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Are we all liberals now?

Demos_basicvector_rgb_area250 Shadow Chancellor George Osborne and Universities spokesman David Willetts have joined the board of Demos as part of this once Left-wing organisation's repositioning.  Writing in The Guardian Mr Osborne explains that he won't always agree with Demos' recommendations but hopes that many will influence Tory policy formation.

Demos has moved sharply to the centre in recent times and has set up the Progressive Conservative Project under self-styled Red Tory, Philip Blond.  Greg Clark MP and Zac Goldsmith are two of the PCP's advisors.

Demos sets out its new creed in a paper entitled The Liberal Republic by Demos' Director Richard Reeves and Times leader writer Philip Collins.  Here are some of the key ideas:

  • The difference between liberals and libertarians involves an active state: "Liberals, unlike their libertarian distant cousins, do not however assume that the conditions for a self-directed life emerge out of thin air. Independence requires a set of what Amartya Sen labels capabilities – especially financial resources, education and skills and health."
  • Institutions have no automatic right to loyalty: "For republican liberals, institutions exist to serve individuals, not the other way round. The power to exit from, ignore or abolish institutions ultimately rests with individual people. Conservatives believe, by contrast, that power ought to inhere in the institutions themselves. Economic conservatives invest private sector corporations with power, even when they are acting arbitrarily and monopolistically. Social conservatives emphasise the family, church or community. Social democrat conservatives gather power to the state. The social democrat who wants a centralised, prescriptively defined state education system will clash noisily with the social conservative who wants to use the tax system to encourage heterosexual marriage or protect the privileges of an established church. But they share a view that institutions should hold sway. Institutions and communities can be valuable and liberating, or cloying and dangerous. Bertrand Russell warned against ‘attributing ethical qualities to communities as such’, and insisted that ‘what is good or bad is embodied in individuals, not primarily in communities’."
  • Subsidiarity: "Republican liberals insist that power is held at the lowest level possible. Discussions in political circles about ‘devolving’ power approach the question from the wrong direction.  The default assumption should be that individuals have power, unless there is a good reason for consolidating power upwards to communities, local agencies, national government, or international bodies. Individuals should control their own health or social care, for example, through the possession of an individual budget: an approach to policy being pursued in the UK, but at a glacial pace."

By investing so heavily in a relationship with Demos the Tory leadership is communicating that it occupies the space once captured by the New Labour zeitgeist.  Demos gets relevance in an era when Labour is in serious retreat.

Demos' move worries its founder Martin Jacques.  He told The Guardian: "As the person who set Demos up and co-founded it, our motivation was that it would be non-affiliated on the centre-left. I think we need an anchor of some kind. But I still think you need some coordinates. People need to know where you're coming from and I don't think I know where Demos is coming from now. I know where it was coming from."

The ownership of liberalism is at the heart of current politics.  Ben Brogan asks today 'Could Labour turn into a liberal party after Gordon Brown is beaten?'.  Alan Milburn, who will sit on the Demos board with George Osborne tells Independent readers that "more state is not the answer".  One of the very first acts of David Cameron after becoming Tory leader was his December 2005 speech when he declared himself a liberal conservative.

Tim Montgomerie


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