There’s an astonishing article in this month’s Liberator magazine (available here – "Blues Under the Bed" – till the next edition comes out) decrying what it calls "intense efforts in recent years to convert the Liberal Democrats from a social liberal party into a classical liberal or even libertarian party".
It blames, largely, Tory convert entryists, wherever and whoever they are, and reasserts some of the historically dubious "right on" narrative of British Liberalism over the past century that is being promulgated also through groups like the new Social Liberal Forum. Specifically that there is no place for what they like to call "classical liberals" in contemporary British Liberalism because we’re "all social liberals now".
Now, the first premise is not confirmed by my own experience and political journey. As I have documented several times now, since I joined the Lib Dems in 1997 (having come from a solidly Liberal voting family), I have myself moved from being the butt of jokes at local party AGM’s about "Jock, over there on the far left of the room" who believed the state could do better than the market in many, if not most, areas of addressing people’s basic needs, to almost as far the other way; that we should always have an a priori assumption that the market can provide and that ultimately this is the very basis of liberty and equity for all. And throughout that journey it is liberals, mostly British at that, that have guided my way. I am based in Oxford let’s face it – a Tory free zone – so they’re hardly much of an influence on my thinking!
What the author claims as evidence that the "Liberal Democrats belong firmly to the social liberal camp", in the form of the well known line in our preamble to the party constitution that we we exist to bring about a society where "no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" remains, 100%, my mantra too, and that of most of the soi-dissant libertarians or similar in the party with whom I am familiar at least.
But we presumably need not remind the state-first-if-not-also-last brigade that our preamble also talks about decision making closest to the people affected (which could, and should in as many areas as possible, mean with the individual in a free market) and about fostering independence through property ownership. It talks about letting the market deliver wherever possible and the state (only?) where necessary – we just argue about what we mean by "where necessary".
And it is absolutely the case, in my opinion, that the party was "stolen from the classical liberals". But not, as some would have it, by some new brand of different liberal, called "social liberals", led by Hobhouse’s ideas and continuing in unbroken line of concensus via Beveridge’s, but by capitulating to the twentieth century’s defining political duopoly between big state Socialism and the privilege of vested interests protected by Tories. Classical liberalism, with its friends the emerging anarchists, libertarians and mutualists, railed against the biggest monopolies of privilege and power fostered and protected by the state. And a hundred years ago this year, in his People’s Budget of 1909, Lloyd-George started to attempt to dismantle this system of privilege through his land taxing budget.
Sadly, of course, this wasn’t to be. Bogged down in a fight with the House of Lords over whether the elected house should get its way, the land taxes were sacrificed in the process of gaining this victory over the Peers and, with the exception of a Labour government, under Ramsay MacDonald, more or less legislatively abandoned for a century now.
Revitalizing these key issues that came incontrovertibly from classical liberalism and the early libertarian tradition holds the key to how to carve out a distinctively liberal balance between markets and state even today. To dismiss classical liberalism out of hand as these two essays appear to want to do, is to leave us with no reference point against which to judge whether the market can provide or whether intervention is necessary, and we get into a position where, illiberal in the extreme, we insist, unquestioningly, that only the state can do this or that and don’t bother testing those assumptions. That way lies conformity – conformity before the monopoly of the state,
Whilst some in the "social liberal" tendency fawn over Beveridge as the father of the modern welfare state, even that, I don’t believe, is as clear cut as they would have us believe. As I have written previously, Beveridge’s report went out of its way, as one of its three key principles, to state that none of what he was proposing was to be implemented in such a way that it prevented or discouraged private provision going one better than the minimum safety net he proposed. And in his language of a "war on the five evils" facing the country as it came out of wartime, he clearly thought this was a war that could be won, not a system that would become master of so many welfare slaves.
So, my contention is that "social liberalism" is "classical liberalism plus plus" and that if you assume otherwise, you are headed down a road that elevates the state and its abilities far above what any good liberal should do, "social" or otherwise. I hope in the next few days to be able to launch a website which will hopefully spawn a group of us attempting to explain, in response to many of the "social liberals" untested assumptions about the ability or capacity of the market versus the state, just why a small state can be far more liberal in a positive way than the big state. And that the party should regard freedom, economic, social and political, to be indivisible and look only to violate one person’s freedom where there is absolutely no alternative – a situation I would regard as rare, or perhaps even non-existent.
British liberalism without its classical liberal underpinnings is really just another variation of the state knows best socialism. Our history says we know better and if we’re not proud of that we may as well be lost in the amorphous lump of centre left consensus politics. So yes, bring on a debate about whether we believe that "no-one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" and let us try to show you how ignorance of the classical liberals’ aims will lead us inevitably to the conformity of an overbearing state and leave everyone in greater poverty all the same.