Opinion: Liberalism – a modern answer to a classical question

Liberalism.  “You can’t define it.”  “It’s too wishy-washy. “Too centrist. “Too woolly.”

The words of my A level students when they begin their course on Political Ideologies each year. The good news here is that there is a definitive answer. One that students have to learn for their exams.

Firstly, the common values to all sorts of Liberalism. Liberalism is a centrist ideology which is based on the twin values of individualism and a negative/selfish but rational view of human nature.

All liberals also believe in democracy in some form, tolerance, some rights, freedom (see below), and limited government. Not the size of Government, but the fact that all liberals are suspicious of government. Therefore, they believe in check and balances such as codified constitutions, and a separation of powers and devolution, for example.

Liberalism’s first form was classical liberalism. When it came to the size of government, this was very small – the nightwatchman state.  Government should be like a security guard, only awake at night, to preserve our liberty.  This nightwatchman state had 3 functions:

An army to defend ourselves.

A police force to prevent and solve crime.

The prevention of monopolies.

The last one is important, as it’s the giveaway why Thatcher was not a classical liberal. Instead, she was a neo-liberal, a form of Conservatism.

Classical liberals also believe in religious tolerance, representative democracy, and egotistical individualism, which meant you’d be left free to pursue your own selfish ends. Most importantly, classical liberals believed only in negative freedoms – freedoms which required no third party intervention to be achieved. These included freedom of speech, freedom from torture, and, critically, freedom from taxation as far as possible.  Examples include Adam Smith, John Locke, and, up to almost the end of his life, John Stuart Mill.

(Feel free to write this down in an Orange Book).

At the other end of the scale is modern or social liberalism. This believes in negative and positive freedoms. Positive freedoms include freedom from illiteracy and freedom from ill health. To achieve these, Government sets up a comprehensive school system and an NHS.  However, this means freedom from taxation will be reduced. This is where arguments start.

(Feel free to write this down on a beermat in a real ale pub, so Gareth Epps can test you).

Modern/social liberalism also believes in a wide range of tolerance (which leads to a whole other ideology – multiculturalism in various forms), direct and representative democracy including referenda, and developmental individualism, where you have lot of free education to develop yourself. In addition, a wide range of human rights, along with consumer rights and environmentalism have been added. This of course all means bigger, but still weak Government, and is centre left in nature. Examples include John Rawls.

So there you have it. Liberalism, as the exam board sees it. There’s a link to the teachers’ notes here (see page 18 for Liberalism, and 19 for Conservatism) for those interested.

* Simon Foster is a lecturer in Politics and Economics, and has published 23 books on Politics, PSHE and Citizenship.

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73 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Jun '15 - 12:11pm

    This is good, but I think liberalism is still a bit vague, so I prefer to call myself a centrist. I have thought about not using an ideology, but one of the problems of this is if you don’t define yourself then others will do it for you.

    I would like “liberalism” to embrace pragmatism a bit more. If someone has a popular idea with a liberal argument then run with it – don’t sit around for days debating whether or not it fits the criteria of everyone’s own specific brand of liberalism and then write a pamphlet on it.

    It reminds me of what Michael Dugher said to the Barnsley Socialist Worker’s Party after they announced they were going to have a debate on “Is Marx still relevant” – he said “if I had a pound for everyone in Barnsley who had asked me that, I still wouldn’t have a pound.”.

  • How did ‘centrism’ get smuggled into this? What, precisely, has this got to do with liberalism?

  • Stephen Howse 26th Jun '15 - 1:11pm

    “I think liberalism is still a bit vague, so I prefer to call myself a centrist.”

    Even more vague and wishy-washy and falls into the trap of defining us relative to others rather than on our own merits.

    I am a loud and proud Liberal. If Liberalism is too vague then let us be the people to explain its enduring value and worth, and let us be the people to demonstrate to the British public that it is Liberalism that has the answers to the many questions posed by the modern world. Or else what exactly is the point of our party?

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Jun '15 - 1:25pm

    Alex Marsh, well considering the article says “liberalism is a centrist ideology” and it is written by a politics teacher I think it is on topic to talk about it. The article also says the centre-left has a claim on modern liberalism.

    I don’t think “even more vague and wishy washy” is a fair criticism of centrism. Calling it cruel is, or authoritarian, or mediocre, but vague? It doesn’t split the difference anymore than the centre-left or centre-right and when someone tells me they are a liberal I often don’t know what they mean. Are they like Elizabeth Warren or Jeremy Browne? Or Clegg?

  • good potted summary, though Rawls would not be my first pick for social liberalism. How about TH Green and Len Hobhouse, upon which our party’s reforming zeal of 1906-10 was based?

  • There is nothing intrinsically “centrist” about Liberalism. The “centrist” label results from people who think that politics is ultimately a game played by Labour and the Conservatives, and that, as the Liberal Democrats are neither left of Labour nor right of the Tories, they must be in the middle.

    But to the extent that is true, it is an historical accident. For most of its early history, the Liberal Party was on the left — sometimes even the far left — even though, as a result of the drift of the centre, many (but not all) of the positions they accepted would now be on the right.

    In other words, “left,” “right,” and “centre” are ambiguous terms that have meaning only relative to a continually changing political spectrum. They are a useful shorthand if one already knows what their contextual meaning is, but in themselves, without context, they communicate little or nothing. Statements about Liberalism in general are not limited by time, to describing Liberalism as “centrist” without further elaboration about the political environment in which that might be true is somewhere between misleading and meaningless.

  • Eddie Sammon 26th Jun '15 - 1:37pm

    By the way, I understand people’s concerns about centrism, which I sometimes use interchangeably with liberalism. I certainly would not be happy with a philosophy that just moved wherever public opinion went.

    I have kind of invented my own new philosophy, but it is a topic for another time and it is kind of nit-picking, but for now we should focus on the article, which I think is very informative and a good look at what the exam boards expect.

  • Eddie Salmon – ‘well considering the article says “liberalism is a centrist ideology” and it is written by a politics teacher I think it is on topic to talk about it’. But it is that very (former) claim that I am questioning. And I don’t consider the author’s background relevant to my question.

