Opinion: Liberalism – it’s not a set of policies, it’s a state of mind

8-5-10: They didA couple of things have struck me in the wake of the publication of Race Plan, Jeremy Browne’s personal liberal manifesto.

Don’t worry – this isn’t an article about the book itself. We’ve had enough of those over the last few days (as I write this, the top 5 most read articles on LDV are about it!) – I’d wager there have been more angry comments about the book on LibDemVoice than there are people who have actually read the thing.

Rather, this article concerns the nature of Liberalism.

The two things that have struck me about the reaction to Race Plan are thus:

  1. There’s been a lot of fighting over what ‘Liberalism’ actually is;
  2. There’s been a lot of (to my mind) reflexive opposition to Jeremy’s vision of Liberalism, most of it from people who haven’t actually read the book.

I joined the Liberal Democrats nearly four years ago – yes, after the party went into government with the Tories. I joined not because of any one policy position or another; indeed, although I voted enthusiastically for the party at the General Election, there was much in its manifesto which left me feeling decidedly cold, including the much-trumpeted policy on tuition fees. I joined not because of any one individual or another; there are people I admire and people I don’t admire in all the mainstream parties.

No, I joined the Liberal Democrats because of how I think.

To me, the essence of Liberalism cannot be found in any one policy position or in any one individual. The essence of Liberalism lies in how Liberals see the world, how they think and how they arrive at the decisions they take.

To be liberal-minded is to be outward-looking. It is to be considerate of others’ viewpoints. It is – and this is crucial – to be open-minded when it comes to considering others’ views; to be willing to engage and reflect, and where appropriate to change your own views. It is to refuse to be bound by conformity, and to refuse to bind others to conform with you – and if they don’t, to not caricature or label them, but to respect them and instead find common ground.

That is why I have been so surprised at the reaction to Race plan – Jeremy is clearly an outward-looking, thoughtful man who has a set of views which don’t neatly conform to the prevailing orthodoxy in any of the political parties. We should be celebrating the contribution he can make to our party and emphasising the things he says which we can all unite around, rather than emphasising the things we think make him a pseudo-Conservative. I would be saying exactly the same thing had a ‘socially liberal’ MP published a book and been caricatured as Labour-lite.

Labour and Conservative supporters charge Liberalism with being a rootless philosophy. They say that because we are ‘rootless’, we don’t stand for any section of society; we do not head a ‘movement’. But it is precisely because we are not beholden to special interests, because we do not have an inbuilt bias towards one section of society or one group of institutions, that we are able to think for ourselves when coming up with policy solutions to the big political questions of the day.

* Stephen Howse recently worked for a Lib Dem MP and is now working for a not-for-profit while campaigning for the party in Newcastle.

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

71 Comments

  • Stephen Howse 15th Apr '14 - 11:48am

    @Helen Tedcastle:

    “We have been criticised in the past for being wishy washy, and it has taken a long time to shake this perception off.

    This why it is important to be clear what we stand for and what we don’t.”

    The issue is, though, that different people have different ideas about what implementing liberal ideas means in policy terms. We all say we believe in individuals and communities being given more freedom from the central state, for example – but what happens when individual and community interests collide (e.g. nimbys blocking new housing developments meaning young people cannot afford to remain in their home villages)? What happens, indeed, when liberal and democratic values collide – if, say, a majority of people were anti-marriage equality?

    It’s difficult to formulate policy and we have so many people saying so many things on so many issues because, although we share the same starting point, we interpret our values in different ways. That’s why we need to listen and engage with each other… who am I to say my ideas are better than yours?

  • Stephen Howse 15th Apr '14 - 12:36pm

    “If it really was a matter of everyone simply having their own way of interpreting Liberalism, then why have a Party with a constitution and a preamble, which clearly lays down Liberal Democratic values and principles?”

    Again, the problem is that every single Lib Dem member would likely strongly identify with the preamble – I know I do! – but we all use it to justify different positions on policy issues.

    If we are to remain a serious national political party then we need to have an agreed national platform, as agreed by our members – but there will always be outriders and outliers. Instead of marginalising them, on both sides of the debate, I want to see their contributions being valued and encouraged. If nothing else, having a strong reaction *against* something is always useful in reaffirming what you are *for*.

  • Radical Liberal 15th Apr '14 - 12:59pm

    Stephen – ‘That’s why we need to listen and engage with each other… who am I to say my ideas are better than yours?’

    Then why are you involved in politics at all? By, for example, strongly criticising Browne people have been engaging – as you say he has had 5 threads with many comments. No one is refusing to engage, quite the opposite.

  • A thoughtful, well-written article. I had come to see the Lib Dems’ view that they were united by a belief in “Liberalism” as meaningless (even misleading), because the party seems split many ways on what Liberalism is. An attempt to define it as essentially freedom to think is intriguing. But a bit hopeless for a party in search of votes, because the voter has no idea what is on offer.

    Speaking personally, I heard Browne at conference and some other Orange Bookers and was delighted to have joined the party. However I soon encountered different views among the membership and leading figures, and after a couple of years realised I’d got it wrong and rejoined the Conservatives. I don’t regret my time in the Lib Dems – great to be part of an exchange of ideas, and of course I met lots of lovely people of all views, but when I go out in the rain to leaflet I want to be able to assume broadly what the particular candidate might believe. (And as a voter I certainly want to when I am in the polling station.)

    But then again it’s the debate aspect that has kept me as a reader of LDV….. 🙂

  • Stephen Howse

    “If we are to remain a serious national political party then we need to have an agreed national platform, as agreed by our members – but there will always be outriders and outliers. Instead of marginalising them, on both sides of the debate, I want to see their contributions being valued and encouraged. If nothing else, having a strong reaction *against* something is always useful in reaffirming what you are *for*.”

    Well said, the number of people who respond to an idea they don’t like with “they should go off and joint the …” is very sad.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '14 - 1:27pm

    Stephen Howse

    That is why I have been so surprised at the reaction to Race plan – Jeremy is clearly an outward-looking, thoughtful man who has a set of views which don’t neatly conform to the prevailing orthodoxy in any of the political parties.

    No, as I have pointed out at length, it is the opposite of all of this.

  • Stephen Howse is correct Liberalism is a state of mind, but it is more than that, it is a political philosophy that has historical roots back to the English Civil War and the enlightenment. He is right Liberalism is optimistic and it doesn’t want people in society to conform. However as our beliefs are based on our political philosophy we should not change our views so they are no longer based on our political philosophy because then the charges made by our opponents would be correct, we would be rootless. As far as I recall no one said Jeremy Browne should not have the views he has or he shouldn’t have the right to publish a book expressing them, what Liberals were saying was that he didn’t offer solutions to problems that are founded in our political philosophy and he might be happier in another political party that share more of his outlook on economic matters. Of course he might be happier if he created his own political party called the Libertarian Party.

    Caracatus is correct when he says Liberalism is about people’s “wellbeing”. I would go further it is about enhancing their lives, giving them freedom so they can choice what enhances their lives and protecting them from exploitation as well.

    @ Stephen Howse – “We all say we believe in individuals and communities being given more freedom from the central state,” but we don’t, we say individuals should be free from oppression by powerful groups including a powerful state, while saying that the power of the government can protect people from other sources of power.

    @ Stephen Howse – “but what happens when individual and community interests collide” and “What happens, indeed, when liberal and democratic values collide” the harm principle should be applied and Liberals will then discuss how this should be applied to each individual case.

    As we are based on Liberal philosophy there are certain views which are beyond the pale for us and racism is a major one. Therefore it is not true to say we should accept all views in the party. I believe that Libertarian views of the role of government should not be accepted.

  • Stephen Howse 15th Apr '14 - 1:54pm

    @Psi – exactly. The Tories are a bigger party with more MPs, as are Labour. It’d be far easier for a young up-and-comer to get selected in a winnable seat for one of those parties than for the Lib Dems. People join the Lib Dems for their own reasons and we should respect that – we should be inclusive, not exclusive. For a third party, some of our ranks are often too guilty of treating politics as binary. Very sad.

