LibLink: David Hall-Matthews on Liberalism in anxious times

David Hall-MatthewsIn its quarterly journal Juncture, IPPR has published an article by David Hall-Matthews entitled “Liberalism in anxious times: Constructing a clear, positive liberal vision for society“.

David’s starting point is Nick Clegg’s resignation speech in which he said that liberalism was under threat, and not just in the UK. Is that true?

Globally, Putin’s neo-dictatorship and ISIS terror are fundamentally illiberal – but they are no more significant than recent liberal turns in international relations, such as the increasing economic strength and political integration of the BRICs.

In the UK context, is the astonishing success of the Scottish Nationalist party (SNP), with its broadly social-democratic approach, really a threat to liberal values? For Clegg, having fought a centrist, makeweight campaign, all radicals are a threat. He went as far as to cite ‘unity’ in his speech as a fundamental liberal value, though it could be argued to be the opposite of liberal respect for difference. Ed Miliband, too, found himself forced to decry the SNP as a nationalist danger, primarily for tactical reasons. Both ultimately found it difficult to convince floating voters that their differences from the SNP were greater than their common values.

After the general election debacle, and with a Lib Dem leadership campaign underway, there is an opportunity, as well as a necessity, to set out a clear, positive liberal vision for society.

He asks what binds liberals together?

Many Lib Dem activists – particularly those who see the party as naturally left-of-centre – take great exception to the notion of liberalism as a split-the-difference philosophy with the aim of offending no one. They reject the tactical logic behind the party’s election campaign, with its appeal to the reasonable centre ground and its manifesto designed as a template for possible coalition negotiations, because the number of voters likely to vote actively for compromise was never large. More importantly, they reject the principle of centrism as weak – as allowing the party to be defined only in relation to the changing position of others. However, such antagonism towards compromise is ironic for a party that believes in political pluralism. Proportional representation – which is supported by almost all liberals – would necessitate government by negotiation.

He cuts through the diverse and sometimes seemingly contradictory values that liberals say they stand for, by changing the question to “What does Liberalism offer?”

Liberalism as a philosophy starts with individuals and how they work together, and with a mistrust of the centralisation of power (whether in the hands of the state, or, for example, of service providers). Its strongest move now will therefore be to address the concerns of those who feel that they have lost a sense of their local community. While ‘hope’ versus ‘fear’ is a crude expression of liberal values, liberalism can make a distinct, decent offer to those who have been tempted by Ukip, or who have not voted in recent years. Moreover, this approach has been tried and tested, starting at the last time that liberalism was at a low ebb as a national force in the early 1970s. Community politics was not conceived to promote liberalism per se, still less the Liberal party. Nor was it about the redistribution of power – which, perhaps ironically, can only occur as a top-down process (unless it’s going in the wrong direction). Rather, it was the practical implementation of the liberal principle of starting from the bottom and letting people take control of their own lives.

Finally he asks how Liberalism can be influential. He thinks we may have to grit our teeth and form a cross-party alliance on liberal issues with the SNP as well as Labour. But do read the article in full to get the complete argument.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Sorry, I am busy today & this piece lost me in the first few lines with its ridiculous misrepresentation of Cleggs position & its complete misunderstanding of The SNP. Theres nothing Illiberal about wanting to keep The UK & The EU together.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Jun '15 - 1:10pm

    It amazes me how people on the centre-left accuse centrists of “splitting the difference”.

    Centrism has its criticisms, but “splitting the difference” and “moving when your opponents move” apply to the centre left too.

  • I think the key thing is who is doing the defining. If you say you are centre or centre left, is that in relation to other political parties, or this is us as Liberal Democrats saying what we mean by centre or centre left, regardless of what is going on in the other political parties?
    The centre left tradition within the Liberal Democrats started with Joe Grimond, leader of the Liberal party in the 1960s talking about the need for Liberals to Reallign the Left. Every leader of the party signed up to that until Nick Clegg became leader of the part. Those of us who identified as left of centre did so because we believed in social justice, including the need to redistribute both wealth and power to create a more equal society.

  • Richard Sangster 16th Jun '15 - 8:16am

    There are problems with the balance between internationalism and localism, both of which we espouse.

  • Paul – you miss the point. Of course there is nothing illiberal about wanting to keep the UK and the EU together. But there’s nothing fundamentally Liberal about these postions either. Because we’re Liberals, it doesn’t mean we had to oppose the splitting of Slovakia from the Czech Republic or Finland from Russia (going a bit further back).

    There is no doubt in my mind that Nick Clegg is a genuine Liberal, but it is at least arguable that the general election campaign stressed lines that, right or wrong, are not characteristically or fundamentally Liberal – the idea of us as the reasonable centre between two unreasonable parties, English fear of the SNP (playing into the Tories’ hands) and the crucial importance of Liberal Democrats being in government. It ought to give us pause that after five years of a degree of power at Westminster people were more confused than before about what we really stood for, whereas periods with power in Scotland (in coalition with Labour) and in many local authorities did not, by and large, produce such confusion.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Jun '15 - 6:48pm

    “Community politics was not conceived to promote liberalism per se, still less the Liberal party. Nor was it about the redistribution of power – which, perhaps ironically, can only occur as a top-down process (unless it’s going in the wrong direction). Rather, it was the practical implementation of the liberal principle of starting from the bottom and letting people take control of their own lives.”

    This ignores the effect of money in elections, which are getting hugely expensive. It is possible for a derelict local party to get a parish councillor elected on no money at all and work up from there.

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