Opinion: putting Liberalism into statute

For the last week or so the Lib Dems have had the look of a rabbit that has got too close to a juggernaut. The urge to stamp a warning and return to safer and more familiar surroundings is understandable.

But while an arcane discussion of the relative merits of J S Mill and T H Green is a reasonable occupation for a History Professor it has no relevance to voters. They are more concerned about the impact on their lives of decisions by Liberal Democrat ministers.

And the impact is extensive because this is shaping up to be the most radical government for thirty years. The Government has set an astonishing pace for reform of public services. In the first six months these have included health, education, policing, the Royal Mail and local government. And they are reforms that are shot through with liberal principles.

Not convinced? Here are extracts from the documents launching each of those reforms:

Ministerial Foreword to the Police and Social Responsibility Bill

This Government’s vision is for a free, fair and responsible society. At the heart of that vision is a radical shift in power and control away from government back to people and communities. Nowhere is that more true than in our plans for policing reform. Reform is critical. Increasing Government interference in recent years has changed the focus of the police. They have become responsive to government targets and bureaucracy rather than to people. They have become disconnected from the public they serve.

Decentralisation and the Localism Bill – An Essential Guide

Radical decentralisation means stripping away much of the top-down bureaucracy that previous governments have put in the way of frontline public services and civil society. It means giving local people the powers and funding to deliver what they want for their communities – with a particular determination to help those who need it most.

Liberating the NHS

The NHS is a great national institution… That’s why we’ve set out a bold vision for the future of the NHS – rooted in the coalition’s core beliefs of freedom, fairness and responsibility.

We will make the NHS more accountable to patients. We will free staff from excessive bureaucracy and top-down control.

Patients will be at the heart of everything we do. So they will have more choice and control…

The importance of teaching: the schools white paper

This White Paper signals a radical reform of our schools. We have no choice but to be this radical if our ambition is to be world-class. The most successful countries already combine a high status teaching profession; high levels of autonomy for schools; a comprehensive and effective accountability system and a strong sense of aspiration for all children, whatever their background. Tweaking things at the margins is not an option. Reforms on this scale are absolutely essential if our children are to get the education they deserve.

Delivering for the future

The company needs investment to allow it to innovate, modernise and adapt further to the changing communications market… we need urgently to enable Royal Mail to go further and faster… a proportionate regulatory regime, which enables deregulation where competition is thriving. I want central government to empower those that know the Post Office best, giving communities more of a stake in the future of the assets they value, enabling the largest mutualisation ever proposed by the Government.

The party has been led recently with all the skill and subtlety of Blackadder’s General Melchett. Yet the Government speaks with a truly radical voice. It’s a language and an approach that Labour simply cannot comprehend. It challenges some strong vested interests. But Liberal Democrats need to take ownership of these reforms (and the political reforms that sit alongside them) and to promote them for what they are: a radical, liberal transformation of public services.

Ed Maxfield is a former campaigns officer for the Liberal Democrats and second on the Euro list for the East Midlands. His most recent publication is the Romania chapter in The 2009 Elections to the European Parliament

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • First let me tell you I am a lifelong Conservative voter.
    However,I will be giving you my vote in the next local elections.
    You have proven to be a stronger party to work with than many thought you would be.
    Hold your nerves and keep your heads.
    You have gone UP in my estimation.

  • David Lawson 15th Dec '10 - 11:55am

    Politician speak which has recently been again confirmed often to be Doublespeak.

    The trend of these changes is to replace non-Westminster centres of power (esp local govt) with market based delivery units following a strongly dictated central line. Independent in the way that a franchised McDonalds is independent.

    Why for example, as under the Education White Paper, should there be a central formula to distribute funds to schools? (Which incidentally makes a further mockery of the pupil premium – if the general formula is to change and be nationalised then, as the recent funding round for local govt shows, who gets what depends on that new general formula as much as the pupil premium element of it).

    The result is that England in particular is losing the depth and strength of its non-govt civic units which would once have been the very definition of its liberal identity.

    I’m not trying to contradict you and I see some strength in what you say but these changes are not true localism – they devolve responsibility and delivery but not power.

  • dave thawley 15th Dec '10 - 1:09pm

    “For the last week or so the Lib Dems have had the look of a rabbit that has got too close to a juggernaut. The urge to stamp a warning and return to safer and more familiar surroundings is understandable.”

    I disagree – for the last week it has become obvious the juggernaut clipped us. The rabbit is now lying in the gutter bleeding to death. Nick’s decission to go against the coalition agreement and vote in support of the tories , followed by the destruction of other parts of the education system followed by the mis-information sent out to us (lib dem members) on the PP has seriously seriously damaged us. Since we have been knocked unconcious and are bleeding to death we are in no position to move at all. All that is going to happen is our lifeblood (radicals and progressives) are tricking away out of our body at an alarming rate which will turn us a funny shade of blue. We not going to be hopping anywhere soon.

