The Independent View: Norman Lamb and Liberalism – a conversation at the Institute of Economic Affairs

2015 was a tale of two leadership elections, with the Liberal Democrat debate between Tim Farron and Norman Lamb overshadowed by the seismic shift in the Labour Party. But while Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labour leadership has led to a fundamental debate on the future of the Labour Party, the victory of Tim Farron may prove the more important – particularly if the time comes for the Liberal Democrats to seize back the liberal mantle in British politics.

The Liberal Democrats, like the Liberals before them, have always held a useful counter-balancing position, able to simultaneously attack Labour for their illiberal and statist economic policies – which Jeremy Corbyn has exacerbated – and the Tories for their big-state social policy and genuflection to the security and surveillance services. Should Momentum get too much for Labour and cause splits, and should the Tories finally be split asunder over Europe (or both cast out their ideological non-believers in an orgy of blood-letting that would do la Terreur proud), the Liberal Democrats must be placed to pick up voters from both.
So, what are the Liberal Democrats for? Has the party done enough to take up the torch of liberalism? Is the party still the party of Gladstone, or has it become reconciled to playing a bit part in the great debates?

Tomorrow at the Institute of Economic Affairs we will put this question to Liberal Democrat MP and former leadership contender Norman Lamb. Can the Liberal Democrats seize back their ground as the party of a smaller state and freer people? Norman has made steps already in calling for the legalisation of cannabis and both he and Tim Farron have long been outspoken opponents of the surveillance state.

But on economics we ask whether the Liberal Democrats are ready to take up the liberal torch if both the Tories and Labour succumb to their ideological extremes. With the storm clouds of the world economy gathering once again, we must question if enough has been done by the Chancellor to fix the roof while the sun shone. Labour’s plan to increase tax, increase debt and renationalise industry are not the solution.

So, tomorrow night the big questions will be asked at the IEA. What is the future of the NHS when we need to spend ever more money to equalise mental health with physical health – especially when the NHS has some of the worst outcomes in the developed world on metrics like cancer survival rates? What should be the next big liberal offer which can appeal to both free market Tories and Co-operative Labourites – looking to civil society, trades union and individuals to solve problems rather than looking to the government. And, in light of the announcement of the European Union referendum, what is the liberal argument for ‘Remain’, and – should the result go against those who back continued membership of the EU – how will the Lib Dems lead the fight for liberalism within an independent and potentially fearful UK shorn of both European security and the limits of European human rights law?
You might have seen the advertising on this site for the event on Wednesday from 6.30pm. If you can’t join us, please join in on our web streaming service here.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Sam Collins is Policy Advisor to the Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds and The Independent View.


  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Feb '16 - 12:53pm

    Very good to see this , I had wanted to be there , as a big admirer of Norman Lamb, but cannot, is the recording of it going to be available on IEA you tube?

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Feb '16 - 1:26pm

    “especially when the NHS has some of the worst outcomes in the developed world on metrics like cancer survival rates? ” This of course resulting from the small state ideological changes made to the NHS by successive governments following the lead of the IEA and other right wing think tanks.

  • Nigel Quinton 23rd Feb '16 - 4:30pm

    Sam – my recollection is that those statistics, which were being flogged around at the time of Lansley’s tragically misguided reform agenda (which had Cameron allowed Clegg to appoint Lamb as Health Minister in 2010 would surely never have got started btw), were comprehensively debunked and shown to be worthless as they compared apples and oranges. Time and again studies have shown the NHS, for all its faults, to be the most cost effective health service on the planet.

  • Sam Collins
    Market-orientated reforms were introduced into the NHS by Thatcher’s govt in 1989-90. In any case I don’t think anyone disputes that the NHS was in a fairly poor state in 1995. Compared to our European neighbours we had underinvested in health since at least the late 70’s.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Feb '16 - 8:39pm

    Thank you Sam
    as not free during the early part of that evening , shall see it later on , many thanks

  • nigel hunter 23rd Feb '16 - 11:53pm

    We may have a cost effective NHS but I thought health was about keeping people alive, that does cost money. Are we now a complete monetarist country where lives depend on money? The NHS should be allowed to settle down to do its job of saving lives, not to be used as a football.

  • Fair play to Sam Collins for using the phrase “smaller state and freer people”, knowing as he must that the majority of party members these days are not “that kind” of liberal.
    If we are agreed that the state exists to enable all citizens to reach their full potential, unhindered by ignorance, sickness or poverty, then the size of that state is not, in itself, the question. I would suggest that the state is not too big, but it is too highly regulated, hence it lacks the capacity to find flexible solutions.
    I was looking at Paddy Ashdown’s profile on the LD website a couple of days ago. I did not realise that he worked as a youth worker after his time at Westland and I speculated whether he would have been taken on in that role today, after all, how does being an army officer and a diplomat make you fit for social work ? (That’s a rhetorical question, incidentally).

  • Sam – when the it lets us down I like slagging off the NHS as much as the next woman but cancer care is not just about survival rates. The NHS does very well in comparative study of palliative care and I would suggest fares pretty well on all sorts of other things that are measureable – dementia, family planning, initiation of breastfeeding in hospital, options in menopause…some of those things aren’t at the glamorous end of medicine so perhaps aren’t as interesting to think-tanks.

