For liberalism to survive, its thinkers and activists will need to wrest control from those so mired in the Westminster bubble.
For liberalism to survive, its thinkers and activists will need to wrest control from those so mired in the Westminster bubble
Some of the parallels can seem uncanny. Liberals in coalition with Tories; the party torn asunder, with many disgusted that the spirit of liberalism was being sold for establishment power; and a man in charge seemingly unaware of the long-term forces that had cast him in the role of historical fall guy.
George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England conjures a scene of Asquith standing on the back of a ship, gazing into the moonlit distance, unaware of the forces being unleashed upon his political career. Perhaps too some future historian will write of Nick Clegg gazing blankly over his takeout chicken korma, with the One Show on, contemplating how he has overseen the final snuffing out of the flicker of liberalism in Britain.
Liberalism has a noble history. The term itself really only emerges in Britain in the 19th century as the Peelites who favored free trade joined the Whigs, who long tended to oppose the conservative landed interests of the aristocracy. Gladstone’s call for ‘peace, reform, and retrenchment’ was a bid to undermine the corporate welfare of the day: the state had been set up to defend the moneyed interests of land at the expense of industrialization and jobs beyond subsistence farming.
The radical wing of the Liberal Party, inspired by Liberal party members like Charles Dickens and their concern for those suffering in the transition to an industrialized economy, comprised members such as John Bright and Richard Cobden, who favored free trade as a means to put cheap food on the table of working families who could ill-afford to pay subsidies to their landowner with each meal.
The means were free trade and free markets, but the ends were taking on the powerful at the behest of the powerless. The clarion call was that everyone deserved a fair shot and a dignified existence. The ends to which any liberal strived were that each individual could have the means and develop the capabilities to live a full and developed life.
The success of liberalism in the 19th century spelled its doom in the 20th. Capital had largely won its battle with Land, even if the coupe-de-grace of a land value tax to tax away the rent from landowners who sat on property has still not found the bravery in politicians that the idea has always merited. Power now found itself in the rising star of industrial magnates and the reaction that caused among their embattled and embittered workers.
Socialism arose to give workers the rights to fight for labour against the overwhelming power of capital. Not just for fair and safe working conditions, but knowing that the dividing of the pie was done by the person wielding the knife. Compensation wasn’t determined by a gentlemanly discussion around the bargaining table, or by ‘natural’ economic forces that couldn’t exist outside of the laws and institutions that made them possible, but the outcome was largely determined by the leverage each side brought to the table. Liberalism was largely confined to trying to apply the Queensbury rules to a backyard brawl: neutrality in a zero-sum game is not a popular position.
Some liberals saw their coming eclipse as politically and philosophically avoidable. The ‘ends’ of liberalism of personal control and individual potential were still a potent force, as Hobhouse put it ‘liberty without equality is of noble sound but squalid meaning’, but the old methods of free markets and free trade to achieve those ends no longer worked.
That we are living in a new Gilded Age is now without much evidence to dispute it. Thomas Piketty’s new book has become a sensation because it revealed a truth hidden in plain sight: the collapse of the Berlin wall, and the decline of manufacturing and trade unionism as globalisation has ushered in worldwide supply chains, has returned us to a political moment much like that which caught Asquith and friends unawares. The returns to capital will remain higher than overall growth, with a rise in economic and political inequality, unless organized political force is brought to bear to share its gains.
Liberalism, here, had its moment. When the post-war consensus had seen rising family wages alongside economic growth, the battle between labour and capital could have been abandoned on terms favorable to all. Where Jo Grimond and other stalwarts of the Liberal Party in the 60s and 70s tried to call off the fight between labour and capital by advocating mutuals and co-operatives, moving to a kind of ‘non-state socialism’, or some other symbiotic relationship between the two forces of production and their political allies, Thatcherism rendered any balanced accommodation stone dead.
Liberalism now finds itself advocating neutrality – or, rather, a slightly less lop-sided victory for the forces of capital- while labour writhes on the canvas and the referee is almost counted to ten.