    @Matthew – what of his views on, say, immigration, human rights and the EU? How many Tory MPs would ever be inclined to say anything like this: “I don’t think there was a mistake [in not setting transitional controls on Eastern European immigration]. It was transformational in terms of Britain’s relationship with countries like Poland . . . It was in our foreign policy interest but, at a much more direct, micro level, there are lots of employers in my constituency and around the country who are full of praise for the contribution that Poles have made to their businesses and the economy more generally.”

  • Stephen Howse 15th Apr '14 - 2:06pm

    @Amalric – some really useful points there, thank you!

    “As we are based on Liberal philosophy there are certain views which are beyond the pale for us and racism is a major one.” – this is true. Racism (and indeed sexism, homophobia and ageism) should be beyond the pale because as liberals we surely believe in seeing individuals as individuals, not prejudging them for belonging to one group or the other, or for possessing characteristics over which they have no choice or control.

    “Of course he might be happier if he created his own political party called the Libertarian Party.” – such a party already exists, I’m afraid. I don’t think many libertarians would be calling for the state to spend 35-38% of GDP – Labour had it running at around 40% (creeping up year on year, of course) before the crash, and it’s projected to be a touch under 40% by 2017. Someone made an important point in the comments on another article the other day, though, that what you should really do is decide what you do and don’t want the state to be spending people’s taxes on, and shape your tax and spending envelope to that. Otherwise you just end up with salami slicing (the Coalition), or you end up with hundreds of billions of pounds of liabilities being hidden off balance sheet (New Labour).

    Your point about the harm principle is a powerful one – it is the fundamental principle from which I approach issues of social policy, the foundation stone of my liberalism (if I’m allowed to call myself a liberal, haha).

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '14 - 2:57pm

    Stephen Howse

    @Matthew – what of his views on, say, immigration, human rights and the EU? How many Tory MPs would ever be inclined to say anything like this: “I don’t think there was a mistake [in not setting transitional controls on Eastern European immigration].

    Yes, Browne takes the extreme free-market attitude that has become what the Tories are all about now, and pushes it where it goes logically by dropping those few remaining old style small-c conservative aspects that hang on at the fringe of the Conservative Party.

    The prevailing political orthodoxy of today is “free market is the answer to everything, put it all out to competition and it’ll drive up quality”. We’ve had nothing but governments driven by this way of thinking since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Browne’s lazy unthoughtful support for this political orthodoxy is tiresome, it adds noting that has not been said many times by many other people, nothing that is not relentlessly pushed by the many well-funded free-market think-tanks paid for by big business.

    A real thoughtful and outward looking and liberal person would be able to move beyond this, be a little more critical of this orthodoxy, consider why it hasn’t worked in practice so much as the theory says it should, be aware of how it has meant more oppression and depression and lack of freedom for so many at the lower end of the wealth scale in our society.

    I’m not at all saying there’s no place for market-oriented thinking in liberalism, it is part of liberalism, but it is not all there is to liberalism, it is one of the tools of liberalism, but it is not the only tool, and if the tool does not do the job, we should consider other tools.

    What concerns me, and I think other critics of Browne here, is this dogmatic insistence on the market as the only tool to use, and the contemptuous dismissal of anyone who isn’t quite so certain it’s the best tool for all circumstances.

  • Stephen Howse 15th Apr '14 - 3:11pm

    “What concerns me, and I think other critics of Browne here, is this dogmatic insistence on the market as the only tool to use, and the contemptuous dismissal of anyone who isn’t quite so certain it’s the best tool for all circumstances.”

    I fully agree with you. We need to remember that markets are social constructs – they are not abstract bodies floating off in the ether, but man (and woman)-made mechanisms created to facilitate interactions between real, breathing individuals.

    Where there is not scope for competition, where choice cannot be effectively exercised by consumers or offered by providers, then an alternative mechanism needs to be considered – e.g. water and the railways. As I said before, because liberals are not beholden to sectional interests, we are able to take each case on its own merits. It is simplistic, naive even, to assume that the same policy prescription can be applied across the board and work equally well across the board.

    I’m, frankly, all over the place when it comes to economic policy. I want the top rate of tax cut to 40p but want inheritance tax replaced by an accessions tax; I don’t care for the Mansion Tax but really want a Land Value Tax; I can see a case for increased choice in health provision but can see a case for mutualisation of the railways; I am strongly in favour of free movement of people and am in favour of the “polluter pays” principle.

    This is why lazy left vs right definitions don’t really work when it comes to liberals – I can justify all of the above by referring to liberal first principles… and some liberals would argue against some of the above, perhaps by referring to those same principles!

  • @ Helen Tedcastle – you are correct that the enhancing of lives and increased choice has to be balanced with the effect it has on others.

    @ Stephen Howse – Thank you I didn’t know that the Libertarian Party already existed (founded in 2008 but most of their videos on their website don’t work). They call for a smaller state and seem to be confused about what the state should provide. Therefore I feel that a libertarian would see 35% of GDP as a smaller state, however to see a smaller state as something to be achieved is libertarian and not liberal and this is a fundamental difference between them.

    When you talk of social policy do you mean individual freedoms such as gay marriage rather than dealing with social problems such as unemployment, lack of housing, benefits and support for the sick and disabled?

  • Peter Hayes 15th Apr '14 - 4:47pm

    Ever since the merger there have been strands in the party. I became a supporter in the days of Jo Grimond but now there seem to be economic liberals who are Conservatives and social ones nearer to the pre Blair Labour Party. I know where I am and, to keep the Tory out, and to support a good LibDem MP, I will work delivering etc but I do not feel the leadership and other ‘economic’ Liberals are doing anything to help us.

  • I agree liberalism is about an open minded perspective – respectful towards the views, insights and needs of others.

    But why is that Jeremy Browne and David Laws both in what they publish, how they debate and engage, are so completely dismissive of any contributions and ideas that come from what one might call mainstream progressive policy forums – whether from within the Party or outside groupings in civil society, charities, community organisations, unions, centre-left think tanks etc – they simply don’t acknowledge the evidence from organisations on the ground that austerity policies are causing real hardship and assume that any outfits campaigning against particular government initiatives are outriders for the labour party, I’ve seen them both (often quite rudely) tum down meetings or platform sharing requests from legitimate various organisations they have labelled in this way. Both seem to want to stick to their bubble of Westminster and City centre-right think-tanks and business interests; their writings are very ‘high level’ – theory and ideology based macro-economic stuff – but when it comes to simple mundaneities of how an unemployed disabled person can get by with significantly reduced ESA, or how the policies they support impact on real people they are completely uninterested.

  • @ Stephen Howse

    “Jeremy is clearly an outward-looking, thoughtful man”

    No. Based on the ideas that he has put forward (cut the state, make profits out of education etc), no he is not. This is why people have been up in arms about his book. Because it appears to contain more of the same, stale old neo-liberal orthodoxy that has led us up the garden path to economic disaster. This is not liberalism. It is neo-liberalism. It is the kind of liberalism that the Liberal Party ditched decades ago when Keynes explained lucidly that the private sector economy on its own does not produce optimal outcomes and can actually lead us into downturns and depressions that wreck people’s lives with poverty and unemployment. It is the kind of liberalism that we turned our backs on with Beveridge.

    That is why Jeremy Browne’s ideas have met with such opposition and in some cases anger. They are trying to take us back to an older definition of liberalism and many people rightly resent this. We need new thinking to address the UK’s problems and make its economy stronger and society fairer. But this is not it.

  • Eddie Sammon 15th Apr '14 - 6:45pm

    I agree with the article, especially this paragraph:

    “To be liberal-minded is to be outward-looking. It is to be considerate of others’ viewpoints. It is – and this is crucial – to be open-minded when it comes to considering others’ views; to be willing to engage and reflect, and where appropriate to change your own views. It is to refuse to be bound by conformity, and to refuse to bind others to conform with you – and if they don’t, to not caricature or label them, but to respect them and instead find common ground.”

  • Chris Manners 15th Apr '14 - 8:47pm

    “Labour and Conservative supporters charge Liberalism with being a rootless philosophy. They say that because we are ‘rootless’, we don’t stand for any section of society; we do not head a ‘movement’. But it is precisely because we are not beholden to special interests, because we do not have an inbuilt bias towards one section of society or one group of institutions, that we are able to think for ourselves when coming up with policy solutions to the big political questions of the day.”