  • David Allen 15th Dec '10 - 1:18pm

    “The police. … have become responsive to government targets and bureaucracy rather than to people. They have become disconnected from the public they serve.”

    The police are a law unto themselves. Labour hoped they could be made responsive to government targets and bureaucracy. They failed. The coalition hopes they will be made responsive to elected commissioners. That too will probably fail. The police believe they can do what they want because at the end of the day, government needs them to be on side. I don’t know what the answer is, but, highflown rhetoric isn’t the answer.

  • @ Geoffrey

    Absolutely sums up the paradox – a set of one view of Liberal values being implemented in government completely at odds with the view of Liberal values in the real world. It will all end in tears one way or the other.

  • Dominic Curran 15th Dec '10 - 1:47pm

    @ Ed

    Your five examples are quoted from the Government’s own briefings. Of course they paint a rosy picture. They also have no indepence or any respectable level of analysis. If we simply believed Goverment press notices and White Paper forewords, i’d think we were living in a utopia now.

    Dig down to the reality, and you’ll be less impressed. I’ll give you one example – the NHS reforms will open the way for the backdoor privatisation of healthcare as GPs decide they’d prefer to treat patients than be Chief Exectives of re-vamped PCTs, and they’ll farm out all the boring admin work to private companies and consultants, many of them ex-PCVT staff, others US health conglomerates ready with a new product of back office support. that doesn’t sound very liberating to me.

  • You ask if I am convinced, the answer on one level is “Yes”. I voted LibDem and Yes I am 100% convinced that I was totally conned. I (and everybody else) got a right-wing Tory government happy to kick the less well-off amongst us. This cabinet of 18 millionaires is determined to cushion the wealthy and especially those bankers. The LibDems took my vote under false pretences and they now do exactly as they are told by the Tory Party. This is a reactionary Thatcherite government that serious LibDems wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. Soon Clegg and Laws will jump ship and join the Tories. Then the work will begin for genuine Liberal Democrats to clear up the mess. I will never vote LibDem again, and I know many people like me. LibDem party members that I know are shell-shocked and in disbelief, they will eventually ‘get it’ when we all get a chance to vote again.

  • Emsworthian 15th Dec '10 - 2:56pm

    Can we bin the use of words such ‘progressive’, ‘fairness’ and ‘worlclass’ which have become universal bubble wrap for almost eveything coming out of the coalition nowadays. The Tory’s core agenda hasn’t changed. Roll back the state, marketise everything and create a two-tier society. If that’s what you want to join the Tories and stop dressing it up as something that we actually wanted all the time. The question I want answered is if we’re doing the right things why do we stand at 10% and declining in the polls and the Tories are 4 times stronger?

  • Ruth Bright 15th Dec '10 - 4:23pm

    Ed, Ed honestly Ed!

    As Dominic points out these are just extracts from the blurb. What about the reality? Is it so radical to “free the NHS from vested interests” by handing it over lock stock and barrel to another vested interest – the GPs?

    Am dreptate.


  • Ed Maxfield 15th Dec '10 - 4:47pm

    Frankly I’d rather stick a pencil in my eye than go round the ‘liberal’ versus ‘social liberal’ argument yet again. (Although, Dominic, are you seriously suggesting that outsourcing back-office functions in the NHS is a crime against liberalism???)

    My basic point is this: Liberal Democrats need to stop behaving like they are still in opposition and start working with the realities of wielding power. Three of those realities are: changing things is a hard and sometimes grubby business; you rarely end up with legislation where every single party member will be be able to support every single line; if you spend all of your time behaving like the opposition they will be laughing all the way to the ballot box.

    I deliberately focused on the introductory narrative rather than the detail of the bills because this is what a liberal government looks and sounds like. If Liberal Democrats dont support their own government they shouldnt be too surprised if the voters decide they shouldnt either.

  • The coalition is clearly concerned that it shouldn’t waste time trying to be all things to all men and women as was the case with the first Blair government, hence the barrage of radical changes to pretty much everything. But as someone pointed out on here last week (my apologies for not acknowledging the source), a policy like tuition fees could probably have been put across to students and public if time had been taken to consult and explain. Instead, legislation is being rushed through on all fronts without engaging with those who are going to be most affected by it. It’s a macho approach to politics which is self-defeating and illiberal.

  • Just saying something is “progressive” doesn’t make it so. Ed writes: “I deliberately focused on the introductory narrative rather than the detail of the bills because this is what a liberal government looks and sounds like.” Surely it is “the detail of the bills” that is important?

    And yes, I agree this government is “radical” – that is not, in itself, a good thing. I would argue that, for example, the last thing the NHS needed after so many recent upheavals was another “radical” reform.

  • Ed Maxfield 16th Dec '10 - 1:00am

    John (and Ruth and others)

    You illustrate exactly my point. All I am asking is that Liberal Democrats consider two propositions and ask themselves one simple question.

    The first proposition is that a social democratic coalition with Labour is an illusion. For three reasons. First that in May the electorate didnt allow it. Second that since the election Labour has retreated further into leftist tribalism which means they are not interested in co-operation and we should not be interested in it. And third, if Liberal Democrats will the failure of the current government the electorate wont reward us with the chance to have another go.

