(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.
Posted this to Facebook, but then thought it might as well go here too.
I’m having a lot of difficulty in discussing politics at the moment. The problem is that so often debate is polarised between two false alternatives, and actually trying to even express an opinion makes me either have to equivocate so much the point gets lost or conversely accept framings I fundamentally disagree with.
“Do you agree with the health bill?”
“Well, no, actually, I think there are various problems with…”
“Great! I’ll add you to my Save Labour’s NHS From The ConDems Who Are Destroying It petition, shall I?”
“Er, no… I think the problems with the NHS bill are precisely those areas where it’s most similar to Labour’s policy…”
“Ah, so you’re a Tory bastard who hates the poor, then?”
“No… I think the basic idea of the bill is sound, but making it compulsory for GPs to take on extra admin work, rather than optional, for example is a terrible…”
“OK! I’ll put you down for the End The Evil Postcode Lottery campaign!”
“No, I *like* the idea of localism, and people in an area deciding for themselves what their health priorities are…”
“You ARE a Tory!”
“So I’m a Tory because I trust my GP more than, say, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust who were rated second-worst in the country and who sacked a nurse for comments related to her union activities?”
“Yes, because she was organising against a trust run by a LABOUR council”
I get so tired with that argument though, and many others like that, that I often end up just saying “Yeah, smash the evil bill”, because I do think that on the whole the health bill is a bad idea (and a missed opportunity when we could have argued earlier in the process for a genuinely liberal NHS) and I end up sounding like the worst kind of authoritarian Labourite. Either that or I just hurl abuse at the person I’m arguing with.
I suppose this is the dilemma of the Liberal throughout the ages — agreeing with Labourites about (some of) the problems but disagreeing about the solutions — but it’s put into focus more when the Lib Dems are actually in government, and working with the Tories.
(This is NOT an invitation for a debate over the health bill, for precisely the reasons above. Nor is it a dig at any particular Labour member, or indeed Tory. If you don’t argue like that, then it’s not about you.)
I was meant to write a couple of posts on comics and a short story today, but I appear to have developed logorrhoea on totally unrelated matters, don’t I? Oh well…
One of the big things I hear a lot from people is that they don’t actually know what the Liberal Democrats stand for, or what liberalism actually is. This is especially true at the moment, with the Parliamentary Party being in a coalition with the Conservatives. It’s also not helped by American English having a fundamentally different meaning for the word ‘liberal’ than Commonwealth English, and by British sites like Liberal Conspiracy (a Labour mouthpiece) using that meaning.
I wouldn’t presume to speak for the rest of the party, but I thought if I wrote something on here at least my readers would get some understanding of my own political position.
This will be incoherent. Large chunks of it will go against party policy. Some of it is utterly wrongheaded, I’m sure. I have a very good understanding of issues to do with civil liberties, electoral reform, LGBT rights, and so on – I’ve spent a fair amount of time investigating these issues. I have almost no understanding of economics, so when I talk about that I’m probably going to contradict myself and talk shit.
So this is what *I* mean when I refer to *myself* as a Liberal. I joined the Liberal Democrats and decided to call myself a Liberal because, of all the political parties that matter electorally in England, the Lib Dems’ policies come closest to the idiosyncratic list below. They’re not the same as that list though. In some cases that’s because of a compromise between principle and pragmatism – you can’t get elected on the platform I’m going to describe. In many others, though, it’s because people who are cleverer than I, who have more knowledge of the issues, have thought long and hard and come to a different conclusion. As few of those conclusions seem obviously immoral or absurd, I go along with them until I understand the issue better.
I’m going to break this up into three sections, Freedom, Hatred of privilege and Democracy, for the three things that motivate me most.
The Lib Dems’ most important text is On Liberty by John Stuart Mill (and Harriet Taylor). In particular, the ‘harm principle’ seems to me the single most important point of principle, from which all else should follow:
The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
Not only is this morally right, it is also the pragmatically correct attitude. Anyone who has studied cybernetics knows that to control a system you must have as many options open to you as there are degrees of freedom in the system (this actually follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the single most basic law of physics). It is, quite simply, impossible as well as undesirable for a government to try to control its citizenry in every detail of their lives, as the last government did. Assuming each person in a country of sixty million has five options open to them that the government cares about, to get them all to choose the option you want them to would require the government to have 5^60,000,000 (that’s roughly 8 with forty-nine zeroes after it) different options open to it. The only way for a government to control people’s behaviour successsfully is to choose a very, very small number of things it’s interested in, and for those things to be things that most people wouldn’t do anyway. Laws against murder and theft can be somewhat effective (though never 100% effective) because the vast majority of us don’t want to kill or steal anyway, so the government can concentrate on that small number who do.
