Look, here’s a picture of my party’s leader being impressive with a world leader:cleggromney
Yes, that’s certainly an impressive sight of him looking not at all uncomfortable with a major world figure. Or it’s a picture of him doing a weird thing with his hands while talking to Mitt Romney. That’s all right, though, as I’ve definitely got a picture of him looking confident and relaxed while President Obama is hanging on his every word, and definitely not looking past him on his way out of the room: cleggobama
I only bring this up because apparently Lib Dem Voice and others think this is meaningful political commentary:


Ho ho ho! Ed Miliband’s looking awkward again, isn’t it hilarious! There’s no way he’s just having a serious discussion with one of the world’s most powerful people in a time of several international crises and, by applying basic common sense, has realised it’s not a time to look relaxed and jovial.

When they said ‘politics is showbiz for ugly people’ they didn’t mean that it needed its own version of Heat magazine or the Sidebar of Shame, yet that’s what a lot of supposed commentary has descended to. ‘Hey look! In this one picture we’ve plucked out of the thousands that were taken of them yesterday, politician X looks a bit awkward! That fits our narrative, so we’ll print it!’ is merely the political equivalent of ‘Are Celebrities X and Y about to break up? Look at these pictures of them out together, where we’ve only chosen the ones where they’re looking away from each other or not smiling to prove the point we’ve already decided. By the way, there’s absolutely no way that they’re looking angry or glum because what they thought was some private time has been disturbed in order for us to fill some space and attract some clicks.’

Cherry-picking photos to make a fatuous point makes showbiz journalism look stupid, and if political commentary is going to go the same way, then we might as well give up now and replace voting with asking who’s got the best diet for fitting back into your Parliamentary suit after a recess.

But to be fully equal opportunity, here’s a picture of David Cameron hovering awkwardly in the background while Obama plays table tennis. Happy now?
cameronobama

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Freedom_of_Thought_Ben_Franklin(This is the sixth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and my original post on the book is here.)

“It is only if people’s answers are their own that they will hold them with enough conviction to have any reasonable chance of acting on them.”

Given how central issues of individual liberty are to modern liberalism, it can seem curious that Russell only introduces it as a key component quite late in the book. As I’ve noted before, though, Russell’s primary focus on liberalism as an ideology is historical, and individual liberty – as represented by Mill’s On Liberty – arrived quite late in the history of liberalism. It’s worth recalling that On Liberty is closer in time to the present day (and twentieth century evocations of liberal ideas like Popper, Rawls and others) than it is to Locke’s Two Treatises On Government. That’s not to say that liberalism didn’t care about individual rights and liberty before Mill but more that, as Russell’s general thesis suggests, liberals hadn’t worked through the full implications of their principles in such depth until Mill wrote. Numerous radicals – John Wilkes, for instance – had called for greater civil liberty for the individual, and that empowerment of the individual had been part of the Radical tradition, but it perhaps took Mill to bring it more tightly into the Liberal fold. (And as Russell points out, it took some time before his ideas were widely accepted, even within liberalism)

It’s interesting to note how much an invocation of Mill is sometimes taken as Holy Writ (as I parodied here) and purely by chance, this link appeared on Twitter as I was writing this post. Note the key question is not ‘Do the principles espoused by Mill favour regulating pornography?’ but ‘would Mill regulate pornography?’ to which the answer should only be ‘he’s long dead, so what does it matter?’. The key point for liberalism is the principle Mill espoused, notably the harm principle:

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.

Like all good political principles, it’s simple enough to state but closer examination reveals its very wide implications, and it could well be argued that we are still working through the full implications of it, not least the question of what limits apply to the ‘prevent harm to others’ clause.

As Russell discusses, one of the important changes in liberalism that Mill introduced – and the implications of which have unfolded over the century since – has been the decoupling of politics and morality. That is not to claim that Mill render all politics immoral, but that following the harm principle includes the recognition that it is not the place of politics to legislate morality. This is perhaps one of the important victories – in British politics, at least – of the harm principle in the recognition that merely offending someone does not harm them. That’s not to say that battle is fully won, but the principle moves forward through a number of small victories and it’s interesting that Russell mentions equal marriage as a potential future battle, anticipating what would come over the next decade or more.

