LibLink: Julian Astle – The alchemists of liberalism have left their parties behind

Over at the Guardian, former Paddy Ashdown advisor Julian Astle has an interesting (but controversial) piece in which he argues that there is a ‘secret club’ of cross-party, centrist, liberal-minded reformers at the heart of British politics, who have run the country for the 15 of the last 18 years.

Here’s a sample:

Consider the ease with which the Lib Dems and Conservative leaderships put together a radical coalition agreement. Or the extent to which that agreement builds on the agenda pursued by the Blairites in their second and third terms. “Reform” in welfare, schools, higher education funding and the NHS – as Blair himself has recognised, each represents an attempt to complete New Labour’s unfinished business.

What defines these politicians and separates them from their party colleagues, however, is a talent for alchemy, for taking base metals from left and right and turning them into political gold. Where the left has always owned the values of equality and social justice, and the right of liberty and aspiration, the modernisers have sought to blend the two.

To compensate for their party’s historical weaknesses they tend to send contrasting signals; the Blairites and Orange Bookers emphasising their economic liberalism (a commitment to entrepreneurialism and wealth creation) and the Cameroons their social liberalism (tolerance and compassion). But in each case the audience is the same: moderate voters unconvinced by the partial solutions traditionally on offer.

What Blair never succeeded in doing was coming up with a name that captured the full vitality of his world view – thus allowing his critics to present it as a product of electoral calculation. In two recent political trends, set in motion by Philip Blond’s book Red Tory and Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour, many see parallels with Blair’s modernising mix of left and right thinking. But the nostalgic communitarianism at the heart of both leaves the modernisers cold: “We won’t win with a Labour equivalent of warm beer and old maids bicycling,” was Blair’s dismissive response.

Though they may find it hard to admit, the creed that really unites these modernisers is liberalism. Cameron describes himself as a “liberal Conservative”, while Clegg is that equally rare thing, a liberal Lib Dem. Even Blair now concedes that he considers himself a liberal on everything but law and order.

You can read Julian’s piece in full here.

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This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Norman Fraser 27th Jun '11 - 7:40pm

    I think that this shows just how meaningless the term ‘Liberal’ is and why so many now qualify it with an adjective. In this particular case these people would seem to be more ‘neo-liberal’ than liberal as such.

  • One must only have a chat with a raving socialist or a raving right winger to hear all about this very same liberal cabal ruling the country.

  • The common factor of Blairism, Cameroonism and Cleggism is subservience to the rich and powerful business interests who fund all the parties, pay all the pipers, and call all the tunes. The distinguishing factors are the different cover stories these different parties tell to the different groups of voters each aims to attract. None of them, nowadays, displays the brash, vulgar honesty of the Thatcherites and their slogan “Greed is Good”. All of them listen when money talks. Alchemy indeed.

    Once upon a time, there was a political party which told its core voters that it intended to act in their interests, and explicitly, against the interests of the rich and powerful. That party was, of course, Old Labour. Well of course, Labour changed society in many fundamental ways between 1945 and 1989, both for good and for ill. The driving force behind that movement was the conviction amongst most of the working class that they were right to put their own interests first, to believe in solidarity, to build themselves better lives after the ruination of war, and to let the national interest and individual interests play second fiddle. That driving force declined when poverty abated, individualism gained strength, and socialist ideology came to be viewed as overbearing and outdated. Whatever one thinks of socialism, one thing is clear. We used to have a party which stood up to the rich, the powerful, the bankers, and the business corporates. We don’t any more.

    Once upon a time, there was another political party which, though not sharing a belief in class conflict, was equally determined to act first and foremost in the interest of individuals and families, and hence to treat business and government interests with some caution. That party talked about community politics, and about the fundamental importance of democracy in ensuring the triumph of the popular will against powerful vested interests. That party was, of course, the Liberal Party and its Alliance successor. Under Clegg, the party has finally relinquished that role.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 28th Jun '11 - 12:11pm

    I agree with Norman Fraser. If Blair, Cameron and Clegg can all be described as “liberal”, the word has lost all meaning.

    What those gentlemen do have in common is their class, background and education. And their willingness to repudiate their parties’ traditional values in pursuit of their own very narrow (and very simlar) agendae.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '11 - 12:16pm

    It was interesting that Astle spilled the beans on the cabal of which he is part, but I would have enjoyed his article more had it not been larded with the sort of propagandistic use of language which is second nature to his sort. For example, the continual use of the word “modernising” to mean “moving politics in my direction”. Why is moving politics in his direction any more “modernising” than moving it in any other direction? But if you keep on and on doing it, people will somehow believe that a move that way is inevitable, and that helps close down thinking on alternatives, since anyone who objects can be told “shut up, you’re just a dinosaur”. Also his use of the word “liberal” to mean “supporter of extreme free market economics” and his dismissal of most members of the Liberal Democrats as “not liberal” because of their scepticism on this was a classic propaganda technique. Take a word, use it to mean what you want it to mean, and if you have the power to keep doing so from a strong platform, people will believe that is what it means.

    How come people like Astle have no trouble getting a platform in the Guardian as well as more right-wing media? When did someone who was to the left of our party ever get a similar platform? In my recollection, never.

  • There was a a time when progress was about looking after ordinary people, improving living standards and reforming undemocratic institution. Progress now means lowering wages, propagandising against low earners, blaming poverty on the poor, lying to the electorate, making ordinary people pay for the borderline crooks of high finance, tax avoidance,and failed economics, Cuz, this is the bottom line. These people have been proven wrong. The economic model they use is a failure on a national land international level and one that relies on vast amounts of tax payers money to prop it up. This is not liberalism in any shape or form. It isn’t even really centrism, it is actually a kind of new age feudalism. The Lord runs up bad debts on borrowed money, the peasants have to work harder and earn less to make sure he doesn’t have his castle repossessed. Throw in unwinnable wars to convert the heathens in the Holy Land and we’re in a sort of post-industrial dark-ages.

  • Good stuff, everyone!

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