I am a liberal. I believe in standing up for people and communities against over-powerful vested interests – in business, the State, the media, or the unions. However, I also believe that liberalism alone is an inadequate political philosophy, and an insufficient foundation for this Party.
The problem centres on our determination to play down the significance of Left and Right. We sneer that the concepts are simplistic. We seek to defuse or ignore left-right conflict. The inconvenient truth we deny is that Left and Right do matter, often enough to split our party.
It should be recognised that splits are endemic to liberalism. The 1920s-1930s split was followed by the Owen split of the 1980s and the developing Clegg split of the 2010s. Even Labour have held together better.
There is no single liberal philosophy. There are two. Their adherents can be called Pure Liberals and Social Liberals. They claim to be blood brothers. This is a polite fiction. Like many white lies, it does more harm than most black lies. In truth, Pure Liberals and Social Liberals are often poles apart.
Pure Liberals seek individual freedom and equality of opportunity. This leads them to oppose a State which meddles in business, intervenes in the market to pursue environmental, social or political goals, or constrains free competition in the interests of reducing poverty and inequality. They welcome economic freedom, market mechanisms in public services, and the minimal State. To the charge that this leads to gross inequalities of outcome, Pure Liberals tend to remain silent.
Social Liberals see that inequalities are excessive and increasing, that irresponsible and kleptocratic oligarchies are gaining power worldwide, and that Bullingdon Club leadership is not bothered about trashing the planet. They believe that liberalism is not worth a row of beans unless it can tackle these problems. That must mean an active State and a reform programme for government, based on political ideals and validated by electoral mandate. Such principles are anathema to Pure Liberals, who might point out that Hitler adopted all of them.
A generation ago, these differences were dwarfed and obscured by our differences with a hidebound, illiberal Conservative Party and a doctrinaire socialist Labour Party. Consensualist leaders like Steel and Jenkins had no difficulty in staking a compromise moderate centre-left position, clearly opposing the Tories while toning down activist radicalism. In those days, we also had a plausible ambition for the future – to replace Labour, ditch outdated socialist dogma, and pursue fairness with prosperity in a mixed economy.
The ambition was achievable – until Blair shot our fox by ditching socialism himself. That left us struggling to maintain a clear identity and purpose. Blair’s big mistake on Iraq gifted us a temporary recovery in 2005, and also acted to conceal our longer term difficulties from ourselves. However, we soon reverted to a rather negative centrism, and fell back on local campaigning strength as an indirect route toward parliamentary power. Although we were gaining seats by cleverer targeting, we were quietly losing our way. We were failing to build a strong core vote based on clear political principles.
As Labour swung across to the centre-right, while the Tories gradually moved away from prejudiced narrow-mindedness, we lost strong enemies. We lost the motivation to maintain our own unity. Our internal philosophical differences grew in importance.
The Clegg coup was a rational, hard-hearted, Machiavellian response to that changed situation. The Liberal Democrats are now the critical “swing” party, capable of granting power to either the Tories or Labour, should they so choose. Clegg and his allies had the audacity to strike first, win the leadership with a misleadingly anodyne “consensualist” campaign, and then strive ceaselessly to embed the Lib Dems in alliance with the Tories. It worked. Thanks to Clegg as much as Cameron, state education, health and welfare are on the way out.
What should Social Liberals do about all this? I will leave the question for readers to answer first!