There has been a bit of a debate waging over the past week about “classical (or economic) liberals versus social liberals,” partly due to the launch of the Social Liberal Forum and exacerbated by a recent editorial in Liberator Magazine.
For the record, while the Social Liberal Forum does indeed believe that social liberalism is the mainstream ideology of the Liberal Democrats, we do not believe it is incompatible with other strands of liberalism. Being a broad church, and having its tenets challenged from time to time is healthy for a political party.
We established the Social Liberal Forum to encourage debate within the party not to shut it down. Everything we have done thus far (the Ideas Factory, the policy discussion evenings) has revolved around this. We very deliberately chose to launch this website with David Howarth’s article examining the different strands of liberal thought precisely to move on from debate which at times can be dogmatic and based on the assumption (often promoted by the media) that this is a zero-sum game in which for economic liberals to ‘win’ social liberals must automatically ‘lose’, and vice versa.
David Howarth adds:
My views on this are well known – ‘economic’ vs ‘social’ is a debate within social liberalism about means, not ends. ‘Classical’ vs ‘social’ liberalism is a different debate within liberalism about whether the core commitments of liberalism should be supplemented by commitments to the redistribution of wealth and power and to democracy for its own sake. It’s important not to get these two debates confused.
But I do think the Liberator ‘Blues under the Bed’ editorial is quite wrong when it claims that classical and social liberalism cannot exist within the same party. That depends on what the leading issues of the day are. When current politics is exclusively about the redistribution of wealth it might well be difficult to keep a combined liberal party together. But if the issues of the day include a large element of having to defend core liberal values – such as political freedom and civil liberties and keeping the state out of private lives – I can’t see why liberals of all kinds could not work together, even in government.