The Dissenter's Voice

The ocassional comments, opinions, rambling and rants of a liberal dissenter in New Labour's Britain

Monday, June 26, 2006

What are these bloody liberals for anyway?

I'm often quite surprised by the reaction my views provoke, some people just can't believe that I am a LibDem, 'you should be a Tory' they say. It's funny how many people think in such as two dimensional way - you must either be Conservative or Labour - as if there's no room for anything else. It's equally strange how many people, even the politically informed misunderstand who the LibDems really are. All parties are coalitions, the LibDems no less than anyone else, and it worth taking time to think about who it is that actually makes up the LibDem coalition.

The LibDems are not a leftwing party, what we have been guilty of though is being overly reactive, reacting against the excessives of Tory and Labour governments rather than articulating a coherent world view of their own.

Probably about 20-25% of the party are like me, traditional economic liberals who believe in choice in public services, lower taxes and smaller government; while there is about another 25-30% are welfarists arguing for traditional direct state provision, the remaining bulk of the party are somewhere in the middle, a largely non-ideological bunch who want to do what's best for their local community - a sort of residents' association with a social conscience. The whole coalition is held together by its commitment to civil liberties & environmentalism and a strong internationalist stance.

How did the party of John Stuart Mill, Gladstone and Lloyd George lose its ideological edge? Well I believe this can be traced back to way the Liberal Party imploded in the interwar years and slowly rebuilt itself over the following decades. When the Liberals shattered in the 1920's, a result of personal rivalry, changing demographics and its own policy inertia, its great electoral coalition split off in different ways, creating a liberal diaspora right across the political spectrum.

Those more concerned with the protection of personal freedom & private enterprise mainly fled to the Tories, while those more worried about poverty and unemployment tended to end up with Labour. All that was left behind was a small rump, reduced by the 1950's to 6 seats in Parliament and winning only 2.1% of the vote in the 1955 General Election.

It must have been tough being a Liberal back then. How tempting it must have been for Clement Davies, the then Liberal Leader, to succumb to Churchill's coalition offer in 1951. But he didn't and the Liberal's survived as a party in a new role - party think tank, part pressure group. For the next 20 or so years that was pretty much the party's function despite the leadership attempts to turn it into something rather harder edged.

However, as the party recovered from its near death experience it learnt to campaign developing innovative techniques that propelled Liberals to some unlikely local victories. It clawed its way up to 19% of the vote in the February 1974 election and peaked as part of the Alliance at 26% in 1983. This new campaigning prowess came at a cost though, as the party focused on local populist campaigns it began to lose its ideological clarity, often its campaigning was reactive and parochial, defending the status quo against change whatever it was. This was good for winning elections, but not for philosphical coherence.

This reactive tendency was strengthened during the yers of the Libreal/SDP Allaince - the extremism of both the Tories and Labour parties meant that it simply had to demonstrate its moderation in order to gain new support. Not being either of the other two parties gave the Alliance electoral momentum without it having to find a sharp ideological or policy profile of its own, becoming instead the last defender of the Butskellite consensus.

For many years it seemed as if the Alliance and its successor, the Liberal Democrats, were in danger of losing any authentically liberal voice. Reacting first against the Thatcher and then against the Blair government, the party appeared to be increasingly leftwing, even knee jerk in its opposition. As Tory & Labour tried to outbid each other in rightwing populism the LibDems appeared in comparison to be the party of tax & spend and producer interests, with 'penny on income tax' policy reinforcing this perception with the public.

However, just as this perception started to get fixed in the public's mind the small government liberals in the party started to become restless. After the 1997 general election groups like LiberalFuture & new MPs like Mark Oaten, David Laws and Vince Cable started to call for the party to go back to its roots.

I vividly remember hearing the phrase 'I am an economic liberal' for the first time at the 2000 party conference. As the limits of Gordon Brown's spending increases were exposed more and more people in the party started to question the drift towards tax & spend. Pretty soon economic liberals were coming out of the closet all over the place and a new agenda was being formed to reach outside the party's traditinal voting block and call the liberal diaspora home. By 2004 the publication of the Orange Book gave a name to this growing school of thought.

Today, the Orange Bookers, although they remain a minority in the party are the LibDems' intellectual driving force - for instance the new tax proposals are pure Orange Book thinking. It seemed as if I'd been waiting 15 years to hear the things that Ming said at their launch.

When I first joined the party back in 1990, I often felt a little like a lone voice arguing for a traditional liberal approach. When I was first approved as a Parliamentary Candidate - the assessor wrote that my views were 'beyond the normal range of party opinion', today I think I may well be slightly to the left of the party's Treasury team!

The party is reaching a tipping point in policy thought, the intellectual argument in favour of a traditional liberal approach is being won, even if there is still an emotional reluctance to admit it. To put it another way, the future's bright the future's Orange!


Blogger Cllr Andy Jennings said...

All good stuff Charles, but I still think you'd be better off as a Tory ;)

The problem as I see it is the "20-25%" traditional economic liberals are only just starting to be heard over and above the clichéd sandal-wearing bearded brigade. And, whilst it's great to see more credible Lib Dem MPs coming through now than before, it will be increasingly difficult to continue to appeal to disaffected Conservative and Labour voters from different angles on a national level.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Bullseye said...

But hang on, isn't that exactly what Cameron's to do

5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what about Yellow Bookers

3:18 PM  
Blogger David said...

Playing the counterfactual game what would have happened to the Conservative Party if the libertarian Liberals had been swallowed up by the Tories in 1951?

As I see it, despite having accused you of being a Tory in the past, you are in the wrong party purely because of the failure of libertarians to organize an English Libertarian Party. If it existed, or libertarians had not failed to develop their agenda within traditional political structures, your views would not be the radical vanguard of common sense, but the mainstream of a tradition that once thrived within English political culture.

Of course, if you had joined the Tories you’d now be on the A-list and one of the most talked about of Cameron’s Rainbows…

10:24 PM  

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