Indeed, Russell reveals here views that were perhaps not as mainstream then as they are now, even though it was only fifteen years ago. It’s a reflection of how fast we have moved in some areas but also how he was able to work through the consequences of the principles of liberalism to understand that certain issues needn’t be contentious, for instance the simple belief that it’s not for the state to proscribe what a family is or isn’t but just to accept that those who believe they are a family, are a family. That simple principle that individuals who are harming no one else should be free to live their lives how they see fit is at the core of liberalism because it builds from the earliest principles of it. It says that there is a definite limit to all power, that it should not affect the individual without their consent, and that our strength lies in our pluralism and diversity, where the individual’s voice isn’t silenced.

It strikes me that there is one area Russell left out of the book that might reflect the times he wrote it in. Issues of privacy, surveillance and civil liberty were on the political agenda in the 1990s, particularly with the increased prevalence of CCTV as the cost of implementing it fell, but they hadn’t reached the levels they did over the next decade, particularly after September 11th, and that probably explains why he left them out of his account. New Labour had yet to fully reveal its full authoritarian streak in 1999, and the world was still in the last flush of optimism after the end of the Cold War, and the era of the surveillance state appeared to be waning.

Sorry, was just indulging in a spot of nostalgia for an easier time there, but it’s easy to see how an optimist like Russell might have regarded that as a battle that had been won and did not need to be fought again in the pages of his book. This, though, is another battle where authoritarian urges of the state come up against fundamental principles – and perhaps explain why it’s when they’re thought to have given way on issues like this in Government, the Liberal Democrat leadership have faced some of the biggest backlash from the membership, as he may have anticipated when he wrote

Liberalism is what liberal members believe, and that part of their task is to remind Liberal governments of it when they become unduly tempted by power.

Liberal principles say that the state shouldn’t have arbitrary powers over the individual and the individual has the right to live their life free of interference. Again, this is where we see liberal principles intertwining – liberalism wants to limit the power of the state and protect the individual, both of which are threatened by the desires of an over-mighty state to see everything and use that as a basis for control. It becomes a question of where you draw the line on the harm principle and if one can justify actions of restricting liberty because you feel that is the only way to prevent some possible future harm. It’s an ongoing debate, and one I’m not going to pretend to have a definitive answer for, though one liberal principle in any of this would be to question whether these are powers to be used in relation to individuals, groups or entire populations? One can legitimately believe an individual is going to cause harm given the right evidence, but can it ever be justified to monitor a large group or an entire population on a fishing expedition to find that evidence and justification? The liberal principle would say that no it isn’t, that it is giving the state arbitrary powers and establishing the machinery of repression.

This is how liberalism comes to assert the importance of individual liberty. Liberalism recognises that power needs to be controlled and limited, and the ability to do that lies within individuals, which brings us to the quote I started this post with. Liberalism cannot force liberty on to people in the name of creating a free utopia, it can only inform and persuade in the hope they accept it. All power rests on consent, but that must be truly informed consent that can only come with an understanding and acceptance of liberty, not an assumption of it.

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earth(This is the fifth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3, 4 and my original post on the book is here.)

When it comes to internationalism, Russell’s historical account of the development of liberal thought shows how the application of consistent principles to international affairs over the years have resulted in very different outcomes of liberal policy as the international situation has shifted. It’s interesting – and not at all coincidental – to note that liberalism began to form as a coherent ideology in the middle of the seventeenth century, just as the modern world system of nation-states came into being after the treaties of Westphalia. As we’ve seen from previous posts, liberalism is centred on the principle of consent, and Westphalia, in a very limited fashion initially, introduced the idea that political power did involve consent and was not merely about the application of absolute power downwards.

However, while there may have been a nascent potential for internationalism in liberalism from its beginnings, it couldn’t develop into a fully-formed part of it until it became practical from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Even at that point, internationalism was primarily an idea of the elites, particularly in Britain, as mass transport and mass communication were yet to arrive on the scene and most people would have had little conception of what was happening within the rest of the country, let alone outside its borders. As Russell notes, during that period there was an alliance of liberalism and nationalism, as revolutionaries sought to overthrow the old systems to replace them with nation-states built on the consent of the people, but then the two diverged as the realisation dawned upon liberals that nationalism had released the monsters that would haunt the twentieth century. At first impression, nationalism had seemed to Gladstone and others as a way to create governments based on consent rather than authority, but time would reveal that the complexities of identity and community would make that wish impossible to realise.

Thus, while the principle of consent remains important, in the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond we can see the other core principle of liberalism at work in the international system – that all power must be able to be controlled. The principle of consent believed that control could be solely applied from below and that states would be controlled by the granting or refusing of power from their people, which may have seemed plausible to nineteenth century elites. However, the twentieth century had shown that states now had enough power (following industrialisation, mass media etc) to be able to influence and control their people. If power could not be controlled solely from below, then liberal internationalism would support control from above.

