The Sad End of British Liberalism

Tim Farron’s paean of praise for Tony Blair yesterday marks the disgraceful end of the political embodiment of a great tradition of thought. In truth there is no ideological reason why the Blairites should not join today’s Lib Dems after their imminent humiliation in the leadership election. What they do next will be entirely down to their calculation of career advantage. There is no ideological reason both Lib Dems and Blairities should not fold into the Tories. However that would destroy the chances of giving the electorate the mere illusion of free choice, when they have still not given up the idea of removing Corbyn and destroying the chance of actual meaningful choice.

Because the Lib Dems, Blairites and Tories all subscribe to a single ideology of neo-liberalism at home and neo-conservatism abroad. Under Kinnock then Blair, the opposing ideology of organised labour was expunged from the Labour Party, and even such obviously popular and necessary objectives as re-privatising the railways were foresworn. Under Clegg, the Lib Dems abandoned their own, even older, radical tradition and signed up to the twin gods of finance sector led economies and neo-imperialism.

My own political thought springs entirely from the Liberal tradition. I am a Radical, not a socialist. If asked to name the single book which had most influenced my political beliefs, would unhesitatingly name Imperialism by J A Hobson – a great and truly ground-breaking work, now almost completely neglected. But beyond that my influences include Paine, Hazlitt, John Stuart Mill, Keynes, Beveridge and Grimond. I am not a utopian but a much better society is possible. In the 1970s we enjoyed state ownership of utilities and natural monopolies, free university tuition and student maintenance, and a more humane benefits system and powerful trade unions. Those things would be a good start towards ending the runaway inequality which replaced them.

The intrinsic link between neo-liberalism at home and neo-conservatism abroad was demonstrated by Thatcher. In her first term as Prime Minister she was massively unpopular and well behind Michael Foot’s Labour Party in the opinion polls. What turned it round and saved the neo-liberal project was not an economic upturn – unemployment remained over 3 million – but the colossal wave of jingoism unleashed by the Falklands War. It is precisely the phenomenon analysed by J A Hobson in Imperialism, the use of wars abroad to gain cheap popularity at home while boosting the sectional financial interests of the arms manufacturers, and political, military and security classes.

As I am next week at the Sam Adams award presentation to John Kiriakou, I commend to you this speech at a previous presentation by Col. Larry Wilkerson, former Chief of Staff to Colin Powell, which addressed this exact subject. It is well worth hearing.

Now Tim Farron has appealed to the Blairites to join (and the Guardian has followed it up with a second article today) I do hope that some of the genuinely radical loyalists who remain in the party realise they either have to make one last organised and determined fight to regain control, or give up. After thirty years of membership, I left the Lib Dems over two things – the declaration they were unequivocally a “Unionist party”, and their failure to stop – or even attempt to stop – Tory continuation of New Labour’s privatisation and “marketization” within the NHS. I saw genuine liberals like Charie Kennedy sidelined, ignored and sometimes ridiculed.

I am as nostalgic as the next man, but now it has completely abandoned any pretence at ideological connection to its origins, I can see no possible purpose in the continued existence of the Liberal Democrats.

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