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The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism

By Simon Goldie
November 24th, 2011 at 11:00 am | 19 Comments | Posted in Liberal Philosophy, Libertarians, Liberty League

When George Dangerfield wrote The Strange Death of Liberal England it looked as though liberalism was no longer relevant to the body politic. The Liberal party had been overtaken by its rivals: the Conservatives and the newly-created Labour party. Many liberal ideas had become part and parcel of the political landscape, which might have explained the demise of the party.

In 2003, David Walter wrote The Strange Rebirth of Liberal England. The author argued that liberalism was back. But that liberalism was very different to the one that was withering away decades before.

It is no surprise that a political philosophy will adapt to changing times. Recently, though it would appear that the advocates of classical liberalism have re-entered the mainstream political debate.

One could argue that the Whigs who entered the Conservative party in the 19th century carried on that classical liberal tradition. The problem is that a political tradition co-habiting with another that pulls in a very different direction inevitably compromises and has its voice dulls.

There is quite a bit of evidence to suggest that classical liberalism has rediscovered its voice.

In the last few years, we have seen the creation of the Cobden Centre, Learn Liberty, a reinvigorated Institute of Economic Affairs, Liberty League, a plethora of classical liberal blogs, the creation of the Libertarian party and lastly, but no means least, Liberal Vision.

This doesn’t mean that all these groups agree with each other. There are differences over tax, the Europe Union, constitutional reform and human rights legislation. It does mean that the case for classical liberalism is being made: arguments for sound money, plurality, tolerance and individual freedom.

How much impact these disparate groups will have is an open question. What we can say for certain is that this reinvigorated classical liberal movement is, once again, having an impact on the public policy conversation.

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Nick Clegg’s social mobility

By Simon Goldie
September 22nd, 2011 at 8:57 pm | 2 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Nannying, Social Liberal Forum

Nick Clegg has made it clear that social mobility is a key part of his political agenda.

He returned to this theme again in his closing speech at the Liberal Democrat conference.

Clegg has also been weaving a modern liberal narrative for sometime. Early on in the conference week, he talked about the rich liberal heritage of the party.

For now, he is arguing that the pupil premium will unblock the barriers to achievement for poor children.

Social mobility could be his modern liberal narrative in action. Mill, a classical liberal, was keen on education for all. He wanted everyone to have the opportunity to reach their potential. And once they had reached it, they would be active citizens in a liberal society. For me that meant individuals running their lives and living as they wish as long as they did no harm to others.

The social liberal wing of the party must surely welcome this government intervention while the classical liberal side can look forward to the children who benefit becoming adults who no longer need the ‘Nanny State’.

If Clegg can establish this modern liberal narrative: a combination of different strands of liberalism and then implement a policy that represents it, he may be able to rebuild the party’s electoral base in time for the next general election.

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‘Muscular liberalism’: how to make it work

By Simon Goldie
July 29th, 2011 at 11:18 am | Comments Off on ‘Muscular liberalism’: how to make it work | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy, Uncategorized

If Nick Clegg is to continue his pursuit of ‘muscular liberalism’ at the Lib Dem party conference there are two ways he can make it work.

While the term ‘muscular liberalism’ was used by the deputy prime minister to describe how the party would differentiate itself to its coalition partners, it is how that is done that will lay the ground for the party’s electoral proposition in 2015.

It is commonly accepted that there is a rough divide in the party between social and economic liberals. This is crudely seen as a difference of opinion between liberals who favour social justice over liberty and liberals who favour letting the free market work so that liberty and fairness are achieved spontaneously. Yet, both groups agree on some fundamentals about the concentration of power and the freedom of the individual.

Perhaps what really separates the two is how to tackle the problems of a modern society. For instance, the financial crisis has led to calls for greater regulation in order to ensure that the taxpayer doesn’t have to bail out a bank ever again. Government’s supporting banks, or any other business, goes against the liberal grain.  With an already complex, regulated system that gets price signals from a central bank the idea of putting in more regulation to deal with the problem seems very logical. This policy answer could well be part of Clegg’s ‘muscular liberalism’. This response is certainly part of a social liberal agenda.

But as the joke goes about asking directions, would you start from here? A liberal might prefer to be in a different situation in the first place. If there was a way of tearing down the barriers to entry for new financial organisations, freeing up the market so that when a bank failed it could fail and removing perverse incentives to borrow money when one shouldn’t be borrowing money, economic liberals would raise their hand and say yes to that. In fact, if such a system satisfied the policy objectives of the ‘social’ wing of the party, it is hard to see why they would object either.

Could this type of ‘muscular liberalism’ work? If Clegg and others decided that this was the liberal direction of travel they wanted to follow, they may still have to temporarily accept some form of regulation of the banks to deal with the current situation while working towards a liberal approach that John Stuart Mill would be comfortable with.

This approach could use Jock Coats’s ‘rigorous liberalism’ as its template.

What all of this comes down is making a choice between trying to make the economy and society more liberal by using policy tools that led to the current status quo or by using liberal mechanisms to achieve liberalism.

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Reflecting on liberalism

By Simon Goldie
July 26th, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Comments Off on Reflecting on liberalism | Posted in Liberal Democrats, Liberal Philosophy

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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Liberal elevator pitch challenge

By Simon Goldie
April 20th, 2011 at 2:34 pm | 22 Comments | Posted in Liberal Philosophy

In a recent post, I suggested that liberals need an elevator pitch. A Twitter conversation with Sam Bowman reinforced my view, as did the comments at the end of the post.

Below is my elevator pitch. I do not claim it to be the definitive answer. It would be great to have other liberals, whether classical, libertarian or even social, to suggest what they see as essential in explaining what liberalism is all about.

For anyone who decides to post a pitch under this post, please keep it to around 100 words.

My elevator pitch: Liberals believe that people should be in control of their lives. A liberal government’s job is to remove obstacles that prevent that. In the set up that we have in the UK, a liberal government should also ensure that each person has as much control as possible over the public services they receive. We don’t have a prescription for the future or for all the problems people face. Rather we trust people to solve problems themselves and believe voluntary co-operation is far better than a central planner deciding everything.

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