Nothing strange about the death of English liberalism

Reading Nick Clegg’s New Year message was a sad and sobering affair (leaving aside any impatience at the growing habit of politicians great and small issuing such messages).  It read as really little more than excuse-mongering and post-hoc rationalisation in defence of policies that appear to rub against the natural grain of the Liberal tradition; its ludicrous defence of an economic policy that is, by every objective standard, failing does not sit easily in a political tradition that has sought to define itself as moulding society in the service of the rational.  Surely Liberalism should aspire to something better than this.  And one then began to question whether, perhaps, this is not about one rather discredited politician’s traducing the political tradition for which he is apparently the spokesman, but perhaps something more deeply ingrained in the nature of English liberalism itself

I am someone who had Liberalism in their political blood from an early age.  An active Liberal Party member in my late teens and early twenties, sometime President of the Oxford University Liberals, and, after university, Liberal Party employee for a couple of years; contributor to Liberal debates about philosophy, confident that Liberalism was a coherent philosophy offered something radical, important, unique.  It gave the appearance at least of being a big, coherent narrative that could explain the world and guide its improvement.   Revisiting that philosophy with a critical eye, at a time when Liberal Democrats are in Government, and after a quarter of a century of reading and reflection, suggests that it is none of those things.  I have moved on, but I think now is a good time to consider why Liberalism appears increasingly irrelevant as a political philosophy capable of addressing contemporary political and economic issues.

Political parties are not always loyal to the ideas that their names and supporters profess (there are still apparently socialists in the Labour Party) and the Liberal Party, and then the Liberal Democrats, often trod a rather tentative path around the core beliefs of Liberalism – a party formed of an alliance with the old discredited Labour right was always going to involve compromises, although a confident and assured liberalism need not have worried about that.  And one could argue that the new party represented a coming together of a tradition that had been blown apart by the ferments that led to the creation of the Labour Party at the start of the twentieth century, when social liberals developing a more interventionist account of the state were divided between the new Labour party and sticking with an old Liberal Party that showed limited inclination to abandon the shibboleths of nineteenth-century laissez-faire – a debate taking place at a time when the cleavage lines of British politics were more about empire than economics.

One approach to understanding the issues around Liberalism is to take an inevitably brief tour around some of its historical themes.

Peace, retrenchment, reform

So where does one start to develop an account of what Liberalism was?  Gladstone, inevitably: peace, retrenchment and reform.  Even in the 1980s – arguably the high-point of social liberal influence in Party thinking – Gladstone was still a name that featured in Liberal discourse (the Liberal Party Headquarters in which I worked occupied a set of surprisingly grotty offices on the top floor of the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place – an ostentatious pile that expressed Edwardian Liberalism in all its confidence, the building where Liberal grandees gathered to celebrate the 1906 landslide, and whose entry hall was stuffed with Gladstonian memorabilia, including an axe that the Grand Old Man had used in his favoured pursuit of tree-felling).  Peace and reform have remained Liberal themes – a sense of moral obligation in foreign policy, which still manifested itself in Liberal Democrats’ opposition to war in Iraq before the fighting started (although probably not in its capitulation to tabloid opinion once the fighting was under way); and a commitment to political reform which extended up to the point at which Clegg’s Liberal Party entered coalition (though, once again, not obviously afterwards). And it is worth re-reading the speeches of John Bright on the Crimean War – often held up as a beacon of Liberal idealism – to appreciate the extent to which  moral considerations could be contingent on protecting the public purse.

Retrenchment – there we reach the first and obvious problem with Liberalism; its equivocal attitude towards the state.  It originates in opposition to the corrupt oligarchy of Eighteenth- and early-Nineteeth Century England; the sense that while Britain advanced into an age of economic growth and prosperity, a corrupt and sclerotic state, run by placemen and which acted as a parasite on economic progress, was holding it back.

The New Liberalism of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century began to see the state as something that could intervene positively in the economy, but much of the basic energy of that new thinking went into the Labour Party. It’s striking that the New Liberalism emerged in the 1880s and 1890s during a long depression that shares many characteristics with the post-2008 economic catastrophe, and a discontent with the narratives of economic liberalism that framed that depression while engaging with emerging Socialist thinking and activism.  In particular, there was a growing “condition of England” question – in which the hard evidence provided by writers like Stead and Mayhew, and the activist testimony of William Booth, tested the conscience of Liberal progressives.

