Monday, 30 November 2009

Liberalise This

A while back I wrote a post suggesting Peter Oborne's recent radio series "Conserve What", on the nature of modern conservatism, was fairly poor, relying as it did so heavily on constructing a straw-man version of liberalism/progressivism and then defining conservatives as simply being those people who didn't like said shambling monstrosity.

I mentioned this show to C at the time, arguing that it was essentially propaganda rather than a serious political analysis, and his immediate question was "When do we get a go?"

Turns out the answer was "in about two months". Last night's Westminster Hour featured the companion piece, Richard Reeve's Political Roots.

First off, I should note that it's a little irritating that whilst conservatives got three episodes, liberals and "whatever Labour thinks they are these days" get one each. Beyond that, though, it was interesting to note how much fairer this piece was than Oborne's attempt. In truth, the actual amount of detail gone into wasn't much better that it was in Conserve What?'s first episode (almost as though 15 minutes isn't enough time to detail what liberalism is), and since I took Oborne to task for arguing conservatism isn't a philosophy but a sensibility, I should also point out Reeves' strange focus liberalism is a gut feeling rather than a considered opinion or set of dogmatic constraints. The latter isn't really something any political group is liable to lay claim to (outside of some of the more obviously lunatic members of the Republican Party), and the former is, to put it mildly, deeply unconvincing. To me part of liberalism's great strength is that it combines a deeply-held feeling that inequality and misery are bad, and then applies logical thought and expansive consideration to the question of how such things can be eliminated. I may be being unfair here, though; Reeves may simply be attempting to combat the liberal image as nothing more than stone-hearted egg-heads (and certainly he doesn't deny the rich intellectual heritage liberalism can lie claim to).

At least though a valid attempt was made to describe what liberals are, rather than just what conservatives aren't, namely people who are deeply concerned by clear inequalities in wealth and social standing, and who believe that the solution to preventing tyranny is to challenge the powerful at all times (in truth every party claims this, though not all practice it equally well), especially those powers which exist simply by force of tradition.

In fact, the only time anyone really brought up a negative comparison of conservatism was in a brief excerpt from Nick Clegg, which was immediately followed by Reeves saying something along the lines of "Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he?". It was a refreshing admission of the bias running through the program which was missing entirely from Oborne's fawning love letter.

Conservatism did come up once more, as part of an argument that "progressivism" as a label has run its course in this country, since now even Cameron is labelling himself as such. It's an interesting point, actually, though it's at least arguable that this merely indicates how deeply confused Cameron's approach (or claimed approach) to politics is. Much as with Oborne, the only way Cameron can define his approach (as indeed he did on Oborne's program) is to invent an alternative approach from whole cloth and then point out why his is better. To hear Cameron tell it, the "pure" progressive will always attempt to solve a problem by removing everything already there that can be used, so as to leave the way clear for an entirely new approach (remember Oborne's claim that removing tradition and institutions was the aim of liberals, rather than simply a price we're entirely prepared to pay in order to achieve what our actual aims are). That way he can state that his brand of conservatism will attempt to create progressive accomplishments within the framework that already exists. That is to say, he's promoting a suggestion that no rational progressive would automatically object to (though of course in any given circumstance there could be heated debate over which aspects of the current framework are and aren't necessary and do or don't do more harm than good), and is presenting it as some kind of shiny new form of revolutionary thinking. In fact, liberals might in fact take some comfort in the idea that the Conservative Party has recognised the only way back to power is to agree with us whilst pretending not to, though it would be a major surprise if Cameron's dedication to progressivism proves any less ephemeral than his definition of liberalism if and when he takes the reins of power.

All in all, it wasn't too bad, and certainly at worst was simply throwaway, rather than genuinely objectionable. So why aren't we getting more of it?


Tomsk said...

"Progressive" has been a vague term for as long as it's been around. It fitted in well with the image of Blair noodling on his guitar in 10 Downing St, not so much now.

Then again I'm not so sure liberal has much meaning either. Most Liberal parties around the world wouldn't recognise your emphasis on inequality. That tradition belongs to the Labour movement.

SpaceSquid said...

The inequality emphasis was Reeves, though to be fair I agree with him (of course, my experience of liberals is almost exclusively rooted in the English and American meanings of the term). To go into more detail, his argument was that Labour focuses on inequality of income, whereas liberals focus on inequality of wealth. Whether or not I agree with that I'm not sure.

Tomsk said...

I've listened to it now and I'm surprised in all the talk of tradition that there wasn't any mention of the fact that the Lib Dems aren't the same party as the old Liberals. They were formed by merger with the Social Democratic Party and this had an important influence on their policies, at least up until the "Orange Book" people took over. Now I'm afraid Clegg, Cable et al are losing sight of their social democrat heritage while they chase their supposedly lost liberalism. Certainly the talk of 'savage cuts' and 'progressive austerity' at their conference has made me think twice about voting for them.

I sort of see Reeves' point regarding a traditional opposition to 'inequality of wealth', although it seems to be more an issue of earned vs. unearned wealth. Based on his reading I think liberals couldn't care less about wealth inequality, providing the wealth comes from income rather than land/property/etc. Again his claim that this separates 'liberals' from 'social democrats' is strange, as Clegg is in principle the leader of both.