Ideology and Policy
Social Democracy or Social Liberalism? Ideological Sources of Liberal Democrat Policy
RICHARD S . GRAYSON
When the Liberal Democrats grew in signi®cance in the late 1990s, one sign of that was the attraction of the nearsupport of a national newspaper, The Independent. However, that support,perhaps because of the paper's name and ethos, has not been uncritical, and a particular bugbear for its leader writers and commentators has been that some of the party's policies exhibit tendencies of social democracy. In September 2000, commenting on the party's pre-election programme, the paper conceded that it `convinces when it follows the party's more radical instincts' and that it was `askilful piece of political positioning'. However, the paper was very critical of the party's economic policy, saying that there was `little that is authentically liberal and radical', and that it had `the fusty whi of ``tax and spend'' social democracy about it'. It added:
When Charles Kennedy says he wants to see a Britain where `as the country does better, the poor do best', he speaks the purelanguage of Croslandism . . .
Such accusations were repeated in September 2002 following Kennedy's speech to party conference, when The Independent described the party's public services policy as based on `the mantras of oldfashioned social democracy'. Two years
on, John Rentoul talked about `Kennedy's soggy social democracy'.1 Perhaps this should surprise nobody. After all, the party wasformed from two parties, one liberal, the other social democratic. Leading ®gures in the party, including both the previous party leader and the current leader in the House of Lords, were members of the SDP and before that (if only brie¯y in Kennedy's case) the Labour Party. Yet that is not re¯ected in the way the party labels itself or thinks about its beliefs. The party is regularly referred to asthe `Liberals' as a shorthand, and many members appear happy to describe themselves as `liberal' and say that they believe in `liberalism'. But, it is rare to ®nd a party member saying that he or she is a `social democrat', or that he or she believes in `social democracy'. This article assesses how far the label of social democracy can be accurately applied to Liberal Democrat policy. In sodoing, it argues that there is much common ground between party policy and social democracy. However, this has partly been due to the political context of a Conservative government pursuing decidedly inegalitarian policies. That has led the party to lay stress on aspects of its policy that tackle inequalities, rather than concerns over political liberty or centralisation. Subsequently, after nearly adecade of a Labour government that the party has seen as centralising and
# The Author 2007. Journal compilation # The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2007 Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
illiberal, the party has laid greater stress on its liberal heritage. This does not mean that liberalswithin the party have asserted themselves over social democrats. Rather, it is because the party is broadly a social liberal rather than a social democratic one. Social liberalism, as set out most clearly in L. T. Hobhouse's Liberalism in 1911,2 places freedom above all, but sees twin threats to freedom: economic inequality and over-mighty state power. So when inequality is neglected by government,social liberals tend to focus on policies to tackle it. When government is working to reduce inequality, social liberals are more likely to be concerned about tempering the power of the state. This mix of attitudes ¯ows more clearly from social liberalism than from social democracy. However, that does not reduce the considerable amount of shared ground between the Liberal Democrats and social...