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Commentary 324 – March 2008
29 March 2008 (21:40:25)

AGORA OR ARGOS?

January’s Liberal Democrat manifesto conference was significant in that it revealed a new ideological divide opening up within the party.

This division is not between Liberals and Social Democrats – twenty years after the merger, that fissure has largely healed. It is not even between ‘social liberals’ and ‘economic liberals’ – for most Liberals, the question of which sector should supply public services is essentially a pragmatic one, to which there can never be a general or settled answer.

The argument is more fundamental. It is about what it means to be human.

The division emerged in a good-natured debate between MPs David Howarth and Jeremy Browne on the provision of public services. The conference organisers had attempted to set up the debate in a stereotypical fashion, with Howarth arguing the state’s corner and Browne the market’s. Howarth rightly refused to play that game.

The issue is not whether the state or market should provide this or that service. It is how people go about exercising ‘agency’, the ability to determine their own lives.

Essentially, David Howarth argued that we should have faith in politics; that people achieve empowerment by acting politically. Jeremy Browne argued that people should exercise control more as individual consumers in a marketplace.

A lot depends on whether you believe there is a public interest in the provision of public services, or whether you think it is purely a matter for the individual consumers of such services.

For example, much of the recent debate about education has focused on the ability of parents to elbow their way into winning the best school places for their children. Relatively little attention has been paid to the consequences for the rest of us.

More fundamental, though, is the question of our identities. Are we primarily partners, parents and relatives; friends, neighbours and colleagues? Or do we define ourselves more in terms of the things we buy?

Are human goals primarily non-economic: the enjoyment of human relationships, the appreciation of beauty, and contemplation? Or are production and consumption ends in themselves?

In short, is there more to life than the bottom line?

There is a crucial difference between recognising a trend and embracing it. Jeremy Browne is right to identify a trend away from social relations towards economic relationships. The questions are whether this trend is healthy and where it will lead.

The atomisation of society is nothing for Liberals to celebrate. Nick Clegg, in one of his first statements as leader, identified people’s growing sense of insecurity as the central problem of our age. The disintegration of human relationships is the chief cause of this insecurity.

The party should therefore make the fostering of social solidarity a central plank of its platform. Otherwise, if we believe that the only role for the state is to act as a supplier or broker of services to private consumers, why bother with a manifesto? The party may as well issue everyone with an Argos catalogue.

Jeremy Browne appeared in this debate as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And quite apart from the dubious morality of his economic reductionism, there is also a practical question. No politician can ever hope to satisfy millions of individualised wants simultaneously. The inability of politicians to achieve this is the main reason for popular dissatisfaction with the whole democratic process. Promising the voters that you can provide 60 million bespoke services will only make the problem worse.

Elsewhere in this issue, Richard Kemp argues: “We politicians cannot solve all society’s problems. If we want strong, self supporting communities, people are going to have to come out of their houses and help deliver it. Too many people expect to consume society rather than contribute to it. Society will only work when more people give as well as take.”

So, it’s decision time. Do the Liberal Democrats envisage a society of active citizens or supplicant consumers? Is there such a thing as the public interest or is everyone in it for themselves? Is there such a thing as society or do we prefer to embrace economism? Agora or Argos?

As this argument develops, the party leadership will instinctively seek to gloss over it for the sake of party unity. Others will doubtless claim that this is an abstract debate with little bearing on the real world.

But politics is ultimately about making moral choices. The party’s policy regarding public services cannot be settled without the fundamental ethical issues being resolved. And the party must make a conscious choice – it cannot afford to sleepwalk into some default position.

Furthermore, the debate must be open and honest. A fudge will lead to a long-simmering dispute. Any attempt to fix the outcome by subterfuge or sleight of hand will backfire.

Just what are the party’s values when it comes to defining humanity? Are people primarily social animals or atomised consumers? Until the party resolves this moral issue one way or the other, it can never develop coherent policies on public services.

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