A post-liberal future

Last week’s post about the equality paradox attracted a fair amount of discussion in various places, especially the quote from Douglas Murray:

The right won the economic conflict and the left won the culture wars.

Another way of looking at this, which came to me after a discussion with Dave Timoney in the comments thread, is that the decades since the Seventies have seen the dominance of two strands of liberalism; the social liberalism of the left and the economic liberalism of the right.

The day after I wrote that, David Goodhart wrote this in the FT:

What if a lot of people feel that there’s no point in voting because whoever you vote for you get the same old mix of economic liberalism and social liberalism – Margaret Thatcher tempered by Roy Jenkins.

The two liberalisms – the 1960s (social) and 1980s (economic) – have dominated politics for a generation.

The political re-alignments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave us our two main political parties. As it reached out to the increasingly powerful middle classes, the old Tory Party of army, church and king adopted economic liberalism to appeal to business interests. The Labour Party fused middle-class radical liberalism with working class socialism and trade unionism, attracting prominent radicals, like the Foots and Benns, away from the old Liberal Party. As one Labour friend of mine put it, Hampstead got gay rights and civil liberties, Halifax got trade union rights and unemployment pay.

These fault-lines still run through both parties and have surfaced in the Tory Party a number of times since the last election. Privatising the forests was dropped after a traditionalist backlash. The immigration cap was fiercely opposed by many of the Conservatives’ business supporters. Rachel Sylvester wrote in the Times about The Economist v Country Life split. On one side, The Economist reading, cosmopolitan, predominantly London-based business types are mainly interested in economic issues. On the other, the more provincial and rural Country Life tendency wants the party to concentrate on the traditional Tory values it feels have been abandoned.  George Osborne, says the Telegraph’s James Kirkup, is firmly in The Economist camp. David Cameron hovers between both trying to keep the peace. The Economist v Country Life is a neat way of describing a tension that has existed in the Conservative Party ever since it was formed.

It would be wrong to assume that the traditionalists are all older members. The Telegraph’s Ed West, a youngish whippersnapper, commenting on Adrian Beecroft’s proposal to scrap unfair dismissal laws, complained that the Conservative Party was being right-wing about all the wrong things:

What is it with the Conservatives? They seem to be Right-wing only where no one wants them to be Right-wing. Theirs is a conservatism that cares nothing about British sovereignty, marriage, natural justice, defending the borders, law and order or the armed forces, but that cares deeply about reducing the rights of British workers. Contrary to the idea banded about in the less thoughtful areas of political discourse, conservatism is not about protecting the rich: it is about creating an environment that is safe, sober, crime-free, respectful, educated, gentle and high in social capital and trust. In other words, about protecting the poor and weak. Until the Conservative Party realises this, they will continue to haemorrhage support.

Could these rumblings be a sign that the long period of liberal ascendency is facing challenges from both right and left?

The financial crisis has led many people to question economic liberalism and has revived the left-wing critics of capitalism. Could there be a swing away from social liberalism too?

David Goodhart thinks so:

With their emphasis on freedom from constraint the two liberalisms have had too little to say about our dependence on each another. They have taken for granted the glue that holds society together and have preferred regulations and targets to tending to the institutions that help to shape us. As the philosopher Michael Sandel puts it: “In our public life we are more entangled, but less attached, than ever before.”

And the two liberalisms have reflected too closely the interests of the mobile, secular, graduate elite that dominates Britain, both politically and culturally. It usually favours loose, wide commitments and has generally embraced globalisation.

This is not the experience of the majority. Almost half of the UK-born population live within five miles of where they lived when they were 14. For those who do not make it into the magic circle of secure professional careers, the two liberalisms have been a mixed blessing over the past 25 years.

He may be right. Liberalism is about individual rights and freedoms, be they economic or social, but when people feel threatened, they fall back on community and seek affiliation with others. If the gloomier predictions of the fallout from Greece’s probable default are even half right, a lot of people across Europe are in for some very tough years. Individualism is fine in affluent times. Hardship may revive old loyalties to nation, class and family.

