(Continues from the introduction)
Before I start explaining what Liberalism is, it’s probably a good idea to explain what it isn’t — why the Liberal Democrats are perceived very differently from the reality, and why some of what you think about them is probably wrong.
Since at least the French Revolution, there has been a traditional splitting of parties into left-wing and right-wing. In Britain, the principal left-wing party is nominally the Labour party, although that party has moved very far to the right in the last twenty years compared to its historical positions. The principal right-wing party has always been the Conservative party.
Both of these parties, like all major political parties, are broad coalitions of different interest groups, but very roughly their split is on economic grounds.
The Labour party have traditionally been democratic socialists and social democrats. This isn’t so true any more, as they have moved much further to the right than even most of their supporters would like, but the basic idea animating the Labour movement is, roughly (and I apologise if I caricature this, and would welcome corrections from anyone who thinks I’m missing nuance):
The best way to organise the economy is to have large parts of it controlled by a central government that can redistribute resources to those who most need them, and for the party running the government to retain ties to the working classes by being allied with a mass Trade Union movement.
I don’t know to what extent the modern Labour party leadership agree with that statement, but it’s one that much of the membership agrees with, and can be seen in some of the actions taken by the Labour government between 1997 and 2010.
By contrast, the Conservative party, post-Thatcher, broadly believes:
The best way to organise the economy is through the profit motive. Those who have money at the moment generally have it because they’re better at making money than other people are, and since the only reasonable way to make money is to provide a service that people will pay for, people who are good at making money for themselves are also benefiting society. The best thing government can do is to step aside and leave them to it (and sometimes provide them with a little help if they think it’s really necessary).
I may be over-simplifying, there, but I think that those positions are very roughly correct.
Liberalism, on the other hand, is not an economic position at all.
That’s not to say that there is no such thing as Liberal economics — far from it. Both the most influential economists of the twentieth century, Keynes and Hayek, described themselves as Liberal (although the Liberal Democrat party has always been far keener on Keynes than on Hayek). There is a whole long history of Liberal economics, from John Stuart Mill’s laissez-faire through the Distributists of the early part of the twentieth century to the zero-growth economics advocated by some in the 1980s, and I will be dealing with it more in future essays. Essentially, though, the point of Liberal economics has always been:
An economic system which enables each individual to achieve fulfillment through his [sic] work, which distributes the proceeds of industry to all, and which, denying excessive power to the bureaucracy and to those who own capital, guarantees to each worker the right to share in the direction and rewards of his [sic] labour
Apologies for the sexist language there — feminism and identity politics had not yet become part of the Liberal mainstream when that was written.
The Liberal economic tradition can best be described as a sort of market socialism — ensuring that workers control the means of production, but directly, through mutuals, co-operatives and so forth, rather than indirectly through the state. (Half my Liberal friends will have shuddered at that description because I used the word “market”, the other half because I used the word “socialism”. I’m trying to over-simplify our own ideas here too…)
But crucially, Liberalism has never been primarily about economics. Even from the beginning of Liberalism as an identified philosophy, with John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor), On Liberty did not make the same arguments as Principles Of Political Economy. Mill’s laissez-faire economics were certainly compatible with the politics of On Liberty, but he never claimed that they arose from the same principles — he argued for them on pragmatic grounds .
Rather than being about how one organises the economy, then, Liberalism has always been about how one organises society — the organisation of political institutions, and the distribution of political, rather than of economic, power. The two are interlinked, of course, and so political and economic Liberalism go well together — the Liberal Democrats’ unofficial anthem, The Land, is a call for a land value tax to prevent rent-seeking — but it is perfectly possible to be a Liberal Socialist or a Liberal Capitalist.
Liberalism exists on an axis orthogonal to the conventional left-right axis, which is a terrible oversimplification. A good comparison would be with environmentalism, which is orthogonal to both axes — one could be a right-authoritarian environmentalist, like for example John Aspinall or the Goldsmith family, a left-liberal environmentalist, like many members of the Liberal Democrats, or a left-authoritarian one like many in the Green party.
But this leads to a problem. The easiest way to explain this for harried journalists, or for those politicians who are more keen on pragmatism than on political theory, is just to say “Liberalism is neither left nor right, but in the centre”. It’s only in the centre if the top of a pyramid is in the centre of its base.
Liberalism is a unique philosophy of its own, and to think of it as a compromise between the beliefs of the Labour and Conservative parties, in the “moderate centre”, is a bit like thinking of Christianity as a moderate compromise between Judaism and Islam.
In the next essay, I plan to talk about why centrism itself is a bad thing.
1 — Young Liberal Statement, 1970, quoted in Meadowcroft, M. Liberal Values For A New Decade, 2nd edition, North West Community Newspapers, 1980.