This is how we come to have the liberal internationalism we see today, and that I touched on in the post on pluralism, where power is controlled by being dispersed and no one – especially no government – is above the law. It’s actually one of the great successes of international liberalism that so much has changed since 1945 in establishing an international system that’s generally in line with liberal principles. Perhaps there’s an interesting lesson in the way the international system has developed, in that it’s mostly been an organic and responsive process rather that’s been driven by necessity rather than by campaigning?

That is not to say that we have a perfect system, as can be seen by either looking at the world we live in or looking at how many people are out there propounding their theories of international relations (still one of the consistently growing fields in academic social sciences). There are many liberals who are absolutely sure they know the way to fix everything – in domestic and international affairs – if only everyone would agree to adopt their specific way of doing things. This is something Russell notes, and explains why his section on internationalism ends with a Popper-esque warning against dreaming of utopias:

All utopias depend on one person’s vision taking priority over another’s and therefore they all come into existence, if at all, by the draconian enforcement of one person’s vision on others. All utopias are potentially dictatorial. The beauty of the idealism is soon taken to obscure the beastliness of the enforcement. This is why utopias are not a liberal pursuit. A creed which is founded on consent and on respect for difference of ideals is one which can dream dreams, but when awake, it can never be utopian without abandoning its own essence.

This, I think, is the core of liberal internationalism that is sometimes forgotten by those that use the term. It’s interesting that Russell wrote this four years before we were led into war in Iraq in service of a supposed ‘liberal internationalism’ that essentially argued that it could bring about a liberal end by the use of illiberal means. Those ends, of course, were never delivered, but even if they could have been, the true meaning of internationalism within liberalism is that it applies to everyone. Part of the lessons liberals learnt in the twentieth century was that the elite liberalism that had encouraged nationalism in the nineteenth century had been a mistake, and one of the lessons twenty-first century liberalism is learning is a similar lesson that liberal ends cannot be achieved, no matter how tempting they may appear:

However desperate the need for haste, there are no short cuts. Desperate need for haste does not make it possible to do a job faster than it can be done. The route by consent may be painfully slow, but it is the only route which does not become dictatorial and therefore self-defeating. It may not be fast enough to do what is needed, but it is the only route there is.

I think this rejection of utopia and promotion of the importance of consent provides a very interesting idea for liberalism in international affairs. It’s not a vision of ‘this is where we must get to, now plot a route to get us there regardless’ more ‘these are the routes available, which best represents our principles?’ It fits in with Russell’s general view of liberalism as principles that have emerged from dealing with power in reality, rather than drawing up utopian visions and then expecting to be able to conform reality to fit with that vision. However, it also rejects the conservative interpretation of ‘this is how things are, and we better not change much in case we make it worse’ in saying that things can be better as long as we hold on to our principles.

Even though Russell doesn’t acknowledge it, this is surely borrowed from Karl Popper’s vision of the Open Society (and I sense that I may need to follow up this project with a reread of The Open Society and Its Enemies) which rejects the utopias of Plato and Marx but advocates that it is possible to make a better world if we accept that it is not a simple thing to do and we must be aware of the pitfalls of believing in utopias. We cannot use the end of a supposed liberal utopia to justify means that are not liberal, because once we abandon our principles, they do not automatically come back and forgive us our deviations. A liberal order can only be built by people acting liberally and the final shape it might take can only be based on consent.

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Let’s say you want to see the House of Lords replaced by an elected chamber. ‘Great!’ Someone tells you. ‘Then you’ll love my plan! I want the upper house to consist of three hundred senators, each one elected from a single constituency at each General Election with the same electoral system as MPs, will you support me?’ You say no, because that’s not the sort of upper house you want to see, but before you can talk about the flaws in that plan or explain a way to improve it, the proposer starts telling you that you’re clearly not interested in electing an upper house because if you were you’d support their idea whole-heartedly and then make any changes after it’s introduced.

It’s an odd example, but it’s how I feel after encountering the people who are proposing that the Liberal Democrats switch to ‘one member, one vote’ (no more local party representatives at party conference, and federal committees elected by all members not just conference reps). Various people – including me – who aren’t opposed to widening the electoral franchise or changing the way Conference works have pointed out that there are various flaws with the current proposals, and in return the response has come that we clearly don’t support the idea at all, and that if there are problems then we should support the proposal as it is and look to fix them afterwards.