    Not on current form.

    Anyone suggest anything different to the Tories, and Clegg tells them to be “serious”.

    Where’s Cable? He used to do a nice line in “long term thinking”, but doesn’t seem to have much to say about house prices shooting up.

  • Chris Manners 15th Apr '14 - 8:49pm

    ” I joined the Liberal Democrats because of how I think.”

    Oh man.

  • Stephen Howse 15th Apr '14 - 9:13pm

    “Where’s Cable? He used to do a nice line in “long term thinking”, but doesn’t seem to have much to say about house prices shooting up.”

    Here he is: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/vince-cable-warns-against-housing-bubblelinked-recovery-9090809.html

    And here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25484804

    Aaaaaand here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-23482525

    He has been consistent in his criticism of Help to Buy and in warning of the dangers of a housing bubble-underpinned recovery.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '14 - 9:39pm

    RC

    That is why Jeremy Browne’s ideas have met with such opposition and in some cases anger. They are trying to take us back to an older definition of liberalism and many people rightly resent this.

    No they are not. The claim that all they are doing is returning to an older definition of liberalism is part of their propaganda trickery to try and give themselves more credibility. Consider, for example, how 19th century Liberals set up the state education system which Browne is so critical of here. REAL 19th century liberals just did not have this “state is evil, everything must be run by private enterprise through cash markets” which those who CLAIM to be their true heir today have. We who oppose them must NOT accept their propaganda lines like this.

    One of the main aspects of 19th century liberals was the setting up of decent public services, often under local government control. They were pragmatic about state services, not dogmatically opposed to them. We also need to consider that in the 19th century private business was small scale, it was not dominated by national chains and global corporations. So applying ideas that were appropriate to the scale of private business then as if nothing has changed is ridiculous.

  • Chris Manners 15th Apr '14 - 9:53pm

    I meant where is Vince apart from being in the paper.

    He’s in government.

  • Matthew Huntbach 15th Apr '14 - 10:59pm

    Stephen Howse

    We should be celebrating the contribution he can make to our party and emphasising the things he says which we can all unite around, rather than emphasising the things we think make him a pseudo-Conservative.

    Right, so if he were someone making unorthodox suggestions from a far-left position, say one which was economically like the Socialist Workers Party, though firmly pro-EU and pro-immigration, so “liberal”, would you be saying the same? Or would it be something which in your own words left you “feeling decidedly cold?”.

    How come when someone like Browne puts forward very conventional right-wing ideas, the sort of stuff that’s been appearing in Times newspaper commentary, Spectator essays, and popularised a bit, in the Daily Mail for decades now, he’s praised in extravagant terms as Browne has been by you and by others of his supporters in the other articles on his book, as if he is somehow super-intelligent and innovative, thoughtful and outward-looking, and so on, and we are told it’s illiberal not to praise him likewise – but I have NEVER seen similar praise given to anyone making comment from a left-wing position?

    It seems to me there’s been a determined effort, oiled by a well-paid propaganda machine, to try and make out that being right-wing economically makes one naturally clever, and being left-wing economically makes one naturally thick. It also seems there’s a strong correlation between what’s deemed “clever” and the accent it’s said in – it does seem that all these people were are told are so clever and innovative and giving us new ideas come from posh backgrounds and have posh accents. It was the same with Clegg – I have never once heard him say anything that isn’t trite, that makes me sit up and think, that’s new and interesting, at best he’s just plodding through conventional liberalism, at worse he’s another starry eyed worshipper of the free market who repeats what the right-wing press have made orthodoxy – yet he was pushed onto us as “obviously the next best leader”, we were told he was so much more clever than any other possible MPs, and told he was a great communicator. One can see in the way that Farage has got the better of him, and in so much else that he has got so wrong, that he’s an appallingly bad communicator, he’s got cloth ears when it comes to seeing how badly what he says comes across to most people.

    So what I see here is a mixture of deep class prejudice – because I think someone with a different sort of accent and social background would not be considered nearly as “clever” as are these people no matter what they said – and deep political prejudice, as we have a parade of people with right-wing economic views telling us how clever and innovative is someone who thinks like them, and we should all be decent liberals and applaud them for it, while showing absolutely no willingness to extend this “liberalism” of theirs to listening to and showing appreciation for the thoughts of people whose political opinions are different from them on those issues.

    I haven’t just criticised Browne for being closer to the Tories in his views than to what the Liberal Party has stood for historically, I’ve given detailed explanations from a liberal perspective and from my own life experience of why I think he is so wrong, so it’s certainly not just mindless political insults thrown at an opponent. Yet NOT ONE of these parade of right-wing adorers of Jeremy Browne has been able to give a reply which gives any sort of answer to the points I’ve been making. NOT ONE of them has been able to engage in a constructive debate on these issues rather than just trumpeting their own right-wing views and ignoring or belittling without real argument their critics.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 12:19am

    Matthew:

    I was sympathetic until you dragged social class into this. I’m a Geordie lad, and I speak with a trace of a Geordie accent (although sadly not as strong as it once was). Anthony Wedgwood Benn, meanwhile, was a bona fide aristocrat who spent his entire political life fighting a class war with socialist economics. I have friends in the Labour Party, some of whom are very much on the ‘left’ of the party. I debate with them, I argue with them, I engage with them. Some of them, shock horror, have regional accents as well! If I smeared their backgrounds I’d be smearing myself in the process.

    “Right, so if he were someone making unorthodox suggestions from a far-left position, say one which was economically like the Socialist Workers Party, though firmly pro-EU and pro-immigration, so “liberal”, would you be saying the same? Or would it be something which in your own words left you “feeling decidedly cold?”.”

    This is a false choice. Nobody on the so-called ‘right’ of the party is advocating anything as extreme, as profoundly turbulent and as revolutionary as the SWP. The equivalent on the ‘left’ would be to advocate, say, 45% of GDP being spent by the government and schools being run by local authorities.

    Have you heard of the “narcissism of small differences”? I would suggest that this is really what this whole debate is about. As I said in my original blog post, and as I will emphasise again and in the strongest terms – my inclination is to seek common ground with other liberals, not to divide them from myself for being less ‘pure’.

    We argue about relatively small differences – and these are relatively small differences compared with the all-out ideological war of the 1980s – with such ferocity precisely because on the really big things we are in agreement. We all agree there should be a welfare state, we all agree with education and health being provided free at the point of use, and so on. That’s not to say that the debates we have today aren’t important and that we don’t have differences within this party – plainly, we do. But when we slur each other as anti-liberal/pseudo-Tory/Labour-lite, we do ourselves, and the cause of liberalism, a great disservice.

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Apr '14 - 12:20am

    Is it time for the party to admit it has no monopoly on liberalism? All of the three main parties could plausibly be described as ‘liberal’ with a small ‘l’ (and as ‘democrats’ too, come to that).

    This is not to say LibDems have no coherent political tradition; it’s just that the kind(s) of liberalism espoused by the party sit within a spectrum which includes both Labour and the Tories. British politics is (broadly) a liberal politics; it allows for diversity and debate; it has accepted for a very long time (up to now) the idea of there being a progress towards greater individual freedoms, and the importance of collective compromise and negotiation to achieve a balance as to how those freedoms work out in practice.

    This language of ‘authentically Liberal’ is as helpful to the wider public as Gordon Brown’s attempt to define British values, without some other points of reference, preferably historical ones to clarify the thinkers / leaders in whose tradition one follows, and some clarity as to what one is in opposition to, as much as what one is for.

    And if we are looking for historical precedents, might I propose that no-one is allowed to say Gladstone any more, it’s unhelpful and is getting boring (and this is from someone who wrote an MA thesis on Gladstonian politics).

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 12:33am

    “Is it time for the party to admit it has no monopoly on liberalism? All of the three main parties could plausibly be described as ‘liberal’ with a small ‘l’ (and as ‘democrats’ too, come to that).”

