Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What’s the difference between a Liberal and a Social Democrat ?

Charlotte Gore's question prompts me to republish an old Liberator article.

Why I am still a Liberal


I met a lesbian on a train to Brussels. I met her because she sat right opposite me and started reading Paddy Ashdown's diaries. I took pity and rescued her and we had a conversation. She had, she told me, been a Euro-Communist as a student but having met lots of Liberals, she had now become a Liberal. This was not easy, she confessed. It had actually been harder to come out as a Liberal than as a lesbian.


I came out as a Liberal in 1974. I came out of the Labour Party, because of Europe, because of incomes policy, because of the environment, because the Chief Whip of the Liberal Party (David Steel) attended late-night Young Liberal caucuses whereas the Chief Whip of the Labour Party (Bob Mellish) only mentioned the Young Socialists when he wanted to swear. It was Brighton - the Liberal Assembly of 1974 – heady days (and nights).


I joined the Liberal Party but if I am honest, I wasn't a Liberal. I was, although I didn't know it at the time, a Social Democrat. In those pre-Thatcher days we all had much higher hopes of the role of the state. Seven years later a Social Democrat Party was created but by that time I had become a Liberal. I voted for the Alliance but after another seven years, I voted against the merger. To the many who have discovered the Liberal Democrat Party since then, this is all archaeology and my views have "gotta be mediaeval". Just stop digging, you might say. But I'm sorry, I can't pretend that two different things are actually one and the same nor that some magical Hegelian synthesis has produced a third thing, which is better than either. I am stuck with Alan Beith's formula when he stood for the leadership, "I am a Liberal, I am a member of the [Social and]Liberal Democrats".


To my slightly political friends, I give the soundbite: A Liberal is an anarchist who has compromised with reality, a Social Democrat is a socialist who has compromised with reality. But you, dear Liberator reader, deserve more. Liberals begin with the freedom of the individual and, when they have compromised with reality a bit, they should end with it too. It is not a question of balancing liberty and equality. If you are serious about freedom, yes you will require the state to do something to help all individuals to have the chance of a greater freedom than Carlyle's freedom to sleep under a bridge. (But you will also allow that freedom. On a recent visit to Scandinavia, home of social democracy, I heard the case of some alcoholics living squalidly in an isolated hut. The social workers arrived :

"We've come to help you"

"It's all right. We don't need any help."

"No. Society has let you down. We must help you to lead a normal life."

"Society hasn't let us down."

"Yes it has."

"No, it hasn't. We like living like this. Go away")


There are many problems with pursuing equality but two will do. Firstly, even the harshest Communist dictatorships have never achieved it. It can't be done and, secondly if it could, it would be terrible, because it would destroy all liberty and that great flower of liberty – diversity. You cannot tell if two different things are equal, if the man with a television is equal to the man with a book or with a rugby ball. You cannot do it by monetary value – how do you balance living in Lambeth with living in Durham, or Cornwall, or Skye. If you think this is abstract theorising, look carefully at how the New Labour government runs education, health or local government. The drive to equalise becomes inevitably a drive to homogenise. For a civil servant or a Number 10 wunderkind you can only be equal when you are the same. So we have a national curriculum, performance indicators, best value and the whole theology of targets. And if a school or a hospital or a social services department should deviate from the prescribed parameters of performance, what's the solution ? Bring in a new central government agency or contractor. The drive to sameness replaces any genuine concern for social justice.


To me, the point of freedom is the freedom to be different. Diversity is not just an individual good but the key to a healthy society. The current obsession with nationally imposed standards will impoverish us all. I take the example of Education Authorities. At one time (roughly, pre- Shirley Williams) they had great autonomy. There was a great variety of provision around the country and when one currently fashionable educational theory failed, areas that failed with it could look elsewhere in the country for viable alternatives. But when everyone is (compulsorily) doing the same and the theory fails, everyone fails and there is nowhere to go. It is like the problem of a monoculture in crops. If everyone grows the same variety of wheat, they will all fail when one particular blight comes along. Without variety there can be no selection and no evolution. Choice is not simply a luxury for the rich but a real necessity for society.


A word about experts, by which I mean not the man who can (and does) tell you why one car (computer, voting system) is better than another for your needs, but the man who then says that you must have this because I am the expert, I know what you need and I know better than you. Expertise rather than serving choice so often serves to deny it. When you combine the man who knows best with the man who wants to make things the same for everyone you have, in my view, the heart of social democracy. And guess what ? That man is in charge of Britain today.


Liberalism is often caricatured and misrepresented, both in France where they don't understand it (there was once briefly a French Liberal Party during the Third Republic led by the aptly named Monsieur Bourgeois) and in the United States where it means at least two completely different things. The French have a strong faith in reason, which they associate with René Descartes. They really believe that an intellectual in Paris can define what is right for the whole country. Thus they attempted to set priorities for every road junction in the country according to one guiding principle, priorité à droit. It didn't work and had to be accompanied by many exceptions. Their idea of religious freedom turns out to be forbidding religious symbols at school. The word Liberal is generally used in a derogatory way in France to describe someone who rejects social cohesion and collective action.


The confusion between different kinds of liberal in the United States has led to the description "neo-liberalism" which may be a neologism but is not liberalism. Traditionally, liberal meant Democrats of the Edward Kennedy school (school of thought, not of driving), whose views were close to the British Liberal Party. These people believed that freedom should include freedom from poverty, ignorance and conformity and that the state had a role in helping to promote such freedom. The neo-liberals on the other hand have absorbed a little classical (or is it neo-classical ?) economics. Like Margaret Thatcher they do not believe in society. They believe in freedom so strongly that they are prepared to bomb and shoot people to force them to be free. They really believe that you can impose freedom. I don't.


Traditionally people attempt to put political opinions on a single axis from left to right. If you are left, you favour collective action and limit the individual, especially in economic matters. If you are right, you favour individual action and limit the state. I have believed for a long time that this dichotomy between individualism and collectivism is false. The individual and society are not opposites but two aspects of the same thing. The analogy of the word and the sentence illustrates the point. The meaning of a word depends upon its role in the sentence but the meaning of the sentence depends upon the words. Meanings change through usage by the whole language community, not because of a decision of the Academie Française. All societies need collective action and find ways of organising it. In authoritarian societies, the state or the church organises it. In liberal ones, volunteers organise it in a multitude of different ways, some of them commercial but not all.


Liberalism is a hard creed to follow, and I still believe it is a creed or, if you prefer, an ideology. It combines an analysis of society with a set of aims and methods for achieving them. It has something to say about the role of governments and the role of individuals. It does not say, "Look after yourself and don't expect anyone, especially the state, to help" – the guiding theme of Conservatism over the years. It does not say, "Don't worry. The state will look after you" – the inspiration of socialism now transmuted into "Don't worry. The state will tell you what to do and how and when to do it in precisely defined quantities". Liberalism asks each of us to think for ourselves and to work for each other. It accepts the incommensurability of individual desires and the value of diversity to society. It is the practical working out of liberty. I leave you with William Hazlitt: "The love of liberty is the love of others, the love of power is the love of ourselves."

1 comment:

Jennie said...

This. Oh, a thouand times this!

With religious fervour!