Thursday, June 23, 2011

The social liberalism and social democracy debate

On Saturday morning, before I caught the bus to Northampton, I wrote a brief post about that day's first Social Liberal Forum (SLF) conference. As well as wishing it well, I asked how social liberalism differed from a social democracy.

That post elicited a remarkable response, both in the comments and in posts on other blogs.

Some attempted to answer the question, but those answers varied widely. In the comments on the post Simon Titley assured me that social liberalism and social democracy are two very different things, as I need only read David Howarth’s chapter in Reinventing the State (a book I briefly reviewed when it came out) to discover.

Meanwhile on Twitter (I am never comfortable linking to tweets on this blog - it feels like telling tales out of school - but I suppose it is best to give a link if you are quoting someone directly), Evan Harris told me:
Well SLF = Social Democrats plus social justice minded liberals. no?
A question that can receive such different answers was probably worth asking.

The person who got the gently teasing tone of my post, and realised that it was my friends on the radical wing of the party who were being teased, was Decline of the Logos. But other replies took it far more seriously.

Evan Harris, again on Twitter, thought I was finding argument where none exists, when I wasn't aware that I was arguing at all.

Meanwhile James Graham devoted a whole, rather bad-tempered post, to replying to me:
the implication of Jonathan’s post is of course that social liberals are merely atavistic social democrats.
No, I was merely asking how they are different. And the implication is that the SLF would do well to devote a little time to making this clear.

There are good things in James post. His characterisation of people who:
tend to think that labelling something as “fundamentally illiberal” in thunderous tones tends to make a good substitute for actual argument
will be familiar to anyone who has spent much time in Liberal or Liberal Democrat circles.

However, though James declares himself dissatisfied by political labels, the SLF must have had its reason for adopting the "social liberal" label and it must be legitimate for others to ask what they were.

And I cannot decide whether James’s suggestion that we should call ourselves “socialist liberals” is a philosophical own goal or a very subtle joke.

So let me try to make my own position clear.

For as long as I can remember, radical Liberals and Liberal Democrats have, when asked, said that distinguishes their views (and often what distinguishes them from socialists in particular) is that they believe in something like freedom, localism, co-operation and individuality.

At the same time, they get very nervous when this philosophy threatens to lead them to positions that do not fall within what one may term the Guardian orthodoxy. This holds that political progress lies, not only in more and more spending on public services, but in more and more areas of our life falling under the stewardship of government.

To me there is a clear contradiction here, and it is not one that can be solved by making reference to long-unread theorists like T.H. Green or L.T. Hobhouse.

The work of developing this nebulous modern Liberal philosophy of freedom, localism, co-operation and individuality, and of showing that it will be of benefit to the poorer half of society, is daunting. But it seems to me that it is the task to which the philosophical labours of the Liberal Democrats should be directed.

Maybe the SLF will set itself to do this. I hope it will.

But when people are writing articles with titles like This is the Social Liberal moment, others are bound to want to know more about what this social liberalism is. And one good way of understanding a concept is to ask how it differs from other, similar concepts.

1 comment:

dreamingspire said...

Salman Rushdie on BBC R4 Today, last Tuesday (June 21st) (my transcript):

The current unrest shows young people that there is another way.
It may well, in different parts of the Arab world, pan out in different ways. Young people want liberty and jobs. This is not ideologically driven, not theologically driven, not about religion, not about Marxism. Its about these universal values of liberty and a hope. They want the ability to shape their own lives, want to make their own decisions about the society, want to have the hope for the future for themselves.
That’s what’s driving it, and I think that it shows us something which I suspect we may have forgotten, which is that these are universal values.
The problem with cultural relativism as it has grown up in the West is that you are encouraged to think of people from, say, the Muslim part of the world as essentially different, responding to different motivations, whereas this [the ‘Arab Spring’] shows us that is not true, it shows us actually that everybody wants the same thing: a good life.
** end quote *

The point seems to be that liberty, not specifically a democratic structure for the state, is the universal value. Is that where the Social Liberals are?