Michael White, another wise old sage, thinks we should at least consider the possibility:

Goodhart’s “post-liberal” roadmap….would be to reverse the Thatcher-Blair paradigm, the mix of Tory economic liberalism with Labour’s social liberalism. We need to be tougher on welfare and immigration, tougher on conservative values like discipline and character in school, more supportive of communities and patriotism: in short less of leftie social liberalism and of Maggie’s economic version, more of the reverse.

[T]here is also opportunity in the new fluidity for all those aspiring third and fourth parties that are elbowing their way into the mainstream debate – from the Greens setting their sights on the Lib Dem votes to Ukip (doing the same to the Tories) and assorted nationalist aspirations, most boldly expressed by Alex Salmond. There is no God-ordained reason why the parties that dominated Westminster in 1912 – Tory, Liberal, Labour and nationalist – should expect to do so in 2012 and our uncertain future.

In other words, the political realignment which gave us our two main parties could fall apart.

I haven’t been around quite as long as Michael White or David Goodhart but I’ve seen plenty of false dawns and false dusks. People have been saying that the two-party system was about to collapse for as long as I can remember so I would be reluctant to predict its imminent demise. That said, we haven’t had an upheaval like this since the Second World War. If parts of Europe regress to third-world status who knows what might happen?

It could be, then, that the more statist sides of both left and right reassert themselves. Voters across Europe might decide they want more regulation, both economic and social, not less. There is a mood across the political spectrum for clamping down on high pay, tax dodging and corporate excess but also on crime, migrants and welfare claimants. Whoever first came up with that saying about the economic victory of the right and the cultural victory of the left might have spoken too soon.

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7 Responses to A post-liberal future

  1. Pingback: A post-liberal future - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. B.O. Locks says:

    I am not sure the so-called Left, at least as it was manifested by the last Labour government, could be described as liberal. It was a very authoritarian government.

    The Blair/Brown government introduced the anti money laundering regulations, the effect of which is that police (SOCA) approval is needed before an economic transaction is permitted to proceed. Although laudable on paper, these regulations did very little to combat the ill gotten gains of political tyrants, terrorists and seriously high end criminals from washing their dirty money in London. Instead these regulations are used to monitor the transactions of ordinary people. The Stasi would have applauded.

    Then there is the erosion of free speech enshrined in laws it enacted. It is now a criminal offence to insult or offend someone. is that liberal?

    Yes, it enacted the HRA but guess what, its architect, Jack Straw, is now a vehement opponent of it! Clearly, he was not sincere when he saw its effects as giving citizens protection against an increasingly authoritarian State.

    And yes, the Brown/Blair government updated the Data Protection Ac,t but in this it had no choice since it was merely complying with an European Directive. In any case, this Act contains clauses that almost amount to a snooper’s charter. The more sinister aspect of State intrusion remain protected by the Act.

    The so-called social liberalism is a product of economic liberalism. Business has no values other than profit. It doesn’t care whether an individual is gay, black, or anything else so long as business can profit from it. The shift to make hate speech a criminal offence is nothing other than a response to globalisation and the needs of business to compete globally and accrete profits it is incorrect, in my view, to say that the Right owns economic liberalism and the Left owns social liberalism; social liberalism arises from economic liberalism. The so-called social liberalism is arguably one of the few benefits produced by economic liberalism. Did not Hayek and Thatcher propose that free markets provides the best bulwark against Fascism?

  3. B.O. Locks says:

    I am not sure the so-called Left, at least as it was manifested by the last Labour government, could be described as liberal. It was a very authoritarian government.

    The Blair/Brown government introduced the anti money laundering regulations, the effect of which is that police (SOCA) approval is needed before an economic transaction is permitted to proceed. Although laudable on paper, these regulations did very little to combat the ill gotten gains of political tyrants, terrorists and seriously high end criminals from washing their dirty money in London. Instead these regulations are used to monitor the transactions of ordinary people. The Stasi would have applauded.

    Then there is the erosion of free speech enshrined in laws it enacted. It is now a criminal offence to insult or offend someone. is that liberal?

    Yes, it enacted the HRA but guess what, its architect, Jack Straw, is now a vehement opponent of it! Clearly, he was not sincere when he saw its effects as giving citizens protection against an increasingly authoritarian State.

