The Independent View: rediscovering Grimond’s insights

At this year’s party conference, Tim Farron and Nick Clegg both argued that a huge new swathe of centre ground had opened up in British politics, with Labour shifting to the left and a newly emboldened Conservative government moving to the right. That is a risky assertion. It defines liberalism against its opponents, rather than for itself.

For a party battered, but not dispirited, by recent election results it is important that it defines itself with a positive vision for liberalism in the 21st century, not merely against its opponents’ positions.
If the Corbyn project collapses and Labour elects a more centrist leader, or the Tories succeed in defining and colonising the centre of British politics a failure to define that modern liberalism would leave big questions unanswered.

That is why both Clegg and Farron also sought to assert that they stand on liberal, not just centrist ground. Some of that is easy to define. It is pro-European, internationalist in outlook, environmentalist, and supportive of electoral and constitutional reform. It prizes civil liberties.

This gives contemporary liberalism a clear compass on some important issues in contemporary British politics, notably Britain’s future in Europe. It allows them to oppose, without a second thought, further incursions into individual privacy or human rights.

But it is silent on a whole raft of other questions. On economic policy, the Liberal Democrats chose to put behind them their Keynesian and social liberal traditions when they joined the coalition government in 2010. Is that where they wish to remain? And what will it mean for their response to the spending review in the autumn, or for their local government representatives facing deep cuts to their budgets?

Similarly, what should a liberal approach to public services look like: in favour of state provision of services, within a framework led largely by local government? Or more market-orientated, concerned chiefly with social mobility? The party need a reckoning with those choices, even if they remain proud of their role in that government.

This was a theme I explored at IPPR’s fringe event in Bournemouth. I recalled the success of Jo Grimond in redefining the party as authentically liberal centre-left in the 1950s with a vision distinct from Labour and the Conservatives.

Grimond believed in breaking down concentrations of power in the economy, establishing co-ownership of firms and distributing wealth more widely. He contended that workers should be given status alongside shareholders in company law, and put forward a save-as-you-earn plan for share ownership and praised employee mutuals like John Lewis.
This was in many ways a third way between state and private ownership and argued for a wider distribution of wealth and asset ownership that re-emerged during the coalition years with a renewed focus on employee ownership. It didn’t get very far but in an age of automation, when workers need to own the robots rather than be displaced by them, it could become resonant again.

His advocacy for radical localism, community welfare programmes, and choice in public services were ahead of their time – the kind of “new and blue” mix that might have rescued Labour on public service reform, if it had been listening.

Grimond also had an appreciation of the spaces between state and market, and the institutions that fill them. If Tim Farron’s Lib Dems are to offer a renewed 21st century liberalism it could do worse than rediscover Grimond’s insights.

* Nick Pearce is Director of IPPR

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14 Comments

  • “On economic policy, the Liberal Democrats chose to put behind them their Keynesian and social liberal traditions when they joined the coalition government in 2010.”

    I’m no economist, but surely it was Brown and Balls who chose to abandon Keynes when they ran a deficit during a boom, rather than a surplus as they should have.

  • Geoffrey Payne 29th Sep '15 - 1:22pm

    There was a neo-liberal consensus between the 2 main parties up to the economic crash in 2008. Vince Cable broke that consensus when he advocated nationalising Northern Rock during the crises, and for a few years back then he was very popular for doing so. But then in Coalition it was Danny Alexander who had the ear of Nick Clegg in government on running the economy and he was no match for George Osborne who went ahead with his neoliberal agenda.
    The sense now is that the party does not want to talk about the economy anymore given the commitment to eliminate the budget deficit by 2018, there is not much we can say that will capture anyone’s imagination given these constraints.
    So Nick Pierce has a point. I would remind TCO that Keynes was a liberal and not a socialist, so it is not up to Labour to claim his legacy, although that is what they are doing right now.

  • Hi Nick,

    Great piece of writing. I am wondering if you could point me in the right direction to read a bit more about Grimond as it seems he may have held similar views to my own. One of the things I have been interested in is how businesses like John Lewis buck the trends and go from strength to strength. Also the development of co-ownership of housing where groups of people who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy a house are pulling there resources to solve their housing crisis on their own. Like you say I believe there is a balance that can be gained where everyone benefits and no one looses but yet as far as I can see no one really stands on this platform.

  • Nick Collins 29th Sep '15 - 3:08pm

    Craig, you could do a lot worse than start with some of Grimond’s own writings, if you can find them (Tony Greaves’ “Liber Books” might be a good place to try) eg;
    his” Memoirs” , published in 1979 by William Heinemann Ltd
    “The Liberal Challenge”
    “The Liberal Future”
    “The Common Welfare”

  • A Social Liberal 29th Sep '15 - 3:23pm

    I never thought I’d say this, but I agree with Nick! Thank the Lord I mean Nick Pearce and not the other.

  • Lester Holloway 29th Sep '15 - 3:55pm

    Hi Nick, I’m sure others on the site can recommend some good books about Grimond, I thought I’d just point to two essays published by IPPR’s journal Juncture:

    Beyond realignment: Jo Grimond and the legacy of civic liberalism (Richard V Reeves): http://www.ippr.org/juncture/beyond-realignment-jo-grimond-and-the-legacy-of-civic-liberalism

    Left-looking liberals: why Grimond alone won’t save the Lib-Dems (Peter Sloman): http://www.ippr.org/juncture/left-looking-liberals-why-grimond-alone-wont-save-the-lib-dems

  • Lester Holloway 29th Sep '15 - 3:57pm

    Sorry I meant Craig! And I see someone called Nick has already done so!