    See my above comments on the “narcissism of small differences” – there really is so much more uniting our parties (or at least our parties’ leaderships) than there is dividing them. But that’s a topic for another blog piece, perhaps…

    You are right, though – when the Labour party has embraced a more liberal economic model (abandoning Clause Four, shifting from talk of socialism to ‘responsible capitalism’) and the Tories are comfortable with social liberalism (equal marriage, apologising for section 28), the Lib Dems need to work harder than ever to present themselves as a genuinely distinctive third option. I think there is a space still – the party’s commitment to political reform and to green issues remains as strong as ever and is not matched by the other two, and it’s now attempting to differentiate far more strongly on European issues too.

  • Graham Evans 16th Apr '14 - 12:37am

    I joined the Liberal Party over forty years ago and has been seen continual changes and developments in policy in response to changing circumstances. As for the preamble to the constitution, this too is but an attempt to encapsulate in a few words the approach to poltics which seems revelant to the time of its writing. It is certainly not something caste in stone, as was recognised when the former Liberal Party merged with the former SDP. Like great religions, great political parties are broad coalitions, otherwise they are little more than sects. Many of the contributors to this blog who claim to be Liberals seem to me to have views which I would describe as crypto-socialist, while they choose to describe those at the other end of the Liberal spectrum as neoliberals. Stephen’s approach is perhaps a way of squaring the circle.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 1:09am

    Stephen Howse

    I was sympathetic until you dragged social class into this. I’m a Geordie lad, and I speak with a trace of a Geordie accent (although sadly not as strong as it once was). Anthony Wedgwood Benn, meanwhile, was a bona fide aristocrat who spent his entire political life fighting a class war with socialist economics.

    And so? Didn’t Anthony Wedgwood Benn derive some benefits from his accent and background in terms of being thought “clever” because of the impression they gave?

    This is a false choice. Nobody on the so-called ‘right’ of the party is advocating anything as extreme, as profoundly turbulent and as revolutionary as the SWP.

    Jeremy Browne is advocating policies that when I joined the Liberal Party would have been regarded as extremely right-wing, beyond the norm even for the Conservatives.

    As I said in my original blog post, and as I will emphasise again and in the strongest terms – my inclination is to seek common ground with other liberals, not to divide them from myself for being less ‘pure’.

    Well, it isn’t working. You seem to be one of those people who has joined the party in recent years, and is trying hard to turn it into an economically Thatcherite party, and has noting but disparagement for those of us who were in the party years before you were in it, and help build it up so you could have it to turn it into the very thing we joined it to fight against.

    We argue about relatively small differences – and these are relatively small differences compared with the all-out ideological war of the 1980s

    No,we are not. Jeremy Browne seems to stand for the sort of politics I joined the Liberal Party in the 1970s to fight against, at least when it comes to economics. The fact that you can’t see that only serves to prove my point.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 1:13am

    Graham Evans

    Many of the contributors to this blog who claim to be Liberals seem to me to have views which I would describe as crypto-socialist, while they choose to describe those at the other end of the Liberal spectrum as neoliberals.

    I have been a member of the party for 35 years. When I joined I was comfortable in it, I was a bit to the left, but not that much. Now I find that though my political views haven’t changed I’m regarded as the intruder, someone on the fringe, or a “crypto socialist “as you put it, merely becauseI stand for what the party used to stand for and did so for many years.

  • @ Stephen Howse “Anthony Wedgwood Benn, meanwhile, was a bona fide aristocrat”. His grandfather, was made a baronet in 1914; was born in Manchester to a middle class family and worked for a furniture company and then set up a furniture trade publishing business before being elected as a Liberal MP in 1891.

    @ Stephen Howse “Have you heard of the “narcissism of small differences”? I would suggest that this is really what this whole debate is about.” This debate is about the nature of liberalism not some small differences. It is about the political philosophy of the Liberal Democrats – is it based on Liberalism or Libertarianism. It is about the role of the state. This is why those of us who are defending Liberalism feel so strongly about it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 1:21am

    Eddie Sammon

    I agree with the article, especially this paragraph:

    “To be liberal-minded is to be outward-looking. It is to be considerate of others’ viewpoints. It is – and this is crucial – to be open-minded when it comes to considering others’ views; to be willing to engage and reflect, and where appropriate to change your own views. It is to refuse to be bound by conformity, and to refuse to bind others to conform with you – and if they don’t, to not caricature or label them, but to respect them and instead find common ground.”

    Yes, Im happy with that, what I’m not happy with is that this seem to be a one-way trip. We are asked to be tolerant and accept diversity and be open to change and new ideas, but that ALWAYS seems to mean being tolerant to those pushing the party to the economic right, and accepting idea that were once those of the Conservative Party. I don’t see a similar call for tolerance and acceptance of diversity going in the other direction. Rather I see those of us who used to be the mainstream of the party being dismissed as “crypto socialist” and being made to feel extremely unwelcome.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th Apr '14 - 4:37am

    Hi Matthew, I understand you. I think a lot of the criticism of the party’s left has been of unpopular ideas, but after the Party of IN campaign and Browne’s mini manifesto I think the “idealist” criticisms can be launched the other way too.

    I have a soft spot for anti-suffering left wing ideas, but unfortunately many left wing ideas seem to be based on attacking the “strong” for the sake of it. For better internal relations I recommend better focused left wing ideas.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    “Well, it isn’t working. You seem to be one of those people who has joined the party in recent years, and is trying hard to turn it into an economically Thatcherite party, and has noting but disparagement for those of us who were in the party years before you were in it, and help build it up so you could have it to turn it into the very thing we joined it to fight against.”

    I wanted to point out that though I think (based upon our exchanges on other posts recently) you and I probably disagree on many Economic matters, I don’t intend to disparage you.

    You have been one of the most effectively engaged on a number of threads recently expressing more specifically what your concerns are rather than simply making vague statements about people being closet Tories etc. I have been meaning to respond to your points elsewhere (and will) but I wanted to point out that I think many people are not as far from you as they sound on these threads. I think it is more how things are expressed and the difficulty in having a truly detailed discussion under these articles.

    I don’t think it is a one-way trip and equally calling those calling people “cryspto-socialists” are as unhelpful as those calling people closet Tories.

    I would see that solutions to today’s problems will come with a mix of learning from all previous policies so taking what has worked from previous governments (here and abroad) and applying critical liberal thinking to it to improve those ideas to amplify the positive and ameliorate the negative. You can’t achieve that without a wide spread within the party, but in any given discussion some people will probably feel like they are fighting against a constant wave of ideas they oppose.

    The posts that generate the most interest is where there is disagreement you can see the unity in how little people feel the need to post on articles about opposing secret courts or equal marriage.

  • Matthew Huntbach

    One other thing

    “but that ALWAYS seems to mean being tolerant to those pushing the party to the economic right”

    There is a big difference between being tolerant of people and ideas. I assume we all expect people to be very intolerant of ideas they disagree with but tolerant of those who express them.

    I think you have some responses to you have been swept up along with others expressing a similar sentiment to you but less constructively/specifically. Personally, I find your intolerance of ideas you disagree with very useful.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 9:22am

    “I wanted to point out that I think many people are not as far from you as they sound on these threads.”

    Absolutely the point I’ve been making – there’s more uniting us than dividing us. We evidently have differences but I’d far rather be in a party with Matthew than with the Tory right or Labour left!

    “You seem to be one of those people who has joined the party in recent years, and is trying hard to turn it into an economically Thatcherite party, and has noting but disparagement for those of us who were in the party years before you were in it, and help build it up so you could have it to turn it into the very thing we joined it to fight against.”

    Things are not always what they seem. In the comments on here I have advocated several policies which would be beyond the pale for an actual Thatcherite. And as Graham said above, the Liberal Party and Lib Dems have moved on a lot since the seventies, as has politics in general. Policies which were extreme then are now mainstream, and policies which were mainstream then are now extreme. You are right, I am younger than you – I have a different frame of reference to you when it comes to the party and to politics in general. That doesn’t make me a dangerous insurgent out to destroy your precious baby any more than it makes you a fusty old-timer refusing to let go.

    I have no problem at all with being in a party with a wide range of views. I do have an issue with the implicit preference of some towards either the Tories or Labour – and the idea that we should only ever want to govern with one of them, and should ignore the other. Actually, as Matt in Bristol said above, the other two parties have become more liberal in their own ways in the last 20-30 years – as liberals we should welcome this.

