic. My aim has been to achieve, for myself and others, a broader perspective on what’s been argued, and where it might take us. How real is the crisis, what are the causes, are they manageable, or are they somehow intrinsic to democracy? How seriously should we take book titles such as ‘How Democracy Ends’, ‘The People vs Democracy’ and ‘Why Liberalism Failed’.

For my part I’m an unashamed advocate of liberal democracy – liberal as the best hope for democracy, and I find it frustrating that so many of the books cannot see a way out of pulling out of the tailspin they dissect in their books. We need articles and books and broadcasters to pick up on the virtues both of democracy and liberal democracy. If the end in view is recognised and respected, then we can focus on how we get there, instead of taking a perverse pleasure in gloomy prognoses, which seems to have become the fallback position in the current debate.

I’ve not referred to The Economist’s long essay on Liberalism in its current, 175th anniversary edition. That’s for another time and place.

Reviews are in no particular order. First publication of all the books was this year, apart from David Goodhart’s book. 

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The Road to Somewhere (David Goodhart)

 Goodhart has won both praise and notoriety for the distinction he makes in ‘The Road To Somewhere’ between ‘Somewheres’ (‘no’ voters) and ’Nowheres’ (‘yes’ voters). For the ‘Somewheres’, the home-lovers, the ordinary men and women caricatured as those who’ve never ventured too far, the issues are as much cultural as economic: the sense that their home town has changed too fast, that the big cities and elites, the big corporations and the globalised world, have left them behind.

It’s a questionable thesis. Distance from power has always been a divide, so too (as Brexit showed) age difference – the young voted but substantial margin to stay, the old to leave the EU. To be an ‘Anywhere’ doesn’t mean that you don’t have strong local loyalties, and as Jonathan Freedland pointed out in the Guardian, we’ve a strong sense that the ‘Somewheres’ have been in control (think prisons, welfare, education) for a little while now. (Who are the real elite?) And what of the role of the press: across great sections of the press ‘the liberal internationalism of (the) ‘Anywheres’ has been drowned out’.

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How We Must Change To Prosper in Europe (Andrew Adonis and Will Hutton)

A country-specific blueprint. We need big changes. What, in their view, we don’t need is Brexit.

Any trading benefits from Brexit are illusory, they argue, and our clout on the world stage will be diminished. More power to Westminster won’t translate into more power for the regions. Remaining is not enough: radical reform is needed – to education, infrastructure and the world of work. ‘In fact the whole British economy needs restructuring to give ordinary people more of a stake.’

There are many books out there just now suggesting a much wider malaise: Adonis and Hutton suggest that there are country-specific answers – but giving ‘ordinary people’ more of a stake is an almost universal refrain in Western democracies.

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The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (Francis Fukuyama) and The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Kwame Anthony Appiah)

I’ve read various reviews of these two books. The Economist gets lost in identifying what these two books on the subject of identity are really about. The Washington Post is better, The New York Times best. It brings in a touch of humour, which with a diffuse subject like identity really helps. I’ll quote:

‘Both books belong to one of today’s most important genres: the Not-About-Trump-But-Also-Sort-Of-About-Trump, or N.A.T.B.A.S.O.A.T., book. There is a hunger to understand this moment, but from a remove. And both books help explain so much more than Trump. #MeToo. White nationalism. Hindu nationalism. Black Lives Matter. Campus debates about privilege and appropriation. Syria. Islamism. The spread of populism and retreat of democracy worldwide. The rise of the far right in Europe. The rise of the far left in the United States. All these phenomena throb with questions of identity, of “Who am I?” and “To what do I belong?” Appiah and Fukuyama seek out answers.

Appiah believes we’re in wars of identity because we keep making the same mistake: exaggerating our differences with others and our similarities with our own kind. We think of ourselves as part of monolithic tribes up against other tribes, whereas we each contain multitudes. Fukuyama, less a cosmopolitan and more a nation-state guy, has greater sympathy for people clinging to differences. He thinks it a natural response to our age — but also seems to believe that if we don’t find a way to subsume narrow identities into national ones, we’re all going to die.’

