More thoughts on the Liberal Democrats

by Elias Blum

I find the Liberal Democrats a very interesting party, in terms of their role and positioning in British politics. It seems they are caught between three different, often contradictory positions.

Firstly, they try to be a ‘centre’ party, seeking moderation and compromise, looking for the middle ground, avoiding extremes, and taking an ‘equidistant’ position between Labour and the Conservatives.

Secondly, they try to be a ‘liberal’ party, taking an ideologically liberal view on policies based on a philosophy of individualism, choice, freedom and ‘small government’. Sometimes, this leads them into territory that is ‘left’ on social and civil liberties issues, and sometimes it leads them into territory that is to the ‘right’ on economic issues. But in neither case can their position be said to be ‘centrist’. Liberalism is not the middle ground between socialism and capitalism; liberalism is the ideology of capitalism. 

Thirdly, they try to be a ‘radical’ party, which appeals to the outsiders, the misfits, and those who are dissatisfied with the political system as a whole. They try to put things on to the political agenda and to change the basis of politics, and in so doing to deal with the issues that the other parties will not touch, or to represent interests that are otherwise. For a long time, they were the only champions of environmentalism. They are the only party to really think about major constitutional change. There’s a strong left-learning stream within the party, people who care about poverty and economic inequality, and who would be nearly socialists, but for the fact that they also value civil liberties and decentralisation, and rightly hate the corrupt, centralising and authoritarian ways of the Labour machine.

All three of these positions are deeply ingrained in the party’s history, culture and identity. But the contradictions between them are never resolved. As the party jostles for some sort of electoral success and political relevance, it is forced to move between these positions – presenting itself as a safe, moderate ‘centre’ party here, an ideologically liberal party there, and a radical challenger of the status quo elsewhere. All this just makes it seem, to the outside observer, fickle, opportunist and untrustworthy.