Monday, 13 December 2010

Whither the Social Liberals?

About three years ago I became acquainted with two Liberal Democrat activists. It was the first time I had any close contact with anyone who actually identified themselves as Lib Dem, and I was keen to understand what made them tick.

As I got to know them better I was puzzled: their differences on political issues and political language was quite marked. When I asked one of them why, I got the answer 
"He's an Economic Liberal Democrat".
"And you?", I asked.
"I'm a Social Liberal Democrat".
TBH, I wasn't much enlightened by this exchange. I had heard of the "Orange Book" grouping within the party, but I hadn't paid much attention.

Now, at least since the 2010 General Election, it has become a lot clearer. The "Orange Bookers" (Clegg, Huhne, Laws, Alexander...and a few others) are disciples of the 19th Century Liberal laissez-faire doctrine that markets are supreme: they are wise and are guided by a "hidden hand". Markets know best, they must not be interfered with, governments should let events take their course. It was this nonsense that allowed the administration of Liberal Prime Minister Lord John Russell (Russell himself gets less of the blame) to let the Irish Famine of the 1840s escalate into a historic tragedy. Millions died and the rest emigrated. Many of Ireland's current problems can be traced to the aftermath of this disgraceful episode in our joint history.

The parallels (and the historical links) between "Orange Book" Liberalism and late 20th Century Thatcherism are clear. Just like Thatcher and Osborne, the "Orange Book" Liberal Democrats are Manchester School/Chicago School market disciples. They have the same faith. They speak the same language and they believe the same things.Which is why Clegg et al have settled so snugly into the ToryDem coalition: they (if not the rest of their party cohorts, and certainly not Lib Dem voters) have found their natural home.

When the question is raised: why did the Lib Dems roll over on the economy? why did they roll over on tuition fees and so many other right wing policies?, the answer is clear: they (at least the party leadership) always wanted to and always would have, given the chance.

That's the "Economic Liberal Democrats", of course. What about the "Social Liberal Democrats"? The question now becomes: what will they do now that they have been betrayed by the Orange Book squad? How can they reconcile their view that a society needs a conscience with the Thatcherite/Orange Book belief that "...there is no such thing as society..."?

If they believe that the coalition and Nick Clegg will deliver progressive social policy they are fooling themselves. Their problem is: what do they do about it?

Whither, indeed, the Social Liberals?


  1. Well for this Social Liberal it won't be to the unreconstructed stalinists in the Labour party. The national party is bad enough but in Scotland nae chance pal.

  2. The Tories? Retire from voting?

  3. Richard,
    If you really are a "Social" LIb Dem, it must be galling to sit and watch The "Orange Book" mob steal your party and give it to the Tories, with nothing in return (apart from a few ministerial mondeos for the boys).

    Putting your fingers in your ears and shouting "nananana, you're a bastard too" may bring some comfort, but it's not a solution to your problem.

  4. I am genuinely torn about this. I have an instinctive loathing of the Tories but, from my description above, I have equally little time for Labour. Its authoritarianism, its deceit over Iraq and Afghanistan, its manipulation of terrorism to weaken civil liberty and its obstruction of political reform make it an pretty unpleasant place for Liberals and liberals. Even now some central belt dinosaur (Brian Donohue) is trying to get first past the post for all MSPs and it sure aint democracy he's after but the re-establishment of the Labour client state in his midden. He and his ilk have never accpeted STV for local elections. So it's no use Ed Milliband creeping round me to join him and his gang of stalinists.

    I don't propose to do anything personally except to wait on events. I'm not sticking my fingers in my ears and shouting nanananana etc but I suggest you delude yourself if you think that there will be a stampede of Liberals/Lib Dems in Labour's direction. Don't forget that the old Liberal party split in the 1980s when the SDP element 'took over' and there yet remain around the country some vestigal remains of the old party.

  5. Michael Meadowcroft?

    Is he still gan aboot man?

  6. Aye he is with a few of his ilk in Liverpool and in Kidderminster in the person of Fran Oborski a quite fearsome and committed Liberal.

  7. So Liberals are "fearsome and committed" but Labourites are "unreconstructed Stalinists"? :)

    Anyway. It's not feasible. The ongoing Liberals are a tiny splinter of a few hundred people. The lesson of politics since 1980 is that splitting the anti-Tory majority is exactly what we do not need.

    Whatever you think of Blair, his "big tent" delivered much needed improvements to a society ravaged by Thatcherism. Lib Dems were broadly sympathetic to most of these at the time, now they support and providea shield for Thacherism MKII.

    It doesn't make sense.

  8. By "Stalinist" d'ye mean this...?

    If you can't win the aergument, shut down the debate....