It’s also possible for laws to work when they’re setting an arbitrary convention – we all agree that we need to drive on one side of the road and not the other, and that it’s better if we all follow the same rule. Nobody has a huge emotional attachment to driving on the left or right, so the government can set a standard and everyone will follow it.
From this follow various other things – laws against free speech, against drug use, against private sexual practices, none of these can ever really work, and where they exist they should be abolished.
Hatred of privilege
Despite the above, Liberals are strong advocates of the rule of law. Those laws which we do support should be applied equally to everyone. Either murder is illegal, in which case all murderers should be prosecuted (though there should be no aspect of vengeance in this – people’s liberty should be limited only in so far as it’s necessary to prevent further harm to others), or it isn’t, in which case none should. And the same rules – rules of evidence, burden of proof and so on – should be applied across the board. These rules should also be biased *against* conviction – if we are going to restrict someone’s liberty, that’s a big, important thing to do, and should only happen if we’re *ABSOLUTELY* certain it’s the correct thing to do.
Having different rules for different people is the original and most important definition of privilege – it comes from the Latin privi legium, private law. And privilege in every sense is something I, at least, want to defeat.
In many cases, this means clearing away bad laws that privilege one group over another. Getting rid of the stupid rules regarding marriage, for example, or allowing immigrants to vote, getting rid of the House of Lords with its appointed and hereditary rulers (and especially getting rid of the bishops from within it, who privilege one religion over all others by being there).
There is also such a thing as economic privilege, however. You can’t be totally free if you can’t eat, or you don’t have healthcare, or you never learned to read or write. There’s a reason both Keynes and Beveridge were Liberals.
Now, while I’m no economist so this is probably the weakest part of this, my view is simple. Every human being should, to the extent it’s possible, have a roof over their head, food, clothing, enough education and access to information to take part in society, and enough medical access that they don’t suffer needlessly. Any society in which that’s not the case is not one which I would call civilised.
My personal favoured method for this is a citizens’ income, which used to be Lib Dem policy but was scrapped as too radical, but the current ‘universal credit’ welfare reforms come very, very close to it. In this, rather than the government giving people housing benefit, money off prescriptions, money for childcare, whatever – a bunch of vouchers and tokens you can only use for one thing each, and which require a great deal of administration – the government just gives everyone enough money to pay for those things and says “here you go”, trusting them to do what’s best for themselves. (Yes, I know there are problems with this. There are problems with every system. This is my ‘ideal world’ system.)
But how is this to be paid for? If someone works hard and earns money, we don’t want to take that off them. If you go down a mine and dig up a load of coal for a couple of hundred quid a week, should you be paying half that to someone else who can’t be bothered to work?
Well no, obviously not. However, not everyone does work. There’s a huge class of people who get their money not from work but from rent-seeking – either from actual rent (landlords) or from the exploitation of other monopolies (bankers, people who live off ‘investments’).
There are only two ways I can think of of getting money, either by creating wealth by making or thinking of something (‘workers by hand and brain’ as the old Labour Party Clause Four had it), or by exploiting government-created monopolies (for example ‘intellectual property’ laws or mining rights to an area).
It’s the latter which should be taxed far more than income from actual work, as a way of redressing economic privilege. Monopolies are effectively gifts from the government (which is to say from the population at large) to individuals, and those individuals should repay the bulk of the wealth they get from these gifts back to the population. Someone who builds or designs a house is creating wealth – there is something there that wasn’t there before, that’s of value. Someone who rents the house out, however, is not creating wealth, just taking advantage of a pre-existing inequality (they have a house and their tenants don’t).
Hark! The sound is spreading from the east and from the west!
Why should we work hard and let the landlords take the best?
Make them pay their taxes on the land just like the rest!
The land was meant for the people.
The hatred of privilege ties very strongly into the need for freedom. Unless a transsexual, polyamorous, black person with cerebral palsy born on a council estate has the same tools to make the life she wants for herself as Prince Harry does, then she is less free than he is. (Of course, it may also be that Prince Harry would quite like to stop being third in line for the throne and become a juggler in a left-wing arts collective, but is being stopped from doing so by his position in society. Privileges can hurt the privileged as well as the unprivileged, though usually not as much).
If we are to assume that a government should exist at all, then we want that government to have a few properties. We want it to not do anything that the majority of the people in society think is intolerable. We want it to protect the rights of minorities, no matter what the majority think. And we want it to be effective – we want its actions to have the intended consequences.
The second of these is best solved by some kind of constitution or bill of rights – in the UK the European Convention on Human Rights and its incorporation into British law with the Human Rights Act fulfil this role. Things like this, while a departure from pure democracy, are necessary to prevent democracy turning into tyrranny. (I could easily imagine a situation where the majority of the population decided it was OK to murder fat nerdy blokes called Andrew if they really got on your nerves by writing overlong blog posts. I don’t particularly want such a law to be passed, even if it was the democratic will of the country).
