Liberalism after the Death of Politics
– by Seth Thévoz
For much of the last century, British Liberals have been met with derision. Whilst liberalism has flourished at the heart of government in countries such as Canada, in Britain it has been accused of being abstract, vague, and unconnected to the day-to-day rough-and-tumble of politics. Indeed, the remaining proponents of liberalism in the UK are something of an oddity: They believe in something. Amidst the professinalisation of politics, and its subjection to the process of advertising, the British political spectrum does not have much to offer by way of ideology. In surveying the landscape around us, we shall see that British politics is both very hostile to ideologies, and yet has never been in more need of an ideology, especially liberalism.
Socialism is dead. That much is certain. What allegedly left-wing politicians now call ‘socialism’ or ‘social democracy’ or even its loosest ‘New Labour’ permutations are so far removed from the ideological roots of socialism, or indeed ideological roots of any kind, that it is more a combination of pragmatism, and a desire to capture the electoral inheritence of the traditional Labour coalition; a vast alliance of inner cities, progressive suburbs, declining industry, and a unionised workforce. The Labour Party in its present ‘New’ form is a deeply cynical exercise in power politics that seeks to dominate elections by occupying ‘the middle ground’; the problem with New Labour permanently seeking to occupy ‘the middle ground’, is that it is not a fixed point. There is no principle involved in ‘The Third Way’, indeed, as political issues and debates vary every year, so the middle ground oscillates wildly between the left and the right, the liberal and the authoritarian. To quote Tony Blair himself, “I have taken from my party everything they thought they believed in. I have stripped them of their core beliefs. What keeps it together is power.” That holds true of the New Labour coalition.
Turning to the more traditionally socialist elements of the Labour Party, they are doomed to pursue small-C conservatism. Not the conservatism of the economic right, but the moderate conservatism which comes from a lack of imagination; an overdependence on tried and trusted methods; a distrust of innovation. It is the conservatism that does not question the old wisdom that the Trade Unions know best, collective wisdom is always superior to that of the individual, and so the mantra of ‘might is right’ survives through the majority always suppressing the minority, whether it be through the electoral college of Trade Union bloc votes, or the flagrant disregard for ‘outsiders’ who are not part of the Labour movement – consider, for example, the unabashedly exclusionist immigration policies of the Wilson and Callaghan governments in the late 1960s and 1970s which bordered on racism. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that traditional socialism, with its tribalism and chauvinism, has few adherents today even in the Labour Party.
On the other side of the spectrum, traditional, paternalistic conservatism is dead also; at least, within the Conservative party. If paternalistic conservatives can bear to wear jeans, they might find a reasonable imitation of their creed amidst the bland centrism of New Labour, but certainly not within the Conservative Party. Despite the attempts of Major and even Cameron to lay claim to the old ‘One Nation’ mantle, the Conservative Party today seems suspiciously far from the ideas of Disraeli and Macmillan that resolved to unite the ‘two nations; the rich and the poor.’ Even with their new ‘cuddly’ image, the Conservatives have not recently been able to lay claim to the title of ‘unifier’. What Alan Duncan referred to as The Tory Taleban still carry enough weight to have made the party divisive, and abrasive to many on issues such as the repeal of Section 28, William Hague’s populist U-turning in opposing lower fuel taxes one week, and proposing the lowest of all the next. This Tory Taleban does still wield a strong streak of Thatcherite dogma – a good counter, it could be argued, to the idea that politics is devoid of ideology. But they are ever increasingly being marginalised by the slick, professional, insincere image being projected – in the case of Margaret Thatcher during the last election, quite literally the embarrassing relative being kept locked up in the attic. We live in a political culture where one is penalised for sincerity, and rewarded for blandness and a lack of any views whatsoever.
The Liberal Democrats do not claim to be a home for all the vanquished and sidelined ideologies – though it is certainly worth mourning the passing away of a politics based on the engagement of ideas. What they do represent is a vehicle for Liberal ideas amidst a political process which no longer places great emphasis on ideas of any kind. Perhaps the massively prescriptive ideologies of past centuries have had their day – but if so, there is no satisfactory successor to them.
If ideology is to be reinvigorated within politics, surely liberalism is the framework for it. One of liberalism’s many strengths is that it is a means, rather than an end – a system of governing through due process, safeguarding against abuses of power. Liberal systems can end up paving the way for governments of the left, or the right – or they can remain Liberal. Witness, for example, how the United States was founded upon one of the most liberal constitutions, but how it has grown profoundly conservative over the years in its defence of that original constitution. Contrast this with the gradual reshaping of Canada over the years, how the increasing progressive liberalism of the Trudeau years culminated in the constitution of 1982, and how successive Conservative governments since then have still not succeeded in removing the underlying liberal consensus in everyday attitudes forged over the past few decades.
No liberal could ever dispute the central message of Voltaire’s argument, “I may vehemently disagree with what you say, but I would die for your right to say it.” What a vibrant, liberal democracy needs is a meaningful dialogue of opposing views to be considered by actively participating citizens. Ever lazy parties with ever lazier, simplified slogans, asking less and less of the people is not the way to engage people. What is needed is a Liberal approach based on devolving power to the people; taking power out of the hands of Whitehall, and giving it to local councils. If local elections were meaningful, and had real power over local schools and hospitals, they would actually be worth turning up for, instead of generating dismal 40% turnouts, and votes based on vague impressions rather than real interest. If local and national issues were separated, then elections could actually be about specific issues, instead of once every five years being a maelstrom of parochial referenda irrelevant to the elections at hand. What is needed is nothing less than a Liberal reshaping of the constitution of this country, to restore a sense of ownership in our politics and our politicians. Only with this level of attention to detail can we get out of the rut of advertising agency politics.