The problem I have with the proposals is that they fall into a trap that’s common in British politics in assuming that democracy is about voting for things, so if we have more people able to vote for more things then we must be more democratic, right? This ignores the fact that democracy is a process, not an event, and to make something ‘more democratic’ is about more than just reforming voting procedures. Whoever the electorate is, they need to be engaged and informed about the process they’re part of, and there are no proposals to change that process.

At an electoral level, there’s no commitment to change or invest in the electoral process to ensure that members are actually able to make an informed choice about who they’re voting for. As it stands, we’re likely to get more manifestos that say effectively nothing and have to rely on individual members giving up a lot of their time to ensure there’s any scrutiny of people standing for election. If we want a more open and democratic process then effort has to be put into achieving it, not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. (My proposal would be to publish manifestos and open campaigning three or four weeks before voting opens, giving proper time to campaign)

There are lots of other things that have been suggested (see the comments here for examples) but the point is that they should be introduced at the same time, not some add-ons to be potentially brought in at a later date. Over the years, I’ve seen too many packages of reforms in different fields that have introduced a first phase with a future second phase promised but never delivered (to go back to the beginning, look at House of Lords reforms) and I think just introducing ‘one member one vote’ without contemplating the wider implications of it is a mistake. I worry that people seem to think it’s a magic fix for everything they perceive as wrong with the party, and are assuming that ‘more democracy’ is automatically better without considering what ‘more democracy’ actually means.

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wpid-14054436933990Two important things happened in British politics this week: the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act was rushed through in a week, and David Cameron reshuffled the Conservative side of the Cabinet. Some have seen the timing of the Cabinet reshuffle as a deliberate attempt to divert the attention of the political press away from reporting what was going on in Parliament in favour of instead covering the soap opera of who was up, who was down and was out of Government, but as most political journalists prefer doing the latter to the former for the rest of the year, the reshuffle wasn’t strictly necessary to distract them from Parliament.

I’m not going to repeat all the arguments over DRIP, but I think it’s a bad law that’s been rushed through Parliament and will likely prove yet again that when you legislate at haste, you repent at leisure. I’m incredibly disappointed that Liberal Democrat MPs (with the exception of John Hemming and Adrian Sanders) not only voted for it, but argued for it so vehemently, but on top of those erros they’ve made a long term tactical error as well.

The reshuffle wasn’t just about David Cameron rearranging ministers, but about him clearing the ground for a major assault on human rights legislation by removing ministers who’d raised objections to it. It’s quite clear that the remaining months of this Parliament and the Tory campaign in next year’s general election are going to feature a strong campaign to make Britain more like Belarus by withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights. Yes, our political culture has now become so debased that the Prime Minister believes there are votes to be had in promising to take rights away from you, while large sections of the press will cheer him on and demand that he take more.

The Liberal Democrat response to this should be to start a campaign in defence of human rights, and it’s a perfect opportunity for the party to reassert its credentials as a truly liberal campaigning party, making the case about why rights are important and how the ECHR comes directly from the British legal tradition. It’d be the perfect opportunity for the party to draw together all those elements of civil society who care about human rights and rebuild the party’s support in time for the general election, thus ensuring that there are a large number of Liberal Democrat MPs in the next Parliament to protect us from an ECHR withdrawal.

It would be a perfect opportunity, if the Parliamentary Party hadn’t spent the last week alienating exactly those people by supporting DRIP. Just when we might need to build a coalition across civil society in defence of people’s rights, we’ve shown those same people that we’re willing to roll over and compromise those rights and to not cause a fuss when they come under attack. When rebel Conservative (David Davis) and Labour (Tom Watson) MPs are willing to join with Caroline Lucas to try and amend DRIP, but no Liberal Democrat was there with them, it make the party look incredibly weak in what should be its naturally strongest area.

It’s clear now that our rights are going to come under even greater attack over the next twelve months and beyond, and someone is going to need to lead the fight to defend them. Liberal Democrats should be out there leading that fight and making the case, but our capitulation over DRIP means no one is going to take us seriously if we try.

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single-tax-liberator(This is the fourth in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2, 3 and my original post on the book is here.)

As I mentioned in my original post on this, the one thing I found most refreshing about Russell’s of examination of liberalism was that it put power at the centre of his vision and not economics. A liberalism that’s focused on how to liberate people from unjust power is one that looks upon economics and economic policy as a means to achieve those liberal aims, not one that sees a certain arrangement of the economy as an end in itself. Russell argues that there’s been a general misunderstanding of the position of nineteenth century liberals, one that regards their ‘classical liberalism’ as one that centred around free trade and free markets, when instead these were merely tools to achieve a higher aim. He argues that liberalism does not have an enduring economic policy, but rather that whatever economic policy is favoured by liberals at any given time is one that’s determined by the principles of controlling power, ensuring pluralism and championing the underdog.

