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Homeless liberals

By Alex Chatham
June 19th, 2017 at 1:10 pm | No Comments | Posted in Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Libertarians

For some, Tim Farron’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats demostrated the failure of the party to live up to the first part of its name. It is more likely that the equivalnt of Lib Dem ‘men in gray suits’ wanted Farron out because he failed to secure many more MPs at the General Election. Of course, the party has long been associated with nannyism and a desire to interfere in people’s lives: none of which is very liberal. It is certainly nothing like its previous incarnation. The old Liberal Party might have had its quirks but the liberal tradition of John Locke, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill coursed through its DNA.

If the Lib Dems are’t liberal, who is? Conservatives for Liberty are doing their best to stake out liberal ground within the Tory party. The problem is that Conservatism is a broad church and some of that church, as we have seen recently, doesn’t much like liberalism. Even the Tories who argue for low taxes and a small state don’t talk about limiting government, a key component of classical liberalism. Of course, you can keep making the case and right now the Conservatives are about the best you will get if you want economic liberalism.

The other options are to support a liberally-inclinded think tank or individual electoral candidates. At some point, we might get a liberal party committed to the rule of law, limited government, tolerance, liberty, plurality, peace  and free markets. In the meantime, homeless liberals have to work out how best to maximise freedom in a climate rather unsympathetic to the liberal creed.


Scepticism: an underrated liberal value

By Alex Chatham
October 8th, 2015 at 3:00 pm | Comments Off on Scepticism: an underrated liberal value | Posted in Environment, Liberal Philosophy

Scepticism has always been one of liberalism’s most important values. These days it seems rather forgotten or underrated. It is important because questioning accepting wisdom helps get at the truth. Liberals are also sceptical about power. That means they don’t naturally trust governments or those who want to exercise authority over others. Questioning accepted wisdom means rejecting a view simply because many people hold it.

These days it seems that many of the political class go with accepted wisdom and tend to think the State can sort most problems out. A healthy bit of scepticism in the current climate is what is needed more than ever.


Things That Are Not Going To Happen (SDP Edition)

By Sara Scarlett
September 19th, 2015 at 11:39 am | Comments Off on Things That Are Not Going To Happen (SDP Edition) | Posted in Labour, Liberal Philosophy

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1. Labour MPs are not going to defect enmasse to the LibDems.

  • One does not leave Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party because he’s unelectable and improve ones electability by joining the Liberal Democrats.

2. The Labour Party is not going to split.

  • And even if it did, so what? It did before and that didn’t hinder the Labour party in any way nor did it thrust the SDP into power…

3. The LibDems are not going to rebrand or restructure.

  • After the 55th committee meeting on a night when the moon is full, Sal Brinton will decide that she does not have the authority to do anything because nobody in the LibDems takes responsibility for anything, ever. The LibDems will continue to be woeful guardians of both Social Liberalism and Classical Liberalism alike.

There is still no economic liberalism (despite Mrs T’s efforts)

By Leslie Clark
April 11th, 2013 at 12:28 pm | Comments Off on There is still no economic liberalism (despite Mrs T’s efforts) | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy

Is it safe to go on Twitter yet? Has the 24/7 reporting of the death of an octogenarian ceased? I’m sure the whole population of the UK, including the late Prime Minister’s most ardent supporters, have reached Thatcherisation point. But amongst the litany of tributes and critiques, a lot of the comments surrounding the Government of Margaret Thatcher are clouded in myth. Both left and right share in the mythology of Thatcher as some sort of economically liberal Boudicca who challenged the prevailing economic orthodoxy and shrank the size of the state. If anything, Margaret Thatcher was insufficiently liberal.

The Mythology of Left and Right

In the spring of 1986, Jo Grimond penned an article for the IEA entitled ‘Still No Economic Liberalism’ in which he argued:

Statism, though dented, remains the dominant political and economic philosophy in the UK…we live in a corporate state in which the organisation has become more important than the individual. Government takes a higher proportion of the national income than ever…The flood of legislation and government expenditure is out of control…So we who hoped for radical measures must be disappointed by acts and omissions.”

