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
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
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