Why I call myself a Social Democrat

I have lots of friends who call themselves Liberals, and I agree with almost everything they stand for. So why don’t I call myself a Liberal?

If I did, perhaps I wouldn’t be called an “authoritarian”. It’d be nice to avoid the insult, but I can’t call myself a Liberal if I don’t know what it means

Much of the time, politics is a battle between the rights of the individual and the needs of the wider community. To be useful, I would want liberalism to help me pick a side in these battles.

I think the need of the community to avoid mass killing by a rogue gun owner trumps the rights of individuals to own guns. Does that make me an authoritarian?

Forcing drivers to wear seat-belts is certainly a restriction on individual freedom. But I think that’s a price worth paying for a substantial reduction in road death. Does that make me an authoritarian?

We have significant taxation in this country, and that restricts the right of individuals to spend their wages on what they think best. But reducing poverty is a higher priority for me. Does that make me an authoritarian?

Pretty much all left wing liberals would agree with me on the above. They say that is because they believe in negative freedom. But I’m afraid that sounds too much like linguistic gymnastics to me. I think it’s more straightforward to explicitly acknowledge that, in some cases, the direct rights of the individual are trumped by the indirect needs of the wider community.

That’s not to say I don’t believe in liberty. We should be very careful about restricting freedom. All too often, “the interests of the community” are weasel words for the interests of those in power. And the growing number of authoritarian states around the world show this in practice.

Yet the words “individual liberty” can be weasel words too. They can mean: “my freedom trumps anyone else’s.” They can mean: “I have the right to better support from the state, but someone else should pay the taxes to pay for that support”; “my children have the right to better housing provision, but those new houses better not spoil the view from my home”; or, “people in my country have a right to a job, and if that means unemployment in the developing world, that’s not my concern.”

I prefer to talk about defending the interests of those without power, such as victims of gun crime, the sick, and those whose lives have been blighted by unemployment. I want to support the interests of the global poor so they can earn their way out of poverty; protect victims of global warming; and defend those who suffer from crime, while working for rehabilitation for those who want a second chance.

However, defending the interests of those without power is not enough. On the hard left, that way of thinking can lead to a hatred of the successful. Hatred which damages our society and harms democracy, and hatred that simply doesn’t work.

Nation after nation has experimented with the hard left, and the results have been catastrophic. Economies wrecked in the name of social justice, followed by the kind of social chaos and privation we have seen in Venezuela which brings greater, not less, suffering for the vulnerable.

That’s why I like the words ‘social democrat’. They combine a commitment to fighting for the vulnerable, with a recognition that, for a democracy to thrive, the government must work for the whole of society, including the affluent.

Hard line left-wingers will claim this is impossible. That the rich will never allow a government that genuinely reduces poverty. But the experience of the world shows it is possible: in northern Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. Almost without exception, the countries which people most want to live in follow these combined social democratic objectives.

Of course, our enemies deride us. Those on the hard-right call us anodyne wishy-washy moderates. Those on the hard-left call us red Tories, yellow Tories, or bland centrists. We should ignore them. To the communist, anyone who isn’t a ruthless Marxist revolutionary has sold out to capitalism. To the savage right-winger, anyone who believes in better provision for the vulnerable is allowing sentimentalism to get in the way of hard-headed economics.

We should wear their insults as a badge of pride. Hard line ideology is a lazy avoidance of the hard thinking that can really deliver a better society. We should not seek their approval.

Instead, we should support a programme of policies which both defends the interests of the vulnerable and maintains a healthy democracy. While a difficult balance, this the only way to improve society for everyone.

* George Kendall is the acting chair of the Social Democrat Group. He writes in a personal capacity.

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  • Joseph Bourke 25th Jan '19 - 12:22pm

    Good article, George.

    I think most people would be hard preessed to come up with any substantive differences in practice between policies developed on a platform of social democracy from that of social liberalism.

  • Malcolm Todd 25th Jan '19 - 1:26pm

    Well said. I think I agree with you on most issues, and I too suspect I am not really “a liberal” – many of the left-inclined liberals that post on this site are rather too apt to claim that all sorts of collectivist and interventionist policies are somehow “real liberalism” based on nothing much more, it appears, than the idea that “I’m a Liberal and I’m in favour of this therefore it’s Liberalism!”
    I wouldn’t call myself a Social Democrat either, to be fair; I think the trouble with adopting any label like that is that it tends to lead either to lazy thinking (I’m going to oppose/support that because it’s what people like me do) or to the sort of intellectual contortionism you describe. When I was in the party, I was happy to call myself a “Liberal Democrat”, because that to me means nothing more or less than “member of the Liberal Democrat party”; now, I just call myself confused and disappointed…

  • Peter Martin 25th Jan '19 - 2:01pm

    @ George,

    “Instead, we should support a programme of policies which both defends the interests of the vulnerable and maintains a healthy democracy……”

    We can all agree with the above. This article could well have been written in the 90’s and 00’s when everything looked to be working well from a Social Democratic perspective. The EU had introduced the euro, the peripheral EU countries were going gangbusters, (remember that now extinct creature the Celtic Tiger?) , immigration wasn’t a real problem. In fact the only real problem for the UK govt, apart from self induced ones like wanting to invade Iraq, was that the £ was too high to consider joining the euro!

