Guardian: Make it Happen “a shift towards liberal traditions and away from social democratic ones”

by Stephen Tall on July 21, 2008

There’s an interesting and pretty perceptive editorial in today’s Guardian taking a thoughtful look at the Lib Dems’ Make it Happen policy proposal paper, launched by Nick Clegg last week. (And, whether it was deliberate or not, let me take a moment to congratulate The Guardian on not rushing to judgment, but taking a reflective, carefully considered, and rounded look at the document).

And broadly it gives Make it Happen a thumbs-up, albeit in a back-handed way for those who came into the party through the SDP:

Liberal Democrats do not think of their party, as the media does, in terms of its position relative to Labour and the Conservatives. They lay claim to ideological roots of their own, liberal values of independence and fair treatment and scepticism about state command that predates not just New Labour, but socialism. Mr Clegg’s new document draws on these old themes. It is critical of big government, without lapsing into libertarianism, and is clear that the party does not (unlike Labour’s Fabian tradition) see high state spending as a moral good in itself. As such it represents a shift towards liberal traditions and away from social democratic ones that have shaped policy since the 1980s and which culminated in the only one most voters could remember, the promise to put a penny on income tax for education.

And it also acquits the party of making this shift solely for tactical reasons:

Try as he might, Mr Clegg will not be able to shake off the suspicion that he is courting Conservatives (and Conservative votes in his threatened marginal seats in the south), but it is unfair to caricature his leadership in this way. He is trying to propose an alternative to a Labour model of social justice that he believes has run its course. That does not mean he accepts the merits of the Conservative model. Nor does it mean that he is forcing his party into new clothes that will not fit. Last week’s document was not so new, after all – even if the ambition to cut taxes overall has never been spelled out so clearly. It took in much existing party policy – including specific cuts in government programmes, such as ID cards, to fund tax cuts for people on low incomes. The emphasis was different, as was the (unconvincing) tabloid language: “Get the government off people’s backs.” But the party has been moving in this direction for some time, and began to move before Mr Cameron became Tory leader.

There are a couple of specific cautions: that the Lib Dems will have to prove they can find £20bn of public expenditure cuts; and that the party should spell out more clearly the redistributionist elements of the tax package. But there is unabashed praise for the party’s questioning of how far national government is able or competent to deliver social justice:

At least the Liberal Democrats are engaged in the debate about the central state, and its failure to guarantee social justice, a debate Labour struggles to enter, but which needs to be had.