Julian Astle, Centre for Reform’s intellectual-about-town, has launched a hugely important debate in the Guardian. It is a critical question for all of us in liberal politics. But I don’t think he’s got it right.
He suggests that, for most of the period between 1997 and today, Britain has been governed by liberals – which is why the coalition agreement was so easy to hammer out.
There are certainly elements of truth about this thesis, rather as Ian Bradley’s 1985 book The Strange Rebirth of Liberal Britain argued that Mrs Thatcher was a liberal too. Liberalism is the prevailing philosophy of the age – it would be strange if there wasn’t some overlap here.
But it is a slightly short-sighted view, in the sense that the outlines and the vision is blurred and fuzzy.
There is no doubt that ambitions like choice and competition, which drive Blair and Cameron (I am assuming that Julian's brief hiatus without liberal leadership refers to Gordon Brown), are both liberal in their objectives. Cameron’s Big Society is a liberal idea.
Cameron’s basic philosophies are not clear yet, but I share Julian’s suspicion that some version of liberalism beats somewhere in his heart, even if it is actually Liberal Unionism.
But I know the argument refers above all to the public service reform agenda, and – since we are theoretically about to get a glimpse of the Public Service Reform White Paper – let me set out why I think Julian is wrong, at least as far as the Blair years are concerned.
Because despite the liberal rhetoric, what we actually got – and what looks as if we will be offered again – is something fundamentally illiberal, because it is:
1. Centralised: the Blair years gave us huge public service institutions that were beyond any kind of local control and increasingly unresponsive. The ‘choice’ rhetoric about schools transformed parents into pathetic supplicants to the schools. Of course, you might say that this was Brown’s creation not Blair’s, but a quick glance at Michael Barber’s books reveals that Blair was behind the disastrous and wasteful targets regime. Liberals are localists.
2. Outdated: in practice, public services were handed over to the McKinsey conception of efficiency. As a result, we have – not liberal services – but increasingly impersonal ones, huge and hugely expensive call centre silos, competition from great lumbering corporate monoliths which leached the service ethos out of the system. Liberals put thrift and effectiveness ahead of narrow ‘efficiency’.
3. Inhuman: despite the rhetoric about personalisation and choice, our services are now less personal, more bureaucratic, less responsive and less human than they were a generation before, and the white paper looks set to offer more of the same. Liberals are above all believers in human scale.
Yes, Cameron and Blair use the language of liberalism. Cameron’s record remains ahead of him, but generally since 1997 we have had liberalism without the radicalism, liberalism without the people power, and – especially important this is going to be – liberalism without the humanity.
Whiggery, yes. A kind of old-fashioned social democracy, yes. But Liberalism, no – not even liberalism. How can anyone who deferred to power as much as Blair did, who failed to confront the issues that faced us – from Bush to the banks – possibly be described as a Liberal?