The Quiet Revolution in the Liberal Democrats

Will Nick Clegg lead the British Liberal Democrats to a revival of the Classical Liberalism of Gladstone and Asquith?

British Liberals and Liberal Democrats: An Ageing Parody of the Party

The Liberal Democrats, and the predecessor Liberal Party, (the name Liberal Party name is now used by a very small left-Green-decentralist-communitarian party whose founders decline to join a merger between the old Liberal Party and the centrist Social Democratic Party, founded by Labour Party defectors) have often been dismissed as an irrelevance full of well meaning activists lacking a plausible program for government, and as having no hope of government, which suits the eccentricity of activists interested in activism as an end in itself. Generally, the activist are associated with well meaning if utopian leftism of a libertarian kind, while leaders are associated with vacuous centrism, only concerned with splitting the difference between the Labour Party and the Conservatives. This is parodic but it has some elements of truth in it, however, the elements of truth are lessening in a way which has yet to be picked up in the collective wisdom of public opinion, even in its supposedly expert vanguard of political journalists. It reflects the way the party evolved from the 1950s onward, in an upward swing after a long decline dating from the split between H.H. Asquith and David Lloyd George, succeeding Prime Ministers during World War One, which very nearly lead to the death of the party in the immediate post World War Two period. A mixture of parliamentary centrism, containing an element of Classical Liberalism, combined with localist activism, containing a strong element of left-libertarians at the core, served the party well to survive and then prosper as the definite third force in British politics.

The Change
The Liberal-Liberal Democrat party was changed twice over by the Conservative Party. First Margaret Thatcher revived free-market economics, combined with social conservatism. A clear place was created for those combining free-market economic liberalism and anti-conformist cultural and social liberalism. Second, the flight of Conservative voters after Black Wednesday in 1992 (collapse of government attempts to maintain the value of sterling in relation to other currencies) undermined the Conservative reputation for economic competence, and led to high interest rates to maintain the credibility of sterling and to create a new anti-inflationary pressure, also modified the activist base of the Liberal Democrats.

Paddy Ashdown’s rather confrontational attempts to create a more ‘Classical Liberal’ party, though he never used that phrase, largely failed. Charles Kennedy tried but gave up very quickly in the face of pressure, before his career completely collapsed amidst concerns about alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, during Kennedy’s leadership, Centre Forum, a legally non-party liberal foundation close to the Liberal Democrats in practice, was established and has leant towards Classical Liberalism. Employees are already making their way into key Liberal Democrat positions. Also a key book appeared, The Orange Book, which collected essays emphasising a market based form of liberalism, with reference to new strategies on crime and reforming the European Union.

A rather exaggerated notion of the book as Thatcherite, socially disciplinarian and Euro-Sceptic (a euphemism for anti-European Union attitudes in British politics) got round the press. This appears to have been at least partly the result of briefings by Mark Oaten, who was briefly the apparent standard bearer for Classical Liberal style policies before his political career crashed in even more abrupt fashion than Kennedy’s, during a particularly farcical run for the party leadership supported only by the famously eccentric MP Lembit Opik. Oaten’s undignified collapse allowed it to become clearer that the real leading figures in the revived Classical Liberal wing are David Laws, Christopher Huhne and Nick Clegg. Getting past Oaten’s briefings of Fleet Street, the Orange Book, is a more moderate shift than had been assumed. Left-wing MP Steve Webb contributed, criminal policy suggestions were very much about rehabilitation rather than harshness, EU reform was suggested in the context of the strengthening of European integration.

During the leadership contest to succeed Kennedy, only Huhne stood out of the three Classical Liberals and shifted leftwards pushing the previous standard bearer of the left, Simon Hughes, into last place. Laws has faded into the background, though he is still a very credible figure, and the next leadership election looks like a head to head between Huhne and Clegg. The left simply has no up and coming leaders. Presumably its roots in local activism and self-consciously anti-establishment protest culture, which prefers opposition to the compromises of government, has left it a poor training ground for leaders and policy advisers.

