Notes from a small gathering

Last night I attended a fringe meeting entitled Ten years since the Orange Book – What should authentic liberalism look like? organised by the Institute for Economic Affairs and chaired by Isabel Hardman of the Spectator. I can’t quite remember the last time I went to an IEA event. Generally speaking I tend not to make a habit of it. Layer on top of that the fact that the hook was the OB and I wasn’t really on home territory. I went along largely out of curiosity. What might transpire in a corner of the Liberal Democrat universe that I don’t generally hang out in?

The event didn’t really take the turn I had anticipated.

The “authentic liberal” tag has been claimed most publicly by Jeremy Browne for his agenda. Browne arrived at this event for a relatively fleeting visit: he said his piece before exiting for another fringe meeting. His main argument was that the Liberal Democrats need to be clearer what they are for: if the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist would you need to invent them? This points to the need for a relatively clear, simple USP. His pitch was that the Liberal Democrats are the only party with the policies that are fully in tune with “the Liberal Age” he considers we’re living in.

Juxtaposing Browne’s contribution with the subsequent presentations raised some interesting questions in itself. Indeed, in combination the presentations constituted one of the most thoughtful and thought provoking fringe meetings I’ve ever been to.

I drew four points from the presentations:

  • There is a distance between Browne’s “authentic” “360 degree” liberalism and the “comprehensive” liberalism of Tim Farron. But it is not unbridgeable. The arguments have differences of degree rather than kind. I happen to prefer Farron’s position as a starting point because, for me, it demonstrates a better appreciation of the complexities and compromises of a successful capitalist economy and of liberalism. It can more easily accommodate an understanding of fundamental sociality of the economy. There is less antipathy to towards the state and a clearer view that public and private can be complementary and mutually supportive, if not mutually constitutive.
  • Paul Marshall, one of the architects of the original OB, is not someone who I can remember having heard speak before. He provided a considered account of some of the systemic problems faced by the contemporary global economy. He took a variety of capitalism approach and highlighted the increasingly plutocratic character of US economic and political system. He noted that this is not a recipe for a healthy economy, nor something to aspire to emulate. His preference is for the creation of an economy characterised by Schumpeterian waves of creative destruction. Whether you buy that prescription or not, he laid out clearly what sorts of measures would need to be put in place to arrest and reverse the move to plutocracy. He went very big on estate taxes, in order to reset the game every generation and prevent social advantage to be perpetuated.
  • Marshall’s talk highlighted the need to fundamentally recast the underpinning principles of policy, if a genuinely liberal society is to be realized. Stephen Tall followed with a bid to rehabilitate the centre ground as a credible place for the Liberal Democrats to locate themselves. He offered a quick list of the policies that he, and doubtless many other liberals, would like to see implemented. He made the point that this is a list that would send many voters running for the hills. Even one of the policies mentioned – be it on human rights, immigration or constitutional reform – would be enough to do that. The liberal message is not, in fact, simple and quite likely takes you in directions that run strongly against the status quo. There is a challenge here for the Liberal Democrats, as a minority party, in meeting the voters, and potential coalition partners, where they are. This was a point reinforced by Tom Mludzinski of ComRes. The appetite among the electorate for complex systemic change is relatively limited. In this respect Jeremy Browne’s call for a simple clear message fits well with the need to communicate with low information voters, even while it is in tension with the idea that what is needed is complex systemic transformation.
  • The final point that struck me, not just in this fringe meeting but at several others, is the question of political leadership. When we work with public opinion as a fixed point around which politicians must dance, when we focus group policies to work out what might go down well with the floating voter, we implicitly accept a diminished account of political leadership. We concede that politicians cannot move the Overton Window. We concede that vivid narratives about where we might go and what we might achieve no longer have the power to sway and inspire. It is essential not to be naïve about the challenges inherent in not simply articulating but also delivering a vision of a different type of society. But to give the whole idea up as an impossibility rather throws the whole enterprise into question. To realize the liberal vision requires passion, it requires rigorous justifications, and it requires genuine leadership.

The meeting heard from six speakers. As a consequence there was even less time for questions than usual. The session was conducted in good spirit and a constructive tone. I got the sense that a further period of focused discussion involving these participants from different points on the Liberal Democrat political spectrum could have iterated towards a common understanding of a shared set of underlying policy principles. It might even have been possible to arrive at agreement on a plausible narrative with which to communicate these ideas in a way that would be palatable to a sceptical electorate.

But that might just be my incorrigible optimism getting the better of me. 😀

We’ll never know.

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  1. To paraphrase Cultural Theorists such as Dan M Kahan or Mary Douglas we might say, ‘”if we want to understand other Liberals, we can always ask what is making their positions liberal from their point of view. If, on the other hand, we just assume they are illiberal, no further conversation can take place.”