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Apr '14 - 10:38am

    “I have no problem at all with being in a party with a wide range of views. I do have an issue with the implicit preference of some towards either the Tories or Labour – and the idea that we should only ever want to govern with one of them, and should ignore the other. Actually, as Matt in Bristol said above, the other two parties have become more liberal in their own ways in the last 20-30 years – as liberals we should welcome this.”

    Thankyou; however, I would have to admit to regularly over the last few years to having to take out my inherent longterm distrust of the Tories, look at it very hard, try to think objectively about it, then deciding I was probably right in the first place.

    Unitil we have the unlikely outcome of 5 or 6 viable parties of government, the party will always have a split to an extent between those who preferred colaition partners are Labour, and those whose preferred coalition partners are the Conservatives. This is just what happens when you move gradually from a 2-party system to what has the potential to be a different model of politics. we all grew up with 2 parties only in national government; we cannot easily shift the impressions we formed in those years, and depending on where you were and what you did, those impressions will be varied.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 11:53am

    Stephen Howse

    And as Graham said above, the Liberal Party and Lib Dems have moved on a lot since the seventies, as has politics in general. Policies which were extreme then are now mainstream, and policies which were mainstream then are now extreme.

    Yes, so if we are REALLY going to be thoughtful and innovative and open to new ideas, shouldn’t we be questioning this? Isn’t it the case that very many dubious ideas go through with the argument “it’s the future, it’s inevitable, you just have to accept it”? It was one of the way that Soviet-style Communists used to close down debate, dismissing anyone who disagreed with them as a “counter-revolutionary” and so only to be disparaged and persecuted for “hang on to outdated beliefs” such as a belief in liberalism.

    I believe we are seeing an Orwellian attempt to take control by changing the very language we use to the point where it becomes impossible even to think in left-wing terms because the language to do that has gone. I see the attempt to take over “liberalism” and get it to mean “Thatcherite economics with a few nods to social liberalism so long as they don’t interfere with the economics” as part of that. I see this insistence that we have to move “forward” with what was extremist right-wing economic policy now regarded as the norm as part of this. So I see YOU, Stephen Howse as one of these Orwellian enemies of liberalism as I understood it. Not consciously perhaps, but unconsciously you have absorbed their attitudes and have not realised the tricks that have been used to get you to do this.

    I see no reason why politics should continue to shift to the economic right when the failings of that sort of politics are becoming more and more evident. Society is growing more and more unequal. The freedoms many enjoyed in the days of greater social equality when I was growing up have gone. Take, for example, the huge freedoms given by the ready supply of council housing. You are coming across, Stephen Howse, as like a defender of socialism at the time when its evident failings in the USSR were obvious – still using the old revolutionary language, insisting that further “progression” that way is inevitable, condemning those who resist it as old-fashioned sorts who haven’t realised how things have changed, answering to any criticism of it that the only problem was that it wasn’t implemented in an extreme enough fashion.

    I stand for the political beliefs I have always stood for, those which made by a natural and keen and active member of the Liberal Party when I joined it in the 1970s. I see all the problems that made me join the Liberal Party then get WORSE under subsequent governments. Now I see you saying we should adopt more of the policies of those subsequent governments and drop what we used to believe in as that is “progress”. I am from Sussex, working-class Sussex, and we have an old Sussex saying “We won’t be druv”. Well, I won’t be druv.

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Apr '14 - 11:54am

    Helen Tedcastle, I think you are right to be sceptical about the phrase ‘authentic liberalism’; I think it is about the same thing as saying ‘authentic democracy’ or ‘authentic politics’ – it implicitly claims the other person is inauthentic, but the tradition being claimed is so broad as to be capable on some days of almost any interpretation.

    The issue should be not what is ‘authentic liberalism’ but how is what Jeremy Browne or Stephen Howse me or anyone proposes compatible with the history and traditions and past policies and thinking and influences of the Liberal Democrat Party, and where it is arguably or partially incompatible, do they recognise this? Is this because something new has happened which they feel needs a changed response? Why?

    However, an angry and agressive response to this arguably stupid or manipulative usage of this phrase doesn’t serve those very well, who hate it and wish it to be lost form the recent debate, either.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 12:11pm

    @Matthew – I would simply urge you to hold back before you actually know what I believe. I’ve given some examples above of policies where I definitely am not in tune with Thatcherism or with the prevailing economic orthodoxy of any of the three parties. This isn’t really the place for me to publish a personal manifesto, but I will simply say that this is about far more than less central state spending = good, more central state spending = bad – which are the default terms by which ‘left’ and ‘right’ still seem to fight their battles.

    “Yes, so if we are REALLY going to be thoughtful and innovative and open to new ideas, shouldn’t we be questioning this?”

    Absolutely.

    “So I see YOU, Stephen Howse as one of these Orwellian enemies of liberalism as I understood it. Not consciously perhaps, but unconsciously you have absorbed their attitudes and have not realised the tricks that have been used to get you to do this.”

    Your point about language is an important one – as you say, Orwell knew that to control people’s thinking you need first to control their language. Words matter. Where I strongly, profoundly disagree with you is in your painting of me as an enemy of liberalism. In fact, I have gone out of my way to be accommodating in my replies on here – did I not write something like “who am I to say my liberalism is more authentic than yours”? It saddens me that you refuse to adopt the same view, but that’s your lookout. I am comfortable in this party and comfortable that my beliefs are compatible with my membership of this party.

  • How a party claim to be liberal when it sits in the European Parliament in the same group as Fianna Fail? Fianna Fail twice tried to abolish PR STV and replace it with FPP, its founder signed a book of condolence when Hitler killed himself, persecuted men who fought against Fascism and gave refuge to war criminals. That is apart from the actions of a later leader Charles Haughey.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 1:11pm

    Stephen Howse

    It saddens me that you refuse to adopt the same view, but that’s your lookout. I am comfortable in this party and comfortable that my beliefs are compatible with my membership of this party.

    My concern is over the way you seem just to have accepted many of the dubious claims made by those pushing strongly for “liberalism” to be defined as meaning primarily “a fanatic belief in free market economics”. I would be happier if you could at least show you understand both sides of the argument, but you have not shown that. As has been said many times, the trigger in this anger you are experiencing is Browne’s use of the word “authentic” with the implication that HIS policies are what liberalism is all about, and hence that those of us who disagree with them are not “authentic liberals” and thus should not be part of the party which we have spent our lives building.

    Can you see why this might make us angry? We have spent our LIVES, thousands of hours of our time, thousands of pounds of our money, building up this party, and now it seems to be getting taken over by people whose views are directly opposed to ours, and who tell us we are not welcome in the party because, nit being free-market fanatics, we are just “crypto-socialists”.

    I myself, as Leader of the Liberal Democrat group on Lewisham Borough Council 1998-2004, played a big part in building up the party there, so in 2010 it came closish to winning all three constituencies where previously it was a poor third. If the future of the Liberal Democrats is people like Jeremy Browne, I WISH I had not bothered. As for suggesting I would be better off in Labour, why do you think I was Leader of the OPPOSITION in a Labour-dominated council? Why was I so keen on opposing the Labour Party and giving the people of Lewisham an alternative if I’m someone who, as the Browne followers suggest, ought to be in the Labour Party?

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 1:25pm

    “As for suggesting I would be better off in Labour, why do you think I was Leader of the OPPOSITION in a Labour-dominated council? Why was I so keen on opposing the Labour Party and giving the people of Lewisham an alternative if I’m someone who, as the Browne followers suggest, ought to be in the Labour Party?”

    I never suggested you would. I think you’re reading what you want to read and extrapolating what you want to extrapolate. Congratulations on your successes in Lewisham – a fine example of what dogged work, year after year, can achieve.

    “My concern is over the way you seem just to have accepted many of the dubious claims made by those pushing strongly for “liberalism” to be defined as meaning primarily “a fanatic belief in free market economics”. ”

    I believe in a “what works”approach, which as I have explained I think will be different from issue to issue. I’m neither fanatically pro-free market nor robustly anti-market; they are social constructs. I never understood the idea of the market as the ‘natural’ state of affairs, before big bad government gets in the way – markets are an invention of mankind as much as government is.

