The Liberal Democrats have now governed with their Conservative coalition partners for over two years. The jury is still out though on whether they have made much of an impact on government policy, or whether they have been naïve dupes who were fooled into locking themselves into a suicidal embrace with the tougher, more ruthless Tories. Most political observers have a strong opinion either way. It is certainly an important question for the Lib Dems, who understandably insist that they have played a role in shaping policy. But if they can’t convincingly show their achievements by the time of the next election, they will be massacred.
On the face of it, it seems a little silly to suggest they have had no impact. The last budget has widely been derided as a catastrophe, but the Lib Dem policy of raising the lowest tax band was progressive and successful, and the reputation of George Osborne appears to have taken the blow. Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey have been standing up for environmental policies, irritating the Chancellor in the process. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, ensured the most controversial aspects of the Beecroft Report would not see the light of day (yet). On political reform, the boundary reform proposals that would have benefited the Conservatives are expected to be shelved, although the flagship Lib Dem constitutional policies have also failed to materialise.
Of course, the Lib Dems have been hounded on policy grounds too. Be it over the tuition fee rise, the government’s handling of the economy, or the Lib Dems failure to block Andrew Lansley’s healthcare reforms, the junior coalition partners have taken a lot of flak, as their poll ratings have shown.
But, when judged against their own stated aims of creating a more liberal, progressive Britain, how well have they done? Indeed, how liberal has the Coalition been so far?
Richard Reeves, the former director of Demos and former senior adviser to Nick Clegg, seeks to answer this question in his recent essay, A Liberal Inside. Having written an excellent biography of John Stuart Mill, Mr Reeves is an expert on liberalism and an unabashed liberal himself. When working for Mr Clegg, he writes that people would occasionally come to him just to ask what Mill would think of a certain policy, as if he were an instrument for measuring a proposal’s liberalism levels.
A Liberal Inside attempts to assess the Coalition so far, examining how liberal it has been, as well as explaining the role that the Liberal Democrats have played in trying to enact liberal policies, and the struggle it has been in the face of the forces of conservativism. It is an interesting read, providing an optimistic vision of a better, liberal future. But ultimately it is hampered by the author’s personal attachment to the Coalition, which occasionally appears to cloud his judgment and arguments.
The first problem is obvious: how to define the terms. ‘Liberal’ is a word used in different ways depending on the country, or the political environment. Mr Reeves admits this, acknowledging that it is used to roughly mean ‘left-wing’ in the USA, but ‘right-wing’ in France or Australia. In this context, he means it in the way that he believes Mill intended it: summarised by the philosopher, Alan Ryan, as “the belief that the freedom of the individual is the highest political value, and that institutions and practices are to be judged by their success in promoting it”. This, Mr Reeves says, is not the liberalism that Milton Friedman espoused, although he, too, used the term, even though we might now call that philosophy ‘neo-liberalism’ or ‘libertarianism’. Rather, the Liberal Democrat idea of liberalism “does not define itself by the freedom of markets but the freedom of people”. It is the liberalism of “Mill, Hobhouse and Amartya Sen”.
Mr Reeves fleshes this conception out in a section of his essay, entitled ‘What Would JS Mill Think?’ Here he states that a liberal government would be committed to five things: internationalism, including a positive approach to diversity and immigration; tolerance, rather than a coercive and moralistic attitude to customs that we dislike but are not harmful; genuine equal opportunity, which would yield greater social mobility; a new approach to the economy, involving more investment and innovation and a greater distribution of power; and a new kind of politics, in which short-sighted tribalism and self-interest are relegated, and power is devolved “from institutions and bureaucracies and into people” (on this last point, Mr Reeves beautifully succumbs to the temptation to quote Mill’s famous comment about the Tory Party being “necessarily the stupidest party”).
On these five measures, the Coalition does not have a very impressive record. The Conservatives’ nationalist instincts have dominated the government’s approach to Europe, and to immigration. Whether the government can maintain its commitment to preserving the environment and combating climate change is debatable, given the renewed calls for a third runway at Heathrow, and George Osborne’s apparent opposition to green policies for the damage they might do to growth (because his policies are doing so much for growth, you see).
