Monday, July 18, 2005
One effect of this year's general election is that it marked the transformation of the Liberal Democrats into an urban party. Which is right and proper.
About 85% of the British population inhabits cities, so one cannot win an election without them. Moreover, cities are more (small 'l') liberal places than the countryside - and are therefore more promising electoral territory for the party (see my earlier postings here and here).
Despite the Liberal Democrats' recent success in the big cities, both in national and local elections, I have yet to hear anyone in the party positively embrace urban living or articulate a clear Liberal vision of the city.
Historian Tristram Hunt, in his recent book Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, reminds us how there was great civic pride in the nineteenth century, which was subsequently lost in the twentieth century's flight to the suburbs.
In a stimulating essay in Saturday's Guardian, Hunt reminds us that another difference in the nineteenth century was that the middle classes who built our cities were politically radical.
If the Liberal Democrats are to revitalise our cities - and consolidate their urban gains - they need a coherent vision of urban liberalism. The middle classes in the nineteenth century had a sense of civic pride and public calling. Their twentieth century successors gave that up for the mod cons of suburban life.
This fundamental difference suggests a potential Liberal Democrat strategy quite distinct from that of the Tories or Labour. But rekindling a sense of civic pride and public calling would require the party to do two uncomfortable things; first, to abandon its policy of English regional government, which acts as a barrier to the restoration of civic power; and second, to tell the people they must get up off their arses and not expect the state, the council or the local Focus Team to do everything for them.
On Middle Classes: I am glad that Hunt's programme and so on have provoked this response. The British Middle Classes are re-urbanising, a leitmotif of modern Britain caused by a variety of social, economic and cultural factors. This is fertile ground for Liberal Democrats - if they are liberal democratic enough.
British politics has always been dominated in the centre of the political spectrum. A coherent politcal narrative of the 20th Century is that liberalism is the dominant ideological strand, found as it is in all parties that have been successful.
An Australian friend of mine remarked that for ordinary citizen liberals, the electoral choice has been far from clear for a number of years. He argued that in 1992 John Major probably offered the most coherent liberal programme based round a commitment to low taxes, social permissiveness, civil liberties and some shrinkage of the state alongside competant economic management. It didn't end up like that, but that was the programme. In 1997, the Labour Party offered the most coherent liberal programme, offering a much needed infusion of capital into our public services and a commitment to social progression, while seemingly retaining a commitment to low taxes, and offering sound economic management. I think there is something to this - not until about now has there been any chance for the Liberal Democrats to be the most coherent liberal party.
It seem to me that the Authoritarian big-state assumptions of Labour are winning through. In the battle between their liberal democratic centre and their social democratic left, the left are gradually asserting themselves, coupled to a bleak authoritarianism. The Conservatives, similarly, are having a crisis - are they a liberal party of laissez faire low taxes and minimal government, or are the One Nation big-ish state dirigiste interventionists who seek to take on New Labour on New Labour terms.
If Liberal Democrats retreat into a goldfish at fairs banning, I was a member of the SDP and just because Michael Foot was too rich for my blood doesn't mean I don't think taxes can't be higher, give prisoners the vote because Denmark do it, adopt the Euro because it sounds like a nice idea and will make going on holiday easier because then I won't have to change my money, put taxes on cheap flights and take the train (to Prague, Susan Kramer? She actually said that on the Daily Politics last Autumn), or elect a leader so wet he makes Charles Kennedy look dynamic - we'll get nowhere. They need to be more liberal.
The danger is that the Conservatives steal our clothing (again) and win.
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