Sunday, March 27, 2005
No platitudes please, we're Liberals
There's an increasing din going on in the media regarding the forthcoming general election, but most of the comment focuses on the concerns of the 'Westminster Village'.
The most refreshing piece I've read in a long time is by John Kampfner in today's Observer, who points out that there are two national debates underway.
Politicians talk of tax and spend, of economic performance, of health and education. Outside their world, people have an overriding sense of insecurity that is not being addressed, as Kampfner notes:
A reliable flow of disposable income does not automatically translate into security or well-being. Look around your average British small town. By day, you see high streets denuded of character as the big retailers dominate and, at night, people out on benders staggering from pub to pub. This is not part of an audition for Grumpy Old Men. This is what people, who resent being valued only as consuming objects, told me.The Thatcher revolution led to what even I, as an atheist, see as a sort of spiritual emptiness, a world where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Sure, Labour has helped those most in need, but ministerial talk of community appears little more than a New Labour add-on to a Thatcherite settlement they have never challenged. It is this emptiness, I would argue, that is being manifested now.
Much of the discontent and insecurity is directed towards outsiders. It does not matter which point people start from - asylum seekers, immigrants, east European enlargement or gypsies - it ends in the same place. This sense of grievance might have been manipulated by the tabloid press and the Conservative party but it has not been invented by them. It is entirely legitimate to ask: what kind of Britain do we want to see? It requires a candid, but careful, response. The more leftist liberals dismiss these concerns as bigotry, the more alienated the voter will become.
Kampfner is right when he says politicians must engage in "an honest and complicated debate" rather than simplistic promises, otherwise popular disillusionment with democratic politics will continue to grow.
Liberals, above all, should know the truth of this. Liberalism is not an economistic philosophy and is at its best when it focuses on people's humanity rather than treating them as mere economic actors. The Liberal Democrats' internal ideological troubles stem from a failure to recognise this. A social democratic wing promotes the self-interest of the public sector institutions, while a laissez-faire wing seems happy to sacrifice the weaker members of society on the altar of the 'free market'. Both factions need a good slap.
If we do not connect with people's humanity and address "the deep-seated but still inchoate insecurity and disorientation of voters", darker political forces surely will.