But this was a movement that had little real purchase – even though the Liberal landslide of 1906 brought important social reform (modelled on the insurance of the private sector rather than a belief in state provision). A hostility to the state, and a refusal to see it as a mechanism that could ensure better outcomes for individuals in a more efficient way than, say, private philanthropy, with even modest levels of coercion through taxation, has long been lurking in Liberal thinking – even among the more socially progressive Liberal Democrats. In the 1980s, during my time in the Party, it expressed itself in a longing for decentralisation, without ever recognising that to achieve may liberal goals – especially in terms of personal and gender politics – a strong democratically accountable state was necessary.  Liberal Democrats – through the Orange Book and in Government – have shown that under pressure, they have no coherent theory of the state.

It’s an omission that sits uneasily with the emphasis on reform; a belief that improving the mechanisms through which politics is conducted can bring real benefits to society.  Once again the nineteenth-century roots are obvious – a belief that an educated, open polity could overturn the sclerotic oligarchy that governed early 19th Century England.  Gladstone’s civil service reforms – ensuring that Government selects its administrative corps on merit – represent a classic Liberal reform, grounded in theories of rationality (while at the same time defining “merit” in a fairly exclusive and conventional way, falling short of challenging norms of contemporary discourse).  It’s a discourse in which reform becomes a way, not of overturning the status quo, but of preserving the best of it and making it more efficient; it implies that the purpose of political action is not to challenge political systems as a whole, but to root out abuses that inhibit the smooth operation of an essentially benign political system.  The big questions remain unasked (and certainly unanswered).

But at the heart of Liberalism’s intellectual problem is that, beyond a vague commitment to open structures and scrutiny, it offers no theory or understanding of the collective.  Its concept of the public world is wholly atomistic. I would argue that one of the fundamental issues of political discourse is where the rights of the individual end and where the collective interests of society begin; classical Liberalism is barely capable of formulating the question, let alone providing a coherent answer to it.

Twentieth century giants – Keynes and Beveridge

It’s a pattern that underpins the two dominant Liberal figures of the twentieth century – Keynes and Beveridge.  British Liberalism has claimed both as their own (Beveridge was briefly a Liberal MP, Keynes held no office within the Party).  In both cases, Liberalism claimed them when it was expedient to do so, even though their reformism went beyond the bounds of traditional Liberalism.  Now that the old Liberalism has reasserted itself, they have been cast aside.

Keynes’ explicit mission was to save capitalism from the idiocies of its most fervent exponents.  Beveridge was horrified not just by the suffering of the British poor, but by the political instability that arose from that; both were acting, consciously or not, under the shadow of totalitarianism, of Hitler and Stalin.  There is a respectable case for saying that the urgency with which their ideas were taken up derives from the reality of competing ideologies, and hence a sense of the underlying fragility of liberal democracy; it contrasts with a mindset in which a claimed “end of history” appears to have removed the threat of alternative economic theories from the scene; in which the “other” has become a religious and cultural one rather than an attempt to redefine ideas of ownership and wealth.  It is an environment in which Liberalism’s traditional role – that of moulding society in the defence of rational ideas – becomes a defence of what are portrayed as democratic cultural norms against an Orientalist conception of barbarism and primitivism.  “Liberal imperialism” – another Party-splitting discourse from the early twentieth-century – has become something of a Western foreign policy norm, with all that implies.

The work of Keynes and Beveridge remains vitally important. Both, ironically enough, offer the basis of powerful critiques of the neoliberal society for which Britain’s Liberal Democrats have become such enthusiastic enablers and cheerleaders.  Beveridge, in particualr, offers a powerful corrective to the notion of citizenship that is implicit in Orange Bookers’ and Liberal Democrat Ministers’ enthusiastic advocacy of the belief that the right to state support is conditional on the attitude rather than the condition of the vulnerable, and should be administered on the basis of who those in power deem to be deserving.  The defining arguments against Clegg’s much-trumpeted assaults on universal benefits remain in the Beveridge Report, and Clegg’s speechwriters have yet to find a coherent narrative to support Clegg’s ludicrous claims that his party’s happy cheerleading for cuts in benefits for the vulnerable marks him as the true heir to Beveridge.

And Keynes demonstrates as powerfully as Marx why the policy of austerity is self-defeating: the most trenchant public critics of austerity tend to be Keynsians rather than Marxists (although the resemblance of late-capitalist austerity to Marx’s crisis of capital accumulation is striking and sobering).

