Opinion: Liberalism is radicalism

Though cheered by Nick Clegg’s letter on Liberal principles, I balked at being “slap, bang in the liberal centre”.

Though not his intention, “centre” always suggests equidistance between left and right. It implies reasonableness. And everyone knows politics is a contest for the centre ground. We live there. We win.
Except this conflates two unhelpful metaphors.

When Labour and Conservatives contest the centre ground it doesn’t make them Liberals. Rather they’re engaging with popular (often illiberal) sentiment, metaphorically located somewhere between them, in order to succeed electorally. If strong, they cajole that sentiment towards a programme. If weak, they appease it.

Our supposed location in the political centre is another misleading metaphor. It suggests we are a synthesis of left and right, a neutrality, an ideology wrought from indistinctness.

Combining these metaphors makes us seem compromise incarnate.

But the truth is, as Clegg implies, liberalism is the most radical creed: hard, nearly impossible to live by, utterly distinctive.

All parties pay liberty lip service. We believe in it. We reject illiberal Daily Mail appeasement by Labour and Tory Home Secretaries. We value public services, but are wary of state centralism. We believe in free markets, not as unregulated rat-races where corporate oligarchs thrive, but as settings for creativity and innovation, where targeted interventions empower consumers and allow small and new enterprises to flourish. We believe in equality, but know that without freedom it’s mere coercion.

We have an odd relationship with tolerance. Our pluralism means we tolerate those who are legally intolerant. But we must not let them win. Our liberalism is never easy-going. We are rigorously self-critical, lest we tolerate lack of diversity in our election candidates or shrug at sexual harassment. That would be intolerable.

We’re Enlightenment creatures, rational, but shy of systems. We want fairness. But we balance our thirst for social justice with belief in personal responsibility, the rights of property and the rule of law. We know there is such a thing as society, not an impersonal collective or Burkean mystery, but the place where individuals find full expression through free association. We love democracy. We want to extend it beyond a merely representative into a truly participative model, so as to make political decisions more legitimate and less remotely bureaucratic.

Liberalism is sceptical, a tough creed. It subjects its own tenets, all my foregoing cries of “we believe” and all our policy positions to the challenge of evidence. If liberty were better served by a radically reduced state and a bigger role for the third sector; if fairness could be secured in the NHS by co-payments or liberal education by letting school operators make profits; if a fairer tax take from the wealthy depended on them seeing transparency and accountability in welfare: we’d know what to do.

Wouldn’t we? Certainly. We’re realists. We’d make necessary accommodation with the “centre” of popular opinion. But we’d do so artfully and lead it.

Because we’re Liberals. No one’s wishy-washy moderates, thank you.

We’re radicals.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • This.

  • Maximilian Wilkinson 2nd Dec '13 - 5:57pm


  • Paul Stocker 2nd Dec '13 - 6:38pm

    I have always found it a bit odd that because we are to the right of Labour and to the left of the Tories, that automatically makes us ‘centrist’ or ‘moderate’. Our 2010 manifesto was by far the most radical, but firmly anchored within the political centre, rather than designed to appease financial interest groups such as unions or big business.

  • mike cobley 2nd Dec '13 - 7:00pm

    Laughable – the party’s MPs unquestioningly back regressive, Neanderthal Tory policies on the poor, on benefits and on the disabled, yet somehow the party is radical, whoo, radical. We’ve helped the Tories kick the poor down and kicked them when they’re down, but hey, we’re radical, yeah, radical – it means we get to do grown-up political things like being mean to anyone who isn’t ‘hardworking’ ™ and ‘playing by the rules’ ™.

    Well, sorry, but I’ve got news for you – in the public’s eyes, if you back Tory policies you are a Tory. No amount of fantasising and mutual backslapping will change that. Only walking away from the Coalition and repudiating its record will start the process of regaining public trust and esteem, but Clegg wont do that, not in a million years. Because, after all, we’re a party of government now, and that’s worth any amount of discomfort and distress amongst the proles.

  • Callum Hawthorne 2nd Dec '13 - 7:12pm

    This is all great, but instead of telling Liberal/Radical diehards this, wouldn’t it be a little more productive articulating this to the electorate?

  • Joshua Dixon 2nd Dec '13 - 7:25pm

    Very good post!

  • @Gareth Epps
    You would need to define centrist before such a contradiction could occur. If it’s just between left and right, and since the left is just liberal socialism and the right is just conservative neo-liberalism, surely the center would therefore be a combination of the two; Liberal. By being radically center, you would hold steadfast to the rights of man and the principles of liberty, I would think. A fair society and a responsible economy coupled with a strong defence of civil and political rights.
    Centrist need only be a contradiction of radical if centrist takes on the attributes of a reactionary party.