‘… less a cosmopolitan, more a nation-state guy’ – yes, that’s the divide, and put this way it sounds like a discussion over coffee. Would that it were so!

(Ref.: New York Times, 27th August 2018)

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Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (Adam Tooze)

In contrast to the prognoses and speculations, answers and action plans of other authors, what we have here is contemporary history at its best. Tooze offers a practical and pragmatic explanation of the economic aspects of the current crisis. He also takes his starting-point as 2008, just a year before I started this blog, when despite the financial crisis and the Iraq debacle optimism came a little bit easier than it does now. I can’t fault The Economist’s summary, so I’ll quote it at length:

‘Four big themes emerge … The first was the immediate post-crisis response, in which the banks were rescued and the financial taps were loosened. The second was the Eurozone crisis … The third was a shift in the developed world after 2010 to a more austere fiscal policy. The fourth was the rise in populist politics in Europe and America.’

Tooze takes ‘the view that the immediate financial response to the crisis was necessary, but unfortunate in that executives in the banking industry paid too low a price for their folly; that Europe was slow and narrow-minded in dealing with the peripheral countries; and that the switch to austerity was a mistake. Taken together the backlash against bankers, frustration with EU governments and the impact of austerity led to the rise of populism, the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote.’

A big part of the problem was a failure of leadership in the post-crisis period. But ‘the more dangerous failure… lies in the unwillingness to deal with the problems which lie at the heart of the system and persist today. The finance sector, which caused the crisis, looks remarkably unaltered.’

(Ref.: The Economist, 4th August 2018)

I’ll add here quotations from Yanis Varoufakis’ Guardian review of Tooze’s book. (Much more aggressive, as you’d expect from Varoufakis.) He refers to ..

‘the black magic of financialisation … turning car companies like General Motors into large speculative financial corporations that also made some cars … ultimately replacing the aim of GDP growth with that of “financial resilience”: enduring paper asset inflation for the few and permanent austerity for the many.’

‘…. from the 1990s onwardsthe “real action” was taking place in the balance sheets of the global financiers.’

(Ref.: The Guardian, 12th August 2018)

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The global dimension

I don’t have to hand any recent books on the global dimensions of the crisis, and specifically the antipathy felt by many on the left and right toward the big global corporations, and above all the banks.  (They do exist.) Varoufakis’s review of Adam Tooze’s book must suffice:

‘…  from the 1990s onwards, the “real action” was taking place in the balance sheets of the global financiers. …

What this meant globally is that imbalanced dollar-denominated financial flows, which had initially grown on the back of the US trade deficit, “succeeded” in achieving escape velocity and almost leaving planet Earth behind …  before crashing down violently in 2008. …

In the end, the financialised technostructure was saved by two governments (America and China), while the neoliberal populist myth (that wholesale deregulation will make everyone’s dreams come true under the rule of democracy) is now dead. Is it any wonder that racism and geopolitical tensions are all the rage? …

Varoufakis never pulls punches.

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Why Liberalism Failed (Patrick Deneen)

Deneen’s contribution to the debate lumps the two definitions of liberalism, free-market and left-liberal/rights-focused. Both focus on individual self-expression. ‘Because the liberal spirit mechanically destroys inherited customs and local traditions, sometimes in the name of market efficiency and sometimes in the name of individual rights, it creates more room for the expansion of the state, as market-maker and law-enforcer.’ He refers to Hobbes’ Leviathan, always good starting-point for pessimists. Deneen ‘reminds the reader that before the advent of modern liberalism, philosophy identified liberty with self-mastery rather than self-expression’.  He reminds the reader how wide-ranging is the current mood of disillusion with liberalism.