As Russell notes, this lack of an overarching economic philosophy within liberalism can be a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength because it allows liberalism to be defined as something that’s not just about the economy and the dull managerialism that characterises so much of modern politics. Political ideologies should be about more than just ‘how do we manage the economy?’ and instead about much wider issues of how people are enabled to live the life they choose. By centring political debate about the economy, and making it of prime importance above everything, we end up seeing everything else through the prism of work and money. We can see this most clearly in education, where we focus on giving people skills and fretting over whether school leavers or graduates are ready for the workplace, rather than how equipped they are to lead a fulfilling life. It’s this depressing ideology of workism that gives us ideas like the ‘global race’ where countries are seen as little more than economic teams competing to see who can work the hardest and consume the most things. Liberalism can define itself as so much more than the economy, and we weaken the appeal of it when we limit it to that realm.

However, it’s also a weakness, as best seen in the old phrase ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.’ As Russell notes, liberals have been caught up in the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the times on several occasions, and have begun treating the economics as an end in themselves when they forget that they are meant to be a means. While this might be solvable by having a defined liberal economic philosophy, that would introduce new risks of ossification and irrelevance when the facts change and discredit that philosophy. It should be noted, however, that there is a difference between an economic policy and an economic philosophy – the first is to answer questions of what we should do, while the second is more about the principles of why we are doing what we do. Perhaps the answer here is that liberalism does not need an economic philosophy, as long as the other principles of liberalism are remembered and applied, so that economics is applied as a tool?

What we can construct from this is a message of liberalism as radicalism and doing things differently. It does seem to me that in the time since Russell wrote, there has been a change in British politics, where alternative visions have been gradually shut out of political conversation in favour of everyone accepting the current model, and merely tinkering around the edges of it. Twenty years ago, the Liberal Democrat manifesto was talking about things like land value taxation and citizens’ incomes, but radicalism now appears to mean nothing more than tweaking housing benefit rules or slight shifts in income tax thresholds.

There’s probably an interesting case study to be written in the history of political ideology about how land value taxation has waxed and waned in British liberal politics. As Russell notes, the idea of taxing land was entirely natural for liberals from the nineteenth century on, as they saw one of the fundamental roles of state power as breaking up monopolies to ensure fair competition, and land was the powerful distorting monopoly force of all. This was not just about the economic effect of monopolies, but about their power, and part of an overarching liberal vision of society, where unjust and unaccountable power in all spheres of life were confronted and tackled. Again, this was about economic policy not being an end in itself, but a means to bring about a liberal society.

This belief in economics as a means, not an end, is also why liberalism has been relaxed about the mixed economy, seeing no objection to the state having certain responsibilities, and indeed believing that the state is the better guardian of the public interest in certain areas. This is a use of both sides of power – breaking up monopolies and ensuring competition ensures people’s freedom from unaccountable power, while providing public services such as sewers, schools and libraries ensures that people have the freedom to live their lives in their way and not be ‘enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity’.

For me, this is a much more attractive vision of liberalism than merely trying to brand it as a split-the-difference form of managerialism. Too much of our current political discourse is centred on the idea that the economy has some sort of independent existence, that it’s become some vast creature with it’s own appetites, that our desires have to be sacrificed to in order to keep it fed. A liberal vision should promote a different view of the economy, as something we need to control and use in order to provide everyone with a good life, not leave it to the vagaries of the market (again, something that only exists because we deem it to).

That’s why we need to be remembering those old radical liberal proposals, not forgetting them and pretending they don’t exist because they’re not compatible with the current paradigm. Taxing wealth, especially land, to ensure that we can provide everyone with a basic income that gives them the freedom to live their life is something we should be championing as a truly liberal vision – we should be arguing for the system to change to suit the needs of the people, not for the people to have to change to meet the needs of the system.

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Contributor(This is the third in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. Previous posts in the series are here: 1, 2 and my original post on the book is here.)

To start, a disclaimer. I’m a heterosexual white cis middle class man living in an advanced industrial economy, and as such I’m the beneficiary of more unearned privilege than perhaps 99% of the people who have ever lived, so it’s entirely possible that this post will include lots of inadvertent errors and omissions. There are things that, because of my position and experience, I do not and probably cannot understand, so please feel free to point out where I get things wrong so I can do better in the future.

