Sunday, February 25, 2007

Liberals and Anti-Liberals

British politics is changing.

Traditional party politics is in long term decline.

Politicians have promised too much and delivered too little. Partly, this is because it is simply not possible for the political process to deliver the kind of outcomes that politicians and their voters expect. Disillusion and apathy are the order of the day- and political pragmatism has declined into the pursuit of power above any other interest. Many politicians will say- "of course it must be power above all else, otherwise how could we actually make any difference at all". The problem, though, is that power is concentrated in the hands of so few and is so jealously guarded that by the time that anyone gets close to the top they have forgotten what they wanted to change in the first place.

This concentration of power- economic as well as political- has reduced the power of the individual to impotence. Huge administrative bureaucracies, in almost every field, have acquired enormous powers to control. As people have lost control over their own lives they have given up on responsibility.

Liberals oppose this erosion of autonomy.

It is important, though, to notice the wide range of forms in which anti-Liberalism comes. The latest is that something must be done to prevent harm to others or themselves. I italicise this as the way in which freedom can be eroded so quickly. A good example is the story in today's paper about the obese child who may be taken away from his family.

By what right does the state break up a family?

The law that allows this is an insult to liberty- whatever the health consequences to the child.

Polly Toynbee is an anti Liberal- she believes that people must be protected from the consequences of their own actions. It is from this anti-Liberal position that the great "protective bureaucracies" have been created. The removal of personal autonomy has removed personal liberty, and the result is a rootless and dis-empowered population.

A backlash is coming- the electorate resent the platitudes and the bromides of a political class that does not even understand its own impotence. The electorate resents the lack of control that they have over politics. Millions of people may oppose a policy- say road pricing- but their views will be entirely ignored -save for a patronising e-mail from the Prime Minister.

The end of Socialist ideology in British politics should not have meant the end of all ideology. There are key principles that are implicit in the way our constitution has been established- and the most important- rule of law, habeus corpus (that the state may not imprison without trial)- are based on limiting the rights of the state to act arbitrarily.

The encroachment of the bureaucratic state into wider spheres must now be reversed. Liberals believe that the time has come to create a new contract between the state and its citizens. The citizens have rights, the state has duties. The state must give back power to the citizen and instead of talking about relative poverty we must talk about absolute freedoms. There should be a safety net for the unfortunate, but not one that lasts forever and traps people in welfare dependency. The state does not have the moral right to any body's wealth, no matter how wealthy they may be. The state must stop being a player on the pitch and become simply the referee.

In practical terms, politicians can not save people from themselves, and they should not be trying to do so. Freedom is the right to do as you please and the obligation to take the consequences. We have created a nanny state, smothering free citizens with our concern and our moral certainty. It is time to inject more yang into the mixture- discipline and self reliance are not bad qualities, and we must stand up for these as well the positive nurturing qualities in our citizens. Yet these can not be promoted by statute- and it will take time for society to adjust.

When I listen to Cameron or Brown, I hear anti-Liberals: "something must be done".

Both will fail.

The task for Liberal Democrats is to make the case for personal autonomy.

To make the case for the great repeal act.

To make the case for the abolition of large parts of Whitehall.

To make the case for responsible choices- greener choices, ethical choices- and to ensure that the full economic and social costs of unethical or ungreen choices are reflected in their prices (not, you may notice to deny choice, but simply to reflect the relative costs and benefits of those choices).

To make the case for local control of local affairs- including health and education

To make the case for a Liberal state, based on freedom.

For only freedom will engage citizens with their own state.


Tom Papworth said...

I wonder if people really are apathetic. They rail against high taxes but threaten to cut public services and they scream the house down. I fear we are trapped in a kind of ideological no-man’s land, without the old ideological lenses through which to view and understand the situation in which we find ourselves. Instead, the market-tolerant Left is compared to the big-state Right, and neither dare attack the status quo.

Meanwhile, you and I might consider that there is another axis upon which voters might focus, but so far we have failed to convince most of the country. It’s a hard fight – the press is full of paternalists and most politicians are intoxicated with power – so I suspect that the backlash you predict will be longer and slower in coming than we would like.

But I agree with one of your main points: “instead of talking about relative poverty we must talk about absolute freedoms”. Let freedom, rather than envy, be our rallying cry.

Devil's Kitchen said...

The Liberal Democrats are anti-liberal. They believe in control even more than NuLabour do.a


James said...

DK- Did you even read the post???

I am not writting as an observer, but as a participant- and a former candidate of the party!