The last decade has witnessed Labour testing to destruction of the notion of unalloyed social-liberalism, however the decade we are now within represents an enormous opportunity for the Lib-Dem’s to step outwith the formers shadow, but does Labours failure provide a guide that will lead to the success of the latter? Yes, but it requires recognising that progressivism is a means and not an end.
It also requires a mandate from the people before the party will have the confidence to change.
To talk of liberalism, the belief in the importance of liberty and equal rights, is difficult by dint of the fact that the word has been appropriated by pretty much every other ideology, conflated with the means by which it has often be achieved, divided by the separate realms of social and economic ideologies, and loosely correlated with the philosophies of negative and positive liberty.
Social Liberalism is not always, in effect, an ideology that maximises liberty, and nor too is positive liberty.
If we can accept that the Conservatism is an attitude whose ambition is not to oppose all change but to resist and balance the volatility of current political fads and ideology, we must likewise accept that it has often been abused by those who elevate it to an ideology.
This is what befell the Ottoman Empire; a conservative ideology that prevented the nation from adapting to a changing world, justifying the ossification of tradition, and repeatedly rejecting the radical policy attempted by successive Sultans that would allow it to compete with the advances of its rival empires.
Likewise it must be recognised that Progressivism is supposed to be an attitude too, not an ideology, and that self-interested human venality has often served to abuse progressivism by justifying the loss of liberty on spurious claims to a greater common good.
This is what befell New Labour; a progressive ideology that enabled a massive raft of policies ‘justified’ by their socially liberal aims, without realising that positive liberty is something that is enforced by government, and that considered as whole the result has been a significant attack on individual liberty.
Labour was not unaware that its benign intention to help people achieve their potential was in fact little more than paternal supervision, but rather than change course it engaged in double-speak by using the word “fairness” where it could no longer talk of “equity” or “justice”.
You might well say;“Surely you exaggerate Mr Beeftrix, it’s all very well for you to invent this great divide between intention and result, but where is the evidence!” The answer to that question is easy:
The findings are quite clear –
The majority of people think that fairness is mainly a question of people getting what they deserve, rather than being about equal treatment. This is true of voters of all the main parties. 63% of people say that “fairness is about getting what you deserve”, while just 26% say that “fairness is about equality”. In other words, people’s idea of fairness is strongly reciprocal – something for something.
Meritocratic ideas (reward according to effort and ability) are more widely endorsed than either free market conceptions (reward according to what the market will pay) or egalitarian conceptions (equal rewards). 85% backed fairness as meritocracy, while 63% backed the free market conception and only 41% an egalitarian version.
This is a rather damning indictment of those with an ideological bent towards progressivism who believe that a government should aim actively to create the conditions necessary for individuals to be self-sufficient or to achieve self-realization. It is an easy jump to make to realise that their attachment to progressivism has corrupted the resulting socially liberal policy response, social justice has become a conception that they impose rather than offer.
To which your next question might be; “That might be so Mr. Beeftrix, but no man is independent of his fellow men, what makes you think we have this balance so very wrong?” The answer to that question too is easy:
As Isaiah Berlin noted, there must be a dividing line between individual liberty and public authority and that it is a matter for debate, within society, as to where that line should be drawn. However, to draw parallels between what is done in this country and what is done in another is not at all helpful because a peoples conception of what constitutes liberty is the result of its cultural history. An appeal to consensus among the polities of europe does nothing but suppress the best compromise for your polity.
English Common Law with its roots in the concept of Natural Law has led to a presumption of negative liberty; I am free to do anything that which is not specifically proscribed by the law. Rights are defined as being against interference by the sovereign in the liberty of individual on matters of religion, speech, press, assembly, and free markets. If you haven’t opted in for state management, then it stays out!
Continental Civil Law with its closer association with Legal Positivism has led to a presumption of positive liberty. It is my right, as codified in the system of laws, to be able to act in this manner. Rights are defined as things you are allowed to do by the sovereign such as freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly. You are enabled to do these things, with the general expectation that the state should manage compliance.
Thus can we understand that British popular objection to ID cards is not merely a function of conditioning, as some imagine has already been experienced by our continental neighbours, rather it is a direct result of a particular understanding of where the divide should be between individual liberty and enabling supervision.
In creating a rash of legislation diminishing the rights of individuals, undermining the inviolability of private property as well as the enforcement of contracts, Labour managed to distort the aim of social liberalism and produce a socially authoritarian result.