  • @Geoffrey Payne ” I would remind TCO that Keynes was a liberal and not a socialist, so it is not up to Labour to claim his legacy,”

    I never claimed that he wasn’t and that they were; I was pointing out that Labour 1997-2010 abandoned Keynes by running a deficit during a boom, rather than paying down debt with the surplus. So it was hardly surprising that the coalition couldn’t use classical Keynsianism in 2010 given that classical Keynsianism hadn’t been used in the preceding cycle.

  • George Kendall 29th Sep '15 - 11:08pm

    @Nick Pearce

    “On economic policy, the Liberal Democrats chose to put behind them their Keynesian and social liberal traditions when they joined the coalition government in 2010”

    I disagree. The deficit reduction over the last parliament was pretty much what Alistair Darling planned. And it was less harsh than Vince Cable proposed in an article in 2009. That said, no deficit reduction plan should be set in stone, and perhaps we should review our existing target based on the current situation.

    But leaving that aside, thank you for your article. I particularly liked your comment on public service proposals “that might have rescued Labour on public service reform, if it had been listening”.

    You don’t explicitly suggest we read the IPPR’s proposals for how to run public services in a time when there’s no money. But I think we should read them, and if Labour aren’t going to use them, then I’d hope there’s some we could use.

    I hope we won’t just be drawing on our Liberal heritage. Social democracy is also an important part of the heritage of the Liberal Democrats, so I hope our policies will draw on social democratic thinking as well.

  • @ Nick Pearce

    “It didn’t get very far but in an age of automation, when workers need to own the robots rather than be displaced by them, it could become resonant again.”

    While I agree worker ownership is important and we should have strong policies to force companies to give their workers shares, we also need to think about if there are going to be less people in work how do those not in work have a share of the ownership of companies.

    @ TCO

    “I was pointing out that Labour 1997-2010 abandoned Keynes by running a deficit during a boom, rather than paying down debt with the surplus. So it was hardly surprising that the coalition couldn’t use classical Keynsianism in 2010 given that classical Keynsianism hadn’t been used in the preceding cycle”

    After the Second World War our economic policy was based on Beveridge and keeping unemployment under 3%. The Conservative government elected in 1979 abandoned this aim and no government since has had this aim. This is why inequalities have increased over the last 35 years. When unemployment is above 1.25 million and there are over another million not able to be employed because they are long term ill or disabled the government should not run a surplus and the Labour government didn’t. It run a small deficit of £30 or 40 billion. The Labour government had a budget surplus 1997-2002.

  • Richard Boyd OBE DL 30th Sep '15 - 11:46am

    As one of the 16 year olds, then at school, who saw the Grimmond Black and White TV political broadcast, I was glad to sense a fresh vision where opposition to “the Establishment” (ie Tory party) did not have to be socialist. At that time, young people were disinterested in the fighting of pre-war battles where Labour radiated “Chip on the Shoulder” and Tories were smug and dug in to power and influence. There may, today, be a party member who also joined the party at the age of 16 and may, perhaps, have had the same belief in fresh and honest equality of opportunity, and the fair sharing of responsibilities for the disadvantaged. In the early ’60’s the Liberals in Parliament, were the “Celtic Fringe” party of non-conformist principles. We were ignored by the national media (except perhaps the News Chronicle, or
    very occasionally the Manchester Guardian.). Grimmond radiated decency and inspired “Jones the Vote” to champion pavement politics. We relished a growth from local government, over a span of 40 years, to see 5 MP’s become ten-fold, underpinned by thousands of councillors and active members working in their communities.

    Yes, it is all “yesterday”. BUT it worked. We ignored Tory inspired media attacks on our leaders, and just kept going.

    I do not know what will work to reinvigorate the party. I do, however, know what will not work. Do not be led by the agenda of the media.They form a Posse to chase a fleeting story, and lose interest jut as quickly. Do not seek titles that are meaningless, (Deputy PM springs to mind) and shout and repeat again and again what you have achieved. Lord Beveridge, a Liberal, was the inspiring spirit of the NHS – yet Labout re-invents history by adding to their justifiable pride in introducing the NHS, the “extra” bit that it was their idea.

    Good luck to the new generation of party members from the diminishing band of those who shared your enthusiasm
    50 years ago.

  • SIMON BANKS 30th Sep '15 - 9:31pm

    Good article. On the state, it seems to me a mistake to be ideologically for a large or a small state. Clearly a Liberal society needs an effective state. Then the issue is what works best in liberating people’s potential and giving them choices. So I can’t see an ideological Liberal position for or against particular privatisation or nationalisation proposals. We should remember that in a democracy the state is ultimately answerable to the people and of course Liberal Democrats strive to make the state more democratic, more devolved, more responsive to the individual and nearer to the people. Either the state or an overmighty corporation or social pressure such as censorious neighbours can restrict people’s liberty.

    As for social mobility, it’s better than a rigid class or caste system, but if we’re enthusiastic about social mobility, we’re enthusiastic about people going down in the world. A highly unequal society is not only unfair and full of suffering, it offers little in the way of liberty to those near the bottom. If we reject that, then the issue is a fairly practical one about what measures for greater equality can be effective without undue taxation or state control.

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