  • I do believe this was a fantastic post, but I have also agree with this:

    “I would argue that far better than a reduced state is a decentralised state where individuals and communities are empowered to take part in the decision making that affects them. ”

    I leave the rubbish as about ‘small’ state politics to the Tories, we want a big state, but in the bureaucratic, Labour sense of lots of paper and no pens; I mean in the sense that the communities are empowered by the state to work towards making the decisions for themselves.

    The problem with the Tories is that they see the state as something which restrains their ability to bully the poor.

    The problem with Labour is that they see the state as something which needs to govern and control the poor.

    What we want is a state which facilitates everyone.

  • Richard Church 2nd Dec '13 - 8:14pm

    Neither ‘radical’ not ‘centrist’ mean anything on their own. You can be a right wing radical or a left wing radical, so why not a centrist radical. You can be call yourself centrist, and be conservative, social democratic or liberal. You can be a racist or fascist radical and you can be a centrist without any political ideology at all.

    Nick Clegg describes us in the ‘Liberal centre’ rather than just centrist. I wish we didn’t use the language of centrism or radicalism to describe ourselves, as it’s meaningless, I understand why Nick talks of the centre, because it defines us in our role in coalition and it is what people (not activists commenting on Lib Dem Voice) want to hear. Past Liberal leaders have done the same, he’s not the first. Articulating Liberalism though is what’s needed to renew and inspire the party.

  • Jonathan Hunt 2nd Dec '13 - 8:33pm

    Being in the Liberal Centre is better than being in the Centre Ground and much improved on that wonderful oxymoron the Radical Centre.

    Give Nick Clegg some credit for improvement, although he still has some way to go. I asked him not to use the dreaded C-word any longer, but it does keeping slipping out.

    He may even recognise that the party of WE Gladstone, David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge, Jo Gromond, Fritz Schumaker and Roy Jenkins has always been Radical, Left-leaning and non-socialist.

    If Nick wants to take his place in this firnament, he had better accept that this, and make his pitch to those millions of voters who want our traditional policies.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Dec '13 - 9:15pm

    “Though cheered by Nick Clegg’s letter on Liberal principles, I balked at being “slap, bang in the liberal centre”.

    Not surprising really. You treat this phrase as being political analysis whereas it is clearly based in political rhetoric. Whether there is merit in the latter, there would appear to be some disagreement in the Party.

  • “We’ve helped the Tories kick the poor down and kicked them when they’re down …”

    What I don’t understand is why anyone who – entirely reasonably – feels like that should want the sentence to start with “we”.

    Thank God I can write – with a reasonably clear conscience – They>/b>’ve helped the Tories kick the poor down and kicked them when they’re down …”

    Though as I did end up voting tactically for the Lib Dems in 2010 my conscience is not entirely clear either.

  • jedibeeftrix 3rd Dec '13 - 9:33am

    an excellent article, no doubt.

  • Simon Banks 3rd Dec '13 - 9:42am

    I don’t really understand what in Kyle’s definition of our nature makes us centrist. To stand up for individual liberty, for example, does not place us between Labour and Conservative, but out to one extreme on that measure. The unstated thought seems to be that combining the best of Labour and Conservative economic policy is centrist (I’d tend to agree) and Liberal (why?)

    Liking compromise between extremes is not particularly Liberal except that a Liberal (and many other people of different democratic views) will baulk at the use of force to suppress one extreme (or both). Liking compromise between clear alternatives is not Liberal at all.

    On the issues of equality of outcome, of wealth and poverty, the issues where “right” and “left” continue to be meaningful, we may well be between Labour and Conservative, but historically we’ve been closer to Labour on the aims. We’ve departed from them (or they from us) on the means. Yes, we are more sceptical about the centralised state, but a true Liberal remembers that many agencies can suppress liberty and the state can protect liberty from oppressive corporations or mobs. We should also remember that one of our fundamental values, according to our constitution, is community. We want to empower communities of free association: we are not that distortion of liberalism that reduces everything to atomised consumers in the market.

