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How did the word "liberal" become a political insult?

No matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not.

Britain is a land made by liberals in which nobody wants to be called a liberal. A common practice in the US is slowly being imported into Britain. Liberal is becoming a political insult. Used in such a fashion, it has little or no determinate meaning. Instead, it denotes that the liberal in question is wealthy and, precisely because he or she is doing well, out of touch with people who are not. It’s a stupid usage, and it is time to speak for liberal Britain, or at least to ask who can do so.

The benefits of liberal political thought are everywhere in British life. The welfare state was devised by a liberal, William Beveridge. The animal spirits of market capitalism, which is a common cause in mainstream British politics, are an inheritance from liberals. The rightfully intolerant position in British law against prejudice on the grounds of gender, sexuality or personal origin was the work of a liberal home secretary, Roy Jenkins. For all the noise after the referendum on the European Union and all the talk of a world beyond liberalism, nobody is seriously suggesting that any of this should be repealed.

We can go further back and deeper. The institutions of a democracy, which Khalid Masood attacked in Westminster on 22 March and Keith Palmer died defending, are the bequest of liberal political thought. In the US, the ideas of John Locke and Baron de Montesquieu are doing battle with Donald Trump’s, and we should all be thankful that, thus far, those of Locke and Montesquieu are winning. Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label.

This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. Any term that encompasses figures from Milton Friedman to Bernie Sanders, or from Nick Clegg to Daniel Hannan, runs the risk of including too much. For our present purposes, let us define a British liberal as someone who still believes that market capitalism delivers many more benefits than problems, who thinks that Britain is less prejudiced than it used to be and is glad of that, who is comfortable with recent levels of immigration, but who also believes that inequalities of power in Britain are too stark. It is immediately obvious from this description that, with credible leadership, this is a set of propositions that could command a majority of the British people. To this extent, the notion that Britain is somehow beyond liberalism is ridiculous.

Liberals are not exactly helping themselves, however. The question of who should speak for liberals in Britain is preceded by the question of how liberals should speak. It would be a disaster for the idea of liberalism for it to be bound up in the separate question of Britain’s membership of the EU. It is perfectly possible to be on opposing sides of that divide and remain a liberal, yet the demand for a second referendum is becoming, by default, the defining “liberal” cause. It is past time to give up. Article 50 is being triggered and Britain is leaving the EU. Even if there is any remorse among the people for the decision that they took, that remorse will come too late.

In due course, the old axiom of British politics that held that nobody is interested in the EU will be reinstated. In the meantime, there is no way of conducting a campaign to change the decision that does not look and sound like an arrogant attempt to thwart it. Liberals have to widen their conversation. What is the liberal view on education, health, welfare and crime? It is not a question that anyone is asking, let alone answering.

Who can conduct this liberal conversation in British politics? There is a party with “liberal” in its name, though not always in its philosophy. The Liberal Democrats are recovering from the bruising experience of coalition government, though this is, for
the moment, largely based on an unequivocal Remain position on which time is running out. It is an understandable short-term tactic but, as the salience of the issue declines over time, and as the Liberal Democrats define themselves as the pro-EU party, that will quicken the shrinking of liberal Britain, rather than ensure its recovery.

The Labour Party is hardly in a fit state to speak for anyone. On the few issues on which the Labour leadership takes a liberal line – such as immigration – the advocacy of Jeremy Corbyn does active harm. If he thinks it, then it must be a bad idea. The economic liberals in Labour are in retreat and the party is in great confusion about the EU, on which its vote is split. Whatever Corbyn may or may not say, there is a larger problem: nobody is listening to him.

The narrowness of the Liberal Democrats and the hopelessness of the Labour Party make the idea of a new party tempting. In a world of clean and rational philosophical divisions, British politics would contain a conservative party, a social-democratic party and a liberal party, whose members would run intellectually from the George Osborne wing of the Tories to the Tony Blair wing of Labour, stopping off along the way to pick up the Liberal Democrats.

There is, as yet, no appetite for such a venture, because none of those who should find it attractive can begin to see how it could work. The British electoral system makes it so difficult for a new party to break through, and the example of the SDP between 1981 and 1987 hangs over every discussion. Labour MPs are convinced that taking back control of their party is a more reliable route to success than starting afresh.

They are probably right and that downbeat assessment leads to the thought that liberal Britain will remain thinly spread between the three political parties. Theresa May’s tenure at the Home Office was hardly a display of liberal credentials, but there are still plenty of liberals – mostly but not exclusively of an economic stamp – in the Conservative Party. The Liberal Democrats can speak for the section of liberal Britain that is excessively angry about the departure from the EU. Meanwhile, Labour left-liberals have to continue their siege warfare in the boring committees of their party to regain control. If and when they do, there will once again be a voice on social justice questions that is worth hearing.

In political terms, liberals are citizens of anywhere and therefore citizens of nowhere. They are the Ishmaels of political life, the wandering spirits, an influence in all tribes but a dominant force in none. There is a consolation for this lost status: when the liberal wing of the Tory party is in charge, the Tories win handsomely, and the same is true for the Labour Party. Both parties have always disputed this, yet it has always been true. The consensus is that this analysis is no longer true. Liberals should sit tight and prove it wrong.

Philip Collins writes for the Times

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition

Photo: PA
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How the fire at Grenfell Tower exposed the ugly side of the housing boom

Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society, but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

It’s impressive, in a way, how quickly we slot horrific new events into the beliefs we already hold. In the Grenfell Tower fire – a tragedy that, at the time of writing, is presumed to have cost 79 people their lives – some on the right saw a story about poorly built high-rise ­social housing. The left, however, saw it as fresh evidence of the damage that seven years of austerity had done to local councils.

