Waterloo Lodge in the snow
Michael Meadowcroft & Liz Bee

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Where did the hope go?

by Michael Meadowcroft

The Liberator 300 span a political chasm. From the Heath government of 1970 to the re-election of George W Bush - which will come to be seen as the most disastrous election result in the world for seventy years. It is some measure of the shift in political orientation that in 1970 Edward Heath, later the progressive Conservative scourge of Thatcher, was perceived as an philosophical right-winger. He took his Cabinet to the Selsdon Park Hotel in Croydon to formulate a free enterprise, anti lame ducks, ideology. However, one of his first actions as Prime Minister was to take Rolls Royce into public ownership to prevent it going into liquidation!

The past thirty years also mark the virtual passing from the political scene of the last generation that could look forward to a better quality of life. The failure of my generation to come to terms with ecological imperatives has fatally undermined the future. Its inability to balance the avarice of capitalism with the needs of society has grievously damaged urban communities. The actuarial implication of the decline of the number of men and women in employment compared with the number of pensionable age is progressively undermining the ability to keep pensions in line with the increase in wage levels. The myopic obsession with the nation state has made western countries vulnerable to a stateless but pervasive terrorism. All this stems from an innate selfishness on the part of the developed world and an apparent failure of democracy to cope with a decline in wealth, even in the cause of survival.

The American author, Francis Fukuyama, wrote his naive but influential book The End of History in 1991 to celebrate the end of the cold war and fall of communism. Events in the brief time since then have instead vividly demonstrated the failure of conservatism. Economic conditions in Russia are now worse than they were during the communist era and it says much for Russian attachment to democracy that there have been no significant attempts to abandon it, even though, as in a number of former Warsaw Pact states, communist candidates have successfully contested free elections. It has taken George Soros, one of the world's most successful capitalists, to act as a global Robin Hood and to establish Open Society organisations across central and eastern Europe. He has written:

I now fear that the untrammelled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of our life is endangering our open and democratic society. The main enemy of the open society, I believe, is no longer the communist but the capitalist threat.

Here we have the great political paradox of modern times: that both communism and conservatism have failed and yet liberalism is still feeble almost everywhere. The evidence of the past thirty years is that economic determinism - basing political movements on economic ideology - has failed, just as Liberals always predicted it would. The problem has been that the appeal of such parties is much more simplistically attractive than that of liberalism, based as the latter is on the primacy of human values together with a pragmatic view of economics as a vital support of those values, and, indeed, on whose success liberalism is to a significant extent dependent. That pragmatism finds its expression in the phrase, the market where possible, the state where necessary.

It may not be a coincidence that the dumbing down of politics has advanced at just about the same pace as economic determinist parties have been failing. Increasingly desperate to gain or to retain power in economic conditions which are inexorably adverse - and which produce increasing inequalities -.they have resorted to focus groups to ascertain what voters want and then to give it to them, however damaging such policies are. Populist policies are rarely beneficial and, instead of politicians making an analysis of problems, determining solutions according to their basic political philosophies, and then campaigning to persuade the public to support them, we are witnessing a cynical competition between Conservative and Labour parties to outdo each other in harsh, outrageous and unprofitable responses to genuine law and order problems, without any reference to basic beliefs. The media scarcely troubles to challenge this right-wing consensus and so we have a vicious circle in which the players and the reviewers conspire to maintain the status quo.

In this unhealthy political situation Liberals have both a problem and an opportunity. The problem is that for Liberals to succeed electorally on any scale but that of municipal wards won and held by incessant and eventually debilitating local activity, requires the electorate to abandon the present mindset of economic priorities and to be open to a very different approach. This requires at least a modicum of intellectual commitment, at a time when any intellectual political content is at a premium. The opportunity is that, perhaps perversely but certainly interestingly, the electorate is actually not enamoured of populist policies and is increasingly disenchanted with all mainstream politics. In theory there is a huge vacuum which could be filled by powerful advocacy of an alternative philosophy.