The Coalition has made some liberal noises on areas of tolerance, especially in the area of gay marriage, but on matters of alcohol pricing, internet pornography, and cigarette advertising, it has displayed instincts of paternalism, as Mr Reeves admits, but rightly attributes to the Conservatives. Similarly, the possibility of a new politics was all but shattered after the dirty AV campaign that destroyed much trust and goodwill between the coalition partners. After that, tribalism and self-interest were able to dominate political thinking once more, in place of the hoped-for deliberative, evidence-based form of governance that some hoped coalition politics signalled. Mr Reeves laments this return of politics to its “more natural condition: more tactical, narrower, less intellectually exciting, more closed”. Politics, as usual.
It is, however, over equal opportunity – which is necessarily tied to the government’s economic policies – that the Coalition may have failed most miserably to reach the liberal ideal. It is on course to go down in history as a massively illiberal failure, given the regressive impact of its budgets and its general economic plan. If we buy into the idea that the deficit-reduction strategy adopted by the Coalition was the only economic strategy possible at the time (a big and highly unlikely ‘if’, but one we are sold on a daily basis), we are left with a situation in which this liberal ideal is simply incompatible with supposedly responsible governance. But if there were, and are, other options that would rescue Britain from its financial plight, the government can be charged with ignoring the social costs that result from its policies by opting for such a harsh course of action. Mr Reeves may believe that some of the Coalition’s reforms, such as over education, promote equal opportunity, but the bigger picture suggests this may just be tinkering at the margin. Time will tell if these social reforms succeed, but in the meantime, inequality is increasing.
Et tu, Richard?
Indeed, it is Mr Reeves’ comments about the economic strategy that initially alerted the media to his essay. The general consensus appeared to be that Mr Clegg’s former adviser was now stabbing him the back, by writing, just while his former boss was preparing for the party conference, that the economic strategy was a mistake.
That is not what Mr Reeves says. The supposedly damning criticism that A Liberal Inside contains is as follows:
For what it is worth, I think the Coalition tightened a little more than necessary in the first two years; relied a bit too much on spending cuts rather than tax rises to fill the whole; and above all has taken a myopically conservative approach to borrowing for investment.
In the context, these are mere “modest demurrals”, by his own admission. He continues by saying that despite this, the strategy has “essentially been the right course of action”, and says that on this front – “the biggest test of all” – the government has “been a model of courage and statesmanship”. He continues to repeat this line, often saying that we have “a stable, functional government with a grip on the nation’s finances”, but fails to note that the UK is currently in a double-dip recession, and that government borrowing rose to a record August high. The blunt assertions that the economic strategy was right, and is likely to be successful, constitute the least convincing parts of Mr Reeves’ essay.
In a similar vein, his prophetic declarations that Nick Clegg is the only person who can lead the party right now are not supported by anything resembling an argument. Why is it “Clegg or bust”? It is a pity that there is little elaboration here, not least because such an argument could be used to counter potentially restless Lib Dem rebels.
Nevertheless, Mr Reeves optimistically suggests that the Liberal Democrats would do things differently – dare I say it, much better – if they governed alone, such as modernising the economy through investment and innovation, and tackling “the hyper-concentration of power in British society” which he quite plausibly believes is the “root cause of our malaise”. This is perhaps true, but the faultlines inside the Liberal Democratic Party make it seem as though its base is centre-left (or “socially liberal” according to Mr Reeves) while its leadership is centre-right, meaning that the grand liberal strategy that he envisages might not materialise.
The Oxford political historian, David Marquand, asked recently in an article for Prospect magazine whether Britain is ‘still’ liberal. He concluded that it was, but that we must be vigilant. Mr Reeves is clearly much less certain about the current state of Britain’s liberalism, but implies that the feeling we should have is optimism, rather than caution. He suggests that the Lib Dems’ internal divisions can be overcome (although in an article in the Guardian in 2008, he claimed that the ‘social liberals’ were in the wrong party), and that the Liberal Democrats can rediscover their central, guiding purpose: to represent liberalism, between two conservative parties on the right and left. Only by doing this can they aspire to achieve the goals that he believes JS Mill would have set for them. It is a worthy aim, but, sadly, not one that this Coalition looks likely to deliver.