This week I am delighted to invite barrister Andrew Keogh, the author The White Rabbit blog, to be my guest…
It is tempting but at best over simplistic to say that liberalism is the fault line of British politics. More accurately, it straddles one of them. Twice in history large chunks of the historic Liberal Party have been incorporated into the Conservatives – the Liberal Unionists in the 1880s and the National Liberals in the 1930s. Indeed, until Jo Grimond began to give it independent (and leftward) traction, the vestigial Liberal Party of the 1950s looked little more than a curiosity and adjunct of the Conservative Party, tolerated and preserved like a slightly embarrassing household ornament presented by an eccentric elderly relative.
Grimond changed all that. In so doing he drew on a long and rich tradition of radical liberalism, the land reformers, the pacifists (there was a splendid Liberal MP who went to jail in the First World War for inciting the troops to disaffection – and quite right too – the incitement I mean not the jailing), the tradition of the ‘People’s Budget’ and the threat to create a thousand peers to teach unelected aristocrats to respect democracy. That same tradition produced the Liberal ‘Yellow Book’ of 1928. I’ll come back to the Yellow Book. It’s still important.
Grimond’s vision was a ‘radical realignment of the left’. His successors – even the disgraceful and ultimately disgraced Thorpe – applied themselves to this task. Except the present one. The task advanced slowly and incrementally. Its biggest boost was a bowlderisation of the original vision with the alliance with, and ultimately incorporation of, assorted faction fighters of the Labour right who brought with them a pile of unattractive baggage. Notwithstanding this, the Liberal Democrats in the 2000s, like their Liberal predecessors in the 1960s, were perceived – with some force – to be to the left of Labour. The Liberal Democrats/Liberals had the good sense to oppose idiot foreign wars and had a good grounding in liberty know to oppose the authoritarian and centralising rubbish that spewed forth from Labour governments.
The question of what is wrong – as in really wrong at core – with the Labour Party is asked far too infrequently. The temptation is to say Labour = Stalinism + Elections. There may perhaps be an element of oversimplification in such an assertion. Nonetheless clunking lumpen labourism has always been characterised by aforesaid authoritarian and centralising instincts. As such, it merely corresponded with the dominant strand of European left thinking going back from the nineteenth century to about the middle of the last. Old Labour at least cared about equality and its principal tool in attempting to advance equality was bureaucratic nationalisation. This tool failed due to a failure to grasp that the traditional heavy industries on the shopping list to be nationalised were in decline – this much is trite but less remarked upon is that the centralising and hierarchical structures created for the nationalised industries (invariably and inevitably a Board with a capital ‘B’) failed to release the creativity of the workforce. It is little known but true that the nationalisation of the mines by the Attlee government was met by localised strikes at some pits. They didn’t want the old mine owners – who were oafs and brutes – back but they wanted workers’ control of the industry. They didn’t get it.
Old Labour’s fault line was the cold war. The old right were people who would – and who could blame them? – sooner live in the United States than in Stalinist Russia. They were ant-unilateralist and averse to nationalising things any more than absolutely necessary to humour the party overall but they were in favour of equality. Remember old Labour rightist poster boy Anthony Crosland wanted to ‘close down every fucking Grammar School in the country’, an aspiration advanced greatly by one M. Thatcher. The Labour left, with honourable exceptions such as the late Eric Heffer were either soft on Stalinism for pacifist cum sneaking sympathy reasons or were actually closet Stalinists. It has been my occasional past misfortune to listen to old Labour leftists blethering on about ‘the socialist countries’. Some readers may have the misfortune of recalling that gruesome old gargoyle of a left Labour MP Ian Mikardo. He wasn’t soft on Stalinism – he was a Stalinist. Who won in the Labour left/right faction fights depended on the grotesque spectacle of trade union barons wagging cards representing sometimes seven figure numbers of ‘votes’ at Labour Party Conference – an absurdity that was accepted with straight faces all round.
New Labour retained all old Labour’s authoritarian instincts but abandoned its impulse to equality. Devoid of any moral substance the bubble eventually burst, sustained for many years by the toxic nature of the Tory brand. Add a detoxified gloss to the Tory brand and watch the project (sic) implode with the bust that followed the deregulated credit boom and public disgust at tail ending illegal US wars. And the Liberal Democrats? Just before economic liberalism became a busted flush, prominent members of the Liberal Democrats trumpeted it in a document called the Orange Book – the old free market religion was back again.
What is to be done? I offer no party political solution. Probably because there is none presently available and to attempt one attacks the problem from the wrong end. I don’t think I’d join any political organisation except possibly the Spanish CNT but that was there, that was then. Let it bleed, to borrow a phrase. I barely have the beginnings of a program. Such as they are, here are three modest proposals.
First modest proposal: let’s go back to the semi-syndicalist Liberal Yellow Book. It’s actually startlingly radical and starts from the premise that those who commit their labour to an enterprise are as least deserving of equal standing in that enterprise as those who supply capital. What follows from this? Firstly works councils at plant level with real powers. Any problems so far? Secondly, compulsory profit sharing – not too alarming? Thirdly, employee boardroom representation. Let’s make it 50%. These seem modest proposals with potentially far reaching consequences. Everyone pats the John Lewis Partnership – a very mild variant of this sort of idea – on the head but no-one seeks to extend (least of all in more radical variants) this approach. To be honest, the old leftist romantic ion me is in favour of workers’ control of everything but such a programme is presently unrealistic. The Yellow Book type compromise ought not to be.
Secondly, give control of social housing to those who live in it. Labour in the big cities in the twentieth century was rightly popular for clearing the slums. As with nationalised industry, socialised housing became bureaucratic and remote and went, via telling tenants what colour they could paint their doors, to monstrosities like the Heygate Estate at the Elephant and Castle, soon rightly to be demolished after less than 40 years. What started with a frankly pretty unaccountable Housing Committees ended with equally inaccessible but now grotesquely overpaid Housing Association Chief Executives. What is wrong with self-managing housing co-operatives and letting people make their own decisions – including making their own mistakes instead of having the mistakes of various bureaucracies inflicted on them?
Thirdly and finally, there is nothing inevitable about the nation state. Historically it is a recent phenomenon and has hardly acquitted itself with distinction. As a general guiding principle let decisions be taken at the lowest level consistent with efficiency. In some instances, this is the European level. With strong localisms and a strong Pan-European dimension, what would Westminster be for?
The word libertarian seems to have been hijacked by the oddball right. To the extent that much of the right libertarian critique of the state has force, it is totally undermined by their failure to grasp that finance and/or industrial capital can be equally destructive of freedom as the state and usually acts in concert with it to that end. Time to reclaim the label ‘libertarian’.