The Liberal Democrat Manifesto: Politics for the Common Good

In 1912 Britain was a surprisingly shabby place. Despite the country’s immense foreign possessions and vast export trade, the UK was suffering the enfeebling effects of a drastic readjustment of global trade. In the decades to come, these economic tides would cause the British Empire to recede into the history books. But for the Edwardians, these future chimes of doom were felt first as industrial sluggishness and mass hardship. The grand Imperial centre was witnessing an explosion of poverty, malnutrition, and ill-health, decaying infrastructure and insecure work.

E.M. Forster memorably dramatized this national condition in his 1913 novel Maurice through the metaphor of the tumbled down country house of Penge. This once-grand seat of the genteel Durham family is now beset by staff-shortages, leaky roofs and pathologically complacent owners. And to compound the estate’s troubles, the working-classes over whom the Durham’s bestow their parasitic patronage no-longer see the point of their old masters. The aristocrats grumble that the scullery maids have become unreliable while the game-keepers have gone socialist. As Forster puts it wryly: ‘[These] people had the air of settling something; they either just had arranged or soon would arrange England. Yet, the gate posts, the roads…were in bad repair, and the timber wasn’t kept properly, the windows stuck, the boards creaked.’ Plutocratic pretentions were finally hitting the cold and unforgiving buffers of economic reality. It is impossible to read Forster’s description of this sad and decaying estate without seeing something of ourselves.

Since the 2008 Financial Crisis the UK economy has stuttered along, struggling with low productivity, stagnant wages and a rising tide of social need. But if we find ourselves resolutely within the walls of Forster’s dilapidated Penge, the avoidable shabbiness of the Edwardians points us towards something like a remedy. Forster knew (and in time would become part of) a new circle of intellectuals, often dubbed ‘the New Liberals’. In the face of an ‘individualism which ignores the social factor in wealth’, that depletes ‘the national resources’ and deprives ‘the community of its just share in the fruits of industry’ (L.T. Hobhouse), New Liberals sought to establish a new set of political principles:

  • Wealth is produced by a dynamic partnership between personal initiative and social organisation
  • Society possesses common goods which must be met collectively
  • Government (on behalf of society) has a right to demand a reasonable portion of private wealth in recognition of the social dimension of all personal initiative

As Hobhouse summarised this posture: ‘The prosperous businessman who thinks that he has made his fortune entirely by self-help does not pause to consider what single step he could have taken on the road to his success but for the ordered tranquillity which has made commercial development possible, the security by road, and rail, and sea, the masses of skilled labour, and the sum of intelligence which civilization has placed at his disposal …If he dug to the foundations of his fortune he would recognize that, as it is society that maintains and guarantees his possessions, so also it is society which is an indispensable partner in its original creation’.

And yet an atmosphere of structural individualism pervades our lives. Common needs are repeatedly neglected and common sources of prosperity are frittered away. The country is ailing, with an extractive economy, characterised by high rents, low savings and even lower investment. The jaded house-maids and socialist gamekeepers have morphed into precarious renters who yearn for a humane collectivism to rescue them from what Forster called the rootless ‘civilisation of luggage’.  This was once the grand mission of our public services, but they are looking increasingly threadbare and dysfunctional, with their maintenance falling on shoulders that simply cannot bare them.

Hobhouse’s answers seem as applicable today as they were in the early twentieth-century. Wealth-accumulation must be tempered in the name of social progress. Those who make their fortune from financial speculation must contribute towards the (as-yet unrealised) fortunes of others. The social dimension of wealth must be constantly reaffirmed.

This I believe is the essence of the Liberal Democrat offer at this election. Over the last week, Daisy Cooper and Ed Davey have announced a rise in Capital Gains tax to increase health spending, alongside reiterating our party’s commitment to a whole series of levies on shares, bank profits, social media and energy companies (all to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society). In the last few days we have made the case for a UK sovereign wealth fund.

The path we are sketching is clear (one it should be added, to the economic Left of Labour). At this Election we stand against self-serving affluence and for constructive investment in a shared future. It is our position that excessive concentrations of wealth must be channelled towards need, stagnant Capital put to harness, caring for the ill and frail, attending to those in mental distress, and enhancing our natural environment.  Such a generous posture of political stewardship speaks to us particularly now, confronted as we are with multiple symptoms of political malaise. But the spirit at the heart of our Manifesto is not just for this Election. Its direction of travel constitutes a bold vision which will serve us well in the years ahead.

* Ben Wood is currently an Academic Support and Skills Tutor at the University of Leeds and a Project Editor at the John Stuart Mill Institute.

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12 Comments

  • Bill Le Breton 20th Jun '24 - 8:32pm

    Fantastic piece. Thank you.

  • In the midst of the alarms and excursions of an election campaign – and the necessary simplifications – it is very refreshing to be reminded of the ground on which we stand in a way that gives us confidence in the midst of life beyond the election. Thank you.

  • Mark Frankel 21st Jun '24 - 9:24am

    ‘ an atmosphere of structural individualism pervades our lives. Common needs are repeatedly neglected ..’ But the welfare budget is five times the defence budget. There is another question raised by the comparison between now and 1912: are we in a pre-war period? The overriding issue today is not individualism but the threats to security posed by war, the climate emergency, pandemics, mass migration. Should we be increasing the welfare budget or sending arms to Ukraine? How can we grow the economy while reducing emissions? I don’t know but I’m not too taken with answers with that read like utopian socialism tinged with the politics of envy.

