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Timeless Trip

A review of "The Revival of British Liberalism", a new book that traces a half century of Liberal policy development

by Michael Meadowcroft

Occasionally a new book on Liberal history grabs one's attention with a different approach to a timeless subject. Tudor Jones' book leaps from the pack by tracing the development of the main thrusts of Liberal philosophy and policy over the past fifty years and, particularly, by allying his exposition to the political and organisational fortunes of the party.

The book has been some four years in the writing - and I need to declare an interest in having been consulted from time to time over that period - and Tudor Jones has done a thorough job in tracing and analysing the mass of literature produced since 1956. This has involved not only official and semi-official documents but many of the publications emanating from individuals and Liberal pressure groups.

Jones' methodology is to anchor his description of Liberal policy in the party's election manifestos, demonstrating how their main thrust and their policy priorities were inevitably - and legitimately - a product of the political circumstances and opposition party targets of the time, and then to draw in evidence of internal debates and pressures in the intervening years and their impact on the eventual election document. This approach evokes very effectively the atmosphere of the party debates and the often spirited efforts to persuade colleagues.

Even to an old hack who was involved with much of the period it is a fascinating read, not least because it was good to be reminded of policy arguments won and lost! On occasion the text prompts the memory of the particular circumstances of a document. Liberals Look Ahead, the report of the Liberal Commission of 1969, chaired by Donald Wade, was, for instance, the outcome of a impassioned appeal by David Prussman, a young liberal from Stockport, who died tragically young from cancer. The party was going through a difficult patch with some groups and individuals even calling into question the liberal bona fides of the others. David called for a party commission to produce a definitive exposition of current Liberal philosophy. The Wade Commission did just that and largely settled the argument. It still reads well today.

Tudor Jones deals carefully with the economic liberalism versus social liberalism debate that has had an unexpected revival in recent years. I rather came in at the tail end of its previous height in the 1950s and I confess that it rather passed me by. Although the likes of Oliver Smedley, Frank Paish, S W Alexander and Arthur Seldon were still around, the issue appeared to have been firmly resolved in favour of social liberalism, so much so that when I produced a draft of Liberal Values for a New Decade in 1980 William Wallace had to prompt me to insert a paragraph specifically eschewing the unfeeling and harsh strain of economic liberalism that Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher were promoting. I certainly had not appreciated prior to reading this book how far John Pardoe took the party along the economic liberal path. Jones' analysis and comparison of the Orange Book and of Reinventing the State is acute, including the telling point, all too often missed, that the two books are far from being the narrow ideological polemics that the media enjoy portraying them as.

It is also valuable to note how other counterbalances to this economic debate fitted into the policy structure. These included the emphasis on civil liberties and the recognition of a "north-south" axis emphasising the Liberal focus on the diffusion of power rather than being locked into a "left-right" line based on the economic system. He also looks helpfully into the theoretical role of community politics and on the espousal of "life chances," particularly as set out by Ralf Dahrendorf. His stress on the development of the identification of Liberalism with co-operatives and co-ownership in industry is a sharp reminder of how this attractive issue has slipped off the party's agenda in recent years.

Tudor Jones is far too much of the gentle academic to draw excessive attention to it, but it is clear from the book that there was much more policy development and publication in the Jo Grimond era than thereafter. Much of it at the time was to fill the gaping gaps that were the intellectual consequence of the party's earlier electoral weakness. There were, of course, policy initiatives in the decade prior to Grimond becoming leader in 1956 - the work of the Radical Reform Group was certainly important - but the range and quality of what was produced in the late 1950s and the early 1960s showed vividly the paucity of what had gone before. It is all in Tudor Jones' book and is a valuable record of the development of ideas and how they influenced the development of the wider party.

In addition the book is invaluable as a rigorous analysis of the political distinctions between the Liberal party and the SDP in the alliance period and for a thorough description of the attempts of Paddy Ashdown to develop an independent and marketable politics in the early years of the new party, followed by the challenge of changing its focus in order to accommodate his "project" towards the seduction of Tony Blair into some form of Lib-Lab arrangement.

Important and valuable as the book may be as a one volume summary of policy development, its accessibility is constrained by its price. How many members will be able or willing to fork out 60, particularly at a time when there is minimal interest in anything beyond pavements and lamp posts, is a very moot point.

"The Revival of British Liberalism - From Grimond to Clegg," by Tudor Jones, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, ISBN 978 1 4039 4428 3, 60

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