Monday 9 March 2009

How liberal are the Liberal Democrats?

The forthcoming Fabian Society event, 'How liberal is Labour?', poses an important question. Many liberals, including liberals in the Labour party, are rightly concerned by the authoritarianism of Labour on civil liberties issues and worry about how illiberal the party's - or at least the government's - instincts are on this issue. I am sure that Shirley Williams will provide a robust and refreshing critique of Labour on these lines.

However, its also important to pose the question: How liberal are the Liberal Democrats?

For if Labour has fallen down quite markedly in its commitment to liberal principles, it cannot be said that all is well, on this score, in the Liberal Democrats. I hope participants in the 'How liberal is Labour?' event will not allow the discussion to assume that liberalism is altogether healthy in the Liberal Democrats either.

Here are some ways in which the Liberal Democrats clearly fall down from a liberal perspective; the first three are a matter of social and economic policy, the fourth one relates specifically to the issue of civil liberties.

(1) Libertarian shift on taxation. Liberal Democrat thinking and speaking on taxation has shifted in the past year towards advocacy of a lower 'tax burden' overall and, related to this, to a rhetoric which appeals to essentially libertarian assumptions about market rewards as entitlements and taxes as invasions of market-determined entitlements. This is a point I made at length in a recent post on Nick Clegg. This marks a significant step away from the egalitarian liberal philosophy of taxation we find in British social liberals such as J.A. Hobson and Leonard Hobhouse, and contemporary liberal philosophers such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin.

(2) Abandonment of 'ownership for all'. Post-war Liberal thinking was centrally defined by a commitment to build a society based on the principle of 'ownership for all'. In the 1980s, discussion in and around the Liberals (including the allied Social Democratic Party) was replete with interesting ideas about how to universalise ownership of financial assets. In his 1989 book, Citizens' Britain, Paddy Ashdown advocated the creation of a Citizen's Unit Trust which would hold wealth on behalf of all citizens of the UK and provide a modest annual dividend payment to every citizen.

Today, this radicalism on ownership questions has disappeared from the Liberal Democrat policy platform. The Lib Dems are the only one of the main political parties to oppose the Child Trust Fund, the first policy in the history of the UK which directly endows all citizens with a sum of capital to use on maturity. They have no constructive proposals for what other kind of asset-spreading policy might be put in its place.

(3) Abandonment of industrial democracy. Alongside radicalism on the distribution of wealth, the post-war Liberals thought very radically about the content of capitalist property-rights, advocating compulsory profit-sharing and industrial democracy. These policy commitments, too, have largely fallen away in recent years. The 2005 Liberal Democrat general election manifesto was probably the first Liberal manifesto since the 1920s, if not before, to contain no reference to these ideas.

(4) Unreliability on civil liberties issues. Finally, it is not as if the Liberal Democrats are always reliable even on basic civil liberties issues. Consider, for example, the way in which their spokesperson, Chris Huhne, responded to the recent question of whether the controversial Dutch MP, Geert Wilders, should be allowed into the UK to screen his film on Islam. It is not that surprising that the Home Secretary prohibited his entry. But it was more surprising, and deeply disappointing, to see Chris Huhne supporting the government in this suppression of free speech.

Huhne tried to square the circle in an interview I saw on Channel 4 News by arguing that the act of prohibiting Wilders' entry and speaking was consistent with the liberal principle, articulated by J.S. Mill, that liberty may be restricted to prevent actions which cause harm to others.

But if the harm principle is understood in this elastic way, huge amounts of controversial speech will be subject to restriction. Given that one of Mill's central objectives in On Liberty was precisely to defend an expansive freedom of speech, Huhne's use of Mill's harm principle was ill-judged, to say the least. Mill was much clearer about when speech can be restricted under the harm principle: only when the speech is an immediate provocation to criminal activity. To elasticise the principle in the way Huhne did is to show a somewhat cavalier attitude to basic liberal principles. Every single one of the civil liberties restrictions on which the Lib Dems have opposed the government in recent years could easily be defended using the Huhnian (as opposed to Millian) harm principle.

None of this is meant to imply that Labour should be off the hook on the liberalism question, or that 'the Lib Dems are no better than Labour'. The Lib Dems clearly are better, more liberal, in general, on civil liberties questions.

But I do want to dispell the potential pong of Lib Dem self-righteousness surrounding this debate. Liberalism is a challenging political philosophy, and Labour isn't the only political party that can be found wanting when confronting this challenge.


Sunder Katwala said...

Stuart, Thanks for this. I think it is fair to say that the LibDem blogosphere in particular and many party voices were critical of Chris Huhne on the Wilders case.

Ed said...

Shirley Williams also supported the government/Huhne line on the Wilders case. She didn't quote Mill but did imply the right to freedom of speech wasn't absolute and could justifiably be curtailed in certain circumstances. This was one; certain radical Muslim clerics also fall into this category.

Stuart White said...

I'm interested - and disappointed - to hear that Shirley Williams supported the government/Huhne line on the Wilders case.

Free speech should be restricted 'under certain circumstances'? Well, OK. But what are these 'certain circumstances'? Mill sets out a very clear criterion: when speech immediately provokes criminal action. Unless Shirley Williams has a very clear criterion in mind as an alternative, then her acceptance of free speech restrictions 'under certain circumstances' all too easily slides into 'when I don't like what people are saying'. And that's not liberal.