Tuesday, 3 March 2009

'Progressive Conservatism' or democratic republicanism?

The financial crisis and recession have revealed the limits of the neo-liberal social vision which has dominated British politics since the 1980s (if not before). But what is the alternative?

Some commentators, such as Jenni Russell in today's Guardian, have agued that we need to take seriously the idea of 'Progressive Conservatism'. But, as Sunder points out in his recent post, the content of this conservatism remains very vague. Indeed, it was Jenni Russell who made precisely this point in her report on a fringe meeting at the last Conservative party conference and nothing has changed, in terms of policy content, since that event.

Of course, like Jenni Russell, I'm all for talking to the Conservatives about what a genuinely progressive policies might look like. But I am also wary of allowing our discussion of progressive politics becoming limited to what we think Cameron and his supporters can plausibly sell to their own party. As a first step, progressives need to set out their position and engage with the Conservatives - and Labour and the Liberal Democrats - from there. (I do not share Jenni Russell's assumption that the Conservatives are almost certainly going to win the next election. I think a lot could change between now and whenever the election is held.)

So what is the 'progressive' position? I have argued in a number of posts on Next Left that the left needs to draw its ideas from the tradition of democratic republicanism. This, so I have argued, will involve a commitment to radical political reform founded on the ideas of popular sovereignty, wider popular participation in decision-making and, not least, security against arbitrary state power. It will involve a radical social and economic policy which focuses not just on income transfers and public services (important as these are), but also on addressing inequality of wealth, democratization of the firm and greater social control over pension funds and capital flows in general.

Recent events such as the entirely admirable Convention on Modern Liberty underscore the relevance of the democratic republican perspective - in this case, its emphasis on the limitation of arbitrary state power, a basic principle which cannot be emphasized too much in the face of the modern British state.

This week the democratic republicans have an opportunity set out their vision at a book-launch event hosted by Demos (Thursday, 2-4 pm, at Demos's offices, 3rd floor Magdalen House, 136 Tooley Street, London SE1 3TU.)

David Marquand will be talking about his recent book, Britain Since 1918, which identifies democratic republicanism as a dissident tradition of the British left, competing with traditions of Tory nationalism, Whig imperialism and left collectivism.

Cecile Laborde will be talking about her recent book, Critical Republicanism, which explores republicanism and multiculturalism.

Finally, I will be talking about the book I recently co-edited with Daniel Leighton, Building a Citizen Society, which brings together a wide range of contributors to explore a democratic republican agenda for British politics, taking in constitutional reform and democratization, socio-economic rights, and other issues along the way.

Richard Reeves, of Demos, will chair, and John Cruddas MP will respond.

Democratic republicanism doesn't have all the answers. And its content is also disputed. But it offers a framework for progressive thinking with much potential. So if you have the chance, please drop by and join the conversation.

1 comment:

Bruce Smith said...

A big issue for Democratic Republicanism, Red Toryism, Roepkism, Distributivism, etc. is to clearly think through the role of the state both central and local. For example, whilst it seems sensible for citizens to gain more of their income from distributed capital dividends, etc. and less from state welfare what should be the role of the state in times of economic recession? The "Austrian" and "Keynesian" economists are currently slugging this one out especially with regard to the massive Obama infra-structure spending package. If you read Richard Koo of the Nomura Bank he argues that Japan was pulled out of its "Lost Decade" by state stimulus spending. Others disagree. If you deliberately adopt a policy of reducing the size of the state especially the coordinating central state do you run the risk of it having no clout to implement a large stimulus package ? Especially when businesses are busy re-paying corporate debt and taking little interest in borrowing citizen's personal savings for investment as would appear to have happened in Japan.