I’ll never quite cut the mustard as a polemicist. Each time I post something controversial on this blog I then worry that I’ve been rather horrid to the person I have criticised.
So, pondering my last post on obesity, I should point out, in fairness to Sandra Gidley, that she is doing no more than reflecting a strategic dilemma that the Liberal Democrats face at the moment.
Here’s what I mean. Most Lib Dems would agree that they want the party to be liberal. But they also want it to be ‘on the left’. Unfortunately, for the past century left–right discourse has not been about liberalism versus illiberalism but about socialism versus capitalism. As a result, many liberals worry about being too anti-socialist in case that puts us on the right.
If left means socialist then the correct left response to any social problem is to say that it can and should be ameliorated, or even solved, by increased government action (and spending). When confronted with the Department of Health report on obesity, a Lib Dem spokesperson may consider the ways of responding.
One, distinctively liberal, response might be to say that while obesity is a real problem, in the end it’s a matter of personal lifestyle choice and something the government can’t easily solve, even if it has a duty to make sure people have access to the right information. But to many people this smacks of complacent, uncaring Toryism. In short, it sounds like a right-wing response. (I should say here that I don’t think its right wing, because I believe progressive politics should be about setting people free to make their own choices, not about bossy, authoritarian government. But let that pass.)
A second option would be to agree that obesity is indeed a serious issue and welcome the fact that the government has recognised this and is doing something to tackle it. This would reconcile the liberal versus left dilemma, but is a rather uncritical position for an opposition party to take.
That then leaves the third response, which is the one Sandra Gidley has chosen, namely to say that it’s a terrible problem, a ‘time-bomb’ even, that the government isn’t doing nearly enough to tackle it and ought to be doing far more. This is no more than the standard response of many Lib Dem spokesman to any number of social issues concerning public health, safety child care etc.
Unfortunately, the end result is that on these domestic issues we have little to set us apart from the other parties beyond saying that we always want a bit extra public spending, state intervention and government bossiness than they do.
In my view the collapse of socialism in the last decade of the twentieth century was a chance to redefine progressive politics along liberal lines. Unfortunately, too many Liberal Democrats cling to the comfort blanket of the (essentially socialist) nostrum that to be on the left must always mean supporting more government.