Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why we should welcome the launch of the Social Liberal Forum

Along with many others, I have generally rejected the all-too-easy attempts to categorise Lib Dems as either social or economic liberals (although this was clearly a bit of an aberration.) As I have said before, the Orange Book in fact lacked ideological coherence and really was just a collection of essays by individual authors, hardly suggestive of a right-wing or any other kind of project. In addition, the supposed social liberal riposte, Reinventing the state, had many contributors in common with its supposed adversary.

I suspect that virtually all Lib Dems would sign up to the appellation ‘social liberal’, but would differ as to the extent to which they might use, variously, the free market, individual choice, decentralisation and variations in taxation as mechanisms to achieve a fairer and better society. One can certainly see differences of emphasis between the editors of the Orange book, David Laws and Paul Marshall, and those of Reinventing the state, Duncan Brack, Richard Grayson and David Howarth on these issues. But all have clearly been arguing within a Liberal framework. For myself, I tend to agree with any one or group of the above depending on the issue under discussion. For example, I find Laws’ begrudging attitude to local democracy and Reinventing the state’s lack of attention to wealth creation, as opposed to distribution, equally frustrating.

My real problem has been with Paul Holmes/Tim Farron/Evan Harris and the Beveridge Group, who seem stuck in a rut of defending public sector professionals, higher taxation and greater state intervention in all things, regardless of context, to the exclusion of actually finding liberal solutions to social or economic problems. To them, more or less any fresh thinking appears to be a sign of a right-wing conspiracy and if they don’t exactly stifle debate, they sour the atmosphere in which it is conducted.

I have long lamented the lack of an authentically Liberal forum what for the sake of brevity we will call the left of the party, and I give a cautious but nonetheless warm welcome to the Social Liberal Forum. I certainly think that Charlotte Gore and Alix Mortimer who seem keen to damn it from the start ought at least to give it a chance. If in a year’s time SLF turns out to be a mere vehicle for calling David Laws and Lib Dems who agree with him crypto-Tories then such criticism might be warranted. But let’s wait and see.

There are various reasons why my welcome is both warm and cautious. In the first place, when I notice the presence of Tim Farron and Paul Holmes, contributors of embarrassingly bad chapters to Reinventing the state, on its advisory board, my heart sinks. But the majority of those associated with SLF are not by any means of that stamp. They represent a diverse range of Lib Dem opinion and at least one leading light, James Graham, is more than aware of the shortcomings of the collectivist left of the party.

Likewise I wince a little when I read Richard Grayson’s reference to ‘two approaches’ to Lib Dem policy, ‘Orange Book' and ‘social liberal’. This makes me feel more uncomfortable as I, and no doubt many other Lib Dems, don’t fall neatly into either camp, and don’t find them mutually exclusive. It smacks of a ‘them and us’ attitude to internal debate. But I am sure that is not Richard’s intention and this is confirmed by the reprinting on the SLF website of David Howarth’s generous and inclusive chapter from Reinventing the state.

Both Richard and David appear to place great importance on the rise of so-called New Liberalism a century or so ago as a vital point of departure for social liberalism. If anything, recent historians have called this into question, suggesting that Victorian Liberals may have been rather less and Edwardian Liberals a little more sceptical of state intervention than is often imagined. My hope is that SLF might draw emphasise the democratic element of Liberal social policy, looking to traditions of citizenship, individualism, participation and decentralisation rather than simply advocating collectivism and greater state intervention.

Last but not least, I fear there is a tendency among those who stress ‘social liberalism’ to ignore economics altogether, to consider only how to spend taxes and not how to generate wealth. I always want to ask those who noisily proclaim that they are social not economic liberals: ‘So how would you describe your economic views then – illiberal/social democratic/conservative/Stalinist?’ In current economic circumstances, liberals of all stripes need to think about reinventing rather more than just the state.

SLF has the opportunity to engage in new thinking about liberalism and Lib Dem policy, stimulate genuine debate with a different perspective from, but without hostility towards sister/rival bodies such as Centre Forum. I look forward to seeing how this new initiative develops.