  • David Quayle 26th Jun '15 - 2:17pm

    This centrist thing comes up because of the tory – labour 2 party state our media seems to need to perpetuate through their own limited understanding. I believe that we sit on a different spectrum Authoritarian – Liberal. Nothing wishy-washy about that! Freedom, individualism, small government, human rights, devolved democracy, internationalism, tolerance all grow out of our position on this spectrum which takes us many political miles away from the tory/ labour tendencies towards authoritarianism

  • @Simon Foster “Positive freedoms include freedom from illiteracy … To achieve [this], Government sets up a comprehensive school system”

    I thought government was trying to end illiteracy, not perpetuate it?

  • Classical liberals, like Gladstone and Mill, were always strong advocates of universal education as is demonstrated by the Forster Education Act of 1870, so I’m not sure it would be historically accurate to term freedom from illiteracy as a social liberal concern…

  • Mike Tribe – Mill, a classical liberal in this article, was also a very strong advocate for ‘developmental individualism’, which the author of the piece associates with Social or New Liberalism. It’s not for nothing that the epigraph of On Liberty is taken from Wilhelm von Humboldt. He also supported inheritance tax, a view many would perhaps not associate with a classical liberal.

  • That’s why I questioned the point about education. And it wasn’t just Mill. 19th Century liberals in general supported public education. Even Adam Smith, the darling of the neo-liberals, supported government-sponsored compulsory education…

  • Christopher Haigh 26th Jun '15 - 10:04pm

    Thanks Simon for a very interesting and informative article. During the GE campaign I got the impression that some tv political commentators were confusing liberalism and the liberal democrats with neo-liberalism and even libertarianism which was very confusing to those voters in the Charles Kennedy tradition of the party.

  • Simon Foster 26th Jun '15 - 11:12pm

    Right, several comments coming up (as these are long enough for a second article):

    On the journey from classical to modern/social liberalism we have two other forms which I didn’t mention due to article length:

    New Liberalism according to my exam board, is the liberalism of T.H. Green in the late 19th/early 20th century. Positive freedom has made an experience in a limited sense, particularly in the sphere of education. Mike Tribe is absolutely correct to identify this. This also reflects Mill’s beliefs at the end of his life.

    I would personally identify this as centre-centre-right politics.

    By the 1940s, Welfare Liberalism has been developed, advocated by Keynes and Beveridge. This includes dealing with Beveridge’s 5 giants – illiteracy, disease, squalor, idleness and poverty. This involves a larger (but not necessarily stronger – we’re not socialists here) state and higher taxation. It also includes management of the economy on the demand side through Keynesian economics – the state is an active enabling force to help develop freedom in people’s lives.

    I would personally identify this as centre-centre left politics.

    Libertarianism I personally place somewhere between neo-liberalism (a form of Conservatism) and anarcho-capitalism (a form of anarchism). You have the classical liberals nightwatchman state. You get rid of the prevention of monopolies and you’re into neo-liberalism. Then you get rid of the police and you’re into libertarianism. Then you get rid of the army and the state altogether, and you’ve entered the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard.

  • Simon Foster 26th Jun '15 - 11:23pm

    Alex Marsh – you’ll notice in the article I was careful to write Mill “up to almost the end of his life.” This is because Mill’s views change, and at the end of his life he is advocating some positive freedoms.

    I’d be interested to hear of your source on Mill’s developmental individualism, as what I’m discussing is an academic model. Like all academic models, it may contain it’s flaws, and you may have just found one!

    Note that I’ve got a whole article waiting on individualism, including methodological individualism, morale individualism, ethical individualism, egotistical individualism, and developmental individualism if people fancy it, as it’s a short answer question for my exam board. And atomistic individualism so we don’t forget the Thatcherites 😉

    David-1 – The left-right spectrum I teach in the first year of AS level is one model. You’re right to mention the authoritarian-libertarian side of things, which is part of the circular model of politics (which states Orthodox Communism and Nazism are pretty close given their obsession with totalitarianism). However, in this second model, which I teach in the 2nd year of A levels, Liberalism is still identified as centrist. Note I’m referring to the ideology throughout, not the party.

    Eddie – thank you for your kind words. “What the Edexcel exam board expects” is an excellent way of summing up this article. What I think, what others think and what actually is going on may be three entirely different things. Glad its provoking some interesting debate.

    The map is not the territory as they say.

    (Note – for those interested in my background, I’ve also been an examiner for the Edexcel exam board on the paper that deals with Liberalism twice in the past. That doesn’t mean I necessarily know what liberalism is, it does mean I know what the Edexcel exam board thinks liberalism is. If that makes sense!).

  • Simon Foster 26th Jun '15 - 11:32pm

    Finally, forgot to add – I’m happy to do lead talk on this at conference in Bournemouth, with the room hire being crowdfunded, and in the meantime I’ll stump up a deposit for it. If people are interested, let me know and I’ll sort something out.

    Best wishes – Simon.

  • Simon – ‘you’ll notice in the article I was careful to write Mill “up to almost the end of his life.” This is because Mill’s views change, and at the end of his life he is advocating some positive freedoms’.

    You do indeed state this, although not when discussing ‘developmental individualism’ later in the article. I think it better to think of Mill as a bridge between classical and New liberalism; people, however, tend to see him as the former due to the harm principle. Mill arguably advocated ‘positive’ freedom long before the end of his life (these terms are, however, somewhat unhelpful, not to mention anachronistic, even if they do bring some light as well ). Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, is more radical than Chapters on Socialism (despite the titles).
    His ideal of Bildung reflects his debts to German Romantic thought; he very much admired Goethe. Mill never simply believed in the absence of interference, even in his youth. He demanded active and engaged citizenship in On Liberty, which is often taken to be THE example of Mill at his most committed to negative liberty (he was, for example, a strong advocate of jury service in this work, a work which although published in 1859 he had begin writing in the early part of the decade) and for this his model was classical Athens. Nadia Urbinati’s book on Mill is a good source for this view.