    It’s not quite like that now. Is it? So I would say a more up-to-date article is called for.


  • Celtic tiger extinct Peter, if you say so, the facts say different


    just a snipet from the figures, UK GDP per person 39,252, Eire 68,206

    Looks like the Celtic tiger is way ahead of us. Did you stop reading the news in the noughties, you seem never to have got last the 2008 crash. Catch up, your dated knowledge is making you look foolish, your arguments can be demolished with easy, they can’t even survive a quick glance never mind a full investigation.

  • A good article, George – thanks for writing it.

    It does though sound to me that your definition of a Social Democrat is very close to that of being a Liberal! It is probably why since at least the 60s, Liberals have co-operated closely with Social Democrats in Labour such as Roy Jenkins and the Alliance was formed and we have the party today called the Liberal Democrats – which would be the label I would use of myself! And the Democrat part of that is important too – more referendums, devolution, direct democracy, fair votes. We need to abolish the oligarchy that we live in!

    For me, clearly Liberal has greater connotations of Freedom than that of a Social Democrat. And I believe that everything starts with absolute freedom for the individual to do whatever they want. And that freedom should ONLY be taken away through firstly very careful consideration. And ONLY if it increases freedom overall.

    Of course as you outline that also means curtailing some freedoms – such as being able to spend your own money and have it taken away in tax to allow people to be free of poverty, ill-health and ignorance (through good education).

    And of course this is very easier said than done and everyone has to come to their own balance.

    But it is why I comment sometimes in favour of free speech on LDV. Free speech should be an individual right and serves a greater good (the discussion of political ideas and scientific advancement) and it should be very extreme to be punished. And sometimes I think we (both within the Lib Dems and as a country) are tending towards too much authoritarianism on the issue.

  • What does Liberal mean? To me, along with many, many others, it boils down to John Stuart Mill’s harm principle. Means gun laws etc aren’t authoritarian.
    Total liberty isn’t Liberal, it’s Libertarian. Totally selfish.
    I reckon the party’s motto (and the only commandment for any and all religions!) should be: be nice.

  • I very much agree with this. I think some Lib Dems describe themselves as liberals without a very clear definition of what they mean by this, because they are insecure about us not having one clear over arching philosophy.

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '19 - 8:48am

    @ Frankie,

    It’s quite a few years since I’ve heard the expression “Celtic Tiger”. Maybe it’s since been identified a large Tabby cat? Maybe still purring rather than roaring?

    You have to take Ireland’s GDP figures with a large pinch of salt. They are artificially inflated due to the practice of several large mutinationals who use Ireland as part of their tax avoidance/evasion measures. So, for example, all of Apple computers and iPhones in Australia are physically shipped directly to Australia from (usually) China. But the invoicing goes via Ireland. The iphones are sold to Apple (Ireland) at a cheap price and Apple (Ireland) then sells them to Apple (Australia) at a much higher price.

    It end up with Apple (Ireland) making fictitious profits which distort GDP figures too. But these ‘profits’ support few, if any, real jobs. Even doing the paperwork can be contracted out to the Far East.

    Having said that, Ireland has been reasonably successful in recent years because it’s managed to run a trading surplus of about 4% of GDP. This meets with the approval of German economists and it’s the only way to get by if you’re subject to the rules of the so-called Stability and Growth Pact. They think every country in the world should run a trading surplus.

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '19 - 9:04am

    @ George,

    I’m not suggesting that the far left are correct. I don’t want a recreation of the former East Germany.

    So you need to ask why the Social Democrats are very unpopular in Europe. I’d suggest it’s because the voters have tried it but they don’t get what is written on the tin. Social Democracy should be about managing the economy in the interests of everyone in the community. It should be about regulating the economy to minimise unemployment. Governments should put their foot on the ‘accelerator’ to speed up the economy and put their foot on the ‘brakes’ to slow it down if inflation is an issue.

    But they can’t do that as we see in Italy now. There is nothing wrong with Social Democratic politics per se. Even ones that are slightly to the right of mine. But they simply aren’t allowed in the EU if SGP rules apply.

