Split and proud

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.

11 Comments

  1. Yes, perfect. I expressed similar views to our mutual friend Steph Ashley:

    “I would like to see the LDs become more a coalition, like the Tory party perhaps, with some having more of an emphasis on social democracy, some being economically liberal, & others focusing on personal freedom, with all of them at all times having strong reasons for being in the same party.”

    I then went on to elaborate:

    “By “like the Tory party” I obviously don’t mean with similar policies, I mean holding different factions together effectively. Alan Duncan is very different to Michael Howard, who has little in common with Edward Leigh, but they have far less difficulty than you might have thought. That is a coalition, & they manage to hammer out some common platform they can all stand on.”

    There are a lot of people who carry within themselves liberal & social democratic elements, in a sort of creative tension. Which one predominates depends on the person, or sometimes a given person’s reaction will be different in any given circumstances. What are Vince Cable & Chris Huhne, for example?

    Having said all the above, there are some very shrill “libertarians” & people on the left who aren’t far from joining Trots & Islamists United (perhaps a legacy of the single issue anti-war vote) who don’t really help matters, because they don’t seem to take any interest in being part of a coalition…

  2. Why I don’t diasgree with you Alix, it is indeed our differences than make us stronger, I do still feel that somewhere in the future a split will come in all three main parties. This I feel this will come during the early years of PR being introduced.

  3. This is why I believe, as I have stated elsewhere, that in the European Parliament the Greens will take support from the LDs & UKIP will take support from the Tories.

    I don’t believe the BNP are going anywhere because their policies actually only resonate with a few people, & even fewer people go any further than being racist pub bores & actually vote or campaign for them.

    But no one will be surprised if minor parties start to surge as people try to force the party with which they identify to take notice of their concerns. There will, I believe, emerge a trend to vote differently in PR & FPTP elections…

  4. Alix, your sentiments are laudable but I think you are at risk of falling into the trap set for you by the media. They would love there to be a split in the party on ideological lines. They will be disappointed to know that there is no split along Liberal-SDP lines. There were liberals and social democrats on both sides of the Make it Happen debate. Recall that that arch Social Democrat whose history is steeped in the Fabian Society, Tom McNally spoke for the unamended motion and indeed the architect of the tax policy is none other than former Labour and SDP member, Vince Cable. Conversely, Richard Younger-Ross, who spoke for the amendment, is a lifelong Liberal.
    However the media may chose to misrepresent and others may misunderstand it, those for and against the amendment are agreed that there should be tax cuts, are agreed that there should be public sector efficiency savings and are agreed that there should be better public services. The debate was over what to do with any money that is left over from £20bn AFTER we have met our existing spending commitments. We don’t yet know how much that is going to be, if anything at all. Most likely it is not going to be very much and the debate is really one about presentation and style rather than much of real substance.
    Those who can remember the horrors of the north of the country in the 1980s are concerned about being portrayed as neo-Thatcherite public service slashers during a recession. Others may be concerned about being misrepresented as a high tax party. And I think it is more with the balance of those concerns in mind that many delegates voted last week rather than deep ideological ones. The real challenge to our party, but an achievable one if we avoid the media traps, is to rebut both these charges before the electorate and present Make it Happen as the radical but realistic and pragmatic programme for government it really is.

  5. Dahn the pub two habituees (I couldn’t say whether they were locals, it was off my patch) were rehashing their stereotypes of us over the ‘Make it happen’ debate, and I got to hear how each side of the equation combines into something greater and more wonderful: in one earhole I got “it’s the beard and sandals brigade again, you can’t take them seriously”, in the other I heard “he’s a suit; he’s a managerial plant; he’s an ambitious nobody on the make: You couldn’t trust him with yer wallet!”.

    But at the end, having chewed over how both sides contributed to the overall effect, the duet seemed to sing in harmony, “they’re alright”, “they’re a real mix”, “they seem like normal people”, “they listen to each other”, “but even if I vote for them they won’t win”.

    I thought… we should test the logic of their theories.

