Monday, April 29, 2013


Liberal Mondays 2: Conrad Russell – The Liberal Cause #LibDemValues

For my second Liberal Mondays selection I’m looking to my old friend and mentor, Conrad Russell, who was through the 1990s the Liberal Democrats’ intellectual guru. I miss him terribly. He had a huge impact on my life and Liberalism, and no doubt I’ll come back to him again: this time I present a selection of quotes from the first booklet of his I ever read, The Liberal Cause. I bought it at my first Lib Dem Conference because I wanted as many Liberal texts as my tiny teenage budget would allow, and this one was marked down to 10p.

Conrad and Me and Name-Dropping

You can skip this bit if you like, but to introduce The Liberal Cause, I didn’t know Conrad when I first read this, nor I think even know of him. In many – but not enough – years later, we got to know each other very well through being on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee together, with such adventures to follow as drawing him into involvement with the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students (I was, he wasn’t), working at by-elections or in doomed Leadership elections together, and of course always plotting to get a more Liberal line through the FPC. I loved him dearly, and of all the many influences on my philosophy, no other person had such a striking impact in directly shaping my Liberalism as Liberalism. Re-reading it last week, I can see that The Liberal Cause is far from his best work, but elements of it have still stayed with me ever since.

I’ve been suffering crippling headaches for weeks and not been reading or writing much, but thought I’d better attempt another Liberal Monday, with elections on. Conrad was the obvious choice, so I went back to the start with him where I was concerned, and decided to spare myself a bit of both staring at a glaring screen and knackering my hands typing by having another go with the infuriating voice command software that I lose patience with every time I attempt dictation. This time I didn’t even try to train it to understand me, but just went back and corrected the mistakes after reading it all out, which was at least marginally faster than typing the whole thing. Most of the misunderstandings were simply gibberish, but presenting the Whigs as “the whinge party” was mildly amusing, as was making “What has endured in party tradition…” into “What has endured in hottie tradition…” Though the one which most struck me was “Liberals, as has all male and beverage…” See if you can spot what this apparent reference to the Liberator Collective was meant to be when I said it aloud.

I kept on reading aloud to the one-paragraph biography of Conrad at the end, which is how the software came happily to inform me “He is descended from William Hartnell”. In so many ways, so true. That one may give away a bit of which words are stored in my custom dictionary. It’s actually a reference to “William Lord Russell, who was accounted worthy of three ‘w’s in John Locke’s list of the first Whigs,” which will become clear shortly. It also reminded me of one of Conrad’s more endearing stories from one of his more endearing habits: he was an inveterate name-dropper. Unlike most people’s, these were entirely natural lines about his family, just as he might mention something I’d said, or whoever we’d just been arguing with in the Policy Committee, in which he prefaced so many of his observations with a reference along the lines of ‘When this issue was first debated in 1647…’ Here are three that have always stuck in my head from variously private conversation on anti-discrimination laws (referring to Lord John Russell), a speech explaining his attitude to authority (William, Lord Russell) and, most fabulously, a mighty speech to Lib Dem Conference in which he illustrated a point with the best name-drop I’ve ever heard to a Conference hall (Bertrand Russell):
“My great-grandfather succeeded on his third attempt on passing religious toleration through Parliament, though he had to become Prime Minister to do it.” (It sounded a great inconvenience)

“My father took me to see his portrait. On seeing this grand long-haired man staring down at me, I asked my father if he had been a good man. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘A very good man. The King cut his head off.’”

“The point at which my father finally parted company with Lenin…”

Unservile State Papers 35 – The Liberal Cause: The Three-Century-Long Tradition of the Liberal Democrats

I’m presenting a series of extracts from The Liberal Cause, though at just 16 albeit close-typed A5 pages one day I might see who has the copyright and put the whole thing online if they agree. The booklet was produced under the aegis of the Unservile State Group, a sponsor of Liberal philosophy from the 1950s until, as far as I can tell, the early 1990s; this was published in 1990, and was probably among their last. Conrad had recently become the last Liberal and first Liberal Democrat peer introduced to the House of Lords (due to the different stages of assuming a peerage) as the Earl Russell, and was just embarking on his marvellous late flowering as an incisive Lords spokesperson and intellectual powerhouse of Liberalism. His finest work in that regard is his 1999 An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, which I would always recommend; The Liberal Cause is a very much shorter and lesser work, but it’s still worth looking out if you happen across a copy.

