The other day, I was holding forth to an old friend about the possible annihilation of the Liberal Democrats following their decision to become David Cameron’s useful idiots. “Liberalism is stronger and more resilient than that”, retorted my friend, who is more sympathetic to the Lib Dems than I am. Leaving aside the question of why a political party whose natural base is probably no more than fifteen per cent of the electorate should sell its soul for as unrepresentative an electoral system as AV, that comment has set me thinking. What do we mean by liberalism? What’s its role today, and to what extent have Lib Dems really betrayed their philosophical roots (such as they are)?
If you asked the average voter in the street in Britain what liberalism stands for, I’d guess the answer is fairly predictable. You’s here a lot about individual rights, respect for minorities, a penal code that doesn’t emphasise retribution. You might get something about the obsession with surveillance and social control that characterised New Labour. You’d probably not hear very much about economics. And that word personal is the crucial one – it seems to me to be the key to why the Liberal Democrat vision is so constrained.
What Liberals – and of course Liberal Democrats in the UK above all – have been utterly unable to do is to come to terms with the collective, with the effect that they have simply been unable to understand economic power, let alone arrive at an intelligent critique of it. Historically, Liberals have been antagonistic to the state – a belief forged in a nineteenth-century when the large stage was a drain on society without any real function of enabling. It was only in the early twentieth century that Liberals started to belief that the state could counterbalance market capitalism and ameliorate social ills. But many of the Liberals who believed that went into the Labour Party and the rump has been an expression of local and religious loyalties, riven occasionally by the politics of personal feud. The occasional historically-aware Liberal Democrat may mumble about Beveridge and Keynes, but mainstream British Liberalism has not produced an idea worthy of the name for more than a century.
At another level, mature rational politics is what Liberalism has always claimed to provide – the Liberal project (such as it is – the qualification that one must always apply to British Liberalism) has been about moulding society in the service of ideas. Clegg and Cable have been driven into immaturity by the inconsistencies of what they are trying to do – Cable in particular is intelligent enough to diagnose many of the ills of market capitalism but lacks the imagination or the theoretical grounding to move beyond recommending more of the same. What Marx teaches us – and I am writing this as someone who is some way from being a convinced Marxist – is that the tinkering around the edges is not only futile, but part of the problem. And because it has abandoned mature politics, modern Liberalism has absolutely no response to the extremes of Cameron’s toryism. It still sits in the foothills of identity politics while oblivious to the class war that Cameron and Osborne are waging with a viciousness that was entirely predictable in advance, but which the Liberal Democrats lacked the theoretical and intellectual basis even to notice, let alone oppose. At one level they were simply seduced by the fact that on issues like gender and identity politics Cameron sounded awfully like a Liberal, without ever considering that it was all a sideshow. The canvas was just too big for a party stuck in a belief that the personal was the political; and just looking at the Liberal Democrats as a party makes it clear that where there once were radicals, now there are managers.
And there is a particularly nasty twist to the Liberal Democrats’ position, because every word of their rhetoric since joining the coalition has shown that they are happy to join in the social scapegoating that has long been one way in which market capitalism has deflected attention away from its failings. Immigrants, asylum seekers, the alleged workshy, chavs and hoodies; a gallery of caricatures that Liberals once sought to defend, but whom they now choose to demonise in the best Tory tradition; as well as adding hundreds of thousands of public servants to the list, perpetuating the tabloid lies about fat-cat salaries and gold-plated pensions (average public sector pension about £4000 per year). It’s repellent, and shows where their real ideological loyalties lie.
Labour’s position is no better – in some way the contradictions are even greater, because they accepted the capitalist mantras of low taxes and free enterprise, and the tax revenues generated by an inflationary boom meant that for a few years they got away with it – increasing public provision (up to a point) without getting to grips with the denuded tax base they had inherited. When the bankers’ bubble collapsed, and when the taxpayers bailed out the banks, the contradiction between public provision and a low tax based was exposed. Hence the choice – cut expenditure, the regressive option, or increase taxes, the progressive option. In deciding that the balance should be 80% cuts and 20% tax increases – and with the continued mendacious rhetoric about the state of the deficit – it is clear that the Coalition took the regressive option, with the Liberal Democrats braying their support. Ultimately, although they appear not to have realised it, the Liberal Democrats were faced with the choice – will they be a regressive or progressive force in politics? And they have unhesitatingly chosen the former.
And that choice has defined their role. We now have three mainstream political parties who deal in minor variations of market capitalism, with almost nothing to choose between them. Thirty years ago, Liberals talked about breaking the mould of British politics. How hollow that ambition looks now.