The fire does feel symbolic: of the inequality at the heart of one of the richest cities in the world; of a government unable to look after its people. But reality rarely slots neatly into our prefabricated narratives and, although the details are still emerging, it already seems as if many of those assumptions were flawed. Experts’ theories about why the fire spread so fast have focused not on the poor quality of the building’s original 1967 design but on problems with the external cladding installed in a £10m refurbishment last year.

What’s more, while most councils have struggled with years of centrally imposed cuts, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) isn’t one of them: it is sitting on reserves worth £274m and, in 2014, found enough money to give council-tax payers a rebate of £100 per head. And yet, it seemed, it could not find the cash to pay for sprinklers or the £5,000 extra it would have cost to use a fire-resistant form of cladding. There was austerity in Kensington, but it was the product of conscious choice, not financial pressure.

Voting intention by housing type in the 2017 election

For a whole week, those who survived the fire faced a second indignity: the uncertainty regarding where they could now live. The day after the tragedy, the housing minister Alok Sharma offered his “guarantee that every single family from Grenfell House will be rehoused in the local area”. This was both morally and politically right – but whether he would have made this promise if he had been more than a couple of days into the job seemed an open question, because few in the housing sector believed it was one he could keep. The council already had more than 2,700 households waiting for accommodation (actually quite low for inner London). It was possible to give priority to survivors of the fire, but it would require pushing others yet further down the list.

Nor did it seem likely that the homes on offer likely to be adequate replacements for those that have been lost. “Most people made homeless in London have a very long wait in temporary accommodation,” Kate Webb, the head of policy at the housing charity Shelter, told me. “And even that is going to be outside of their area.” In the immediate future, at least, it seemed likely it would be much easier to find bed and breakfasts in Hounslow than permanent new homes in Kensington.

In the event, the naysayers, myself included, were wrong: on Wednesday afternoon, after the print copy of this article had gone to press, the Evening Standard reported that the Greenfell families would be rehoused in 68 apartments in the luxury Kensington Row development, at a cost of tens of millions of pounds. The deal, specially brokered by the Homes & Communities Agency on behalf of the government, was great news for those families. But it is striking that it took a tragedy and national scandal on the scale of Grenfell to make it happen. And those homes – which were always earmarked as social housing – are now not available to the 2,700 other families on RBKC’'s waiting list. They will not be receiving similar treatment.

It doesn’t feel like this should be difficult: Britain is rich, London richer and RBKC the richest borough of all. Yet the shortage of available homes reflects not just some kind of moral failure on the part of the council but a genuine shortage of property.

Who is building houses?

To be blunt about this: we have not been building enough for a very long time. In the decade after the 2001 census, London’s population grew from 7.3 million to 8.2 million, an increase of roughly 12 per cent. The capital’s total number of homes, however, increased by just 7 per cent. Both trends have continued since, with all sorts of entirely predictable results: higher rents, overcrowded homes, hilarious news items about renters going to see “studio flats” that turned out to be a bed in a shed with a tree growing through the wall.

London’s housing crisis is the biggest and most visible in the country yet it is far from unique. In Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol – in almost any city with a decent jobs market – housing costs have soared in recent years. In other parts of the UK, house prices are lower; but so, unfortunately, are wages. The result is a collapse in property ownership among the under-40s – and, one is tempted to suggest, flatlining national productivity and unexpected enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

We know how to fix this (in that we know how to build more homes) but we haven’t, for two main reasons. One is that we have inadvertently constructed a housing market in which nobody has both the interest and the capacity to build more. Private developers bid for land based on the price they believe they will be able to sell new homes there for. As a result, if prices fall, they stop building: look at a graph of housing supply over the past 50 years, and it is abundantly clear that the private sector will never give us the homes we need.

This would be fine if other organisations were allowed to build but they are not. Housing associations are restricted by government finance rules. Councils were explicitly banned from fully replacing homes sold under Right to Buy; today, they lack the money and, after decades of disempowerment, the expertise, too. The 2004 Barker review argued that the UK needed to be building 250,000 new homes every year just to keep up with demand. It feels telling that the last year we managed to do this was 1979.

Total government grant to local councils

The other reason we haven’t built enough homes is that we place such tight restrictions on what we can build. Land-use restrictions such as on the green belts prevent our cities from growing outwards; rules on tall buildings prevent them from growing upwards. These are often legal, but are rigidly enforced by public demand.

Last year, for instance, the Friends of Richmond Park, residents of the west London suburbs, fought a noisy campaign to stop tall buildings from being built 14 miles away in Stratford, in the East End of London, because they would ruin their protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral. The buildings wouldn’t prevent west Londoners from seeing St Paul’s, you understand: the buildings could simply be seen behind it. All these restrictions, all these campaigns, are there to protect something good. Between them, they add up to a shortage of housing that is blighting lives.

It is hard not to notice the parallels between the Grenfell Tower fire and the broader housing crisis. RBKC bosses chose to promote electorally motivating tax cuts for the borough’s largely rich residents over fire safety in its social homes. As a nation, we have consistently chosen to protect the views and house prices of those who have housing over the needs of those who don’t. Nobody consciously chose to harm those at the bottom of society but governing in the interests of the rich has done it nonetheless.

The survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster were left homeless by the tragedy, and it looked for several days like that they would have nowhere else to go. Both of these things may well have been avoidable. But austerity is not just a policy: it’s a state of mind. 

George Eaton: The Grenfell Tower fire has turned a spotlight on austerity's limits

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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