The Liberal Moment

David Cameron argues in today’s Observer that as far as ‘progressive’ (shudder) policies go, there is little distance between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and we should be working together. His case is very superficially convincing – until you remember their slogan from the last election, If You Want A Nigger For Your Neighbour, Vote Labour It’s Not Racist To Impose Limits On Immigration. And indeed, until you actually look at everything the Conservatives stand for.

Cameron is trying to recreate the ‘big tent’ informal coalition that Blair and Ashdown had in 1997, trying to get us to unite against Labour as we previously united against the Tories (by the major party definition of ‘unite’ which is ‘agree with us in everything we do, even when we’re quite clearly insane’. See also Liberal Conspiracy’s idea of big-tent coalition), but it’s fundamentally misguided. His piece is just inane drivel, and its main reason for existing appears to be to try to persuade people considering the Lib Dems that the Tories would be the same – about as far from the truth as it gets.

The reason for Cameron writing this now – other than as a spoiler for the Lib Dem conference – is because Nick Clegg has just put out his most significant contribution to liberal thought so far, a pamphlet called Liberal Moment , which seems to skewer hopes of a Tory/Lib Dem alliance for good.

In the past, I’ve never been hugely impressed by Clegg as leader, but one thing I’ve always thought impressive was the way he could articulate genuinely liberal views, but in a way that would appeal to the Daily Mail crowd (something that other people, notably Alix Mortimer, have seen as a downside). However, here he is instead putting forward a case for Liberal values as part of a progressive strand of thought, which I’m far more comfortable with.

‘Progressive’ is a much-abused term, but reading through Clegg’s paper, one can see a rough definition emerging – for Clegg, ‘progressive’ appears to mean a commitment to both freedom and equality.

Clegg’s analysis – actually similar to the Blairite ‘big tent’ analysis of the mid-90s – is that there is a fundamental split between ‘progressives’ in this sense and conservatives, but that there is a further split in the progressive side between, roughly, those who think equality is important insofar as it helps bring about greater freedom, who gravitate toward the Liberal Democrats (and before them the Liberal Party) and those who think freedom is important insofar as it helps bring about greater equality, who gravitate toward the Labour Party.

Clegg argues – correctly in my view – that the two are natural allies, despite their very real differences. He then goes on to talk about how the Labour Party overtook the Liberal Party as the dominant progressive force in British politics in the early part of the 20th century, partly as a result of electoral pacts between the two, partly because of the splits within the Liberals themselves and their partial abandonment of some of their principles, but also – as he, rather uniquely for a Liberal (Democrat) admits – because the social democratic/democratic socialist principles of the Labour Party genuinely had something to add.

However, he argues that right now, top-down, centralised, statist governance is a bad idea, for much the same reasons I argue here, and that the failures of the Labour government have been linked to its authoritarian tendencies and wish to micromanage every part of people’s lives:

So this pamphlet starts and finishes with a particular view about the great differences in the Labour and Liberal traditions of progressive thought, and an assertion that as Labour heads fordefeat at the next election the future of progressive politics lies in liberalism. In much the same way that Labour was on the right side of events over a century ago when the Liberal party was not, I will argue that a reverse ‘switch’ in which the Liberal Democrats can become the dominant progressive force in British politics is now more possible than ever before.

What Clegg is definitely not doing here is using ‘liberal’ as a synonym for moderate, as most people appear to (see for example this post by Lawrence Miles – ” To be a liberal means to shield yourself from the full horror of your society, to have a veneer of civic responsibility while still approving of a system that’s wholly founded on exploitation.” That’s what ‘liberal’ in the USian/Liberal Conspiracy sense means, but has little to do with real liberalism).

Unfortunately, in the past the Lib Dems have, in our PR if not in our actions, encouraged that understanding of ‘liberalism’ as being smack in the middle (see, for example, this incredibly irritating bit of Littlejohnism from John Cleese. This mostly came about with the alliance of the Liberal Party with the SDP – who really *were* moderate centrists with fairly wooly ideas. The old joke “What do we want? Moderate change! When do we want it? In due course!” has sometimes been all too accurate when it comes to the ‘message’ the party has put out, even though since at least the early 90s we have been far more radical in our demands for change than either of the major parties.

In truth, Liberalism is, as Clegg is finally stating explicitly, a coherent political philosophy in its own right, equidistant from both the two major parties but in the same way the apex of an isoceles triangle is equidistant from the points at the base – further away from either than they are from each other.

Clegg ‘[refuses] to even contemplate’ ‘fall[ing] in line with Gordon Brown to hold back the rise of the Conservatives’ because in the ways that matter Labour and the Conservatives are largely indistinguishable, but he recognises in this paper that many of the aims of Labour members and supporters are ones that many Lib Dem members share. Fundamentally, though Clegg never puts it quite this way, the Lib Dem disagreement with Labour is about means, whereas with the Tories it’s about ends. Lib Dems don’t believe that government micromanagement can ever deliver a fairer world as Labour believe – let alone a freer world, which is what we want even more. But the Tories’ ‘solution’ – to punish the poor and disenfranchised for their position in society – is no solution at all.

There are individual aspects to Liberal Moment with which I find myself disagreeing – the involvement of victims in the justice system is always something that worries me, so the proposals for allowing vandals to say sorry to their victims and negotiate a way to make amends with them rather than going through the court system sound troubling. But that’s a minor point.

A more major one was pointed out by Gavin R in the comments here, when I linked this paper on Friday:

a keyword search suggests a worrying trend. Just look at these word frequencies in a text of about 70 pages:

women: 2
woman: 1
gender: 0
sex: 0
sexuality: 0
patriarchy: 0
gay: 0

Which is a very good point, and I for one would have liked to have seen something about how liberal values apply to those areas – especially as they’re a very obvious area in which we differ from the other two parties. I always liked Alex Wilcock’s suggestions for party slogans – “Liberal Democrats: the party that says sex is all right” and “To tell the Daily Mail to fuck off, vote Lib Dem”. It would have helped to contextualise the much-hyped “Real Women” policy discussion Jo Swinson is leading, as well, minor aspects of which (changing ASA rules so adverts containing photoshopped pictures would have to have a disclaimer) have been rather over-publicised, outside of a larger policy context.

But overall, Liberal Moment does its job – to put Lib Dem policy ideas into a larger political/philosophical context, and to make a clear argument for the Liberal worldview. It’s not going to replace Mill any time soon, but as a flag in the ground, saying “HERE is why we’re not Tories, and HERE is why Labour are wrong” it’s far better than I dared hope from a leader who has previously appeared to be a bit of a lightweight.

More like this, please.

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6 Responses to The Liberal Moment

  1. Pingback: Daily View 2×2: 21 September 2009

  2. Oliver Townshend says:

    Your point at the beginning is wrong. Unless a government allows anyone to migrate into a country, it is implicit that there are limits on immigration. Sure Racists do advocate it, so do Greens, and of course some Racists disguise themselves as other sorts of political types to put the message, but that doesn’t mean others don’t.

    Where are you going to draw the line? Or is it just a case the status-quo on immigration isn’t racist, but reducing it is? I know its a sensitive point for you (and please don’t think I’m advocating immigration reduction, because I’m in favour of fairly open slather) but I do think you aren’t applying a critical look at the issue.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Actually, I don’t think it *is* necessary to have any limits on migration. But I do agree that one can argue for such limits without being racist.

      However, both the Tories last election and UKIP at the Euro elections this year made the claim that there are *no* such limits at the moment, when in fact we have some of the strictest such limits in the world. The rhetoric of both parties was very specifically geared towards the “I’m not racist, but…” type of person.

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