Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Redefining liberalism

A vast number of people these days simply define their political views as ‘liberal’. Lots of them probably truly are liberals, favouring minimal interference from the state on cultural issues (social liberalism) as well as on economic affairs (economic liberalism). Yet I can’t help thinking that only a minority of those I know who define themselves as ‘liberal’ actually favour the free-market approach to economics so fundamental in liberalism that distinguishes it from ideologies on the left.

According to Tony Judt in his excellent book Ill Fares The Land, ‘a liberal is someone who opposes interference in the affairs of others... They have historically favoured keeping other people out of our lives, leaving individuals the maximum space in which to live and flourish as they choose’, having something of a laissez faire approach to everything. Amongst other things that separate liberals from social democrats and socialists is their attitude towards the state. Real liberals usually have right-leaning individualist views, being unkeen on a great deal of state intervention. As Judt puts it: 'Whereas many liberals might see progressive taxation to pay for public services as a necessary evil, a social democratic version of the good society entails a greater role for the state and the public sector'.

I suspect lots call themselves liberals to distinguish and separate themselves from conservatives. This makes sense. On social issues, it is often as simple as liberal vs. conservative. It was a liberal home secretary (Labour's Roy Jenkins, later SDP and then Lib Dem) who legalised abortion, decriminalised homosexuality and effectively abolished capital punishment – all in the face of conservative opposition.

A few years ago, the Tory Party joined Labour and the Lib Dems in starting to largely embrace socially liberal positions, however, ensuring that the main dividing line between liberals and conservatives in this country vanished. It had been only really on social issues that there was a clear liberal vs. conservative split. Since Labour overtook the Liberal Party in 1918, the battle – as it is today – has for the most part been between social democracy and/or socialism (Labour) and free-market liberalism and/or modern-day conservatism (Tory). One of the reasons why so many Lib Dems were keen on the coalition (at least, at first) was because of their relatively similar economic policy to the Tories. It could be said that the main reason the Liberal Party and Tories never much fancied going into coalition with one another in the 70s (though Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe did have talks with PM Ted Heath in 1974) was their differing stances on social issues, a stumbling block that no longer existed in 2010, by which time the Tories too had become socially liberal.

Indeed, in the US (where, confusingly, "liberal" is generally used to mean pretty much anyone left of centre), which has yet to catch up with our modernising by abolishing the death penalty and legalising abortion and same-sex marriage in all states, it is often still a case of liberals vs conservatives on social matters (while pretty much everyone broadly agrees with the laissez faire economic approach of consecutive administrations, just disagreeing on the scale of cuts that need to be made). Because social issues like abortion are so divisive in the US and such a key part of American politics, I could understand it if an American called himself a 'liberal' and would assume him/her to be a Democrat, even though some Democrats continue to be pro-life and pro-death penalty. In this country, it's different, however. The US is an anomaly and in short simply far more right-wing than most. Just one Senator dares to define himself as a socialist, while even the most moderate form of socialism has barely been let into the country (just as many on the left still portrayed as ‘communists’ aren’t).

Some might even say that liberalism has won in this country: that all three parties are now predominantly liberal. Certain figures on the left of Labour would argue with that, as would some right-wing Tories, but that it’s a credible argument shows that calling yourself a ‘liberal’ today is really not being very specific at all and gives no indication of which party you’d be most likely to support. If anything, it's suggesting you're closer to the coalition than to the Labour Party. Liberalism is indeed more evident in coalition policies than in Labour's past and present, I would argue, and calling oneself 'a liberal' in my mind does put you ideologically closer to the coalition than to Labour. Maybe you are, but I doubt a great deal of those who define themselves as 'liberal' really do agree more with the Tories than with Labour.

Don’t get me wrong, ‘liberal’ can be a great descriptive term. It’s apt to describe a certain type of parenting (which I approve of) or to illustrate Ken Clarke’s stance on crime (which I also approve of). It’s just the ambiguity that comes about if one describe their political views as ‘liberal’ that I’m worried about. The purpose of this post is not to prove that social democracy is superior to liberalism, nor to criticise anyone who has simply defined themselves as ‘a liberal’. It’s more to try and urge people who had hitherto described their views as ‘liberal’ to change the way they describe their views, not their views themselves.

Of course, there’s almost always a wide range of individuals under any ideological umbrella. From revolutionary socialists to the moderate socialists widespread in the Labour Party, from Cameroons to hardline conservatives on the right of the party... Yet the range of people who call themselves liberals is more diverse than any; too diverse, it seems. On the left, you have a range from Jenkins to Gandhi. On the right, you have folks from Nick Clegg to Austrian economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek.

Hayek was one of the great defenders of classical liberalism and apologists for free-market capitalism. He was not a conservative (he even wrote an essay titled Why I Am Not A Conservative) but the economic policies he advocated were considerably more right-wing than those of Conservative Prime Ministers Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath. I’m a social democrat whose main enemy (being in the Labour Party) is the Tory Party. I agree far more often, however, with David Cameron, a ‘conservative’ who sits on the centre-right, than with Hayek, a right-wing ‘liberal’ so repulsed by any kind of socialism that he in 1944 audaciously claimed that electing a Labour government would bring fascism to the UK.

Nichi Vendola, one of my favourite Italian politicians, once said: ‘Communism asked a wonderful question, but it also provided a terrible answer’. Maybe this blog post isn’t too dissimilar. What should someone who has until now described themselves as ‘a liberal’ call themselves? I’m not sure. That depends on what they are. A fiscal conservative with socially liberal views? A liberal economically with progressive views on everything but taxation? Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, does it? Maybe one day, though, either someone will dream up a new term or two, or people will describe their political views in more detail rather than by just using the l-word.


  1. Very much in agreeance. I am very much on the left liberal, and not a social democrat - I am a democratic socialist. Disagreeing with the Tories has spawned this outbreak of the L word, and I very much hope that Nick Clegg's poor efforts in government so far will help curb it!

  2. Thanks guys. I'm sure we agree on most things, Jacob. Might explain in full why I consider myself a social democrat in a future blog post; am certainly not particularly hostile to democratic socialism.