In yesterday’s speech to commemorate 12 months of the coalition, Nick Clegg promised a stronger liberal identity in the future. His party was ‘not left, ‘not right’ but ‘liberal’ and would judge other parties by their commitment to liberalism. Above all, and despite professed disavowal of tribal politics, he claimed that the Lib-Dems were ‘more committed at heart to fairness than the Conservatives’.
Critics of the coalition on the Tory backbenches are often dismissed as the Tory Right, a term intended to paint them as disgruntled reactionaries who can’t reconcile themselves to partnership with the Lib-Dems. But a closer look at the issues being raised by the Tory rebels shows that it would be more accurate to characterise them as the only true liberals in parliament.
They defend democratic self-government against encroachments by Brussels. They champion the right of the people to make their own laws instead of having them imposed by the unaccountable Strasbourg Court. They see crime as one of the main threats to personal freedom and criticise the coalition’s attempts to weaken public protection. They criticise the government’s weak efforts to encourage economic growth, not least the continuation of high personal and corporate taxes, which frustrate the increase in output urgently needed to pay off the rising national debt. They disapprove of the government’s plans to allocate university places according to social class rather than merit.
These concerns all derive from ‘liberalism’, as that term has been understood in Britain, and yet the Lib-Dems are on the other side: against national self-government, for Strasbourg’s defiance of parliament, in favour of reducing protection against crime, in favour of high taxes, and in favour of undermining the integrity of university admissions.
The differences can be explained by recalling the two liberal traditions, and especially their views about human nature, that emerged during the French Revolution: the liberalism of the Jacobins and the critical liberalism of Edmund Burke.