  • Gareth – a lot of Liberals also advocated temperance. Green, who has been mentioned in this thread already, was a leading temperance reformer. He helped set up a coffee house in order to encourage people to leave the pubs.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun '15 - 8:21am

    Simon Foster

    Liberalism’s first form was classical liberalism. When it came to the size of government, this was very small – the nightwatchman state. Government should be like a security guard, only awake at night, to preserve our liberty.

    This is a view of liberalism largely made up in the 21st century, but put as “classical” or “19th century” in order to give it more credence.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun '15 - 8:25am

    Christopher Haigh

    During the GE campaign I got the impression that some tv political commentators were confusing liberalism and the liberal democrats with neo-liberalism and even libertarianism

    Yes, it’s like Orwell’s 1984, there’s been a deliberate attempt to change what this word means and to re-write history done by people who are doing it for political reasons. These people, for that reason alone although alos for many others, just are not liberal.

  • There’s nothing centrist about liberalism. For most of British political history it was the opposition to Conservatism in a two party system. It was always a pluralistic response to the idea that there is a natural political hierarchy that gave power to social elites as a birth right. As Matthew Huntbach points out what is being called “classical Liberalism ” is a 21st century way of elevating the importance of Laissez faire and free market fundamentalism as the defining characteristic of liberal philosophy. Where as to me classical liberalism is more about personal freedom v oppressive forces, mostly the result of questioning religious power and, in Britain, the social order built up around the aristocracy and the monarchy.

  • Simon Foster 27th Jun '15 - 11:40am

    Matthew:

    I was learning this view of liberalism back on the Political Ideologies course in Newcastle University back in 1990/1, so we’ll agree to disagree here – my experience has simply been different. It’s also how the Edexcel exam board has taught it for decades, looking back at the past papers in the midst of time.

    Alex – I’d agree with the idea that Mill is a bridge between classical and new liberalism. Thanks for the references. From what you’ve said, it appears that my exam board, Edexcel (and thus myself for the way I’ve been taught/trained) are being too simplistic when it comes to Mill, probably in a desire not to confuse students. However, by simplifying things, something has been lost along the way.

    The perils of academia!!! 😉

    Glad to have learnt something new today on the subject 🙂

  • Alex marsh 27th Jun ’15 – 1:25am
    “…Liberals also advocated temperance. Green, who has been mentioned in this thread already, was a leading temperance reformer. ”

    Some of us still do practice and advocate temperance. We have not become slaves to the conformity of the drinking classes. 🙂
    The Temperance Movement was remembered but much out of fashion when I was growing up. Some Liberal Clubs refused to serve alcohol until the 1970s. (I think that Ilminster Club was dry until Paddy Ashdown turned up).
    The Temperance Movement included many working-class radical women who were supporters of the party, just the sort of people we need supporting the party today.

  • For me. modern Liberalism is about managing egotistical behaviour so that no individual or group has the power to ride roughshod over another’s human rights. So the concentration of wealth, for example, needs to be managed so that there is enough wealth for the rest of society to have the freedom to achieve their full potential. It’s full of subtlety and ever changing as society develops economically through new inventions.
    I think the requirement for Free Trade in the 19thcentury was developed as a result of rich landowners encouraging the Government of the day to tax imported wheat so that they were able to charge high prices for their produce. This meant that ordinary working people could no longer afford to buy bread so many were starving. Free Trade then developed into a means of encouraging peace between nations.
    It’s good to learn about our political roots but we should not be bound to the politics of our forebears. We live in a completely different world even from Keynes and Beveridge so we have different freedoms to evaluate and manage. I’m unlikely to attend conference but I would have thought a session on Liberal values and how they apply to modern society would be invaluable.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun '15 - 9:50pm

    Simon Foster

    I was learning this view of liberalism back on the Political Ideologies course in Newcastle University back in 1990/1, so we’ll agree to disagree here – my experience has simply been different. It’s also how the Edexcel exam board has taught it for decades, looking back at the past papers in the midst of time

    I have a copy of the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought published in 1977. It can be interesting to look at to see how things have changed. This is how it defines “Liberalism”:


    A political philosophy which originated in the 18th century, reached the height of its influence before 1914, and was historically associated with the idea of freedom: the civil freedom of the individual; free political institutions; freedom of religion; free enterprise and free trade in economics.

    Liberalism in its most characteristic contemporary expression emphasises the importance of conscience and justice in politics, advocates the rights of racial and religious minorities, and supports civil liberties and the right of the ordinary individual to be more effectively consulted in decisions which directly effect him. This idea of liberalism is shared by many modern American liberals who, characteristically, combine a belief in democratic capitalism with a strong commitment to executive and legislative action in order to alleviate social ills.

    Now, this does not seem to me to be particularly suggesting that the main feature of liberalism historically was a belief in a “very small nightwatchman state”. That is why I feel those who insist that this is the main thing about what they call “classical liberalism” rather than more general concepts of freedom, are making it up to suit their own purpose and give credence to what is actually a very different ideology: the belief that the power of the vote should be replaced by the power of money.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun '15 - 10:09pm

    The 1977 Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought has a separate section on “Economic Liberalism”, what it says there is perhaps, even more telling:


    The application to economics of the doctrines of classical liberalism, expressed as a preference for competitive markets and for the use of the price mechanism over more direct forms of intervention. An economic liberal is not a believer in laissez faire, because he accepts the need for government intervention (if possible through the prices mechanism) to deal with externalities and also to supply public goods (e.g. defence or urban parks) that cannot be charged for in the market place. Many, but not all, economic liberals favour redistribution of income, preferably in the form of taxes and cash grants rather than through provision in kind or wage- or price fixing.

    Yet now we find “economic liberal” used to mean a belief in pure laissez faire, and people now trying to suggest that’s what just plain liberalism was accepted as meaning in the past. We have moved from an acceptance of free market principles being one aspect of liberalism, and I have never denied that, to it being put as if it is all that liberalism is about. Nowadays “economic liberal” would not be applied to someone who believed in using the state to even up distribution of income or wealth, indeed this would be regarded as the hallmark of someone who is NOT an “economic liberal”, and some would say not a liberal at all.

