Why Liberal? Time to give the public a proper answer after 80 years

by Stephen Tall on May 26, 2010

In an effort to cure my election campaign withdrawal symptoms I’ve been reading a book published in 1964, Why Liberal?, a Penguin special which was one of a pre-election series covering the three major parties’ policies. This publishing tradition was revived most recently by imprint Biteback, with Why Vote Liberal Democrat?, edited by Danny Alexander, proving a surprise hit.

The 1964 version was written by Harry Cowie, then director of the Liberal party’s research department – probably in something of a hurry, as big topics such as the health service are apologetically omitted (“as they have in any case been the subject of comprehensive Liberal proposals”).

As ever, part of the joy of dipping into these historical snapshots is seeing what’s changed, and what’s stayed the same.

A number of the Liberal pre-occupations of 1964 seem eerily familiar. Let’s take this not inaccurate sweeping generalisation:

The Tory party is dominated by old Etonians, the civil service by arts-trained administrators … London – and especially the City – has tended to dominate British economic and political life. The northern and midland manufacturers had to come to the City for finance and they sent their children to public schools and ancient universities for social recognition, where they learnt that it was socially acceptable to be merchant bankers, senior civil servants, or classical dons, but not technicians. The ‘City’ mentality of the Conservative party has misled it into holding back expansion in order to keep up the myth of the £. It has pursued economic policies which have created the largest capital gains in British history but which have also kept Britain at the bottom of the international league tables in almost every indicator of economic performance. (pp. 10-11)

Or how about this condemnation of the two old parties:

Why has more action not been taken by the Labour and Conservative governments to create a more competitive economy? … Competition, to the Labour party, is a ‘jungle’ which they abhor, preferring, as they do, controls and direction from Whitehall. The Conservative party is likewise reluctant to tread on the toes of its particular vested interests. (pp. 24-25)

Or the need to re-balance the tax system:

There is also a great need for radical changes in the tax system to encourage efficiency rather than tax avoidance. At present our tax system leans too heavily on earnings. … The general body of taxpayers is divided into the wealthy, who employ skilled men … and consequently know how to avoid paying the tax proportionate to their wealth, and those who are not so wealthy but pay tax at rates which are higher than they need be if the burden was fairly shared. (pp. 26-27)

Or the need to decentralise power from the centre to local communities:

Power needs to be brought directly to the regions of Britain. … People will not be encouraged to participate in the activity of regional regeneration unless the various processes of government are brought as close to the people as possible. … So long as power is centralized in London, people will inevitably drift to the south-east. … At present Whitehall Ministries are responsible for allocating school building funds and industrial location certificates and hospital building funds, but many of these Whitehall decisions are the subject of complaints on the grounds of delay, bad decisions based on ignorance of local conditions, and lack of coordination between one decision and another. (pp. 18-19)

The Liberal party even flagged up its pioneering support for congestion charging:

… consideration should be given to the use of meters on cars which could be made to be activated on entry of the vehicle to a congested zone. The motorist would receive a bill at, say, quarterly intervals for the charges incurred. (p.73)

True, there are differences between then and now. In 1964, the party was demanding “the pay and conditions of M.P.s must be improved in order to increase the efficiency and drawing power of the House of Commons” (p.17). Hard to imagine that clarion call going down well in 2010.

The party was also in clamping down on drink driving, demanding that “it should be made an offence to drive a vehicle when there is 0.05 per cent or more of alcohol in the blood. This is roughly equivalent to having drunk three whiskies or 1.5 pints of beer on an empty stomach.” (p.77) Times change.

But what struck me most was the resonance of the Liberal vision from 1964 to the present day. Of course the policies and language are different, but many of the essential problems – economic policies dictated by vested interests, a tax system that favours non-productive wealth over earned income, an over-centralised state which starves communties of self-government – are as true today as they were then.

And then another thought struck me, even harder. This book, Why Liberal?, was written in 1964, over 40 years ago. And at the time it was published, it was over 40 years since the last Liberal government. Eight decades is far too long to be out of power, able only to write books deploring the illiberal state of the nation.

Whatever the imperfections of the coalition government – and there are many, and will be more to come – surely it is better to have the opportunity now to try and offer liberal solutions to the problems the country faces?

The alternative is simply to continue writing books exhorting the public to vote Liberal Democrat without ever giving them the evidence that a liberal government can work. The next five years gives us our first, best opportunity in a lifetime to provide a proper answer to an age-old question, Why Liberal?