Whilst there were many positive liberalising measures such as privatisation, curbing the over-wielding power of trade unions, her signing of the Single European Act, the sale of council houses (MT was initially sceptical about this measure and was persuaded of its merits by the decidedly ‘wet’ Peter Walker), statism did indeed remain dominant:

  • Government expenditure rose throughout her premiership, standing at 41.5% of GDP in 1991-92. In his book Paradoxes of Power, Alfred Sherman, a former adviser, aptly named the Thatcher period as an ‘interlude’, with the post-war consensus largely remaining intact: “we are back to where we started”.
  • State monoliths like the NHS were safe in her hands – spending on health increased 32% in real terms.
  • In the aforementioned article, Grimond lamented the lack of choice in education and social services. For all the talk of radicalism, there were no moves toward education vouchers advocated by Liberals such as Arthur Seldon, Professor Alan Peacock and John Pardoe MP.

In many ways, Margaret Thatcher was a pragmatic conservative. Heath’s 1970 Manifesto was far more orientated toward the free market than Thatcher’s in 1979 and for someone who was so set against ‘consensus’, her first Cabinet looks remarkably conciliatory with its balance of ‘wets’ and ‘dries’. Moreover, the doctrine that became known as ‘Thatcherism’ owed more to Conservatives like Enoch Powell (who questioned if Thatcher actually understood monetarism) and Keith Joseph than liberals like Hayek. Margaret Thatcher allegedly slammed a copy of The Constitution of Liberty on the table proclaiming ‘This is what we believe!’ but there is precious little evidence of Hayekian thinking making its way into policy, especially in monetary terms [The Denationalisation of Money anyone?]. Presumably she skipped ‘Why I am not a Conservative.’

For all the bluster of many supposedly ‘economically liberal’ Thatcherites, liberalisation certainly did not extend to sexuality or race. Today, many self-proclaimed Thatcherites will rail against state spending whilst championing wasteful defence spending and Château Lafite options like Trident. Then as now, they lack consistency.

Economic Liberalism Beyond Thatcher

The disappointing record of the Government has quite wrongly been seen as discrediting these [economically liberal] doctrines. There is a feeling that liberal political economy has been tried and failed. That is not true.”

Grimond’s words in 1986 were as true then as they are now: in 2013, there is ‘Still No Economic Liberalism’. Contrary to popular perception, public expenditure is rising not falling: like with Thatcher, we are merely controlling the rate in which it is rising. Despite the birth of free schools, there is still insufficient freedom and choice in many public services.

As David Laws wrote in the too often misunderstood ‘Orange Book’, Liberal Democrats need to reclaim economic liberalism (the Conservatives merely embraced the language and some of its substance) and our Liberal heritage. The likes of the Jeremy Browne and Liberal Reform fighting for a genuine four-cornered liberalism offer me hope of a more liberal future.

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John Milton (1608-1674). Areopagitica (1644)

By Barry Stocker
January 8th, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Comments Off on John Milton (1608-1674). Areopagitica (1644) | Posted in Liberal Philosophy, Uncategorized

John Milton (1608-1674)

Areopagitica (1644)

