Thoughts on the Lib Dems: Past, present and (hopefully) future

Lib-Dem-logoThis is a long post – the version in my head is even longer – but it’s been gestating in various forms for a while and I wanted to get it out there while we’re thinking about the future of the party. To make it slightly easier, I’ve divided it into three parts – the first about the decisions the party made about its political positioning before 2010, the second about the decisions made with coalition and the effects they had, and the third about where we go from here.

Part 1: How did we get here?

‘Those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it.’ If we’re going to look at where the party should go from here, we need to look at the process that brought us here, and for me that starts in the mid-90s as the party abandoned equidistance in favour of working more closely with Labour. Up until that point, our positioning had been best known by Spitting Image‘s Ashdown catchphrase: ‘neither one thing nor the other, but somewhere in between.’

However, after the shock of the 1992 election and the travails of the Tory Government that followed it, Paddy Ashdown began the process of shifting the party into being part of the anti-Tory bloc. This was rewarded with lots of tactical voting that led to the big by-election gains from the Tories, and also the party’s gains at the 1997 and 2001 general elections, only one of which (Chesterfield in 2001) came from Labour.

Things shifted after 2003 and the Iraq War. The party had already begun picking up council seats and councils from Labour, while losing ones gained before 1997 back to the Tories, but this accelerated, particularly in the North, culminating in a number of gains from Labour (and losses to the Tories) at the 2005 general election, coupled with a failure of the ‘decapitation strategy’ against senior Tories whose seats were perceived as vulnerable. After this, and particularly once Clegg became leader, the party began to move back towards ‘equidistance’.

That’s a simplified version of the strategy – there were lots of other currents going on at the same time – but I want to talk about it in general terms instead of getting bogged down in the details.

There’s a concept in the academic study of party systems, introduced by the late Peter Mair, called the structure of competition for government, which underlies other issues of the party system within a country. Part of it covers the way parties work together even while competing with each other in the electoral system. For example, in Sweden there are clearly separate left and right blocs of parties who tend to alternate with each other in government but a party from one bloc will not go into government with the other, while in the Netherlands, there are no clearly defined blocs so shifting between parties in government after elections is more fluid.

Britain’s post-war structure of competition was seen as being a very closed one, with just two parties competing for Government, and power alternating between the two. It had wobbled in 1974 and through the Labour government that followed, but reasserted itself in 1979. However, it broke down again after the 2010 election result, and we took the opportunity of that change to enter Government and formed the coalition with the Conservatives.

In the minds of many in the party, this was entirely natural decision. After all, we’d gone back to being equidistant between the parties, so we were free to choose whichever way we wanted to go, and there was no real way of forming a stable coalition with Labour. However, what I’d argue is that we catastrophically misjudged the mood of the public and their understanding of how the party system and structure worked. In their minds, we were still part of the anti-Tory bloc and so to line ourselves up with them was breaking our role in the system.

We’d convinced ourselves that returning to equidistance was right, but we’d failed to get that message over to the electorate – and indeed, our message to the electorate completely ignore that. In so many of our constituencies, we were fighting the Tories and putting out the message ‘vote for us to keep the Tories out’. Because the bulk of our seats were Tory-facing that’s the message the bulk of our voters got.

We also failed to notice that equidistant parties are incredibly rare in all political systems. People like to point at Germany’s FDP, but neglect to notice that they’ve only ever been in coalition with the SDP once, and that was over thirty years ago. The rise of the Greens as the SDP’s natural partner on the left since then made them a natural part of the CDU’s right bloc, not an equidistant party that can shift between the two of them.

There was a mismatch between the way we (especially the leadership) saw ourselves and the way our voters saw it. Joining coalition with the Tories exposed that rift.

Part 2: What the hell just happened?

It’s very easy to look back on May 2010 with 20/20 hindsight and imagine that everything that’s happened since then was entirely predictable. What we forget is that at the time nothing seemed predictable as the voters had delivered us into an entirely new political situation. Everyone was wandering in the dark and trying to guess the rules of this new political landscape, while the media – denied of the clear election result they expected – were howling at everyone to get on with it and give them something to report so they could move on to the next thing.