But, as The Economist points out, liberalism encompasses a wide range of traditions. Deneen over-defines it, to suit his convenience. The Economist also argues strongly for liberalism’s ability to reform itself – current difficulties do not represent some kind of end-state for liberalism.  Deneen and it seems The Economist itself argues that ‘the current record of liberalism is dismal’. (Why blame the creed itself, which indeed ‘has many traditions’? I’d argue liberalism needs to re-focus and re-define. What is doesn’t need is a guilt complex.) Read, as The Economist puts it, ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ not as a funeral oration but as a call to action.

Deneen refers to pre-modern notions of liberty ‘as self-mastery and self-denial’. Shades of Nietzsche here. But I’d put up against that pre-modern notions of the sanctity of the individual, so closely associated with the rise and extension of Christianity, from which first the Enlightenment and then the liberal agendas followed as the old hierarchies broke down. That of course is a much wider and far-reaching story.

(Ref.: The Economist, 27th January 2018)

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How Democracies Die (Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt)

Levitsky and Ziblatt assert that Trump ‘has probably crossed the line from rough-around-the-edges populist to would-be strongman.’ They list ‘four key indicators of authoritarian behaviour’. 1) ‘Rejection or weak commitment to democratic rules.’ 2) Attempts ‘to undermine the legitimacy of election results.’ 3) Attacks on the press, promises to curb ‘fake news’. 4) Readiness to curb the civil liberties of opponents’.

But while Trump has mouthed the words, but he hasn’t (nor has he the power to) locked up opponents or smashed the presses. But he has in his incoherent way (and incoherence, as Bob Woodward makes clear, is a defining characteristic – and autocrats do require some coherence if they are to turn the world upside down) further undermined two defining characteristics of 20th century democracy – mutual tolerance, both parties accepting each other as legitimate, and forbearance, with election winners exercising some restraint, aware always of the next election.

The issue of race is as intractable as ever: America has ‘never tried to maintain democratic norms in a demos as diverse as today’s.’

I’d add that diversity, in increasingly multi-racial societies, is a mighty challenge for European societies as well – maybe the defining challenge. Without the immigration issue the referendum would have been won decisively by the Remainers, and while Hungary and Poland would probably still be limiting the independence of the judiciary the tensions between the other 27 EU countries would be much-reduced.

(Ref.: The Economist, 27th January 2018 )

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The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It (Yascha Mounk)

Mounk suggests that there are two sides to the liberal democracy equation, 1) ‘protecting individuals from the tyranny of the majority through check and balances and enumerating rights’, and 2) ‘handing power to the people’. ‘Liberal elites are willing to exclude the people from important decisions, most notably in the case of immigration in the case of the EU, in the name of “rights”. Meanwhile populists are willing to dispense with constitutional niceties in the name of the “people”’.  Slow economic growth is the prime reason why liberal democracy is splitting into its ‘component parts’. Where liberals blame globalisation, populists see lobbyists and elites rigging the system.  Social media, immigration, notions that different groups should celebrate their differences – these are all further contributory factors.

The Economist gives much of this the nod, but I’m wary of assertions such as ‘liberal elites are willing to exclude people from important decisions’. The ‘people’ in that populist sense were never part of the political debate. Western democracies are based on representation, at a parliamentary and local level. We lose sight of this at our peril.  Immigration has always been a feature of vibrant societies, it’s always engendered bitter hostilities. And as in the case of the immigration explosion in the UK after 2005 – it was never anticipated at the level it actually happened.

(I’m also wary of the term ‘liberal elites’, much used by The Economist. Elites are increasingly illiberal, and there lies part of the problem.)

Mounk argues that ‘the more technocratic elites try to protect important area of decision-making, not least immigration, from the will of the people, the more they will create festering resentment’. Yes, to the sensitivity to immigration, and ensuring it’s accompanied by all the necessary support and restrictions, but not the emotive language. Like Fukuyama, he seems to be advocating, in The Economist’s words, ‘domesticating nationalism rather than attempting to define it as an anachronistic relic’. Let Americans judge how this might apply to the USA, but for Europe nationalisms have a proven capacity to get out of hand, and we should play any such game very very cautiously.

