Alex Massie

The Liberal Moment

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Well, so far this new government is doing rather well. It hasn't passed any unecessary and intrusive legislation yet...

One of the curiosities of the reaction to our new Liberal Conservative coalition has been the wailing and stamping of feet from the Guardian-left complaining that the Liberal Democrats have somehow betrayed progressivism or something. There are some on the left who refuse to accept that liberalism and the Labour movement are not the same thing and the former isn't simply a subset of the latter.(See Mehdi Hasan for an excellent example of this comical thinking.)

It's true that there has often been an anti-Conservative majority but there's also often been an anti-Labour majority and this is one such time. It's a nonsense to pretend that folk voting Liberal Democrat actually meant to endorse Labour in some mysterious, super-secret fashion that permits one to count these votes as really being cast in favour of Gordon Brown and his henchmen. It doesn't actually work like that.

In any case a Liberal-Labour alliance made more sense in the early decades of the 20th century when the argument was about building a welfare state and all the rest of it. Now that the argument is about reforming the welfare state and other government services it's not so obvious that liberals should ally themselves with Labour - and certainly not when there's a reform-minded Conservatism is the other option. Right now, to put the Lib Dems in American terms, the New Hampshire minority have defeated the Vermont majority.

And, look, Nick Clegg is much, much closer to David Cameron than he is to the Labour party. Consider this speech, from 2008, on the need for public service reform. Sure, there's a bit of Tory-bashing but the main thrust of it is entirely consistent with the brighter parts of Cameron's remodelled Tory party. And it makes it clear that, philosophically and in terms of instinct, e Con-Lib arrangment makes perfect sense.

The whole thing is worth reading but here are some extracts:

The last ten years has shown that money isn't everything. The big questions now are these: how do we make Britain a fairer place without raising the overall tax burden? How do we promote real social mobility without relying on the discredited politics of Big Government? In seeking to make Britain fairer, we need to stop just asking "how much", and to start thinking hard about "how".

Marrying our proud traditions of economic and social liberalism, refusing to accept that one comes at the cost of the other. On that point, if not all others, the controversial Orange Book in 2004 was surely right.

This also means embracing a wider understanding of empowerment: not just of local authorities and politicians, desirable though that is, but of pupils, patients and parents too.

Individual power must be an everyday thing, not just reserved for the moment a vote is cast in the ballot box.

[...] Liberalism believes people know best.

As John Stuart Mill warned in 1859: "A state which dwarfs its men...even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great things can be accomplished."

Gordon Brown may have rejected the old nationalization which put the commanding heights of industry into government hands. But he still believes that command and control from the centre is the answer to the problems of public services and social justice. In place of nationalized industries we have nationalised education, nationalised health, and nationalised welfare: run by inflexible, centralised monopolies. It adds up to the nationalisation of our whole lives.

[...] I stand for these simple principles:

The state must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis.

The state must intervene to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals.

And the state must oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off in providing an array of top-class schools and hospitals. This alchemy of clear but circumscribed central direction combined with liberalised bottom-up provision is exactly what underpins the best health and school systems in Europe, and the world.

So we must challenge monopolies. Give real power and responsibility to people who use public services and people who work in them. And change those services so they're human in scale and personal in nature - bringing an end to the faceless bureaucracies that alienate and confuse us all.

[..] Downscaling national government's role will also require a revitalisation of local government. Our country is absurdly centralised.

[...]This is the 21st century - the age of Youtube, and Facebook, and Wikipedia. The age not of top-down management, but of people taking control of their own lives, creating the tools to deliver services to each other. We no longer want to be treated as if we should be grateful recipients of inflexible, and sometimes second rate, state services delivered from on high.

So, in conclusion. An end to controlling central state management. More power and responsibility for local government. More power and responsibility for public servants. More power and responsibility too for the people who use our public services. And greater space for real grassroots innovation in who provides our public services, and how they do it.

[...]What Britain needs is a party which is liberal both economically and socially. A party which is passionate about building a fairer society, but understands that freedom is the ally of fairness - not its enemy.

Of course aspirations and analysis are the easy bit. Achievement is, well, more difficult. But the aspiration and analysis is at least a decent start.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePoliticsliberal democratstories