An essay on the contemporary meaning of British Liberalism*
*note to any US readers: ‘liberal’ in political science, and in the UK, means something quite different to what it means in America. Hence there are 2 Wikipedia articles; ‘Liberalism and American Liberalism’ (which is basically shorthand for Social Democracy). Sorry about that but frankly it’s your own silly country’s fault for being so scared of anything which sounds like it might be connected to Socialism.
*to any UK readers: please be aware that Liberalism (a centrist position) is not the same as Neo-liberalism (a rightist position)
Occasionally I come across a lengthy, deep article which fundamentally enhances my understanding of the political environment. And it’s an exciting and fulfilling feeling when I do read something like that; when an entire sphere of thought suddenly just clicks, and all the pieces fall into place, and all the wider connections start to reveal themselves, and I wonder how I ever missed it in the first place. Sadly I have to wade through a large amount of painfully obvious crud to find such nuggets of understanding. This is what led me to write my previous post about a balanced consumption of media.
Recently I came across one such piece in the New Statesman by Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy. Whilst I don’t agree with hardly any of it, it does allow a rare insight into exactly what makes Liberals tick. What is Liberalism? Who are its intellectual outriders? What is its place in history? Who does it serve? And why do its proponents support it? The answer is not as immediately obvious as it would be for other doctrines like Socialism, Communism or Conservatism because Liberalism has always been somewhat conceptually vague and hard to pin down. But first, a little bit of history…
The Liberal Democrats came about in the 1980s as an alliance between the remnants of ye olde great Victorian Liberal Party and a breakaway grouping of (relatively speaking) right-wing Labour MPs called the Social Democratic Party (Hence the Liberal [/social] Democrats). The Lib Dems have never quite resolved the schizoid identity crisis that this merger caused. Now in this essay, when I refer to ‘Liberals’ I am referring to the ideological and intellectual descendants of the old Liberal party. So all Liberals are Lib Dems but not all Lib Dems are Liberals, geddit?
On the other hand, the ‘dem’ half of the Lib Dems, those following in the footsteps of the Social Democratic Labour defectors has been decimated by coalition with the Tories. These Lib Dems have always been more inclined towards Labour than the Conservatives and represent a large number of the switchers from LD to Lab in the polls since the election. The social democratic wing of the Lib Dems is, to put it bluntly, in complete disarray.
The classical Liberal wing on the other hand comprises almost all Lib Dem ministers (notably excluding Vince Cable) and all of Nick Clegg’s so called ‘inner circle’. In contrast to the Dems, the Libs seem to still have faith in the Cleggster and his realignment project. This is now the dominant trend in the Lib Dems. By 2015 it could be the only trend.
Getting back to the article in the New Statesman that set this train of thought into motion, Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy sets out a vision for where the newly emboldened Lib Dem right intends to take the party in the future, which, for me, is quite an exciting thing to think about (partially because Labour needs to a) hoover up the mess when this bunch of monkeys stick electoral fireworks up their bums at the next election and b) make sure the fuse is well lit!).
The author of the article, Mr Richard Reeves claims that unlike social democrats real Liberals shy away from Labour for its ‘statism, paternalism, insularity and narrow egalitarianism’ just as much as they dislike the ‘Little Englander complacency of the Conservatives’. This seemingly innocuous assertion is actually one of the first clues to how Reeves thinks. Is it just me or does the attack on Labour seem a little more heartfelt than the one on the Tories? Is Reeves’ real beef that the Tories are a bit OTT on the patriotism and that they are ‘complacent’? Complacency is a quirk of character, not a policy or ideological objection. On the other hand the ‘statism, paternalism, insularity and narrow egalitarianism’ line is as biting and coherent (albeit wrong) a dismissal of Left-wing politics as one could reasonably manage in 6 words!
He goes on to make a similarly brief but effective argument for his particular Cleggist strand of Liberalism:
‘Clegg is a radical liberal, fiercely committed to opening up British society, attacking the hoards of power that disfigure our politics and economy, and to keeping the state out of private lives. Opportunity, not equality. Liberty, not fraternity. Citizens, not subjects.’
The equality remark is clearly aimed directly at Labour, and it has obvious and concrete policy implications too. The fraternity part is the same (boo unions and social solidarity boo). The citizens/subjects distinction is admittedly more ambiguous, conceivably a dig at Tory Royalism but also potentially a sly jab at Labour’s alleged paternalism. So all he’s seemingly got against the Tories is some sort of fundamental ennui. The word that springs to mind for me is ‘distasteful’; that Reeves just finds the Conservatives leave a bad taste in his mouth. Curious, no?
He goes on to suggest the need to find out if there is ‘room, philosophically and psephologically*, for a proper liberal party in British politics?’ *psephology (seff-ology) means pertaining to elections and voting. Before we get on to the philosophy, let’s just not bother with the psephology: the Lib Dems are royally fucked at the next election come what may. Reeves gives the left of his party the middle finger, literally telling them to go and join Labour, and then indulges in pure fantasy when he says pathetically that ‘there is a new political market for the Liberal Democrats. The party just needs to seek it out’. Because that’s not easier said than done or anything! Anyway, back to the political philosophy…
Firstly he claims Liberalism is a victim of its own success, that ‘The historic liberal battles – equal rights, universal suffrage, freedom of expression, civil liberties, free trade – have largely been won’. Indeed they have. But won by whom? I think Richard Reeves is being bold to the point of foolishness here in claiming all these victories for his own party (tell the Socialist Feminists that it was the Liberals that got them equal rights), but never mind. I basically don’t have too much of a problem with this analysis, it’s the reason open minded people like me are happy in Labour; they get all that equal rights and personal freedom jazz better than many actual Liberals!
