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Classical Liberalism and The Liberal Democrats

By Barry Stocker
September 22nd, 2011 at 6:47 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

It’s party conference time, members of Liberal Vision are in Birmingham (though not me unfortunately) and the political positioning of the party is a matter for discussion.  Strange to say LiberalVision sometimes encounters criticism of our existence in the Liberal Democrats, and this time of year tends to intensify that discussion.  It is even sometimes said we are an elite force detached from party activism.  I say it’s strange because individuals connected with LiberalVision are enthusiasts for the Liberal Democrats, work for the party, and prefer it very enthusiastically to any other political party.  We are all active in the party (even I do a bit round Croydon on visits from Istanbul).  LV associates are in local and student politics, campaign for Liberal Democrats of every stripe to get into public office, and stand for public office themselves on behalf of the Liberal Democrats.  Some of us have, or have had, connections with policy institutes in Britain, and elsewhere, but that does not keep us away from ordinary party activism.  Our classical liberal and libertarian position, is deeply embedded in Liberal and Liberal Democrat history.  I don’t just mean the nineteenth century past, though our history in that time should certainly  be something still living for us today.  Something the party recognises in the tradition of party presidents passing on a copy of J.S. Mill’s On Liberty to successors.  A book that is without doubt a definitive text of classical liberalism.

John Stuart Mill

If we look at more recent history, Jo Grimond, who brought the Liberal Party back to full life in the 1950s after earlier near death experiences, wrote for the classical liberal Institute of Economic Affairs in the later part of his life.  The veteran Financial Times journalist Sam Brittan, one of the most distinguished economic commentators in Britain is  long standing classical liberal supporter of the Liberal Party and the Liberal Democrats.  Though it is fair to say that the ‘New Liberalism’ of the early twentieth century lessened the influence of classical liberalism, classical liberalism never disappeared from the party and some of the leading New Liberals, like the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, and the economist J.M. Keynes, saw their positions as a continuation of earlier liberalism, not a move away from it.

There is no clear homogeneous majority of ‘social’ liberals in the Liberal Democrats at present.  Yes more people self-identify as social or left-leaning liberals, than as as economic or classical liberals.  The social liberal label is, however, a very broad one concealing many differences within it.  Some of the most ‘left’ social liberals have positions which are popular in LiberalVision, such as support for open immigration and legalisation of drugs.  The number of party members who self-identify as economic liberal is a minority, but a  significant one amounting to about a third according to the evidence I have seen.  That includes many people who might find LiberalVision too radical, but then many ‘social liberals’ disagree with particular ‘left’ policies and positions in the party.

Jo Grimond

A better to way to think of positions, within the Liberal Democrats, is to take the party as a coalition of overlapping groups.  These groups include ‘radicals’ leaning towards  the green left and very strong forms of decentralisation, social democrats oriented towards constitutional reform and human rights issues, localist community activists, pragmatist centrists, and John Hemming style anti-conformist characters, as well as people more or less influenced by classical liberalism and libertarianism.  I put radical greens and libertarians on the opposite end of the list, but you can find people in both of those camps who are enthusiasts for the principle of  land taxation, and maybe its extension into the politics of geo-mutualism (land taxation as the unique source of public revenues).

There are reasons why all these people are together in one party, why we feel part of the historical narrative of Liberalism/Liberal Democracy in this country, rather than the Labour or Conservative narratives.  We all find that is the Liberal tradition which is most open in its attitudes to political ideas and political debate.  We all reject the machine like nature of the Labour and Conservative parties; the predictable interest groups they serve; and the associated style of party organisation based on mistrust of individual members.    For Labour, authority serves a client state where increasing numbers become dependent on poor public services and welfare handouts, along with parts of the employment market dominated  by Labour linked unions  For the Conservatives, authority serves existing property relations, and holding back challenges to the way that wealth, and income, go to those with the most political influence, and the most connections with the state.

William Ewart Gladstone

All currents in the Liberal Democrats can recognise that these are the things we are against, and that the only way to create enduring alternatives is through a politics of social tolerance, individual variety, open debate, constitutional reform, civil liberties, and decentralisation.  We are all opposed to the forces of conformism, entrenched economic interests, established authority, power without balances, and centralisation.  The policies differ, but we do share a political culture, a way of thinking which puts particular values at the centre.  In LiberalVision we are committed to the Liberal Democrats, even where policy decisions go strongly against us.  If policy decisions were to consistently move in our direction, I would still expect the other groupings to stay in the party, and I hope that we would still be carrying on our debate of what liberalism should be with those liberal friends.

To all those who say market liberalism is a conservative position, I say that they should remember that Gladstone was accused of socialism by the Conservative party, because he supported reform of those laws which entrenched economic privilege.  The laws governing tenant-landlord relations in Ireland is a particularly notable case.  That is what LiberalVision is about, social progress through challenging laws and state policies, which serve and entrench privilege.  We may disagree about some of the means with other Liberal Democrats, but surely we can recognised shared concerns and goals.


Radio 5 Live: Tom Papworth on Nick Clegg’s speech

By Tom Papworth
September 22nd, 2011 at 10:55 am | 2 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

Listen to me on Radio 5 Drive at, giving my commentary on Nick Clegg’s speech to Liberal Democrat Conference.

I’m on during the first 16 minutes and again at 2 hours 33 minutes.

The other Lib Dem is Matthew Gibson from Solution Focused Politics.

Unless I can find a way to download it, it will be lost for all time next Wednesday.

Liberal Vision in the Top 100 UK political blogs

By Tom Papworth
September 22nd, 2011 at 10:05 am | Comments Off on Liberal Vision in the Top 100 UK political blogs | Posted in Uncategorized

Total Politics have published their Top 100 UK political blogs, and Liberal Vision again features, this time at No. 72.

Amongst Lib Dem blogs, Liberal Vision rates No. 7.

Thank you to all our readers and to everybody who voted for us again this year.

Listen to Tom Papworth Today

By Barry Stocker
September 21st, 2011 at 2:10 pm | Comments Off on Listen to Tom Papworth Today | Posted in Uncategorized

Our very own Tom Papworth is interviewed on Radio 5 Drive today, briefly at about 6 after Nick Clegg’s speech and at greater length about 6.30. Tune in or get online to hear Tom’s perspective.

Even George Osborne does not listen to David Cameron

By Tom Papworth
September 20th, 2011 at 9:00 am | 1 Comment | Posted in Uncategorized

On Wednesday last week, as I listened to The Weekly Yah-boo Prime Minister’s Question Time, I was struck by the Prime Minster’s statement that “You can’t borrow your way out of a debt crisis”.

That sounds like good advice, so why is it that George Osborne and Danny Alexander intend to borrow over half a trillion pounds over the five years of this parliament, thus increasing the already-staggering national debt by approximatley two thirds?

I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but somebody needs to start listening to David Cameron!