    The second proposition is that the language this government uses – and many of the actions it has taken – show that it is underpinned by liberal values. This will be difficult for some and I am not going to explain why I think the opposite course would be illiberal precisely because I want the words and the deeds to be judged on their own merits.

    As I said above, it is impossible for a party to deliver policies that every member will support in its entirity. Especially if that party finishes third in the election and has less than one in ten of the seats in parliament. I am very much opposed to the coalition’s immigration policies for example. I think they are bad for the economy and bad for social cohesion. I think short term tenancies for council tenants will be a political disaster for the Liberal Democrats too. And I made clear in the original post that I think the party has been incredibly badly served by its leadership team recently. But I also believe that the vast bulk of what the government is doing is in tune with my liberal values.

    So my question is a simple one: are the Liberal Democrats prepared to act like a party that understands what it means to wield power? Or would it be happier being behaving like a pressure group, sitting on the side lines, unpacking every clause of every Bill to test it against the writings of some long-dead philosopher while the real world carried on without them?

  • Man on the Bus 16th Dec '10 - 1:50am

    The BBC reports Another Great Liberal Victory on control orders:
    “The terminology would be changed and a new name given to control orders. “

  • Dominic Curran 16th Dec '10 - 10:26am


    Outsourcing some admin for the NHS in itself isn’t wrong, of course. But what the Goverment trumps as ‘getting rid of bureaucracy’ is actually just transferring that bureaucracy. In some cases it’s going to local authorities, which i wlecoime, but mostly it’s going to GPs, many of whom will outsource it at, i suspect, much more expensive rates than it would have been done in house. And that’s where the mission creep starts. Once you’ve privatised this, why not that? One example is the aboltion of NICE’s drug regulatory dfunctions. Lansley has said that it will be up to GPs to decide what drugs are worth precribing, anmd NICE won’t do any testing or have a say. IN NICE’s absence, who will hard-pressed GPs turn to for advice on the efficacy fo drugs? The only people who are doing any tests will be drug companies, who will spend their time hawking their products round all the GP consortia. GPs will not have any independent advice on which to make decisions, and with pressure from cancer sufferers coming to them every week, they will no doubt prescribe drugs that aren’t value for money, thus denying resources to others who might have got more use from them. This isn’t patient control becuase we dont vote for GPs. If my local GP consortia isn’t providing a service i want i can’t move across London to one that is. It’s still a state monopoly, it’s just that now the private sector has taken over certain regulatory roles. It’s neo-liberal, but not liberal democrat.

    As for yoru suggestion that we look at the language not the facts, it’s a nice idea but a little naive. I don’t think Orwell would have approved!

  • Dominic

    It might be naive if that is what I was proposing. But it is not. I am suggesting that Liberal Democrats who insist on unpicking the detail of every government proposal looking for a right wing conspiracy or some other reason to oppose their own government are being naive.

    Liberal Democrats need to decide whether they are in government or in opposition because you cant be both.

    I dont know how to put it more clearly without causing offence.

  • Nick (not Clegg) 16th Dec '10 - 1:21pm

    “Not convinced?”
    Sorry, no I’m not. Most of these are thoroughly bad bills. They are not made more acceptable by a few sentences of cosy-sounding meaningless waffle in their preambles.

    “If Liberal Democrats don’t support their own government they shouldn’t be too surprised if the voters decide they shouldn’t either”
    I do not support this government and I do not recognise it as “my own”. I shall not be surprised if voters decide not to support it either. Since I cannot support it, it follows that I cannot ask others to do so: which is why I am not going to Oldham and why I shall not be campaigning in next year’s local elections.

  • Dominic Curran 16th Dec '10 - 1:48pm


    “It might be naive if that is what I was proposing. But it is not. I am suggesting that Liberal Democrats who insist on unpicking the detail of every government proposal looking for a right wing conspiracy or some other reason to oppose their own government are being naive.”

    But you weren’t proposing that! You said in your original article that if we looked at the words you quoted above we would see that we have a government ‘shot through with liberal principles’. I merely suggested that the words that you quoted were no guide as to the content of the policies. Indeed, if you look at the schools quote, it could apply to any schools white paper from the past fifty years. While there are some liberalising measures, promoting feree schools at the expense of others, and giving parents the right to set up new schools without having to get planing permission (with its attendant fire safety and travel planning safeguards) is more libertarian ( which i think can be summed up thus: ‘go then, you do it, i don’t give a ****’) than liberal.

    On your second point, that we could look for reasons to oppose our government but if we did so we would be naive, well, i’m happy to be naive. Us putting pressure on our own ministers is the best way to ensure that they fight our corner with the Tories, not the Tories’ corner with us. I for one am not happy to just accept that as we have ministers, we can sit back and assume that all is dandy. it is not.

    I also don’t think that our ministers have shown any balls in fighting for our values in government.

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