There was an astonishingly thoughtful editorial in Thursday’s Times about the composition and direction of the Liberal Democrats. Not necessarily glowing in every part. Just thoughtful. Not only does it, in the teeth of my latest outpouring of anti-meedja bile, “get” liberalism in a way I’ve rarely seen a national newspaper manage:
In an interview on the fringe this week, Mr Clegg emphatically described himself as a liberal. His conference speech contained the seeds of a viable liberal position that will champion independence as its sovereign value, that will push power to the lowest possible level and that will encourage everyone to live a life of their own choosing.
There is also a sober analysis of the two ideological instincts informing the party – as crystallised, rightly or wrongly, in the Make it Happen debate – and where they might be headed:
All that said, this has been a good week for the Liberal Democrats at the end of a good year. That’s because they have begun the process of resolving the tension that they carry in their name. Between the liberals and those whom Keynes derided as the “watery Labour men” there can be no permanent reconciliation. Though the organisational merger was clean, a philosophical merger has proved impossible…
If the leader can take his party with him, the Lib Dems could yet turn themselves into a party with a purpose. The Liberal Democrats will still be a coalition, as all political parties are, but the emphasis will be on the first word.
So by that analysis we are now set to be more “Liberal” than “[Social] Democrat”. I don’t disagree, but I cannot emphasise enough how mutually dependent I think the two are. The implication, in that and other newspapers, is that Clegg has successfully avoided a split. All very well for the column inches, but I’m not sure why any rational person, on either “side”, should be pleased about the idea that a divergent path of thought has been closed off. I don’t really remember being aware of a world in which the Liberal Democrats didn’t exist; maybe I’m in a position to detect the irresistable pull between the two informing ideologies of liberalism and socialist democracy, rather than fear the gap over which that pull is exercised.
All-party unity is a mid-20th century value, a remnant of the dead war between the massed ranks of the socialist and conservative blocs. There’s absolutely nothing sacred about the idea that a party must demonstrate total unity or be considered weak. It’s just an idea like any other, and it may have had its day. It’s an idea from another age, when society was more hierarchical, choice more limited and a political message was dependent on fewer channels of transmission, all of which therefore had to be saying precisely the same thing. To a rationalist in a multi-media age, whatever his or her political stripe, it just looks odd, uncomfortable, inimical to reason. For that matter, how many of us feel a teensy bit embarrassed at conference rallies? (”Yes! We’re all individuals!” “I’m not!“)
So for all that the papers have painted the Make It Happen debate as a victory for Clegg’s leadership, I see it as the beginning of a true, point-by-point policy debate. The thing is, I, probably like many of us, wouldn’t like to be in a party where there weren’t “watery Labour men”, to keep my brand of liberalism honest. Said “watery Labour men” need my brand of liberalism to keep them honest. I still believe that liberalism and not half-statism should be the keynote, and evidently so does the party by a factor of between 2:1 and 3:1, but the half-certain statists are still vital to the health of the organism.
Now that the party has voted to consider further tax cuts as one option in the fight against inequality alongside further provision for every existing function of the state, we are in the position of being able to have the Make it Happen debate again, on every piece of potential expenditure. We’ll be able to put facts, figures, the actual destination of the available funds, into the insert-government-service-here blank spaces of the Make It Happen debate. That’s the way it should be. Every item of possible government expenditure should be assessed in the light of the simple fact that it is not our money. Proof that a government has sufficient right to take money and do something collective with it needs to be advanced in every case, and the argument should be specific to that case.
So while supporters of the amendment to the Make It Happen motion have been feeling, evidently, a little miffed this week, my view is that this is their big chance. Over each policy area they can marshal precise arguments, demonstrate in practical terms the value of x piece of expenditure as against y tax cut. This is good. This is reason and empirical evidence at work. Who knows, we might end up with a dramatically reduced number of health sector QUANGOs but a doubled drugs bill for the NHS – that’s what we all want, isn’t it? Who can make those specific, measurable arguments with the same enthusiasm as the amendment’s supporters? For this reason, I hope they’re gathering their facts, and I hope they aren’t storming off in a huff, because I need their viewpoint to inform mine. Linda Jack, batting for the social democrats, says Nick he has won the battle – but will he win the war? My answer would be that a war is just a series of battles, so I hope she’s preparing for them individually, to put the case for the social democratic side. Why would a liberal want anything less? No-one with a good argument should be afraid of a good debate.
John Prescott has been trundling around this week growling that disunity could kill the Labour party. He’s probably not wrong. Labour’s full-blown statism in government is reflected in their full-blown control-freakery within their own organisation; the rejection of rational disagreement is buried in the Labour psyche. It’s a simple fact, denied by Tory and Labour trolls when they’re playing dumb, that rational disagreement is a positive thing. And it’s unique to us. The divergent ideas from our two parent influences is what forces us to test our policy direction in our own two home-made ideological crucibles. (I still happen to think, despite the grimly determined anti-intellectualism of every form of political campaigning we undertake, that this two-way test is a much more attractive quality than we let ourselves hope, but that’s a rant for another day.) It makes our policy-making process thorough, sceptical, rational and thereby ultimately radical.
Anyway, was it not that great social democrat, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork (”One man, one vote”) himself who said “Progress does not mean all men pulling together; progress means all men pulling in different directions.“