    I believe this change, and re-writing of history to make it seem it was always like that, has come about through the deliberate pushing of powerful forces: ultimately the super-wealthy and big corporations who want all power to themselves, but cannot say that, so they disguise their ideology as “classical liberalism” in order to make people think it is much more respectable and established than it really is. It has been helped along by many of the sort who were termed “useful idiots”, that is people who helped push a dangerous ideology and did not properly realise how they were being used by the propagators of that ideology. The term was popular when that ideology was Leninist communism, but I think much the same now applies to people who help push the rewriting of what “liberalism” means.

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun '15 - 10:28pm

    John Tilley

    The Temperance Movement was remembered but much out of fashion when I was growing up. Some Liberal Clubs refused to serve alcohol until the 1970s.

    This was part of the strong connection between British Liberalism and non-conformist Christianity. The belief that alcohol is bad is not historically a Christian thing (although of course it was always a Muslim thing) it was developed in non-conformist Christianity. Even until very recently, there was a significant correlation between adherence to one of the non-conformist denominations and voting Liberal. I have heard it said that in the West Country how a village voted depended on what position it took in the civil war (the British one in the 17th century). If it was on the Parliamentarian side, it would have gone non-conformist in terms of religion, and that in turn would make it Liberal. If it was on the Royalist side it would have stayed Anglican, and that would have made it Tory.

    Opposition to use of alcohol was seen as a liberal thing. The reason was that it was often considered (correctly) that Tories encouraged drunkenness to keep the working class quiet. Better that they were too drunk to revolt or complain about their lot.

  • John Tilley 28th Jun '15 - 7:59am

    Matthew Huntbach 27th Jun ’15 – 10:28pm

    Yes I think you highlight an interesting aspect of the Tories attitudes to alcohol and the working class.
    Conservatives have always combined a fear of and contempt for the working class; alcohol was a way of undermining and dominating the masses. It was also a way of making a profit out of them. It is no coincidence that over time there have been close links between the drinks companies and Conservative Party funding.
    Working-class Liberals and Radicals organised and campaigned with people so that they could free themselves from being enslaved by drunkenness, alcoholism and the social ills and health problems that were the inevitable consequences for many.
    Those Conservatives and LIbertarians who promote the legalisation of other drugs are no doubt looking forward to a time when they can profit from “new markets”, whilst at he same relishing the expectation that a confused and dazed electorate is easier to manipulate.

  • John Tilley and Matthew.
    I respect both of you, but I don’t think alchol and drugs are the product of Coneservatism or enlave the working classes. It’s not like one class is temperate and others aren’t and it’sn’t as if they really have different effects on people according to social class either. Most of our drug laws don’t go much further back than the 1960s and tend to be driven by moral panics about people not doing the right thing and what youngsters are up to or their effect on the work place. Most people who drink or take recreational drugs are not addicts. They just enjoy the occasional altered state they can induce. Now to me the belief in hardwork, for other people, wage slavery, for other people, and a the minimum possible wage for the longest possible hours, for other people, is how right wingers control the working stiff. I agree that Libertarians often seem to be want the freedom to exploit but this doesn’t mean that liberal freedoms naturally lend themselves to exploitation or are in themselves exploitative. You can make similar arguments about music and entertainment, but in truth people just like music and being entertained and I would argue that some people just like alcohol and drugs so just feel they should be free to indulge that liking now and again.
    The problem with bringing class and the benefits of temperance into the argument is that you end up echoing the idea that it’s fine for an artist or a rich person to pursue individual freedoms but that if a shop worker does it then they are being enslaved or controlled by mind altering substances, where as I’d say they are enslaved by minimum wages and long hours and how they enjoy their spare time is neither here nor there. or anyone’s business but their own.

  • Christopher Haigh 28th Jun '15 - 10:32am

    Hi Matthew, I agree with your reasoning that the liberal philosophy
    can be hijacked and drifted off towards ‘libertarianism’. The liberal democrat party needs the firm rock of the agreed preamble to anchor it to that position. Perhaps the preamble could also be summarized to a few major bullet points of its contents to establish a mission statement that we can all easily remember and communicate to the electorate
    Perhaps the actual name of the party should more accurately anchor it to the preamble?

  • Glenn 28th Jun ’15 – 10:09am

    Glenn

    I do not disagree with you when you say —

     “…Most of our drug laws don’t go much further back than the 1960s and tend to be driven by moral panics about people not doing the right thing and what youngsters are up to or their effect on the work place. Most people who drink or take recreational drugs are not addicts. ”

    Those are facts beyond dispute.

    Your take on the involvement of Conservatives is where I think you might be missing some points.

    You are right about wage slavery, poverty wages etc are correct.

    The extension of your argument to make similar points about  music and entertainment can be true up to a point because hedonism and escapism in all forms can be opiates which distract and diver people.   But only up to a point.   Music, theatre, poetry, writing etc can be life-enhancing and are a crucial element in making life more than just the daily grind of the rat race.   Not something which really applies to actual opiates.

    Neither Matthew nor I are guilty of bringing class into this.   We just happen to comment about class when for others it is the elephant that they would like to lock out of the room.

    I recognise your point about condemnation for the shop worker for indulging in the same vices as a rich person.   I do not think the answer is for shop workers to end up with the same problems that have ended up killing and or impoverishing people such as The 7th Marquis of Bristol, who when he died in 1999 at the age of 44 had frittered away £35,000,000 on drugs and self-indulgence.   

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hervey,_7th_Marquess_of_Bristol

    The historical point about The Temperance Movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is that they were the natural allies of Liberals, Radicals and working class women.

    The lesson for the future and Liberal Democrats is that when Conservatives (their sister party UKIP) and the Establishment leaning bulk of The Labour Party offer only eternal austerity and poverty wages becoming the norm for the majority there is a huge political opportunity in working once again with our natural allies.   

    That is where I would bring class into it  again and that is why I disagreed with Gordon Lishman in his recent LDV piece where he wrote against “identity” politics.

    A lot of thoughts in one comment – I have tried to respond to each of the issues that you have raised.

