In this week’s Prospect magazine, Aaronovitch versus Harris on the future of the left.  You have to buy it to get it.  It’s worth it, as always (I wish I had more long train trips in my life, without Internet).

You may recall the New Statesman doing a taxonomy of Directions for the Left (‘An Ideological Map‘).  My colleague read it, furrowed his brow and then, jabbing his thumb at the Centre Republicanism bit, said “Isn’t that really, um, Liberal Democracy?”

The task of progressive politics is radically to disperse power and opportunity. This requires restructuring the state in a much more decentralised direction; individual empowerment in public services; a wider distribution of assets; and a stronger policy of protecting – indeed, expanding – civil liberties and lifestyle freedom. The left should get over its fixation on high taxation of labour income and put more emphasis on taxing unearned wealth and environmental bads.

Well, isn’t it?  David Aaronovitch puts himself in that camp too, calling it ‘a position which doesn’t regret (as communitarians do) the revolutions in technology, communication and mobility that have brought the world together, but understands that the consequences have to be managed.

In defending his views against Harris’s assault on consumerism and ‘neoliberalism’ (daft to say the Brown and Blair were ‘in thrall’ to this), there are some choice quotes:

Neal Lawson – the Mary Whitehouse of shopping – [believes that] people in Britain and the US are reduced to mere consumers, deprived of spiritual and intellectual nourishment, made uncaring of relationships and caring only for things.  I don’t think people are like that . .. I believe that the declinist narrative is elitist and nostaligic*. How is it that consumerism only became a problem when the masses began to enjoy conditions that the professional classes had long taken for granted . . . As to choice in education and healthcare, I exercise it all the time, in the same way that only the wealthy used to go to Spain.

Great stuff. The only problem for me: why does he assume that this strand of thought will have to be pursued within the Labour Party? (he anticipates an unspecified Miliband).  Does he think that his defence of consumerism and choice would be obnoxious to a big strand of Liberal Democracy – the strand represented by our friends the Social Liberal Forum? (prominent ally = the Mary Whitehouse of consumerism).   That’s a pity, in my view.

PS good to see the New Statesman is also having a go at Tracy Emin.

*note: JimP is right: it is not only the Right that wallows in pessimism


16 thoughts on “Excellent read: Aaronivitch versus John Harris

  1. No, liberal democracy is not the same as centre republicanism.

    Not really sure where to even begin on this one. Except to say that massive fights between the two camps have raged the last twenty years – and if quentin skinner is to be believed, since Machiavelli.

    Can do this in detail but going to take pure time…

  2. Well, I’m told my post will be on LabourList too. And I will blog on Freethink about the response in my office, which is:

    “These people (the LEFT) – they’re wrong about almost everything in the last 30 years, have to continually trim their views (Clause 4, 80% tax rates, unilateral disarmament, the concept of a market doing some good, statism as the answer to everythihg, Europe, etc), and now they sit there, rubbing their chins, saying “Ooh, I wonder whether liberal democracy might be the answer?”, and Lib Dems explode saying, “We’ve been here for 20 years !!”

  3. Dear Paul and Giles,

    May I try?

    There is an acid test I use that distinguishes between people who believe a person can empower another person and those who believe that a person has to take and use power themselves.

    One can deprive someone of their power – no question. But you can only help someone take and use power themselves – you cannot empower them, for to seek to do that is actually to usurp their power.

    It is the difference that exists between those who do all they can to ensure that someone is not excluded and those who try to provide conditions in which they are included – between those who use the word exclusion and those who use the word inclusion.

    It tells you a lot about where people come from and how they relate to others.

    In this regard, a Centre Republican as defined in the New Statesman, is not a Liberal Democrat.

    Best wishes


  4. Thing is though giles, there may be quite a difference between liberal democracy and the Liberal Democrats.

    And centre republicanism isn’t what many on the left want, and furthermore it’s conception of human life being actualised only when engaged in political activities and the activity of the polis is fairly antithetical to the liberal democracy that the lib dems do espouse: that the state has a responsibility to provide a sphere of noninterferene for individuals to pursue the good life as they see fit, regardless of whether or not that includes political “actualisation”.

    There’s no straightforward story to tell here about “the left”running out of ideas and coming to steal them from the lib dems, who as a party are pretty confused about the kind if liberal democracy they might want to promote and what might be required to
    bring it about (cf eh David Laws’ pamaphlet on education published by you guys at CF)


    it’s got something to do with power, yes. Bit it is a bit more complicated than that.

  5. Thanks Paul – and you have accurately defined the difference between our views. Because I, personally, think people are WAY more empowered as consumers – despite the presence of monopolies, advertising, all the Galbraith demons – than they ever are through democracy. My experience of democracy at the local level is that it is often the epitome of the Yeats quote:

    the best lack all conviction/while the worst are full of passionate intensity

    and so the idea that this is where human life is actualised I find pretty disturbing – it is what party activists think life should be about – endless campaigning, passing of motions, arguing – and nothing like what actually works for people. My ability to choose life experiences through the marketplace – my music, literature, blog reading, clothing – is WAY more free than my ability to choose what Wandsworth does in the public space.