  • I found the article very interesting. However I do not seem to meet the all these people who fit neatly into boxes. In fact there is increasing evidence that more people are rejecting the various labels.
    When I was a councillor and spoke to people, they rarely showed any interest in my political theories, or anybody else’s theories. Most people had clear views on what was fair in their community and believed that things like making sure that people had access to healthcare, somewhere to live, jobs and so on.
    Unfortunately we have allowed our education system to be taken over by the demands of bogus statistics which enable unjustified conclusions to be drawn on the performance of schools. On top of this there is an outrageous bullying by Ofsted which results in stress on staff and stress on children, as the children get involved in this aim of getting a few more marks in an exam.
    Until we find a way of addressing the realities of the world we will continue to live in the imaginary one of things like “far left” and “centre right”.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 26th Jan '19 - 1:17pm

    George , a surprising piece, you tread the same ground often, but seem unaware that these words mean so much that varies, as to be almost not worth the worry.

    In America we , all of us , would be Democrats. When I said a few good things about Bernie Sanders, you came on full blast against his economic stance, you were the more staunch economic liberal, me the more pragmatic social democrat on that issue or viewpoint.

    In many countries, liberals are in the centre or even centre right, in Canada, Trudeau is, in my view a socialist and no liberal, he mandates and with a top down attitude to policy, I would not support.

    I relate to the U.S., two broad parties once upon a time, room in there for mainstream political views . Now, there, here, chaos.

    If the social democrat group is going strong, where are my e mail notifications, would be keen to be in touch.

  • The state has no business in the bedroom and no business in the boardroom. And the state is a regressive entity by the very concept of nation states.

    That is why Liberalism makes sense.

  • David Evans 26th Jan '19 - 2:51pm

    Stimpson ‘ … the state is a regressive entity by the very concept of nation states. That is why Liberalism makes sense.” And that is why you are a libertarian and I am a liberal.

  • @David Evans – absolutely agree with your conclusion!

    @Stimpson – I obviously understand what you imply, but think that you should also clarify exactly what you mean when you assert (in such sweeping terms) that the state has “no business in the boardroom”.

  • Peter Martin 26th Jan '19 - 6:52pm

    @ George,

    There isn’t a wordwide accepted meaning for Liberalism. In Australia it means the right wing Liberal Party of Australia. In the USA the term liberal is applied to those on the left. In Germany, ‘Liberalism’ is associated with the Free Democrats who might be socially liberal, but economically sound to be much more Thatcherite that Thatcher.

    It’s really only in the UK that Liberalism is associated with the political centre. Not always though. There are some strange bedfellows in the Lib Dems. I can’t quite see how Katharine Pindar can happily coexist in the same party as Arnold Kiel or Stimpson.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Jan '19 - 8:38pm

    Are you suggesting that businesses should be totally unregulated? If not then who should regulate them and how? I ask because self-regulation e.g. banks doesn’t have great tra ck record. Neither does the record of some of the large auditors.

  • Peter Martin – historically the FDP has 2 wings. The political landscape of Weimar Republic shows this more clearly. One wing was from the DDP on the left, which is similar to the Libdems. Another wing was DVP/National Liberals on the right. Actually, the National Liberals were historically in favour of state interventions “for” the industry captains, but against state interventions for labour and consumers, since at that time they were the main party of business in Germany. Actually, you can compare it to the Gilded Age Republican Party. Currently the National liberal wing is dominant within the FDP.
    I want to add: In France, liberals are the likes of Macron.

    Stimpson – The modern day US Republican Party/Libertarian Party would have welcomed you. Or, you can be an anarchist.
    I would personally see myself either a Bull Moose Republican or a Rockefeller Republican if I were an American, but more of the former.

  • Alex Macfie 27th Jan '19 - 9:16am

    Peter Martin: The Liberal Party of Australia does not belong to Liberal International (it actually belongs to the same international grouping as our Conservatives, reflecting its place in the political spectrum). In Australian politics, “small-l liberalism” is always clearly separated from the politics of the country’s Liberal Party, and its flag is carried by the Australian Democrats (but which has been in the political doldrums for the past 11 years; anyone who thinks we LIb Dems are in a bad state might get some comfort from our Australian sister party which has been in a much worse position for much longer (or maybe it’s a warning to us)).
    Likewise, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party is neither liberal nor very democratic (still it’s better than its Russian namesake). It doesn’t belong to any international grouping, and seems to be a party that exists for the sake of having power.

  • My comment itself was somewhat simplistic, I agree – there are areas where intervention is necessary – for example if a corporation refuses to employ BAME people, or in cases of sexual assault or so forth.