2 — I am indebted here to The Thinking Person’s Guide To Liberalism by Conrad Russell for this argument.
As regular readers of my blog may know, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats.
At the moment, saying that in public is scary — I’ve actually had death threats from people just because they disapprove of my membership of the party. The Liberal Democrats are not very popular, and I can understand this given some of the actions the current government, of which they are a part, have taken over the last few years.
So why am I a member of the Liberal Democrats?
That’s what I’m planning to explain over the next eighteen months.
Currently, we’re a little under two years away from an election in which the Liberal Democrats are almost certain to lose a large number of seats. It won’t be the wipe-out that many pundits are predicting — the chances are that there will still be roughly thirty-five Lib Dem MPs in May 2015 — but it will be bad.
Over that time, then, I want to look at what the party can do after that — what the future is for the Liberal Democrats post-coalition, what policies we should be looking at, and what we can do to build the party back up to the levels of support it had in May 2010, and further.
But more importantly, I’m going to try to do two other things.
You see, I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats because I am a liberal. And I believe that while the Liberal Democrats are a flawed vessel for liberalism, they are still the best hope this country has of getting liberal policies implemented and giving voice to liberal ideas.
But most people don’t actually know what liberalism is. Even though it’s possibly the most intellectually rigorous, defensible, political position of all the major strands of political thought in UK politics, the vast majority of people couldn’t explain what liberals stand for, in a way they could explain what a socialist or a conservative stood for [FOOTNOTE To make matters worse, of course, because liberalism is orthogonal to the left-right socialist-conservative axis that is used to discuss contemporary politics, one could be a liberal socialist or a liberal conservative. We will discuss this more in a future essay.].
Once one actually understands what liberalism is, the actions of the Liberal Democrats make a lot more sense than they do to many of the people who have been feeling confused and let down by the party over the last few years.
But the other thing I shall be doing is I shall be attempting to show that when the party has gone wrong — and it has made mistakes, at all levels, as all political parties do — it’s not been because it’s been “too right-wing” or “cosying up to the Tories”, but because it’s not been sufficiently liberal. I’ll try to show that the more liberal the party is, the more chance it has of success. I’ll look at liberalism and identity politics, liberalism and democratic reform, liberalism and drug laws, liberalism and the internet, liberalism and the environment, and try to show a coherent way of thinking about these issues.
But most importantly, I’ll be discussing liberalism as an ideology, and the benefits of having an ideology at all.
Currently, Britain notionally has three major parties — the Conservative party, supposedly conservatives who support capitalism, the Labour party, who are allegedly social democrats or democratic socialists, and the Liberal Democrats, who are liberals.
But for a variety of reasons, which I will look at, both the Conservatives and Labour have implemented essentially identical, managerialist, policies, which very few people support and which have proven ineffective, for more than thirty years. I’m going to argue that the best way to distinguish the Liberal Democrats from those other parties is to put forward a distinctly liberal agenda, and that we should not be afraid of appearing extreme.
Because, even aside from liberalism being (in my view) the correct set of ideas to make the world a better place, there’s also the fact that people respond better to conviction politicians than to managers.
Certainly in my own case, while I’m a liberal, I would far rather be governed by an actual socialist or an actual conservative, governing from socialist or conservative principles, than by a centrist managerialist like Tony Blair or David Cameron. Even if they do the wrong thing, a politician working from principles is likely to be more persuadable than one doing the convenient thing.
Incidentally, in this series of posts, I am going to be pretty much entirely positive about the Liberal Democrats. I do not expect the same from my commenters, but I do ask for respect. And in particular, I’d like not to have to engage in what-aboutery. I don’t want anyone to ask “Yes, but how can you support a party in a government that did X, Y and Z?”
You can safely assume that I am as aware of some of the problems with the current government as you are, and that I’m working within the party to fix them. But that awareness is because the two biggest political parties in the country, the unions, every national newspaper, many of the TV channels, and every major leader of industry has spent the last three years repeating, over and over, a list of talking points against the party. I think that putting my own little blog up against the whole of the media in the UK and saying “no, here I’m going to talk about the positive side, and not do my enemies’ work for them” is fair enough. I hope you’ll agree, and I hope you’ll find the posts, which will be coming up every so often for the next eighteen months, worthwhile.
“If two monkeys want the same banana, in the end one will have it, and the other will cry morality. Who gets to form the committee to decide the rules that will be used to determine what is ‘fair’? Whoever it is, got the banana.”
Most people don’t care about democracy.
Oh, people pay lip service to the idea, certainly — they know that ‘democracy’ is on a list of Good Ideas that they should support — but they don’t actually care about democracy itself, just about saying the right words.
If I hadn’t already known this, I would have had it driven home to me by the response to the AV campaign. Not the vote against it — that was down to the Yes campaign being utterly incompetent — but people’s individual responses.