My frustration with Liberal colleagues for much of the period covered by Liberator's 300 issues, and my complaint about the Alliance and merger periods, was the widespread lack of confidence in Liberalism. From my numerous articles over these years, Liberator readers will recognise a hobby horse fast approaching. The lack of intellectual rigour on the part of Liberal members and Liberal activists, and even of many Liberal candidates, was wholly unnecessary and, to me, inexplicable. Over a period of a few years from 1980, following the party's publication of my Liberalism for a New Decade, Liberator commissioned a series of three booklets from me examining social democracy, "The Left", and "The Right", from a Liberal perspective. I frankly admit that I wrote these booklets to develop and clarify my own perception of Liberalism, but I hoped that they would be useful to others. They proved, alas, somewhat ephemeral. Liberals diluted their Liberalism at the precise time that it was becoming more acceptable and relevant.

Today there is a third economic determinist party which is attempting to fill the Liberal shaped vacuum. The Green party is yet another false prophet, but a far more seductive one. It espouses a vital truth about global society and appears to offer a productive route to achieving crucial aims. Unfortunately, however accurate the analysis might be, a party which puts the achievement of an economic system above the primacy of human values falls into the selfsame illiberal trap as Labour and Conservative alternatives. The fallacy is to appropriate to a single party a crucial and, I believe, uncontrovertible imperative. The survival of the planet is a "given" of such massive proportion as to require it to be central to all political parties. The existence of a single party claiming enlightenment on the issue both excuses other parties from embracing it fully, and puts off the wide acceptance of the ecological imperative by arguing that it requires the election of one particular party. Furthermore, to carry the public in support of difficult policies requires persuasion rather than diktat. If, by chance, a Green party ever came into power the implementation of ecological policies for the health service, and particularly on medical and surgical intervention, would be draconian. One hesitates even to contemplate its policies on population control. It would also face the inevitable difficulty of accepting alternance with any other - by definition anti-ecological - party.

By 1974 the Liberal party had become a firmly ecological party with a well developed awareness of the deleterious effects of economic growth and of the necessity of integrating "green" policies with a Liberal view of the community and of culture. So successful was this at the time that the Ecology party - the forerunner of the Green party - actually debated at its 1979 conference whether it should disband and join the Liberal party.

The situation thirty years later is worse not better. Liberalism lacks a united sharp focus. Its cutting edge is blunted by its dilution. A number, admittedly not particularly numerous, who continue their commitment to the Liberal party, endeavour to maintain a radical Liberal presence within today's deeply illiberal political atmosphere. Despite the deep disillusion with new Labour on the traditional left the Liberal Democrats have failed to attract significant numbers of former Labour activists, even though many of them have liberal sympathies on civil liberties and on internationalist policies. In the 1970s we demonstrated in Leeds that it was perfectly possible to draw such people into the Liberal party and to weld them into a Council group that represented both the inner city and the leafy suburbs. It does not help today to have a vocal group within the Liberal Democrats who espouse economic views which would tilt the party dangerously towards an outdated economic liberal position.

It is ironic that key aspects of traditional Liberal thinking are back in vogue. I well recall the party being derided thirty and more years ago by Tory and Labour alike for being tied to aged and totemic policies, such as Site Value Rating and the Single Transferable Vote. Both of these are currently on the march, particularly the former. What is striking is that with the taxation of the annual value of land being promoted - accurately - as the sensible and progressive solution to building land shortage and to the exploitation of planning permission, neither the articles in the broadsheets nor in recent editions of the New Statesman deigned to mention that this has been consistent Liberal policy for a hundred years. Perhaps there are few of us still around who realise it.

The thirty plus years of Liberator have spanned a period of hope and of disillusion; of political involvement and political disengagement; of intellectual debate and of trite sloganising. Throughout it has been an important vehicle for a brand of radicalism that identifies and embraces all Liberals. It adds a vital seasoning of irreverence, which appeals to the anarchist in us all! Its next 300 issues will be equally important if we are to be challenged and kept awake.

November 2004