In keeping with his previous chapters, Russell’s account of liberalism’s support for diversity takes a historical approach. For him, it begins with opposition to the power of the Church and its desire to force all to conform to doing things in one way only. He sees liberalism as defending ‘the rights of the under-privileged, whoever they may happen at that time to be.’ There is a subtle critique of this historical process running through the chapter, however, as he notes that there were many times when people were too busy congratulating themselves over one victory to note that there were many more battles left to fight. He notes, for instance, some of the sexism (both overt and subtle) that prevented the struggle for women’s suffrage being taken seriously for years, but then turns the issue around to note that there may well be subtle and unconscious biases that we hold and may be mocked for in the future.

This element of self-criticism is important, because I think it relates to a trend in contemporary liberalism. We can be very good at identifying oppression or discrimination, but we sometimes act as though merely identifying it is enough in itself to solve the problems it has caused. We’re eager to point out that we’ve spotted and apologised for the overt discrimination of the past, but we’re often reluctant to accept that the legacy of that discrimination still has effects, both overt and subtle, in the present. There is a tendency to think that because we are so much more enlightened than our predecessors that we must therefore have solved all the problems, ignoring the fact that our predecessors felt similarly, and our successors will no doubt think the same of us.

For Russell, diversity exists as a key liberal value because of liberalism’s commitment to pluralism. Diversity is about celebrating the difference between individuals, and recognising that is important to allow people to be different, and that society does not seek to limit them because of that difference. Russell points out that liberalism is concerned about equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome, but it’s important for us to acknowledge that merely saying that everyone has an equal opportunity does not make it so.

Liberalism wants to see everyone fulfil their potential, but their potential as they see it, not as what society defines for them. Diversity in liberalism is important because it recognises that no one has the right answer for how everyone should live, and it’s a mistake to try and force a way of life on people. It comes back to Russell’s initial point of how liberalism is about power, and freeing people from the use of power to oppress them. However, it’s also about recognising that their are many ways in which individuals can be oppressed and restricted by many different forms of power. It’s entirely appropriate for liberalism to want to use the power of the state to liberate individuals from those other powers, and not to just limit our championing of diversity to saying the state won’t oppress you, but you’re on your own if something else does.

There’s an important point to be made here about the importance of linking the theoretical and the practical, of making our commitment to diversity mean something in practice instead of just being good works. Russell points out that this is a long-standing issue – Liberals in the late nineteenth century were great champions of the working class, but in many cases were notably reluctant to promote and advance working-class candidates, which eventually led to the creation of the Labour Party. As I said earlier, there’s a tendency within liberalism to assume a rational process and that once we’ve identified a problem, everyone will accept that diagnosis and fix it. If that doesn’t happen, we can then get quite defensive and assert that it’s obviously not our fault that something’s going wrong because we’ve identified our problems and fixed them.

As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m aware that I’m striding into the issue carrying tons of privilege with me, and I don’t want to start using that position to decree solutions to other people’s problems. Indeed, deciding that we know how to solve other people’s problems – rather than listening to what they want, then helping them achieve it – may be one of the reasons those problems still exist. There can be a sense of noblesse oblige in the way we can haughtily lay down solutions and expect others to be grateful we’ve noticed their problems and are now going to solve them for them, no matter how much they might be capable of solving them for themselves if we let them.

I’m going to finish this post with one of my favourite quotes from Russell in this chapter about pluralism, which manages to perfectly capture a liberal principle about the freedom of individuals (which we’ll look at in a later post) and make me wonder about the circumstances in which he wrote the book:

What two young men of seventeen do in bed in private is nothing to do with me, but if they then play their stereo so loud that I cannot continue to write this book, that is something to do with me.

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baran_networks(This is the second in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The first post in the series is here and my original post on the book is here.

Russell uses his chapter on pluralism to discuss two issues for liberalism: the dispersal of power, and the celebration of diversity. While I understand how his historical view of the development of liberalism does link the two, tracing it from the challenge to the power of the Church and liberal support for Nonconformism, I’m going to give both issues separate posts to avoid confusion by conflating them too.

As a liberal principle, pluralism emerges quite naturally from the desire to control the power of the executive I discussed in the last post. If one wants to prevent a single source of power from coming to dominate all, then why not have a series of different powers at different levels? This idea of dispersing power may seem obvious to us now, but was a radical proposition in the time when monarchies were trying to make their power absolute.