(Ref: The Economist, 17th March 2018)

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In the Shadows of the American Century: the Rise and Decline of American Global Power (Alfred McCoy)

MvCoy’s book is not central to an appraisal of liberalism today but I will include one quote from Diane Robert’s review of his book in Prospect: ‘Like other empires before it, the US refuses to acknowledge that the nature of empires is to fall. Not quickly of course – Rome didn’t collapse as soon as the Visigoths or Vandals raised the city. It took years, and America won’t be any different ….’

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Behold America: A History of America First and the American Dream (Sarah Churchwell)

Diane Roberts also reviewed Sarah Churchwell’s book in Prospect. (I heard Churchwell talk about her book at the Hay book festival last May.) Quoting Roberts’s paraphrase of Churchwell’s argument, ‘The US has always expended a lot of energy denying the past … pretending … that slavery and genocide have simply disappeared from the national psyche like dew into the grass … The sustaining national myth has been that America was once an Arcadia of small-towns … populated by fair-skinned folks who loved their mothers …’ Whether it’s Jews, Reds, Black Panthers, feminists, environmentalists, European socialists, political correctness – to ‘America Firsters’ they are all out to destroy God’s country. Fox News is beating an old (the Chicago Tribune 1923 being an instance Churchwell quotes) anti-immigrant drum. The Trumps, father Fred and son Donald, have a dubious record (Fred Trump, New York 1927, Donald, Charlottesville 2017).

Roberts states that ‘America wants to be first in the international stage without accepting its responsibilities.’ In the post-war world, of course, the USA did take on that responsibility (a chequered record but the role as clear and Europe benefitted hugely) but the curiosity is that Trump’s ‘America First’ America wants to scale back its responsibilities – underlining the point that as it narrows its focus America will become even more ‘first’ only to its own citizens, and ‘exceptional’ likewise.

**

Democracy’s Retreat

The Economist back in June 2018 (16th June) ran a feature entitled ‘Democracy’s Retreat’, with the subhead ‘After decides of triumph democracy is losing ground. Why?’

‘The end of history’, as proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama was on a par with the Thousand-Year Reich as a mis-statement – history is a creature of all the mis-steps and follies and mis-readings and simple folly that man is capable of, with the hand of nature also thrown brutally in from time to time. The retreat of democracy isn’t in any sense because democracy has been ‘found out’: but it was, is and will be something we have to fight for at very turn.

So I’m wary of distinctions between democracy (rule by the people) and liberal democracy (a freely-elected government, which respects individual and minority rights, the rule of law and independent institutions). ‘Rule by the people’ leaves open the question who the people are, and who decides who they are. Liberal democracy aims to put in place and preserve institutions which will guarantee democracy for a foreseeable future. So when Yascha Mounk (see above) argues that liberalism and democracy are separable I’m doubtful. How democratic is a government elected on promises to censor speech or curtail minority rights? That of itself diminishes democracy.

Yes, ‘plenty of liberal institutions are undemocratic’. Unelected judges can over-rule elected politicians. Politicians must be subject to the rule of law. But I’d argue that the rule of law is a guarantor of democracy. Of course, we have to ask who in the first place lays down the legal code by which governments are limited? It can be introduced in a constitution, or in the unique case of the UK be enshrined in tradition. The independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the functioning of any liberal democracy.

Globally, The Economist tells us, ‘the support for democracy remains high’ – a median of 78% of people polled in 38 countries agreed that a ‘a system where elected representatives made the laws was a good one’. But 24% thought that military rule would be fine – one of the front runners in the upcoming Brazilian election is himself of that mind.  In Hungary the financial crisis and immigration upset the democratic order. Ethnic hatreds remain a tool of potential autocrats around the world. Independent institutions such as the judiciary in Hungary and Poland, are under threat. Fines can force independent newspapers out of business (witness Russia and now Turkey).  Children can be indoctrinated from a very young age: ‘as young as four in Turkey are taught that their president saved the nation from the Gulenists ‘…. Many crave power …. Some because they want to change the world … Some, for its own sake. Some, because brings adulation, money and sex … Autocracy and graft create a vicious circle.’

