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Reflecting on liberalism

July 26th, 2011 Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy by

The summer months are always good for reflection.

Parliament is in recess, the party conference season has yet to start which means that politicians and commentators get the chance to take a holiday and think.

A bit of thinking time is important for politicians. In the 24/7 news cycle and the push to make their arguments and counter the arguments of opponents, the Westminster village is an unforgiving place.

Nick Clegg, and Liberal Democrat MPs, have a lot to reflect on. The party has been in government for over a year now. In a bold move it went into coalition with a party that it did not feel a natural affinity with. There have been tensions but despite that the coalition is getting on with an agenda that both sides, more or less, agreed.

Nick Clegg has talked of ‘muscular liberalism’. Perhaps as he takes a break he should begin to think hard about what liberalism means in the 21st century. He has made many speeches on the topic but his vision, understandably, is a mix of different strands of liberal thought. Perhaps it is time to be bold. At its core liberalism is about people running their lives: this is seen by liberals as a good in itself and as the best way to organise society. That view is shared by social and economic liberals. Both strands believe that you can achieve that by different policy routes.

The Liberal Democrats are not about to return to being the party of classical liberalisms. But Clegg can take that political tradition, the tradition of Locke, Adam Smith, Mill and others, and weave it into a liberal philosophy that recognises that technology like the web allows for greater voluntary co-operation than ever before. He can return to the ideas of radical community politics of the 1960s an 1970s and argue for power to be taken from the centre while limiting government through constitutional checks and balances.

If his party members are wary of the free market, he can argue that public services can be delivered politically but by the people who use them and they should have the right to organise themselves as they wish. And if they happen to want to use free market mechanisms that should be up to them.

At the Lib Dem party conference, Clegg has the opportunity to set out what liberalism means to him and how it can be delivered in coalition with the Conservatives and in the future.

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