I still think the coalition was the least worst option available to us at the time and the other options on the table (confidence and supply, the rainbow coalition or just sitting it all out) would have led to a Tory majority government within 6 months to a year. However, I also think the process was ridiculously rushed and many parts of the decision-making process were made in the immediate post-election blur, rather than being discussed slowly and sensibly, giving much more time for a wider public discussion and a chance for us to assess the public mood.

The infamous Rose Garden press conference wasn’t a problem in itself. Indeed, it was probably a boon for the party in making Cameron and Clegg look like equals in the Government, and basic media management meant that they had to present a positive image at the start of the Government – imagine how bad it would have looked if they’d begun by looking like they could barely tolerate each other. The problem came with not seeing that as a temporary need at the time of establishing the new Government and instead taking that as the default mode for the party.

We completely messed up the politics of coalition. We were so determined to prove that coalition government worked that we let ourselves get caught up inside the machine and effectively went native. With a few exceptions, our ministers didn’t talk and look like liberals in government, but more like the government’s emissaries to the liberals. They decided their mission wasn’t to get as many of the wishes of the party and its voters into law, but instead to take what was decided by an increasingly remote government and attempt to persuade the party that that was it really wanted. Rather than justify compromises as the best we could get under the circumstances, we began talking about them as being somehow better than the position we started from and what we’d really wanted.

This led to the position of crowing about being ‘a party of government, not a party of protest’ which showed just how much wrong it was possible to combine into just nine words. The idea that these two ideas were polar opposites, the idea that the party was just about protest, the way it ignored the party’s role in local and devolved government over the decades, all combined to show that the leadership saw the party’s role as just another part of the beige consensus of the Governing Party of the elite consensus that dominates British politics.

All this led to the decision where we fought the election as a party of centrist managerialism, offering voters nothing more than the opportunity to split the difference between the two big parties. It’s not an inspiring vision, which can be seen by the way the slogans used to sell it kept changing. First ‘stronger economy, fairer society’ which then got ‘opportunity for all’ bolted onto it, which then was replaced by ‘Look Left, Look Right, Then Cross’ for the election broadcasts, which was then trumped by the ‘heart for the Tories, head for Labour’ gimmick which lasted till the final week of the decade when it was replaced by ‘Stability, Unity, Decency’ which sounded like the slogan of a dystopian dictatorship from Poundland.

The party forgot what it was for and the leadership tried to mutate it into something else during our time in government. The decision was made to let the necessities and limited possibilities of government define what our values would be rather than allowing our values to define what we would try and do in government. The message became a defensive one of managerialism and moderating other parties, rather than one of talking about what we wanted to do and what we stood for. We swallowed the managerialist mantra that the only thing people want from a political party is some form of nebulous competence, rather than making a liberal case for a liberal party.

Part 3: Where do we go from here?

I said on Friday morning that the election had been an extinction-level event. On reflection, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it would be easy to stumble on into extinction from this position. Centrist managerialism has been tested to destruction as a strategy and it has utterly failed. We’ve not just seen our number of MPs shattered, we’ve lost councillors across the country, slipped back to the fringes in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and gone down to just one MEP.

It’s the worst position the party’s been in since the 50s and 60s, and back then we were able to grow in a gradual way because we faced almost no competition as the old voting behaviours broke down. There were no Greens and no UKIP, and the nationalist parties were only beginning to gain a toehold in by-elections. Now, we’re in an intensely competitive electoral battle, and hoping to gradually accumulate while we sit in the middle being neither one thing nor the other is not going to work. We have to stand for something, and be seen to stand for something – we have to make liberalism mean something to the people again.

I’ve banged on repeatedly for the past year (because Conrad Russell’s not here to do it) about how we as liberals need to understand that liberalism is fundamentally about power, and specifically about challenging unaccountable power and putting that power back in the hands of the people. In his resignation speech, Nick Clegg talked entirely rightly about how we risk losing the argument to ‘the politics of fear’, and one of the things that drive that fear is the utter powerlessness people feel, which causes them to lash out and blame innocent others.

thorpetakepowerOur first big post-war breakthrough came in 1974 with the message ‘Take power. Vote Liberal.’ and we need something like that as our core message, but not just a crude libertarian understanding of power that sees it only as something that comes from that state. We need to show that we’re about helping people take power over every aspect of their lives, in the economy and in society, not pretending that government is the only problem. The best way to counter fears is to give people the power to confront them and realise that they’re not a threat, and we have to be the party that will help people take that power back.

