Don’t confuse liberalism and radicalism

The Liberal Democrats have another internal grouping, this one is called the Radical Association. Its website explains that it:

“…has been founded out a sense of frustration at the state of the Liberal Democrats and a genuine fear that the party will fail to miss (sic) a once in a generation opportunity to define a unique role in British politics. We exist to enable members to work together to reshape the Liberal Democrats to be the radical, distinctive, pro-European and liberal movement which we know it can be.”

While this description might lead you to believe their aim is to reshape the party’s policy agenda, their concerns seem mostly to be organisational. As far as I can tell the Association is made up of Liberal Youthers who feel the Party is too cumbersome an organisation and when they get more specific about their aims they turn out not be all that radical. A pretty typical example is updating local party websites. So while I’m not hostile to the initiative nor am I remotely enthused.

Nonetheless, I want to dwell on them for a moment because their self-presentation illustrates a Lib Dem pathology. We feel a great pull towards the rhetoric of radicalism. I’ve written about this before. While everyone in the Lib Dems will talk about our radical heritage, we tend to ignore how strong the conservative undercurrents of our tradition are:

“Edmund Burke, who injected [a conservative philosophy] into political consciousness with his critique of the French Revolution, was a Whig not a Tory.  His ideas would underpin much of the Victorian Liberal Party’s ideas about the British constitution: they saw its stability and tendency to gradual evolution to be one of its chief virtues. Then in the mid-Twentieth Century, Isaiah Berlin would, with more than one eye on Communism and Fascism, argue that the plurality liberals so valued demanded that politicians be modest in their aims; utopianism was doomed to fail because we could not agree what utopia would look like. And then in the 1980s, Roy Jenkins would argue that there needed to be a third party to restrain Labour and the Tories from taking Britain on an ‘ideological big dipper’. It also came through strongly in the party’s resistance to the Blair government constantly attempting to reinvent public services.”

I’d suggest that balancing radical and conservative elements has served both our party and country currency well. During its heyday the Liberal Party steered Britain through the difficult processes of industrialisation and democratisation without a civil war or revolution. It was very adept at changing our system of government just enough to prevent it collapsing into violent conflagrations. That spared Britain Jacobian guillotines, Bolshevik gulags, Nazi jackboots, and a war between free and slave states.

Given that one of Liberalism’s great strengths is an aptitude for holding these two elements in tension, it’s striking how much more popular one side of this duality is. A reminder that we are the ‘true radicals’ is an easy clap line at any Lib Dem event. The suggestion that we should be rather reluctant to change things unnecessarily, less so.

Despite this, inherent virtue lies in stability not change. It allows people to make plans and become familiar enough with their environment that they can operate in it comfortably. Perhaps this explains why psychological research indicates that we feel losses substantially more acutely than gains.

Which brings me back to the Radical Association’s desire to “reshape the Liberal Democrats to be (sic) the radical, distinctive, pro-European and liberal movement”. Supporting continued British membership of the EU is a quintessentially  conservative position. We know and understand life within the organisation. Leaving it is an experiment undertaken without a convincing rationale that is already begetting instability. Opposing Brexit is the right thing to do. It is the liberal thing to do. But it is not a radical course.