Ryan Shorthouse is Director of Bright Blue.
The ‘local’ is in vogue. Liberalism isn’t. In the UK, at least.
These two points are related. A misrepresentation of liberalism has been cultivated in political discourse – that it’s the playthings of North Londoners obsessed with dinner parties, sexual freedom, and Class A drugs. Apparently, the economic and social liberalism that has dominated politics in recent decades has been pushed by, and only benefitted, a ‘liberal metropolitan elite’. So it’s time to direct resources to those Brexit-voting folks who live outside London and feel ‘left behind’. Hence the localist agenda: metro-mayors and the ‘Northern powerhouse’ will revitalise these areas and rebalance the UK economy.
The two main political parties have embraced and encouraged this damning depiction of liberal philosophy. Theresa May’s Conservative Party offers a ‘post-liberal’ vision, seeking to rein in the liberalism that overwhelmingly now guides public views and policymaking.
In the minds of the coterie of Mayites, contemporary liberalism has unleashed excessive individualism, with people focused on enriching themselves rather than their relationships with and responsibilities to others. Attacks on ‘citizens of nowhere’ and ‘elites’, coupled with a hard-line approach on immigration, reveal their deep scepticism with geographical and social mobility, strong tenets of liberal politics.
For the Corbynistas, liberal economics – the belief in a small state, free markets and the pursuit of profit – has made society sick and led to vile levels of poverty and inequality. Even Theresa May, admittedly, is lukewarm about economic liberalism, primarily offering market meddling in her manifesto.
But the clever clogs twisting and trashing liberalism ought to be careful. Providing intellectual fuel for anti-liberal, authoritarian populists like Trump, Le Pen and Putin is empowering such politicians who jeopardise the real achievements and stability of western liberalism. The greatest gift liberalism has given us is liberal democracies, by far the most prosperous and happiest societies in history.
Properly understood, the canon of thinking which is liberalism emphasises respect and empowerment to all individuals. It is not libertarianism, just allowing individuals and businesses to get on with it with minimal or no state support. Nor is it relativism, enabling people to do whatever they want; liberals want to make sure individual action does not harm others. Without doubt, it has provided strong and positive foundations for our society.
Now defended and defined, can we say that ‘the local’ is liberal? The short answer is: not necessarily. Local communities or government are not inherently liberal. What determines them as liberal or not is their behaviour and actions— specifically, how they give choices and powers to individuals in their area.
In fact, since it is likely that local communities or government will not consistently empower every different type of person and on every different type of issue, it seems improbable that any locality can ever be described, unambiguously, as liberal.
Certainly, localities can do liberal things. Local councils can lower levels of taxation or introduce personal budgets for vulnerable people — the disabled or homeless, for example — so people have more control over their money.
Local communities can be tolerant — even inviting — of people with social characteristics that are non-traditional, such as immigrants.
But localities can also be illiberal, too. They can prevent private, voluntary or independent providers from bidding for certain services, thereby reducing citizen choice. And communities can stifle and ostracise different, non-conforming individuals.
Does this mean I think ‘the local’ and localism are unimportant? No. Liberalism has been and is an essential philosophy for creating good lives and societies. But, alone, it is insufficient to guide our values, policymaking and conduct. Other beliefs are important, sometimes just as much, and need to also be an inspiration for what we — people, policymakers and politicians — do.
Conservatism, for example, recognises the wisdom and importance of traditional values and institutions, which can steer and support people. Communitarianism stresses the role of familial and civic life. Liberalism should not be abandoned by our current politicians, but sit alongside these other philosophies in their thinking.
Since the 1990s, it is clear that the modernisers in the Conservative Party — to move beyond Thatcherism — have developed and offered a more communitarian vision. Hence David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Theresa May’s ‘Shared Society’. A key component of this has been stressing the importance of local communities and localism to tackling public policy problems: protecting the environment, building more homes and early intervention, for instance. So, we have — gradually — seen greater devolution of powers and funding decisions to local government in recent years.
This localist agenda should, theoretically, make public policy more innovative and responsive. And encouraging greater participation in and responsibility from local communities ought to help strengthen pride, trust and relationships in local areas, all shown to enrich lives.
But, crucially, we need liberal – not closed – local communities and communitarianism. Emancipated, empowered and tolerant individuals, after all, can transform local communities for the better.
This article appears in an essay collection ‘Neo-localism – rediscovering the nation’ published this week by the think-tank Localis.