How many ways can the government legally force entry into your home? They reasons used to be numbered on one hand, now there are I am told hundreds. Some of these will be for perfectly ‘nice’ reasons like protecting vulnerable kids, a large proportion will be for similarly innocuous reasons, but taken together they represent a fantastic assault on the negative liberty that you as a citizen are supposed to possess.
Do the Lib-Dem’s care about this kind of freedom?
So where does this all lead? Can it provide the ideological breathing space for the Liberal Democrats to set out a coherent and distinct message to the electorate about the manner in which they would seek to govern?
This blog believes that there is a now wide gulf between the paternalistic supervision of Labour and neoliberalism of the Conservative party.
The Lib-Dem message should be that while they will retain a progressive attitude to the pursuit of Social Liberalism it will always be referenced against the requirements of personal liberty. Policy wise this means a rejection of Labours client-state whereby the disadvantaged are kept in thrall to a culture of benefits subsistence allied with high taxation. The increase in the personal Income Tax allowance is an excellent example of this. This comes back to the question of what taxation is for:
The aim of the Liberals should not be to create a more equal society by punitively taxing the rich, just for the purpose of making them less rich, that portion of the political spectrum is already occupied by the Labour party in British politics.
The aim of the Liberals must be to create a more equal society by using a progressive taxation system to ensure that public services can be maintained at a level which allows the weakest and most vulnerable in society to prosper and advance their condition.
Likewise to distance themselves from the laissez-faire tendencies of the Conservative party by continuing to advocate a the use of the State to increase the enfranchisement of disadvantaged groups within society, and do so with progressive policy action where the Conservatives would be tempted to leave ‘well-enough’ alone. The pupil premium is a good example of this in recent Lib-Dem policy.
However, as important as distancing themselves ideologically from Labour and the Conservatives is, what they must also do is become a party for the whole nation, which means abandoning policy that results from an ideological fascination with progress (for the sake of progress), for it too easily sees the party written off as unsupportable by those who remain uncommitted. Being seen as a pro-EU party come hell-or-highwater would be an apt example. Of the words “representative democracy” it is the former that is truly important, the latter is only a means to an end.
The opportunity that the Lib-Dem’s have right now is that for the first time in a century they are seen as a serious party of government, enhanced by Labours dogged determination not to repent for their past authoritarianism. They have four more years to continue to cement themselves in the public image as a responsible advocate of progressive and socially liberal politics. Much as the Conservatives have done the same with their re-brand towards compassionate conservatism. Both parties have an interest in making the Big Society work for its success acts to remove Labour from public perception as a responsible party of government.
This opportunity has only a brief window however, for despite having a leader in hock to the unions, and a shadow Chancellor in hock to deficit denial, the Labour party will drag itself back to the centre. If not in this parliament then certainly in the next.
The Just Deserts research provides a mandate upon which the needs of enabling supervision can be balanced against the desire for individual liberty, will the Lib-Dem’s seize it?
Update – 2011.06.20 – Am I wrong insomuch as I conflate Social Liberalism with Social Democracy?
Found a very interesting post titled: What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat? In particular the following response from Dr Evan Harris:
“Social liberal” is an unsatisfactory term in some ways because the “orange-bookers” are liberal on social issues (ie social liberals in that sense) in the main.
And many social liberals would consider themselves to be economically liberal in the sense of not being protectionist or anti-capitalist or even anti-market.
The difference between Orange-book-type economic liberal and so called social liberals is perhaps the relative priority we place on social justice (or socio-economic fairness).
I would say that most if not all social democrats (and by that I don’t just mean ex-SDP members) in the Lib Dems are social liberals. But not all social liberal are original social democrats.
The Social Liberal Forum brings social democrats together with traditional Liberals who feel more strongly about the importance of social justice as a means and an end than “neo-classical economic liberals” (or Orange-bookers for short).
So perhaps Orange-book Liberal = Social Liberal minus social democracy.
All these terms are clunky and as you can see it from above I don’t think Social Liberals should define ourselves solely by opposition to, or difference with, “Orange-book Liberals”. But it would would be useful to hear what an Orange-booker feels distinguishes them from a social liberal and whether it is indeed the absence of a strong social democratic aspect.
I maintain that the basic premise is correct; that liberals should steer clear of Labours authoritarian paternalism, but perhaps that is because the party flirted with social democracy rather than an inherent flaw in social liberalism?