Why Liberal? Time to give the public a proper answer after 80 years

In an effort to cure my election campaign withdrawal symptoms I’ve been reading a book published in 1964, Why Liberal?, a Penguin special which was one of a pre-election series covering the three major parties’ policies. This publishing tradition was revived most recently by imprint Biteback, with Why Vote Liberal Democrat?, edited by Danny Alexander, proving a surprise hit.

The 1964 version was written by Harry Cowie, then director of the Liberal party’s research department – probably in something of a hurry, as big topics such as the health service are apologetically omitted (“as they have in any case been the subject of comprehensive Liberal proposals”).

As ever, part of the joy of dipping into these historical snapshots is seeing what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same.

A number of the Liberal pre-occupations of 1964 seem eerily familiar. Let’s take this not inaccurate sweeping generalisation:

The Tory party is dominated by old Etonians, the civil service by arts-trained administrators … London – and especially the City – has tended to dominate British economic and political life. The northern and midland manufacturers had to come to the City for finance and they sent their children to public schools and ancient universities for social recognition, where they learnt that it was socially acceptable to be merchant bankers, senior civil servants, or classical dons, but not technicians. The ‘City’ mentality of the Conservative party has misled it into holding back expansion in order to keep up the myth of the £. It has pursued economic policies which have created the largest capital gains in British history but which have also kept Britain at the bottom of the international league tables in almost every indicator of economic performance. (pp. 10-11)

Or how about this condemnation of the two old parties:

Why has more action not been taken by the Labour and Conservative governments to create a more competitive economy? … Competition, to the Labour party, is a ‘jungle’ which they abhor, preferring, as they do, controls and direction from Whitehall. The Conservative party is likewise reluctant to tread on the toes of its particular vested interests. (pp. 24-25)

Or the need to re-balance the tax system:

There is also a great need for radical changes in the tax system to encourage efficiency rather than tax avoidance. At present our tax system leans too heavily on earnings. … The general body of taxpayers is divided into the wealthy, who employ skilled men … and consequently know how to avoid paying the tax proportionate to their wealth, and those who are not so wealthy but pay tax at rates which are higher than they need be if the burden was fairly shared. (pp. 26-27)

Or the need to decentralise power from the centre to local communities:

Power needs to be brought directly to the regions of Britain. … People will not be encouraged to participate in the activity of regional regeneration unless the various processes of government are brought as close to the people as possible. … So long as power is centralized in London, people will inevitably drift to the south-east. … At present Whitehall Ministries are responsible for allocating school building funds and industrial location certificates and hospital building funds, but many of these Whitehall decisions are the subject of complaints on the grounds of delay, bad decisions based on ignorance of local conditions, and lack of coordination between one decision and another. (pp. 18-19)

The Liberal party even flagged up its pioneering support for congestion charging:

… consideration should be given to the use of meters on cars which could be made to be activated on entry of the vehicle to a congested zone. The motorist would receive a bill at, say, quarterly intervals for the charges incurred. (p.73)

True, there are differences between then and now. In 1964, the party was demanding “the pay and conditions of M.P.s must be improved in order to increase the efficiency and drawing power of the House of Commons” (p.17). Hard to imagine that clarion call going down well in 2010.

The party was also in clamping down on drink driving, demanding that “it should be made an offence to drive a vehicle when there is 0.05 per cent or more of alcohol in the blood. This is roughly equivalent to having drunk three whiskies or 1.5 pints of beer on an empty stomach.” (p.77) Times change.

But what struck me most was the resonance of the Liberal vision from 1964 to the present day. Of course the policies and language are different, but many of the essential problems – economic policies dictated by vested interests, a tax system that favours non-productive wealth over earned income, an over-centralised state which starves communties of self-government – are as true today as they were then.

And then another thought struck me, even harder. This book, Why Liberal?, was written in 1964, over 40 years ago. And at the time it was published, it was over 40 years since the last Liberal government. Eight decades is far too long to be out of power, able only to write books deploring the illiberal state of the nation.

Whatever the imperfections of the coalition government – and there are many, and will be more to come – surely it is better to have the opportunity now to try and offer liberal solutions to the problems the country faces?

The alternative is simply to continue writing books exhorting the public to vote Liberal Democrat without ever giving them the evidence that a liberal government can work. The next five years gives us our first, best opportunity in a lifetime to provide a proper answer to an age-old question, Why Liberal?

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • David Morton 26th May '10 - 4:39pm

    Facinating Article. However the premise of the question you ask is that Liberal/Lib Dem will survive as distinct “brand” in time for the 2015. Its very early days but so far the party’s myth makers with extraordinary skill have been relying heavily on the POTUS/VPOTUS motif to launch the new project. Exhibits A : The Rose Garden press conference B. The joint appearance on the steps of Downing Street C the taking of the post of DPM rather than a “proper” department D. A similar double act over the Osbourne/Laws announcement of cuts. E the joint procession to the final agreement launch

    Of course there is nothing wrong with trying to build stability into a new venture but perceptions/narratives set as fast and firm as concrete.

    Then you have the other visuals. Two young fresh faced leaders. Then the similar demographics of the two men.

