I am a Liberal and am instinctively suspicious of qualifying adjectives, whether "economic" or "social", but let's have a look at what the advertisement has to say.
It tells us that the Forum does five things, and with three of them I am entirely comfortable. They are:
- Rejects any electoral pacts with any party and any pre-election preference for future working with any other party.
- Seeks to help create and communicate a distinctive Liberal Democrat position on government policies and their implementation.
- Campaigns to maintain the internal democracy, transparency and vitality of the Liberal Democrats as an independent political party.
But there are two further points that make me hesitate. They read:
- Works to develop - as a priority - a distinctive, radical and progressive set of politics and manifesto for the next election.
- Opposes the adoption of any non-progressive or illiberal policies by the coalition.
I don't believe the Social Liberal Forum is "radical", if being radical means going to the root of things and proposing the reconstruction of society on new principles. It seems more concerned with defending what remains of the post-war social democratic settlement.
And that doesn't worry me. Because these days I find the doctrine that society can or should be reconstructed from first principles inherently dangerous. All democratic and humane politics is a matter of gently moving society in one direction or another. What matters, what democratic debate is about, is the direction in which you wish to moves things.
Which brings us to "progressive".
Am I wrong to think that this is a word that has entered Liberal Democrat discourse in the last few years and that it has come their from the Labour Party? Certainly, I associate the word as it is used in Labour circles with the idea progress consists in more and more areas of social life coming under the control of the state and the professionals that it certifies.
For instance, to me progress does not involve children spending increasing amounts of time in SureStart centres: it involves parents increasingly having the time and the confidence to care for their children themselves. (See Passport to Liberty 5 from Liberator if you want to read more of my views.)
Perhaps I am being unfair, but if this is what is meant by "progress" I am not a progressive. And that is why I shall not be joining the Social Liberal Forum.