Britain today lies in the grip of austerity. Welfare cuts, unemployment, a shrinking public sector and hostility to the poor are some of the aspects of this austerity. This period of economic difficulty is only the latest chapter in a thirty year project that has seen a rapid expansion in the reach of the free market, as well as an equally rapid rise in inequalities between wealth, power and freedom. Despite such vast inequalities, many politicians seem to be unprepared to challenge them and make the case for social justice.
What Britain needs is a viable alternative to the free market discourse that has dominated our politics since Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979. At the heart of any discourse lie values and convictions. Thatcherism’s political values are market deregulation, individual responsibility, privatisation, low taxes and low government spending. Unfortunately since the time of Tony Blair, the progressive left has been an almost value free zone that lacks conviction, a hunger for change and the radical edge that made it such a dynamic force in the twentieth century.
Where might the centre-left rediscover its radical edge? What perspective offers Britain a fairer future in the twenty first century? The two ideological giants dominated the twentieth century; state socialism and neoliberalism. State socialism while offering greater equality, overlooked the vast inequality of power between its centralised authoritarian government and the individual citizen. These tendencies often lead to civil liberties being neglected. On the other hand, neoliberalism, the right wing philosophy of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan while promoting market freedoms did not promote social freedoms. As a result the wealth gap between the rich and the poor grew and social justice went into decline. The ideology that offers a viable alternative to Thatcherism must balance civil liberties with social justice, a point of view that can equally promote freedom and fairness.
Social liberalism is a centre-left political theory that has at its core, the belief that social justice is needed to enable the freedom of the individual. This was the philosophy of great centre-left progressives such as L.T. Hobhouse, David Lloyd George, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge and John Rawls. Classical liberalism while supporting individual liberties and equal rights has often neglected social liberty.
Social liberty is the freedom for the individual to develop free from the constraints of poverty, ignorance, conformity, unemployment, disability and poor health. Social liberalism with its focus on social liberty believes that individual freedom and social justice go hand in hand and are mutually beneficial to each other. This leads social liberals to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to get a good education, to get good healthcare and to get a good job with decent pay. Modern social liberal policies include: a living wage, a land value tax, employee ownership, ending the “bedroom tax”, reversing the marketisation of the NHS and having a “Green People’s Budget” that would focus on redistribution and green growth. In short, social liberalism is the belief that a fairer society is a freer society.
The historic responsibility of social liberalism has been to humanise capitalism through promoting the redistribution of wealth and equal opportunities. To achieve social justice in a market economy requires a Keynesian focus on tackling unemployment and stimulating economic growth. Britain’s current economy with its high levels of unemployment, stagnate growth and increased social insecurity is unsustainable. Only a revival of Keynesian principles can prevent long term social and economic decline.
A social liberal capitalism should aim to redress the imbalance of power in the market economy. More co-operatives, mutuals and greater employee ownership are needed to achieve this. Employee ownership gives workers the ability to have a genuine say and stake in their companies and to have a right to be represented on their company boards. A fairer society requires a capitalism that focuses on social justice, environmental protection and employee ownership.
The economics of Thatcherite austerity are void of social justice. We now live in a terrible situation where the political mainstream is almost afraid to defend the interests of the poor and the vulnerable. Britain must regain a social consciousness that believes in redistributing wealth and protecting the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Social liberals must be driven by a sense of mission to create a society with the greatest possible balance between individual freedom and social justice. Social justice is vital to free the poorest members of society from poverty, which in turn enables them to live their lives and take advantage of the opportunities we all take for granted. This is because ultimately, a fairer society is a freer society.