    I don’t recall referring to you, or anyone, as a ‘crypto-socialist’!

    “As has been said many times, the trigger in this anger you are experiencing is Browne’s use of the word “authentic” with the implication that HIS policies are what liberalism is all about, and hence that those of us who disagree with them are not “authentic liberals” and thus should not be part of the party which we have spent our lives building.”

    Did you actually read the article I wrote…? The whole point I was trying to make is precisely that – that labelling each other as more or less ‘authentic’ in our liberalism is unhelpful. I don’t doubt your liberal credentials.

    Now, would you care to engage with what I am actually *saying*, not what you *want* me to be saying to fit the caricature you have built up…?

  • Paul in Twickenham 16th Apr '14 - 1:59pm

    “I Am Spartacus” – or at the very least I must be one of those “crypto-socialists” .

    I have for 30 years or more fondly imagined that Liberalism is about equality of opportunity. And that equality of opportunity requires our citizens have access to decent housing, healthcare, education and environment. And that equality of opportunity requires the redress of inequality due to wealth or privilege. And that from those guiding principles we create a programme for action in government. And we fund that programme with our fiscal and monetary policies.

    So I’m afraid I must disagree with the writer: to me, Liberal is a “state of mind” out of which – ineluctably – grow a set of policies.

    I differentiated myself from Labour’s position by the fact that I do not want their client-statism. I want to give people the opportunities that enable them to make the most of their lives as they see fit: not to engage in paternalistic/authoritarian proscription of their choices.

    And I differentiated it from a Conservative/Libertarian position by saying that this agenda cannot be contracted out to “free markets” or “supply-side economics” or Laffer Curves or any of that other pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook by which the wealthy and privileged protect their wealth and privilege.

    But of course that’s all wrong. According to the Liberal Democrat leadership I’m a juvenile who needs to “grow up”. And look what a great job of selling their grown-up vision – whatever it is – the Liberal Democrat leadership has done so far. And Mr. Browne thinks they haven’t gone far enough.

    Of course Liberalism is a broad description. But there are a set of core characteristics that define it and out of which policies emerge – otherwise it is (literally) meaningless, and the Liberal Democrats are – to coin a phrase – “pointless”.

  • Graham Evans 16th Apr '14 - 2:04pm

    I imagine that if you asked those of us who joined the Liberal Party at the same time as Matthew Huntbach or before, then you are just as likely to find people who disagree with much of his perception of what the Liberal Party fundamentally embodied as you are to find people who agree with him. We should also not forget that Matthew was brought up in the age of Butskellism, when in practice the main difference between the Tory, Labour and Liberal leaderships was their attitude to nationalisation. Even on nuclear arms the Labour leadership were in favour of Britain’s IND. However, the political consensus broke down following Britain relative post-war economic decline. The first steps to try to bring about change was the attempt to enter the Common Market by Harold MacMillan, which ultimately Ted Heath achieved, despite Labour opposition. Ted Heath also initially flirted with the concept of Selsdon Man, a forerunner of Thatcherism, but soon abandoned the approach under the force of circumstances. So the political consensus which existed when Matthew was growing up has inevitably changed. While an alternative model somewhat on the lines of West Germany had in the past been promoted by the Liberal Party, the collectivist (some would say corporatist) element of this approach does not seem ever to have appealed to the British. The free market model had therefore become the dominant credo in the Anglo-American world, but unless someone comes up with a better alternative which does appeal to the English – the Scots may be different – then we have to work within this model to achieve change and progress. Some within the Miliband circle evidently believe they have found one, but simply harping back to the past is no solution.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 2:23pm

    Helen – Indeed, I suppose I am a pragmatist. I see markets as the means to an end, that end being greater individual choice, freedom and control over their own lives.

    I’m not blinkered enough to believe that any one mechanism will always absolutely apply, nor that I alone have all the answers – I don’t have the life experience or body of knowledge to be able to make detailed policy prescriptions in a wide range of areas, so I won’t.

    Paul:

    “I differentiated myself from Labour’s position by the fact that I do not want their client-statism. I want to give people the opportunities that enable them to make the most of their lives as they see fit: not to engage in paternalistic/authoritarian proscription of their choices.

    And I differentiated it from a Conservative/Libertarian position by saying that this agenda cannot be contracted out to “free markets” or “supply-side economics” or Laffer Curves or any of that other pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook by which the wealthy and privileged protect their wealth and privilege.”

    I see nothing there that I would disagree with. Indeed, I agree with you. I would say that one of the main problems we have now is that the client state has now been replaced by the client parasite corporation – companies like G4S and Capita who derive the bulk of their income from juicy government contracts and, despite repeated and consistent failure and underachievement, continue to be awarded these contracts. Why contract a service out at a greater expense than it’d cost to provide it in-house, only to see a worsening of its performance…?

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 2:29pm

    Helen Tedcastle

    Perhaps that is why you are having difficulty in understanding the strength of feeling on the issue of Liberalism, as a philosophy which brought people like Matthew and myself into the party in the first place, and which many people have literally given the greater part of their time and lives campaigning for.

    With this one, I think the issue is that it is very clear to me that there are big holes in the simplistic “markets are the solution to everything” line, and I would have thought that any “thoughtful” person now would be aware of that and so forward discussion in that context. Stephen Howse describes Jeremy Browne as “clearly an outward-looking, thoughtful man who has a set of views which don’t neatly conform to the prevailing orthodoxy” when he has put across views which are nowadays the orthodox norm among the political elite, have long been pushed by powerful forces, we’ve seen enough of them to know their problems, and yet Browne gives no indication of any awareness or thought of these problems. So I just don’t see him as “thoughtful” when he’s come up with nothing new, I don’t see him as “outward-looking” when he clearly has no interest in considering how his pet solutions work in practice with real people in this country, and I certainly don’t see him as in anyway not following prevailing orthodoxy. That is why I regard with great suspicion someone who praises him with those lines.

    In earlier debates on this book I went in great detail through why I feel the “free schools” idea is a solution to a problem that does not exist, dreamed up by the social elite types whose lack of contact with state education means they just don’t realise how it ISN’T controlled by local authorities in the way they suppose it must be for their lines to make any sense. I also wrote a long piece on why I feel that competition between schools, an issue at the heart of Browne’s writing, does NOT drive up quality and in fact tends to give the reverse result. This was written based on my direct experience as a councillor, a university lecturer, and as someone who has friends and relations working in public services and what they tell me.

    Isn’t this very much a “what works” thing, which Stephen Howse CLAIMS he is about? Yet his lazy praise for Browne and his ignoring the practical criticism of him coming from those who have the background to KNOW what works suggests that he’s other than what he claims to be. We have had plenty of people dismissing the likes of you and me in these debates, but NOT ONE of them has come back and discussed the criticisms and concerns I raised there. That suggests to me that when they claim they are interested in debate and development, it’s a false claim. Their praise is all for one side, the open-mindedness they say they want is just open-mindedness for one side. So, if you are open to one side, but closed to the other, well, you rapidly fall down the open side, don’t you?

    I wouldn’t have written as I did if I felt there was equal consideration and respect for both sides of the argument here, for those who want to see liberalism more closely connected with free market economics, and those who are critical of that move – which has been a very strong one in our country since the days of Margaret Thatcher. But I don’t see any such equality in consideration and respect. Instead what I see is that it’s always those who want to push our party down the free market line who are held up as “thoughtful”, “outward-looking”, people who we have to listen to as liberals, people who are assumed to be very clever through what they say, and it’s always those who are sceptical of the free market line who are dismissed as old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds, as people who don’t have very much intelligence, as people who aren’t really liberals because they are closed-minded because they disagree with what has become orthodox opinion in elite political debate, as people who shouldn’t be listened to because they have nothing much to say. Although Stephen Howse CLAIMS he’s interested in both sides and underneath just cares for what works, his writing is full of assumptions which are very much to the free-market side.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 2:36pm

    Graham Evans

    We should also not forget that Matthew was brought up in the age of Butskellism, when in practice the main difference between the Tory, Labour and Liberal leaderships was their attitude to nationalisation.