Democracy has fought back in a few countries – where the autocrat assumed the electoral process had been sufficiently perverted to allow elections to proceed in safety – only to be proved wrong.  Malaysia and South Africa (within the ANC) being two examples.

‘What is certain, however, is that freely elected governments bound by the rule of law have less power to abuse citizens.’ For my part I will never forget Philippe Sands at the Hay festival back in May engaging in an imaginary conversation with his Turkish journalist friend, Ahmet Altan who has been imprisoned for life by the Turkish president.

That is a telling, a terrible, reminder of why we must be forever vigilant in defence of the rule of law.

**

How Democracy Ends (Andrew Rawnsley)

Rawnsley writing in The Observer considers the David Runciman book, How Democracy Ends. ‘…one of the very best of the current crop of books on the subject.’

A first point to note – have we been here before? In Runciman’s view, no. Putin ‘s may be a parody democracy, but he isn’t Hitler. (Compare Yanis Varoufakis: ‘From where I stand, we are at a 1930 point – soon after the crash, and with a fascist moment upon us.’)

‘A widespread contemporary disgust with democratic politics’ – these are Runciman’s words. (Rawnsley concurs.) I’m wary of such easy emotive language. Disgust? With the whole edifice?

Confidence has been sapped ‘by governments that struggle to deliver the underlying contract to spread prosperity sufficiently widely and fairly so that everyone has the sense of a stake in society’. An underlying contract? I’d argue that, if such a thing exists, which is questionable, it sets the bar too high. We too easily forget that liberal society is always a work-in-progress.

Yes, post-war prosperity and liberal agendas radically changed expectations – and it is expectations that aren’t being matched. But it’s less that average real wages in the USA have been stagnant for forty years, more a real and perceived greater inequality in its distribution – an elite garnering both wealth and influence. (What isn’t mentioned by Rawnsley in his review is the extent to which sections of the press have sought to discredit both parliament and the rule of law. What role do they have in that sense of ‘disgust’?)

On other points I’d agree.  The internet has poisoned the well, and opposition sects do promote conspiracy theories, democracy has become more venomous, Silicon Valley is calling the shots and government doesn’t know how to respond (though the EU is trying). There’s bruising free speech in the public forums, mirrored now in virulent divisions with parliament and Congress, and within party.

Is Runciman right that representative government has lost the capacity to re-invigorate itself? Now that the franchise is universal, and the welfare state fully (if too often carelessly) operational. Do we need a clear set of goals in peacetime, or ‘chaos and violence’, as in wartime, to bring the best out of democracy? A clear set of goals? – yes, we do.

‘Stable democracies retain their extraordinary capacity to stave off the worst that can happen without tackling the problems that threatened disaster in the first place.’ (Runciman’s words.) So we shouldn’t feel too good about Greece remaining democratic despite everything, or the survival of the Eurozone against the odds. That’s a point, to Rawnsley’s mind, well made, and in one sense true, but I’d argue that democracy has never been a straight-line affair. ‘Staving off’ is a natural and usually necessary response response. Democracy proceeds by compromises, delays, wrong-turns – and occasional leaps forward.

But despite the title Runciman ‘doesn’t think democracy is over’. (Rawnsley) He looks at alternatives ‘and rightly finds them wanting’ – Chinese authoritarian capitalism, ’the notion of government by experts’, a Platonic ‘rule of the knowers’. ‘Intellectuals are just as prone to making mistakes as the crow.’ No surprise there. Can technology offer ’some kind of liberation’, as Runciman suggests. Like Rawnsley I’m doubtful.

Also, like Rawnsley, I’m not as pessimistic as Runciman. Nor is Runciman quite as pessimistic as he might seem. In Rawnsley’s words: ‘Yes, democracy is often messy, clumsy and ineffectual. Yes, voters sometimes empower ghastly rulers …. But almost despite itself … Runciman seems to be saying there is something special about democracy. One of its great merits is the capacity for self-questioning and self-correction … lacking in other systems of government. Democracy can go wrong, but it has the flexibility to sort itself right.’