    On many issues – issues of diversity and openness versus suspicion and barriers, issues of green versus greed, issues of equality of power – left and right are irrelevant and we naturally come out well over on one side of politics, not on the centre at all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Dec '13 - 1:55pm

    Simon Titley

    Political Compass: http://www.politicalcompass.org/

    Well, it was a relief that when I answered it honestly, I ended up slap bang in the middle of the left-libertarian bottom-left quadrant. I was concerned that there’s enough residual small-c social conservatism in me that I might end up embarrassingly illiberal if I was strictly honest. But is it really the case that so few others would end up there, as the people who put this together are suggesting? And would the Dalai Lama really fit there, or is this just a case of the tendency for western liberals to be over-positive about Buddhism (whereas with Catholicism it tends to be the other way round …)?

    The problem is that everyone now outside the political fringes can claim to be “liberal”. Is it really the case that leading Labour Party and Conservative Party people are going to be openly illiberal? When did we last hear a Labour or Conservative Party person openly saying they were against freedom and putting some other value before it? The political right would say they are all in favour of freedom, it’s just that they see cash markets and lack of state intervention as the heart of “freedom”, and would think me a terribly illiberal person because I disagree with that.

    I’ve read what Paul Connolly wrote, but really, “nearly impossible to live by, utterly distinctive”? Almost all of it seemed to me to be the modern equivalent of “motherhood and apple pie”, nice sentiments, but ones few would deeply disagree with. Is it really the case that MOST people in the country reading this would think “Ugh, this is horrible, I really disagree with it”? I think most people might quibble a bit at the edges, but wouldn’t dissent in a major way.

    The point I’m leading up to is that I think we must be much more clear and distinctive than this if we want truly to establish something which is deeply and distinctive radical liberalism. There has been a concerted attempt to steal the word “liberal” and get it to mean “someone whose prime belief is in the effectiveness of cash markets to run things”. See the recent article by David Gray here, where his casual assertion that being “Liberal” means being in favour of policies that line the pockets of the rich so angered me. As the discussion there went, he seems to be a person too young to remember when being “Liberal” meant being a bearded sandalled leftist who didn’t understand that money made the world go round, and now believes the Mark Littlewoods of this world who managed take the word and use it to mean something which is almost the opposite of what I thought it meant when I was a Liberal opponent of merger with the SDP, thanks in part to it being banned from polite conversation in our party after that merger for long enough for people to forget what it used to mean.

    What is it that we Liberals would want, and ALL Labour and Conservative types would not just say “OK, but …” with a slight different emphasis, but actually “Ugh, oh no, I’m totally against that”? That is, I don’t just mean the old right-wing Tories wouldn’t like it, but even moderate liberalish Tories? So not gay marriage, for example. And I’m pretty sure you’d find plenty of Labour types who’d share liberal sentiments on social drugs and such things, so not that either.

    Directly elected mayors? OK, well Clegg wrote a paper in favour of them, so … perhaps that makes my point …

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Dec '13 - 1:59pm

    Er, well, in case I didn’t get that across properly, NOT directly elected mayors i.e. it seems to be an idea that liberals mostly are against, but almost everyone else seems to think is a good idea, or at least doesn’t find instinctively horrible. I don’t mean this as the definition of liberalism, but I’ve always found it a good test of political flakiness – anyone who can’t see what;s wrong with the idea is flaky to me.

  • Steve Griffiths 3rd Dec '13 - 2:48pm

    Matthew Huntbach

    “Well, it was a relief that when I answered it honestly, I ended up slap bang in the middle of the left-libertarian bottom-left quadrant.”

    Yes I was right in the same place too; interesting to see where Milliband and Cameron were, although a shame that Nick Clegg did not appear to feature on it.


    Quite right; it’s an oxymoron and it has been discussed on LDV several times before (see threads passim). You may as well call yourself a ‘radical moderate’; it doesn’t work. the Oxford Dictionary gives a definition of radical (as an adjective) as:

    “advocating or based on thorough or complete political or social reform”

    You are unlikely to be able to do that while faffing around in the soggy centre.

  • Nigel Jones 3rd Dec '13 - 2:57pm

    It looks as though Nick Clegg is striving to appear Liberal again, but (as Jonathan Hunt says above) he still has some way to go. It is now URGENT that he articulates a Liberal Democrat line for our next election campaign, rather than allowing himself to remain in the coalition mode. Unless he can become more radical, saying what we stand for, leaving any compromises to the period when or if we have to negotiate with another party and show more real leanings on the side of the poor or disadvantaged in our land, I do not feel enthused to take part in the next election campaign. Is he going to show good leadership based on party principles ?
    Paul Connolly has made an excellent attempt to spell out the kind of policy and principled leadership we need, though that too is in need of more thought and development. Can our party engage in this, when our leader still has some way to go himself ?

