In her foreword to the Green Party manifesto, Caroline Lucas suggests that the Liberal Democrats have dumped their positive attitude towards government intervention, in favour of the view that ‘the state is a problem’. The ‘nice party’, she writes, ‘have just got nastier’.
The implication that the party has abandoned its cuddly social liberalism in favour of a mean-minded economic liberalism is intended as a slight, but will be music to the ears of many Lib Dems.
Not least among these will be David Laws, who has been arguing for some time that his party’s economic liberal tradition has been suffering from benign neglect. In the opening chapter of The Orange Book, published in 2004, Laws wrote that between the 1930s and the 1980s the old Liberal Party had embraced ‘forms of soggy socialism’ at the expense of a commitment to ‘free market principles’. The Liberal Democrats now had to reclaim those principles.
If the Lib Dems of 2010 seem ‘nastier’ than their predecessors, one might think, it can only be because Laws’ project to restore economic liberal values to their rightful place has succeeded.
One might think that – but one shouldn’t, for two reasons. First, because you cannot reclaim something that you never lost. Although the party certainly did experiment with ‘soggy socialism’, the Liberals never dispensed with economic liberalism in the way that Laws suggests.
Through the 1950s and beyond the party provided a political home for numerous economic liberals – not just sometime leader Jo Grimond, but also figures like Arthur Seldon and Alan Peacock – many of whom played a significant role in shaping Liberal thought.
Publications like The Unservile State and Radical Alternative, although now long forgotten, show the clear imprimatur of these economic liberals.
Second, because any reassertion of ‘nasty’ economic liberalism that has taken place has not obviously dampened the party’s commitment to ‘nice’ social liberalism. The Liberal Democrat manifesto is more explicitly redistributive than its Labour or Conservative counterparts, and reveals an obsession with fairness which borders on the pathological.
Although the party may no longer have the headline-grabbing tax policies of 1997 or 2005 – no penny for education, no fifty pence rate for the highest earners – it is no less socially liberal for their absence. A pledge to cut tax for the poorest is arguably more progressive than a pledge to raise tax for the richest – though, as it happens, present Lib Dem policies would do both of those things.
None of which is to say that a Liberal Democrat government would be ‘nice’. Whichever party is in government after May 6th is going to be forced to make cuts, and Nick Clegg has already signalled his intent to be as ‘savage’ as the situation demands. But there is no reason to believe that the Lib Dems are any ‘nastier’ than they ever were.