Feb 142009

Much as Compass has broadly given us “How To Live In The 21st Century”, the Lib Dems (and beyond – or, at least, that’s what they’re saying) get the Social Liberal Forum’s “Ideas Factory” (thanks to Tom Miller via Facebook for drawing my attention to the second site).

Both initiatives, as processes worth repeating, are worthy of our interest and perhaps duplication.

In the meantime, I stumbled across another post on the latter site about classical versus social liberalism. These two paragraphs caught my attention in particular:

One should not, however, exaggerate the differences between classical and social liberalism. Both begin, and end, with the view that a state that fails to secure political freedom is not legitimate. Both reject the conservative view, for which the main advocate in Britain is the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, that security is always more important than liberty. That view attributes to the state a wildly exaggerated capacity to provide security – not only because of the all-too-apparent limitations of the competence of state officials to keep us safe but also because, as the arbitrary power of the state increases, the more the state itself becomes a source of insecurity. The citizens of the Soviet Union were not more secure because of the immense arbitrary power of the Soviet state – they were less secure. The politics of fear, as practised in Britain by Labour, is ultimately self-defeating. It will destroy both the very freedoms it is the state’s task to preserve and security itself.

That is not to say that liberalism denies any significance to security. It is just that it values security only in so far as it contributes to freedom. Tony Blair’s view, in contrast, seemed to be that the only right that matters is the right to life. He would have sacrificed any political freedom if he thought that by doing so he would save a single life. One wonders what our forebears who sacrificed their lives for political freedom, from the seventeenth century to the twentieth, would make of the view that political freedom is not worth a single life. One wonders what the Blair doctrine would have implied in 1940, when we could have avoided a great many deaths in exchange for sacrificing the political freedom of the whole of Europe. For Labour, however, political freedoms are only ‘traditional’, as if they were a form of folk dance, and as such are merely romantic indulgences be sacrificed on the altar of the ‘modern’. In contrast, for liberals of all kinds, unless the state guarantees political freedom, it has no moral claim on us at all.

More on this subject here.

I do think that, in a melodramatically self-interested kind of way, the writer of the above wishes to exaggerate and caricature the extent to which Labour does sacrifice its blessed freedoms – but the idea that some freedoms can be interpreted as having the relevance of folk dances should perhaps gain some traction.

If nothing more than to emphasise the importance of supporting, maintaining and conserving our folk traditions. Those who summarily dispatch such traditions with scorn are clearly happily prepared to do away with the wider legacies of ordinary people in the face of globalisation and corporate sameness.

I would prefer a party which not only defined its political freedoms in terms of folk traditions but also was able to take the next step of valuing – above all – its own folks’ traditions over the interests of its powerful sponsors.

That, indeed, would be a socialism worth pursuing further.


  4 Responses to “The Social Liberal Forum and more on ideas factories”

  1. Mmm, interesting – we’re all doing ‘freedom’ this weekend then. See Daves’ more (well obviously) Marxist approach to the concept of freedom as necessarily rooted in material circumsntance (this is implicit as he largely argues that the capitalist state and its agencies (in his example the Church) has developed and conquered all with a particular concept of freedom rooted in ‘free speech as long as you’ve got money and behave yourself capitalistically).

    I am sympathetic to this argument and have for some time felt that the ‘human rights agenda’, to which you veer in your piece, is a sideshow – an important sideshow, and I do not want to dim the very real importance for those who do not get human rights, and to those actively involved in the struggle for those people – but in the end, a sideshow in the fight for justice, all the same. And yes, I know that seems a strange thing to say.

  2. I think where maybe I disagree slightly is in seeing human rights as some kind of add-on to the rest. It seems to me that we should see them more as a litmus test – a canary in the mine if you like: if we’re doing politics right, then human rights will emerge intact. If human rights are not emerging intact, if their birth is fraught with difficulties, then we are doing something radically wrong elsewhere.

  3. Well I think it depends on what you mean by human rights. As regards civil liberties, I’m obviously concerned with giving the police more powers and so forth. It’ll make it easier for them to break up socialist movements. Moves to allow councils to snoop on people threatens to pit neighbour against neighbour.

    Nevertheless, narratives of “human rights” serve to obscure the real division in society. Radical liberals see the divide between rich and poor, where the poor are unable to access their human rights by virtue of tyrannical states etc. As often as not this can lead to liberal interventionism as in Iraq – which as we know, is basically a screen.

    Conservative interpretations of human rights allow for the freedom to starve, as I was talking about. As a conservative might say, what are any rights worth if one doesn’t have the right to take the consequences of one’s actions. This voluntarist ascription is tyrannical in its own right, serving to cut out completely the structural notions we know to be behind inequality.

    We can do better than phrasing our fightback in terms of human rights – which are often a cover for the sort of political correctness that serves to highlight divisions between workers rather than highlight the ultimate unity, and need for unity.

  4. Yes, I can see what you mean and what Paul is getting at. I do understand the difference between negative and positive freedoms – and the freedom to undo another’s world at one’s whim is never something we should celebrate nor defend.

    But we should be careful we do not totter ever-so-slightly in the direction of the totalitarianism that the left has so often served under whilst it has waited with baited breath for a brave new world which in the end never properly materialises.

    Unity is good but only when couched in terms of choices freely arrived at. Where we unite in hesitation and doubt, we run the risk of ignoring incipient impositions from above at our peril.

    I’m not really worried about anything else to be honest. And I do think it’s a weakness we display to the right unnecessarily.

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