The ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal centre’ is not silent: a reply to the estimable David Boyle

by Stephen Tall on May 18, 2015

boyle blogI’m discovering a new affinity with the word ‘gnosis’ – not so much the spiritual side as that the ‘g’ is silent. And similarly, whenever I talk about the ‘liberal centre’, it appears only the word ‘centre’ is heard.

I say this because one of the best, most thoughtful, Lib Dem bloggers around, David Boyle, has today (in the nicest possible way) hauled me over the coals:

Now I’m all for moderation and compromise, as long as it is a small part of a greater ambition. At least, that’s what I thought as I read Stephen Tall’s contribution on this very subject, which he called ‘Why the Lib Dems should stick to centrism’ (I’ve shortened this, but you get the gist).

The bit that got shortened? Well, here’s my actual headline: ‘Why the Lib Dems should stick in the liberal centre‘. It’s that invisible word ‘liberal’. I wouldn’t mention this, except that I do end up having this debate rather a lot with people who when I say ‘liberal centre’ hear only ‘centrism’.

However, having released that over-defensive been from my bonnet, let me also acknowledge that David has called me out correctly on an important point.

As a truncated short-hand to make my point why Lib Dems are so often (self-)defined as economically centrist, I noted the party had “long favoured a mixed economy in which free enterprise is balanced against workers’ rights”. (I also noted that we been similarly centrist on public services, “open to either/both state and/or private provision of public services, rarely dogmatic, often preferring a combination if that’s what works best.”)

As David points out, though, Liberals have long championed an alternative “approach to economics based on the same Liberal principles that we use for everything else: Karl Popper’s idea of the open society, where the small must be allowed to challenge the big, and the poor, powerless and local must be able to challenge the rich, powerful and central. That is the original meaning of the Liberal concept of free trade, which emerged originally out of the anti-slavery movement as a critique of monopoly, a guarantee of the right to challenge from below.”

More specifically he advocates:

“a Liberal approach that [is] neither conventionally right or left, but which is emphatically not a compromise:

  • It would be based on a major expansion of small business and enterprise, and of the institutions that entrepreneurs need: local banks, enterprise support, mutual support, maybe even mutual credit.
  • It would mean a genuine rebalancing of the economy away from finance and property and towards productive capacity (see recent IMF report that too much finance damages an economy).
  • And it would mean a major monopoly-busting measures to give people better choice and more vibrant, diverse local economies.
  • This has echoes in some of the work that Lib Dem peer Baroness (Susan) Kramer has been advocating in the banking sector:

    If you live in a disadvantaged community, if you are yourself on benefits or a low income, if you are trying to start a new small business, there is really no place in the banking system for you. By the end of the year, and thanks to work I have done with colleagues, the big banks will be disclosing by post-code which types of lending they are doing and how much. I suspect we will see real vacuums. Add to that the limited capabilities in basic bank accounts and the success of the price-gouging payday lenders and it is clear that we need banking services of a different kind altogether. We should be building a network of Community Development Banks, Credit Unions and Funds (CDFIs) focused on our local communities who will also run them. The high street banks, as part of their banking licence, should support these CDFIs with both capital and skills. Local authorities, charities and social enterprises need to be part of the CDFI structure.

    And also echoes of the ‘grassroots economics’ which Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams AM has been championing:

    … a British economic recovery will only come about when every part of the UK’s economic machine is working properly. Every cog must be well-oiled. The Treasury will realise this when it sees the benefits to itself of a UK-wide recovery. Its own revenue streams will be boosted if areas like Wales, or the north-east of England, or the Scottish central belt return to economic productivity. Decades of centralised government have shown us that this does not happen automatically. But recent experience suggests that devolution, when accompanied by real power to improve the economy, can make it happen. Economic growth is improved when local units have control over economic levers and a radical approach to the distribution of power must recognise this. If the competitiveness of the UK economy is one of the biggest long-term challenges facing politicians, then we must make sure our constitution gives us the power to compete.

    As it happens, I think both approaches are compatible with what I’d call ‘liberal centrism’: these are practical, sensible ideas which would gain widespread support and move the economy in a liberal direction.

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    3 comments

    Centrism is vacuous marketing speak and therefore compatible with just about anything.

    by Andrew on May 18, 2015 at 5:23 pm. Reply #

    Thanks so much, Stephen. I must admit to failing to quote your title properly. Funny how I didn’t notice the word ‘liberal’ either. I think you’re quite right. The problem I suppose is that when people hear the word centrism, they don’t reach for their revolver like Goering – but they do think, “oh a bit mushy”… But if the word is going to be understood positively, it will have to stand for something positive, not just somewhere that is neither right nor left – in which case, the word would be redundant…

    by David Boyle on May 18, 2015 at 9:08 pm. Reply #

    […] 4. The liberal in “liberal centre” is not silent: a reply to the estimable David Boyle by Stephen Tall on Stephen Tall . Stephen outlines some transformative economic ideas from the liberal centre. […]

    by Top of the Blogs: The Lib Dem Golden Dozen #416 | Liberal Democrat Voice on May 24, 2015 at 7:00 pm. Reply #

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