(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.
I have a cousin who comments on my Facebook, any time I say anything even vaguely political. You all have the same cousin, I suspect. The one who turns any political discussion round to the subjects of Ron Paul, fiat money, taxation being theft, and how the government are trying to provoke race riots to take guns away.
Despite his political opinions, he’s a decent person in most ways, and an intelligent one. And after another frustrating conversation in Facebook comments he said to me “..I wish I could communicate like you Andrew . I frustrate myself most of the time.”
I gave him some advice, and it turned out rather more long-winded than I intended, so I thought I’d post it here, for the benefit of anyone else who shares his particular communication problems (and yes, I’m aware of the irony of anyone asking *me* for communications advice):
The main thing to remember to communicate better is to fight one battle at a time and stay on a single topic. I know that most of the injustices in the world — economic, social, political and so on — are interlinked, though I disagree with you about (some of) the causes and (many of) the solutions, as well as the relative importance of some of the injustices.
But if you talk about every problem at once, firstly it’s too much information for people to absorb in one go, and secondly it gives people more reasons to disagree with you. Talk about the problems with banks, and people who dislike the banks will agree. Talk about the injustice of the Iraq War, and people who were against the war will agree. Once they’re agreeing with you, it’s much easier to persuade them, one issue at a time, that you’re right about other things. If you talk about the war *and* the banks, then the people who are OK with the banks but not the war will be annoyed, and so will the people who were OK with the war but not the banks.
Remember that just as you see Alex Jones and David Icke as poisoning the well, there will be (are) people who agree with 90% of what you say but will see the other 10% as dangerous or evil nonsense. You have to get those people on side if you want to change things.
Not only that, but *at least half the time those people will be right* — and if you can discuss one aspect of your beliefs with them, you may find that they will persuade you that they’re right about something else.
You have a political philosophy that’s very much a minority view, as do I, though our philosophies are different (though both, I think, based fundamentally on a love of liberty and a hatred of oppression). Getting people to agree with your entire philosophy in one go is going to be impossible. But you could, for example, persuade people to support sanctions against Israel (I don’t know, myself, if those would be a good or bad thing, as Middle Eastern foreign policy isn’t my strong point, but I’m pretty sure you’re for them), or a transaction tax on banking.
By concentrating on small, winnable, campaigns, and making one argument at a time, as well as working within large organisations that share some — but not all — of my goals, I’ve helped to get rid of ID cards, to stop the communications data bill, and to bring in same sex marriage (and I failed to get AV brought in, but made a HUGE personal difference in the Manchester vote, which was far higher than the national average). I’ve only been a small part of achieving those things, but I *have* been a part of them, and helped make the world slightly more like the one I want to live in as a result.
Paradoxically, if you pick just one aspect of the problems you see, and go on about it to the exclusion of all else, you’ll seem *less* of a monomaniac than if you try to talk about *all* the things you think. The one time I listened to Alex Jones’ show, for example, he was interviewing Noam Chomsky. The whole introduction, and the first half of the conversation, was just Jones praising Chomsky to the skies and saying how wonderful his book Manufacturing Consent was (it is). Then Jones said something about gun control, Chomsky disagreed, politely, and Jones went into a screaming rage, calling him a traitor and a Communist and in the employ of the government trying to trick people into giving up their rights, because he isn’t capable of coping with someone who agrees with him about some things and not others.
The less you can be like that, and the more you can work with people with whom you agree on some matters but disagree on others, the better chance you have of persuading people to your viewpoints.
(Not, I hasten to add, that I’m deliberately thinking all the time “How can I manipulate people into doing what I want?” — I’m an Aspie who does what comes naturally and then looks at what worked afterwards, not a psychopath who manipulates people…)
(When commenting here, BTW, I would ask my Facebook friends to remember that the person in question *is* a relative of mine, and moderate any comments about him accordingly…)
I am lucky enough to know roughly half the executive for LGBT+ Lib Dems, plus a few former exec members, at levels of friendship ranging from “occasionally talk on Twitter” through to “married to one of them”. Because of this, I know some of the background to the bill that will (fingers crossed) pass today.
I’m not going to talk about it in any great detail, because while LGBT+ equality is the principal cause (or one of the principal causes) of many of my friends, it’s not one I’ve been hugely active in myself. I’m a member of LGBT+ Lib Dems, but am not actually L, G, B, T or + myself, and am a completely inactive member, and so I would get a lot of the details wrong. But what I want to say is this:
MPs will be taking the credit for this Bill, and the Act it will, with luck, become. They will be going on TV, doing interviews, and so on. But this would not be happening without the efforts of a fairly small number of people, most not in Parliament, who spent years of their life doing the groundwork that made this possible. I’ve seen some of the work some of them have done, and heard about more of it, and that makes me want to make two points.
The first is to those activists — that even if that work isn’t publicly recognised, it is appreciated by those of us who have seen some of it.
The second is to everyone else. There are people reading this who support every party and none, and many of you — most of you — will believe that politics offers you no opportunity to make a difference, to make the world a better place, or at least more like you want it to be. And that’s understandable, because at least since the mid 1970s, possibly earlier, we haven’t had anything that could remotely be considered an actual good government in this country (if Blair had actually implemented the 1997 Labour manifesto, or if the Coalition Agreement was being kept to in some important regards, those two had the potential to be good, but as it is all we can talk about is which governments have been the least worst). I get the impression the same could also be said for the US and Canada.
But while you can’t single-handedly change the whole course of the country you live in, you *can* make a difference on one or two issues that you care about. You might not win, necessarily — the biggest political campaign I’ve been involved in in recent years was the AV referendum, where we lost — but you can make a difference. In the case of the AV referendum, I’m fairly sure that I’m personally responsible for at least a thousand “yes” votes, possibly more.
It’s very easy right now to say “they’re all the same” — and in a lot of important respects, we have very little choice in what kind of government we have, thanks to our broken electoral system. But if there’s a specific issue you care about, you *can* make a difference. Today proves it.
For the last few days a petition has been circulating on Twitter about the Ugandan anti-homosexuality law. I’ve been telling people not to sign it when I see them tweet about it, because Ugandan LGBT groups have been saying, consistently, that Western interference has been damaging to them.
This morning I tweeted Neil Gaiman saying as much, and eight hours later he was good enough to retweet it, including the link I included in my tweet. That tweet has now become my most retweeted tweet ever.
Except… look at that link. Between me tweeting this morning and the night-time retweetgasm, the post has updated — apparently now those Ugandan LGBT people *do* want us kicking up a fuss, because the situation has changed.
Sometimes, no matter what you do, you end up making things worse…