Simon Titley is at the very forefront of the attempt to renew the intellectual underpinnings of the Lib Dems, and his commentary in this month’s Liberator is an important contribution to this:
The real division in the party is now, he says, about what it means to be human. “Are we primarily partners, parents and relatives; friends, neighbours and colleagues? Or do we define ourselves more in terms of the things we buy?... Do the Liberal Democrats envisage a society of active citizens or supplicant consumers?”
That is exactly the right question (though I might quibble with the use of New Labour-speak like ‘active citizens’), and Simon is quite right that there is a dividing line in the party over this issue which is preventing us from articulating a genuinely Liberal narrative.
Where I take issue with him is exactly where that dividing line lies. Simon identifies the wrong-headed wing with those who subsume this human relationships within economic relationships, with the idea that people are individual consumers faced with a series of passive choices.
That is right, but Simon misses out the other side of the argument. Because that reduction of people into dependent supplicants is not confined to those can see no further than narrow consumer choices in public services; it is alive and well among those who don’t believe in choice at all – who are quite happy that people should be grateful but passive recipients of services defined by the local state.
Because, in practice, the wrong-headed idea that we oppose is not confined either the private or the public sector. It is an insidious combination of them both – the idea that people are defined narrowly by their needs, and should be administered by giant agencies part-public, part-private, by huge databases and remote call centres.
This is the new centralised supplicant state, and Simon is absolutely right that it is the heart of a new Lib Dem critique of public services. Not because the supplicant state is too public sector, or too private sector – it borrows from the worst of both – but because it is deeply alienating, deeply inefficient and deeply ineffective.