Monday, November 05, 2007

Leadership: “Do we find the cost of freedom buried in the ground?...”

…asked Crosby, Stills and Nash in their song ‘Daylight again’, released on the album of the same name in 1982. It is indeed a good question, and one that is particularly relevant in the light of the first two weeks of this leadership election.

In 2006, I had no feel that we were debating ideas in the Campbell/Huhne/Hughes contest, merely the rather nebulous concept of leadership, and perhaps that’s why the whole affair seemed to be so uninspired. I found myself with only one real option in Chris Huhne, for reasons I expanded upon at the time.

This time, it is radically different, and I use the word ‘radically’ advisedly. One thing that I’ve noticed this time is that there is a real passion out there for us to escape the tendency to ‘do something, anything’ and start thinking about what we need to do, why we need to do it, and how it should be done. There is also a desire to take it to our opponents in a way that is beyond narrow oppositionalism. It is, I confess, infectious, and even this increasingly non-faceless bureaucrat is sensing the symptoms of genuine enthusiasm.

Whilst supporters of both candidates appear keen to emphasise the differences between them, and I sometimes sense that those differences are being hyped up to be something rather more dramatic than they are, both of them seem perfectly comfortable with the notion that it is time for some rather more muscular liberalism, and that’s just fine by me.

I am bored with having to defend the liberal concept as defined by our opponents, centralist, control-freak Labour, or paternalist, and occasionally quite nasty, Conservatives. So it’s high time we talked about liberalism as a thoroughly good thing, where freedom to walk the streets is not something for an approved group (approved, might I add, by a bunch of people who define such a group as ‘people whose manner they approve of’), where everyone has access to the levers of power, where liberty doesn’t mean the freedom to be poor, oppressed or otherwise disadvantaged. It means a society where individuals have the tools required to play a full part in society, where the nebulous concept of fairness is replaced by justice, where rights come with responsibilities.

This will be unwelcome to some in our Party, I fear. There is a tendency in some areas of our policy making to say, “Something must be done, here is something, let’s do it.”, when a better solution might be to say, are we using the tools already at our disposal or even, is this a problem that actually requires action? I won’t name names, but some of you probably can. Our first question when considering an idea should be, how does this further freedom of the individual, and how might it restrict the freedom of others? On balance, is the equation weighted in favour of giving people control over their own lives and, if not, can we do something that enables them to do so in a real way? And before anyone gets too excited, I’m not wild about the concept of ‘laissez-faire’ either, as it tends to reward those with power at the expense of those without it.

This doesn’t mean that markets are perfect, far from it, and we can all list failures of the market without working too hard. On the other hand, governments are generally bad at running businesses or lives, so why not have government as enabler, a setter of minimum standards and a benefactor to those who are in genuine need?

And you know something, I suspect that voters would like that, the idea of government doing less, doing it better, a government of the people, for the people, by the people. We keep talking about the silent liberal majority in this country. Why not give them something to talk about? Messrs Clegg and Huhne, it’s over to you…


Jock Coats said...

“Do we find the cost of freedom buried in the ground?...”



Tristan said...

I find myself agreeing with you again.

This is the sort of talk I want from the party.

The one thing I'd like to add is that markets do fail, but it is those failures which drive the entrepreneurial process to find better ways of doing things and to improve our lives.

Market failure is not a reason for government intervention in itself, exclusion from the market is far more a reason for intervention (but not destruction of the market).

Government need not even provide all the rules (although there is a place for it), many rules are set by the institutions around us (the Soil Association for example sets out the rules for organic produce and the church is a self governing entity for example) it is where these fail that government's role begins in earnest.