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Dec '13 - 4:45pm

    Steve Griffiths

    Yes I was right in the same place too; interesting to see where Milliband and Cameron were,

    I would like to see the assumed answers which led to this. That was the point I was making – I didn’t think the answers I gave were particularly unusual, and actually I wouldn’t have though the answers Miliband would have given would have been so significantly less liberal than mine to give the drastic difference shown. So I suspect there’s been a bit of a fix here to get these answers – it’s been set up so that most people answering it can be made to feel comfortably superior in their lefty-liberalism.

  • David Allen 3rd Dec '13 - 6:11pm

    Centrist? yes, naff word, on the whole. But not always. Once upon a time the Tories believed everything should be left to the free market, while Labour belived nothing should be left to the free market. So we said we were centrist. It made sense, in that context.

    Radical? So much a better word? Hmm. Margaret Thatcher delighted in calling herself radical. David Owen beat Roy Jenkins in an election by using the same word, when what he (belatedly) told us he had meant by it was a radical rejection of social democracy in favour of covert Thatcherism.

    It’s fine to be a radical, provided you explain properly what you mean by it. I fear that for some it means “I’m a radical, because thirty years ago I was a community politics radical, and, well, maybe some of that radicalism hasn’t all worn away or got itself overtaken by events”.

  • jedibeeftrix 3rd Dec '13 - 6:57pm

    as an aside; to provide some context to the political compass business, last time i did that i believe i came just three stages to the right, and one down, so pretty centrist as far as the metric goes.

  • Robin Martlew 3rd Dec '13 - 7:27pm

    Radical for me has always meant ‘getting to the root of things’ and that in turn means trying to reason from as factual a base as possible which is a pretty contentious start at best., as a Humanist find I am coming from what I define as a Darwinian Evolutionary perspective which without get ting too metaphysically obscure leads me to think that we are basically a cooperative species of individuals trying to work together but all coming from different directions. This in turn means that tolerance and compromise are fundamental conditions which we must recognise and work within. There is no such thing as perfection and there will be continual change!
    While i deplore some attitudes such a Conservative, Socialist and many other economic and social attitudes, I cannot ‘blame’ those who hold such opinions. I believe we have to argue for compromise and try to recgnise where they derive from.
    I do not believe that we have to accept such ideas and there do have to be prepared to struggle and confront some of these ideas as mistaken. Being tollerant however remains essential even if we have to defend some ideas a uncomromisiseble andt to be fought for. That is my sort of Liberalism.

  • Paul Connelly wrote –
    We believe in free markets, not as unregulated rat-races where corporate oligarchs thrive, but as settings for creativity and innovation, where targeted interventions empower consumers and allow small and new enterprises to flourish.

    Paul may believe in free markets. He may also believe in Father Christmas and Fairies at the bottom of the garden, including the one that put a sixpence under my pillow when a tooth came out. I guess the actions of the tooth fairy is an example of a “targetted intervention”.

    Free markets are either free or they are not. You cannot believe in free markets if you believe in regulation and intervention. It would be like believing in a little bit of pregnancy, but not the whole thing.

    Face up to it, Paul, you do NOT believe in Free Markets. And a good thing too.

    John Pardoe ( 1970s Cornwall Liberal MP for the youngsters reading this) used to say something along the lines of – “The road to political wisdom starts with a hatred of The Conservative Party”.
    You could substitute the words Free Markets for The Conservative Party and get the same out f it.

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '13 - 9:51pm

    It is regrettable that your confidence has ben dented in this way when we are not if ill knowledge of the facts.

    Enjoy motherhood. I did, but the best kept secret is that grandmotherhood is even better. All of the fun and non e of the broken nights .

  • Jayne Mansfield 4th Dec '13 - 9:53pm

    I posted in the wron g place.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • David Raw
    Sorry, Mr Macfie, but the blue wall seats are not the same as the seats lost in 2015 for quite different reasons....
  • David Raw
    @ Alex Macfie " it’ll be much harder to attack him over it after he’s given his evidence". That's what you hope will happen. My opinion - after si...
  • Marco
    I would be concerned that whilst the Tory vote is imploding in "red wall" areas (up to 25% fall) it is is reducing by more modest amounts in "blue wall" areas (...
  • Alex Macfie
    @David Raw: Nearly all our seats "returned to type" in 2015, whether that was Tory or Labour. We all know the reason why. Obviously we have to play our cards mu...
  • Alex Macfie
    All current and former PO ministers will be giving evidence to the inquiry in the next phase, Ed included. This will actually help Ed, because (i) he won't be b...