Social liberalism and the Liberal Democrats

Last week a tweet by the estimable Stephen Tall crossed my timeline. The tweet pointed to his blogpost The Economist is right. Liberalism is winning. Which could be bad news for the Lib Dems in 2020. That immediately piqued my interest. After all, it is axiomatic, as all right thinking people surely know, that the Economist is pretty much never right about anything. Except, of course, on the odd occasion when, through enlightenment or inadvertence, it takes a position on an issue that I happen to hold already.

But I think on this occasion the Economist, and Stephen’s blogpost, raise an important issue. Nick Clegg, in his emotional resignation speech, argued that liberalism is needed now more than ever. This is a theme that has appeared pretty regularly in statements from leading Liberal Democrat politicians and bloggers, including the candidates for the party leadership, over the last few days. The substantial increase in the party membership since the election is taken by many as an indication that there are plenty of people who agree, but were previously, for whatever reason, not inclined to pin their colours to the mast.

A need for liberalism does not, however, necessarily imply a need for the Liberal Democrats. This is the Economist’s point. If liberalism has been absorbed into the mainstream thinking of the Conservative and Labour parties then the distinctive space to be occupied by the Liberal Democrats starts to vanish. The Economist thinks this is what has happened.

Stephen considers that the Economist might well be on to something. The sort of liberalism manifest by the Conservatives and the Labour party is not necessarily liberalism as understood by thoroughgoing liberals. But it might be as much liberalism as voters can cope with: they have no stomach for the full strength version. He argues:

A form of liberalism (albeit not the Lib Dems’ preferred model) won the twentieth century, as even its opponents on the right and left of the political divide have in the past acknowledged: Britain became considerably more socially liberal and economically liberal.

This, I guess, is a triumph for the liberal disapora — what has proved a weakness in building a Liberal Party big enough to win by itself has proved a strength by embedding itself in the Conservative and Labour parties that have governed Britain.

Stephen notes Cameron’s conversion to “liberal conservatism” and speculates whether Cameron will act to moderate the worst excesses of his more swivel-eyed backbenchers, even in the absence of the pretext of Liberal Democrat demands.

Three points strike me.

First, the more we find out about the current Government’s agenda, the less likely I think it is we’ll see liberal conservatism featuring very strongly in the current Parliament. I guess we’ll find out more on Wednesday. If, for example, Theresa May comes roaring back with her plans for state censorship of the broadcast media – all in the name of that elusive but all pervasive security threat, you understand – or if this government shows as much contempt for the rule of law as the last one or proposes that it would be a good idea for the UK becomes an international pariah state on human rights then I think we’ll have the measure of the situation.

Second, the argument might have more traction on the Labour side, but it depends on who wins the Labour leadership contest. If Liz Kendall were to win as the ‘Blairite’ candidate then there might well be a swing towards a form of (economic) liberalism. Indeed, Kendall has already been characterised as preaching liberalism by at least one Labour commentator – and that wasn’t intended as a compliment.

Third, when the Economist refer to “social liberalism” it appears that it primarily has in mind things like tolerance of gay marriage. So it is more about equality of opportunity and liberty in the personal sphere. And if we think about the Conservatives or Labour party position on, for example, liberalisation of drug laws, it is clear tolerance of personal liberty only stretches so far.

While these questions of equality and personal liberty are hugely important, this represents an extremely impoverished understanding of what liberals mean by “social liberalism” in the British tradition. It is a much more radical notion. It demands attention to the conditions necessary for the practice of genuine social and political liberty. This raises questions of distribution and redistribution. It is about the distribution of opportunity, but it almost inevitably leads to questions about the distribution of income, wealth and privilege.

There are those who argue that the future of the Liberal Democrats does not lie in trying to outflank Labour from the left, even though it wouldn’t be particularly hard to do.

There are those who argue that the Liberal Democrats need to return to their roots and rediscover their values in order to rebuild.

The most contentious component of that rediscovery will be a conversation regarding inequality and redistribution. It is a conversation about how profoundly increasing inequality has undermined political liberty, and what can and should be done about it. That is a conversation that is yet to be had.

It may well be that renewal lies in a position that some might seek to characterise as to the left of Labour: not because there is any attempt at outflanking going on, or indeed because the key debate is left versus right, but because such a position is the radical, social liberal position to take if we are serious about delivering opportunity for all.

Relying on the major parties to embrace and embody the subtleties of liberalism would be foolish. The question is whether the Liberal Democrats can effectively communicate why that is the case.

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5 replies »

  1. The problem with the Economist article is that it reduces liberalism down to nothing much more than a list of nice things and then claims that because no one is against nice things, liberalism isn’t needed any more. Same sex marriage is a liberal achievement, but that doesn’t mean liberalism is about same sex marriage – it’s a representation of how we are opposed to inequality and discrimination, issues that are by no means resolved.

    I think that does show one of the issues we’ve had with our campaigning, exemplified by the last manifesto – we reduced ourselves down to a series of policies, and didn’t make reference to any of the issues that drive those policies. We can hardly expect others to accept the ‘subtleties of liberalism’ if we’re not willing to talk about them ourselves.

  2. Good points from Nick.

    I’ll throw in my shorthand from a previous post. If Liberalism = the FDP (which for the Economist, it largely does) then Liberalism doesn’t have much of a future in the UK.

