Saturday, March 04, 2006


Actually, You Can Spot a Fake Liberal

Experiencing withdrawal symptoms from not being in sunny Harrogate and a bout of my usual ill health, I’ve been catching up on my reading instead of moving about much. Despite having several books on the go, I found something worth reading in today’s Guardian (unlikely as that sounds). Ming asserts that ‘We are the real liberals’ on the page following a mischievous attempt to prove all parties are the same – though Richard and I both easily spotted which ones weren’t Liberals, the two conservative parties were more difficult to distinguish in the Manifesto-mixing ‘Whose line is it anyway?’ (a typically original headline). Admittedly, we were helped by a few of Mr Balloon’s phrases being in the news this week before they sink without trace, which largely left the Labour ones to ring the serious ‘scarily illiberal’ bells. I know, you’re not very surprised, are you?

On the other hand, I’ve been perked up considerably more by The Goodies making a welcome return to BBC2 this evening. It’s the only Winter Olympics coverage we’ve watched. I rather fancy a walrus pie now, though that probably isn’t what Richard’s cooking (he’d better switch the oven off after whatever it is, though. Bit of an early warning about global warming).

Anyway, give The Guardian’s spot-the-difference competition a go; I won’t spoil them for you, but it was a relief that the ones I agreed with were generally Liberal Democrat, the vacuous ones generally not, and the objectionable ones generally from our lovely government. One in particular had me nodding and thinking, ‘ooh, that’s quite right’ – see if you can spot it – while the booby prize went to a definition of “the liberty of the individual” that owes more to Lewis Carroll than to John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor.

The whole piece had rather the opposite effect to the ‘they’re all the same’ proof they intended, despite their careful quotation of sections on similar policies: it’s still easy to identify who’s paying lip service to Liberalism. It’s very like the superficial analysis of the mid-‘90s; after 18 years of Tory government, Labour moved to adopt a bunch of Liberal Democrat policies. You’d have to be pretty dim to assume that meant they were Liberals, so that was most of the press, then. Now, with very little economic argument between the parties but after a long period of Labour government that’s bossed people around, failed the environment, crippled human rights and centralised power, it’s no surprise the Tories have moved closer to our policy headlines, if not our policies (but to be fair, they don’t have any other policies either). It’s because the differences between two naturally authoritarian parties are less pronounced than the differences between a Liberal and an authoritarian party that the out-of-office authoritarian party reaches for Liberal ideas to distinguish itself. Yet even a glance at the rhetoric still shows who's come up with the policy from first principles, and who's reaching for the sticking plaster.

There’s an enormous difference between reacting against the most obvious failings of an illiberal, overcentralised government and adopting a Liberal philosophy. I imagine that if the Liberal Democrats had been in power at Westminster for a decade, Labour and the Tories would have very similar policies to each other – yes, I know, how very unlike today – because every party has its own blind spots, and we’d make Liberal mistakes. Of course we would. It’s just that there hasn’t been a modern Liberal government to fail, so we don’t know what they’d be. After the others’ long periods of illiberal failure, Liberal solutions become the obvious ones even to illiberal Oppositions, but without a Liberal analysis behind them, they’re never going to provide a Liberal government.

Thanks Rob - still not on top form, but deciding I should catch up anyway... Hope you're feeling much recovered, too.

And I miss Conference; not just the speaking and voting, but internet gossip is no match for a big hug ;-)
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