Saturday, March 04, 2006


Pushing the envelope

I hear from Harrogate that today's Post Office motion was passed "overwhelmingly" - congratulations to Norman Lamb for responding so positively to the views expressed at the last conference, and to Ming Campbell for supporting the motion so vigorously. I think the policy we have ended up with is a superb vindication of the federal system at its best.

There still seems to be some general unease, however, among our membership regarding a percieved "rightward drift" in our policy-making, and I'd like to speak to some of those sentiments here.

Tony Ferguson of Ballots, Balls and Bikes writes:
"We do not need another centre right party in British politics - and even if we do then the Liberal Democrats should not be it!"
I think we should avoid conflating the economic liberalism espoused by Mrs. Thatcher with the sort of authoritarian, racist, misogynist, class-warfare Toryism that we all detest, both pre- and post-Lady T - or, for that matter, the principle-free zone that is the current Labour administration.

There's nothing wrong in my opinion with using the free market to acheive better results as long as, while doing so, you evaluate those results from a social point of view - which is exactly what the Orange Book philosophy is about, and is incidentally part of our heritage dating back to Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

We need to remember as a party that the market isn't "owned" by anyone, that it has no innate personality or motive, and it doesn't vote Conservative at general elections - it's purely a mechanism for achieving an outcome. Just as we reject the dogma of the free market for the free market's sake, we should also reject that of the state for the state's sake. We are social Liberals, and as such we uphold immutable principles and rights that apply and belong to all of our citizens. Any solutions that embody these principles can and must be considered our territory, whether free-market or otherwise.

What Orange Book Liberalism is about is living in a world where laissez-faire economics are, once again, a fact of life; where the international movement of goods and labour is freer then ever; a world that has woken up from the nightmare of Communism wiser for having done so.

This shift "rightwards" is by no means a surrender to big business - Liberals have always opposed power wherever it is used to excess, and that includes members of the FTSE 100. It's long been known that monopolies, corruption, insider trading, tax evasion and price-gouging strongly mitigate the positive effects of a free-market economy, and we should continue to campaign vigorously to stamp out all of the above practices.

It's also, however, a Liberal imperative to limit the excesses of the state, and that's an area where we have forgotten our duties in recent decades.

There are a whole raft of genuine Liberal policies that we have eschewed until now for fear of being labelled "right-wing" - the Post Office part-privatisation - removing some of the unaccountable power residing within the EU - removing millions of the poorest people from the taxation system - creating carbon trading schemes to allow businesses to trade carbon emissions.

If we ignore these, it may well be at our peril.


"I think we should avoid conflating the economic liberalism espoused by Mrs. Thatcher with the sort of authoritarian, racist, misogynist, class-warfare Toryism that we all detest, both pre- and post-Lady T..."

I think Rob Knight expressed a somewhat similar view here:

"Many around Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s were fond of the label "neo-liberal" and believed that, in reversing elements of socialism, they were serving a liberal purpose. And, again, to give credit where it is due, it has to be admitted that some of Thatcher's reforms did just that. But many of her reforms did nothing to advance a liberal agenda. Whilst some of her economics were liberal (can anyone seriously sustain an argument against privatising British Telecom now?) she showed little insight into the fundamental principles that lay behind. Liberalism is about dispersing power, ensuring individual liberty and democratic accountability of government. But Thatcher presided over a considerable centralisation of power at Whitehall, and the creation of a vast number of unaccountable quangos.

In many ways, Thatcher was simply an "anti-socialist", rather than a liberal. In some cases, her opposition of socialism led to liberal outcomes - the privatisation of needlessly-nationalised industries, for example, or moves towards free trade. But in other cases, her anti-socialism was illiberal; she strengthened the grip of national government over local councils, reducing local control and local accountability. The national curriculum was an effort to wrest control of education away from socialist councils, but it resulted in a massive centralisation of the education system. She failed to see that a diverse, decentralised government is essential to a liberal society. She believed that a monopoly on power - something liberals oppose on principle - was acceptable if it was under the control of a Tory government."

I notice the BBC reported what I interpreted as Ming's backpedalling from the 50p rate, as an endorsement of the policy, which was, apparently, ditched after the last election.

Yes, that baffled me too - mind you, the BBC just reports what the hell it wants sometimes. They're presenting David Laws' speech section on child income support as full-blown policy just because it happens to fit in with the complaint about a "rightward drift" under Ming.

I don't mind that a bit if it helps portray us as being more credible and centrist, but it's still nonsense unbecoming of a national news organisation such as the BBC...

Well said.
I have come to the same position.

The Orange Book was part of my reason for joining the LibDems (after hearing Ming speak made me realise that I'm a liberal).
It showed me a party which stands for freedom and the individual, but extends that to the have nots as well has the haves.
The economic liberalism placed alongside political, social and green liberalism makes perfect sense to me.
Also, I may not agree with all the book, but it gave me a glimpse of a party in which debate is possible and even encouraged and which is willing to question itself whilst standing by its fundamental liberal core.


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