The Personal and the Political

And that leads inevitably to another strand of contemporary Liberalism; its concept of personal freedom.  Liberalism traditionally talked in terms of rational, educated and informed individuals acting in a way that ensured maximum benefit from their interactions; it is a philosophy very much at one with the fundamental doctrines of the free market.  In more recent years it has become more closely identified with extending individual liberties, especially those related to identity; its progressivism has been rooted in its opposition to capital punishment, its belief that gender and sexuality should not be barriers to equality, its recognition of the right to “alternative” lifestyles.  All these are important things; they have hugely enriched our lives as a society.

But problems remain. The personal is undoubtedly the political; the problem arises when the political becomes the personal, without a concept of the collective.  It is a commonplace that the people who argued for and largely won greater personal liberties – both by overturning restrictive legislation and by living lifestyles that were more liberated – voted for Thatcher and Reagan in their droves.  The obvious reason, once again, is the idea of the state as something hostile; a belief that the liberal society was one in which you were left alone.  It’s a very negative, reactive concept of liberty.  Liberals have yet to demonstrate how such gains can be made without a strong, interventionist state and a discourse that is prepared to challenge popular opinion.

Community politics

The problems become clearer when one considers what was regarded by many Liberals in the 1970s and 1980s as their key political position, the thing that differentiated them from other political parties: community politics.  At its best and most pure it was an ideology that sought to empower and energise the citizen, by giving them power over the environment in which they lived; at its worst it often degenerated into the politics of mindless activism, based around endless oppositionist campaigning to achieve electoral success with no clear vision of how to handle office once it was achieved.  It is the basis for the sneer that Liberals were the party of pavement politics.

As I’ve argued before, re-reading its principal text – Gordon Lishman and Bernard Greaves’ The Theory and Practice of Community Politics – the thing that strikes one most forcibly is just how reactionary it is.  It reeks of hostility to the collective, to the state and – in particular – to Trade Unions (at which point it is worth noting that the Liberal ideal for the most part ignores collective action by workers, and demonises it on those few occasions when it emerges into Liberal discourse). Its distrust of the state and its belief that social objectives can be achieved through voluntarism make it read like a first draft for Cameron’s Big Society. Its combination of populism and activism brings to mind, as much as anything, the policy positions of UKIP.  (To be fair to my younger self, the Liberal obsession with decentralisation and localism always seemed to me to be intellectually weak. It’s only really since that I have come to realise just how anti-democratic such sentiments are, how tropes of localism can be used to argue against wider democratic will and how vital it is to have a strong theory of the state to manage such conflicts).

The Orange Book

Here Liberalism appears to have returned to its roots; here the hostility to the state and the reliance on market individualism, latent in community politics,  is made manifest in a document that has become a manifesto for Liberal Democrats in Government.  Why did Liberal Democrats do so little to oppose the marketisation of the NHS? Because it’s core Liberal Democrat policy, as set out in David Laws’ chapter in the Orange Book. There is a belief expressed by many people on the soft Left that Liberal Democrats have been weak in Government – that they went into Government on a coalition agreement that has long been left behind, and have been systematically worsted by a cynical Conservative Party whose unscrupulousness and instinct for power makes the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party look like a Sunday School advisory group.  Some of this is true – look for example at how the Liberal Democrats lost electoral reform and Lords reform.  In some ways the Tories have shown themselves to be weaker than that – look at how Cameron has to paper over the cracks on Europe and equal marriage.  But on the economic essentials that define the coalition, there is nothing between Tories and Liberal Democrats.  Economically, this is a Liberal Government, with the Orange Book as its instruction manual.

And the most important point to note about the status of modern Liberalism is that this position does not in any way reflect the politics of the Liberal grass roots.  I don’t suppose the grass roots have changed much since my days in the Party – decent, progressive people who are horrified by much of what the Party leadership is doing, rooted in identity politics and (a Liberal characteristic I have not really touched on here) their tradition of internationalism, but – by and large – clueless about economics and its role in shaping the political agenda, and without the big narrative to oppose the Orange Bookers.


So, where does this necessarily brief excursus in to the politics of Liberalism lead us? In general, then, the problem with the Liberal discourse is not that it fails to ask the big questions; it is that it looks increasingly like an ideological construct that is designed to prevent those questions from being asked.  It is a philosophy that is generally fearful of the state, and fearful of democracy; the constant fear that admission of the hoi polloi to real political influence will result in a decline into irrationalism.  J S Mill’s fear of universal franchise has never really gone away.  The lingering belief that if you temper the laws of the market with democracy, chaos will follow, seems to inform almost every pronouncement of the Liberal Democrat High Command. You may vote for ending tuition fees, but such a policy is, in retrospect, unaffordable.

