Is Liberalism and social democracy starting to unbundle


The last time I indicated some of what I am suggesting in this post, it earned me two emails rapping me on the knuckles for being off message.

As a Liberal inside the Lib Dems, they were certainly right about that.

But there comes a point, you are in a radical centrist thinktank, that you have to be.

I had pointed out that the liberal and social democrat ideology – which seemed so well matched in 1988 when the Lib Dem party was formed – may now be pulling in opposite directions.

I was addressing quite a big fringe meeting at party conference, and I got the audience to put up their hands if they thought that parents should be the ultimate arbiters of whether or not children should miss school for educational opportunities (the Liberal approach) or whether professionals ought to decide on their behalf (the Social Democrat approach).

The hands were surprisingly equally divided.

Then there was the question of the sale of council houses to their tenants. When Margaret Thatcher first put the proposal to the Commons, the Liberals backed the basic idea.

That was before it was clear that those low-rent homes wouldn’t be replaced, of course it then became beyond either ideology.

So where would you stand on the basic idea of giving away council homes and then replacing them? Do you back it (Lib) or oppose it on the grounds that anything else would be naive?

Once again, the hands were equally divided.

Why talk about this now? Because we are about to face one of those issues which come along only occasionally, where the two ideologies may be on opposite sides.

Boris Johnson is working on a proposal for passports to allow those who have had covid to go freely into restaurants, pubs or other events. Michael Gove has suggested that they should add in, for example, anyone who has  had a recent test – and maybe other measures to show we are covid free.

My understanding is that the idea of passports is opposed by about half the Conservative parliamentary party, which means they will have to rely on Labour votes to force the measure through.

Unusually, it matters which way the Lib Dems jump. Do they go with the Fabian approach that believes in professional knowledge, with the mainstream left, or do they remember their Liberal roots (“trust in the people tempered by prudence”)?

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    Interesting. A friend and I are having the same debate but with liberty as the focus rather than the two sides of liberty, liberalism (negative rights) and social democracy (positive rights).

    For my friend it is liberalism all the way. The State shouldn’t intrude on civil liberties unless under exceptional circumstances because of the ratchet effect of precedence.

    For myself, I think the issue is much broader than the protection of civil liberties and needs to be seen in a long term timeframe. This includes incorporating the distinct likelihood that there will be another global pandemic whether it is SARS 3 or something else. Especially under conditions of human population growth and the continued destruction of wild Nature.

    This means we need to prepare for the future likelihood of a deadly virus and as such, rather than prematurely halting the development of vaccine passports, we need to continue the momentum and complete the necessary infrastructure in order to ensure future resilience.

    So whilst there is a disruption to civil liberties in the short term, in the long term, this temporary disruption will ensure that we have more discerning systems that will better enable the economy to be functioning as well as having ‘conditioned’ society to be better prepared and more compliant to the necessary technology that has served Asian countries so well. Countries that learnt their lessons from SARS 1.

    Within this broader and longer term perspective, liberalism and social democracy aren’t distinct, but very much cojoined.

    • Laurence says

      Adam Doughty makes some good points on this in his New Statesman article:

      At the beginning of the pandemic there were apps that were designed to detect if you had been in close proximity to someone who subsequently tested positive and so needed to self-isolate. Some of those were designed so that everyone was anonymous and I would not see these as a restriction on freedom. If the ‘vaccine passport’ could be designed to allow a similar level of anonymity then I would have few qualms; the real danger to freedom for me comes from databases that combine data from many sources.

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