Liberal Republicanism - a Critique

Article excerpt

There is a whiff of Victorianism in the air this year, and much of it is wafting across the river from Demos's London Bridge offices. The think tank's new director, Richard Reeves, is moving its politics towards those of a latter day Gladstone and, as if to emphasise the point, he briefly appointed a latter day Disraeli in the form of 'red Tory' Phillip Blond.

The impact of Reeves's arrival at Demos should not be understated. Since taking over a year ago, he has given the place a thorough makeover, shifting it from centre-left to new liberal in its political outlook. The prospectus for this shift was published earlier in the year under the title The Liberal Republic (Reeves and Collins, 2009). The pamphlet is part of a self-proclaimed mission to set the future direction of the Labour Party, with James Purnell its newly appointed helmsman.

The argument, briefly, is that the real dividing line in politics is not between left and right, but between those who want to hoard power and those who want to give it away. This used to be Labour Party code for Brownites and Blairites, but the liberal republicans want to go beyond these old political categories. Reeves and his co-author, the former Blair speech writer Phillip Collins, want to argue that both social democrats and social conservatives are fundamentally hoarders, vesting power either in state institutions or in the status quo. By contrast, Reeves and Collins want to give power to individuals.

This results in calls for more taxes on unearned wealth, more choice in public services, decentralisation of policymaking to local government and beyond, an interest in employee share-holding and mutualism and a tough questioning of paternalism. At the heart of the liberal republican argument is the idea of capability - that there is no point in offering people choices unless you also ensure that they have the education, health and self-confidence to use them.

But this call to put individual liberty at the heart of our politics seems all too often like an answer in search of a question. Since when was Britain's primary problem a lack of personal independence? Many of our problems are really about coping with the unprecedented levels of personal freedom that have been unleashed over the past half century, and the impact that this has had on our capacity for collective action. From climate change to community cohesion - which is actually declining in many parts of the country (Duffy and Chan, 2009) - our problems often reflect the public consequences of independently chosen public actions.

The public certainly do not feel that they lack individual liberty. A survey in 2007 showed that 50 per cent support the idea that the government should do more to discourage people from activities that are bad for them, against only 30 per cent disagreeing (lpsos Mori, 2007). This is the public actually volunteering to be regulated for its own good.

Strangely enough, the new liberals do not entirely disagree with this kind of paternalism. For all their claims to radicalism, they often end up finding liberal justifications for existing policies. So it's OK to tax cigarettes, not because they're morally bad but because the money has to come from somewhere, and it might as well be from harmful substances. Similarly it's OK to restrict people's freedom to pollute, but only because pollution represents a form of 'deferred killing'. Meanwhile, some of the really radical implications of liberalism are ignored. Would a liberal republican legalise drugs? What would he do about immigration?

While the Reeves and Collins proposals around private sector mutualism and public sector user empowerment are intriguing - and their insistence on the importance of civil liberties is bracing - I want to suggest that their liberalism fails as a political philosophy for a future government for three key reasons. First, the idea of capabilities sets the bar for equality too low. …