  • Simon Foster 28th Jun '15 - 12:34pm

    Matthew – thank you for providing a dictionary definition which agrees with my statement “Most importantly, classical liberalism only believes in negative freedom” above. The first definition you’ve got there is very good, with its whole list of negative freedoms listed – I shall use that with my students 🙂

    As for the nightwatchman state being the main feature of classical liberalism, I’m in agreement with you – I think it’s the negative freedoms only point as the defining feature of classical liberalism – which logically then leads to the nightwatchman state.

    Classical liberalism clearly isn’t just about the power of money – if it was there would be the prevention of monopolies as part of the nightwatchman state. This, for me, is a key difference between a classical liberal and a neo-liberal, the latter having its routes historically in the former, but developing into something quite different. There’s also the list of other features which we’ve both mentioned (democracy, tolerance, individualism, limited Government, etc).

    The second dictionary passage is very interesting, and I understand your point more fully now 🙂 The Edexcel exam board uses classical liberalism and economic liberalism as interchangeable definitions. Again, thinking this over, I believe some simplification has occurred here: for teaching lower ability students that would be fine within an A2 level exam. The historical re-writing you’re describing – which I haven’t experienced but accept that you have – is the sort of thing candidates would get into at degree level – although I shall certainly point it out as an idea for A/A* candidates to consider in the future.

    In short, to be clear – thank you – it’s an interesting idea that you are advocating and whilst I’m still not completely convinced, certainly deserves further investigation.

  • Simon Foster 28th Jun '15 - 12:36pm

    Sara – I should add there that Government can enable other systems which achieve the same result when it comes to freedom from illiteracy and freedom from ill health. However, a modern/social liberal looks at all the failures the market has and sees the state as an enabling force. Thus, Beveridge, as a welfare liberal, looked at the problem of private healthcare versus public, and came up with the conclusion that the NHS was the best way of achieving freedom from ill health, for everyone as an individual.

    Far from being wishy-washy, I personally find the exam board’s definition of the different types of liberalism very useful. I accept you feel differently.

    As for conflation with social democracy, there’s a lot of policy overlap between modern/social liberalism and social democracy. The former comes at things from an individualist viewpoint, the latter comes at things from a collectivist viewpoint. Hardly surprising then, that the Liberal Democrats were formed from the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party, and whilst there’s a lot of liberals in the party (according to Lib Dem voice surveys) there’s a number of social democrats as well.

  • A Social Liberal 28th Jun '15 - 12:38pm

    Sarah Scarlett

    “The NHS is simply *not* a social liberal form of health care. It is a socialist model of delivering health care”

    It certainly is not a socialist model – a socialist model would be that of the USSR, where there are no alternatives, where GPs could not set up partnerships and dentists could not turn their back on the people who paid for their training to set up private enterprises. I do wish people would stop talking about socialism when not understanding (apparently) one of its basic tenets – that the state owns all businesses.

    I would go further and argue that contrary to what Sara says, the NHS is intensely socially liberal – it is the state taking part in what was a private industry because that industry was set up in favour of those who had the money to pay for it.

  • John Tilley 28th Jun '15 - 1:40pm

    A Social Liberal 28th Jun ’15 – 12:38pm
    “… I do wish people would stop talking about socialism when not understanding (apparently) one of its basic tenets…”

    Yes – it is sad that the education system in this country has left some people in ignorance of the basic political facts of life. How can they hope to combat socialism if they do not actually recognise what it is. There is depressingly, a growing habit of aping Tea Party language and saying – “that’s something I disapprove of so I will calling “socialism”.
    It is usually followed by a call for free-market Libertarian answer to everything which has no working example anywhere in the real world.

  • Sara.
    the health services in Europe especially northern Europe work better because the populations are smaller, they have more disposable income and much better general health to start with. We are the most densely populated Nation in the EU, with the tiniest houses in the western hemisphere and wages that don’t cover the cost of living. Miserable, overcrowded underpaid people ruled by penny pinching buffoons have poorer health, shock horror.

  • Simon Foster 28th Jun '15 - 7:33pm

    Sara – I’m glad I’m working then in British Further Education 🙂

    I’m sure you didn’t mean to miss that and weren’t being intellectually lazy…. 😉

    John – you’ll be pleased to hear that the Edexcel exam board also covers Orthodox Communism, Utopian Socialism, Marxism, Revisionist Socialism (and within that Democratic Socialism), Social Democracy and that old favourite, Neo-Revisionist Social Democracy also known as the Third Way, also known as (and this is where I set the cat amongst the pigeons):

    *Liberal* Communitarianism…..as practised by one Tony Blair (runs for an intellectual concrete bunker 😉 ).

    I like the Third Way term myself,, although the term Third Way actually comes from Clinton, not Blair.

    Edexcel A2 Route B Political Ideologies also covers Anarchism (about 8 forms here), Nationalism (10 forms), Feminism (7+ forms), Conservatism (3 main forms plus some minor ones) and Multiculturalism (3 forms). I find it a great course 🙂

  • Simon Foster 28th Jun '15 - 7:35pm

    Ops I missed Ecologism and all its associated Green thinking (2 main forms, 3 types of social ecology, and 3 other types of Green thought that surround it).

  • John Tilley 28th Jun '15 - 8:41pm

    Simon Foster 28th Jun ’15 – 7:33pm
    “… Neo-Revisionist Social Democracy also known as the Third Way, also known as (and this is where I set the cat amongst the pigeons):

     Communitarianism……”

    Yes I remember Blair’s passing flirtation with so-called “communitarianism”, I still have the booklet upstairs somewhere.   I seem to recall noticing that it did NOT include the phrase (or an American equivalent) “take power and use it”.

    As for the “Third Way” – I remember an Under Secretary in the government department where I worked trying to explain to his team what it meant in practice in terms of Health Policy.   Very entertaining but the explanation produced neither heat nor light.   I suppose it enabled him to go back to his minister and assure the minister that the message of ‘The Third Way’ had been passed on to the troops.   

    You can guess how much practical difference in made in terms of Policy delivery.