    Then the linguistics. High infomation voters might get the odd reference to a Liberal Democrat/Conservative government on radio 4. But nearly everyone elese is just referering to the ” Coalition”. While of course that word implies diveristy and difference if it just becomes another noun to describe what looks like a single entity….

    By accident or design the early theatrics look very much to me like a rapid visual and linguistic merger. I’m not suggesting for a moment that that is on the cards organisationally just that public perceptions can be difficult to shift once set particulalry if there are no other models available – and this arrangement is a first at national level.

    In order to answer the question, Why Liberal? you/we will need to first ensure that the question in 2015 isn’t Why Coalition?

  • Maybe you could rename yourselves the Liberal Party and expel the SDP contingent?

  • Well I call myself a liberal because I want my freedom first, and I want people free of extreme poverty too, the Liberal/Liberal Democrat Parties always seem to fit the bill far better than any of the alternatives.

    I have asked several people I know who came to supporting the LD’s from outside of politics completely, why they went for the Lib Dems, and in every single case they said that they were looking for policies that worked out best for everybody (as opposed to just themselves or a particular group), and they thought the Liberal Democrat were offering that.

  • @ Richard, no we couldn’t – because someone else already has the name http://www.liberal.org.uk/ .

  • EU immigrant 26th May '10 - 6:46pm

    Fascinating (or should I say scary) that Britain apparently has changed so little. Reading “the pay and conditions of M.P.s must be improved in order to increase the efficiency and drawing power of the House of Commons (p.17)”, I was reminded of what we were taught in school (in the early 80’s) about the UK parliament: “only people who are either independently wealthy, or poor and supported by trade unions can afford to be members of parliament in Britain.” Plus ça change…

  • EU immigrant 26th May '10 - 8:15pm

    @Dave – to be fair, it wasn’t schoolbooks, it was an English teacher who had no doubt been taught this during the last coalition government in the ’40’s 😉 If you look at career options though nowadays – someone who starts as a lawyer (in their mid 20s) at one of the magic circle firms in the City starts at a higher salary than an MP, so those who want to get ‘at the trough’ should not look at parliament. I guess the judgment of whether MP’s are doing ok at current salaries or not depends at what you compare it to. Compared to most people in the UK, they are doing fine. Compared to the professional classes in London, they are paid rather badly for the responsibility one would expect them to take.

  • Dominated by Old Etonians! This the party of Grimond and Thorpe….

  • Matthew Huntbach 27th May '10 - 11:24am


    Maybe you could rename yourselves the Liberal Party and expel the SDP contingent?

    That would mean expelling, amongst others, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, who both were members of the SDP before the merger.

    Tom Papworth

    I’m not sure that the Liberal Party could claim that Labour is one of the “two old parties”. It was a stretch coming from the Lib Dems!

    Well, that was a line we heard quite a lot from right-wing Tories, but the point here is that the Liberal Democrats are “new” in terms of recent experience of government. The ethos of the Liberal Democrats does owe a lot to its historical background, as this article shows. However, it also owes much to having been kept alive by people who deliberately chose to join it, doing so for the love of democracy and knowing that doing so would be very unlikely to lead to wealth or power. As such, it is “new” in the sense of not being stuffed full of people who are part of the political establishment or “Westminster bubble”, being not part of that bubble means we can look at things from a new perspective whereas those in the bubble are fixed in their ways of looking at things which is tired and old being based on all the assumptions that fired the Conservatives and New Labour from 1979 and which collapsed in a mess in the 2007 slump – although, sadly, Labour shows little signs of recognising that, and the Tories need a good kicking from us to push them into recognising it. It is for this reason that I see the rise in CGT as the key issue we must fight for. The arguments against it, coming from John Redwood and the like, are all the tired old “money made from asset booms is so good it should be taxed less than money made from work” that led us to the economic collapse. Fighting for higher CGT to pay for lower income tax is the real fight against “job tax”. The right-wing Tories are deep hypocrites for having used the “jobs tax” line in the election, but now going against it when the crunch hits and the idle rich are asked to pay just a fair share of their income.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th May '10 - 11:42am

    “That would mean expelling, amongst others, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, who both were members of the SDP before the merger.”

    Are you sure Clegg was a member of the SDP before the merger? He didn’t go up to Cambridge until 1986, and was recorded as a member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association in the 1986-7 academic year. And this article claims that the former chairs of the university Liberal and SDP associations had no recollection of him:

  • Not all Lib Dems are pro EU Dane; certainly not in its current undemocratic and unaccountable form. However, you would be very lucky to find a political party with which you agree on everything all of the time. What I do know is that I could never support Labour after years of Blair & Brown (not forgetting their bagmen like Campbell & Balls) and the deep political immorality for which they were responsible: the Iraq War, US toadyism (‘extraordinary rendition’), the State intruding into personal life more and more etc. I distrust the Thatcherites in the Tory Party but we need political realism if we are to achieve some of the LD manifesto. The current Liberal Party is simply not in a position to make a change – the Lib Dems are.

  • I think you and I probably agree on a lot Dane. Good luck in Henley! I would have thought quite a few Euro-sceptics there. I agree that I may be in a small minority in the Lib Dems with my EU views but hey ho, you can’t win ’em all.

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