The Liberal Democrats’ rightward shift in the decade since The Orange Book has helped make the Cameron-Clegg coalition possible. Peter Sloman asks whether we should see it as a revival of classical liberalism, a reflection of neoliberal influences, or simply a recalibration of the party’s existing thought.
One of the most fruitful debates in British political studies over the past twenty years has concerned New Labour’s relationship with its past. As the Cameron-Clegg coalition enters its final stages, there is much to be gained from looking at the contemporary Liberal Democrats in a similar light. That the party has moved rightward in the decade since The Orange Book can hardly be doubted – the very existence of the coalition is testimony to that – but the ideological character and historical significance of this shift have not always been well understood. Here are some tentative preliminary thoughts.
It seems to me that the ideological distinctiveness of the new Liberal Democrat right lies in two main elements: a strong commitment to market economics, and a distinctly Mill-ite conception of liberalism which prioritizes individual freedom, diversity and choice. Taken together, these two elements have served to accentuate the intellectual and political differences between liberalism and social democracy and to establish areas of common ground with the post-Thatcherite Conservative Party. Hence the strong identification of New Labour with Fabian centralism in Nick Clegg’s 2009 pamphlet The Liberal Moment, Richard Reeves’ provocative suggestion that ‘social liberals’ should join the Labour Party, and Clegg’s readiness to emphasize the congruence of Conservative and Liberal Democrat aims during the coalition’s early years.
Supporters of the party’s Orange Book wing have tended to see it as a revival of nineteenth-century classical liberalism, committed to ‘free trade, economic liberalism, limited government and individualism’, which flourished in the era of Mill and Gladstone but was squeezed out by New Liberal interventionism after 1900. Left-leaning critics such as Simon Kovar have retorted that the depth of the Orange Bookers’ commitment to the market is alien to the British Liberal tradition:
What today is called ‘economic liberalism’ is not Liberalism at all. It is neo-liberalism: a C20th phenomenon of the New Right. It is the creed of market fundamentalism rather than market pragmatism, a rejection of the old liberal idea of the mixed economy in favour of privatisation and radical public sector contraction. It confuses market freedoms and deregulation with individual freedom and choice, and mistakes corporate interests for the private sphere. None of these choices are liberal choices, as would have been understood by Adam Smith, William Gladstone or Jo Grimond.
I’m inclined to half-agree with both perspectives. Market economics formed the predominant strand of the Liberal Party’s economic thought for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and denying that point seems to be perverse. Yet the notion that it is only legitimate expression of liberal philosophy is equally misleading – as L.T. Hobhouse, John Maynard Keynes, and William Beveridge all argued. Moreover, Kovar is right to point out that contemporary neoliberalism differs from classical liberalism in important ways. Most obviously, Gladstone and his contemporaries were as concerned about the integrity and autonomy of the state as about its size. It is difficult to find the same concern among today’s ‘economic liberals’.
Invocations of classical liberalism and neoliberalism make most sense when describing the new Liberal Democrat right itself. Yet Nick Clegg’s leadership has not been marked by the wholesale triumph of the Orange Bookers so much as the development of a new equilibrium within the party. Electoral considerations, party structures, and a left-leaning activist base have all constrained the party’s rightward shift, and Clegg’s own pragmatism should also be recognized. As a result, it is possible to see the Liberal Democrats’ trajectory over the past decade in more evolutionary terms. In his recent study of The Revival of British Liberalism: From Grimond to Clegg, Tudor Jones has identified a ‘benign, progressive synthesis’ of market economics, social justice, and active citizenship as the central stream of Liberal thought since the party’s revival under Jo Grimond. Jones points out that though Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, and the ‘community politics’ Liberals of the 1970s and 1980s were notably ambivalent towards the market, ‘economic liberalism’ was taken up with gusto by David Owen’s SDP and (post-merger) by Paddy Ashdown. On this reading, The Orange Book simply heralded a rebalancing of Liberal Democrat policy within established parameters.
I would not go as far as Jones in this direction; after all, Owen was viewed with deep suspicion by many Liberals, and Ashdown suffered party conference defeats over rail privatization and minimum wages. I’m more impressed by the parallels with the last period in which Liberals and Conservatives found substantial common ground, namely the late 1940s and 1950s. As I’ve argued in an article for Political Studies Review, this was an era in which Liberals tended to emphasize how different their vision of progress was from Labour’s. Liberals stood for freedom and equal opportunities rather than equality of outcome, for ‘ownership for all’ rather than nationalization, for a welfare society rather than a welfare state, and for Keynesian demand management rather than central planning. As the preamble to the party’s 1936 constitution put it, in self-conscious contrast with Clause IV:
The Liberal Party exists to build a Liberal Commonwealth, in which every citizen shall possess liberty, property and security, and none shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or unemployment. Its chief care is for the rights and opportunities of the individual, and in all spheres it sets freedom first.
Exponents of this individualist vision, such as the Huddersfield journalist Elliott Dodds, hoped that it would distinguish the Liberal Party from both its rivals, but in practice the contrast with Labour was much sharper –especially as the Conservatives moved into liberal terrain after 1945 and began to champion a ‘property-owning democracy’.
There is much to admire in this progressive yet anti-statist variant of liberalism, but it’s not entirely clear that it’s a good model for Nick Clegg and his colleagues to follow. The electoral constituency for right-leaning liberalism has probably never been very large, but at least in 1950 it was plausible to argue that an over-mighty state posed the main threat to citizens’ freedom and prosperity. After a quarter-century of privatization, deregulation, and individualism that case is much harder to make. Yet at a time when the 2007-8 financial crisis has called into question the viability of the post-Thatcher free-market settlement, the Liberal Democrat leadership appears to have redoubled its commitment to the economic status quo. The task of rethinking what British capitalism might look like in the twenty-first century, for which progressive liberals are in many respects well-suited, has thus largely been left to Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.
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