What is liberalism?

Whatever it is, there’s more to it than David Laws would have you believe.

I was irritated by a piece Julian Glover wrote in the Guardian last week and meant to blog about it. An excellent post by Stuart White over at Next Left gives me an excuse to do so belatedly.

Glover was upbraiding Andrew Adonis, whom he described as "a liberal shoehorned into a statist party for the achievement of political purpose", for daring to criticise the decision by the Liberal Democrats to enter into a coalition with the Tories. Adonis had described the coalition as "unprincipled"; Glover appeared to suggest that there was no philosophical basis to Adonis's attack:

The differences within parties have often been as great as the differences between them. Adonis, a former Lib Dem, knows that. His objection -- like the predictable complaints of those Scottish former leaders Kennedy and Steel -- is not that Clegg did a deal, but that he did one with the wrong side. It is striking how the most vocal Labour critics of the coalition are New Labour: as if they mourn being cast adrift in a party whose deeper instincts they know only too well.

Yet the Lib Dem leader got better and more reliable terms from the Tories than he could have [had] from Labour; and, more than that, he has formed a government of broad ideological coherence, which he could not have done with an interim administration led by Gordon Brown.

This is, at its core, as much a liberal administration as a Tory one, joined by a shared scepticism about the effectiveness and financial sustainability of the centralised state.

There's a rather narrow understanding of liberalism implied here, though it is one that is consistent with that of the Orange Book faction of the Lib Dems, who, in the persons of David Laws and Nick Clegg himself, now hold sway in the party (and, indeed, in the coalition). Stuart White offers an excellent summary of this strain of contemporary liberalism:

Their thinking rests on some definite, strong -- albeit rather unexamined -- philosophical assumptions. Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified. Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures -- some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements -- can be justified. (This is the sense in which they remain social liberals, albeit not egalitarian ones.) But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for "leaving money in people's pockets".

White's most important point is that there are resources in contemporary liberal political philosophy for a much more egalitarian, redistributive vision -- a vision of social justice, in other words. The basic assumptions of Orange Book liberalism, White says,

run completely counter to one of the basic claims of contemporary liberalism as developed in the work of such as Rawls, Dworkin and Ackerman.

For these thinkers, the "free market" is simply one possible "basic structure" for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which "basic structure" to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure -- including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements -- to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and "redistribution" are not invasions into people's pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally "theirs". Tax transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

Simplifying a little, one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free-market distribution.

And, Glover's little lesson in history and philosophy notwithstanding, this is something Andrew Adonis understands very well; though he is less likely to invoke Rawls, Dworkin or Ackerman than the great "social liberals" of the early 20th century -- men like J A Hobson or L T Hobhouse. As Hobhouse put it in his 1911 masterpiece, Liberalism, "The 'right to work' and the right to a 'living wage' are just as valid as the rights of person or property."

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Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The DUP scored £1bn for just ten votes – so why be optimistic about our EU deal?

By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of laws and treaties with 27 ­countries.

If Theresa May’s government negotiates with the European Union as well as it negotiated with the Democratic Unionist Party, it’s time to cross your fingers and desperately hope you have a secret ­Italian grandfather. After all, you’ll be wanting another passport when all this is over.

The Northern Irish party has played an absolute blinder, securing not only £1bn in extra funding for the region, but ensuring that the cash is handed over even if the power-sharing agreement or its Westminster confidence-and-supply arrangement fails.

At one point during the negotiations, the DUP turned their phones off for 36 hours. (Who in Westminster knew it was physically possible for a human being to do this?) Soon after, needling briefings emerged in the media that they were also talking to Labour and the Lib Dems. In the end, they’ve secured a deal where they support the government and get the Short money available only to opposition parties. I’m surprised Arlene Foster didn’t ask for a few of the nicer chairs in Downing Street on her way out.

How did this happen? When I talked to Sam McBride of the Belfast News Letter for a BBC radio programme days before the pact was announced, he pointed out that the DUP are far more used to this kind of rough and tumble than the Conservatives. Northern Irish politics is defined by deal-making, and the DUP need no reminder of what can happen to minnows in a multiparty system if they don’t convince their voters of their effectiveness.

On 8 June, the DUP and Sinn Fein squeezed out Northern Ireland’s smaller parties, such as the SDLP and the Alliance, from the region’s Westminster seats. (McBride also speculated on the possibility of trouble ahead for Sinn Fein, which ran its campaign on the premise that “abstentionism works”. What happens if an unpopular Commons vote passes that could have been defeated by its seven MPs?)

The DUP’s involvement in passing government bills, and the price the party has extracted for doing so, are truly transformative to British politics – not least for the public discussion about austerity. That turns out to be, as we suspected all along, a political rather than an economic choice. As such, it becomes much harder to defend.

Even worse for the government, southern Europe is no longer a basket case it can point to when it wants to scare us away from borrowing more. The structural problems of the eurozone haven’t gone away, but they have receded to the point where domestic voters won’t see them as a cautionary tale.

It is notable that the Conservatives barely bothered to defend their economic record during the election campaign, preferring to focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s spending plans. In doing so, they forgot that many of those who voted Leave last year – and who were confidently expected to “come home” to the Conservatives – did so because they wanted £350m a week for the NHS. The Tories dropped the Cameron-era argument of a “long-term economic plan” that necessitated short-term sacrifices. They assumed that austerity was the New Normal.

However, the £1bn the government has just found down the back of the sofa debunks that, and makes Conservative spending decisions for the rest of the parliament fraught. With such a slim majority, even a small backbench rebellion – certainly no bigger than the one that was brewing over tax-credit cuts until George Osborne relen­ted – could derail the Budget.

One of the worst points of Theresa May’s election campaign was on the BBC ­Question Time special, when she struggled to tell a nurse why her pay had risen so little since 2009. “There isn’t a magic money tree that we can shake that suddenly provides for everything that people want,” the Prime Minister admonished. Except, of course, there is a magic money tree, and May has just given it a damn good shake and scrumped all the cash-apples that fell from it.

That short-term gain will store up long-term pain, if the opposition parties are canny enough to exploit it. In the 2015 election, the claim that the SNP would demand bungs from Ed Miliband to prop up his government was a powerful argument to voters in England and Wales that they should vote Conservative. Why should their hospitals and schools be left to moulder while the streets of Paisley were paved in gold?

The attack also worked because it was a proxy for concerns about Miliband’s weakness as a leader. Well, it’s hard to think of a prime minister in a weaker position than May is right now. The next election campaign will make brutal use of this.

Northern Ireland might deserve a greater wodge of redistribution than the Barnett formula already delivers – it has lower life expectancy, wages and productivity than the British average – but the squalid way the money has been delivered will haunt the Tories. It also endangers one of the Conservatives’ crucial offers to their base: that they are the custodians of “sound money” and “living within our means”.

Labour, however, has not yet quite calibrated its response to the DUP’s new-found influence. Its early attacks focused on the party’s social conservatism, pointing out that it is resolutely anti-abortion and has repeatedly blocked the extension of equal marriage through “petitions of concern” at Stormont.

This tub-thumping might have fired up Labour’s socially progressive supporters in the rest of the UK, but it alienated some in Northern Ireland who resent their politicians being seen as fundamentalist yokels. (Only they get to call the DUP that: not Londoners who, until three weeks ago, thought Arlene Foster was the judge who got sacked from Strictly Come Dancing.)

And remember: all this was to get just ten MPs onside. By March 2019, we’re supposed to have renegotiated 40 years of legislation and treaties with 27 other European ­countries. Ha. Hahaha. Hahaha.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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