The Liberal Future: Not Left, Not Right, But Not Centre Either

(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[1]

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 [2].

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.

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9 Responses to The Liberal Future: Not Left, Not Right, But Not Centre Either

  1. TAD says:

    I hope you address two long-standing criticisms of liberal economics, (a) that it stifies innovation, and (b) it leads to government propping up rotten industries that would (in a true capitalist world) naturally fall to the wayside and disappear.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Neither of those are criticisms of liberalism. They’re both criticisms of social democracy.

  2. reecemjones says:

    Sorry to be a pain, but the link to your introduction doesn’t work!

    Otherwise, nice article :)

  3. lucidfrenzy says:

    ”I apologise if I caricature this, and would welcome corrections from anyone who thinks I’m missing nuance”

    I assume when you’re talking about political parties here your emphasis is on their membership, on the thinking most widely shared by the people who make them up. In which case, and despite having never been a Labour supporter in my life, I find the statist model you give them a little restrictive.

    As one example, the Labour party is actually formally allied with the Co-operative Party. Of course the Co-operative is very much the junior partner and formal joint membership can mean little. (For example, Ed Milliband is a joint member). But I would suspect that, should you canvas Labour’s membership, you would see deep-rooted support for co-operativism.

    It’s probably more true to say that historically their members have not seen a significant distinction between the two. Both seemed desirable alternatives to baron capitalists. Like you, I consider the distinction to be important. For example, I’m in one of the remaining unionised workplaces. But the central command of our union are entirely remote from us, show little understanding or concern over the issues which affect us and frequently over-ride decisions made at a local level to gain a result more in their interests. I pretty much see them as a secondary set of bosses.

    Perhaps it should be conceded that what really threw the emphasis away from co-operativism was the post-war welfare state. Local medical centres run as friendly societies must have suddenly seemed small fry when the NHS was covering the whole of the country. I was born in that welfare state, it gave me a free education, nursed me when I was sick and fed me while I wasn’t working. It infuriates me to see it being sliced up and sold off, and I’ve often campaigned and demonstrated to preserve it.

    It may be worth asking the question – if the post-war model had been less statist, more decentralised, would it be as easy to outsource and privatise as we’re seeing now?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I absolutely agree with the latter part of this, about the need to preserve the welfare state and about the problems with the statist model. As for the Co-Op party… I honestly don’t think there’s any distinction there at all. In my experience, Labour Co-Op members actually seem to be the *most* statist, hardline, Labour members.

      I think in general Labour party members may have about as much support for mutuals as most Lib Dems have for statist solutions — seeing them as a distant second-best when their preferred solution is not available, but still infinitely preferable to unfettered capitalism.

      As for whether I’m emphasising the membership, I’m trying to find a balance between the views of the membership and the more prominent non-leadership MPs of each party. For various reasons, the pronouncements of the three leaders are currently almost indistinguishable (even if their actual views may not be). If you throw them out of consideration, though, the backbenchers (and even junior ministers or shadow ministers) often have views that are different from the membership at large but are compatible with them. For example, with the Lib Dems, right now the leadership has to, thanks to collective responsibility, defend all the coalition government’s policies, which gives a distorted view. Looking at the voting records and public pronouncements of, say, John Leech, Julian Huppert, Adrian Sanders, or Tim Farron, gives a much better view of what Liberalism really is.

      • lucidfrenzy says:

        This is entirely anecdotal and its quite likely I’m merely talking about a self-selecting group, but from the Labour members and activists I know I’d say they do tend to be quite supportive of co-ops and mutuals. They do see them as secondary, yes, but not in my experience as a distant second.

        Of course it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do to talk about the difference between parties. And I’d agree the wider parties are much more divergent than leadership statements would suggest; mainstream TV debates give a skewed perspective on this. But I tend to have a bit of a different perspective. Insomuch as I come into contact with them, I generally find the rank and file of liberal and leftist political parties to generally have quite genuine motives and sensible views. There may be things I disagree with, but they’re broadly on the right side. (You yourself would be just one example there. I can’t think of a time we’ve had a substantial, deep-rooted political disagreement.) I’d say that from the Lib Dems right through to the Socialist Workers Party.

        The problem as I see it is that those political parties themselves are not run like co-ops or mutuals, but more like monolothic top-down institutions. That narrow leadership always holds sway, and pulls things towards their definition of where the centre is. It’s pretty much the relationship between a factory owner and workers. The party leadership needs the rank and file, to push leaflets through letterboxes and all the rest. But when push comes to shove that leadership will act in their own interests and override the feelings of the membership. This seems truer than ever at the moment, where I can’t see the result of the next election changing the political direction in Britain in any meaningful way. To me, the tragic thing about those parties is the way the very good intentions of so many members are funnelled into propping up a narrow political clique.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          I agree with you about the motives of the rank and file in general — although Manchester’s Labour members are rather different, as here Labour is the establishment party, with all that entails. But Labour people elsewhere seem generally decent, and I have a *lot* of time for the people I know in the SWP, Greens, and Pirate Party.

          I also agree about party structure — with the exception that the Lib Dems (and, I think, the Greens, but I don’t know about them) *are* democratic. Party policy is voted on by conference, as is the manifesto. Of course, in this present coalition a lot of compromises have been made, and far more things the leadership dislike have been compromised away than things they approve of, but unlike with the other parties Conference is still sovereign. And while the current Lib Dem leader is very much of the political class, the previous ones haven’t been, and the next one won’t…

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