The Lib Dems must not turn their back on social liberalism

Richard Reeves's classical liberalism is the wrong philosophy and the wrong strategy.

David Davis recently achieved the remarkable feat of being simultaneously dead right and completely wrong on the economy, emulating the most famous feline in physics. Not to be outdone, the coalition’s junior partners now have their very own Schrödinger’s Liberal – Nick Clegg’s former directory of strategy, Richard Reeves, who is absolutely right in carving out a space for a liberal force in British politics, and at the same time sadly wrong on what such a party should stand for.

Writing in the New Statesman, Reeves correctly identified the need for a British political party with liberalism at its heart, given that the Tories and Labour swing wildly between stifling authoritarianism and careless libertarianism. Here, most Liberal Democrat members and voters will agree – we need a party that emphasises the importance of personal freedoms, of the freedom to set and achieve one’s own aims, and that takes a liberal approach to public policy. Reeves is also right that the question of Clegg’s leadership will be discussed at our Brighton conference. However, Reeves then recommends that the party takes a very different line to what most of its members and voters would recognise as being truly liberal – thus completing his task of being simultaneously right and wrong.

Having rightly formed a coalition, the Lib Dems were always likely to lose support. The choices Clegg and his parliamentary colleagues have made in government, often against the better judgement of the party’s grassroots, meant much of that support has been lost "to the left," territory he seems content to concede to Ed Miliband’s Labour Party. Reeves recommends jettisoning these voters (and by extension, I presume, the policies they supported), in favour of a retreat to the elusive "centre ground.’  In Reeves’s estimation, Clegg and the party must become "true liberals," but he fails spectacularly to define what that means. Liberalism itself may not be on a left-right axis (hence Reeves’s rejection of the soft-left), but few would argue that the Liberal Democrats were founded as and, at heart, remain, a liberal party of the centre-left.

The party’s constitution begins with a commitment to "a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity" (emphasis added). Reeves may have reason to dismiss Labour’s "statism, paternalism, insularity and narrow egalitarianism," but not in all cases; true Liberal Democrats recognise that individuals are at their most free to live their lives when they are part of an empowered community and participate in a fair economy – and that for these conditions to be met, the state needs to do more than grant people what Isaiah Berlin called the negative liberty of simply getting out of their way.

Indeed, it’s not just Berlin’s conception of positive liberty (more than the freedom from coercion or conformity, but the freedom to achieve one’s ambitions) that Reeves appears to neglect. He is a clever man with a wealth of knowledge, so I wonder why he skips 150 years or so of political philosophy in returning to so-called "classical 19th century liberalism." Liberals such as L.T. Hobhouse, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge,  Amartya Sen and Will Hutton have all conceived of a public realm that does more than simply retreat from our lives; social liberals believe in a state that lifts everybody’s capabilities to flourish by securing the conditions in which we are all free to pursue our goals irrespective of the dumb luck of the circumstances of our birth.

So much for political philosophy, as Reeves himself says – it’s the hard political choices we make that define a party. So to be liberals, we must back free schools, says Reeves – but how can it be liberal to remove democratic accountability from publicly funded schools and watch as the already-privileged detach themselves from an education system that should treat all children equally? Reeves has little to say about how a liberal party should secure economic conditions in which all are free, and even less on how health and social care and other public services should be configured – all we find is more triangulation between Tory and Labour, which, as former Lib Dem James Graham identifies, is not what the public wants. All Liberal Democrats share Reeves's support for civil liberties and his desire to break up arbitrary concentrations of power, and we always will – but unless he and his supporters can define how a liberal party would bring about a fair, free, open society in which the values of liberty and equality are balanced, his call for more liberalism will remain empty.

Social liberals have always recognised the role for an active, accountable, participative, decentralised state in securing greater positive freedoms for its citizens. For most Liberal Democrats, who leads the party isn’t as important as the direction in which they lead it; if Reeves and Clegg acknowledge the contribution of Sen et al to modern liberal thought and want to work with us to frame markets and public institutions so that we’re all free to live fulfilling lives, they are welcome to do so.

Liberal Democrat memorabilia on sale at the party's conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.

Prateek Buch is director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.