Tag Archives: political philosophy

Social Liberal Forum: a question of definition

Jonathan Calder demands that the Social Liberal Forum answers the following question: “What is the difference between a social liberal and a social democrat?” Personally, I don’t think we should do any such thing.

It is certainly up to us to say what we mean by social liberalism, which is why we launched the SLF with David Howarth’s chapter from Reinventing the State on that very topic. But Jonathan’s question is a trap, akin to “when did you last beat your wife?” There is a presupposition in the question which we are under no requirement to accept.

Defining ourselves in relation to something else is entirely self-defeating. It is for social democrats to tell us what social democracy is; in what way is it incumbent on social liberals to put words in their mouths?

It was before my time, but the problem at the heart of the SDP always appeared to be that it didn’t actually have a satisfactory answer to what it was, other than that it wasn’t the Labour Party. It was preoccupied with filling in precisely the sort of negative space that Jonathan is now insisting the SLF should fill, rather than carving out its own identity. For the SDP, that course lead a lot of its members along a very rocky road indeed – not least of all David “vote Conservative… by which I mean Ed Miliband” Owen himself. It has always struck me that the Social Democrats who stuck around in the Liberal Democrats tended to be of a liberal bent in any case. Surely Roy Jenkins ranks as the most liberal Home Secretary of the 20th century?

Let’s not beat around the bush any longer: the implication of Jonathan’s post is of course that social liberals are merely atavistic social democrats. This is a suggestion that you can only make if you ignore the past 23 years. It is to ignore the fact that the SLF has just defied the most senior former SDP member in government, Andrew Lansley. It is to ignore the fact that a number of SDP members are now self-defined “Orange Bookers”. It is to ignore the fact that “liberal” was a word that the Liberal Paddy Ashdown was embarrassed to use – and event wanted expunged from our name, while the Social Democrat Charles Kennedy took back ownership of the word and nailed his liberal colours to the mast with the It’s About Freedom positioning paper. It merely revives a particularly dull tribal bunfight that most of us moved on from well over a decade ago.

Are there still some Lib Dem members – even SLF members – who call themselves Social Democrats? Of course, but if they are happy with the label, then why should we be concerned?

Do journalists habitually like to define the Social Liberal Forum as “socially democratic” (Jonathan cites the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday)? Of course they do. It fits into a frame which they decided years ago, before the SLF was formed. It isn’t an image problem of the SLF, which Jonathan suggests, but an image problem the entire party has. The Guardian in particular has been framing the debate within the party for years as a fight between “Gladstonians” and “SDPers”. Given that virtually none of us fit comfortably into either category, it would suggest that we all have a problem here. It has dogged us perpetually. But what can you do? We’re called the Social Liberal Forum and yet they still habitually replace the “L” word with the “D” word. How much more do you have to spell things out?

For what it’s worth, I’ve become terminally perplexed about labels. Most labels are inadequate. Progressive, is downright useless of course, but I realised long ago that even liberal, unqualified, was essentially vacuous. People who define themselves as “just” liberal tend to skim over the fact that most politicians are comparatively liberal these days – and tend to think that labelling something as “fundamentally illiberal” in thunderous tones tends to make a good substitute for actual argument. It often strikes me as more of a pose than a considered point of view.

I actually don’t really like the term “social liberal” much. If we were to be historically accurate, we should use the term “new liberal” – but that of course now carries with it certain Blairite connotations. Unless you choose to define “socialist” absurdly narrowly (in a way that Labourites never do), you could argue that the term “socialist liberal” is more technically accurate – but of course people do define socialist absurdly narrowly. Just by writing that I’m all but guaranteed to set certain people off screeching about “Beatrice Webb”, “Fabianism” and so on (I must get round to producing Lib Dem trope bingo cards at some point). All things considered, social liberal is the least bad term I can come up with for where I stand politically – and even then, as we can see, it can set people off.

The other problem with labels is that people tend to confuse argument for taxinomy. Particularly in the blogosphere, you will find people arguing that “if you are X you can’t possibly believe in Y” without ever contemplating the possibility that there is room within any political philosophy for debate and differing nuance. It is even, whisper it, possible for people advocating different political philosophies to agree on a lot for the simple reason that there will always be overlap and outriders. Yet all too often the debate – again predominantly online – tends to work on the assumption that all political ideologies are in hermetically sealed silos.

So let’s have a debate, and by all means criticise the SLF’s proposals, but let’s not get into an ossified discussion about labels. I would suggest that instead of attempting to answer Jonathan’s question, it should be focusing on policy. We’ve already got a working definition, and if that isn’t good enough? Well, tough.

The vacuity of progress

After a week of George Osborne attempting to claim the mantle of “progress” whilst defending the NHS, and an organisation called “Progressive Vision” calling for the NHS to be scrapped, PoliticsHome have published a poll which suggests that a) A third of people think that no political party is ‘progressive’ and that Labour is less progressive than the Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens; and that b) most people think that ‘progress’ means ‘reforming’ and ‘modernising.’

I’m sure that what PoliticsHome would like us to infer from these findings is that Labour is a busted flush, and it is hard to deny that it suggests that. But it also suggests something else: the word ‘progress’ has come to mean nothing at all really.

‘Modernise’ was used so much by Tony Blair that it became a busted flush. ‘Reform’ isn’t quite there yet but is essentially meaningless unless qualified with something else. ‘Progress’ alone remains a phrase in the political lexicon that politicians still seem to think they are in a battle to dominate.

I can’t help but feel that if you asked the public what ‘reform’ or ‘modernise’ meant most of them would say ‘progress.’ What this suggests is that all three words have become fuzzy marketing words rather than anything else. They are a substitute for meaning.

When everyone from the far left to the far right is claiming ownership of a term then it has essentially become meaningless and it is time to move on. It wasn’t always thus. During the Enlightenment, progress was linked to the notion that we are moving towards a perfected, utopian society. For a while the left held onto this notion whilst superimposing its own vision of equality and solidarity.

What’s worrying is the way political discourse has become dominated by these non-words. Pace Obama, “change” including “real change”, “the change we need” and “now for change” has become ubiquitous. Particularly in the UK a lot of people appear to have mistaken the accoutrements of the Obama brand for the core package and assumed that if you copy the former you will magically get the latter. When people on the other side of the world do this, we call them “cargo cultists” and patronise them.

It has always been the case that the two most effective political messages are “it’s time for a change” and “fear change.” In this time of comparatively value-free politics we appear to have confused the strategy for the philosophy.