Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Labour and liberalism

Patrick Diamond and Michael Kenny urge the Labour Party to rediscover its "lost liberalism". They write:


We should not forget that the Labour party's liberal heritage has been just as important as its collectivist and statist tradition... It ought to rediscover the insights of early 20th century progressivism: welfare and equality as the basis of a society where all have the freedom to flourish.

Which early 20th century progressives they have in mind, they don't say. I must say a commitment to individual liberty and flourishing isn't the first thing I think of when it comes to early 20th century progressivism. The intellectual cutting edge of British socialism in the first half of the last century was more obviously characterised by enthusiasms for Stalin and eugenics. Diamond and Kenny describe the former Labour project as one of "redistributing power from corporate and bureaucratic elites", whereas it plainly involved redistributing power from corporate to bureaucratic elites. Which wasn't necessarily an improvement.

Sidney Webb, creator of the Fabian Society and intellectual founding father of the modern Labour movement, once wrote that "the perfect and fitting development of each individual is not necessarily the utmost and highest cultivation of his own personality but the fitting, in the best possible way, of his humble function in the great social machine."

Or consider George Bernard Shaw's claim that "the very existence of society depends on the skilled work of administrators and experts." Shaw thought it absurd that while even market traders needed a licence "any fool might be elected to Parliament". He favoured the vetting of candidates on the grounds that "without qualified rulers a socialist state is impossible."

What the Labour Party has lost in recent decades, is scarcely needs saying, is not liberalism but socialism.