If this seems to suggest to you, as it did to me, that a distinct Liberal party is redundant in an age of social liberalism, fear not! Reeves comes to the rescue with a rambling and, of course, vague prescription for what a ‘hard-driving, radical liberal party of the political centre’ should look like.
Part of the prescription is thing like support for gay marriage, which Labour have been leading the fight on for years. The rest of it is a bit of tinkering to our institutions and tax code, but essentially not a huge amount different to George Osborne’s prayer and leeches approach. There are a few sensible things in there; a boost in infrastructure spending and green growth strategy for example. But there’s also fairly dull run of the mill stuff like reform of Parliament and the tax system, looking at media ownership and party funding, the promotion of mutuals (though how they think they’re going to manage that without the dreaded ‘statism’ is beyond me) etc etc.
It is important to recognise at this juncture that this presents no grand vision or overall strategy. Whilst that is not a bad thing inherently, but does seem to suggest an acceptance of the basic Thatcherite economic doctrine.
So Reeves answers the philosophical (ideological would have been a more accurate word to use but accuracy never was Lib Dems’ strong point) question with 2 strangely incongruous arguments. Firstly, that the great Liberal battles have been won, and secondly that the new territory for modern Liberal ideology apparently being carved out by Clegg is pretty much soft Toryism with a dash of extra social Liberalism and perhaps a greater willingness to reform a few of our institutions. Think the description of soft Toryism is too harsh? Consider the full-throated endorsement of free schools and the NHS break-up/privatisation fiasco. Consider the flat out dismissal of state mechanisms to solve economic problems. Consider the idiotic equivocation of trade unions and investment banks as ‘vested interests’.
In Victorian times the Liberal Party was the party of business, trade and industry whilst the Tories were the party of the nobility, the landed gentry, farmers and Empire. But now that the Conservatives have absorbed the business lobby, what’s left on the table for a 21st Century Liberal Party? Soft Toryism and social liberalism?
And then it hit me. The Lib Dem right (the group I have been discussing) and the Lib Dem left joined the party for the same reasons, and it’s not because of ideology. Liberalism as an ideology is, in the 21st century, a convenient illusion. They have no real ideology of their own. Whilst Labour and Tory members and voters often have an ideological conviction, and a passion for their side, Lib Dems are motivated more by their own self-perception, vanity, naivety or some combination of the above.
Allow me to explain myself. Liberalism was not always a null ideology. The problem is that the economics of classical Liberalism has been absorbed by the right, and the morals absorbed by the left. Reeves and his ilk have a basically Conservative (aka neo-liberal) world view, but cannot bring themselves to be an actual Tory because of their own pretention and self-importance.
Self-perception? Maybe they grew up in an atmosphere of great anti-tory sentiment and cannot bring themselves to identify with a party many they grew up with despise. Vanity? Maybe they did not want to be seen as a Conservative because the stereotype of a backward, ignorant, Daily Mail reading old man offended their sensibilities too much. Most of all though, I think naivety was the catalyst. Maybe they simply found it impossible to accept all the negative baggage that parties accumulate. By joining the Lib Dems, a party who had been without power for most of living memory, they joined a baggage free operation. This brings me back to my earlier suggestion; that rather than having a deep-seated objection to Conservative ideology, the Lib Dem right simply finds Tories rather distasteful.
The same cocktail is in play when it comes to the Lib Dem left. They used to find Labour a distasteful prospect. The only problem is that by being in Coalition with the Tories, the Lib Dem left is getting saddled with baggage that it does not like, and is deserting to join Labour in droves, having finally had a rude awakening from the naïve dream of a baggage free party.
A common caricature of Lib Dems is to say they are woolly, disorganised, slightly muddled and a little bit weird. Now obviously that’s not always the case but it does point to a support base that isn’t quite sure what it’s doing; not quite sure what it’s fighting for. I call modern Liberalism a convenient illusion because it serves as an excuse for political involvement outside of the main parties. However, it is clear that its philosophical habitat is on the verge of annihilation.
For its decisive role in ending hereditary privilege, state religion, absolute monarchy, and the Divine Right of Kings in the 19th century, Liberalism must be applauded. But the political axis no longer revolves around Monarchism and Capitalism. Capitalism won, and rightly so. The 20th and 21st centuries have seen the rise of a new axis; Neo-liberalism (modern Conservatism, the heir to capitalism) vs Socialism. If ‘liberalism’ is to be the label we place on those in the middle of the political spectrum, and nothing more, then a label is all it is. One could complain at this point that all political ‘isms’ are labels, and you would be correct. But in the 21st century there is a great deal of meaning and substance behind the labels, behind the poles of Neo-liberalism and Socialism. The same cannot be said for Liberalism.
Reeves ends by quoting Jo Grimond, a former leader of the Liberals. ‘There is no point keeping a liberal party alive unless it promotes liberalism’. But Liberalism as a historical project is dying, killed by an ideological pincer between Socialism and Neo-liberalism which have undermined and subverted it. Liberals must realise that they lie upon a new axis where traditional Liberalism will struggle to be relevant. The question is: if Liberalism is dying, how long will it be before Liberals realise it?