Coupled with that, we need to be the party of hope, optimism and positivity about the future. That means being a party that gives people reason to believe that the future will be better than today for them and their families, not just somewhere with more gadgets to fill their increasingly small houses in the diminishing free time they have from their precarious employment. We need to be the party that talks about how science and technology can transform and change society, bring real opportunity to everyone to live the lives they want, and not be afraid of offering people a radically different vision of society. Let’s not be afraid to bring out all those old radical ideas to the public – land value taxation, basic income, drug legalisation and all the rest – and not just offer a vaguely liberal tinge to the current consensus.

To deliver this, we need to review everything about the way the party works. The structures we have now are essentially those laid down in the late 80s, a period when the idea of mass membership parties hadn’t quite died and the communications revolution driven by the internet hadn’t begun. Starting from a blank slate we need to ask ourselves the question ‘if we were setting up a liberal political party in 2015, what would it look like, and how would it work?’ There needs to be flexibility in the way the party works, coupled with a structure that trusts members to do the right thing and doesn’t just regard them as foot soldiers to be directed from the centre.

With just eight MPs, we’re going to need new ways of working. Already, the media are barely mentioning us and we can’t assume that making worthy speeches in the Commons is going to change that. We need to be a force outside of Parliament, building alliances and being part of campaigns that champion liberal values against a Government that’s going to ride roughshod over them. However, we also need to recognise that we can’t do this on our own, and will have to work with others – we’ve shown coalitions in government are possible, so we should be willing to push them in opposition. When we’re in agreement with others, we shouldn’t let tribalism get in the way of doing so, and perhaps we should be considering that we’re going to need to consider electoral alliances if we want to achieve the reforms we want.

I’ve gone on for long enough here, and this is just part of starting the debate about where we go from here. From my perspective, if we’re going to survive and thrive we have to be a radically-minded party that’s willing to be different and challenge the consensus. Liberals shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, and we’ll have to take plenty of them if we’re going to make this country a better place.

(If you’re still looking for things to read about the future of the party after that, I’d recommend David Howarth, Alix Mortimer and Jennie Rigg, but there’s plenty of thoughts out there right now)

Liberals should be standing up to the power of the City, not fawning over it

You may recall that when I started regular blogging last year, the spur for that was writing about Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism. The key to Russell’s liberalism is that it is a creed that always challenges and seeks to break down unaccountable forms of power. The other side to that coin – and a key difference of liberalism and libertarianism – is the recognition that power isn’t solely the preserve of the state, and can be exerted on us by a number of unaccountable forces.

One of the main sources of unaccountable power in Britain is the nexus of it that exists in the City of London, where the City’s own cloistered system of government reflects the corporate and banking power that is exerted from there over all of us. It’s the sort of unaccountable power that needs to be confronted and challenged to make it accountable to the people whose lives it dominates, and yet much of British politics exists in its thrall, scared to offend it in any way. Which leads to this:

Not a challenge to the power of the City, the ‘markets’ or big business, but a capitulation to them, using their fears as a motivation to get people to vote. It’d be a weak message for the Tories to use, but for liberals to just roll over and willingly spread the message of an unaccountable few is just wrong.

We’re supposed to be a party that challenges power, that breaks it down and takes it back to the people. Instead we’re dancing to someone else’s tune in the hopes of a few crumbs from their table. We need to do better than this.

Worth Reading 142: The wrong end of the deal

The personal tax statement George Osborne doesn’t want you to see – Some accurate data on where the British Government actually spends its money.
Norman Baker, political journalism, and hinterlands – “We expect politicians to be “real” and then lay into them when they are. That doesn’t seem terribly healthy to me.”
The ‘Devo Manc’ proposals represent centralisation on steroids – Is it time to coin ‘Osbornification’ to describe the centralisation by stealth they represent?
What commercial aircraft will look like in 2050 – Some interesting speculation on the prospect of electric planes. Those of you with a more technical bent than me may well have a different view on their likelihood.
Five minutes with Robert O. Keohane – Very interesting LSE interview with one of the world’s leading theorists of international relations about the difference between liberal constitutionalism and democracy at the transnational level.

