Is it time to exhume equidistance?

Anyone who was involved in Liberal Democrat politics in the early 1990s will remember what was then the controversial word ‘equidistance’.

It was excised from the party’s playlist in 1993 on the grounds that, only when the Labour Party is electable that Tory voters will feel safe enough to switch to the Lib Dems. We will see whether Paddy Ashdown was right about that next month.

But then, it may be that the situation is different these days. Equidistance between right and left could make a comeback when both Labour and Conservative parties are suddenly equally extreme.

But then, as far as the Lib Dems are concerned, there are three different kinds of equidistance.

#1. Political equidistance. This was the concept that Ashdown banned a generation ago. And you can see why. If, for example, Corbyn goes left, then the centre would move with him. This kind of equidistance arguably hands over your centrist positioning to the extremes.

#2.  Psychological equidistance. Forget about specific policies for a moment, and you can see that there are abiding psychological stances that lie behind political allegiance. For the right, there is a tendency towards cynicism. For the left, they seem generally to be angrier than everybody else. Faced with these twin perils, rage versus cynicism, it is obvious where the centre ground lies. The problem is that centrists have their own besetting sin, which is a kind of smug reliance on existing institutions. Another reason why it might be a good idea to cling to the radical centre.

#3. Distributism. There is a way to escape this particular besetting sin, which is via the Liberal ‘heresy’, Distributism – an idea based on how both capitalism and socialism tends towards slavery – was developed during the 1920s by former Liberals Hilaire Belloc and G. K.Chesterton. These days, it is the shorthand that academics use to describe the old Liberal ‘back to the land’ tendency.

I have always had an fascination with the Distributists (who had their own besetting sins), and especially now there is a new exhibition just open at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex.

In fact, I recently published two books – and my own past, present and future of Distributism (Back to the Land

and Arthur Penty’s 1937 Distributism: A Manifesto.

I recommend them.

The problem with equidistance is that the word implies that Liberalism is of the centre ground, some kind of midway between the rage and cynicism of right and left, when it is actually promoting a different scale altogether. About that at least, I believe, Belloc was right.

* David Boyle is policy director of the Radix thinktank, the author of Back to the Land (and other titles) and publisher at the Real Press. https://www.therealpress.co.uk/product/special-offer-back-to-the-land/

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11 Comments

  • David Allen 15th Nov '19 - 1:53pm

    One of our opponents has made lying his stock response, has engineered a power-grab election on false premises, will condemn the UK to hard Brexit if he wins outright, shows through doctored video and denialist acceptance of Russian electoral manipulation that he seeks an end to true democracy, and seeks to be Donald Trump’s poodle. Our other opponent has many and serious faults, but they pale into insignificance by comparison.

    How can we even think about “equidistance”? We would not, I hope, have been equidistant between Hitler and socialism in 1930s Germany. We should not be equidistant between Johnson and labourism now. Johnson could ruin Britain. He must be stopped.

  • James Baillie 15th Nov '19 - 3:51pm

    Yes, the distributist tendency has its problems, but the principle of working with and continually developing what is fundamentally an alternative social and economic philosophy, liberalism, is one that we need to get back to. “Centrism”, triangulation between the two big parties of state, and the defence of the status quo have never been comfortable places for the Lib Dems to be, and moreover they’ve tended to be electorally ruinous places for us to be.

    When have we done best since I became a member of the party? This year’s “Bollocks to Brexit” moment, with a big bold policy clarity that the other parties were unable to match. Since then we’ve ended up getting mired in media attempts to define us vis-a-vis the other parties and who we would/wouldn’t work with, and we’ve slid back somewhat, which I suspect is no accident. Westminster psychodrama ill becomes us.

  • Valerie Menzies 16th Nov '19 - 6:48am

    I joined the SDP in the 80s, hopeful that a new party would bring fresh ideas! Have been a Lib Dem since then!

  • Roger Roberts 16th Nov '19 - 8:33am

    Very likely that we’ll have a hung parliament. In that event no discussion with others should take place until they produce a bill for Proportional Representation. Let the leaders of any party that might be involved work on the details of the bill before Dec 12. No messing P.R. essential.

  • There is a choice between recognising that society consists of individuals – individuals with rights. And a variety of “isms” which ignore the reality of the rights of each individual.
    What is lacking in our society, in my opinion, is any attempt to genuinely have a system where people are involved in decision making in society.
    This becomes more urgent as environmental degradation increasingly threatens the future of our species.

  • Gwyn Williams 16th Nov '19 - 11:36am

    “For the left, they seem generally to be angrier than everybody else”. Really, Have you never met anybody from UKIP?

  • David Allen, yes I would go for equidistance from Hitler and Stalin.

    That’s “from”, not “between”. They are much much closer to each other than to me.

  • David Allen 17th Nov '19 - 1:28pm

    Joe Otten, unfortunately the voters and the news media are quite uninterested in the idea that the Lib Dems are equidistant (i.e. light years in each case) FROM Hitler and Stalin. (But you knew that!)

    They will be equally uninterested in the idea that the Lib Dems are equidistant FROM Johnson and Corbyn – Except, of course, where the Lib Dems can demonstrate issues where that applies. Brexit is such an issue, but I don’t think there are any other real big-ticket issues about which that can be said.

    What the voters and the news media really want to know is whether the Lib Dems will be equidistant BETWEEN Johnson and Corbyn. (But you knew that too, of course!)

    Saying “no deals”, “a plague on both their houses”, and the like will correctly be identified as evasive. There are, of course, pitfalls in doing anything other than evading the question. But when Boris Johnson is one contender, I think it is both morally and politically wrong to evade the question. Johnson must be stopped.

  • Innocent Bystander 17th Nov '19 - 3:38pm

    Distributism would require the cooperation of the other 99% of the human race who are not British. They don’t care a light for any of us, least of all for the under employed day dreamers who have the time to think up these fantasies.
    Distributism does not have the atom of a chance of going anywhere. It is a waste of ink and paper.

  • Peter Hirst 19th Nov '19 - 1:22pm

    The issue is how to attract equal numbers of “soft” Labour and Conservative voters without alienating either. It might be impossible so we have to decide which. I feel there is an eagerness to join a moderate, values based forward looking Party such as ours but to do that we must address the many fears that each has in helping the other. Will showing the weakness of each suffice so each media release emphasises our equidistance or should we have a week of attacking Labour and then a week doing the same with the Conservatives. Showing our distinctiveness will not on its own be sufficient. We must also show the disaster of the others.

  • David Boyle raises very interesting points. I have never heard of Distributism, but am now a potential disciple. The difficulty with terms like ‘equidistance’ is that they trick people (as indeed do ‘left’ and ‘right’) into supposing the range between extremes is linear. More helpful to the mind’s eye would be a two-dimensional metaphorical image, in which Liberals might be concentrated in the third corner of a triangle — not between the other two, but notably distant from each of them.

    There may even be a third dimension, making a triangular pyramid in which the vertical, so to speak, would range from utter materialism to sublime spirituality. Some parties would be nearer the bottom than others.

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