Skip navigation
The Progressive Policy Think Tank

Left-looking liberals: why Grimond alone won't save the Lib-Dems

Writing in response to Richard V Reeves in the latest issue of Juncture, Peter Sloman argues that the case for Grimondite 'civic liberalism' needn't counsel against a future Lib-Lab coalition.

2013 marks the centenary of Jo Grimond's birth to a jute-making family in St Andrews, Scotland. Grimond's childhood and adolescence coincided with the spectacular decline of the Liberal party; during his adult life, he did more than anyone to spark its revival. At this best and worst of times for the Liberal Democrats - sharing in government but languishing in the opinion polls - Richard V Reeves' re-examination of Grimond's legacy is to be welcomed.

As Reeves recognises, Grimond's legacy to the Liberal party and Liberal Democrats is enormous - yet multifaceted. It seems to me that three elements stand out.

First, there is the 'civic liberalism' that Reeves identifies - a vision of a strong society in which individuality is nourished and respected, power and opportunities are widely dispersed and community participation is the norm. The state's proper role, as Grimond saw it, is to enable men and women to flourish by providing education and a social safety-net, breaking up concentrations of power (both public and private), and policing the market. Reeves is right to identify this dispersive agenda as the defining theme of Grimond's political career, as evident in his early years as Liberal leader - most notably in his 1959 book The Liberal Future - and in post-leadership tracts such as The Common Welfare (1978) and A Personal Manifesto (1983).

Grimond's second contribution to modern British liberalism lay in articulating the strategic goal of 'realignment of the left', which has received such attention from Liberals and Liberal Democrats during the intervening half-century but may be understood in at least two ways. At first, Grimond seems to have hoped that the Liberals might replace Labour as Britain's main progressive party; during the late 1950s he devoted most of his energies to showing that dispersive, market-oriented liberalism offered a better line of 'progress' than 'clause IV' socialism and the expansion of the welfare state. Given Labour's entrenched position as the party of the left, however, this implied a very long march back to power, so after the 1959 general election Grimond changed tack and began to advocate Lib-Lab cooperation around a shared progressive agenda. In line with Grimond's strategic shift, Liberal policy began to reflect the new arguments for state intervention which were canvassed by contemporary social democrats such as Andrew Shonfield, John Kenneth Galbraith and Anthony Crosland. Out went neoliberal and proto-monetarist ideas about the need to spread private property ownership, to 'conquer' inflation by squeezing aggregate demand and to start rolling back the welfare state; in its place came a new emphasis on economic growth and social equality, which would be pursued through indicative planning, EEC membership, higher public investment and comprehensive schools. Grimond later came to regret this leftward turn in Liberal thinking, but after he retired as party leader in 1967 there was little he could do to reverse it.

A third element of Grimond's legacy to liberalism was to establish an identity for his party as honest outsiders who would stand up for ordinary men and women. With a political base in local government and on the Celtic fringe, Liberals could be counted on to reform Westminster politics and disperse power to the nations and regions; free from trade union and business influence, Liberals could treat capital and labour even-handedly and pursue the national interest. The titles of Grimond's three manifestos - People Count (1959), Think for Yourself (1964) and For All The People (1966) - helped project this image of the Liberals as a modern, moderate, and reforming party.

Grimond's successors as Liberal or Liberal Democrat leader, from Jeremy Thorpe to Nick Clegg, have made greater use of the second and third elements of his legacy than of the first. High-minded discussions of liberal principles have always been present, of course - Paddy Ashdown's book Citizens' Britain (1989) is a good example - but the party's public image has been shaped much more by its claims to progressivism and honesty. This was rarely more evident than in the 2010 election campaign, when Liberal Democrat online ads indicted 65 years of 'Labservative' government and Nick Clegg implored voters to 'Say goodbye to broken promises'.

Both of the Grimondian themes that Liberals and Liberal Democrats have sounded have brought electoral rewards, driving the party's growth from half a dozen MPs in the late 1950s to 57 today. Broadly speaking, the party's outsider status appealed to protest voters, dissatisfied with the two larger parties; its centre-left positioning won tactical votes from leftwingers in rural and suburban seats; and both elements together helped to forge a core constituency of sorts for the party among the progressive middle class. Yet the Liberal Democrats' participation in a Conservative-led coalition and, still more, the politically inept decision to support the hike in university tuition fees in December 2010, have severely damaged the goodwill which the party once enjoyed from these groups. Hence, the party finds itself mired in electoral difficulties.

From an intellectual perspective, then, there are good reasons to regret the relative neglect of Grimond's civic liberalism by British liberals over the past half-century. A party of protest can survive for a long time on slogans and righteous indignation; a party of government, however, needs to be sure of what it stands for. Moreover, Reeves is probably right that Grimond's emphasis on the limits of state action provides a useful counterweight to social democratic optimism about the efficacy of state intervention and public spending. Progressives of all stripes would do well to take this insight on board.

Reeves' call for contemporary Liberal Democrats to attend more closely to Grimond's thought thus seems incontestable. Even so, a few caveats are necessary. Most obviously, centrist liberals such as Reeves should resist the temptation to mine Grimond's more anti-statist writings for sticks to beat their social liberal brethren with. British liberalism is a fluid tradition, which has always accommodated diverse perspectives. In this respect, Reeves' suggestion that the longstanding Liberal Democrat policy of abolishing tuition fees was a sop to special interest groups is unfortunate. Many Liberal Democrats have always regarded the financing of higher education through general taxation as an important point of principle.

A second caveat is that, by itself, a revival of civic liberalism seems unlikely to do much to improve the Liberal Democrats' electoral fortunes. Abstract political theory is inevitably a minority taste; it gains wider resonance only as it becomes embodied in particular policies. If the language of civic liberalism is used to justify an anti-statist agenda under a Conservative-led government, it is liable to repel more voters than it attracts. Some voters may, as Reeves suggests, give the Liberal Democrats credit at the next general election for taking tough decisions. However, any plausible strategy for limiting the party's losses in 2015 must also involve restoring its reputation for progressiveness and fearless probity among those who have habitually voted Liberal Democrat in the past.

Finally, there is the thorny question of Lib-Lab cooperation. Certainly, as Reeves emphasises, Grimondite civic liberalism does not lend itself to a shared progressive 'project' as naturally as social liberalism does - indeed, Grimond often defined his distributist ethos by contrast with the Fabian tradition. Yet serious attempts to break up concentrations of wealth and power, especially in the private sector, are always likely to face opposition from Conservatives, as wrangles within the Coalition government over media ownership, banking reform, and mansion taxes have shown. On a host of other core liberal issues, from green energy to constitutional reform, the Conservative wing of the Coalition has proved hardly less obstructive. With the luxury of opposition, of course, it is easy for the Labour party to make the right noises on these and other issues. But Grimond's civic liberal heirs should not rule out the possibility that - in the event of another hung parliament - a Lib-Lab alliance might offer the best opportunity to put their ideals into practice.