The debate regarding the importance and roles of ‘social’ and ‘economic’ liberalism can, on occasion, be misrepresented. Whether deliberate or incidental the relationship between the two philosophies can sometimes be presented as discrete, zero-sum options. I believe they should be considered as dialectic.
In The Orange Book, a publication that is almost Frankensteinian in how it’s perceived and what it actually contains, David Laws offers definitions for social and economic liberalism, that broadly serve well in discussion, they are:
“economic liberalism: ‘the belief in the value of free trade, open competition, market mechanisms, and the effectiveness of the private sector…combined with opposition to monopolies and instinctive suspicion of state control and interference’ (Laws 2004:20)
“social liberalism: ‘the insight that personal, political and economic liberalism are not by themselves an adequate basis for securing for each individual a deeper and more meaningful sense of freedom’.” (Laws 2004:20)
Clearly, the two arms of liberalism should be considered complementary. Whilst elements of economic liberalism — particularly its support for a greater role for market forces in public services – are compatible with some thinkers in the Conservative Party, the unique, defining feature of the Liberal Democrats is the overarching commitment to social liberalism.
It is crucial, particularly at a time of being in a Coalition, for the party to establish what liberalism means for voters in the 21st Century.
Our role in the Coalition, as we are often reminded, was born out of need as opposed to ideological desire. This has led to charges of ‘economic’ liberals being ‘yellow Tories.’ It is a ridiculous notion that a ‘Tory’ of any colour would deciding to join and fight a seat for the Liberal Democrats given the lack of swathes of safe seats awarded to our Coalition partners by the electoral system. More importantly, however, there the fundamental difference in desired outcomes; the social liberal goals that unite those in our party.
The twin necessities of the Coalition and deficit-reduction risk masking this fundamental difference. Whilst the means of economic liberalism are not entirely incompatible with social liberalism, nor are they entirely incompatible with some in The Conservative Party — albeit with the desire of reaching different ends.
In Reinventing the State, David Howarth declares that “all British liberals are social liberals… [economic liberalism] is about the way in which we pursue social liberalism”. There is a shared goal to admittedly different approaches; a goal that defines us as a party and informs our policy making.
This is why social liberalism is essential and why it is essential that we assert these values proudly. It has been possible to find common ground with the Conservatives precisely because of our desire to extend freedom. This desire to extend freedom is not because of an ideological attachment to reducing public sector provision and it is certainly not of some sort of new-shared vision with our Coalition partners. This desire is based on our commitment to social liberalism.
Forming the Coalition was the right decision for both us as a party, and the country as a whole. Lifting Liberal Democrat policies from the pages of our manifesto and placing them onto the statute book — including lifting thousands of hard working people out of paying tax altogether — are things we can be proud of.
When the Coalition was founded we acknowledged that our position on deficit-reduction had changed; the true extent of the economic mess left behind by Labour became shockingly apparent. There is no shame in pragmatism, and we should not be ashamed to call for a more tempered approach to deficit-reduction if that is required.
The costs of stubbornness in doing otherwise are too great. As unemployment rises, expendable income is stifled by the cost of living, life has becomes less secure. The price of ignoring increasing social costs in favour of meeting arbitrary ‘deadline’ for clearing the deficit is something that cannot be quantified.
In many respects the easy option is to be swept along and in 2015 argue we mediated what the Conservatives would have done alone — and so we should. More importantly, however, it is the right option. That is to remain true to our principles set out in our constitution, a society that balances values of liberty, equality and community. These commitments run deeper, and are more profound than George Osborne’s 2015 deadline for deficit reduction.
Working towards building a fairer society, which we have consistently campaigned for, could require putting forward an alternative approach to reducing the deficit, such as a jobs package or bringing forward of capital spending. It may be that the right option is for us to advocate this, and to do so for liberal reasons — something that in many ways is also the harder option.
Many in the party take pride in evidence-based policymaking. I have been proud that as a party we are prepared to advocate measures that will lead to a fairer, more liberal Britain. Even and especially when this is not the easy option. We should not and cannot allow our principles to be sacrificed; neither at the altar of deficit-reduction or as part of this five-year Coalition.
* Sam Barratt is a Parliamentary Researcher and recent masters graduate from Leeds University.