Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Radicals, Soggies and Free Market Liberals

Last week saw the celebration of  Nation Poetry Day so let us start with a poem. It is often said that the poems you learn by heart as a child stay with you. So here is the beginning one my English teacher, Mr Russell, made me memorise:

WHY is it that the poet tells
So little of the sense of smell?
These are the odours I love well:

The smell of coffee freshly ground;
Or rich plum pudding, holly crowned;
Or onions fried and deeply browned.

Those words came to mind when I was reflecting on the Lib Dem Conference. Why is it that the media tell so little of the Radical tradition? There is almost a conscious effort to erase all mention. Of course it suits some to do so. By far the tiniest strand within the party is the small state/low tax/market /individualistic folk that cluster round LiberalVision.  They like to pretend that the main debate is between themselves and social democrats. The Westminster media have heard of both and it suits the narrative into which they wish to squeeze the Party

This was graphically illustrated by the reporting of the Social Liberal Forum Conference. Take for example AllegraStratton:

On Saturday, Mr Clegg will be paying homage to the left of his party, the social democratic group Social Liberal Forum, when he delivers the annual Beveridge lecture on the "five giant evils" - squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease.

This set off a flurry of indignation and much shaking of heads at that Conference. The Disgruntled Radical has written about this and the noble Lord at Liberal England has asked the question: What is the difference between Social Liberals (Radicals) and Social Democracy.

 I ask the question again because I believe that the Radical tradition within our Party, which is the largest grouping, is punching well below its weight and the party is the poorer because of that.

I will rehearse some of the history later but for now let us assert that there has always been a Radical/Advanced Liberal movement. In its modern guise it dates back to the movement led at the end of the C19 Century by the likes of T H Green, L T Hobhouse, J Hobson etc. They turned their back on classical Liberalism seeking to make the pursuit of liberty relevant and meaningful to everyone. Intellectually they laid the foundations of the 1906 Government. Their ideas and approach attracted and sustained the Radicals of the difficult years between the wars: Keynes, Beveridge, Ramsey Muir, E D Simon, Eliot Dodds etc.

The party was very small in the days after WW2 and easily prey to a small band of well funded free market Liberals. In response to this threat Desmond Banks et al set up the RadicalReform Group (RRG) defined as:

The founding members were concerned that, in the years after the Second World War, under the leadership of Clement Davies, the party was falling unduly under the sway of classical, free-market liberals and was drifting to the right[2]. Under the influence of economic Liberals such as Oliver Smedley and Arthur Seldon who helped establish the Institute of Economic Affairs, the think tank which was to later become an engine of Thatcherism, the Liberal ship was coming loose from the New Liberal anchors it had adopted from the 1890s and reinforced in the 1920s with the Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge inspired coloured books

William Wallace wrote to the Liberal History Journal making much the same point:

The group of free-trade Liberals that included S.W.Alexander and Oliver Smedley had drive, financial resources, and a clear sense of Liberalism in a libertarian, minimum-state interpretation. The almost anarchic structure of party assemblies allowed for such groups to exert real influence.

RRG, as I recall, provided the most coherent alternative definition of Liberalism – much closer to the radical Liberal tradition, and to the nonconformist beliefs which a high proportion of its members held. It helped enormously that Jo Grimond as leader was naturally sympathetic to the RRG perspective; but the existence and activities of RRG, and the arguments of its members on the Party Executive, made Grimond’s task in reorienting the party much easier.

Joining the party in 1960, I caught only echoes of the arguments that had convulsed the then-tiny part in the 1950s. My future father-in-law, Edward Rushworth, had for many years been both a member of RRG and of the party executive.

He made little distinction between being a Liberal and being a teetotal nonconformist; his instincts were anti authoritarian and socially egalitarian.

All of this sound familiar?- a well funded group of free market believers taking over a party. Thatcher, New Labour, Orange Book........................

The Radical Reform Group won through and the free marketers took their money off to found the IEA and influence Thatcherism, allowing Grimond’s Liberal party to flourish.

The Radical flames was well and truly alight and taken up by many including the YL’s. When Thorpe became Leader and the ferment of ideas died down and so  Radical Bulletin came along and Liberator

Today groups like Liberal Left and Social Liberal Forum (SLF) exist and certainly the latter has a fair claim to represent the mainstream of the Party.

In the next posting I will attempt to answer the question : what can Radicals bring to the party that Social Democrats and Free Market minority cannot- other than the smell of  printer's ink on the Riso


  1. Birkdale Focus, 2012: "a well funded group of free market believers taking over a party. Thatcher, New Labour, Orange Book........................

    The Radical Reform Group won through and the free marketers took their money off to found the IEA and influence Thatcherism, allowing Grimond’s Liberal party to flourish."

    Joe Grimmond, 1980: “Much of what Mrs Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph say and do is in the mainstream of liberal philosophy”

  2. Hi Tom, firstly let me apologies for taking so long to get back to your comments, I've been busy with a 'save the libraries campaign'. I suppose we could have sold them off to a private sector provider- Boots used to do Libraries-but we are committed to this being a Local Authority service

    As to Jo; of course there is language in common with those who adopted neo liberal economic ideas, that is hardly surprising but we need to look at the substance. Jo was pro Europe, pro community initiatives, pro economic intervention (Highlands and Islands Development Board, pro federalism, pro a major redistribution of wealth(hence his frequent acknowledgement of the Distributionists) and very strong on workers' ownership of industry. It must be pointed out that in his day that meant company Law was to be amended to give statutory rights to all employees in firms over 50 employees-far more radical than the dumbed down version passed at Brighton this year.
    He would never of contemplated the destruction of the Mutual sector of Building Societies and TSB etc
    Speaking at the launch of the organisation that is now EOA Jo spoke of Socialism without the state and praised the Guild Socialist tradition. Not words you'd hear from Thatcher. But his strategy was quite clear. David Dutton's History of the Liberal Party p 195 : 'I would like to see the radical side of politics-the Liberals and most of the Labour Party make a new appeal....There must be a bridge between socialism and the Liberal policy of co-ownership in industry through a type of syndicalism coupled with a non-conformist outlook such as propounded on many issues by George Orwell'


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