Undefining Social Liberalism

June 20, 2011

Jonathan Calder is a naughty, naughty man. Following this weekend’s Social Liberal Forum Conference, he has asked – nay, demanded! – that the Social Liberals actually set out what makes them different from Social Democrats. This would perhaps be an innocent question if the rest of his post did not refer to his encounters with ‘soggies’ in his youth. You see, something I would say I share with Jonathan is the fact that I didn’t understand what the word ‘wet’ meant as applied to people until I joined the Lib Dems, and that leads me to suspect that Jonathan is engaging in that most noble of sports, wet-baiting.

Nothing riles – nothing agitates – wets more than having to define themselves, as that inevitably leads to conflict within a group of people with marginally different definitions of what that group represents and a deep need to define themselves by this external label. This is archetypal behaviour of lefties parodied in The Life of Brian, and so Jonathan’s post met with a screaming furball of responses, not least that of James Graham, which veers between a rejection of the usefulness of labels and an affirmation of his use of ‘social liberal’ to define himself.

All this is of course hilarious, and I’m sure Jonathan was wearing a grin when he added ‘Thanks for the comments’ to the bottom of his post. However, I’m suddenly feeling charitable, and not withstanding as much patronising language as I can force into this post, I think it’s fair to have a bash at coming up with a non-spurious definition.

David Howarth’s chapter from Reclaiming the State is intended to provide a definition of social liberalism, and opts for the rather churlish trick of defining it so wildly it includes practically everyone, to the point where John Stuart Mill is probably not a classical liberal. He claims that a ‘social liberal’ is concerned with ensuring that people have access to resources sufficient to guarantee their freedom, in contrast with ‘classical liberals’ who merely want the withdrawal of state interference. Within this he differentiates between those who believe that this resource access/redistribution should only be carried out to a level sufficient to allow everyone political freedom, and those who believe that other ‘fairness’ principles should be added to basic liberalism. It is the latter branch of ‘social liberalism’ that comprises the Social Liberal Forum, although one can never tell.

Now, it’s easy to be dismissive of people who want more of that most abstract of concepts, ‘fairness’, and its slightly more intellectual twin, ‘social justice’. However, this recognition that social liberals want more ‘fairness’ can actually be cashed out in an interesting way. Many of the wets of my acquaintance have spoken about Amartya Sen’s work on justice, and made frequent reference to ensuring equality of capability and similar new ways of justifying being wet.  However, this is to miss significant parts of Sen’s work which are much more relevant to the Social Liberal Forum.

Sen argues that transcendental institutionalism (the philosophical modus operandi which intends to define justice through the definition of a perfectly just set of institutions for a society) has thus far failed to wholly capture what justice is. Instead, he avers that there is a useful role for comparative justice – i.e. comparing two particular states of affairs and determining which one is more just. This process is to be carried out by reasonable public debate, with a range of criteria for how this can be achieved and several ways of assessing those states of affairs – including his capability theory, but not exclusively.

If social liberalism is the implementation of this viewpoint, then it cannot be defined except by the issues with which it is currently dealing – i.e. the aggregate of one’s positioning on a range of social issues, like the NHS and corporatism, as James Graham refers to in his speech to the Conference. Its distinguishing feature from social democracy is that it is a process rather than an ideology of Government. It may come to the same conclusions about particular issues, but it will not necessarily share principles in common with social democrats, because it does not have specific principles. Rather, it represents the process of deciding between specific choices, rather than the ideology that sets up the conditions for those choices.

As such, it represents a useful check upon those of us, including myself, who tend towards the minimal-requirements-for-political-freedom end of Howarth’s social liberal scale. Assessing our suggestions against the demands of justice is both pragmatically and politically useful. While we are capable of making firm choices about the path ahead, the wets will always prevaricate, because that’s what such a process demands – constant re-evaluation. Social liberalism cannot be ideology of Government, but it can be a useful adjunct to a governing party. I contend that there is a full role for the Social Liberal Forum over the course of this parliament. Just don’t let them near a decision.


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