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Breaking the golden thread

Does the yellow of Lib Dem rosettes represent a 'golden thread' of social liberalism, or a streak of cowardice in the face of Tory cuts? Anthony Arblaster looks at the roots of the Lib Dems' present difficulties

August 5, 2010
7 min read

The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, which was probably discussed and planned for before the election, will do no harm to the Tories, and has some obvious advantages for Cameron and the Cameroons. But it will most likely prove to be an historic disaster for the Lib Dems, much of whose electoral appeal depends on their being seen as an alternative to the Tories, not their junior partner.

What has shocked many rank-and-file party members, as well as a number of local leaders, has been the enthusiasm with which Nick Clegg and his allies have endorsed the Tory agenda of laying waste to vast areas of public services and public spending. The coalition is using the public deficit as a heaven-sent opportunity to attack and even demolish key sections of the welfare state, and while Clegg and his friends seem happy enough about this, his party is uneasy and unhappy. Speaking to the Liverpool Echo, the leader of the Lib Dem group on the city council, Warren Bradley, spoke of feeling ‘physically sick’ on hearing of the coalition’s cuts to the school building programme.

‘I simply do not believe that there is no money for schools. The funding of Trident and the war in Afghanistan costs billions of pounds, so if we cannot find £1 billion a year to improve children’s education then it’s a sad indictment of the state of the government and the country,’ Bradley said.

‘I will not be toeing the national party line just because we’re in a weak coalition. That will deliver nothing to the Lib Dems except total electoral decimation. I give you that absolute guarantee: we will be wiped out by Labour in the north and the Tories in the south.’ Rather than rushing into government jobs, Nick Clegg and colleagues ‘should … emphasise that social justice is the golden thread which runs through our party’, Bradley argues.

He is surely not alone in believing that cuts on this scale were neither what Liberal Democrats were campaigning for in the election, nor what Lib Dem voters were voting for.

This tension may or may not bring down the coalition. Either way, as Bradley suggests, it will do terrible damage to the Lib Dems at the local level. The support they have slowly built up over many years in major cities such as Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield and Hull is already melting away. The erosion may become an avalanche in next May’s local elections. No wonder local Lib Dem leaders and activists are worried.

Unresolved conflict

What has gone wrong? The standard response is to point to the left-right divide among the Lib Dems, and that is correct as far as it goes. But what this division really reflects is an unresolved conflict within the liberal tradition that first developed in the late 19th century, and helped to bring about the dramatic collapse of the British Liberal Party in the first 30 years of the 20th century.

This conflict was about the role of the state, and in particular the relation of state intervention to personal and individual liberty, or freedom. The traditional liberal view of freedom is simple: we are free to the extent that we are not controlled, regulated, taxed, interfered with, or subject to laws, rules and commands. From this point of view, the state, law and government are necessarily the enemy, always threatening to order us about, and often, alas, succeeding. This kind of liberalism is close to anarchism, or what is often nowadays called libertarianism.

In the 19th century it was anti-interventionist. Most liberals opposed factory legislation, designed to regulate the hours and conditions in which people were expected to work. Such legislation was instead championed by radical Tories. When the great Whig/Liberal leader Lord Palmerston was asked in 1864 what were his plans for domestic legislation, he replied with evident exasperation: ‘There is really nothing to be done. We cannot go on adding to the statute book ad infinitum … we cannot go on legislating forever.’

The legislation went on regardless. And many Liberals began to re-think their attitude to state intervention. Urged on by philosophers such as T H Green and D G Ritchie, they began to argue that the state could be used to increase personal liberty, not diminish it. ‘State assistance, rightly directed, may extend the bounds of liberty,’ said leading Liberal politician Herbert Samuel. And the Liberal thinker L T Hobhouse argued: ‘There are many enemies of liberty besides the state, and it is in fact by the state that we have fought them.’

Their conception of liberty was positive, not negative. It stressed the importance of ability and real opportunity. Freedom of the press means little or nothing to those who cannot read. How meaningful was it to say that anyone was free to stay at the Savoy hotel if 90 per cent of people could not afford to do so? The New Liberals wanted to empower ordinary people so that they could make use of these largely nominal freedoms.

As the Liberal leader and prime minister Herbert Asquith put it, ‘To be really free, [people] must be able to make the best use of faculty, opportunity, energy, life.’ Hence his party defended the introduction of compulsory education, old-age pensions, and other state-provided services, as ways in which the real, substantive freedom of the mass of the people was increased, not diminished.

Facile rhetoric

Now contrast these statements from Liberals of a century and more ago with what Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been saying about the values they apparently have in common. ‘We share a conviction that the days of big government are over; that centralisation and top-down control have proved a failure.’

Mainstream conservatism, especially in the wake of Thatcher, is, with its commitment to free-market capitalism, naturally hostile to ‘big government’ and ‘the state’. And proclamations that ‘big’, ‘top-down’ government is a thing of the past, are two-a-penny. They are seen as an easy way to win popularity. But to find the Lib Dems going along with this facile rhetoric of liberalism marks a rejection of the tradition represented by New Liberalism and a reversion instead to the crude, hard-faced anti-statism and anti-interventionism of the mid-19th century.

Two of the most important architects of the post-1945 social democratic settlement were leading figures in the Liberal Party: Keynes and Beveridge. But when did you hear Clegg or Huhne, or even Cable, invoke them? If they were genuinely ‘progressive’ Liberals, they would be proud of the role their forebears played in alleviating poverty, creating the welfare state and establishing the principle of full employment. But they say nothing about it.

Probably they are ashamed of it. From the enthusiasm with which they have identified themselves with the Tory attack on welfare and the programme of public spending cuts, we should probably conclude that either they have never read Keynes, or they think he was wrong. The current Liberal Democrat leadership, in other words, has gone back to its 19th-century roots, and rejected the advances in understanding made by the New Liberals, and by Keynes and Beveridge. Is it any wonder the party’s rank-and-file are so restive?

Whether Labour, under new leadership, can effectively exploit the Liberal retreat remains to be seen. Labour has conceded so much to the rampant market philosophy that it may not be able to regain the social democratic initiative. But the opportunity is there: to re-assert the positive and beneficial role of the state and public authorities, not only in reducing poverty and inequality, but also in increasing the real, substantive freedom of the great majority of the population, who, without state support and welfare provision, would lead wretchedly constricted lives.

The Liberal Democrats have lost sight of their own tradition and will pay the price. The left never should.

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