Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Democratic Social Liberal? Liberal Social Democrat?

OK, so we're back to the politics. What prompted this post was a comment I saw elsewhere about the current common use of the word 'Liberal' with reference to the 'Liberal Democrats', leading on to the relative balance or emphasis that is sometimes used between the original formative parts of the Lib Dems as a party. Briefly, for those (few, I'm sure) who don't know, the party was formed as a result of the merger between the former allies of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the 1980s. That party was initially known as the 'Social and Liberal Democrats' before being shortened to the current title, while small effectively 'continuity' versions of the two parent parties, using their names, continued and virtually spiralled into electoral oblivion.

 Of course, the term 'Liberal' has a very important association with the party and its members, and is a vital part of what makes the party distinct and different from other major UK political parties. It is not necessarily the fact that we would all class ourselves as being predominantly 'Liberals' by ideology (although many of us would, of course), but the fact that we are all, including those who would thing of themselves predominantly as 'Social Democrats', essentially generally 'liberal-minded'.

On the other hand, even those of us who are 'Liberals' are overwhelmingly modern 'Social Liberals' with a belief in social justice and addressing inequality (especially inequality of opportunity) in society. While we may agree to a greater or lesser extent with various bits of their policies, we are not 'Classical Liberals' or 'Neo-Liberals' or even 'Libertarians' in the sense of L'aissez Faire government non-interventionism - we recognise that inequality and disadvantage exists in society, and that in order to have a truly free society and economy we do need to ensure that opportunity exists for everyone, and that markets are regulated so that they remain free from manipulation by monopolies or cartels (private or government). That does mean using the government as a 'regulator' to ensure fairness for everyone.

We are all, of course, 'Democrats', and all dedicated to improving our democracy and how it works for the people.

In reality, that means that the party is an alliance between liberal-minded Social Democrats and social-justice-minded Social Liberals, and those positions are really not very far apart at all. Indeed, they are so close that, once you accept that any necessary compromise between them should be democratically decided, pragmatic and evidence-based, they are so close to being the same practical position that working together is never an issue, and any disagreements within the party are seldom based along such narrow ideological lines and borders. Nobody will agree with absolutely everything the party as a whole sets as policy, of course (I'd be worried if they did - anyone who agrees with every word of every policy isn't thinking for themselves!), but the overwhelming majority usually seem to find that the position on almost everything is close enough to their own to be acceptable as a compromise solution - it might sometimes not be the option they think is 'best', but it's often a 'reasonable pragmatic and evidence-based solution', and well within their general area of broad thinking (and we all have to accept the reality that we might actually ourselves be wrong, and that the collective body of opinion of like-minded party colleagues might be right, about what solution is ultimately 'best').

Every political party has to be a broad church to some extent in order to have enough members to be able to achieve anything, of course, but those small ideological differences within the Lib Dems are far less wide than the splits that exist between the other major UK parties. In recent times, of course, Lib Dems have had a tough time in coalition government followed by an even tougher time at the ballot box. There were many who expected the party to split into factional in-fighting in the way that some other parties tend to do in such circumstances, with one 'wing' or another trying to 'take control' of the future direction. That really didn't happen, and it didn't happen because we are in so much general agreement over most things.

You may hear of the 'Orange Bookers', and their apparently more overtly 'Liberal' take on things. It's not really a big gulf of position or policy, though - there is much in the Orange book that is agreeable and sensible, and probably acceptable to every Liberal Democrat, though there are, in my opinion, some things that are perhaps taken a little too far as a kind of 'thought experiment'. It was, I would argue, a necessary exercise at the time, though - the party is often perceived as being 'in the middle' (or even 'Labour-lite'), and it would be all too easy to lapse into a comfortable position of just being 'moderate' about everything, especially since we are in broad internal agreement on so much general stuff, and do emphasise evidence and practicality. We do need to challenge that comfort zone for ourselves from time to time, and remember that we shouldn't be afraid of 'thinking outside the box', so to speak - we certainly mustn't shy away from proposing radical solutions if those radical solutions are the ones that seem most likely to produce the results we want in order to improve society.

We also need to remind other people that we are not just the party of  'don't believe in anything much', or 'being moderate about everything', or even (especially) 'maintaining the status quo'. That is not the case, and has never been the case, but we do need to challenge ourselves from time to time in order to remind ourselves of that so that we can tell other people. Part of that can certainly be emphasising the 'Liberal' aspect - that is not something that is inherent in the DNA of any other major UK political party, and it never will be. It is something distinct and different about the Lib Dems, and we should never be afraid of that - individual freedom, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment and respect, resistance to authoritarianism from 'the establishment', reform of government and democracy - the inherent belief that people should look after their own affairs as far as possible, and that decisions should be taken as close to the people as possible, and that the government exists only as an instrument of the people - these are deep within the core beliefs of our party, and nobody else's. To put it bluntly, we are the only major UK political party that doesn't believe that the government should be 'in charge' and 'in control' of the population, and that people should be free to make their own choices as far as possible, and we cannot shy away from that. 'Liberal' is a good thing to be emphasising for a party that is a collection of the 'liberal-minded', even if it is not purely a collection of people who would define themselves as 'Liberals'.

