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Shelley Society

Mr Duncan Brack, “Liberal Democrats and the state: are the Lib Dems a right- or left-wing party?”

The Shelley Society was honoured to be addressed by Mr Duncan Brack, the first ever Policy Advisor for the Liberal Democrats, prolific author and editor of Liberal texts and current editor of the Journal of Liberal History. His talk was eloquent and comprehensive in answering the question of whether the Liberal Democrats were a right-wing or left-wing party.

Mr Brack captured the attention of the audience from the beginning. He illustrated the difficulty of defining the liberal philosophy with a humorous quote from Malcolm Bradbury who said, “had God had been a liberal we wouldn’t have had the Ten Commandments – we’d have the Ten Suggestions.”

Mr Brack outlined the context of liberalism in modern British political history by describing the evolution of liberal thought in each decade since the turn of the Twentieth Century. In doing this, he defined two major forms of liberalism: economic liberalism and social liberalism. He explained that both have had times of dominance in British politics and the ideas are not impossible to reconcile in theory although in practice they can conflict. Put simply, he defined economic liberalism as similar to laissez-faire capitalism in which the state has minimal intervention and the liberal keystone of individual freedom is maintained by the right to create wealth and be economically independent. Social liberalism was defined as a practical approach to upholding the liberties of individuals by ensuring equality of opportunity. Although this may involve larger government, Mr Brack emphasised that it does not contradict fundamental liberal principles.

On the balance of evidence, Mr Brack concluded that the modern Liberal Democrat policy was closer to social liberalism and therefore the party is more left-wing. From a historical perspective, Mr Brack justified this by emphasising that the Labour Party grew out of the liberal tradition in the early 1900s. He also demonstrated that although the social liberal concept of equality of opportunity is not equivalent to the left-wing notion of equality of outcome, it is still more associated with the left than the right. The current Liberal Democrat policies on healthcare, education and welfare reforms (with the possibility of higher taxes) certainly suggest a social liberal approach. Mr Brack responded confidently to the question that such state intervention contradicts liberal principles. He emphasised that the ultimate end of the freedom of opportunity and the expansion of local rather than national government would avoid a ‘police-state’ and threats to individual freedoms.

Mr Brack concluded with some thought-provoking comments on the difficulties of the two-party political system. As parties ‘need’ to distinguish themselves so clearly in terms of left and right, they often have conflicting policies only for the purposes of winning elections. Mr Brack suggests it would be a better political system if governments were elected by proportional representation.

The enthusiastic discussion at the end emphasised how well Mr Brack had engaged the audience. Many thanks to all those who attended, to LJP and of course to Mr Brack.

Rishab Mehan OS (CMJ)


DATE POSTED: 25 February 2009

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