A direct quote from Runciman:’ Democratic politics assume there is no settled answer to any question … (this) protects us from getting stuck with any truly bad ideas.’

And another from Runciman (from an interview with Prospect): ‘I suspect that one reason for Brexit and Trump is not that people have lost faith in democracy but that many have the kind of unthinking faith in it that allows them to believe it can survive anything…’

So – I’d argue – we need to take the initiative, rather than hang back on the ropes. Focus on a clear set of goals.

And remember that democracy has ultimately to be about belief – believing we are on the right track. It doesn’t have to be a belief in progress, but just a belief in the integrity and the future of a mightily flawed but remarkable institution, which is in truth a bloody miracle. If we are not positive and assertive and out there about democracy, and liberal democracy, others will steal the field from us.

(Ref.: The Observer, 20th May 2018)

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century (Yuval Noah Harari)

I’ll sign off with Harari’s argument that AI, artificial intelligence, could have within it the possible demise of democracy and liberalism. The old stories are discredited, religion is sidelined, likewise the nation-state in a globalised world…

What follows is based on an article in The Atlantic (‘Why Technology Favors Tyranny’, October 2018 issue) which has been adapted from Harari’s book.

I started with Adonis and Hutton’s very practical approach to one nation’s immediate difficulties. Harari takes us to the other extreme, as these extracts reveal:

Artificial intelligence could erase many practical advantages of democracy, and erode the ideals of liberty and equality. It will further concentrate power among a small elite if we don’t take steps to stop it.  …

There is nothing inevitable about democracy. For all the success that democracies have had over the past century or more, they are blips in history. Monarchies, oligarchies, and other forms of authoritarian rule have been far more common modes of human governance. …

In the second decade of the 21st century, liberalism has begun to lose credibility. Questions about the ability of liberal democracy to provide for the middle class have grown louder; politics have grown more tribal; and in more and more countries, leaders are showing a penchant for demagoguery and autocracy. …

Together, infotech and biotech will create unprecedented upheavals in human society, eroding human agency and, possibly, subverting human desires. Under such conditions, liberal democracy and free-market economics might become obsolete. … … economic growth may not solve social problems that are now being created by technological disruption, because such growth is increasingly predicated on the invention of more and more disruptive technologies. …

As many people lose their economic value, they might also come to lose their political power. The same technologies that might make billions of people economically irrelevant might also make them easier to monitor and control. …

The biggest and most frightening impact of the AI revolution might be on the relative efficiency of democracies and dictatorships. … (tilting in favour of dictatorships)

Even if some societies remain ostensibly democratic, the increasing efficiency of algorithms will still shift more and more authority from individual humans to networked machines. Liberal democracy and free-market capitalism see the individual as an autonomous agent constantly making choices about the world. …

Can parliaments and political parties overcome these challenges and forestall the darker scenarios? At the current moment this does not seem likely. Technological disruption is not even a leading item on the political agenda. …

Harari’s answers don’t take us very far. ‘For starters, we need to place a much higher priority on understanding how the human mind works – particularly how our own wisdom and compassion can be cultivated. … More practically, and more immediately, if we want to prevent the concentration of all wealth and power in the hands of a small elite, we must regulate the ownership of data.’

**

Do I have any conclusions? Can we reverse the threats to democracy (and head off Harari’s speculations) and re-assert the values and practice of liberal democracy? For one, I’d go well beyond Harari’s statement about cultivating our wisdom and compassion, and assert the absolute value, integrity and importance of each individual  human being – whatever their country, race or creed. Compassion and wisdom are indeed part of that.

At a more practical level, as a matter of urgency, ensure that all groupings have a stake, and perceive that they have a stake, in their country’s governance, progress and prosperity. And in a wider prosperity beyond their borders. This will always be a rocky and crisis-ridden road, but as long we have a clear sense of direction, then we might just be able to manage the challenges en route – for the forseeable future at least!

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