Is Liberalism Centrist?
July 29, 2015 § 3 Comments
The question of direction – or indeed of direction versus cleaving to the status quo – is one that is proving troublesome for almost all the UK’s political parties at the moment, with the exception of the Conservatives who rather specialise in avoiding having a direction and avoiding telling anyone when they do. Particularly after our recent electoral defeat, and the heavily “centrist” tone of our election campaign, the relationship between liberalism and the centre is something worth considering – indeed, it is worth at least a healthy scepticism about whether it inherently exists at all.
Liberalism – the belief that it is the freedom of the individual that should be the guiding factor in political decision making – is a creed that is just as favourable to radicalism as socialism or Thatcherite anti-statism, if not occasionally more so. This party’s constitution, stating that in a liberal society nobody shall be enslaved by ignorance, poverty, or conformity, is a powerful reminder of this. Radical liberalism demands attention to problems that centrism by its very nature has difficulty focussing on. It is clear that our current economic paradigm, for example, is one in which wealth gaps are tending to increase over time. Reversing that will not in any sense be a matter of tweaking some numbers and shifting some tax rates, but a society where the badly off are in a state of economic dependency on the wealthy – one where private wealth dominates over the public interest – cannot consider itself liberated any more than one where a controlling state is inevitably corrupted by an excess of power. A society that lives up to the ideals in our constitution is not going to be one that is unchanged in its economic structures.
I should clarify what I am not trying to say here – I am certainly not saying that one cannot be a liberal-leaning centrist, or indeed that our party does not have a high percentage of people who do lean towards centrism. What I am saying is that nothing about liberalism is inherently focussed towards the political centre. Indeed the centre – by definition, the consensus space between the current political parties – is only a liberal space in so far as that consensus is liberal, and it is a fairly clear fact that it is not, either in its social relations or its economic situation. The oxymoronic “radical centre” is a confused attempt to square this circle, and one which (I think because of that confusion) has little traction with much of the public. Perhaps we would be better admitting a circle is a circle, that liberal ideas may come in radical or centrist forms but not both simultaneously.
This is an important thing to realise. In some discussions I have had with people since the election there has been a sense that the Liberal Democrats need to “focus on what we’re good at” – aka, social issues that unite the party more – rather than risk pulling ourselves apart over questions of economic strategy. There are two major flaws with this. Firstly, we cannot become the “no economics, please” party, or even the “we’re economically sort of balanced between the others” party. It is economic vision –encompassing the basic facts of production and distribution in a society – that ties political narratives together, that welds disparate policy into a picture of a better future. If we avoid hammering out a picture of a liberal economy we will be torn apart from all sides on the subject, as indeed we were this year.
Not only that, though; we will deserve it. We cannot succeed in giving strength to the weak, safety to the vulnerable, if we ignore or downplay the economic aspect of their circumstances. For LGBT people in the UK, legal civil rights are of course a huge issue, but as important are frankly terrifying rates of homelessness, especially amongst the LGBT young. If we believe people should have the freedom to direct their own labour then we should be deeply concerned about the attack on the self-employed represented by the recent budget, too, as people suffer badly from the loss of working tax credits but do not even get the small consolation of a higher minimum wage available to those in employment. Opposing excessive concentrations of power in all their forms, fighting for people’s ability to stand on their own feet – these are political aspirations that demand an economic foundation to be workable.
Getting these ideas across, and forging a narrative from them, requires an appreciation of liberalism as a radical tradition that has its own driving goals for the socio-economic state of the country (the division of “economy” and “society” is rarely clear and certainly does more harm than good here). Regardless of the speed at which people are advocating we move in that direction, an appreciation of what that direction of travel looks like and aims for is going to be crucial to get across the people if we are to recover and build ourselves up in the medium term. This direction, the political pursuit of freedom, contains no inherent leanings towards the centre; it is a vision, an ideal and a goal that demands change on its own, liberal, terms.