    So, for me – and I suspect, most of the population – you can – politely -keep your political actualisation. Borrowing from Popper (I think), the most important thing that democracy can do is provide a means of getting rid of your rulers. Not take over all of life.

    I will not defend the Lib Dems here – they are a broad church who do not always or even often agree with one another. . But in my view David Laws is one of the least confused of them all – a really great MP


  6. Giles describes a consumer, Paul a citizen.

    Much of what we consume is done in order to communicate something about ourselves to others. (See The World of Goods by Douglas and Isherwood for example). There is a degree of conformity and inauthenticity about this which is often an expression of a lack of freedom.

    Is politics not fundamentally about the exercise of power, Paul? Am I an Aristotelian to consider that to be a citizen is to be involved, to participate in the decisions that affect my community?

    A visit to a council meeting may be depressing, but to be involved along with ones neighbours in a campaign – to take and use power together – is an uplifting experience, even an actualizing one.

  7. Giles,

    OK so you are most definitely a (social) liberal (relcutant?) democrat as well as an economic liberal.

    You are highly suspicious of the republican contention that human life is somehow unfulfilled or not properly actualised unless engaged in the act of politics. You think human life goes absolutely fine via, say, engagement in the market and this might include absolute non-engagement with politics, if the individual so chose.

    I share your suspicions, though not all of your beliefs about the power of the market and commerce to liberate and fulfil. Hence, I consider myself a social liberal with roughly Tocquevillian democratic views and reservations, yet more of an economic collectivist than you are (though not really a “socialist” and certainly not a “marxist”, but something more like “social democratic” a-la-Scandanavia, I suppose).

    We’re neither of us republicans. But that’s what I was driving at re both the diversity within “liberalism” and the differences between liberalism and republicanism. My original point being that your colleague must be very confused to think that the Lib Dems – insofar as they have any connection with liberal democracy and liberalism (which surely they do to some extent) – are really “centre republicans”.

    As for David Laws, he is very, very confused in your CentreForum pamphlet, I’m afraid:

    I don’t blame him, equality is a tricky concept. But equally, I’m not keen on having such confusions driving education policy (which they now do in all parties; this critique could be levied at Labour and Tory MPs too).

  8. Blimey

    Paul, that looks like a very intelligent post, and I’ve tried to skim through it to get to our essential differences – though, i suspect, they were already well teased out in our discussion about private schools. Your belief in equality regardless of all things goes beyond mine – I share some of Sam Brittan’s scepticism that it has been taken too far. Virtues need to be rewarded as well – some people possess more of them some less of them – and some of what children are given by ‘good’ parents are virtues, not just mean advantages. I like the idea of virtue as a way of breaking some of these debates up, because taken too far the equality fetishist might fall into absurdity e.g.

    “I wish I could have done better, but unfortunately I was born a lazy violent bastard and the world is unfairly set against lazy violent bastards . . .”

    I am descending to parody, obviously. But I would be rather nervous that if one took ‘opportunity to acquire merit’ too far one would wipe away all virtue.

    As for my views on democracy, you may have skewered me: I love Mencken. It is amazing hw well we get on given the differences in basic views.

  9. Giles,

    but egalitarians of my ilk are often highly sensative to those concerns.

    There’s an entire “grouping” of egalitarians who operate from the starting premise that it is only right to compensate individuals for inequalities which did not arise because of choices they made; only those individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of inequality through no fault of their own are to be compensated for this, and only insofar as that inequality can be redressed whilst holding other important values (effective use of resources, respect for personal privacy, limitations of the state’s ability to access personal information and interfere with peoples’ lives, etc etc etc) too, and often allowing those important values to trump the demand for (greater) equality.

    These people are usually called “luck” egalitarians. I think there are problems with where their position goes. But i’m very sympathetic to the project, in many respects.

    Basically, when I hear people using the word “equality”, I probably get a similar reaction to when you hear somebody using the words “multiplier” or “Keynesian”: namely, the desire to quickly point out that “er, I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that!”

    so sad is the modern age, however, that we must all specialise and we can be none of us polymaths. There’ll be no more Adam Smith’s, bestraddling both philosophy and economics, so far have the disciplines become technical and specialised. It’s pretty sad, really. But probably the necessary price to pay.


    Well, perhaps politics is fundamentally about the exercise of power. But that depends who you speak to. I happen to agree that it probably is – well, that and violence. But first we need to get a grip on what we mean by “power”, and you’ve just opened yourself a can of worms right there.