Because the thing I got asked the most during the campaign wasn’t “how does it work?” or “is it fairer?” or anything along those lines, but “Will X be more likely to get in?”
People, for the most part, care about results, but not about processes, and this is why we’re seeing the current ‘argument’ about Lords reform being phrased as “why are you bothering with something like this instead of [thing person saying this cares about]?”
But what a lot of people seem to be failing to see is that in the current system, they will never get [thing they care about], because the government — whichever party is in — doesn’t care about what the people want. The system we have is set up in such a way that two near-identical parties take it in turns to form governments, and those two parties care about the opinions of a very small number of people. You may have very strong opinions about welfare reform, about healthcare, about education, about the economy, about whether the government should start wars of aggression against foreign countries — in the current system, your opinions literally don’t matter. What matters are the opinions of a handful of swing voters, in a handful of marginal constituencies — and that only to the extent that they can be persuaded that one of two major parties agrees with them.
I am convinced — utterly convinced — that representative democracy — *truly* representative democracy — is the best form of government. The more weight that is given to the opinions of the people, the better the resulting government will be. Given the choice between a representative government doing something I dislike — even something I think is absolutely evil — or a ‘benevolent’ dictatorship — even were I to be the dictator — I would always choose the representative government. Because elections are a means of feedback, of correcting course when things go wrong, of fixing mistakes. Without them, governments go careering off into insanity. And the subtler and more responsive the electoral system, the less drastic the changes that have to be made.
But democracy isn’t especially good for politicians. They tend not to like it. The current system, where if you get a safe seat you have a job for life, and if you don’t you can always go to the Lords, and where two parties take Muggins’ turn at being in charge, each letting the other clear up their worst mistakes, is very, very satisfactory for them.
That’s why, despite their supposed differences, Labour and the Tories ganged up to kill electoral reform. And that’s why they’re now ganging up to kill Lords reform. The systen that’s being proposed for the Lords (an open-list PR system with a 20% top-up of appointed, rather than elected, members) isn’t perfect — it’s very far from it — but it’s one that allows feedback into the system. It allows things to be fixed. It allows *itself* to be fixed. Elect enough Lords who want a different system, and a different system will then be brought in.
The Lib Dems, despite their many faults (and I am as aware of them as anyone) believe in democracy. They *want* your vote to count. They *want* you to have more of a say. And right now, they’re the only party in Parliament that do (the Scottish and Welsh nationalists might, as well, to be fair — I’ve not examined their records on these issues because they don’t affect me).
We haven’t had a good government in at least my lifetime, and from what I’ve read the governments of the 70s weren’t exactly great either. And we will not have a good government as long as our legislature consists of one house elected through an archaic system that doesn’t reflect people’s preferences and a second house elected by nobody at all. We lost the battle to change the first (though that is a battle we can and will fight again), but we need to win the second.
I am a Liberal Democrat because I believe that there is *just* enough give in the current system that its rules can be used to build a better one by working within the system, even though the nature of that system requires compromise with evil at times. But were I not a Liberal Democrat I would not, under any circumstances, be supporting either of the two major parties who want to deny my voice any chance to get heard. I would either emigrate, or take to advocating revolutionary anarchism, because the structures we have in place at the moment are simply not capable of producing a good government.
With the Welfare Reform Bill being debated in Parliament at the moment, a lot of good Liberals are once again worrying about to what extent they can carry on supporting the party. Some of the provisions in the bill are excellent (the universal credit, for example, is a policy the Lib Dems and before them the Liberal Party had for decades, but we dropped it for being too left-wing and radical), others are debatable (a cap on total benefits equal to the median income of the country – there are genuine arguments on both sides here) and a few are frankly horrible (cutting contributions-based ESA for some claimants after a year).
Now, to a large extent, even the bad things this government are doing are defensible. All three major parties agreed, before the election, that cuts had to be made, and this graphic by Duncan Stott illustrates how far the Lib Dems have actually won in minimising the cuts:
And that graphic is taken from a post written before the government announced it was slowing down the rate of cuts.
In other words, a Labour government or Labour/Lib Dem coalition would have done substantially the same things, and a Tory government would have cut much more. This is actually as moderate a government as it was possible for us to get in 2010.
But so often this is the only argument made for the Lib Dems – that we’re making things less worse (that is to assume for the sake of argument that all cuts are bad. I’d argue in fact that a lot of government spending – on illegal wars and nuclear weapons, for example, could be cut without any bad effects). We say things like “Well, we’ve got an exemption for nearly ten percent of orphans in the Widows And Orphans (Massacring) Act 2011, and we’ve got a sunset clause included in the Slaughtering Of The Firstborn Bill so it’ll have to be re-debated by Parliament in four years.”
