Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nick Clegg's The Liberal Moment: Chapter 2

Let's look at the second chapter of Nick Clegg's Demos pamphlet. (I discussed chapter 1 here - at this rate of progress it will all be over by Christmas.)

Chapter 2 is titled "The progressive split" and looks at the way the Labour Party supplanted the Liberals after the First World War.

There is something wonderfully eccentric in a political leader issuing a pamphlet discussing the finer points of the Liberal Party's performance in the 1923 general election. I certainly don't want to discourage that, but I do wonder at the way Nick presents the rise of Labour as split in something called "the Progressive Alliance" (the capitals are his).

Many Liberals saw it as their duty, in the period before 1914, to encourage the representation of working men in the Commons. But when those working men got there most showed that socialism - or British Labourism - is a very different thing from liberalism.

And for modern Liberal Democrats our anti-Labourism is just as important as our anti-Conservatism. I knew I was not a Tory early on, but as a teenager I felt quite warm towards Labour. My intellectual opposition to Labour came developed when I was a student - partly due to the Labour left's equivocation over the Soviet regime.

I am also distrustful of this idea of a free-floating spirit of progressivism that alights from time to time upon different parties. It all sounds a bit sub-Hegelian to me.

It is great to see Nick discussing Peter Clarke's book Liberals and Social Democrats - a book I recommend to all liberals. It was much discussed at the time of the Liberal/SDP Alliance, but it always seemed something of a Rorschach blot to me.

Social democrats thought Clarke was arguing that in the Edwardian period liberals and social democrats were essentially the same thing. To liberals - or at least this liberal - the book thrillingly revealed a lost world of radical liberal intellectuals whose ideology was quite different from social democracy and had dwindled with the Liberal Party.

If The Liberal Moment does no more than send Liberal Democrats off to read Clarke's book it will have been well worth publishing.

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