Citation needed: Jeremy Browne’s ‘Race Plan’

Not being one of the privileged elite of Lib Dem bloggers, I didn’t get a review copy of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, so I waited until it turned up in the University library before reviewing it. It was worth waiting for it, as if I’d laid out money on actually buying a copy, I’d have felt extremely ripped off. It was obviously meant to be a provocative book that would force a debate within the Liberal Democrats and make people realise the correctness of Browne’s ‘authentic liberal’ views, but instead it’s just the same boilerplate ‘classical liberal’ pabulum one can read on blogs and think tank websites for free.

It feels like a book that was written in a hurry, and that shows in the lack of citations or justification for many of the claims Browne makes. There are many sections full of assertions that need some sort of explanation or evidence to back them up, but none comes. This is evident in the two central assertions of the book: that it’s “an authentic liberal plan to get Britain fit for ‘The Global Race'”.

Browne’s description of his ideas as ‘authentic liberalism’ isn’t based on any sort of discussion of liberal ideas or their relevance to the modern age but merely presented as self-evident truth. It assumes – like most who claim to be heralds of ‘classical liberalism’ – that there is some Platonic ideal form of liberalism and any versions that deviate from this are inauthentic or fake. It completely ignores the idea – as I discussed in my series of posts on Russell – that liberalism should be concerned with power, or that it can adapt to meet the times. It’s an assumption that liberalism was somehow perfected in the nineteenth century, and nothing needs to be added to it. Browne doesn’t have anything to say about power, except for expecting everyone to prostrate themselves in front of the power of the market and the ‘global race’.

The ‘global race’ is the second of Browne’s major assumptions, and again he doesn’t seek to justify this concept, just assumes it to be the case. For those of you who forgot, the ‘global race’ was the centrepiece of a David Cameron Tory Party conference speech and like many big political ideas before it, wasn’t one that became part of the national vocabulary. Browne, however, latches onto it with all the vigour of a Conservative Central Office intern looking to get in the leader’s good books, but doesn’t stop to explain why he thinks it’s a good idea, or even if in a globalised world the idea of a race between nation-states makes any sense. It feels like international relations by Sellar and Yeatman: Britain must be Top Nation again, then history can come to an end.

Browne’s inability to question his assumptions, and the generally rushed nature of the book mean his proposals aren’t original and rest on some very weak evidence. He talks about school vouchers as though they’re a thrilling new idea, not something that have been a feature of seemingly every right-wing screed on education since the 90s, and assumes they will work because competition. No, that’s pretty much the argument – school vouchers bring in competition and competition always makes things better, thus school vouchers will make things better. Mind you, this comes after an argument where he purports that the single biggest reason for the relative success of independent schools compared to state schools is parental choice. Not increased levels of funding and the ability to spend more on teachers and facilities, just choice.

Later, we’re told that London needs a new airport because ‘a global hub city needs a global hub airport’ without giving any meaningful definition of what either of those things are, making the whole argument a frustratingly circular one. Like much of the book, it feels like nothing more than Browne pushing his personal desires and assuming that they need no evidence to back them up. It betrays the idea that his ideas aren’t radical, but have been floating around on the right for years to such an extent that that the true believers don’t need proof or evidence to assert them as true.

In this vein, he asserts that the size of the state should be between 35 and 38% of GDP, based on a discussion of a handful of countries and Britain’s experience between 1997 and 2001 (though I think the figure he uses excludes all the off-the-books PFI spending, which would weaken his argument even more). It feels like a figure plucked from the air, and just when you would expect him to bring out some form of evidence to back it up, there’s absolutely nothing. It’s just put out there as something Browne believes to be true, and used to justify a whole load of lazy man-in-the-pub bloviating about supposed government waste. Browne seems to believe that running a government is just like running a supermarket, again parroting the prevailing view on the right that everything can be reduced to businesses and markets.

It amuses (but also slightly scares) me to see people thinking that this book makes Browne a deep thinker or a radical. The ideas in it aren’t original or radical, and the thinking behind them is wearyingly shallow. Browne’s style is akin to that of Thomas Friedman, firing multiple factoids and wows at the reader, hoping to hide the lack of a detailed argument. For instance, Browne often waxes lyrical (well, semi-lyrical, his writing rarely rises to any great heights) about Chinese skyscrapers and other infrastructure, comparing them to Britain’s Victorian engineering triumphs, but neglects to think about how these things there were built. The human cost of this building, and the vast armies of poorly paid labour without any rights that build them isn’t mentioned at all.