  • Jenny Barnes 21st Jun '24 - 3:09pm

    New labour was disappointing, and presided over a financial crash.. so in 2010 we voted mostly for the Tories & Cameron, and wih some hope for something different, for the Lib Dems. What we got was orange tinted austerity from the Tories and a few LD things.
    Another change was needed, and clearly the LDs weren’t it, and the Tories offered a referendum on Brexit – so the Tories got in in 2015.
    2016, – voted for Brexit. Things still didn’t get better. Cameron walked away to his shepherd’s hut, May took over – and thought she could get a bigger majority for a workable Brexit – but the dementia tax intervened and things still didn’t get better.
    2019 jovial Boris promised to get Brexit done – so he received an 80 seat majority, but things still didn’t get better.
    It’s not the despair, it’s the hope that kills you.

  • Martin Gray 22nd Jun '24 - 7:37am

    @Jenny ….The financial crash was something NL could do little about …Any government would of suffered holding that hot potato.
    The North American sub prime lending market wasn’t Gordon Browns responsibility, & neither was the collapse of Lehman Brothers . The international ramifications were severe, & history will nudge Brown a lot better than the tired old lies spewed by Osbourne and Cameron – backed up by a willing lazy UK media..

  • Jenny Barnes 22nd Jun '24 - 10:14am

    I know perfectly well the financial crash in 2008 was not NL’s responsibility. I said they presided over it – they were in power at the time. Most voters don’t pay much attention to politics and certainly most wouldn’t understand the relationship between securitisation and stratification of mortgage debt and the way, quite suddenly, what were once thought to be reliable assets turned to dust. But they did know who was in power at the time, and the personal effect was not good – so they blamed NL anyway. “That’s not my GDP”

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jun '24 - 11:58am

    “I know perfectly well the financial crash in 2008 was not NL’s responsibility.”

    It was mainly the result of what happened in America but it was partly the responsibility of the Blair/Brown Labour government just as it was partly the responsibility of every country which has adopted monetarism.

    This has come to mean the regulation of the economy by setting interest rates to control private debt levels. Increasing private debt stimulates the economy in the short term but depresses it in the longer term as debt is repaid. So we create more private debt to counteract the effect of previously having too much. If anything happens to cause interest rates to rise we have an increase in the level of bad private debt which can cause even more bad debt and, if the situation gets bad enough, can lead to an avalanche effect which can bring an entire economy crashing down.

    If the world’s central banks don’t bring down interest rates soon we could have a repeat performance. The situation is not quite the same as in 2008 because there have recently been loose fiscal policies adopted which have had a substantial reflationary effect.

    However this won’t last forever. If interest rates are significantly higher than the rate of inflation, as they are at the moment, the danger of a bad debt crisis increases.

    I sometimes wonder if Rishi Sunak is also aware of the danger and is the reason he called the election early. 🙂

  • Re 2008 financial crash…

    We should not overlook the role the Conservatives played, by making the UK economy overly dependent upon financial services, resulting in the UK being overly exposed to this US crisis. Naturally, since 2010 the Conservates have done nothing to reduce the UK economy’s dependency on international financial services. With Brexit, they also shot the goose in the foot, by creating the conditions that would stimulate the development of alternative and replacement financial services within the EU…

  • Chris Moore 23rd Jun '24 - 8:14am

    Remember Labour had been in power since 1997 and had been repeatedly warned by Vince Cable and others of the dangers of an over-heated UK housing market and too lightly regulated banking. They were deaf to these warnings in part because they had become too close to the business and banking sector.

    The UK played a critical supporting role to the US in the genesis of the 2008 crisis. New Labour bear some responsibility for this.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Jun '24 - 10:20am

    @ Roland,

    So, the financial sector was too large before Brexit, a bad thing. But after Brexit some companies in the financial sector have either moved to the EU or become smaller by losing business to the EU. This is also a bad thing? Make up your mind!

    There’s nothing wrong with having a healthy financial sector which acts as a service to the more tangibly productive sectors of the economy, but there is a danger that it takes on a different, and less desirable, role as our economy develops into “casino capitalism”.

    Part of the problem in the UK is we’ve become too London (and the SE of England) centric. Membership of the EU encouraged this but often to the detriment of the regions. The economy now needs to be rebalanced geographically.

  • Mervyn King on interest rates rises prior to financial crash 2008…
    “But we as one country could not have stopped the financial crisis occurring so I think we should have been shooting ourselves in the foot; even if you could argue that if every country had done that it may be we would not have been in such a difficult position.”

  • David Rogers 23rd Jun '24 - 11:15am

    I agree with Bill le Breton (above) that this is a great article, providing much thought for post-election discussions. I am currently reading Will Hutton’s latest book, ‘This Time No Mistakes: How to Remake Britain’, which I thoroughly recommend despite only as yet having reached Chapter 4! Hutton makes some very similar points, often emphasising the need for a synthesis between the ‘I’ and the ‘We’. For instance, on page 98, he writes “The two great traditions that define progressive thought – the ethic of socialism and progressive liberalism – must abandon the notion that they are the sole custodians of virtue and are nobler than the other, and recognise that, like a Venn diagram, there is a vast amount that they share in common. Where they differ is in fact a source of strength.”

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