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Friday, May 20, 2005

 

This week, I shall be mostly discussing philosophy

Last week, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy gave the distinct impression that he believed his party's biggest handicap during the general election was its own policy.

According to
today's Guardian, however, it would appear he has changed his mind.

The Liberal Democrats failed to establish a coherent philosophy during the election and must develop an overall narrative to make further progress, Charles Kennedy admitted yesterday.
And it turns out that party policy wasn't so bad after all.

"Whilst we had good and quite popular policies, like opposition to top-up fees and the war, there was perhaps a need for a more unified theme. We have got to find and fashion a narrative," the Liberal Democrat leader told the Guardian.
It gets better.

"Two things influence the fortunes of the party. One, credibility - do people think we can win? When they do, they vote for us. Two, demonstrating that you have got a sustained philosophical basis," he said.
If Kennedy is sincere - and if he doesn't change his mind again next week - this statement has profound implications. Until now, the Liberal Democrats have deliberately avoided serious discussion of their philosophy, for three reasons.

First, following the merger between the Liberals and SDP in 1988, the new party's leadership was anxious to avoid the deal coming unstuck. They feared that any fundamental debate might cause the merger to unravel. Debate was heavily managed or stifled completely, to preserve a veneer of unity.

Second, the belief in community politics degenerated into a tactical and mechanical view of campaigning. The party developed an anti-intellectual culture, in which a premium was placed on a puritanical work ethic, and debate and thought were stigmatised as dilettantism.

Third, from 1974 until the collapse of the Blair-Ashdown 'project', a succession of Liberal and Liberal Democrat leaders (particularly David Steel) saw deals, pacts and coalitions as ends in themselves. They saw values and policies as embarrassing obstacles. Only recently has this obsession with relations with other parties come to an end.

The restoration of the Liberal Democrats' self-confidence and ability to think for themselves is long overdue. I hate to say "I told you so" but some of us were arguing for greater philosophical clarity years ago - see my articles in Liberator 272 (January 2001),
Liberator 277 (October 2001), Liberator 295 (May 2004) and Liberator 296 (June 2004).

A leader in the Observer last year (13 June 2004) expressed the party's duty precisely:

We need the three principal parties to be clear what they stand for and to fight for coherent positions with integrity. Being all things to all men disaffects core support and benefits the fringe.
Establishing this coherence and clarity is necessary but difficult. It is no use trying to stitch up this debate at the centre. It would be relatively easy for a small parliamentary clique to win some sort of quick fix but this would be a pyrrhic victory. Kennedy has to carry the party with him - and that means involving the membership in the debate, not by-passing them.

The second difficulty is resolving the unfinished business of the merger. There are now four competing strands of thought in the Liberal Democrats: left libertarians (or 'social liberals'); unreconstructed social democrats; laissez-faire 'economic liberals'; and a hard right with a thing about being 'tough'.

The third difficulty is climbing down off the fence. The pervading air of timidity in the party is based on a fear of upsetting anyone. If the party is to start making bold philosophical statements, this will inevitably offend some groups of people. It ought to be obvious that, the more you attract some groups, the more you will repel others, yet this is a nettle many Liberals are reluctant to grasp.

The fourth difficulty is persuading the party to raise its sights above the pavement and start painting on a bigger canvas. In any party with pretensions to government, localism is simply not good enough.

If there is to be a real philosophical debate within the party, I hope it does not get bogged down in a sterile argument about the relative merits of the public and private sectors. The real philosophical divide for Liberals is between liberty and oppression, between libertarian and authoritarian values, between enlightenment and bigotry.

Liberals lost out in the USA because they didn't recognise the rising importance of moral values until it was too late. Liberals in Britain cannot afford to make the same mistake.

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