The point of The Liberal Cause is self-evident from its full title: the Liberals had just merged with the Social Democrats to form what after much internal strife became called the Liberal Democrats, and unlike now, everyone was rather wary of calling the new party either “Liberal” or “Social Democratic” for fear of unpicking the merger and having to go through the whole damn thing all over again. And a lot of Liberals were, less unlike now, very unhappy. Whether it was Conrad’s idea or that of the Unservile State Group, this booklet looked across three centuries to find continuities in our political tradition, see how political issues of the day measured up to our philosophy – primarily, Conrad looks at privatisation from the tail-end of its heyday, and green politics from the early end of its wide acceptance – and implicitly say, ‘The party’s changed its name and taken great evolutionary leaps many times before, so don’t worry about this one’. It’s not as well-structured as some of his work, and less politically punchy, with Conrad still learning late in life how to evolve himself from a great historian into a great politician.
“The Liberal Democrats are the heirs of a continuous institutional tradition over three hundred years old. Liberals and their Social Democrat allies have inherited the machinery, the membership and the goodwill of the Liberal Party as clearly as the Liberal Party inherited the membership, the machinery and the goodwill of the Whigs. The Whig party from which we descend can trace a continuous institutional history back to 1679, and the ‘First Whigs’ were the party for whom John Locke acted as an auxiliary Whip, listing members with ‘v’ for ‘vile’ or ‘w’ for ‘worthy’, graduating to ‘vv’ and ‘ww’ and, in extreme cases, to ‘vvv’ and ‘www’.”
Conrad and I never sat at dinner after an FPC meeting annotating members of the Committee and guests by Locke’s listings. Well, hardly ever.

Having established the Liberal Democrats’ three-century organisational continuity (and, implicitly, his own love of gossip) in the first paragraph, the first page continues by explaining how the party naturally evolved a passion against discrimination despite its biggest initial rally-point being a call to discriminate against a Catholic King. The Whigs’ initial anti-Catholicism is long past but since then, says Conrad:
“What was enduring in party tradition was the chosen means: the commitment to controlling the power of an overweening executive, and the choice of the rule of law as the means by which it should be done. The championship of liberty, and the identification of liberty with the rule of law, would entitle Liberal Democrats today to at least two of John Locke’s ‘w’s.

“During the Eighteenth Century the Whigs increasingly became identified as the party opposed to the monopoly of the Church of England in public life, and that identification also has marked the Liberal tradition in ways that have become indelible. That never meant that Whigs were opposed to the Church of England: it is to the eternal credit of England, the Church of England and the Whigs that a high proportion of their membership always consisted of devout members of the Anglican Church. What distinguished the Whigs was their belief that the Church of England did not enjoy a monopoly of truth, and that those outside it enjoyed an equal claim to citizenship. The Whigs enjoyed an unusual ability to concede equal status to the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. The party rapidly became committed to a degree of religious pluralism unusual by the standards of the day; and from that commitment grew an increasing readiness to divide the spheres of church and state and a steadily deepening commitment to freedom of thought.

