Monday, September 21, 2009

Nick Clegg's The Liberal Moment: Chapter 1

It's five days since I was sent a copy of Nick Clegg's new Demos pamphlet The Liberal Moment. High time that I started reviewing it.

Chapter 1

A couple of passages interest me here.

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

At the core of conservative thought is a determination to preserve, protect and defend. Conservatives are primarily governed by caution about the unintended consequences of change, reluctant to change the status quo, especially to alter the social pecking order in society.

Conservatives tend to believe we are at risk of decline if we don’t protect things as they are; progressives tend to believe we are capable of more, and better, if only we change the way things are.

The concept "progressive" is currently extremely. It is being used so widely - it is, for instance, claimed by all three main political parties - that I wonder how much it really means.

The definition Nick gives - "the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society" - does not answer all these doubts. The idea of what constitutes social justice varies greatly from party to party and from person to person. I am sure that Mrs Thatcher saw her governments as making society more just. She would have seen herself as allowing those who work hard to win the rewards they deserve.

I also wonder whether an uncomplicated optimism about the future really characterises modern liberalism. Certainly, many of the local campaigns we engage in involve defending the status quo. My own current concern for the Bowstring Bridge in Leicester is a good example of this.

The truth, I suspect, is that somewhere around the oil crisis of 1973 most liberals gave up on this version of progress and embraced concern for the environment and their local communities as a central feature of their philosophy. Nick straightforward dichotomy between progressive and conservatives does not recognise this important shift in liberal belief.

The second passage from chapter 1 that interests me runs:

Progressive liberalism has always been and always will be about the dispersal and distribution of power. Liberalism conventionally starts with the notion of freedom; a central abiding tenet of liberalism is the harm principle – that a man or woman must be free to do as they choose except where it affects or limits another’s freedom. It is articulated most clearly by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty in 1859:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

The minor point here is that Lloyd George was certainly a progressive liberal in that he was irreducibly anti-conservative, but he was not much interested in the dispersal of power. You can make a strong case that it was his government that built the modern centralised British state.

More importantly, while I am delighted to see John Stuart Mill and On Liberty quoted in a pamphlet by a Lib Dem leader, I am sorry to see the idea that it is the "harm principle" that is important about Mill's book.

As I wrote in an article for Liberator a couple of years ago:

It seems we have become obsessed by Mill’s harm principle. Yet it is only a small part of On Liberty: the essence of that work is not concerned with curbing liberty at all but is a glorious hymn in favour of its expansion.Writing in Prospect magazine last year, Richard Reeves put it well:

for Mill, liberty consists of much more than being left alone. It requires choice-making by the individual. "He who lets the world… choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation," he writes. "He who chooses his plan for himself employs all his faculties." For Mill, a good life must be a chosen life.

Or as The Levellers said more recently: "There's only one way of life, and that's your own, your own, your own."

The reason the harm principle is cited so often, I suggested, is that those who are arguing in favour of curbs on our liberty find it easy to quote Mill in their support.

And sure enough, when Nick returns to the principle in a later chapter it is to make this point:
Liberalism is not a doctrine of anarchy. Mill, who (sic.) I quoted earlier, did not argue that power should never be exercised against an individual but that power should be exercised against an individual to prevent harm to others.
No, we are not anarchists, and Mill pointed the way to a greener view of economics that is very attractive to modern liberals. But let's not blame him every time we make a compromise.

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