  6. I think you’re right about the irresistible pull of both approaches. They each contain the seed of the other within them, yin/yang-style: you can’t be truly liberal without wanting fair equality of opportunity, which ultimately requires redistribution, and you can’t be truly socialist without wanting to help the downtrodden cast off their chains, which ultimately requires individual as well as collective liberties and freedom-to as well as freedom-from.

  7. Very late response, sorry for rudeness!

    @Al,

    Interested in your take on this, as I don’t think I was trying to be defensive. My whole point here is I consciously believe the media are right to identify the division within the *ordinary membership* (not that they’re doing it particularly viciously at the moment). I’ve certainly noticed the ideological division in recent conversations with other Lib Dems, and I don’t think it does us any good to shut eyes and ears to the fact. Whether we, and the preternaturally intelligent people at the top of the party, like it or not, actually most members do use the language of ol’ fashioned liberalism and ol’ fashioned borderline socialism to express their differences.

    In this light, your analysis of the MiH vote is interesting. I would certainly agree that the *speakers* in favour of the amendment were concerned about misrepresentation – I noticed that several mentioned the media, and no-one speaking for the motion did to my recollection. But I don’t know whether I’d credit the actual delegates with that much high-minded objectivity (not the ones I overheard anyway). Many of them evidently believed that in accepting the motion we actually *were* becoming a “right-wing” party. Daft, but undeniable – that’s what they thought was happening. And they are possibly now believing the very misrepresentation that the speakers warned of.

    Therefore, since the entire membership is not going to grasp the subtlety of the socialist/liberal crossover to the same degree you do, I suggest we have a choice: deny any such split exists, or celebrate the rationalism that keeps the two schools of thought, irresistably, in the same party. I have a degree of faith that most “ordinary” people (whatever they are) will understand that ideological disagreement in a party is not a bad thing. What we have there seems to me to be one of the healthiest things in British politics. Political hacks, like newspaper columnists and bloggers, are entirely out of touch with what the real world thinks on this point.

    It’s interesting how a lot of this depends on language, isn’t it. The media have successfully fed the language of “chasms” and “faultlines” into popular thinking on this subject (Linda’s post being a good case in point) thus evoking unstoppable separating forces etc, which was why I used the metaphor of magnetic pull to counteract it. Shorn of metaphors and put into honest words, what we had on Lib Dem Voice last week for example is a flourishing and fervent debate between the traditional liberals and the “watery Labour men”. Sounds good to me.

    @Liz W, my 2,000 word post condensed into 60 more sophisticated words, thank you! I think you make the last point in the chain of reasoning that I didn’t quite get to.

    @Oranjepan – I’m astonished the MiH debate itself reached the pub. I was sitting in it thinking “I hope this gets to the pub, I hope this gets to the pub,” and it seems even the meedja were impressed enough to make passing reference to how good it was. Maybe there’s hope for the triumph of reason yet.

  8. Comic book arguments about “liberals” versus “social democrats” largely miss the point, and play into our opponents’ hands. Neither label / frame accurately describes the viewpoints within the party. The main strand in the party’s philosophy has always been a form of social liberalism — state action to expand individual opportunities, that prioritises decentralisation and reform of the state, alongside environmental concerns.

    The party philosophy has been and, I think, always will be a synthesis of “social liberal” and “economic liberal” points of view: both are in reality a form of social liberalism. See my review of “Reinventing the State” in the current Journal of Liberal History.

    The significance of the Make it Happen vote was that it provides flexibility for a “non-statist”/”liberal” means of implementing this agenda; also, that some of the frames used (e.g., “tax relief”) sound Tory.

    Let’s not get too carried away, too quickly. On tax cuts and spending priorities, we haven’t seen the figures yet (for good reason) and the public finances are heading south. We haven’t seen the full details on HE/FE or schools policy either.

    N.

  9. I tend to agree with the thrust of this. However, one thing that you left out of a very detailed article was the effect that the current crisis is going to have on the respective poles of the party.

    ‘Make it happen’ might be more liberal but we have in our response rightly seen our social democratic tendency being tickled. It also leaves out what effect the crisis will have on the two poles of the party. Obviously the social democrat/socialist part will be more openly critical of capitalism and demand more controls. Where as argubly the economically liberal wing will be more on the defensive.

    All in all a good article though.

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