“From the battles over the Occasional Conformity Act at the beginning of the Eighteenth Century down to the Race Relations Act in the middle of the Twentieth, the party has felt a steadily deepening dislike of discrimination. As one would expect from the party of Locke and Mill, it has made the intellectual leap from opposing discrimination because it happened not to favour the chosen interest group, whether it was at Nonconformists, blacks or women, to opposing the discrimination because it was discrimination. The four-year-old who denounced the owners of a swimming pool because they did not accept Jews, and who asked, several minutes later, ‘By the way, what is a Jew?’, was showing a Liberal sense of priorities.”
Conrad goes on to assess the Whigs’, Liberals’ and Liberal Democrats’ instinctive understanding of the United Kingdom as a supra-national institution, and how that has meant a commitment both to devolution and to the EEC and the UN, rather than the Tories’ stubborn one-level nation-statism – and how that links to an instinct to check arbitrary power. He carries on to discuss different parties’ class-based economic ideas – critiquing a pre-Blairite Labour Party that still called itself socialist, a strange historical note after two decades of Labour sucking up to the super-rich more than the Tories do – and offer a word of warning about different spheres of freedom: quoting John Stuart Mill, he argues that free trade and freedom itself may well often go together, but they are not the same thing, nor contingent on each other.
“Liberals may, when they think the occasion suitable, defend state intervention in economic questions without any threat to their liberal principles. Economic acts are not, within Mill’s definition, self-regarding. In tackling these questions, we benefit from notions of liberty somewhat enlarged over those of the Nineteenth Century. Liberty does not simply consist in the absence of external impediment: it involves the existence of opportunity, and the freedom to take it. Freedom is not only freedom from outside interference: it is also freedom to attempt to do things we wish to do. It is this second freedom which may be promoted and not hindered by the action of the State.”
I’d say – and I believe Conrad tended to, as well, when writing later and at more length – that the State can be a danger or a boost to both sorts, if more often a threat to the first and a protector of the second, but I think he was simplifying so as to be able to more easily make one a point against the Tories and the other against Labour. You’ll be able to spot my summary of this argument about the relationship between liberty and different sources of power in one of the lines I contributed to Mark Pack’s recent “What the Liberal Democrats Believe” Infographic.
“Liberals, as heirs of Mill and Beveridge, are aware of two sorts of liberty. One is the absence of external restraint, the individual liberty of which freedom of thought and freedom of speech are quintessential expressions. That liberty is hindered by state action, and its defence must often take the form of restraining the power of the state. Yet we are also aware that, as Mill put it, ‘liberty consists in doing what one desires’; and here state action, by creating opportunity, may create a liberty where, before, it effectively did not exist. Education, for example, is a field in which any viable policy must draw equally on both ideals.

“Neither of these ideals of liberty is peculiar to Liberals: what is peculiar to us is our equal attachment to them both. On the whole Conservatives are attached to the first, and Labour to the second. It is only Conservatives who are capable of assuming axiomatically that rolling back the frontiers of the state makes any positive contribution to liberty ipso facto. The rest of us may want to wait and see what opportunities, and what freedoms, are lost by the absence of the State as their guarantor or even their creator. …A Thatcherite rhetoric of creating choice contradicts itself if it simultaneously destroys opportunity.”
Before most British politicians, Conrad takes as a key example here the way ‘freedom of choice’ alone can destroy itself in traffic jams, and the need for the State to intervene for long-term environmental goals.
“Yet as Conservatives tend to ignore the second kind of liberty, Labour tends to ignore the first. They do not see diversity as good in itself, and they therefore do not see the risk that state intervention, by creating uniformity, may destroy opportunity as well as creating it.”

“Just as we cannot regard ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’ as a good in itself, so we cannot regard extending the frontiers of the state as that. In the area where Labour and Conservatives fight we are, of our very nature, an empirical party. Hearing, for example, a Socialist arguing for the public ownership of banking and insurance, we do not regard it as good because it pushes back the frontiers of capital: that is a battle in which we are neutral. We want to know what concrete harm it will prevent and what concrete good it will do. Out of a natural suspicion of monopoly, Liberals would be inclined to investigate the argument that this might be an area in which competition is a positive good.

“We are also the heirs of a Gladstonian tradition of frugality with public money. This is not a fetish, and we are well aware of the concept of false economy. Yet, just as we reject the Conservative myth of the inexhaustible private purse, so do we reject the Labour myth of the inexhaustible public purse. Public money, before it can be raised through taxation and spent, has to be earned.”
The third sentence in this next passage is one of those that struck a very deep chord with me – and not just on economic distinctions, though those were the most ‘live’ ones when Conrad wrote The Liberal Cause. It turns up right near the top in my latest longer version of “What the Liberal Democrats Stand For”.
“It is of our essence, then, in economic and industrial matters to be an empirical party. We are not in favour of capital and not in favour of labour, nor are we against either. Liberals think it dangerous to have a government which is committed to being ‘against’ any substantial body of its citizens, and would apply that conviction equally to Conservative views on trade unions and to Labour views on the City. We are not in favour of public ownership, as such, or against it. We want to know which view fits the facts of the case…

