Posts Tagged 'UK Politics'

Liberalism after the Death of Politics

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.

 

The writer has graduated from Cambridge in History and Politics, and was the CSLD chair in the year 2005.

Free Education … still worth fighting for

Free Education

               …is still worth fighting for

                                                                      by Elaine Bagshaw

             

The Bill which saw the introduction of tuition fees in England was won in Parliament by only 5 votes. Nearly a million students marched in London against this tax on education. The NUS lobbied against it, it was denounced as unfair, and our own party promised to abolish it. The policy was seen as an unforgivable assault on free education that, to begin with, was questioned at every opportunity.

 

Fast forward ten years, and the landscape of the debate is much changed. NUS has dropped its commitment to free education (an indication of how close the union has become to the Labour leadership), campaigning from students is almost silent, report after report claims fees have had no effect on accessibility and at Harrogate this Spring, our party will debate Higher Education policy, and its commitment to the abolition of fees.

 

When everyone runs onto the same ground, it’s easy to think you should follow. The voices in favour of free education have dwindled, and we are often referred to as “loony lefties” who back a regressive policy which is only a middle class subsidy from the taxpayer. The majority of those involved in this debate seem to have accepted that fees are here to stay, and that if you want to enter Higher Education you better be prepared to take on the minimum £9,000 debt that comes with it.

 

The idea that crippling young people with huge debts is acceptable and something we should see as an investment, especially in the current economic climate, is an absurdity. Graduate debt is the first and last solution of other parties’ Higher Education funding schemes. This way of thinking is not fair and it is not progressive. As the recession takes hold, it is people in the under 25 age bracket that are making up the lion’s share of redundancies.

 

People will argue that it is a debt that no-one chases you for, and you only pay it back once you’re working, but it is still a debt and it still accrues interest. I myself have £14,500 of student debt to repay. This is accruing £60 of interest every month. If I were made redundant tomorrow, this interest would still be added onto the overall debt. And if the economy doesn’t recover for two years (the minimum that’s expected), that’s another £1440 added on.

 

But there’s more to it than just student debt: Since the introduction of tuition fees, we’ve seen a market creep into Higher Education which is damaging the sector. We are being forced to think about only how to get a job after University – one which will earn us enough to repay our massive student debts. Lecturers are being forced to teach to the mark-sheet and find it harder and harder to explore, with students, their knowledge or their potential – this has even begun to hit the age-old institution that is the University of Cambridge. This isn’t the fault of students or lecturers, but of yet another failed ‘Labour’ policy.

 

Research clearly demonstrates that poorer students are more likely to choose a University that is close to home, meaning that these students miss out on all the extra skills and experiences the rest of us get from University. Social skills, independence, involvement in student activities and much more: all missed out on not because you don’t have the talent to go to a better University, but simply because the structure of the system means you just can’t afford it. Higher Education in this country remains inaccessible to poorer students and the best Universities continues to be implicitly reserved for the most privileged, rather than the most capable.

 

Dropping an illiberal and artificial 50% target (proportion of people going to University) – seemingly plucked out of thin air – coupled with a system of progressive taxation and sensible budgeting from a Government would provide well-funded, accessible Higher Education. The benefits for every student in Cambridge would be immense. It would develop all forms of diversity, free up access teams to do their job, and push the reputation of Cambridge even higher.

 

Free education is not regressive. Means-tested grants, loans and fees are regressive because it means that at the age of 18 (or older if you take a gap year) you are still tied to your parents. Every other section of the law views you as an independent adult – free to vote, get married without your parents’ permission and take on commercial credit and yet the current tuition fees system ties a financial commitment to you that your parents are expected to keep, yet on the Government’s terms.

 

The fight for free education is still worth it because free education is something that should not be compromised on. Education is a liberating, developing force and can free us from any background we are born into. What matters is that the principle of free education is still strong and its benefits worthwhile. This is something the Liberal Democrats have always stood for, and I hope always will.

 

Liberal Youth will be leading the fight for free education and the abolition of tuition fees at Harrogate conference. If you want to get involved, email elaine.bagshaw@liberalyouth.org and help with anything from lobbying to literature.

 

 

 

The writer is currently the Liberal Youth Chairperson.