    And don’t be so quick to call Aristotle to your ranks. Are you sure you want to identify yourself with the philosophy of a man 3000 years dead, whose ideal polis was ordered to the (it would appear) metaphysical, quasi-existential fuflllment (i.e. the attainment of Eudaimonia) of a class of excellent men who were by definition inherently supperior to ordinary men? A Philosopher whose ideal City State as laid-out in the Politics is effectively a sort of warrior-producer-ruler apartheid?

    There’s much to admire and extract from Aristotle’s politics, but you want to be careful in calling yourself an Aristotelian. Intelligent people like Alisdair MacIntyre have spent entire careers trying to work out what on earth it might mean to be an Aristotelian in (post)modern times. And many think he didn’t really sort it all out, in the end.

    As for your final republican plea, I guess the liberal response is: for you. But maybe not to Giles. Yet if your republicanism is correct – that the good life is only attained by political engagement – then you need to provide me with two things: 1) a metaphysical account of what that good life is, and how politics achieves it, 2) a set of reasons why Giles and I are not only making a mistake in not engaging in your republican self-actualisation, but are the worse-off for it.

    I’ll be very, very impressed if you can do that.

    Until then, I’ll be a liberal: if politics floats your boat, then so be it. But not everybody is a political animal, and nor should they have to be done. I

  10. I see SLF is being declared guilty by association with Neal Lawson. Again. Will you ever forgive us Giles?

    I have to admit that I haven’t read All Consuming. From what I’ve heard about it, I’d go along with much of it and would disagree with a lot. At least one social liberal of my acquaintance who has read it has described it as too “hair shirt” and I trust his judgement.

    In terms of put myself personally in the citizens/consumer debate I think it is a false dichotomy. If by consumerism you mean the kind we have experienced for most of the 21st century, then I will declare myself a proud civic republican. But by the same token, I wouldn’t sign up to the caricature of citizenship that you outline above either. Do you seriously believe we are stuck in a choice between washing powder brands and drafty town halls?

    What the information age gives us is the opportunity to develop a new form civic engagement which doesn’t resemble either extreme. It isn’t focused on the individual, in that it is rooted in social networks and people working together in groups, and it certainly isn’t focused on a homogenised community. Its about finding new ways to use information to allow people to make informed judgements instead of being so dependent on marketing. And finally, it is rooted in the concept of sharing – open source, open standards and open data – which focuses much more on rewarding genuine innovation and creativity and much less of monopolistic control.

    I think the Cameroon Tories actually get this better than the other two main parties with their rhetoric about the “post-bureaucratic age”, although I don’t think they understand the significance (and certainly don’t like) the latter and I certainly don’t believe it has been embraced by the party as a whole. The Lib Dems desperately need to catch up. Fundamentally though, I don’t see how the emerging trend towards single issue campaigning and websites like 38 Degrees count as simplisticly civic or consumerist – they’re actually a mishmash of both. And we’re already seeing this percolate into public services, whether you are talking about crime maps or rating GPs. The lines are being blurred.

    In terms of things like advertising, I find myself in two minds. On the one hand, it is hard to read New Scientist each week and not be very aware of quite how the human brain is vulnerable to marketing. On the other hand, I find Steiner Schools scary and worry about turning a generation of people into naive Amish, incapable of dealing with the modern world. It isn’t I or the SLF who are calling for a massive restriction on advertising – but Nick Clegg.

  11. James, thanks for this and on reflection I am overdoing it a bit by associating the very existence of SLF with a split in LibDemism and making too much of the NL link. Apologies, though if it always prompts such a good reply I’d maybe take the risk again.

    Do you seriously believe we are stuck in a choice between washing powder brands and drafty town halls?

    My problem is that while I share your optimism about the new media, new ways of engaging in debate and so forth, I am not so optimistic that democracy is going to follow so quickly: it still seems stuck to a depressing degree in the drafty town halls, the leafletts and ‘knocking up’. Compare the quality and nuance you can get within a blog discussion with the sort of lazy slander on campaigning leaflets – I guess that’s why I dont feel that it offers as much competition to good old consuming, yet.

    But good response. Why is the SLF site not more busy?. yesterday’s post by Stephen Tall asked a good question about blogs and thinktanks. And thank you for the congrats today

  12. and (being pursued by a 1 year old obsessed with keyboards so the brevity) you’re right about Clegg – did he not have some speech about networks etc in his leadership campaign, at the SMF or somewhere – he is maybe not as pure economic liberal as some people have accused him. And the Conservatives, well, it was all part of that rebranding. They can’t do it and cut 2% of the deficit every year, the lattter will dominate all other things. All changes cost in the short run

  13. Why is the SLF site not more busy?

    Lots of reasons. We never aimed to provide ongoing blog commentary, and I will admit that we haven’t clearly established what we do want to use the blog for exactly. Blogging doesn’t come naturally to everyone, sadly. And we’re going through some personnel changes due to people getting credit crunched, politically restricted and just plain busy.

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