  • Sara – amongst your pre-NHS list of service providers you omitted the horse doctor, for those without the money to see a real doctor, and the village ‘wise woman’ for those with no money at all. And did you know that it was not uncommon amongst the poor for a woman to have all her teeth removed before getting married so that dentistry would be one less expense for the family? I don’t really care what political model the NHS was constructed around (and Bevan said he had ‘stuffed the doctors’ mouths with gold’, which doesn’t sound terribly socialist) because whatever its failings, and there are many, people in this country no longer die because they cannot afford medical attention.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '15 - 10:00pm

    Glenn

    John Tilley and Matthew.
    I respect both of you, but I don’t think alcohol and drugs are the product of Conservatism or enslave the working classes.

    The point that is being made here is that the wish to restrict or outright oppose the consumption of alcohol WAS quite a strong theme in 19th century liberalism. This may seem very puzzling when we are also arguing that 19th century liberalism was about freedom. These days, people who want to describe themselves as “liberal” often include freedom to use recreational drugs as one of the things they regard as an essential part of their liberalism. So, I am trying to explain how it was seen in the 19th century, what was the thinking of those who were taking what now seems to us to be contradictory positions.

    The underlying point, of course, is that freedom is a rather more complex issue than some suppose.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '15 - 10:04pm

    Simon Foster

    Matthew – thank you for providing a dictionary definition which agrees with my statement “Most importantly, classical liberalism only believes in negative freedom” above. The first definition you’ve got there is very good, with its whole list of negative freedoms listed

    But nothing in it suggests an opposition to the provision of state services. 19th century liberals were pragmatic on that. That’s my point – people who like to call themselves “classical liberals” now put out the idea that this primarily means opposition to the provision of state services.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '15 - 10:09pm

    Sara Scarlett

    If you want freedom from illiteracy, I strongly recommend you abandon the comprehensive system that leaves 16% of adults functionally illerate.

    Is it the comprehensive system that does this? Can you explain why you believe the provision of special school for the top 20% of performers will reduce illiteracy in the general population?

    If what you say is correct, then in those parts of the country which did not introduce the comprehensive system, such as the whole of the administrative county of Kent, you would find a much lower level of functional illiteracy. Well, do you? I don’t recall Kent being known for being unusually literate.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '15 - 10:16pm

    Sara Scarlett

    Also, your characterisation of the pre-NHS health care industry is ridiculous. The State took over hospitals run by churches, by charities, by friendly societies, by mutual aid societies…

    Well, we continue to have something like the Dutch system with schools, we still have schools run by the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. And many Liberals here are fiercely opposed to that. I’ve sometimes spoken out in defence of Catholic schools here in Liberal Democrat Voice, and I’ve often found myself almost alone in making that point, and subject to some quite abusive attack from people who regard themselves as strong Liberals for making it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 28th Jun '15 - 10:24pm

    Sara Scarlett

    The NHS is simply *not* a social liberal form of health care. It is a socialist model of delivering health care. If you like the NHS then you must defend it on socialist grounds, not social liberal grounds

    Yet, there is very strong support for the NHS in this country, and most people regard it as enhancing their freedom and not restricting it. Why is that, do you think? If it was not a liberal thing, wouldn’t people regard it as a restriction on freedom?

    I think for most people, knowing that whatever happens they will always get health care free of direct charge is HUGELY liberating. Having to worry about it all the time and negotiate market systems to get health care and perhaps fall through the cracks and not get it is something people would regard as a burden, not liberation.

    The problem with paid-for health care is that either it is paid directly, in which case there is the problem of its providers convincing you to accept unnecessary treatment, as they get money from you for it. or it is paid for through insurance schemes, in which case there is the problem of the providers not giving you the treatment you need, as they’d rather take the money from you and not have to spend it. I’d rather decisions on what health treatment I get be made by people who don’t have a vested interest either way.

  • @Matthew Huntbach “If what you say is correct, then in those parts of the country which did not introduce the comprehensive system, such as the whole of the administrative county of Kent, you would find a much lower level of functional illiteracy”

    Until very recently Northern Ireland did not have the comprehensive system, and (in 2013) had better literacy and numeracy rates for young adults than England.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24433320

  • Furthermore Matthew, although I can’t find a breakdown by County, the South East region (which contains two of the three counties that still retain Grammar Schools, and excludes London) has the highest rates of Literacy and Numeracy of all English regions.

    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/246534/bis-13-1221-international-survey-of-adult-skills-2012.pdf

  • Simon Foster 29th Jun '15 - 5:50am

    Matthew,

    If you’re maximising only negative freedoms, then one of them you’re trying to maximise is freedom from taxation. This does mean you will keep the state small, unless otherwise proven that you will intervene.

    That would seem to fit in with some of the arguments I see coming out of Liberal Reform today – the default position is that of minimising Government where ever possible, to enhance negative freedoms.

    Note this assumes a zero sum gain scenario between negative and positive freedom. If you want state run services that enhance a positive freedom (eg: education) then you have to put taxes up thus reducing a negative freedom (the freedom from taxation).

    The argument I struggle with here is Edexcel’s assumption that the likes of Mill were defining things in terms of negative and positive freedom. Whereas I’ve always been taught that it was Isiah Berlin who provided us with the definition – except that Berlin doesn’t appear later until the 20th century. At which point I’d like to sit down with Mill and ask him in person: what was going through your head?

    Also Edexcel doesn’t teach it as 19th century classical liberalism but just as classical liberalism, going all the way back to John Locke, then to Adam Smith, and then on to John Stuart Mill (with a passing nod to Jeremy Bentham and utilitarianism as a forerunner to liberalism at the start). Again, perhaps that’s a loss of detail for liberalism in the late 19th century, where we’re moving towards New Liberalism?

    Final point – pragmatism does make it on to the Edexcel syllabus – as a key feature of 1 nation Conservatism under Disraeli, with Oakeshott and Popper providing supporting arguments.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '15 - 12:45pm

    Sara Scarlett

    “Can you explain why you believe the provision of special school for the top 20% of performers will reduce illiteracy in the general population?”

    What?! When did I ever make this point?

    When you wrote “If you want freedom from illiteracy, I strongly recommend you abandon the comprehensive system that leaves 16% of adults functionally illiterate”. Previous to the comprehensive system we had a system where there were special schools for the top 20% of performers, so I think it is natural to think that when you blame the comprehensive system for what we have now, you are suggesting that having special schools for the top 20% of performers would solve the problem.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '15 - 12:52pm

    Simon Foster

    If you’re maximising only negative freedoms, then one of them you’re trying to maximise is freedom from taxation. This does mean you will keep the state small, unless otherwise proven that you will intervene.

