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"Reinventing the State - Social Liberalism for the 21st Century"

A review for Liberator magazine by Michael Meadowcroft

One task of the reviewer is to set out a critique of the work under review. However, before getting stuck into the diverse chapters in this book of essays I want to encourage all Liberals to buy the book, even if they do not get beyond David Howarth's brilliant opening chapter. At a time when superficiality in politics reigns supreme and its current excrescence, the focus group, dictates policy, a book of essays as substantial as this deserves much applause.

Having spent a great deal of the past seventeen years trying to enhance democracy in thirty odd different countries I really hadn't appreciated how the framework of British politics had shifted in that time. Not that the underlying philosophic values had changed, nor that the need to apply essential liberal values to society's ills was in any way diminished, but that the area in which the unequal struggle is taking place is very different to what it was when I was bundled out of parliament twenty years ago.

Being confronted with "Reinventing the State" in such a vulnerable state has its advantages. First, it means that I cannot adopt an attitude of high minded complacency. The "Orange book" has clearly been a great catalyst and, even if alone amongst the major parties, at least the Liberal Democrats have reinvented internal political debate without, apparently, being overly put off by inevitable accusations of party disunity. I have always believed that healthy internal debate is the foundation for confidence in taking the debate outside the party.

Herein also lies a significant difference with the past. My meagre efforts at producing a series of booklets for Liberator thirty years ago were designed to equip Liberals who had an instinctive grasp of their faith with the tools to defend it in varying antagonistic circumstances - what in theological terms is called "apologetics". "Reinventing the State" on the other hand appears to be focused on the step before such a plateau, ie to determine where the party is in order to establish a firm base in the current shifting sands of what passes for political identity these days. As such it does an excellent job, with a confidence that belies the earlier years of relative vagueness.

No doubt the Liberal Democrats have always had armfuls of policy papers but the benefit of publishing a coordinated set of essays, as, say, the Liberal party did with "The Unservile State" essays way back in 1957, is that it establishes a solid base which both gives confidence to activists and helps steer them away from the ever present community politics tendency towards "mindless activism." If the party can grit its collective teeth and withstand the inevitable media efforts to brand constructive internal party debate as splits and divisions it will do a service to politics generally and, as an important side effect, it could drag party leadership styles towards experience and judgement and away from the obsession with spin and glamour.

Inevitably some chapters have more resonance than others and it is certainly the case that David Howarth provides a powerful and rigorous analysis of the differing historical strands of liberalism. That in itself is valuable but his greater service is to demonstrate that the strands are nothing like as far apart as the opponents of liberalism like to suggest and that it is the methodology by which the aims of liberty are secured within the parameters of the different policy areas - security, health, mobility for example - that leads to a genuine argument on where the line between market and state should be drawn. There is a sense in which many of those who stayed in the Liberal party in the dark years did so because the perceived that public and private monopolies were essentially no different in their effects. Hence it was necessary to oppose those who were in love with private enterprise just as much as those who had a naive view of the benevolence of the state.

One huge difference today is that the many bizarre privatisations of the Thatcher era, such as water, gas and electricity - and, in relation to railways, the Major government - require state regulation which, in effect, admits the dangers of the process and, significantly, enables the pernicious failings of privatisation to be hidden, and the tripling of state aid to the railway system to be explained away. David Howarth is quite right to draw attention to the political implications of regulation that has hitherto been a neglected sphere of legitimate political action.

I invariably get furious whenever the Royal Mail is further undermined by creeping privatisation and by its attempts to compete through increased "efficiency". It was a Liberal administration that introduced the "Penny Post" in 1840 encompassing for the first time the principle that postage should be the same whatever the distance. Now the right of those living in rural areas to pay the same for a letter as those in inner cities is being eroded more and more. Of course the likes of TNT will be able to undercut the Royal Mail when the latter has to deliver to the Outer Hebrides at the same price as to me in Leeds. Liberals should regard the postal services as a natural monopoly.

Howarth is also right to stress that local government is the best way of avoiding the dangers of excessive concentrations of power. In the new era of opposition politicians being involved in government advisory posts, perhaps local councillors of all parties can at last unite to demand the return of powers to municipalities. We have had sixty years of the destruction of local democracy, largely because councillors of the same persuasion as central government were never prepared to oppose their colleagues in Westminster who were thus able to remove power after power.