    Yes, and I joined the Liberal Party because I felt very much that political debate should NOT be centred on those issues, that the left-right spectrum based purely on attitude to nationalisation was missing so many important political issues. I think what you are saying about me here is “Never mind Matthew, he’s a bit thick, well he must be because he’s sceptical of free market economics, he doesn’t accept the Thatcher revolution, he’s just an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud”.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 2:39pm

    Matthew:

    I referred to Jeremy as ‘outward-looking’ for his internationalist perspective. An enthusiastic internationalist he clearly is, regardless of what you think of his economic views. I described him as ‘thoughtful’ because, again whatever you think of his views, he is clearly someone who thinks about wider political issues and the future. He has a vision, whether you subscribe to it or not.

    Nobody has mentioned ‘intelligence’ other than you. Again, I would recommend you stick to what has actually been said, not what you imagine they think.

    On free schools, my main issue is that (as is ALWAYS the case when it comes to education policy) what has been sold as a great transfer of power from government has actually been the exact opposite – the Education Secretary can approve or turn down applications and control these schools’ growth without having any knowledge of local circumstances or need. I’m not convinced that’s in the best interests of children, whose interests should always be paramount when it comes to education policy.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 2:40pm

    “I think what you are saying about me here is “Never mind Matthew, he’s a bit thick, well he must be because he’s sceptical of free market economics, he doesn’t accept the Thatcher revolution, he’s just an old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud”.”

    There you go again.

    Again – why not stick to what has been written, not what you imagine people are thinking?

  • @ Graham Evans – “Many of the contributors to this blog who claim to be Liberals seem to me to have views which I would describe as crypto-socialist, while they choose to describe those at the other end of the Liberal spectrum as neoliberals.”

    Neoliberal is defined as advocating economic liberalisation, free markets, deregulation and a reduction in the role of the government and was supported in varying degrees by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s. It therefore is legitimate to call those advocating the liberalisation of markets, deregulation and a smaller role for governments Neoliberals.

    Keynesian economics was once seen as the savour of capitalism and it involved governments in managing the economy to achieve full employment, it was not seen as crypto-socialist. Involving the government in the provision of health services and education should not be seen as crypto-socialist because they are clearly part of nineteenth century liberalism. I therefore wonder what role you see for government regarding the betterment of people’s social conditions that you wouldn’t describe as crypto-socialist.

    @ Matt (Bristol) “how is what Jeremy Browne or Stephen Howse me or anyone proposes compatible with the history and traditions and past policies and thinking and influences of the Liberal Democrat Party, and where it is arguably or partially incompatible, do they recognise this?”

    If we are a liberal party and I hope everyone in it would agree that we are, then the question should be is what is being proposed liberal and how do those proposing it link it to liberalism. At conference I remember speakers referring to J S Mills ”On Liberty” as the basis of a policy being liberal and this is a good thing, but liberalism is more than this and surprising “On Liberty” when written was considered outside mainstream liberal thinking. To talk of choice and not talk about where the power lies is to misunderstand the nature of liberalism. To talk of choice and not look at how this affects those who are disadvantaged is to misunderstand liberalism. To talk of choice and not consider how it is regulated is to misunderstand liberalism. When talking of choice, liberals should also consider harm.

    @ Stephen Howse “words matter”. When I use the word “social” in a political context I am taking about social problems, injustices and grievances and therefore to say “that the Tories are comfortable with social liberalism” clearly is not true. It was true in the 1950’s and 60’s when the Conservative did have a softer side and really wanted to find solutions to society’s social problems, but that is not true now. To use the term social liberal to mean individual rights is to misuse the term.

  • Matt (Bristol) 16th Apr '14 - 4:03pm

    @Amalric, I would much rather take Helen’s view of using the party constitution as a measure of Liberal Democrat values (which I think is a fascinating document), than of simply trying to located ourselves in a less well defined ‘liberalism’, which is a word eternally capable of being defined redefined and twisted. To take your nineteenth-century reference point, the Liberal Party of the 19th century spread its seed widely as it split repeatedly from the 1880s onwards – the radicals led by Joseph Chamberlain and the aristocratic Whigs both ended up in the Tory party; many other radicals ended up in what became the Labour Party; thus ‘liberal thinking’ became a key part of the appeal of all parties. Labour has liberal AND socialist roots; the Conservatives have liberal AND conservative roots. The challenge for Liberal Democrats is to define WHAT KIND of liberalism they stand for.

    For what it’s worth (and I guess this is also a reply to Helen), although I feel less qualified to label him as a Thatcherite (but I see why he has been compared to Keith Joseph in other threads), I agree with much of what Helen has said in her criticism of Jeremy Browne and I do think the direction of forward travel he imagines for the party is antithetical to much of the party’s policies and values in the past. If it were offered to me at the polls I would vote against it like a shot; but it is hard for me to say it is not liberal – the idea of ‘global race’, worrying and destructive as I feel it often is, also has a home in past liberal thinking. It is also hard for me to say he has no home in the party, but you do wonder what he’s been smoking if he thinks his sort of thinking is a natural fit for its members and legacy (the desire to claim the’authentic liberal’ label suggests he is in fact insecure on this point).

    I completely agree with what you say about balancing choice with consideration of where power lies, harm and regulation. And I am not sure whether Stephen Howse would disagree with you, from what he has written.

  • Amalric: an interesting discourse and your reference to ‘On Liberty’ has me wondering about the extent to which Liberalism is constitutionalist-utilitarian or more concerned with Liberal motives, though either way a fundamental prescription of individual equality is assumed. You are probably too harsh on dismissing that there are Conservatives who are comfortable with social liberalism, however it does appear that their voices are reduced and muted; social paternalism however is in different guises a strong strand in both the Conservatives and Labour; to say Conservatives have no interest in solving social problems is not sensible, how they wish to solve these problems may well be questionable from a Liberal perspective though. Nevertheless, for whatever reason, the welfare state is here to stay and the arguments are about the size of the cake and how it should be apportioned.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 5:36pm

    Stephen Howse

    I referred to Jeremy as ‘outward-looking’ for his internationalist perspective. An enthusiastic internationalist he clearly is, regardless of what you think of his economic views.

    In your original article you wrote nothing which suggests “outward looking” applies only to his internationalist perspective. It’s a vague wording, if that’s what you meant, you should have been more precise.

    On free schools, my main issue is that (as is ALWAYS the case when it comes to education policy) what has been sold as a great transfer of power from government has actually been the exact opposite

    Support for “free schools” was one of the main themes in Browne’s book according to the reviews. You did not mention in your original article that you disagreed with one of his main themes.

    I’ve no problem with discussion in our party, no problem with those who wish to propose more market-oriented solutions, so long as they accept the right of others in the party to disagree with them. My problem with this shift towards market orientation is the underhand way in which it has been done, and the feeling that there’s strong outside forces pushing us that way, so it is not a free and fair discussion. Part of this underhand way is the sneaky pushing of the word “liberal” to mean “supporter of extreme free market policy”, which has very much been part of the promotion of this book. Another part of this underhand way is the very large amount of funding that seems to be available, siphoned from big business through think-tanks, for pushing this policy direction. And yet another part of this underhand way is the way that those pushing the party this way always seem to get much more press coverage, more personal praise, yes, with use of words like “clever” and “intelligent”, than people in the party who are opposed to it.

    It’s been admitted here that our party has shifted towards the right in economic terms. How did this happen? There doesn’t seem to have been a big vote on it, rather it’s been done in an underhand way. Why is it that people like me who were once enthusiastic and active members are dropping out? In my case, it ISN’T the coalition – I don’t like it, but I accept it as the inevitable outcome of the way the people voted in May 2010 and the distortion of the electoral system they backed in May 2011. No, the problem is that I find I’m no longer at home in the party, I find when I look at Liberal Democrat Voice, I no longer feel I am among colleagues, I feel I am fighting a battle against opponents, I am facing a hostile audience who does not see the world as I see it. I find that some of the most dismissive comments made about my concerns about right-wing economics come from people with the LibDem bird by their name. Yet, as I say, my politics has NOT moved to the left from where it was when I first joined the party. As we have seen in these discussions, many other long-term members of the party seem to be feeling the same. Support for this push to the right seems to be coming from new members, many of whom seem to take for granted this line that “liberalism” means “enthusiastic for free market economics”. You appear to be one of them.

