Nick Clegg made a speech on 19th December 2013 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 eight years. It is the squeezed middle classes that have faced economic peril – with real antipathy to the financial “class” that seem to have acquired all the economic power. However, “austerity” economics has imperilled the lower paid and the poor on the altar of “balancing the books”.
In 2013, and in his recent resignation speech after an election that punished the Liberal Democrats for much more than cosying up to the Conservatives, Nick Clegg made the case so well. 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.” Clegg said in 2013.
In his more recent speech made yesterday, Clegg stated that the loss of liberal values from recent politics spoke of a real risk to freedoms and the pursuit of life over entrenched interest groups. Unfortunately, this message had not been made by Liberals for 5 years (except in the odd speech like in 2013) and the mistrust held by the electorate over the decisions to become part of a Tory-led coalition along with the about-turn on University fees caused enough of the electorate to dismiss the Liberal Democrats. This party became “Tory-light” in the eyes of the young who had voted for them in 2010.
As economies struggle around the world, modern politics should be looking beyond the cul-de-sac of entrenched self-interest and power blocks to the values of the open society called up in Clegg’s 2013 speech. 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 should have been a useful starting point for what politics should be about beyond the next tax break. I hoped at the time that many would read it, that the press would begin to re-establish itself and begin to help lead the way to a new politics and economics for the 21st Century.
My hopes were dashed by a Liberal Democrat party that forgot its true centre (probably lost anyway when it joined with the Social Democrats thirty years ago) and only remembered it when it had lost.
Where does liberalism go now in the UK?
Perhaps the election throws up another route. The Labour Party’s dismay at it abject failure to ignite interest in the whole of the UK may be seen as an early stage in a change there, too. Born on the back of the struggle of the working class to assert itself in 1900, Dangerfield in his 1935 book showed clearly how that movement of labour was bound to kill off the party that had tried to represent labour up to then (the Whigs and then the Liberals) but from a middle class perspective.
Now, working people have succeeded in asserting their rights and many now aspire to middle income status. The struggle is now for all employed people to struggle in a world where the top 1% seem to be capturing the economies. They also have a mission to improve the lot of those outside of work.
For the Labour Party, this means that their traditional block of supporters seeks different outlets – Scottish Nationalist or UKIP, Green or even Conservative – where aspirations stretch from pure economic to the type of society for our children. Labour has to change to reflect aspiration – not just Tory-light (which Blairism was too close to) but something motivational. Ed Miliband talked about One Nation (a Victorian memory) that David Cameron repeated in his victory speech. This needs to be taken forward to the 21st Century and maybe Labour needs to reach out not go back into itself.
In the past, this was spoken of as a “realignment of left wing politics” but it needs a new 21st Century definition. Liberal thought as Clegg made so clear in 2013 and briefly referred to on 8th May, 2105, could be what drags the Labour Party kicking and screaming into a new mission for this century.
“The values of the open society – social mobility; political pluralism; civil liberties; democracy; internationalism” allied to safeguarding the poor and those who find it difficult to gain traction in that society, providing opportunity for all, motivating all to achieve both economic benefits and quality of life – these could be the new liberal values of Labour – and Liberals. Maybe the realignment is overdue – but, not just with left-ish ideals from the 1930’s, but liberal ideals for the 2020’s.