What is the philosophy of the Liberal Democrats?

October 2, 2012

Political parties are broad churches, and comprise many different ideologies and ways of interpreting the world. In the UK, it is almost certainly the case that one of the biggest pressures leading to membership of the Conservatives or Labour is being opposed to the other; both parties make such a significant play of the evil of the other that one suspects the only reason that, say, libertarians and right-wing Christians get into bed together is to upset people they view as socialists.

Even still, one can normally point to a few trends the members of a party have in common, perhaps for the Conservatives a belief in emergent order arising from free markets and historical tradition. For the Liberal Democrats, this is more difficult, as they are not aligned on a traditional left-right axis, and their internal debates on economic issues are not necessarily framed in this manner. The purpose of this post is to gain a better understanding of the Party. To do so, it is instructive to look at what the Party did at this year’s Autumn Conference in sodden Brighton, and develop a framework with which to explain it.

To be clear: trying to explain a series of events is to not try to say whether one’s ‘side’ won or lost; the boring and turgid debate between those who want slightly more markets and those who want slightly more Government intervention is not the focus here, unless one can provide more explanatory value than the other. Rather, what I am interested in is identifying threads that bind the party together, to which all its members to a greater or lesser extent would assent to, even if they arrive at them from a different direction.

I will consider the motions put to Conference and passed by it. Handily for our purposes, all the motions to put to Conference this year were accepted, with some amendment and counter-amendment. I will attempt to identify a philosophy that best captures all the motions, but is sufficiently prescriptive to be distinct from the other two main parties. In doing so, it is important to stress that just because one ‘side’ lost out it does not automatically mean that another provides the best explanation; the rejection of proposals to water down the planning system does not mean the converse of classical liberalism holds sway. Similarly, the rejection of secret courts does not mean the Party is now opposed to all forms of state power. While catch-all explanations like that have a certain attractive elegance, they do not adequately cover the full range of policies that the Liberal Democrats have decided to advocate.

We can, however, make an easy observation. This is that education remains important to the Party. However, this is trivial; education has always been a preferred good of Lib Dems. What is interesting is looking at the language used within the linked motions to understand why it is a preferred good. There are various strands here to unpick. Firstly, education is important because a child’s development is important. Secondly, a child’s development is important, but a parent’s freedom to work is also important. Thirdly, that circumstances that present limitations to development should be overcome. What we can pick out from that is that education is a good inasmuch as it relates to one’s personal development, and that one should be free to develop oneself through employment as one sees fit.

Moving on, consider these motions on the House of Lords, on welfare reform and on the economy. The twin goods here are the dispersal of power to citizens and the empowerment of those citizens as a result. The latter makes particular sense in the context of the previous section on education; development is empowerment, and if one is dispersing power to citizens one would prefer if they were sufficiently empowered to utilise it.

In the context of the above, this implies that Government and its institutions – in this instance the police – are, to Liberal Democrats, the servants of empowered citizens. This is interesting, because it implies a radically different relationship between citizens and State than either of the other two parties. The State is not the sole deliverer of all virtuous things in the world, or a scurrilous imposition upon the backs of the common businessman, to viciously characterise Labour and the Conservatives. Rather, the State is an extension of society; society not being wholly defined as the State or wholly without the State.

This is important, because much of contemporary political discourse rests on a hard distinction between the State and its citizens. Railing against ‘Big Gubbermint’ makes less sense when you’re referring to an organisation to which you by extension belong and have influence over. It is very clear that a cornerstone of Liberal Democrat ideology is that the citizen should take as full a role in their own Government as possible, not simply through elections, but through direct civic participation. Petitioning your local councillor – or indeed standing for election – should be thought of in the same breath as volunteering in an old people’s home. While this is an individualist philosophy, it is not concerned with freeing the individual from the shackles of the State so much as giving that individual as much influence over the governance of the community in which they live as they care to take up.

On this model, the State is not Leviathan, but rather a club to which we all happen to belong. It would make no sense to give that club a privilege over its members, as it is comprised and run by its membership for its benefit. Break the rules and you get kicked out, of course, but should be able to apply for readmission once you’ve proved you can obey the rules. The club has an interest in providing resources for its members so that they can play a full and active role within it, rather like how sports clubs normally have beginner classes as well as competitive teams. The club, of course, is not all of the life of its members, but rather something in which they can participate if they choose to do so. It arises from that voluntary action, not from imposition.

The relative balance of free markets and State intervention in the economy is almost incidental on this view: far more important is the role each play in facilitating the development of members of society. A Lib Dem argument for markets, on the approach I have outlined, would not focus on economic growth as an outcome but rather the importance that participating in a self-governing market can play in one’s personal development, with one’s successes and failures judged by an intersubjective process. People should certainly be able develop their role in society in any way they choose; it seems absurd that a sports club would tell you in exacting detail exactly how you should train, although it can of course provide suggestions. Tutelage has an immediate role for new members, but is certainly something that should not last too long.

The problem with the above is obvious: it is a fundamentally bourgeois philosophy based on the perspective of someone who already participates fully in society and wants to help others do so too. It is a philosophy of a governing intellectual class, rather than necessarily something with mass appeal. It represents an attempt by the bourgeoisie to expand civic participation into all branches of society, that they might be more like them. If one is fond of just-so stories, one could say that the decline of the Liberals to the betterment of Labour at the start of the 20th century was as a result of Labour offering a new model of civic participation to the working classes who had once formed a core part of their vote. With that model, of bourgeois intellectuals using the political support of the working classes to put forward ‘collective’ social goals, the more gentle Liberal approach of slowly turning everyone into the bourgeoisie was set aside. Of course, when the working classes realised that the intellectuals’ social goals were not necessarily their social goals, they lost interest in politics, and have become much less likely to vote. The Lib Dems have yet to be able to enunciate their alternative in such a compelling way as to attract back those voters, but there may yet be scope to do so.

In conclusion, we can say this: the philosophy of the Liberal Democrats is that every individual should be able to participate in their own governance, and the role of the State as an extension of a society of individuals to provide the resources that enable every individual to achieve that civic participation. This does not necessarily speak to the Party’s’ potential electoral success after the Coalition, but as the above makes clear, for the Lib Dems, it’s the taking part that counts.


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