Those sorts of things are, of course, real achievements, but they don’t really feel like it, do they? Thanks to us, some bad things some other people were going to do are now less bad, but still bad – that’s not a rallying cry to stir the blood.
But in fact, we have also done a lot of genuinely good stuff, things that make the world a genuinely better place, that wouldn’t have been done by any other government. I’m going to make a short list here, but it’s not an exhaustive one – it’s just a list of things that I or my friends have noticed. My main areas of concern are human rights and constitutional reform, while most of the people I’m close to in the party are particularly active in LGBT+ Lib Dems, so those are the areas I’ll highlight. But I’m sure if you talk to people interested in, say, transport or energy policy you’d get a similar list.
No longer deporting LGB people to countries where they’re at risk. Under the last government, the policy was “they can stay in the closet”.
£400 million extra for mental health services, targeted especially at talking therapies Having worked in mental health under the previous government, one that supposedly cared more about the NHS than this one does (their supporters say) I can say from my own experience that the Labour party deserve never, ever to be allowed near government again simply because of their appaling, criminal, *EVIL* treatment of people with mental health problems. Mental health services are already improving under this government (I’m having to access services myself at the moment, for work-related stress problems, and the difference is extraordinary). This is something that was a personal campaign by Nick Clegg.
Lords reform The first elections for the House of Lords are planned for 2015. We might soon actually be a proper democracy.
An end to child detention of immigrants Private Eye argue with the letter of this, but the fact remains, under Labour literally thousands of children were held for weeks or months in what amounted to concentration camps (primarily at Yarl’s Wood) prior to deportation (or not – half were later found to be legal immigrants). Last year, numbers in the low double figures were held for single-figure hours immediately prior to deportation. I don’t care if Private Eye thinks that counts as ‘child detention’ in a literal sense – in a qualitative sense there is a huge, enormous difference.
An enquiry into the UK’s part in torture in the ‘war on terror’. I’ve seen photos of people literally boiled to death by torturers in the Middle East, supposedly acting with the collusion of the British government. These people need to be brought to justice.
The highest ever rise in pensions and unemployment benefits. Pensions are now on a ‘triple lock’, which means they will rise with whatever is greatest – inflation, wages or cost of living. Unemployment benefit rose by the same amount this year.
Lowering taxes for the poor and raising taxes for the rich – Capital Gains Tax has increased by 10%, there’s been a levy on the banks, we’ve kept the 50% top rate of tax, there’s talk of introducing a mansion tax – and this is being used to raise the personal allowance for income tax so the poorest workers won’t have to pay anything.
Actual gay marriage is going to be brought in, not just the compromise that is ‘civil partnerships’. (EDIT should read ‘same-gender marriage’. *slaps wrist* BAD bisexual ally! BAD!)
Detention without charge has been dropped from 28 days to 14. Still too long of course, but we’re some way back towards being a civilised country again.
DNA data of innocent people is being destroyed
Gay men convicted of ‘crimes’ involving consensual adults that would no longer be illegal are having their criminal records expunged
We have fixed-term parliaments – no longer will elections be at Prime Ministerial whim – this has been a demand of reformers since the Chartists.
The ID Cards scheme and database have been ended
The government will guarantee most of the mortgage for first-time buyers – allowing those of us who’ve spent our entire adult lives paying rents to profiteering landlords because of the artificially-inflated property ‘boom’ to finally have the possibility of owning our own home, ending a particularly nasty piece of generational injustice.
The government are also building more social housing than has been built in decades for those who still wouldn’t be able to buy their own home, so they don’t have to rent from slum landlords.
No replacement for Trident will be bought this parliament – because if you’re going to cut spending, take the money away from nuclear weapons first.
So this is why, despite the fact that I don’t support the government, I *do* support the Lib Dems in the government, and why I give up several hours of my weekends to go knocking on doors and delivering leaflets. Because we haven’t made the world perfect in only eighteen months with only nine percent of the MPs in parliament – but we’ve made it better. And that’s more than I can say about the actions of any other government party of my lifetime.
According to the cyberneticist Stafford Beer the purpose of a system is what it does – we shouldn’t look at an organisation’s stated principles, but at its results.
Applying this principle to politics, we can see that for my whole lifetime, the purposes of both the Labour and Conservative parties have been the same – to move that which was formerly the preserve of the private sphere into the public sphere and make it the business of government (ID cards, DNA databases, control orders, ASBOs) while simultaneously moving what was formerly considered the legitimate business of government into the hands of business (privatisations, PFI, outsourcing) in such a way that all the risk remains with the government but the rewards go to shareholders.
The current government hasn’t stopped the second part of this, but thanks to the Liberal Democrats it is partly reversing the first. This is why I can continue to support the Lib Dems despite very definitely *not* being a Conservative. The purpose of the Lib Dems is clearly different from the other two major parties.