Likewise, as he urges us to work harder so we can be part of the ‘Asian Century’, he handwaves away any mention of climate change and its potential effects. This is something that’s going to dominate the century in a much more fundamental way than anything Browne focuses on, but the few mentions of any potential environmental problems assume they can be simply solved, and nothing will get in the way of the irresistible growth of the economy. Browne trumpets his experience as a Foreign Office minister, but the overview he gives of foreign affairs doesn’t reveal any particular depths and I worry if the Foreign Office’s work isn’t focusing on the potential global risks climate change creates.

I’ll be honest and say that from all the descriptions and reviews I’d read of it, I didn’t expect to agree with this book, and I generally didn’t. What I didn’t expect, though, was for the arguments in it to be so weak and resting on so little. It’s a testament to the paucity of debate and thinking within a lot of the party that something argued as weakly as this can be seen as being a bold challenge. What disappoints me most of all is that it has nothing to say about power, and how people can get that power back from globalisation. Instead, he merely envisages a capitulation and surrender to the prevailing mood in the name of competing in the ‘global race’, when what we need is a liberal challenge and a vision of how things could be done differently. A truly radical and liberal plan for the twenty-first century would challenge the orthodoxy, but Browne’s plan is just for more of the same, dressed up in supposedly liberal clothes.

Russell and liberalism: Some thoughts in conclusion

russellliberalism(If you’ve missed the previous posts in the series, they’re here: Index, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and the original post.)

After nine posts and a lot of words, we’ve come to the end of my odyssey through An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism, and I hope it’s been of some interest. It’s been an interesting exercise for me, as it’s a good framework for examining liberalism, and the way Russell frames his vision of it allowed me to take a step back from current discussions and conceptions of liberalism to take a wider view. Progressing through the different chapters, I’ve picked up on a few different ideas that run across the book and the conception of liberalism I’ve developed from it, which I’ll go through.

Liberalism as radicalism. By starting back in the 1600s, Russell’s historical account of liberalism doesn’t begin with it as an already accepted and prominent ideology. He points out that British liberalism arose from a turbulent and revolutionary century when all the old certainties had been turned upside down, and early liberal thinkers and writers were on the side of those seeking to overturn the older, not those who wanted to maintain it. This sense of radicalism and of seeking to do things differently is a thread Russell picks up again and again, with the implication that the aim of liberalism is not merely to reform power, but to change it utterly.

Liberalism is concerned with power. I found this one of the most refreshing and interesting ideas from the book. We can too often become obsessed with the idea of liberalism as being about freedom that we forget about the existence of power, or simply wish it away, assuming that it will simply wither away once we have solved the problems of freedom. The problem with this vision – especially when it slides into libertarianism – is that it can tend to assume that the state is the only power that we need concern ourselves with it. To reach its potential, liberalism has to recognise that power – and particularly unaccountable power – can exist outside the state, and indeed the pattern of the future may well be that we need to be more concerned with that form of unaccountable power than traditional state power.

Liberalism evolves. Again, this comes from Russell’s historical analysis, but it frames liberalism as an adaptive philosophy, centred around core principles. Starting from (and always keeping) that principle of controlling arbitrary power, liberalism has been shaped by circumstance, picking up new ideas along the way, but never letting them become its entire focus or overwrite the initial purpose. That’s why talk of ‘classical liberalism’ as though it’s something that can be held up as a yardstick for assessing the value of contemporary liberalism is meaningless. To claim there is some pure form of liberalism that others must be subservient to is to miss the point of it.

Liberalism rejects utopias. Or, liberalism does not believe the ends justify the means. This does not mean that liberalism joins conservatism in denying that things can improve or that people can’t make a utopia but more that we cannot know or predict what utopia will be like until we get there. Decreeing that there is only one way, and we must get there elevates the importance of the end above the means, and allows illiberal measures to slip in from the sides. This can happen for good intentions, but it’s easy for those intentions to be corrupted into a Platonic utopia, where everyone is happy and fulfilled because they’re told that this is the only way they can be happy. A liberal society is an open society, and any power within it must be open to question and be able to be shown to be wrong.