    If you are not, well, perhaps if you really are interested in fairness, you ought to realise that the greatest unhappiness in the party does not come from the side you are urging us to be tolerant to here. If you are really interested in fairness, you should see why so many are unhappy about Jeremy Browne’s book and the way it has been promoted as “authentic liberalism” rather than just dismissing our concerns without showing any real understanding for them.

  • Tony Rowan-Wicks 16th Apr '14 - 5:46pm

    Stephen: ‘If we are to remain a serious national political party then we need to have an agreed national platform, as agreed by our members’. Exactly so. Agreed by members because when large numbers of many differing liberal views can agree it is a safer option to put to the electorate and then stick to it! That is what the voters expect us to do. And if we suspect we might be in a coalition again – sometime in the next century or sooner – we must have a set of agreed liberal policies (liberal as defined at the time) from which we cannot be moved – i.e. not tied into agreeing with the policies of another party with which we cannot agree – or our MPs will have to vote against, on principle. Once our party is seen as following another larger party blindly, the electorate will vote against liberalism as having no substance.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Apr '14 - 8:27pm

    Tony Rowan-Wicks

    And if we suspect we might be in a coalition again – sometime in the next century or sooner – we must have a set of agreed liberal policies (liberal as defined at the time) from which we cannot be moved – i.e. not tied into agreeing with the policies of another party with which we cannot agree – or our MPs will have to vote against, on principle.

    No, this is a dangerous hostage to fortune. Our line must instead be that the country gets what it voted for. In 2010 it voted for a Conservative government with a little bit of Liberal Democrat influence. Any doubt about that was destroyed by the 2011 referendum when by two to one the people of this country voted to say they WANTED the distortion that gave all the strength to the Conservative Party and so weakened the Liberal Democrats. This is the line we should have used – instead of pretending it was a great triumph, we should have admitted t is far from what we wanted, we would have only a minor influence, but if you don’t like what you get – TOUGH – it is what YOU the people voted for, we lost we came a poor third, if you want what we offered you should have voted for us, and you should not have supported the electoral system which so boosts the Tories and weakens us.

    As the 2010 situation showed, we cannot predict in advance what the balance will be, so it isn’t a good idea to try and make extensive promises about it. If there’s only one stable government that can be formed, that’s the government the people get, we can’t force our policies on another party in government if we’ve very much smaller than they are.

    Making sticking points like this makes us look bad if for the sake of a stable government we just can’t get them. However, it would look just as bad if we left the country in turmoil without a stable government over something we felt important, but the other parties did not. We would be massively attacked as people who only got a small amount of support and yet want to hold the country to ransom to try and force what only we want on it. We would come across as “typical politicians – putting themselves before the country”.

    The line needs to be clear – if you want Liberal Democrat policy, you need to vote Liberal Democrat. If less than a quarter of the people vote Liberal Democrat, as in May 2010, then it is the PEOPLE who are to blame if the consequence is that they don’t get Liberal Democrat policy from the government. Clegg would be in a much stronger position now if he had spoken like that instead of making out the coalition was a “marriage” which means a meeting of minds intended to be permanent.

  • Stephen Howse 16th Apr '14 - 9:55pm

    “The line needs to be clear – if you want Liberal Democrat policy, you need to vote Liberal Democrat. If less than a quarter of the people vote Liberal Democrat, as in May 2010, then it is the PEOPLE who are to blame if the consequence is that they don’t get Liberal Democrat policy from the government. ”

    Well said, that man.

  • daft ha'p'orth 17th Apr '14 - 6:02pm

    ” it is the PEOPLE who are to blame ”

    Or, more concisely, ‘See what you’ve made us do? See what you’ve driven us to?’

  • Simon Banks 18th Apr '14 - 8:51am

    Stephen:

    I agree with your premise about the nature of Liberalism.

    I disagree with how you apply it to the debate over Jeremy Browne’s book.

    First, I don’t think you should be dismissing people who are reacting to a detailed review of the book without having read the book. If the review is any good, it must give a good flavour of what the book says. Should I read the book? Should I read a thousand other books, volunteer more for good causes, get out more to help adjoining areas who have local elections, do more groundwork in my area, pray and meditate more, get up to date on reading the stuff I need to write the constituency profiles for my local party’s two parliamentary constituencies, the selection process having made little progress until I became Chair? The only kind of criticism that’s inappropriate is criticism that assumes things about the book’s message that aren’t in any review or summary.

    Why is there so much debate over the book? Well, partly, and this underlines that Jeremy Browne has performed a useful service. There is not enough discussion of the basic nature of Liberalism going on. Thanks, therefore, to you too. As a party we’ve become so focused on winning elections (and secondarily policy) that we’re in danger of forgetting or taking for granted our basic values. For example, how often do we hear quoted, for example in a Focus, “Liberty, equality and community”? Our constitution says those are our fundamental values. We could explore them more and not just in the think-tanks.

    But I strongly suspect it’s also because Jeremy Browne talks about “authentic liberalism”. You miss this point completely in your attack on his critics. If he claims to be an authentic liberal, then he suggests other people, presumably in our party, are inauthentic liberals. This is deeply offensive to many – hence the strength of the response.

    Now back to why I haven’t read the book, why it hasn’t got ahead of all the other things competing to get done. I’ve heard Jeremy Browne speak and be questioned. He didn’t strike me as particularly open-minded: he struck me as over-sure of his own rightness and as failing to understand some of the counter-arguments. By contrast David Laws is an “economic Liberal” who nowadays seems to listen and reconsider quite a lot.

  • Stephen Howse 18th Apr '14 - 5:13pm

    “!As a party we’ve become so focused on winning elections (and secondarily policy) that we’re in danger of forgetting or taking for granted our basic values.”

    I fully and wholeheartedly agree. We as a party make such a big deal out of our ‘hard work on behalf of local people all year round’ schtick. We make this the central virtue of our campaigns and our candidates make this their USP.

    We say we need to do this because we have no safe seats and we can’t take anyone’s votes for granted. Well, that is true. However, I don’t see this as a cause for celebration… I see this as a failure. Labour and the Tories have 150-odd safe seats apiece; we have at most half a dozen.

    I don’t want Liberal MPs in Parliament as glorified councillors, parochial loudspeakers for nimby interests and local agitators – I want them in Parliament because they want to change the country, and indeed the world. Because they are philosophically and personally steeped in Liberal traditions and ways of thinking. I want them to think beyond the borders of their own constituencies.

  • Stephen Howse 18th Apr '14 - 5:18pm

    “But I strongly suspect it’s also because Jeremy Browne talks about “authentic liberalism”. You miss this point completely in your attack on his critics. If he claims to be an authentic liberal, then he suggests other people, presumably in our party, are inauthentic liberals. This is deeply offensive to many – hence the strength of the response.”

    I probably could’ve done with making my point more clearly and I apologise for not doing so – but this is one of the reasons I felt compelled to write what I did. I happen to believe Jeremy is an ‘authentic liberal’ but I don’t see that as being to the exclusion of those who don’t share his views or policy prescriptions.

    Thank you for your comments – and indeed to everyone who’s commented. It is genuinely a pleasure to be a part of a party where debate like this is encouraged. What would be viewed as indiscipline amongst Labour and Tory ranks, our independent-mindedness and belief that authority and orthodoxy ought to be questioned, that “because it’s how it’s always been done” is not a good enough reason to do something now or in the future, is what gives our party its vitality and indeed its strength.

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.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

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 ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • Trevor Andrews
    I am sorry to hear of your problems in Shropshire, although I suspect your not alone in having these problems. I tried many times to get a part time “Director...
  • john oundle
    Simon R 'But are we sure that simply admitting these people to the UK and providing them all with shelter and the means to build lives here is actually a gen...
  • nigel hunter
    We can equally campaign to fully replace the Overseas Aid budget to help the countries that the refugees come from....
  • TonyH
    Yes I have to agree with the criticism here of the way some quotes are being mis-represented. I love Andy's passion for the campaign, but I think using the "her...
  • Alexander
    By that logic, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson is the most credible person in the country. Maybe take into account her actual behaviour a...