It's not the only good thing to be emphasising, though, and we shouldn't forget that either. We are also a party of 'Social' Liberals and 'Social Democrats', and 'Social Justice' is also a core part of our DNA. Indeed, there are some who would suggest that the term 'Social' should never have been removed from the party's name in the first place (I understand that argument, but personally I don't think I agree, mainly because the party name was a bit on the cumbersome side!). We aren't 'Socialists' who believe in simplistic 'redistribution of wealth' and 'robbing Peter to pay Paul', of course, but we are certainly a party who sees inequality as a great evil to be addressed, and we mustn't be afraid of emphasising that, too, and even advocating solutions that might perhaps be considered as more drawn from the origins of 'Social Democrats' than traditional 'Liberals'. We are the party who understands that Social Justice and equality comes from equality of opportunity, and that means investment in public services, education, housing, infrastructure, and so on - in implementing social measures to create a level playing field for everyone, regardless of background and disadvantage. That is an important part of who we are - we are the offspring of the 'Social Democratic Party' as well as the Liberals, and we should also always be reminding people of that.

By any definition, the difference between a 'Democratic Social Liberal' and a 'Liberal Social Democrat' has to be a pretty small one!

Why is this so important now? Well, context is everything - not only have we been through a difficult period, but other parties have too. Comments have been made about there being 'Liberals' in other parties, and that is certainly true. There, however, also 'liberal-minded' 'Social Democrats' in other parties as well, though, and we can't afford to let them forget that aspect of who we are as a party. It's not just about advocating policies that chime with those as we talk about our 'Liberalism', but about reminding them that 'Social Democracy' is itself a vital part of the core of our DNA - it is a big part of where we come from, and a big part of where we should always be going. We are a party that welcomes 'Liberal Social Democrats' as much as 'Democratic Social Liberals', and we need to keep saying that.

The two original formative parts of what became the Liberal Democrats were never far apart in policy, or ideology, or practical solutions to real world problems. That is why we so easily formed an alliance in the first place, and why we were able to merge willingly into one single party with a united 'vision'. It is why we remain much less divided as a party than the two big parties of UK politics. We always have to challenge ourselves and take a critical view of our own direction and policy, but we also have to always take full account of those slightly different aspects of our origin and make up. We always have to remember to emphasis both parts as being important, equal, and entirely comparable with one another. 'Liberals' should never be afraid of the term 'Social', and 'Social Democrats' should never be afraid of the term 'Liberal', and as a party we should never be afraid of using, and emphasising, both aspects - they are not only entirely compatible and closely related, but they are two parts of the the same thing, and two vital parts of what makes us all 'Liberal Democrats'.

1 comment:

  1. Cen

    I enjoyed your article a great deal and it sums up very well why I decided to join the Liberal Democrats but the reality I have found is that the party rarely, if at all, lives up to those ideals. The Alistair Carmichael affair, the failure to fight for a federal third question in the Scottish Referendum, the decision to campaign with the Tories in Scotland and the coalition, the ridiculous alternative vote referendum all put into question the very things that we as a party are supposed to believe in.

    Even now after being nearly wiped out we are in denial, the coalition was in the nations interest when it really wasn't. We should have known what going into power with the Tories would do to the party, esp in Scotland, but we decided to convince ourselves that we were bigger than we were. Today when we need to be saying sorry for our part in the partial dismantling of social security ( I refuse to call it welfare ) we continue to hide behind the increase in the starting rate of tax which did little to alleviate the real cuts to poor and vulnerable people. We big up the pupil premium to hide the abolition of ema to poor and vulnerable students, we talk about our opposition the Iraq War and vote for bombing Syria, we talk about federalism and democracy but fill the Lords and make excuses for Alistair Carmichael being found to be a dishonest and untrustworthy politician as a nationalist plot. Even now we are in looking at all female short lists which in my opinion is actually il liberal and un democratic.

    I would love to be a member of the party you describe but I'm not and it doesn't look like I will be for many years to come. But I know this country needs a liberal alternative and if we don't wake up soon that opportunity will not just be gone for a generation but forever sadly. Sorry for being so glum as your post did give me hope and captured what it means to be a Liberal Democrat, I really hope that many in the party read your blog and remind themselves of what being a Liberal is, I really do.