Innies or outies?

Tim Farron: Which way will the Liberal Democrats blow under his leadership? (Liberal Democrats)

The Liberal Democrats’ future once looked bright and orange. Can Tim Farron lead them back from the brink? (Liberal Democrats)

A prejudice had something in common with an ideal. Cornelius Muller was without prejudice and without an ideal.
Graham Greene, The Human Factor (The Bodley Head, 1978)

­This week Lord (David) Steel wrote to The Times, suggesting that the Corbyn coup in the Labour Party had inadvertently prepared the ground for a revival in the fortunes of the Liberal Democrats. Wrote the former leader, ‘I would like to see a start by developing good old Liberal battle cries such as land value taxation, industrial co-partnership and federalism which will regain our distinctiveness from both Labour and the Conservatives.’

Will they? His ‘battle cries’ are, more prosaically, specific policy areas, or at most campaign themes, rather than principles or values. They may well be distinctive from those on offer from the other main parties, but they do rather confirm the suspicion that the British version of the supposedly universal creed of political liberalism amounts to little more than a collection of barely-connected policy ideas, habits of mind, instincts and prejudices, this last traditionally garnered from the party’s low church heartlands in the Celtic fringe, the West Country and parts of the north.

Drink, tobacco and gambling were long the target of Liberal disapproval – or worse (Lloyd George flirted with prohibition). As recently as 1995, a news story in the then Liberal Democrat stronghold of Cornwall opened with the priceless (but entirely serious) words: ‘There will be no alcohol at the Truro Family Fun Day.’ And when Tony Benn once complained, during a discussion programme, that proportional representation would mean having to cut deals with the Liberals in ‘smoke-filled rooms’, fellow panellist and Liberal bigwig Alan (now Lord) Beith insisted there would be no smoke in any room provided by him. (‘You supply the room and I’ll supply the smoke,’ riposted the briar-loving Benn.)

None of this would matter to a true Tory, to whom the whole point of their creed is that it is barely a creed at all, but very much a bundle of habits and instincts bound together by loyalty to a (very) limited number of institutions, chiefly the Crown and Parliament. But it ought to be a problem for Liberals (there is talk that the party may drop the ‘Democrats’ and I propose to pre-empt them in this).

Liberalism is supposed to be if not an ideology then at least an idea, and, pace Lord Steel, favouring works councils, regional assemblies and changes to property taxation does not add up to such an idea, any more than does dislike of the brewers and distillers (which does not always, for Liberals, go hand in hand with disdaining their products).

To some extent, the lack of a clear idea and the preference for assorted ‘battle cries’ can be traced back to the estrangement, if not actual divorce, between the classical liberals and the progressive liberals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In today’s think-tank jargon, the former took a strictly ‘public choice’ view of the state, believing it to be an interest group in its own right, rather than either the mystical source of authority beloved of romantic Tories, or the impartial, wise and benevolent guide envisaged by socialists. Progressive liberals acknowledged that the supposed referee is, to some extent, also a player, but did not believe that this rules out the potential for good from using the state’s power and resources to alleviate poverty, ill-health and lack of education.

It has been argued in the Economist and elsewhere that the hinge that links the two wings of liberalism is a view of the individual, one that starts from the premise that no one is intrinsically more important than anyone else – bad news not only for members of the pre-1911 House of Lords but also for those of the ‘protected groups’ established by the 2010 Equality Act – and consequently that no one’s interests should take automatic precedence over those of anyone else.

In our time, the progressive liberal ascendancy was bolstered by the transfusion of social democrats that was consequent on the 1988 merger of the SDP and the Liberal Party. Not until the current century, and the 2004 publication of The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism (Profile Books), did the classical tradition reassert itself. Contributors from what may be considered the modern-day version of this tradition included Nick Clegg and David Laws and, despite there being chapters written by Vince Cable and Chris Huhne (ex-SDP members more broadly thought to be on the party’s ‘left’), the phrase ‘Orange Book Liberal’, meaning a latter-day classical liberal, was born.

Some say The Orange Book may have led directly to the 2010-2015 coalition with the Conservatives, from the electoral fallout of which new leader Tim Farron is now trying to extricate his party. Perhaps. But the coalition disclosed another fault line in British liberalism: that between those who wish to be in government and those who, whatever they say, would rather not.

This split cuts across the classical-progressive divide – imagine the two lines of the letter X. Thus there are progressives in the ‘out’ camp (the late Charles Kennedy being an obvious example) and in the ‘in’ camp (Cable and Huhne being equally obvious cases). Given the relatively recent revival of the classical wing, the ‘in’ camp is dominant at the moment, but would have rapidly ceased to be so were Clegg to have gone into coalition with Ed Miliband’s Labour Party in May.

The in/out divide may, indeed, be as important a factor in the party’s current woes as the classical-progressive/right-left split. It is easy to say that the party’s worst result since 1970 is all down to Nick Clegg’s whoring after power and that it was all very different under Charles Kennedy when, in the 2005 election, he led the party to its best result since the days of Lloyd George. But could the Kennedy approach not, in part at least, be to blame for the 2015 debacle?

The former leader was the very epitome of the ‘out’ camp. As much a product of the boom years as spiralling consumer credit and rocketing house prices, his 1999-2006 ‘feel-good’ leadership racked up huge piles of votes and seats through a strategy of scrupulously avoiding any entanglement with either power – he pulled the party out of a joint cabinet committee established by Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown – or, indeed, responsibility. Against bad things, in favour of nice things, Kennedy’s Liberals were on a roll.

The temptation for the party now must be to return to that happy state, to revive the children’s crusade. That wasn’t the way of the man with whom we started, however. Within a year of getting the leader’s job in 1976, David Steel was in government, although not as part of a formal coalition. A few years after that he had formed an alliance with a group of heavyweight former Labour cabinet ministers.

Steel’s words to his 1981 party conference – ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ – have been mocked in the years since. Yet for some of us, the implied alternative from the Kennedy years – go back to your constituencies and prepare for another Stop the War march – remains considerably less appealing.

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