Tuesday, May 17, 2011

GUEST POST Towards a Liberal Democrat ideology

Simon Beard is a philosophy student at the LSE and blogs regularly for ResPublica.

Liberal ideology appears a mass of contradictions. To outsiders we are centrist, however we view ourselves as radicals, we believe in freedom but often propose new laws and regulations rather than opposing them. We are home to some of the strongest supporters of privatisation and nationalisation.

Given these differences it is perhaps natural that we hide behind the notion of being a moderate voice in a conservative government. However this is not good enough. Both because nobody votes for moderation, people vote for what they agree with, and because it isn't actually true, there are many areas where the government is being decidedly middle of the road and we are pushing for it to be radical.

As a party we need to remember both where we occupy the centre ground between frankly insane ideological extremes, and where we remain the true voice of radicalism in this country.

Three areas where we are radical
Constitutionalism – Unlike the other parties Liberals believe in constitutional reform (the disestablishment of the Church, the separation of powers, strengthening local government and electoral reform). This is because we care about the way things are done, not just what is achieved, and because we realise that when the ends justify the means the only winners are those with the power to select the ends.

Internationalism – Liberals have always taken a global view and have stood up for globalisation. In the 19th century it was free trade and anti-colonialism that concerned us, in the 20th century peace and
nuclear disarmament and now it is migration and international environmental problems such as climate change. We have consistently opposed short term protectionism and stand up for our longer-term interest, which is global.

Individualism – Whilst Liberals have, rightly, acted to reduce personal freedom, such as the freedom to participate in cruel blood sports, we continue to stand out in supporting the individual as the fundamental unit of society. Both Labour and the Tories are coming increasingly under the control of their communitarian 'blue' and 'red' wings respectively, however for Lib Dems there is no community, be it church, trades union, business or neighbourhood, that is more important than its members.

Three areas where we are centrists
Markets – Liberals support markets, but only those very small number of markets that are actually competitive, work with good information and are open to new entrants. Most government created markets are not up to this standard and fail as a result. Nevertheless Lib Dems are divided over the extent to which the risks of market failure can outweigh the potential market efficiency.

The role of the state – Liberals have long realised that individuals sometimes require state support if they are to achieve their full potential. However, we also realise that the state can trap people into dependency and believe that people's lives are not lived to the full if they cannot find a productive place in society. We therefore favour social spending that builds peoples assets, and oppose that which either limits their choices or turns them into clients of the state.

Regulation and planning – Liberals love regulation, but only because it is a necessary corrective. Nobody is more opposed to the free market then large corporations who wish to stifle competition and socialise as many public costs and risks as possible. Protecting our market economy from corporations that seek protection, monopoly and unfair advantage requires careful planning and regulation. However, this should never be a solution in search of a problem.

It is right that in these three areas, where we fall between the two main parties and that our policy reflects the views of experts. It is also right that in these areas we act as a moderating influence in government.

However, it is entirely wrong to lose sight of just how radical we are, and how when we get beyond these areas we remain radically opposed to the mainstream political opinion of our country.

And it is precisely because our position on the constitution, our place in the world and the importance of the individual are unpopular that we should not lose the opportunity we have in government to put some of them into practice. These are the things we most care about, and this is the way to enjoy our time in government.

Now read Simon Beard's first guest post for Liberal England: In praise of slow government.


Simon Titley said...

This is less “towards a Liberal Democrat ideology”, more an arid cataloguing exercise.

Our ideology is more than a theoretical abstraction. It springs from our humanity. It is about how we live our lives and the sort of society we wish to live in.

The preamble to the Liberal Democrats’ constitution (at www.libdems.org.uk/constitution.aspx), especially the first paragraph, summarises the party’s ideology admirably.

If I were to establish a rationale for Liberal Democrat ideology, I would start like this:

Each of us is on this planet for a relatively short period of time. In that short time, each of us seeks to lead a good life. But, each of us has a unique personality and so each person will have a distinct idea of what will fulfil them. Therefore, the only person who can decide what constitutes a good life is ourselves; it is not something others can decide for us. To be able to make those decisions, we need freedom – not merely an absence of restraint but the practical ability to exercise freedom; not merely a ‘chance’ at the start of our lives but an ability that lasts throughout our lives. Hence we should see freedom in terms of ‘agency’, which means the capacity of individuals to make meaningful choices about their lives and to influence the world around them.

Our political mission is therefore to ensure each person's freedom.

Our starting point is our humanity. We value people above things; we do not make a fetish of the state or of markets.

That strikes me as both a moral and coherent basis for our philosophy. Where is the “mass of contradictions” in that?

And ‘moderation’ and ‘radicalism’ are not fundamental to our ideology. They are responses to a given condition. If a situation is fundamentally illiberal, a liberal is a radical. If a situation is only a tad illiberal, a liberal is a moderate.

Jon said...

Good post, but I'm with Simon Titley's comments above.