The historical fate of Liberalism is inevitably bound up with the concept of market economics.  In the nineteenth century, when the unfettered operation of the market stood in opposition to the bloated jobbery of the state – in England in particular – Liberalism looked like – indeed was – a radical and progressive ideal.  Political reform and economic progress went hand in hand.  In the late nineteenth century our concept of the state changed – and the Liberal Party split and those who saw the state as an agent of change went into the Labour Party.  Ironically enough, Liberalism in fact provided many of the reforms that made the activist state possible; and the nonconformist conscience, formed in an age when religious exclusion was the norm for those who spurned Anglicanism, provided a radical edge (but also a sense of moral disapproval for the poor).  Prominent Liberals like Keynes and Beveridge provided the intellectual foundation of the welfare state, in which the state became an agency of progress and change.  The Liberal revival of the 1970s and 1980s coalesced around the idea of community politics, which offered the illusion of progress and empowerment while espousing an anti-state, anti-Union and pro-voluntarism stance which in many ways provides an ideological background for Orange Book Liberalism.

The decline and fall of Liberalism is at one level a tragedy.  At its best Liberalism offered an optimism, a belief in progress, a commitment to fairness and a belief in the power of human intellect in the face of ideology that represents the best of British political history. It sought to speak truth to power in a way that is wholly admirable and actually represents a necessary condition for progress. Many individual Liberal Democrat members doubtless continue to express those virtues. But, hobbled by a belief in market agency and its hostility to collective action in general and the state in particular, and faced with the crisis of late capitalism that Marx so strikingly foresaw, contemporary Liberalism has nothing to offer other than the perpetuation of that crisis.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson is that Liberalism has, since its Victorian and Edwardian days, been a strange and incongruous vessel for the aspirations and ideals of its progressive followers.  Midway through this coalition, the time has surely come for these decent people to invest their ideals elsewhere.


5 thoughts on “Nothing strange about the death of English liberalism

  1. This is really excellent stuff. There is so much rubbish written about liberalism (especially by Richard Reeves) – a great antidote. Especially good was the historical account which focuses on the right points (IMO) in the development of liberal thought.

    Certainly liberalism, like capitalism, was once radical and challenged dominant views and power structures of the day. However I feel that liberalism has had its day. It looks tired and not fit for this century; whilst Marxism seems to be having a second wind!

    I was present at the conference that the Orange Book was presented to and argued vehemently against it. The rise of the Orange Book brigade is the reason I left the Lib Dems (some years before the coalition). For me these liberals have failed to understand the most basic of critiques. Liberalism has a poor understanding of equality. Equality for liberals is treating everybody the same; but, as many on the right love to point out, we are not the same. Thus liberalism is about maintaining the inherent advantages of the powerful. It wants to keep the system fixed in favour of elite interests.

    One thinker you don’t mention (maybe as he was American) is John Rawls. Rawls’ work is concerned with this exact problem. The original state of inequality that liberalism does nothing to challenge. Rawls asked us to put ourselves behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ and design a fair system from the POV of someone who did not know whether they would be a king or a homeless person in this system. The result was ‘equal liberty for all’. Predictably Rawls’ liberalism required a strong intervention to make the system fairer (not very traditionally liberal) and he was criticised for it. Modern liberals simply hate the idea of changing the system to make it fairer (with the exception of people like Beveridge and Keyenes) any interference is seen is iliberal; private is always better than public – only private business can improve things for all. This is dogma – and it is rooted, as you correctly say, in an atomistic understanding of society. Worse, this atomistic formulation is based on rational self serving agents. Human beings have a huge capacity to care for one another and work together – the power of the collective has huge potential. Liberals turn their backs on this potential, and deny the role it has had historically in forging human societies. This reminds me of the central paradox in Thomas Hobbes’ thought. That his Leviathan could never be born from his state of nature, as a basic civil society would be needed as a condition of possibility for the social contract – yet Hobbes’ theory has to go straight from an atomistic state of nature to a full blown state – and not only did this never happen – it is not even possible.

    What is worse about modern liberals, however, is that they are committed to turning their abstract model of self serving rational agents into reality. I can think of no worse Dystopia than this.

