We have a new Liberal Democrat think-tank. And when there has been little or no thinking around the party for two decades, that has to be a good thing. So why am I uneasy about the appearance of the Social Liberal Forum?
It isn’t that I am suspicious of social liberalism. Heaven knows, I was even a contributor to the excellent essay collection Reinventing the State.
Nor am I a closet ‘market liberal’ – if there is such a thing – dedicated to handing over health and education to faceless American corporates.
No, this is an argument inside social liberalism, but it is an urgent one. Because there is more than one kind of social liberalism, and we can’t afford for the backward-looking Fabian variety to dominate again.
When the electorate demands something progressive, it would be disastrous for us to exhume the soulless old language of the 1970s and argue that we just never tried Fabianism hard enough.
This article is me asserting my right to try to claw back a genuinely Liberal social liberalism from the jaws of the Fabian beast.
It is a kind of open letter to Matthew Sowemimo, Richard Grayson, Duncan Brack, and all the others involved in the Forum, to look forwards – to look for the real reasons why Britain is becoming so unequal. To be Liberals, which means, I believe, rejecting the Fabian idea that everything can be solved by tax and spending.
The inspiration for writing this was the fringe meeting at this year’s Liberal Democrat annual cerebral knees-up at the LSE, under the title ‘Reclaiming the State’, an attempt to push the issue of equality higher up the agenda. Fair enough. We are social Liberals: that is what we are for.
But here we come to the crux of the matter. Measure equality broadly and design policies that can genuinely understand the complexity of it, and maybe we can move forward. Measure it narrowly, and assume that tweaking the bottom line is all the government needs to do – that it is only a question of how much money the state spends – and we find ourselves back where we started, somewhere around 1977.
The heart of the fringe meeting was a presentation by a personable young man from the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Listening to him made it horribly clear why narrow technocratic Fabianism failed to shift equality in Britain before.
Because defining equality in terms of income is all very well, but it misses the real question as we pore over the graphs: why is such inequality so persistent?
Defining it in terms of consumption, as he preferred to do, is an interesting intellectual exercise but compounds the error. It assumes that Lord Scrooge is poor because he spends as little as he can, but that a single mother is rich when she has five children and juggles the same number of credit cards.
This is the Fabian approach to policy. It reduces everything to a handful of technocratic metrics, chosen largely because it thinks the government can make a difference to them, but which ignores the basic problems.
Not just money
It pretends that the whole problem is about money, when people outside the policy bubble know perfectly well that it isn’t. It certainly is partly about money, but it is just as much about power, class, education and culture and much else besides.
And it implies that the whole solution to the problem is welfare. That poor people should be supplicants to government redistributors, when we know that won’t be nearly enough.
This is the original Fabian sin. It reeks of elitism, and ineffectual elitism too, rooted as it is in an organisation that was originally dedicated to moving very slowly and that – thanks to George Bernard Shaw – ridiculed anything that did not reduce any problem to money alone.
None of that is to pretend money is irrelevant. Of course it isn’t. But what the narrow obsession with poverty graphs is emphatically not is Liberalism, with its broader understanding of the problems of power, its human sympathy, and its understanding of the limitations of the central state.
Of course, Liberalism learned from the Fabians, especially in the days of the Newcastle programme. It learned, for one thing, to trust the state so far – that no other institution was available. But it always understood that human beings come before bureaucracies and that bureaucracies are not nearly as effective as politicians imagine they are.
Even if the occasional Liberal policy paper imbibed some of the technocratic language (it made them sound serious, after all), Liberals never followed the fearsome Beatrice and Sidney Webb in their rejection of people power.
“Some old ladies fall in love with their chauffeurs,” said Beatrice Webb just before she died, at the height of the Stalin’s purges. “I have fallen in love with Soviet communism.” Liberals never followed her that far.
Nor did they follow the Fabians where all this led to: the punishment of impoverished communities that failed to respond in the way the theory prescribed, to the destruction of their neighbourhoods and the theft of what power they had to the centre.