  • @ Ruth Bright. Quite right.

    I owe my life to the Scottish Transplant Unit who are not only brilliant at what they do… but also brilliant on the human caring side as well.

    I wonder if the “smaller state, freer people” mantra would change for those who dream about it if they had to face a real life crisis of survival.

  • For those hating on the IEA, what liberal could argue with the thrust of this?

  • Stephen Hesketh 24th Feb '16 - 1:36pm

    “The Liberal Democrats, like the Liberals before them, have always held a useful counter-balancing position”
    “Should Momentum [[read the apparent majority of Corbyn-supporting members activists]] get too much for Labour [[read Labour-right MP’s]]”
    “the Liberal Democrats must be placed to pick up voters from both” …
    “So, what are the Liberal Democrats for? Has the party done enough to take up the torch of liberalism? Is the party still the party of Gladstone” …
    “What should be the next big liberal offer which can appeal to both free market Tories and Co-operative Labourites”

    Sorry Sam, whilst I will listen to Norman’s speech with genuine interest, much of the above narrative is that of the failed (Nick Clegg)-David Laws-Jeremy Browne-Paul Marshall etc view of politics and what the Liberal Democrats exist for.

    We do not exist as a counter-balance [[read equidistance?]], we have already failed to pick up the votes of soft Tories – and crashed the party in the process. No, we are not the party of Gladstone but of Lloyd George, Jo Grimond, Charles Kennedy and Tim Farron.

    To be honest, free market Tories can please themselves and as for Co-operative Labourites, if they had been listening to what Liberals and Liberal Democrats have said for more than 100 years, they should have already been with us – always assuming they were also willing to embrace individual liberty etc.

    I sincerely hope that Norman’s speech isn’t one of Classical Liberal continuity because little is of equal importance to the survival and success of our party as picking up and reigniting the torch of social justice Liberal Democracy.

  • Mark Littlewood 24th Feb '16 - 4:21pm

    Presumably, Gareth Epps will be ignoring everything on this very website/blog from now on, as I see LDV is currently taking advertising from FOREST, which is funded by the tobacco industry.

  • Stephen Hesketh 24th Feb '16 - 8:46pm

    I listened to the entire discussion and was pleased with much of what Norman had to say including him recognising many of the mainstream criticisms of the politics and presentation of the coalition period.

    He made the case for us being the distinctive force for progressive reforming Liberalism rather than bland status quo-accepting Centrism some would have us be and, although pushed on a couple of occasions, he also made a range of sound arguments in favour of mainstream Liberal Democracy rather than free market or Gladstonian Liberalism.

  • Stephen Hesketh 24th Feb '16 - 9:13pm

    Oops, last post before I had completely finished tweaking!
    On health care systems and spending Norman Lamb also made the case of the US and their “shocking” healthcare system costing double (as a % of GDP) what the NHS costs the UK (8%) and that Germany and France, with their oft-quoted better outcomes, 11% of GDP. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the power of the free market to deliver good health/social care outcomes AND value for money at a national level and, in the case of our hardly spendthrift European neighbours, an indication of what can be achieved by spending another 2-3%.

    A matter of simple priorities! £60 billion plus on HS2 or on the NHS and local infrastructure projects, £100 billion plus on Trident and global top table or on quality health and social care. Hmmm.

  • @Mark Littlewood 24th Feb ’16 – 4:21pm

    “I see LDV is currently taking advertising from FOREST, which is funded by the tobacco industry.”

    That’s not how Google ads work: they’re customised to the viewing preferences of each individual browser. And the fact that the tobacco-industry-funded IEA’s Director General Mark Littlewood is getting ads for tobacco lobby group FOREST speaks volumes…

    I’m quite amused that Littlewood doesn’t seem to know how Google ads work. Conservative MP Gavin Barwell got himself into a similar pickle a few years back:

  • Peter Watson 25th Feb '16 - 12:16pm

    @Big Bother
    Actually, I’m also seeing FOREST ads and somebody else mentioned them recently. The ads don’t say they’re FOREST until you click on them (and having just done that perhaps I’m now responsible for a bit of money going from them to LDV, though I know which of the two I’d prefer to see with the cash!).
    There’s some stuff about this here:
    I would also say that at first glance they don’t particularly look like ads (yes, they do have a little “advert” near them) and they make it look like LDV is making a statement about tobacco taxation.
    Sometimes on LDV I do see an Amazon ad reminding me of what I was looking at recently, but that is not the case today.

  • We know why Gareth dislikes the IEA: because it dares ti challenge his view that pubcos are the sole culprit for the decline in pub numbers in recent years.

  • Mark Littlewood 26th Feb '16 - 5:02pm

    @BigBother I’m pretty sure LDV takes its adverts (or at least some of them) via bookings from MessageSpace. That’s how the IEA paid for the adverts promoting the event appearing on this site. I’m pretty sure FOREST did the same (although plastered their adverts over a range of political sites, not just this one). It’s not a Google advert feature as far as I’m aware, so on the face of it, LDV is taking money (directly or indirectly) from the tobacco industry – although I stand to be corrected.

  • Simon Banks 4th Mar '16 - 5:23pm

    I don’t think our main attack on the Tories has been their “big-state social policy”, but their attacks on the poorest in society and their defence of the interests of the richest people and biggest businesses.

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