Beyond Brexit – Not Quite

Sir Vince Cable has published a booklet “Beyond Brexit: Liberal Politics for the Age of Identity” How well does it stand up to its billing as a roadmap for the future of liberalism? And does it indeed get us beyond Brexit? Arguably it comes rather late and could have provided a corrective to the obsession that has constrained the party over the past few years.

“Age of Identity” rather strangely labels what is called a new form of political alignment with its extreme illiberal manifestation: exclusive identity based on national, religious, racial or linguistic characteristics, implying these views dominate yet we live in a liberal constitutional order. What is important is the spectrum of opinion that sees openness and freedom at one end and a closed protectionism at the other; getting the party away for the bland centrist label.

On Cable’s own admission the booklet is not comprehensive but deals with issues that draw largely on his experience as Secretary of State and adds thoughts on, among other topics, migration, housing and the green economy. Without providing a chapter by chapter analysis, the briefest of summary is: inoffensive. This article discusses the articulation of the liberal vs. social democrat tension and the roadmap itself.

The booklet seeks to bring under a ‘liberal’ position liberals, social democrats and ‘one nation’ Conservatives. Of the three, the liberal has “respect for legally enforceable individual rights; supporting freedom of expression and worship, privacy and property ownership” whereas the social democrats “belief that the state has an active, positive, role to play in a market economy, including countering gross inequality; and an understanding of ecological imperatives”…. No characterisation ‘one nation’ conservatism is attempted.

There is the omission of the key commitment “open and competitive markets” from the characterisation of the liberal position. The characterisation of the social democrat position is expressed more positively and even lyrically, and by implication liberals are less caring. In practice very few liberals are proposing extreme changes such as the complete privatisation of health care or education and most social democrats recognise the value provided by competitive markets. So, pragmatically, there is indeed a lot of scope in working constructively on recognised problems.

The booklet ends with the chapter “My Roadmap to a Better Britain”. Anyone who has knowledge of serious strategy will have certain expectations of a roadmap. This does not come close to meeting them. There are ten short statements that summarise the points made already. These are largely diagnostic with some sketchy recommendations. So how many of them make the minimum roadmap requirement of providing an actionable statement (that goes beyond – spend more money on this)? Well, mostly the answers do not go too far beyond: spend more money.

The booklet has difficulty in indeed getting beyond Brexit, ending with it. In “Fix our broken politics” specific reforms are listed. These are not new proposals and won’t surprise anyone. However, there is currently debate on whether the UK is going through a political or a constitutional crisis and this needs addressing in ways that go beyond the standard party policies on constitutional reform. I propose a rigorous and radical constitutional review that focuses on the control and transparency of the executive and reform to delineate rigorously the responsibilities of the legislature from that of the executive.

So, is “Beyond Brexit” worth reading to help shape the future ‘liberal’ position? Yes, very much so, but not essential.

* Dr Robert Johnston is a Liberal Reform Board Member, member of the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers and Scientists and Fellow of the Institute of Physics.

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5 Comments

  • Patrick Crosby 28th Mar '19 - 5:59pm

    “The booklet seeks to bring under a ‘liberal’ position liberals, social democrats and ‘one nation’ Conservatives…No characterisation ‘one nation’ conservatism is attempted.”

    To be fair, the party was founded as and continues to be, a party of Social Democrats and Liberals. One Nation Tories, might as individuals be (small l) liberals, and I would welcome any self-identifying liberal to the party- if they thought that they’d be comfortable and happy; Vince’s omission of them might reflect the fact that we aren’t a Conservative (or even a conservative) Party.

  • Nonconformistradical 28th Mar '19 - 6:47pm

    Are there enough ‘one-nation’ conservatives left to consider?

  • I trust all our MPs will be there to vote against tomorrow, we missed the boat once before and were not too good last night, should have supported the customs union.

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