The principle of consent is also important in developing a liberal pluralism, rather than a devolved feudalism. It is possible to separate power and still retain an absolutism, when that power is arranged by a strict territoriality and hierarchy. Each power could be absolute in it’s own small realm, but then subservient in the realm above it. The principle of consent required to create legitimate authority, however, means that all power in any realm relies on the participation of the people within it. The liberal vision of pluralism is not one single power dividing itself up and creating order on the way down, but a mass of power that begins with the people creating the power structures they wish from the ground up.

For me, this is a vital issue for British liberalism and one where we’ve dropped the ball and not paid it much attention. Our conception of power is that it belongs to the people and is consensually given to the state in order to achieve good things on behalf of everyone. However, the British state is still constructed on the basis that all power resides in the centre, and while it can be devolved to lesser bodies, they still remain under its control. If there’s one thing seven years in local government has taught me it’s that a local council is not regarded as a body created by the people of an area, but as an arm of the centralised state, expected to do what its told, with the only freedom being in areas where the Government can’t be bothered to act itself. ‘Localism’ is merely the ability to decided locally just how much you want to agree with the latest directive from DCLG, not the power to say no to diktats from the centre.

As Russell points out, this is directly contrary to the spirit in which local government developed in the UK. While it wasn’t democratised until the 19th century, British local corporations and boroughs were run by figures who came from the community they covered and were generally not imposed by the state upon those areas. A huge number of social reforms, especially in areas of sanitation and education were brought about by local governments acting on their own initiative in that golden era of municipal liberalism. This is still a pattern we see in countries with a federal structure, where local government takes the powers they feel they need, not sitting by and waiting for the government to give those powers to them. This creates a true pluralism of power based on consent, and one that I believe would provide a much more useful basis to review and reassert the powers and abilities of local government than a centrally-imposed localism.

Another important principle here, and one that’s not discussed as much as it was when Russell was writing, is that of subsidiarity: ‘a Russian egg model of political power, in which it is held in a series of containers, one inside another, ranging from the United Nations at one end down to the parish council or an individual family at the other.’ It’s an important part of pluralism, where we assert that it is not simply important that power is dispersed but that it is used at an appropriate level to perform the task required of it. This is again based on consent, where those over whom the power is exercised determine the level at which it should be exercised, not a mighty central power choosing where it hands its power down to. This does not have to symmetrical, either – and indeed, a true test of whether power is being dispersed in line with subsidiarity is the degree of asymmetry – for not all areas will want the exact same powers. One can see this in the original structures of local government in Britain, where different corporations and boroughs did different things, depending on what they saw as important, and still applies in the USA where can one see wildly different amounts of power available to different local governments within the same state, let alone across different states.

PLuralism and subsidiarity may not lead to an arrangement of power that appears ‘efficient’ to those wanting to see strict hierarchies of power, but by dispersing power based on individual consent, we create a much more liberal arrangement of power, based on consent and individual need, rather than the needs of the centralised state. This does not mean an end to governments, or a belief that everything can be done at one level, be it local or multinational, but that we need to be continually asking ourselves whether decisions are being made in the right place where they will be most effective. We control the power of the over-mighty executive by bringing power as close to the individual as necessary for it to be used efficiently, and in the next post I’ll look more at how pluralism promotes the power of the individual.

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As you might have noticed, the Government’s Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill has been causing a lot of consternation over the past couple of days, both in terms of its content and in the way it’s been suddenly announced and rushed through Parliament. There’s been a lot written about it in that time, and so rather than try and write my own post about it, I thought I’d gather together some links to make it easier to inform yourself quickly.

Drip, drip, drip – the emergency surveillance law erodes our civil liberties – David Allen Green sets out a legal perspective in the FT (free registration required)
Don’t call this the surveillance status quo – it’s a cross-party stitch-up – a succinct account by Mike Harris in the Independent
We should be ashamed of these emergency surveillance powers – James Baker on Lib Dem Voice
Cameron and Clegg’s cynical surveillance trick – Ian Dunt on Politics Home
Liberal Democrats and #DRIP: naive or nefarious? – Alex Marsh weighs the evidence, but either outcome isn’t good
Threat of legal action not terrorism behind calls for emergency data retention legislation – The Open Rights Group make clear why this is happening. There’s a lot more on their blog too.
UK rushes through invasive surveillance laws as intelligence agencies go on trial – a response from Privacy International and Amnesty International
Privacy and/or Security? – From the Law Society Gazette
Dissecting the emergency Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill – Graham Smith looks in depth at the provisions of the Bill and how it compares to existing law
DRIP: A shabby process for a shady law - Paul Bernal on how rushing this through means no one has the chance to scrutinise it or its implications in full.
Lib Dems have cause to be concerned about the data retention bill – Jim Killock of the Open Rights Group writes for Lib Dem Voice to point out the flaws in the bill and why it doesn’t fulfill some of the promises about it.
Just what Internet services could #DRIP cover? – a Storify by @rgarner that shows the scope of the legislation.
The DRIP myth list – from the Open Rights Group
Emergency Surveillance Law A Blow To Privacy – from Human Rights Watch

And for balance, some pro-DRIP arguments from Lib Dem Voice – Norman Baker MP, Lord Paddick and Mark Pack.

