Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Joining the Liberal Democrats doesn't make you a liberal!


A while ago I wrote a little comment explaining why “Jack of Kent” – the estimable David Allen Green, lawyer, blogger, skeptic and sometimes journalist – isn’t a liberal. It is a mark of David’s popularity (and his assiduous self-promotion) that this little blog post remains one of the most visited at The View from Cullingworth.

It seems now that “Jack of Kent” has gone the whole hog and joined the Liberal Democrat Party:

The Labour opposition is impotent. In government they were illiberal and often brutal. There is only one political force which is having an actual liberal effect in our polity as it is presently constituted, and it is the Liberal Democrats.

Yet – as I pointed out – David isn’t a liberal but a social democrat. No genuine liberal could believe this:

The liberal endorses an individual's autonomy unless there is a greater public interest in interfering with that autonomy.

Such a position is indistinguishable from the essential social democrat position – it places society’s interests above those of the individual. The problem – or confusion – may lie in a differing understanding of what the term ‘liberal’ actually means. I fear that David’s view owes less to Gladstone and more to Herbert Croly, the godfather of Roosevelt’s politics and founding editor of New Republic:

Government, according to Croly, could no longer be content with protecting negative rights; it needed to actively promote the welfare of its citizens.

This position, the championing of positive rights and the embracing of regulation to correct “market failure” are the essence of “progressive” politics. Indeed, Britain’s Liberal Democrats remain overwhelmingly a party of social democracy – a marriage between the Fabianism of people such as Shirley Williams and the grass roots activism that typified the old Liberal Party.

My argument before was that, in rejecting ‘market orthodoxy’, David was rejecting the basis of liberalism – that free exchange between individuals represents the best way to order things.  Instead we get American “liberalism” – a mish-mash of social democracy, ‘progressivism’ and above all the promotion of group rights above personal rights. Indeed, the preamble to the Liberal Democrat’s Constitution makes explicit that the party is not a liberal party:

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.

So “Jack of Kent”, who isn’t a liberal, will feel quite at home in what isn’t a liberal part.



Anonymous said...


With this argument can you justify any infringements upon liberty and still be a liberal?

If so, is this done in the form of a constitution?

Sean McHale


Jack of Kent said...


This is so becoming a fan site!

David :-)