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Beyond Liberty: Is the future of liberalism progressive?

Edited by Julia Margo

(ippr / 254pp. / 14.95)

Review by Simon Kovar

“LIBERALISM stands for liberty; its very name declares it”, began a Liberal Party pamphlet of the 1920s. The editor of this volume argues that for liberalism to be “relevant”, it must move “beyond” a concern with individual liberty and embrace instead a “progressive” commitment to social equality. This approach is presented as a riposte to the ideas behind The Orange Book, but unlike that earlier volume, Beyond Liberty sets one foot firmly outside the liberal tradition – and it is not too sure what it wants to do with the other. Above all, it is not clear whether a liberalism that no longer stands primarily for liberty stands for anything very much at all, or for that matter can or should be described as liberalism.

Progressivism has proved a slippery political concept. In historical terms, it has no anchorage in any one political tradition and was one of a string of ‘governing concepts’ toyed with by New Labour; from an early interest in Will Hutton’s idea of a ‘stake-holding’ society to Etzioni’s theory of ‘communitarianism’ and Anthony Giddens’ ‘Third Way’. So when Margo argues that liberalism must become “progressive”, we are entitled to ask at least two questions: what, exactly, is meant by “progressive”; and what, if any, is the party political subtext vis-à-vis the Liberal Democrats?

Margo’s premise is that “traditional liberalism is increasingly anachronistic in the modern world”. Here the term “traditional liberalism” signifies what the editor calls “19th Century Gladstonian ideas of self-help”, which, she suggests, continue to linger in contemporary liberal thinking as represented by The Orange Book. She contends that this tradition lacks empirical foundations in light of recent research in the social sciences, which emphasises the contexts and structures that either inhibit or facilitate meaningful individual autonomy. The persistence of structural poverty and inequality necessitates an activist role for the state, and thus a “progressive” emphasis on “fairness” ought to displace the primacy accorded liberty. Liberals have tended to view equality as instrumental to the primary end of individual freedom, rather than as an intrinsic value, one which involves not merely equality of opportunity but also a substantial redistribution of economic and social goods.

Let us go beyond the tendency to translate the platitudinous into the provocative (yes, we can all agree that the world has moved on since the 19th Century), and dwell for a moment on Margo’s parody of “traditional” liberal politics. John Stuart Mill expressed the classic liberal idea of free trade when he wrote that “trade is a social act”. This is very different from the ‘laissez-faire’ of caricature, and sharply differentiates liberalism from the New Right of the 1980s. Professor Michael Freeden’s essay is a standing rebuke to his editor in this context, noting that the classical liberal “idea of the market extended far beyond what is now termed ‘economic liberalism’. It included international free trade as the opening up of the boundaries of national interaction”. He further asserts that “the crowning achievement of British liberalism was its subtle and intelligent integration of the requirements of social welfare into a continuing respect for individual liberty”: no denial there of the social contexts of human agency, but no question either of moving “beyond liberty”, in the sense suggested by Margo. Indeed, Edwardian liberalism rejected “the common organic analogy with a social whole ready to sacrifice some of its parts for the general good” in favour of “an alternative definition of the general good as dependent on individual thriving and the bestowal of citizens’ rights, without which the social whole would atrophy and decay”. If “progressivism” is about sacrificing liberty to the interests of the social whole – with vestiges of a totalitarian approach – then it can have no appeal for liberals.

“The allure of liberalism”, Freeden writes, “is that it does not engage in harsh dichotomies but moves reflectively among the various balances that its core principles offer”. Margo is hardly alive to this nuance, which is why she cannot comprehend the fundamental philosophical agreement between two of her other contributors, Steve Webb and David Laws, and even describes the latter as a “conservative” liberal. Moreover, her argument becomes mired in considerable linguistic confusion as she variously implies that liberalism is redundant and must be displaced by progressivism; that it requires rehabilitation in the form of “progressive liberalism”; or that we need a partnership between liberals and progressives. Of course, this last suggestion resurrects that perennial question of coalition, and here I suspect we discover this volume’s true significance. Margo’s language – of “renewal” and moving “beyond left and right” – recalls that of New Labour, and sure enough we revisit the familiar refrain of the disunited “progressive coalition” that facilitated Conservative dominance of the 20th Century. Iain MacLean and Guy Lodge describe the landslide victory in 1906 as that of a “progressive alliance”, and celebrate the subsequent achievements of “progressive governments” lead by Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith. Roy Jenkins surely came closer to the truth when speaking of 1906 as “the Liberal triumph”; but this is history press-ganged into political service, and the authors’ real concern is to recreate the anti-Conservative animus of the 1997 ‘Project’. To this end, they advocate electoral reform in the guise of the Alternative Vote – not because they are interested (as liberals are) in pluralism, but as a means of sustaining in power one set of politicians as opposed to another.