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leviathan_2_crop(This is the first in a series of posts looking in depth at issues from Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. My original post on the book is here.)

“Liberalism is and remains largely about power.”

It feels rather apt to be writing this post on a day when the Government – with the consent of the Opposition – has announced it will be rushing through new laws to get around the fact that what it was doing before was ruled to be illegal. However, I want to write about this issue in more general terms rather than focus on the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill.

Putting power at the centre of his vision of liberalism is an interesting step for Russell to take, but one that fits entirely with the view of a historian, rather than a philosopher. Principle is important, but those principles cannot be divorced from the historical context in which they emerged and the circumstances that have kept them relevant since. In recent years, I’ve seen much debate by liberals on what the size of the state should be, but not a connected debate on how powerful it should be. There is an assumption amongst some that if one makes a state smaller in economic terms, it will automatically be less powerful, as though economics is the only thing that matters.

This view is countered by the the ideas that came from the New Right, captured perfectly in Andrew Gamble’s description of Thatcherism as being concerned with ‘the free economy and the strong state‘. The power of the state is not measured solely in what it can do for the economy, but in the myriad other ways it can effect people lives. For instance, one can see many on the right who advocate both for a small state and the return of the death penalty and for me, giving the state the power to determine who lives and dies is a much more fundamental ability to control than the percentage of GDP it uses.

The corollary to this is that liberalism is not anarchism or libertarianism, in that it recognises that that there are situations in which power needs to exist. This links in with Russell’s historical approach and an acceptance that power already exists, that we’re not in a tabula rasa where we can create whatever we wish to see from scratch. It’s a pragmatic position rather than an idealistic one, but it’s also about the application of principles to the situation at hand. Russell sets out the history of British liberalism as a series of small triumphs that have taken us far from the original starting point in service of the central principle of controlling power:

I do not believe that my ancestors intended (excluding hereditary peers from the Lords) when they set the Exclusion Bill in motion in 1679, yet it follows logically from the challenge they then launched to the principle of power based on birth. This is only one example of among many of the way an apparently simple general principle, if held firmly and as a central conviction, turns out to have all sorts of implications of which its founders were unaware.

The rationale for the control of power is that all power must rest on consent, and thus it flows upwards, given from the people to the state, rather than freedom being granted to the people by the state. This again goes back to the seventeenth century and the events and arguments there that motivated Locke to set out his treatises on government. Again, a simple principle leads to lots of unexpected ramifications over the centuries.

Russell (and liberalism generally) does not dispute the right of the state to exist, but does question the legitimacy of its actions if the executive power is concentrated in such a way to enable it to be abused. Democracy is a tool for creating a state that can be constrained, but democracy has to be seen as a continual process, rather than an occasional event – one cannot claim consent purely on having an election every four or five years if that state is free to do whatever it wishes between those votes. The question that is to be answered here is that if we agree that some power is necessary, how do we make it acceptable and controllable? Russell’s answer to this – in common with many other analyses over the years – is that Britain, at least, has not yet found an answer to this question, if indeed a permanent answer can be found. What may be acceptable limits for the state in one generation, may be seen as far too lax (or even too strict) to a future one.

The implications of this are more than simply asking what is the role of the state and how it can best carry out that role. To go back to the quote I began this post with, liberalism is not about the state, it is about power. When the building blocks of liberalism were first being laid down, the main powers were the state and the church, but we have seen lots of other sources of power emerge in the time since then. For liberalism, all power should be controllable and accountable, and this is where it diverts from the minimal state vision, for while it’s own power must be controlled, the state can and should have a role in making other forms of power accountable and controllable. Power in this sense does not necessarily have a tangible form either. Social and economic pressures beyond those of the state, the church or the corporation can oppress the individual and limit their freedom, and it is perhaps to fight those amorphous powers that we need to create some power greater than ourselves.

But a lot of that detail is for another time, as I plunge into more depths and examine the implications that flow from seeking to control power, but please feel free to continue the debate in the comments.

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