    Whether something is best provided paid for by taxation or paid for directly through cash is a pragmatic issue. I don’t find tax to be some massive burden on my freedom, and on the whole I think what it provides enhances rather than restricts my freedom. I don’t find this obsession with taxation being the biggest restriction there is on freedom to be a major theme among real 19th century liberals as opposed to 21st century people who claim to be their real heirs.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '15 - 12:58pm

    Sara Scarlett

    The NHS gives patients the type of freedom terrorists give their hostages. A lot of people, thankfully, don’t have NHS Stockholm Syndrome and look to the Continent where they have Universal health care and things like choice and something called ‘being treated like an adult.’

    Well, maybe, but I don’t find my freedom hugely enhanced by the things that have been privatised so far. I regard it as diminishing my freedom that I am supposed to spend so much of my time on wheeler-dealing, and get harassed so much by people wanting me to switch from one brand to another. Maybe you find this sort of thing fun, I don’t. I’ve had enough fights with phone companies and banks and the likes to know that the idea that competition means they provide wonderfully good service is a sick joke.

    Upper-class, privately educated, white consultants at the top and ethnic minority immigrants sweeping the floors a the bottom. This is not freedom for patients or the people who work there.

    Er, and are private companies any different? No, so this is not a public-private issue.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jun '15 - 1:10pm

    Sara Scarlett

    The Comprehensive system not only leaves people functionally illiterate, deprives parents of choice as to where they send their kids, what type of education they receive and sometimes can’t even find a place for the kids – there is a shortage of places after all. If this is your definition of freedom

    Er, and private provision of food leads to people eating unhealthily, becoming obese, and not having much choice if they live in poor areas. So is this an argument to nationalise the supermarkets because that would improve things? No. I think it’s rather more complex than the very simplistic way you put things.

    I work in Higher Education, and I am directly involved in admissions, and most of the students we take come from the comprehensive system, and if they do well on my module there’s top jobs out there waiting for them. So the message you put across about the whole comprehensive system turning out people who are no good is wrong, I know that from my own experience.

    Sure, the British education system is far from perfect. There are many, many things I could say about it here. I am very critical of many aspects of it. I was actually a lot more sympathetic to much of what Michael Gove was trying to do with it than many Liberal Democrats for that reason – although he got plenty of things wrong himself, and quite badly interpreted a lot of the advice that people like me had been putting out.

    However, from my own experience I don’t think the problem just comes down to the grammar-secondary modern system having been replaced in mots places by comprehensives, nor do I think it is down to local authority “control” of schools. Perhaps the thing that most disappointed me over the 12 years when I was a councillor was finding out that actually we DIDN’T have the sort of control which the promoters of “academies” and “free schools” and the like say we have and put at the centre of their argument. So I see the idea that these will solve the problem just to be snake oil salesmanship.

  • Simon Foster 29th Jun '15 - 2:37pm

    Matthew – I agree with you on tax.

    Sara Scarlett:

    “FE is as intellectually lazy as HE so…”

    Thank you for the compliment that we are working as hard in FE as all the brilliant professors and academics across HE 🙂 It’s good to hear this, especially in a country where we are one of the world leaders when it comes to higher education.

    You must have had a lot of free time to have met all these academics personally, read all their papers and looked at all their research in such detail before coming to that conclusion! In both FE and HE as well – very impressive.

    I couldn’t possibly have done so myself – I would instead find myself making a sweeping generalisation without having actually looked at all the facts. Which is the sort of thing they teach on to avoid on an AS Critical Thinking exam paper – glad you didn’t fall into that trap!

    Apologies I haven’t been able to do the same – this must make me intellectually lazy!

  • @Matthew Huntbach “There are many, many things I could say about it here. I am very critical of many aspects of it. I was actually a lot more sympathetic to much of what Michael Gove was trying to do with it than many Liberal Democrats for that reason”

    I’m interested to see your views on this Matthew.

    How do you propose we produce pupils who can compete with the output of the better independent schools?

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jun '15 - 11:04am

    TCO

    I’m interested to see your views on this Matthew.

    How do you propose we produce pupils who can compete with the output of the better independent schools?

    It can’t be done completely. The better independent schools will always have the advantage of much more money to be able to spend. And please don’t give the usual reply “Oh, it’s not just about throwing money at it”, because if that isn’t an aspect how come those schools charge such high fees? Surely if good education could be provided for much less, market forces would push those fees down. The better independent schools will also, of course, have the advantage of pupils with the confidence and contacts and other benefits that come from having wealthy parents in influential positions.

    However, there are aspects that can give children a better chance. The most obvious one, which I saw in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of UCAS applicants during the long time I was admissions tutor for my university department, was poor choice of subjects studied. I would always advise anyone taking A-levels to include A-level Maths if they are able to do it and don’t actually hate it. For so many university subjects, A-level Maths is either essential, or desirable. In many cases, the only reason it is not listed as an essential requirement is because departments have to fill their places and they’d be left half-empty if they said A-level Maths was essential. Unfortunately, it seems to be hugely difficult to get this message across to schools. Once you put A-level Maths as “not essential” they misinterpret what you are saying and think it means no mathematical ability or training is necessary.

    I saw SO MANY applicants whose GCSE Maths was good enough for them to have done A-levels Maths, and they said in their application that they always wanted to do Computer Science, but they did not take A-level Maths, instead took the almost useless A-level called “Information and Communication Technology”.

    OK, I could say much more, but that’s a start.

  • @Matthew. Actually I agree with most of this and it’s all useful stuff that could be done. However to make a really big impact you need a much better concentration of knowledge.

    Some of the advantages of the old system were in the areas of “soft” power – namely, you had teachers at grammar schools who were familiar with “the system” and were therefore able to equip pupils with the tacit knowledge required to game it. Similarly, those who otherwise would have no idea how it worked were able to bootstrap from their more knowledgable peers. Finally, cultural norms within the institutions gave those less well-equipped from a background point of view the cultural capital to believe in themselves sufficiently to make an attempt.

