Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Syntax, Enemy Of The State

A while ago, a post on the LDYS forums prompted in my mind a soundbite that appealed to me perhaps more than it ought;

“You’re not just an economic liberal, you’re an economic liberal and a social liberal? So you’re not a Tory, you’re a Tory who happens not to be a racist homophobe? And I should care why exactly? If I need a Tory who happens not to be a racist homophobe, I’ll talk to Alan Duncan!”

But I’m not one to cut and run on a soundbite, and the more I looked at this one the more I found myself frustrated by it. Not because the sentiment is wrong, but because the words are. Simply put, it strikes me that, when I think of a theoretical, effectively stereotypical, “economic liberal”, what I am actually describing is a right-libertarian. And although the agreement is less pronounced, “social liberal” corresponds pretty well to left-libertarianism.

Now let’s be absolutely clear, there’s almost no mainstream political philosophy (and by mainstream, I do not include “socialism” as practised on university campuses) that I despise more than libertarianism, if only because it commits gross historical and sociological negligence.

Equally, that isn’t the point. I’m quite clear that, when I get PR and when I get the resulting realignment of British politics, the libertarians and I will be in quite separate organisations. Right now, however, I need the Liberal Democrats to be a strong enough force to secure that realignment, which means building a coalition. And while the right-libertarians do have a natural home in British politics (they’re called the Conservative Party, you may have heard of them…), recognise that the left-libertarians are best served by the Liberal Democrats for now.

The implication for our party is clear, however; while that is the coalition, it must be a coalition on those terms. As I have (hopefully) repeated more than sufficiently, the thing I most object to in the current state of the internal debate in our party is the sense that there is one group of Liberal Holy Warriors who are fighting to preserve the Gospel According To Saint Mill and that anyone disagreeing with that group is stupid and/or misguided and can therefore be ignored and patronised until they come to the “right” answer.

I want the input from that side of the debate, but I want it in the right spirit and in the right way; democratically and by demonstration, not fascistically and by faith alone. It’s worth noting in this respect that I agreed with pretty much everything in the Orange Book (even the health chapter!), but that was because it treated me as an adult and worked hard to demonstrate the positive nature of its effects. We have seen that it can be done; I would just like to see a heck of a lot more of it.

But for fear of being even more apocalyptic, there is actually a greater problem. David Cameron’s positioning on supposedly liberal ground can be combated, but ironically, not by us trying to reclaim the word for our own divine use. The problem with Cameron’s use is that it is correct in an academic sense but not in a practical one; the “liberals” he has are right-libertarians, who are liberal for reasons of greed, spite and complacency. Cameron wants his version of liberalism to appear to be fluffily progressive, and the only way to fight that academic fire is with academic fire in return.

At a time when a public clamouring for reform feels betrayed by a supposedly progressive government that has failed to deliver, with a primary opposition party whose only interest in reform is the desires of its narrow electorate, we cannot allow ourselves to get distracted by an intra-mural spitball contest over one word. We do need a consistent message, but it need only be this; we are the only party that can deliver change that is focused on people and on communities and their needs. That alone should suffice, and it must do so; anything else would be a disaster for the changes we all need to be delivered in the governance of Britain today.

PS While pondering all this on the train recently, I found myself passing that redoubtable locomotive, 60056 William Beveridge. Some people might think that someone was trying to tell them something…