    But the general thrust of my view is that individuals are better off making their own decisions in the main, that the private sector is always better than the bully state, and that people should be free of discrimination regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or religious belief and should not feel ostracised or threatened in this country.

    I may agree with the Tories on economic measures, but they are nationalists and authoritarian which are both terrible things. Equally where as I think much of the “Progress” set of Labour are generally a good bunch, those who are advocating 1970s statism and militant trade unionism are just as regressive and dangerous as Rees-Mogg and friends.

    Essentially I do not want a country where either the views of the ERG or ASLEF are given any credence.

  • Stimpson – Tory economic policies have created an economy reliant on debt-fuelled consumer spending and asset stripping. They also triggered the trend of financial deregulation that eventually led to the Financial Crisis. You talked about radical, hard-left Labour of the 1970s, but they also began with Tory economic policies dated back to the interwar period. The Conservative policies have always prioritized land-owning and aristocrats and then City interests over industries. Worse, many of them are Communist China cheerleaders.

    All countries with strong manufacturing have industrial policies to support manufacturers: investments in infrastructures, skills and R&D (Britain serious lags behind); protection against foreign takeovers (non-existent in Britain); government procurement; financing support for manufacturing businesses and exporters (Britain also lacks).
    A serious industry policy can split the business vote.

    George Kendall – a party that fits to govern must balance interests between capital and labour. I am not advocating for a Gilded Age Robber Baron party or a full-blown Thatcherite party, but we must reach out to the business community because after all, they are essential to economic development, and calling yourself a “Social Democrat” will do you no good in such effort, if not driving them to the Tories even more.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 28th Jan '19 - 1:02am

    George we only disagree on labels, I am a classical Liberal on liberty, related issues a social Liberal on community related issues, a social democrat , on equality related issues, the way you seem, you would be too I and most would reckon, the words only mean what each regard them to, within the framework of objective definitions having some part.

    I label you a good man, enough of a label.

  • Nonconformistradical 28th Jan '19 - 6:10am

    @George Kendal
    It appears to me that all too many of the wealthy want to isolate themselves from those less fortunate than themselves. Hiding away in gated communities. Hiding their wealth in offshore tax havens. Excuse my cynicism but I find your view incredibly naive. Actions speak louder than words.

  • Peter Martin 28th Jan '19 - 8:59am

    “If you are saying my support of allowing poor countries to export to the West is against the principles of social democracy……”

    Just who is saying they shouldn’t? Maybe you have the EU in mind with its very high tariff barriers designed to ‘protect’ EU manufacturers? So, for example, the EU is happy to allow an African country to export coffee and cocoa at low tariff rates but if it tries to develop those products by value adding them into chocolate and coffee products the tariff barriers really kick in.

    Protectionism hasn’t been invented by Trump. The EU has 10% import tariffs on all foreign cars. But the EU gets upset if anyone else wants to put similar tariffs on EU exports.

  • Peter Martin 28th Jan '19 - 9:09am

    Just following on from my last comment:

    “How the EU starves Africa into submission”


  • Daniel Walker 28th Jan '19 - 10:19am

    @Peter Martin

    I’ve responded to this statement elsewhere but, in short, most African countries can export, and import, anything but arms to/from the EU under the aptly-named Everything But Arms programme. As the link you provide acknowledges in the corrections.

  • Nonconformistradical – You know, about what you have said about the British upper class.

    An article comparing Japanese and British railway privatisation.

    Even we assume that other things are equal, one important factor regarding Japan’s success was that Japanese railway operators and owners actually care about local communities, and they take a long-term view rather than quarterly profit. The same cannot be said with the Brits.

  • George Kendall – I will support the reshoring if it is about moving production away from Communist China. Unlike other developing countries, Communist China actively and systemically support the policies of dumping and intellectual property theft. Many of non-consumer electronicand other industrial components produced in China may contain spying chips, hacking devices and crypts. In addition, they also use the amount of foreign currency hoarded to buy up sensitive strategic assets in the West, with espionage and spying purposes rather than just profit maximization. Developed country governments cannot pressure/encourage corporates to move production from China to a third country like Vietnam, but they can pressure/encourage them to reshore.

    Besides, some lessons I learned from the two world wars include the need for a strong manufacturing base. Strategic industries must be protected to some degrees, not just because of employment issue but also because of national security and geopolitical grounds, because a strong national defense needs strong strategic industries to support it. The national security and geopolitical issues cannot be ignored. You can just look at how appalling British defense procurement currently is. There is a reason I consider myself both a social liberal and a (19th century Germany) national liberal.

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