    If there is more to the LibDems than that, however, they really need to start focusing on what that “more” might be, especially as they select a leader.

    I have some other thoughts, which I’ll put in another comment as it may be a little ramble-y.

  3. So some thoughts on the future of a “Liberal” (or LibDem!) party from someone who turned in his membership and stopped voting for the LibDems on the day they went into the Coalition. I’m sure that stereotypes me, but I am who I am…

    1) It is entirely possible to imagine that 5 or 10 years down the track, Britain is no longer actually a 2 party state. At that point you might expect the Tories to fracture into an FDP style “full econ liberal, part social liberal right” and a UKIP style party. Likewise Labour might split into a Podemos style “people’s party” and a Blairite centre-left party. At that juncture you can also imagine that the LibDems start to get truly squeezed. So it may be interesting to consider what could be distinctive in that far future. But that’s a discussion for another time.

    2) Coming back to the present.
    The obvious issues where I would hope the LibDems are distinctive: Immigration, Europe, Drugs Policy, Privacy, the Environment.
    Unfortunately, during the Coalition time, it seems the LibDems failed to win the public over on any of these.
    It’s for another post to discuss why, but it’s really important for a small party to win the conversations, not just the Coalition negotiations on these kinds of issue. Still all of these provide fertile grounds for effective opposition in the coming years. Indeed, one might think that (echoing my thoughts for Labour) that the LibDems could make a lot of hay in the post-newspaper youth demographic by an honest and brave stance on Internet Privacy, Drugs Policy, the Environment – and esp. distinctive, looking seriously at lowering the voting age.

    However, if I was to pinpoint one essential, practical failing of the LibDems during the Coalition era, it was the failure to develop a coherent set of policies on devolving power to local areas – not to mention local democracy. There were a mishmash of initiatives and policy interventions (I was particularly aware of some misguided support for Lansley’s NHS nonsense was motivated by his selling it as “localism”, but also some useful LibDem amendments at the time) and you can look at the confused position on schools and all sorts of other things.

    So far, so technocratic perhaps. Where it becomes a clear and present danger to the LibDems future is that George Osbourne, with Manchester is putting the issue on the agenda in a big way.

    3) Some points on philosophy.
    On the one hand, the philosophical heritage of Liberalism is a great thing. A guiding light and gathering point for people in the LibDem party. On the other, I think it has some dangers. I’ll highlight 3 for now.

    First of all, classical liberalism in too pure a form leads you to some form of libertarianism. (And indeed, part of the danger for the LibDems is that there’s a noticeable faction in the party who would read this and say “That’s not a danger, it’s a benefit!”)

    Second, (which might relate to the first, but also to the confusion on devolution) we live in a different world to that in which classical liberalism was conceived. Non-governmental threats to liberty are only growing. I think the LibDems as a party instinctively see this and could form a great policy platform on it. But the language of classical liberalism often seems to get in the way.

    Third – if you say “small is beautiful” to LibDems then they’ll agree, but Schmacher’s “conscious responsibility” – seems less well-known than a Hayekian “reactive responsiveness.” This creates a big problem, because if you only have the Hayekian side, then you end up without a coherent place to think about whole-system (or even large-system-part) issues… Again, the instincts of the party seem to be in the right place – a recognition that sometimes liberty is best preserved by deregulation, sometimes by regulation. However, that actually doesn’t sit easily in the language of classical liberalism…

    • Hi Metatone

      Thanks for your comments. There’s a lot there.

      I think your scenario of a fracturing of the parties looks entirely plausible.

      I’d be immensely surprised if we didn’t now start to return to a clearer set of positions from the Lib Dems on the sorts of issues you identify (internet privacy etc).

      I also think that localism is an interesting topic, and one where Liberal Democrats could potentially have something distinctive to say. For example, from a Westminster perspective elected mayors look like decentralisation. From a local perspective they look like centralisation. Liberal Democrats were often against elected mayors (certainly they were here in Bristol) but I’m not sure it was always clear why (ie what principles were at stake) and whether it was based on idealisations of local democracy rather than reality (that was certainly the case here).

      There needs to be a rebalancing of focus in terms of where threats to pluralism and political liberty arise. Your points about classical liberalism are well made. This is something that frustrates me about some of the discussion about things like TTIP in Lib Dem circles. Those who start from the deification of free trade jump straight to the conclusion that TTIP must be a good thing and critics are misguided or ‘illiberal’. But it would be possible to be in favour of free trade in general but at the same time conclude that TTIP places unacceptably tight restrictions upon democratically elected governments making it impossible for them to reflect the will of their electorates. If such an agreement effectively renders governments impotent because changing policy direction is too expensive (as looks very likely under the proposed approach to investor state dispute resolution) then we are striking the balance in the wrong place. MNCs have accreted too much power relatively to democratically elected governments.

      In the post I refer to the “subtleties of liberalism” – one of those subtleties is recognising that policy is often a trade off between two valued principles. It is important to resolve those trade offs in a way that enhances liberty and self determination. I’m not sure that’s what’s happening in the case of TTIP. From a human perspective, markets and trade are a means to an end not an end in themselves. But of course that isn’t viewed in quite the same way from the MNC perspective.