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A New Leader for European Liberalism

December 1st, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by

Congratulations to Sir Graham Watson on becoming President of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR). ELDR

Graham Watson

groups national parties in European Union countries into an EU ‘political party’, in practice an alliance of national parties. Watson’s acceptance speech, posted on YouTube, and available as an online transcript, is inevitably a balancing act between different  strands of liberalism, but on the whole is to be welcomed from a LiberalVision point of view. John Milton, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, Benjamin Constant, Wilhelm von Humboldt, John Stuart Mill, and Ludwig von Mises are all mentioned.  All of these  thinkers have already been covered in LiberalVision posts, apart from  Milton and Constant. Posts on the last two are coming soon.  One other notable

mention in the speech is Johan Norberg, a Swedish writer who is a Senior Fellow at the US libertarian foundation, the Cato Institute.  Norberg is not a big general thinker of the type covered in our posts on liberal thought, but he has made a notable contribution to the defence of capitalism and globalisation.

Returning to Watson’s speech, he relies on the now discredited belief that it is in Smith’s works other than An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, that Smith refers to regulation and public goods. As scholars now accept, Smith is committed to the merits of both individual economic action and broader public goods across all his writings. Watson also attributes the slogan ‘private  vices, public goods’ to Smith, which comes from the Fable of the Bees (1732) by Bernard Mandeville.  Though Mandeville foreshadows some of Smith’s ideas, Smith was an earnest moralist who was very uncomfortable with accepting ‘vices’ of any kind.  In his opinion ‘commercial society’ was moral all the way through, and he criticised Mandeville for advocating ‘vice’.

However, we are evaluating Watson as a liberal political leader, not a historian of liberal thought!  As a leader he has done well in the past leading first the UK Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, and then the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a parliamentary group which gathers ELDR MEPs, with some  from outside ELDR.  These complexities of European Union politics are addressed in Watson speech, in which he discusses the inclusion in ELDR of parties who do not feel comfortable with the liberal label in their home countries, where it is largely taken to mean the same as very conservative.

That is not just a reference to the distinction between: classical or economic liberals on one side, left or social liberals on the other side.  In some countries, ‘liberal’ has become  too much associated with an old oligarch elite,  which defended existing property rights and social relations, and the division of governmental powers within the upper class only, which had difficulty in adapting to democracy, and which was not concerned much with life style liberties.

There is some admirable straight talking in general about the problems of European liberals, with regard to the lack of ELDR representation in all countries, the decline of the number of ELDR Prime Ministers,  and surrender to populism on the part of some European liberal parties.  Watson refers to the need to be open to parties like the Party of Values in Italy, which hosted the ELDR Congress, and is more motivated by a struggle for the rule of law in Italy than adherence to liberal political tradition.  He appeals to the general need for openness, alliance building,  smart thinking and risk taking on the part of European liberals.

The broad context for these very welcome words is that the European Union is suffering from a lack of politics of a kind, which engages  citizens.  It is a self-enclosed world of Brussels politicians and para-political personnel, where there is too much of a tendency to dismiss all criticism from outside a very small circle as populist and irrational. We need more EU political personalities in the sense of individuals who can lead, communicate and inspire, outside the political elite; and who are genuinely interested in why so many people are unengaged by the European project, or even actively hostile. That would go with a renewed political union which does not try to endlessly expand administrative power, intervention, regulation and harmonisation; and which is able to let go of unnecessary, and down right destructive, powers and fields of intervention. A political union which engages public opinion in issues of genuine pan-European concern, where lines of accountability are clear; and with leaders who do not insult and belittle those who are disturbed by detailed interventionism, decided in confusing and oblique procedures, remote from citizens. Graham Watson certainly shows sign of understanding this, let us support and help him in this.



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