“We are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride,” said Newcastle’s chief planner in 1963. “The task surely is to break up such groupings, even though people seem to be satisfied with their miserable environment and seem to enjoy an extrovert social life in their own locality.” That was the logical consequence of technocratic Fabianism.
None of this suggests that equality is unimportant. Of course it is. But the Fabian idea that you can measure it simply and solve it just by increasing public spending dangerously misses the point – and leaves people just as unequal, but a little more cynical. The real problem is much more insidious than that.
Sixty years after the Beveridge Report, which identified the Five Giants that blighted mankind and predicted their progressive destruction, the Giants are still with us.
Beveridge didn’t slay them, and neither did the Fabians with all their graphs. Neither did Gordon Brown over the past decade when he doubled the money going into the NHS and increased the national budget from just below £4 billion to nearly £6 billion.
So tell me, Fabians. Is it possible that some other factors are involved which meant that the money wasn’t spent as effectively as it could have been? Or is the question really only how much?
Should we, as an effective opposition, articulate the real reasons why Britain doesn’t work for everyone? Or should we just confine ourselves to the old tried and failed metrics and the sheer dullness of the political promise of specific amounts of money?
Here is a handful of Liberal explanations of why such inequality is still with us:
- Centralisation: this plays a major role in increasing isolation and sense of powerlessness, as institutions get ever more distant from people – geographically and politically – and as frontline staff become ever more enmeshed in the target culture and ever less effective in helping those they are supposed to help.
- Education: generations of people in Britain have inherited a suspicion of schools and universities, and it is a suspicion that is reciprocated – how else can we explain why successive governments believe it acceptable that we shove teenagers into monstrous factories of 2,000 pupils or more?
- Snobbery: there are structural reasons why our public services are geared to treat some people differently from others, and to treat poorer people with deep and authoritarian suspicion. Why else is my local shiny new Children’s Centre absolutely empty of punters? Because those it is aimed at believe it isn’t on their side – and they are correct.
- Passivity: we have structured our public services in such a way that they prefer the poorest and most dependent to be passive supplicants rather than authors of their own destiny.
This last one is an insidious legacy of Fabianism; creating public services that are ruled by technocrats, and which waste the energy and imagination of the people who go so passively through the system. It is precisely what Beveridge warned against in his less famous second report on the urgency of people power.
The truth is – a Liberal insight this one – that none of our huge social problems are going to be tackled sustainably and effectively without a huge injection of voluntary effort by ordinary people on an unprecedented scale, bringing to bear their human skills, and to do so via our public service institutions.
Will that require more money? Of course it will, at least to start with. But is this primarily about money? It isn’t that simple.
So this is my challenge to the Social Liberal Forum. Will you dare to grapple with these broader structural issues – or will you turn back to the old Fabian delusions, handing down percentages and targets from on high to an electorate that has long since ceased to believe in numbers?
Will you hammer out a non-market social Liberalism that trusts people to take charge of their lives – or will you remain suspicious that this implies somehow that they need no support from government, central or local?
Will you develop a critique of the combination of state and corporate power, the new reality – or will you just re-hash the tired old assumptions of tax and spend?
The danger is that social liberalism becomes what the media tells us it is – torpedoing outdated market reforms to public services, without suggesting any real changes instead. A symbolic gesture, with money attached, here and there perhaps. No articulation of the basic problem. No ambition. No faith in people.
The real battle seems to me to be a tussle inside social liberalism for the soul of the party – not to accept or reject the state, but to decide between the old technocratic abstractions versus human solutions.
People can see the wreckage of Westminster solutions all around them. They want a political force that can see that too, but which doesn’t respond by consigning them into the arms of American corporations ringed all around by ‘commercial confidentiality’.
I still believe the Liberal Democrats will be that force. Not until they have excised the fantasies of Fabianism, they won’t be.
In the end, the people who can do that most convincingly are the new Social Liberal Forum. This is a small plea from a potential recruit: give us a lead into the future.