    • I didn’t mention Rawls, largely because I don’t really see his work as having had any real influence on the English Liberal tradition (although Shirley Williams I think has written about him). I did read Rawls as part of my political theory work at University and I think he influenced my thoughts on decentralisation and localism very strongly. The point is crucial – if you want a personal liberty that has any real depth or richness you are looking at something like Erich Fromm’s concept of positive freedom (which actually predates Isiah Berlin’s more famous but similar concept of positive liberty. Perhaps everything I wrote above could be summarised as contemporary liberals turning their back on positive liberty and being left with a denuded idea of liberty that is really no different from that of Hayek or Friedman.

  2. “And Keynes demonstrates as powerfully as Marx why the policy of austerity is self-defeating: the most trenchant public critics of austerity tend to be Keynsians rather than Marxists”.

    I suspect Marx wouldn’t describe austerity as self-defeating, because I doubt he would believe it was a sincere attempt to boost the economy. While Krugman and others in the Keynesian tradition rightly ridicule “the confidence fairy”, they still assume the policy’s failure is the result of stupidity rather than part of a calculated political strategy to hand over the welfare state to capital (which is why the LibDems are on-board with it).

    Keynes thought that capitalism could be reformed, or at least rationally managed. Marx thought capitalism perfectly capable of managing itself (it’s talent for reinvention is its genius), but that it was inescapably unstable and would eventually hit the buffers. The Keynsians’ trenchancy is a mark of their anxiety. Marxists don’t get hot under the collar because they didn’t drink the kool-aid.

  3. This is a great piece.

    I think liberalism was able to unite a political coalition because its precepts were shared by all those in it, as opposed to their opponents. As the demands made on liberalism grew (as a consequence of its enfranchisement of greater numbers) the coalition started to fracture.

    Once it loses its place as the anti-reaction party, it became a psychological space more than a political programme, suited to non-confirmists of political practice who didn’t like either of the monolithic blocks that presented themselves to them, disliking the reaction of Conservatives and agitation of socialists.

    I think this piece brings out that the ‘thus far and no further’ character of liberalism, that behind a progressive face it hides a conservative core.

    As the party grew again int he 1960s,what’s instructive is that the successive waves that have joined it have further complicated the mix, with the psychological component ever more to the fore. The Young Liberals saw themselves as more left than Labour by some margin, and to some extent, their own politics echoed Eurocommunism’s break with workerism and labourism (ie, radical left politics need not be solely for parties umbilically linked to the institutions of organised labour); what’s interesting is why they were in the Liberals at all; I suspect because is was partly entryism, partly a rejection of being another left faction and partly a comfort with the idea of the Liberal party as as space for people who didn’t quite fit in elsewhere.

    The next wave in the 1980s from the SDP merger further diluted the mix. By the time Ashdown steps down, the party is a melange which has no coherent core; groups of social liberals are organised and have a clear purpose, as do the Orange bookers. Both see themselves as having much in common with labour and the Conservatives respectively, but see their own ideological and policy formulation as avoiding flaws and errors that beset those parties.

    To that extent, the central coherent core of the Liberal Democrats is that it is again a space in which people who see themselves as purer have found their way too, but beyond both wings being united in reflecting that other parties which they might once have joined are flawed, there’s no commonality beyond a basic tribalism that wants their party to win more than other parties to win.

    I went to a couple of LD conferences with my job, and asked delegates I knew what united everyone in the conference hotel bar, and what was interesting was that no-one provided an answer which actually did turn out to be shared by others, beyond hoping Lib Dems won more seats.

    It’s that failure to have a core which left the party in a position where its negotiators in the coalition couldn’t articulate a core platform around which the party could comfortably get behind and back; tin the end, the greater sociological conformity between the Orange bookers and the Tories made them easier partners, and the common agenda reflects that.

    It’s easy enough to blame Clegg and Laws et al, and easy to see both in a detoxified Conservative party, but the whole party to some extent is to blame, for their left their team naked in the conference chamber with nothing in the ideological cupboard with was authentically liberal to the extent that its achievement would compensate for the huge amount of pain the party would become complicit in inflicting. At the end, it turned out the liberalism’s decline from coherent political philosophy to a disposition finally did for it, 100 years after the first time it did for the party of organised liberalism.

    • Your description of the inability of that group of Conference Liberal Democrats to find a unifying philosophy sounds all too accurate to me; it sounds exactly like the Community Politics of my time in the Party, which, we were officially assured, was a philosophy and not an electoral tactic; but really never had anything coherent to say about the wider world other than a sort of mutual self-congratulation at having broken into the Labour-Tory electoral monopoly.

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