Handily, our third requirement is best solved by feedback – the more information you can get into the system the better. This is handy because it also fulfils the first criterion, that government should not do anything that the majority find intolerable. If we have some kind of democratic system, then these criteria are fulfilled handily.
Some might argue for direct democracy – people voting on every issue. There are problems with this, however. Partly, the problem is that people’s opinions aren’t consistent – I could very easily see a majority voting “yes” to “Should we spend more money on the NHS, education and fighting crime?” *and* to “Should we cut your taxes by a thousand pounds a year?”. The other problem is that most people have neither the time nor the inclination to investigate the issues. I think of myself as a fairly well-informed person, for example, but I have absolutely no idea whether the seven billion pound loan to Ireland that Britain just made was a good decision or a bad one.
So the best compromise is representative democracy – everyone votes for the person or persons who they agree with most on the subjects they know about, and make it that person’s job to find out everything they can about every subject necessary for government. This actually works quite well, because votes in aggregate will produce someone who’s a good compromise on all competencies – people who know about civil liberties will vote for candidates who are strong on civil liberties, people who know about economics will vote for candidates who are strong on economics, so a candidate who is strong on both will get both sets of votes.
However, our current First Past The Post system isn’t a very effective way of getting this information into the system, because a single cross every five years, in a seat where for the most part a maximum of two candidates have a chance (which is nearly all of them), is a rate of one bit every five years. To put that into perspective, for an individual voter to get across the information in this post up to the end of that last sentence would take 520,320 years (assuming elections every five years. If they were every four years, it would only take 416,256 years).
On the other hand, a ranked preferential system like the Alternative Vote (which we will be voting on next year) or Single Transferable Vote (which the Lib Dems like) gets *FAR* more information into the government. In my constituency last time, only Labour or the Lib Dems could have won, so I had a binary choice between those two candidates if I was voting for an MP – one bit of information. On the other hand, there were eight candidates on the ballot. If I’d been able to rank my preferences, that would have given me 8! different ways of expressing myself. That’s 40,320 different options, or on the order of sixteen bits of information. Government is going to reflect public opinion much better – and be more effective – if voters have 40,320 choices than if they have two.
So, anyway, that’s roughly what *I* mean by being a liberal. It may not be what other liberals mean, but I think it’s close to what a lot of them think. If you’re a liberal and vociferously disagree, please do so in the comments – I’ll be very interested to see to what extent people agree or disagree with this…
A quick post-election playlist for you…
Common People by Pulp is from Different Class, the best political album of the 90s. This is the live version from Glastonbury in 1995 – a gig I was lucky enough to be at, and still remember with awe fifteen years later.
Hard Times Of Old England Retold by The Imagined Village is a rewrite by Billy Bragg of the old folk song. With verses complaining about the banks, Tesco and post office closures, it only needs something about potholes and it’d be a Focus leaflet set to music.
No Matter Who You Vote For, The Government Always Gets In by The Bonzo Dog Band has been proven true again this week…
Power In The Darkness by The Tom Robinson Band is a good demonstration of the Liberal and Conservative ideas of freedom:
“Freedom to choose to do with your body/Freedom to believe what you like/Freedom for brothers to love one another/Freedom for black and white/Freedom from elitism, male domination/Freedom for the mother and wife/Freedom from Big Brother’s interrogation/Freedom to live your own life” versus
“Freedom from the Reds and the blacks and the criminals/Prostitutes, pansies and punks/Football hooligans, juvenile delinquents, lesbians and left-wing scum/Freedom from the niggers and the pakis and the unions/Freedom from the gypsies and the jews/Freedom from the long-haired layabouts and students, freedom from the likes of you”
Cunts Are Still Running The World by Jarvis Cocker. Yes, they are.
Taxes, Taxes by Hank Penny is also self-explanatory…
The Disappointed by XTC could almost be written about the Lib Dems at the moment – in this case ‘the ones who broke their hearts’ are the voters who deserted in the last hours.
The Trader by The Beach Boys is a song about the evils of imperialist capitalist exploitation, by a band who are thought of as the ultimate conservative whitebread Americans but at the time had two black South African members and a Puerto Rican keyboardist.
Things Are Changing (For The Better) by Diana Ross And The Supremes would be nice if it were true, wouldn’t it? This is instrumentally a Phil Spector production of a Brian Wilson song, but with the Supremes’ vocals replacing those of Darlene Love and the Blossoms (whose version isn’t on Spotify).
This Land Is Your Land by Woody Guthrie is here because Spotify doesn’t have any versions of The Land, the Liberal Democrat party song, and this has a very similar message.- “There was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me/The side was painted, said ‘private property’/But on the back side, it didn’t say nothin’/This land was made for you and me”.
And Tramp The Dirt Down by Elvis Costello is far, far kinder about Thatcher than I would be…