John Milton is best known as a poet, in English and in Latin,  particularly for his epic Paradise Lost, one of the major works in all English literature.  It is work with a religious structure, which also shows evidence of his opposition to (Satanic) tyranny, and support for republicanism as the most godly form of government on Earth.  As this suggests, Milton was also one of the major seventeenth century English republican thinkers.  Nineteenth century English liberals gave great importance to Milton as a forerunner, as in The Whig-Liberal  historian, politician and civil servant Thomas Macaulay who elevated Milton to the status of ‘martyr of English liberty’.   It is Milton’s strangely name Areopagitica which has made the biggest impression in the history of political thought.  Milton was a supporter of the English Commonwealth (1649-1660, though in the strictest sense it ended in 1653), which followed Parliament’s victory over the English monarchy, and the execution of Charles I.  He  argued for the Commonwealth on the basis of  a form of popular sovereignty argument (in which Milton thought that aristocratic bodies could be adequate to represent the nation) inThe Tenure of Kings and Magistrates of 1649.  He worked for Oliver Cromwell, commander of the Parliamentary army, and increasingly dominant in politics, as Secretary of Foreign Tongues (which meant chief translator and publicist for the government).  Cromwell can as much be regarded as the great traitor to English republicanism as its hero, but he did have republican supporters like Milton. Cromwell’s elevation to rank Lord Protector in 1653, along with his crushing of republican and democratic thinkers, his restrictions on parliament and religious dissenters, and increasingly monarchical pretensions, ended the hopes of a pure republic of liberty and parliamentary power, in England.  He was still the defender of the next best thing for Milton,  and for others. Areopagitica refers to the Athenian court of Areopagus which has secular and religious, legal and poetic, significance.  In secular terms it was a court of Athens, the most democratic and liberty respecting of ancient Greek states.  Ancient Greek tragedy links the Areopagus Hill with the transition from revenge to law, as it is the location of the trial of Oestes in the Eumenides (the last part of Aeschylus’ Oresteia), in which the Furies becomes the Kindly Ones.  As St Paul famously spoke there (New Testament. Acts 17: 24), it has an important place in the origins of Christianity.  This is very favourable to Milton’s interest in both Christian religion and antique literature. As was normal for republican and liberty oriented thinkers of the time, he drew on Ancient Greek and Roman history, along with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, for examples of good and bad political forms.  In Milton, there is a particular emphasis on liberty, as the Protestant liberty for a Christian to seek an individual understanding of the Bible, and of God’s word.  Political liberty is necessarily bound up with this for him.

Milton quotes from Euripides’ tragedy the Suppliant Women at the beginning of Areopagitica, confirming the importance of Ancient Greek tragedy as a source of thought about liberty.  He also refers to the more strictly defined political thought of antiquity, as when he refers to Cicero in his account of  the value of publication freed from pre-censorship. In Areopagitica,  Milton is addressing parliament at the height of the English Civil War (1642-1651, also known, and more accurately, as the War of the Three Kingdoms) to appeal against the pre-censorship of books, which he refers to as licensing.  Milton’s argument in religion, in politics, and in all fields, is that truth emerges stronger for being challenged and then in the arguing for it. We can never be sure that we have found the highest truth, so we are bound to entertain counter-arguments to whatever we think is the highest truth we have.  Milton does make it  clear that he excludes atheism and Catholicism from the range of  thought which can be freely expressed, but this is not intolerance by the standards of the age.   It is the freedom of books in Athens that Milton refers to as a model in antiquity, and this extends to a suggestion that England is a particularly free nation, implicitly like ancient Athens, so we see the role of classicism, of nostalgia for ancient republics, in modern ideas about liberty.  Milton’s specific arguments for free speech include the idea that a right to free speech, and even demonstrable commitment to its exercise, is  a criterion of membership of a political community, both in legal terms and in terms of peer esteem.  Those who are not trusted in their actions, including the action of writing, even though their intentions are not known to be immoral or illegal, must be regarded as excluded from full citizenship, because of intellectual impairment, or citizenship of another nation.  Milton’s sense of liberty includes national self-government, and though his manner of referring to foreign residents may strike us as harsh, he does capture the idea that state power must be limited to what comes from the freely formed political will of the nation, and in responsible genuinely national political institutions, as opposed to the will of one person.  As a defender of free speech, and very few in his time went further in demanding liberty of expression, he is a great antecedent for John Stuart Mill, and all those who have argued for individual liberty, and for political institutions which act with rational deliberation, and which are accountable to public opinion.