The current leader, Ming Campbell is clearly only a transitional leader before the showdown on the long term future of the party. As a self-identified centre-left politician with a strongly consensual middle of the road style, he is not the most obvious person to continue the push towards Classical Liberalism, but he has done more than Ashdown or Kennedy in that direction, at least partly reflecting the understated influence of his deputy Vince Cable, the old Don of the Classical Liberal current . A form of post office privatisation has become party policy and promises to increase income taxes on the rich have been replaced by policies on indirect environmental taxes. There are no plans to increase public spending; policies to minimise economic regulation, abolish the Department of Trade and Industry, and restrict the total of local and national taxes paid by any individual remain in place.

The Future for the Liberal Democrats
The parody which began this blog entry is still dragged out by political commentators, in a positive way by left wing commentators who wish for a force to the left of Blair, and in a negative way by right wing commentators. Pro-Conservative columnists are particularly patronising and dismissive with regard to a party which is not rooted in recent government power. One thing which distinguishes Conservative and Lib Dem free marketeers is their relation to traditions of power and assumptions about automatic entitlement to power. Ming Campbell’s lack of dominating charisma, and David Cameron’s really rather modest revival of the Conservatives, have reinforced a tradition of dismissiveness. There is also some recognition, that the Lib Dems are shifting towards a mixture of Classical Liberalism and a greater focus on what it means to have the responsibilities of power. More on this below.

Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism in the Liberal Democrats
I’ve used the term ‘Classical Liberal’ above without definition. Like every political label, it is used in many different contexts to refer to many different views. That does not mean that we should settle for complete ambiguity. I take it that Classical Liberalism is distinct from Libertarianism (though it is compatible with many Soft Libertarian positions) and Conservatism (though it is compatible with many Liberal-Conservative positions), and is no closer to those two positions than it is to the most liberal forms of centrist Social Democracy.

A big problem here is that ‘Classical Liberalism’ has been kidnapped not just by Conservatives, but by really right-wing national-social-cultural conservatives. These people have also kidnapped Libertarianism. While I’m not laying claim to Libertarianism, it’s important to note that Libertarianism has a core distinct from right-wing Conservatism. I intend to investigate these issues in detail in later blogs, and that will also involve discussion of Classical Republicanism. For now, I will simply offer a position.

Classical Liberalism is in favour of a limited state but does not regard the state as a purely negative phenomenon.
Classical Liberalism aims for a free-market economy but regards the state not just as a legislator for property rights, but also as a provider of public services and a social minimum.
Classical Liberalism is a reformist progressive position which recognises that the state should push against social conservatism in the pursuit of freedom, and establishing the conditions for freedom.
Classical Liberalism recognises ‘negative freedoms’ from state interference and ‘positive freedoms’ of active participation in society; and self-improvement through culture and education which are necessary conditions for freedom.
Classical Liberalism values diversity of opinions, defends the right to peaceful expression of extreme and unpopular views, while seeking a common discourse of public and community interest.

While the changes in the Lib Dems have not led to anyone claiming to be a Conservative, self-declared Libertarians are becoming more evident. The best way to follow this is to regularly check the LibDem Blogs aggregate. While I’m not in full agreement with these capitalist Libertarians, I welcome this as a counter to the more socialist Libertarians (though they don’t usually use this label, Radical or Radical Liberal are more normal) in the party. However, some are flirting with the more bizarre Libertarians outside the party, who can be followed through the Libertarian Alliance Blog. Many Libertarian Alliance members are disturbingly prone to the view that anything ant-communist and anti-socialist is Libertarian, and that can extend to an intolerance anything non-western, non-Christian and other manifestations of extreme Conservatism.

Liberal Democrats in the News
The intention is to deal with this as frequently as news items emerge which offer a serious analysis of the changing spirit of the Lib Dems, that is in its shift towards a consistently Classical Liberal position.

On January 8th, Times columnist Tim Hames mixed humour about the private life of Lembit Opik, with a discussion of the shift in the Lib Dems towards limits on central government spending in a more disciplined economic framework.
An article in the Financial Times on the 9th January emphasised the key role the Lib Dems, particularly the science spokesman Evan Harris, have played in opposition to government proposals to ban stem cell laboratory experiments which combine human tissue with animal tissue.
An item on the BBC News website on the 12th January, referring to a English National Ballet dancer who belongs to an extreme right anti-immigrant anti Muslim party, pointed out that the Liberal Democrats defend her right to hold views with which they vehemently disagree.

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