That Clegg doesn’t recognise this picture is perhaps unsurprising. Most of our political class doesn’t. The globalisation of capital has seen a concurrent globalisation of mores, education, and culture. An article in The Atlantic outlining the emergence of a ‘new, global elite’ made instinctive sense to those who knew friends disappearing off to university at Brown or Harvard, summering in St Tropez or the Greek islands, while doing business in Latin America or Central Asia. Globalization might be a structural force, but its agents, by definition, must come from all over to clear the way or reap its fruits.
And Nick Clegg is nothing if not cosmopolitan. His debates with Nigel Farage symbolising the ignorant, optimistic patter of someone who has only seen the upside of the hyper-speed global economy, against its nasty, venal, cultural backlash.
But does this analysis portend some kind of optimistic return of labour to balance capital’s supremacy? Not necessarily. The call to raise the status of the working class might be the same, but the old medicine might no longer have its necessary effect. Indeed the measures advocated by Liberals in the 60s and 70s, of human-scale institutions like schools and hospitals, of tax incentives for mutuals and cooperatives, and an emphasis on individual rights, multiple identities and personal fulfillment seem more fitting for the times than a better yesterday of class agitation, working men’s clubs, and union bosses.
But a class lens is necessary all the same. The white, unskilled working class in Britain is migrating to EDL, UKIP and the BNP rather than returning to the Labour fold. A cultural narrative of resentment against the elites that undermined their bargaining power is easier to understand than seminars in post-industrial economic organisation. And Nick Clegg has become the handmaiden of conservative attempts to manage Britain’s decline while equipping the elite to jump ship into the global prosperity their own working class have been left behind from.
So shall we condemn Clegg and the Lib Dems to Trotsky’s rubbish bin of history? Or is there still a role to be played by liberals?
First of all, Clegg is the figurehead, but the complacent attitude of the elites within the Lib Dems needs to be culled. Is there a current MP who even party members see with anything better than mild indifference, perhaps with the exception of, say, Vince Cable? The revolution has to be undergirded by an intellectual paradigm shift. No longer can liberalism stand in neutrality with global capital. Liberalism might never be compatible with anti-capitalism, but there is nothing outside of its traditions to say that it shouldn’t team with workers to divert its energy into liberal ends of liberty, equality, and diversity.
That means standing up to a City of London that makes lots of money, but delivers precious little in social value; that means working with unions to raise a minimum wage to a living wage; understanding the cause of working class backlash, even while not excusing its symptoms; and taking seriously the notion that the two least socially mobile countries in the OECD were the most taken with supply-side economics and neoliberalism. Clegg sees British liberalism as essentially Macmillanite Tories, asking why we can’t all just get along. But economic reality makes that a very short-term political pose.
‘History might not repeat, but it rhymes’. So too does Britain find itself at a fulcrum moment, much like that which saw the eventual rise in organised labour and the collapse of the Edwardian Liberal Party. Many, in retrospect, saw the continuing rift between the two strands of centre-left thought to be a mistake. Nick Clegg seems intent on repeating the mistakes of the past by veering away from intellectual communalities for short-term political expediency.
But if liberalism really wants to be relevant, it should abandon neutrality and join those wrestling with the idea of how to secure individual economic dignity in a globalised, post-industrial country. There are pockets of ambition to be found here, from economic analysis like Piketty’s to American journals like Jacobin and The American Prospect, to potential centres of opposition within the party itself, like the Social Liberal Forum.
For liberalism to survive, its thinkers and activists will need to wrest control from those so mired in the Westminster bubble that they can’t see that the sands have already shifted. Nick Clegg might epitomise the problem, but we shouldn’t mistake him for the sum total of it if liberalism is going to survive much longer.
Simon Radford is a Provosts Fellow at the University of Southern California, a former candidate for the Lib Dems in 2005, and has written for Commonweal, International Studies Perspectives, The Liberal, Hippo Reads and other publicationsLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.