When I was a teenager first interested in politics and determined to choose the odd party out, I put aside my childish idea that the Conservatives were the odd one out because they did not start with L. I began to suspect that the Liberals might be just peculiar enough for me – but what did they stand for?
I used to ask all my older relatives likely to know – I come from a long line of Liberal voters after all – and surprisingly few could answer. But there was one exception: “Don’t they stand for ‘three acres and a cow’ or something?” she said.
I can’t emphasise how peculiar this is. That a century or so after the slogan was coined, by Joseph Chamberlain’s sidekick Jesse Collings, back in the 1870s, it should be all that they remembered from all the Liberal policies and slogans in a century of elections.
It was certainly a successful slogan, formulated to explain how much land a family would need to support itself – implying a call for land redistribution and new allotments. It did more than imply a commitment to self-determination, which was why it was borrowed by the Americans (they called it forty acres and a mule). It was then appropriated in the UK by a breakaway group from the UK Liberals called the Distributists, led by Hilaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton.
I pay tribute to it here because I am reminded how divided the Liberal Democrats are today – despite appearances – and how unlikely we are to remember any of their current slogans and policies in a century’s time, when my own great grandchildren are searching as I did in the 1970s.
Why do I fear they are divided, when you get no clauses about this from the party’s communications? Partly because feel so divided myself, and partly because of the very obvious divisions between the party’s whig or social democrat wing and its distributist one (I am here using the nomenclature used by academic community who studies such things).
I am divided myself because I am firmly embedded in what remains of this distributist wing, the elements of the party responsible for driving forward the demand for localism and self-determination. Whereas all I see is the social democrat wing clinging to our membership of the European Union, which represents neither localism nor self-determination, and in fact seems to represent clinging onto the outward firms of institutions which badly need reform.
You see my problem? Nor is it just my problem or the Lib Dems’ one, I have been wondering about some of my non-Radix friends, after the announcement by Nissan that they will not be building their new model in Sunderland after all – presumably because of Brexit.
I can hear my friend tut-tutting about it even without tuning into Twitter to watch them doing so. I know they are, as I am, suspicious of the influence of big corporations in the UK economy. I know they dream of a far more diverse economy that is a good deal less dependent on trade.
Yes, I don’t think anyone would want to make this shift overnight at the end of March – as we seem to be about to do. But I do want to hear some recognition from the Remain side that this is something they had also been hoping for before now.
I mean this honesty simply as a way to tackle some of the bonehanded divisions in UK , whichpolitics are now as intense as they have been at any time since anyone last used the slogan Three Acres and a Cow in anger.
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“I am divided myself because I am firmly embedded in what remains of this distributist wing, the elements of the party responsible for driving forward the demand for localism and self-determination. Whereas all I see is the social democrat wing clinging to our membership of the European Union, which represents neither localism nor self-determination, and in fact seems to represent clinging onto the outward firms of institutions which badly need reform.”
David – the way this comes across is that you would have us rebuff all international institutions. Doesn’t the UN need reform?
Personally I (I came from the Liberal Party) have no problem with reconciling what is best done locally with what needs cooperation and compromise with other countries. I have no doubt that the EU needs reform but we are not going to achieve reform from the outside are we?????
David Boyle says
No, you are quite right. And I did vote for remain. It is just that there comes a time, when our membership of a failing institution is poisoning our politics, I do wonder whether I was right to. I suppose I have become tired, as a Liberal, of defending every failing institution rather than re-organising them. For fear of – what? That the headbangers won’t understand?
Stephen Gywnne says
If we are to achieve ecospheric sustainability then at present these seem to be the only available options.
1. Working towards a global system of national sufficiency whereby national communities live within their eco-capacities and utilise circular economies (reusing embodied materials within their economies) and distributism.
2. The EU. However currently it promotes a highly competitive social market economy rather than highly sufficient social market economy.
Note. Reforming from within is made very difficult and undemocratic due to the veto vote, so envisioning and rejoining an EU 2.0 is just as viable from without. Similarly, currently the EU far exceeds its planetary boundaries quotas. The EU has no explicit sufficiency strategy nor a green infrastructure strategy.
3. The Global. However there are no global governance mechanisms by which to bridge the global with the local.
In my mind, the current cultural divisions in our society rests on these 3 visions of creating ecospheric sustainability. However, the only one actually available as an option is national sufficiency which would inherently entail distributism. This in my mind is the only rational direction in which to go. In other words, the divisions are a result of rejecting rationality and instead supporting irrational beliefs that the EU or the Global will provide adequate solutions to the prevailing problems of rapid ecospheric degeneration.
Note. Nissan pulling out additional investment is a good global decision. In the UK we do not need yet more car production capacity from a sufficiency perspective. In other words, International cooperation is achieved by allowing that car production investment to go to a country that needs it, rather than bemoaning it.
Dominic Elson says
I am ready to stand beside you on the barricades for the ‘distributist’ wing of the Liberals (if Liberals ever get round to building barricades; down the middle of the road, probably). Land reform is long overdue, and Land Value Tax may be one decent way to get there, combined with proper Estate Tax (without the current exemptions for farmland, obviously). This would be more ‘liberal’ than the Zimbabwe method, but probably still regarded as too coercive by the land-owning classes.
But we cannot directly solve urban poverty by breaking up rural feudal estates. Distributists will need to look to other assets that can be readily converted into universal basic income, quality health service, transformational education system and so forth. But to be effective Distributists, we do need some means of exchange to distribute. Handing out St George flags and Airfix models of Spitfires is not going to get us very far. Money is a better idea, perhaps raised through taxes. But if the likes of Nissan leave these shores, then tax revenue will decline. If leaving the EU is the price of entry to Distributist Utopia, then the experiment is likely to be swiftly self-extinguishing.
No doubt in the longer term we could forge a new localist paradise. As an upland sheep farmer I dream of such a state, providing people are prepared to pay the real cost of a lamb chop, reflecting all its inputs and none of the subsidies (about £10 per chop, I reckon). But I worry that Liberals may find they are offering the same sort of creative destruction promised by the Brexit Ultras, although with a different destination in mind.
To return to our figurative barricades, the problem with aggressive economic and political transformation – either in the name of utopian localism or dystopian neoliberalism – is that the turbulent nature of the process makes it very hard to predict the end point. History has plenty of such examples. We could end up with three acres of wasteland and all the cows owned by the local warlord.
David Boyle says
I might argue with you aboutt he detailed theology of distributism, but you are quite right about money. Personally, I think the time has come for a basic income paid for by the creation of some money by the Bank of England and some from taxation. But who knows? I’ll see you on the famous middle of the road barricade!
Vern Hughes says
The distributist split from the Liberal Party is hugely important for rediscovering the Radical Centre. Mass ownership of land and property, localism and self-determination are the enduring values of Belloc and Chesterton, and they stand in sharp contrast to the social democratic managerialism that unites today’s Lib Dems, Labour and Conservative Parties.
The emerging split, in the UK as in Australia, as in the rest of the developed world, is between a politics of property-owning localism and self-determination, and a politics of managerialism. The old Big vs Small Government division ran at cross purposes to this current split, because low-income people, the working class and the industrious middle class were enticed into the Big Government camp for a century (where they never belonged) while the corporate plutocracy paid lip-service to Small government (where they never belonged, since their business models are drawn from crony capitalism).
It’s time now for rectifying this century-long malapportionment. Small government, property-owning, self-determining communitarianism stands in one corner. Big Government crony capitalism stands in the other.