Paul Holmes' exposition of the possibilities open to innovative local authorities adds to the case for the development of municipal independence with substantial financial resources. Mark Pack and Chris Huhne extol similar virtues of localism, albeit from different angles. Neither explicitly acknowledges that the encouragement of diversity inevitably diminishes uniformity and will require Liberal Democrats to argue in favour of different provision in different areas, in other words to advocate the positive benefits of the "postcode lottery."

Duncan Brack makes a powerful case for promoting equality of outcome as a liberal value. A great deal of public persuasion is required if the tide of selfishness encouraged by Margaret Thatcher is to be reversed. It is not enough to impose redistributive laws on an unwilling well off sector; there is a need to persuade those who will have to foot higher tax bills that there is an advantage for them in having a society is more secure and more at peace with itself as a result of being more equal and more socially mobile.

There may not be an abundance of natural liberals amongst the richer half of the population but there are many that can be persuaded to support "right thinking" views. The liberal jurist Patrick Devlin made this case in his excellent book "The Enforcement of Morals" in 1965 by pointing out that juries do not vote for their prejudices but often make remarkably liberal decisions based on the legal process played out in front of them. Devlin argued from this that politicians should treat the electorate as a huge jury and adapt the legal process to the democratic sphere. There have been partial examples of this in recent years - one such was the gradual abolition of mortgage interest tax relief another, as Simon Titley points out, is Ken Livingstone's congestion charge. I sense that measures to combat climate change are becoming another, which is where Ed Randall's chapter comes in. Historically the Liberal party has been ahead of the field on green issues and the forerunner of the Green party actually debated whether to disband and to join the Liberals! Alas liberals have tended to be frightened by their own foresight and have hitherto backed off under attack from the selfish brigade. That luxury is no longer available.

Matthew Taylor brings us back to Beveridge's "giants" and helpfully compares their current status in the UK with their levels globally. Here is another area of policy where the argument needs to be pushed consistently, not least to that constituency that has already put its hand to the international plough. Human individuals have deep wells of compassion that are touched by what they see on television. Michael Buerk's film on Ethiopia, for instance, produced a remarkable response.

Simon Titley and David Boyle address issues that in party terms are uniquely liberal. The conjunction of the personal with the political, and the context of promoting human values above economics, cannot by definition fit comfortably into political philosophies which are economically determinist. Boyle's case for the recognition of those with a spiritual dimension as potential liberals is a timely rejoinder to fundamentalist secularists. Bob Holman's recent biography of the evangelical preacher F B Meyer, which highlights his political radicalism, chimes well with Boyle's non-conformist panegyric. He also writes about the vital need to revive the voluntary sector but fails to mention the appalling nationalisation of voluntary funding via the lottery.

Elspeth Attwooll's contribution on rights and responsibilities is certainly sound enough but in quoting Conrad Russell as considering the premise that rights come with responsibilities as being "unexceptionable" fails to appreciate that there are those such as mentally handicapped men and women with rights but for whom responsibilities are largely impossible.

Almost as an afterthought Richard Grayson hits the NHS nail on the head: the total absence of funding other than by handouts from central government. Unless the power to tax and the power to spend are in the same hands there will not be the means of resolving the essential problems of funding the health service.

Nick Clegg in an otherwise sympathetic contribution on tackling terrorism suddenly starts talking about the criteria for banning individuals or organisations. I remain unconvinced that there is an advantage from any bans. The liberal task is to permit all views to be expounded, however provocative, and to enter the debate with confidence in the refutation of violence and extremism.

William Wallace conflates a view of community with a sense of nationhood. I am far from convinced that there is a "Britishness" or even an "Englishness" which commands a widespread instinctive assent. I suspect that for many individuals - possibly even a majority - the natural sense of identity is both narrower and wider than the nation state. For instance, my Leeds neighbours have a warm affinity with other Yorkshire folk but would find little in common with most people in Surrey. On the other hand cultural identity is very European, whether it is footballers from EU states, composers such as Mozart or Beethoven, dramatists such as Shakespeare or Moliere, opera composers such as Verdi or Puccini, or choreographers such as Diagelev or Fokine. It is particularly perverse to be emphasising nationhood when more and more communities within the EU, such as Scotland and Catalonia, are emphasising their "sub national" identities, and when terrorism is certainly supranational.

Cramming a review of this important book into two Liberator pages does not do it sufficient credit. It deserves to be developed into a lively debate towards a second edition - even before the ink is dry on the first!

"Reinventing the State - Social Liberalism for the 21st Century" ed. Duncan Brack, pub. Politico's, 2007, ISBN 978 1 8427 5218 0