Liberalism needs diversity. If the key to liberalism is to reject that there’s any one central authority that can be correct for everyone, then it needs that plurality of voices within it to provide alternatives and to challenge ideas. To come up with a way that’s good for everyone, everyone’s voices must be heard and no one can assume they can speak for someone else with a different experience to them. A diversity of power at different levels is also important – it may be that one solution doesn’t fit everyone and we need to try different things to see which is the best.

Liberalism must persuade and convince. This sounds obvious – what ideology doesn’t want to persuade and convince? – but we must always remember that consent is a vital part of liberalism, and a vital part of making power accountable. This isn’t just about getting their passive support, but rather their active participation in creating a liberal society which has to be built by the people, not for the people by some elite who know what’s best for them. A truly liberal society can make power accountable by ensuring everyone can control it and participate it, but to build that we need to go out and convince people it’s a good idea, not just sit around and tell ourselves how good we are.

I’m sure I’ll talk about these and other issues more over the coming weeks and months, but it’s been an interesting and an enlightening experience. For me, the most interesting part is to frame liberalism as politics about power, and the implications that come from that. I think we are sometimes very simplistic about power and its implications and tend to assume that going in with good intentions is enough to overcome the strategies of embedded and unaccountable power, and on others we become so obsessed with one form of power that we forget that there are other sources and forms of power that we strengthen by pretending they’re not important.

I think modern liberalism is often comfortable talking about freedom, but uncomfortable when it comes to talking about power, especially in admitting that power exists outside the state. This is shown a lot in a belief that shrinking the state is automatically freeing people, ignoring that removing the protection of the state opens them up to the whims of far more unaccountable and arbitrary powers. It’s also seen in the belief that a free market is intrinsically a good thing, not something that has the potential to be good, but also the potential to be corrupted if power within it is allowed to centralise and dominate.

Beyond these, I think we also need to think much more deeply about how liberalism adopts to the threat posed by climate change (and ‘pretending it’s not happening’ is not a response). Is it possible to develop a fuller ecoliberalism in the light of an understanding of the power we can wield over the environment, or do we continue with an environmentalist liberalism that regards it as an issue of policy and management, rather than one of fundamental principle?

These are important issues that we need to address as we move forward, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers to them. What I do hope is that those of you who have read this have found it interesting, and that it’s helped to spark off your own thoughts. Liberalism is not something carved in tablets of stone that can never be changed or altered, it’s a living thing that we are free to debate, discuss and persuade others to adopt, and I hope I’ve done a bit to encourage some more debate.

Russell and liberalism 7: Green liberalism

20130527_112202(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, 6 and my original post on the book is here.)

Out of all the posts I’ve done on this book, this one is going to have the least of Russell and the most of me in it because while Russell does embrace the idea of green liberalism, he was writing at a time when awareness of environmental issues was a lot lower than it was today, and it was less of a political priority too. I have also been reading Andrew Dobson’s Green Political Thought recently, so it’s possible that ideas from that may creep in too.

One thing that struck me while looking around for some inspiration on this post is that there’s still very little out there that looks at ways to philosophically or theoretically include the environment within liberalism. One can find lots of assertions about how liberalism has a strong environmental record, and lots of talk of green policies implemented by liberals, but as the French philosopher is supposed to have said ‘that’s all very well in practice, but how does it work in theory?’

Russell looks at the idea of sustainability, arguing that liberal attachment to the idea comes from the principle that power is a trust and trusteeship implies stewardship. This stems from the seventeenth century foundations of liberalism with Locke taking the idea from the critique of Charles I’s abuse of that trust. Trusteeship is not just about using power wisely in the present but ensuring that the environment is preserved for the future. This fits in with the principle of controlling power – if power is to exist, what is it’s proper role? We can also bring principles of internationalism and pluralism into this train of thought, perhaps embedded in the phrase ‘think globally, act locally’. It’s undeniable that protection of the environment is a global issue and needs at the very least co-ordination from a higher level, but effective action needs to be carried out at a lower level and with consent, not just something handed down from above.

