Liberalism and new politics for the 21st Century


Nick Clegg made a speech on 19th December to a conference organised by the Open Society Institute and Demos which spelled out what Liberalism is about. It was poorly reported by the media which focused on criticisms of the Conservative policies on tax benefits for married people. But, it was an important speech in that Liberalism – the real third way of British politics – was, for the first time in many years, made the key topic.

In “the Strange Death of Liberal England” written by George Dangerfield in 1935, the twin political opponents of workers and capital were seen to squeeze out the rights of the individual as two opposing armies took over. This death was correctly seen as liberalism and the niceties of that philosophy were sacrificed to economic imperatives. Economic supremacy and economic growth (as measured by wages and GDP) became the real determinant in our politics and economics – a natural result of the economics of the 19th Century.

Now, western economies are relatively wealthy in pure economic terms despite the travails of the last few years. It is the squeezed middle classes that are now facing economic peril – with real antipathy to the financial “class” that seem to have acquired all the economic power. As Michael Portillo stressed in today’s Sunday Times, democracy itself may well be at risk in these stressed economic times.

Therefore, as Nick Clegg made the case so well – see: http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2011/12/open-society-power-state – Liberalism stresses the balancing of the needs of individuals against power blocks – against totalitarianism of all kinds. “The values of the open society – social mobility; political pluralism; civil liberties; democracy; internationalism – are the source of my liberalism. And reflecting on the events of the last year, it is clear to me that they have rarely been more important than they are today.”

As economies sink around the world, modern politics have to look beyond the cul-de-sac of entrenched self-interest and power blocks to the values of that open society. We should measure our rights to exist in ways that are more suitable than GDP or income measured in such straightjacket terms as numbers of £’s or $’s or Euros. Open society should be the way we measure our lives – this requires satisfactory income levels but there is more to what humans need than income to buy things that have diminishing returns to our well-being. Clegg’s speech is a useful starting point for what politics should be about beyond the next tax break. I hope many read it, that the press begins to re-establish itself and begins to help lead the way to a new politics and economics for the 21st Century.

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