“The empirical approach is hard work. Liberal Democrats can never come to a privatisation issue knowing what is the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ thing to think: we have to do our homework before making up our minds. Granted that, it is startling how consistently we make them up on any particular issue. More often than one might think it is clear which way an empirical approach points on a particular issue. It is no objection to our approach to say it is hard work: that is what the real world is like. It is a big objection to the approach of the other two parties to say it is not hard work: they tend to know the answers before they know the questions.”

“Thus far the Liberal Democrats have absorbed new ideas from the new problems of the Twentieth Century, while building them on top of principles inherited from previous ages. Where we have absolutely rejected the ideas of the early Twentieth Century is the basing of political allegiance on class. That is a negation of everything the Liberals and Social Democrats have stood for. It is a negation of the autonomy of the human mind, a negation of the independence of belief which is what our creed is all about. It is a reductionism to define a human being in terms of one only among the many attributes which make him up.”
Conrad closes this booklet with an uncompromising defence of the Rule of Law which would have him scorning Theresa May and applauding Nick Clegg this week over her ludicrous proposal to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights for just long enough to break it:
“Ideals of liberty have always been closely identified with law, and it is not for us to dismiss the law simply because it does not at the moment happen to favour us. Where the law does not, we may, if it seems just had to do so, campaign to change it. We do not choose to ignore it or to flout it. …Law is an instrument for the preservation of liberty: no doubt, an imperfect instrument, but it is the best we have. Without it, there can only be ‘such a war, as of every man against every man’.”
Richard suggested to me last night that Tory-supporting burglars might put the defence that they entirely supported the English Law and always stayed within it, but had merely decided to abrogate from it for five minutes while they smashed that window. That’s what happens when you decide the Rule of Law is only there when it’s convenient – someone else will always find a point where it’s similarly inconvenient to them and your only protection.

Intriguingly, it wasn’t the Tories back then that Conrad distrusted because he thought they played fast and loose with the Rule of Law, but Labour – and subsequent history showed that the point at which Labour most flagrantly ignored the Rule of Law was, of course, the point when they were most indistinguishable from Conservatives. I can’t help but notice how since they stopped being socialists around the time Conrad wrote this booklet that the only thing dividing Labour from the right wing of the Tory Party is their increasingly shrill shouting of party labels (‘Vote Labour because the Tories are evil!’ ‘One Ed good, Two Eds bad!’ and so on).

Conrad had in previous decades spent some time considering his allegiance between the Liberals and Labour; the last few lines of The Liberal Cause presciently reject Labour because their willingness to throw liberty out of the window means they can’t be regarded as “the appropriate vehicle for opposition to the Conservative Party,” though even Conrad didn’t realise the extent to which, having necessarily jettisoned all their socialist baggage, Labour would see becoming Tories as the only alternative. For all that the LiberaTory Coalition has Liberal Democrats working alongside Conservatives, and that you might be tempted to score some Lib Dem MPs ‘vvv’ rather than ‘www’, it’s still easier to spot philosophical differences between the bulk of the Conservative Party and Lib Dems than between the Tories and Labour, for exactly the reason that Labour has spent twenty years throwing liberty out of the window and still to this day knee-jerkingly marches to the far right of the Coalition on freedom. By the end of the 1990s, the Labour Party had jettisoned so much of what it believed in and borrowed so much of the Liberal Democrat alternative to the Conservatives that the Lib Dems and Labour were at the closest they’d ever been. By then, Conrad was one of the Lib Dems most deeply sceptical of the Labour Party, and his terrific book at the other bookend of that decade ended not by reasserting opposition to Toryism but predicting the need to oppose Labour.

The Liberal Cause isn’t merely to choose an ‘enemy’ out of the other two, nor merely to gain power – it’s to promote liberty. And while either of the other two parties might at some point be an ally for freedom, like any other type of power, they need watching as a potential threat. If you look to liberty over the centuries, it’s not just the cause but because of Liberals.

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