Paddy Ashdown posed the question starkly: are those seeking coalition interested in pluralism or merely control? The initial Liberal Democrat response to Tony Blair’s talk of a ‘Third Way’ was to argue that one already exists: it is called liberalism. For Margo, however, liberalism must “find a place in the progressive project”. Moreover, liberals must drop their traditional suspicion of the state as a social-engineer, and Margo even suggests (somewhat revealingly) that the state has much to learn from the techniques of behavioural manipulation exercised by private sector advertisers and publicists. The notion that the latest scientific research has eliminated any need to be suspicious of administrators and bureaucrats is hardly a new idea on the Left, and it is one from which Liberals should instinctively recoil for sound historical and philosophical reasons.

One traditional liberal idea praised by Margo is universal asset policy. Stuart White’s chapter, examining liberal ideas of co-ownership, profit-sharing, employee share ownership and industrial democracy (including even syndicalism), makes it clear that such concepts are not only “traditional” in the classical liberal sense – with roots in 18th Century, pre-capitalist approaches linking property ownership to personal liberty – but were revived under Jo Grimond’s leadership expressly as an alternative to bureaucratic socialist conceptions of the welfare state. Paddy Ashdown envisaged a situation in which workers would employ capital (rather than the other way round), and hire their own management. Yet such thinking faded from the Liberal Democrats under Charles Kennedy’s leadership, and in 2005 the party pledged to abolish Labour’s Child Trust Fund. This trend is indeed to be regretted, and credibly so, from the vantage point of an unqualified liberalism, now as before an alternative to social-democratic progressivism. Both Steve Webb and David Laws use the language of the “enabling state”, an idea quite different from Margo’s interventionist state. Margo writes: “By glossing over the way individuals develop personal autonomy or agency, traditional liberalism has failed to grasp why socialisation is crucial, and hence why the role of the state in this area is so important”. Freeden’s argument deals with the first and second clauses of this sentence; and the third simply does not follow.

We also encounter the proposition that, given trends in public opinion, the present climate offers a “progressive liberal moment” . Unfortunately, as William Wallace points out in his contribution, recent trends in fact offer little succour to liberals. They suggest rather the move towards a strong state, populist politicians, and a passive electorate. To take just one example among many quoted by various contributors to this volume, 45% of Londoners say they would consider voting either for the BNP or for UKIP. That these trends do not appear to shake Margo’s analysis is perhaps not surprising, since they support her commitment to what she describes as “the interventionist left” – by which “intervention” denotes a desire for greater state activity – and the ‘interventionist’ or ‘progressive’ left has often flirted with the politics and populism of the hard and extreme right. Both Nick Clegg and William Wallace warn against the perils of populism, a sound liberal concern, and again we are reminded of the nebulous quality of progressivism, a political tendency that takes many different shades, but seldom liberal ones.

Today’s Liberal Democrats require above all a coherent liberal philosophical definition, and a narrative in continuity with the party’s rich and radical history. One positive aspect of this volume is that the strands of liberal thought are evident in the contributions of politicians as diverse as David Laws and Steve Webb: the nourishment of individuality, a critique of political and economic privilege and monopoly, and the fostering of liberal-democratic citizenship. Each of these strands has a social dimension, beginning with a commitment to education (a striking absentee from any collection claiming to strike new ground). Implicit in the subtitle is a question about whether the future of liberalism may be termed ‘social democratic’, or whether, at the very least, liberalism ought to concede the mantle of forward-thinking to social democracy. Is the future of liberalism progressive? No, it’s liberal.

Simon Kovar is a Contributing Editor of The Liberal.

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