    And yes, the Brown/Blair government updated the Data Protection Ac,t but in this it had no choice since it was merely complying with an European Directive. In any case, this Act contains clauses that almost amount to a snooper’s charter. The more sinister aspect of State intrusion remain protected by the Act.

    The so-called social liberalism is a product of economic liberalism. Business has no values other than profit. It doesn’t care whether an individual is gay, black, or anything else so long as business can profit from it. The shift to make hate speech a criminal offence is nothing other than a response to globalisation and the needs of business to compete globally and accrete profit. It is incorrect, in my view, to say that the Right owns economic liberalism and the Left owns social liberalism; social liberalism arises from economic liberalism. The so-called social liberalism is arguably one of the few benefits produced by economic liberalism. Did not Hayek and Thatcher propose that free markets provides the best bulwark against Fascism?

  4. shodanalexm says:

    I agree that we are going through a period in which people are willing to ask more profound questions about social and political alignment than has been the case for many years.

    And one of the challenges is to retain a grasp on what the labels (‘economic liberalism’, ‘social liberalism’, post-liberalism’) map across to in terms of beliefs, practical implications etc. One of the problem with “red tory” and the like is that seemed to me a rather muddled set of ideas.

    I think we also sometimes (frequently?) deal with caricatures of the various positions. Social liberalism is a good case in point. It is often equated with individualism/personal freedom/equality above all else. But that is only one strand of the argument. As the preamble to the lib dem constitution states: “we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community”. This isn’t a defence of what they’ve done in govt or anything like that (goodness knows I’m not the one to attempt that), but to point out a social liberal position embodies a concern for community alongside the individual.

  5. Pingback: A rival to liberalism « Decline of the Logos

  6. Dave Timoney says:

    There have been 3 forces in British politics since the “great transformation” of the agricultural and industrial revolutions: the landed interest, the money interest, and the rest of us. The dominant force since the 17th century has been the money interest, whose fundamental principle is liberty. This has given rise to both economic and social liberalism.

    The true Liberal party spans the centre-left of the Conservatives and most of Labour. It has bought off most organic conservatives by its defence of property and periodic international belligerence, and it has bought off social democrats by the funding of a welfare state. Blair’s triangulation of an unfettered City and an expanding public sector was a classic liberal move. The tension on the right flares up around national identity, both overt (Ireland, the empire, the EU) and via economics (free trade, tarrif reform, the gold standard, the Euro). The tension on the left flares up around democracy (managerialists and parliamentarians vs unions and direct action), which is a proxy for equality.

    The collapse of this model is unlikely as the right and the left cannot effectively combine aganist the liberal centre (see Greece for a current example of this). Attempts to create such alliances lead to unstable hybrids such as National Socialism. It is possible that another attempt will be made to create a party committed to the “post-liberal” recipe outlined by David Goodhart, but the odds are that if it shows any signs of electoral success, the liberal entryists will succeed in diverting policy to suit the money interest, just as they did with the Whig, Conservative, Liberal and Labour parties.

  7. jonone100 says:

    A couple of things spring to mind here.

    Firstly – I think B.O. Lock has a point. I remember Thatcher gnashing her teeth over the (excellent) filth on Channel Four, a broadcaster that had been born of her very own liberal reforms. It may be easy to see Social and Economic liberalism as twin forces, but I tend to agree with the commentator & Hayek on this one. (That’s not to say that the pursuit of economic liberalism can’t also produce huge inequality)

    Secondly, I also remember the excitement over the authoritarian Eastern Tiger regimes. I read articles extolling the virtues of authoritarian interventionist governments who had very high growth rates. Perhaps a version of what shodanalexm points to in his post.

    I don’t agree with Goodhart that “the two liberalisms have reflected too closely the interests of the mobile, secular, graduate elite that dominates Britain, both politically and culturally”. I think that’s a bit patronising. The blokes I work with – van drivers – understand and value freedom as much as any of my LSE professors.

    Perhaps the political implementation of liberalism has left many alienated, perhaps to a degree at times all of us feel like this. But we mustn’t underestimate the value that people place on their own freedoms. They will literally die to defend it. I don’t think the folk of Britain will for too long tolerate a heavy-handed governance of *both* their economic & social lives. I won’t.

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