One point to make here is that while there is much literature and debate on the concept of ecosocialism, there is little or none in developing comparable concepts of ecoliberalism. (Indeed, the term ‘ecoliberalism’ seems to be used as much, perhaps more, as shorthand for ‘economic liberalism’ as it is in an environmental context.) To borrow from Dobson’s formulation, liberalism appears to have no problem with environmentalism as ‘a managerial response to environmental problems, secure in the belief that they can be solved without fundamental changes’ but balks at any attempts to move on from that to a fuller ecologism, which ‘presupposes radical changes’. This difference comes from a different understanding of the scale of the response needed to respond to environmental crisis – in crude terms, green thought holds that the crisis is so severe it can only be thwarted by a fundamental change, while liberalism holds that the crisis is not severe enough to require that level of change.

However, I would question whether liberalism is necessarily as conservative about maintaining the status quo of society as it is sometimes depicted. As we’ve seen already, if we start from Russell’s conception of liberalism as primarily a philosophy of power and accept its radical roots, we can see that liberalism is capable of endorsing widespread change – indeed, Locke wrote to justify a change in power that had seemed completely unthinkable to many before it happened. The key, perhaps, is not the potential radicalism within liberalism but the rejection of utopias and the resistance to the idea of working towards some desired goal and elevating ends above means.

Conversely, there’s also the question of whether green ideology/ecologism is necessarily as authoritarian as it is sometimes depicted. Much of it is based on decentralisation and doing things locally, and there’s a compatibility with liberal ideas of pluralism, internationalism and the need for actions to be taken at the appropriate level. There is an authoritarian streak amongst some greens, and it is part of some strands of green political thought which hold that the necessity for ecological action takes precedence over any other concerns which perhaps eliminates the possibility of a complete synergy of liberalism and green thinking, but I don’t feel it’s entirely impossible.

What, then, might a more developed green liberalism – ecoliberalism – look like? I’m not going to attempt to define an entire new strand of ideology here, but we can look at how some of the principles and themes I’ve looked at already might drive it. I think it’s important for liberalism to be able to not just point to actions to show green credentials but to have a firm philosophical basis for those actions. As we see more and more information about the state of the environment, liberalism needs to be able to react and adapt to changing circumstances, and we do that best when we have firm principles to base that reaction on.

Any ecoliberalism has to address the joint issues of power and harm, and how they apply to the environment. The problem here is that we must confront existential threats, rather than ones that we can directly see. Someone being thrown out of their home as the result of an unjust law applied buy a corrupt government is clearly suffering harm from an unaccountable power, and we can see how that can be rectified and systems changed to ensure it does not happen again. What do we do, though, if that harm is at the end of a long causal chain? Who has exercised the power that forces someone out of their home because of rising sea levels or drought, and how do we make that power accountable? And what if the harm is dispersed more nebulously across a wider population – how do we account for the harm, restriction of freedom and reduction of opportunity caused by a lack of food and water because of climate change?

A potential ecoliberalism faces the same issues as liberalism in dealing with power being exerted globally while systems and structures to control that power and make it accountable haven’t kept up. Identifying the sources of power is not by itself sufficient, but merely a first step to finding the ways to make them accountable and disperse that power. This will likely mean coming up with new systems and new ideas, not just relying on the existing mechanisms we have. This is a radicalism that should not scare liberals, even if the task seems vast, because liberalism has done it before. From overthrowing monarchies to establishing the United Nations, things that would have seemed impossibly radical steps to take have become accepted and normal because people went out and made the case for them, so they could be built on consent.

Consent and persuasion is a key issue for any ecoliberalism to address. I’ve already discussed the importance of consent and the rejection of arbitrarily imposed utopias, and it’s an important issue to address as we look towards the future. Ecoliberalism cannot lay down a certain way of doing things as a goal and insist everyone comes along on the journey to that point. Instead it has to make sure that it goes out and involves everyone in building a future that we can’t know the shape of until we get there. The message of ecoliberalism should be that we can and should protect the planet for the benefit of all life upon it, but there are many ways of doing it and we need to work together to find out which is best, not arbitrarily decide that only one way should be followed.

Yes, I’m being vague, but this is an issue that needs a lot more thought from a lot more people than just one blogger. However, I do believe that we can move beyond a simple liberal environmentalism to a fuller ecoliberalism, and that it’s vital we do so to keep liberalism moving forward, adapting to circumstance and developing as it has done for hundreds of years.

Russell and liberalism 6: Individual liberty

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.

Russell and liberalism 5: Internationalism and utopias

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.

Russell and liberalism 4: The economy

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.

Russell and Liberalism 3: Diversity

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.