Wednesday 8 April 2015

The historic destiny of the Lib Dems. There is one.

One of the highlights of the Guardian's election coverage over the weekend was the group of 'blind dates' between opposing politicians they set up - Caroline Lucas with Vince Cable, Danny Alexander with Stella Creasey and so on.

One of these was an unlikely pairing between Natalie Bennett and the ultra-Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg, and it was here that he was quoted as explaining the basic two categories of Liberal Democrats:

"The Lib Dems have two strains: the classic liberal strain, which is essentially Peelite and quite conservative, and the Social Democrat strain, which is closer to Labour; so they could emphasise one bit of their personality to do a deal with either side..."

I was unnerved by this, not because I'm unaware that people think this, but because - for one awful moment - I thought to myself: maybe he's right.

I recovered my sense of myself, and my sense of the party I belong to, shortly afterwards.  But just imagine, if Rees-Mogg was correct.

It would mean that there would be no place for me in the standard bearer for Liberal parties everywhere.  I am not a Peelite Conservative and am, in no sense, a social democrat.  It would mean there was no place for Liberals either, as I understand them - and other people who recognise that same Liberalism in a straight line from Cobbett, Russell, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Grimond and so on.

It would mean that the ideology that shapes what I believe is no more than an awkward compromise between conservatism and social democracy, both backward-looking creeds, when I see myself as something quite different.  Liberalism, it seems to me, is an essentially forward-looking creed.

Nor can we really blame Jacob Rees-Mogg for misunderstanding.  If the party has failed to explain where they stand, what their ambitions are beyond coalition, then really it is their own fault.  I was on the party's federal policy committee for 12 years - it must be my fault too.

Yet, even in government, it seems to me, the party edged towards a Liberal view of the world whenever they could - apprenticeships, mutualism, green energy investment, local government involvement in health.  Perhaps the mistake was in failing to explain how these little shifts fitted into a Liberal approach that went beyond the sum of its parts.

This isn't the right moment to pick over the remains of the coalition years - they may not have finished, after all.

Nor is it really the right time for me to have another go at a future articulation of Liberal economic policy.

But I do think this.  Every 40 years, with some accuracy, there is a major shift in economic thinking in practice in the UK.  The next one is due in 2020 or thereabouts.  The outlines are already clear: it will sweep away the brittle, basically destructive power of finance.  It will reshape the economic landscape so that ordinary life can be affordable again, and can stay so.  It will end the growing chasm between the tiny elite and everyone else.

The big question is how.  It won't happen until all sides agree broadly about how it can be achieved, and I have some ideas myself, and then - when the crisis hits - the political parties are able to shift relatively seamlessly to the new dispensation.  History suggests these shifts happen, in the end, quite fast (1979/80, 1940, 1908/09, 1868, 1831 and so on, and so on).

One political party needs to hammer out the basic outlines of the post-Thatcher/Reagan economics in practice.  It is the historic destiny of the Lib Dems, it seems to me, that they should play this role.  Inside or outside government, that is their task in the next parliament.

Why them?  Because deep in the Liberal soul, it seems to me, is an understanding of how economies might work quite differently, and based on an idea that flies in the face of everything we are now taught: that small plus small plus small plus small equals big.

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Unknown said...

"Liberalism, it seems to me, is an essentially forward-looking creed."

David, if this is true, why does every post you make on Liberalism make-check pre-1930s politicians?

Unknown said...

Oops "name-check"

David Boyle said...

Because they were forward-looking too!

Rob Parsons said...

Quite apart from Rees-Mogg being completely wrong about LibDems, there is another flaw in his analysis. It ought to read "which is closer to Labour, and hence is essentially Peelite and quite conservative...."

David Boyle said...

You're quite right Rob. Rees-Mogg misses the deep conservatism of the Labour Party.

Anonymous said...

Jacob Rees-Mogg's selective assessment of the origins of the liberal wing of the Lib Dem's is of course based on Gladstone's origins as a Peelite Tory. It is rhetorically mischievous and intellectually inadequate to style the GOM's agenda as merely Peelite. His political beginnings were significant. But Gladstone's final premiership was nearly fifty years after he had served Peel as a minister. The workings out of his economic liberalism in that time would have been too small state for either the contemporary Labour Party or indeed (especially on defence) the current Conservatives to embrace. Pace Jacob Rees-Mogg, it would be an interesting speculation to construct a Gladstonian position on Trident. The one I would venture would in its conclusion of unaffordability alienate many of the heirs of Palmerston, Peel, and the old Tories alike, but find favour with many who count themselves their heirs of Bright - or indeed Mill.

But we may return Jacob's compliment by noting that Peel's career itself is one of many examples of the Tories' awkward relationship with the economic and other liberalisms that are the hallmarks of post-enlightenment progress. This was dramatised in the paradoxes of Thatcherism: economically liberalising, socially reactionary, Palmerstonian in Foreign Policy, Eurosceptic. And the tensions continue to play amusing havoc in the contemporary Conservative Party's suicidal and illiberal tendencies (economically, as well as by virtue of their xenophobic anchorage)over Europe, together with other variants, such as backbench resistance to Cameron's laudable embracing of modernity over things such as equal marriage.

This should present an opportunity for the Liberals to re-embrace and promote their composite identity: economically liberal and pro-business, while wary of monopoly power and supportive of small enterprise and mutuals; repudiating the crude atomism of those whose economic liberalism leads them to reject interdependency and collective interests, such as "society", but sceptical, because of their belief in a positive and challenging individualism and support for minorities, of the big state solutions that sometimes masquerade as the commonweal's equivalents; instinctive devolvers of power and accountability. It is a creed with many more progenitors than Peel. Consider its debt to the small state, individualist strain of the American constitutionalists, and even certain French revolutionaries who experienced disappointments - and worse - at the hands the paradoxical state apparatus of the Committee for Public Safety. Consider its debt to the iconoclasm of the Romantic poets, to Mary Wollstonecraft and her successors, even its presence in (some) of the anti-oppressive, proto-anarchism of Godwin. It is present in every cry of freedom and enfranchisement that does not degenerate into either selfish atomism or crude and establishment-administered forms of collectivism. It is a tough creed. But it should resonate. After all, so many people basically believe it. But almost no governments practice it.

By the way, Jacob shouldn't be going out on blind dates at all since he is married. To the heiress. Helena de Chair. A fact which supports my theory. That at least one wing of Jacob Rees-Mogg originated in the collective imaginings of Monty Python.

Jock Coats said...

Of course the outcome in 1909 was wrong, and we still have to go back and fix that before we can make any true progress on economic justice :)

That should be our starting point, but I agree that opportunities for radical change comes due every few decades and this is it. Generation rent etc.

Predictions are that there will be over 100 constituencies by 2025 that will be majority renters, and that these are not large council estates but what would once have been upwardly mobile, erudite people who feel that they ought to be able to afford better somehow.

Rent (plus taxes, all coming out of rent anyway, or most of them) consume so much that there is less and less return to capital and labour. Lancing this boil is a benefit to all workers and all producers, and only disbenefits those who get something for nothing - rentiers.

A tax free, rent funded society was maybe not quite what they were after in 1909, but nobody has yet addressed Lloyd-George's contention that "it is all very well to have "Housing of the Working Classes" bills [or any other rent stoking welfare policy - JC], but they will be ineffectual until we deal with the taxation of land".