    Despite all the best effort of the tertiary sector at outreach, too many pupils never even get past the first hurdle – if you don’t apply, you can’t be considered. Neither are they learning the work ethic from an early age to equip them to succeed.

    The Direct Grant schools were in effect public schools but open to those without the wherewithal to pay for a place and consequently had two benefits: (I) giving opportunities for a world class education to those who would benefit best rather than those who could pay, and (ii) involving both sides in the opportunity to meet, mix with and learn from those whom they would never normally come into contact with.

    The comprehensive system dilutes this reinforcing effect from both a staff and pupil perspective to the point where it becomes educational homeopathy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 30th Jun '15 - 7:30pm

    TCO

    I see no necessity why any of what your write should disappear when a school is a comprehensive school rather than a grammar school. Why, for example, do you suppose teachers familiar with the system would just disappear if a grammar school and a secondary modern were merged into one school? And wouldn’t that merger actually help with the boostrapping?

  • Simon Foster 30th Jun '15 - 11:57pm

    I agree with Matthew from the other side of things, having been a personal tutor for several years for A level applicants looking at what to do next. The advice can be really hit and miss. So, to take 3 examples:

    1) I have a student not going to University but instead entering a paid apprenticeship with the Civil Service instead, simply because I found the vacancy and made my students aware of it. After 3-4 years, he’ll be eligible to compete, from the inside, with the Oxbridge graduates for the Civil Service’s fast track recruitment programme 🙂

    2) I have had two students in the past attend courses run by the Social Mobility Foundation, with the aim of assisting gifted and talented students, by providing them with 2 weeks work experience in the civil service or chambers, and workshops run by Oxbridge graduates to prepare them so that they can make a good Oxbridge application.

    Result: Student from a disadvantage background into Cambridge 🙂

    Yet how many people out there have heard of the Social Mobility Foundation?

    3) I have secondary school colleagues who still don’t know what all of the Russell Group approved subjects are (Maths is one of them, of course). GCSE students need to know about the existence of such subjects as it can massively boost their chances of when applying to a Russell Group University.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '15 - 12:28pm

    TCO

    Despite all the best effort of the tertiary sector at outreach, too many pupils never even get past the first hurdle – if you don’t apply, you can’t be considered. Neither are they learning the work ethic from an early age to equip them to succeed.

    So why do you think returning to a system where there are special schools for high performers will solve these problems? You, and everyone else who says similar things go on about “reintroducing grammar schools”, but the reality is that if you do this, you are also reintroducing secondary modern schools, and those are where most pupils will go to.

    The problems with pupils not getting past the first hurdle and not having the work ethic are with those who would be in secondary modern schools in the old selective system, not those who would be in grammar schools. So, if what you are saying is to have any sort of logical basis, your argument would need to be concentrated on what you think is so good about secondary modern schools and why you think schools from which the best performer have been removed will do such a good job at educating the rest.

    So many things have changed in our culture since in most places the selective system was ended and comprehensives were introduced that I think it’s daft to suppose that all the negative things you and others talk about are caused by ending of the selective system rather than by other factors. For myself, I think the problems are caused by other factors, and these are to do with the shift to the economic right in our society. The instability and insecurity that has caused has had a big impact. For example, I am sure that part of the reason that I and my siblings moved from a poor working class background to success at universities and professional careers was the stability provided by the council house my family were allocated, which there is simply no way their equivalent today would get.

    I also think the obsession with dog-eat-dog competition, the idea that the way to get ahead is to be pushy, aggressive, greedy and self-centred, which now dominates our culture, thanks the the dominance of right-wing politicians, has created a huge attitude problem in young people, which leads to them not having the work ethic and other positive attitudes that are needed in most jobs.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Jul '15 - 1:03pm

    Simon Foster

    I have secondary school colleagues who still don’t know what all of the Russell Group approved subjects are (Maths is one of them, of course).

    It’s not “approved subjects”, the term used is “facilitating subjects”, you can find more detail here. The point being made is that these are the subjects that are most general, and so keep options open widest. They are not saying that other subjects are “unapproved” meaning they won’t be taken into account, just saying that in practice they tend not be so useful.

    What is written here is readily available, and is something anyone advising pupils over choice in post-16 education should be aware of.

    The issue is that what a university admissions tutor is likely to be looking for most of all is good abstract skills, rather than particular factual knowledge. However, people who don’t come from an educational background tend not to realise this, and tend to think subjects which seem more focussed on particular vocational or semi-vocational skills are better. The problem is that school qualifications which seem to be “useful” in this naive view are often almost useless, because they are inevitably way out-of-date, taught by teachers who don’t themselves properly understand the subject, and tend underneath to be little more than memorising definitions and reproducing them, and so give a very false impression of the subject they are supposed to be leading to.

    When I try to make this point, I am often accused of being “snobbish”, but it’s not that. When I was the admissions tutor for my department, I went for whatever school qualifications correlated with success on the degree – and, yes, it was the more abstract ones that did, and the more vocational ones that did not. Then I am accused of having a degree which is too academic and not practical, and that is the reason for what I saw. But that is not the case – we do actually put a lot of effort into making sure our degree is practical and meets current employment needs. It isn’t that the degree actually requires much of what is in A-level Maths, but it does require skills in abstract thinking, and these seem to be developed and assessed best through A-level Maths.

  • Simon Foster 1st Jul '15 - 3:37pm

    Thanks for the link Matthew. Approved subjects is the language used throughout my college, but with the meaning of facilitating that you’ve described. Swings, roundabouts 😉

    Keep making the point. I don’t think your approach snobbish at all – it’s exactly the advice we’re giving A level students – it’s the skills that you have learnt on your course, rather than the knowledge itself. Hence, my focus on political ideologies has been on teaching students how to think for themselves, rather than learning knowledge by rote. Which means I get to shamelessly play devils advocate a lot, and have real fun pretending to be a Neo-Conservative or Orthodox Marxist with my students 🙂

    It’s also how I became interested in neuro-lingustic programming (NLP) – which focuses on how to think more effectively and efficiently.

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