Tuesday, January 17, 2006

LIBERALS: HARD CENTRE OR SOFT FRINGE?

One of the things I discovered through blogging is that the term "liberal" is a dirty word in America. Initially I was puzzled: otherwise sensible posters threw the word around in a way that made absolutely no sense to me.

The term is still used to describe the outer fringes of the "reality-based community" (the kind that "Screw 'Em" Zuniga had to purge from his website) with whom I have very little in common. To this day, Kos's arch-enemies over at LGF use the acronym "LLL" (Lunatic Liberal Left/Logic - rearrange in an order to suit) much in the same way as our tabloid press used to refer to the "Loony Left" during the 80s.

You'd think those to the left of Noam Chomsky might be a little peeved at being given the "liberal" tag, but a cursory glance through Kos or DU's messageboards provides plenty of examples of the American Left proudly identifying themselves as "liberals".

I figured until recently this was a phenomenon peculiar to the US, where being liberal was more about being a liberal with a small L: the "anything goes" philosophy against the forces of tradition and small C conservatism, more about one's attitude to social issues than political or economic matters.

In contrast, I thought that in the UK being liberal meant floating somewhere towards the centre of the political spectrum.

Well perhaps not.

American trends eventually manifest themselves over here in one form or another (fast food and crack cocaine anyone?) and this looks like no exception. In an article in yesterday's Times Tim Hames considers the problems facing David Cameron in identifying what constitutes the centre ground in British politics:
I think there is a dilemma because there is not a single middle ground, but two, and part of Mr Cameron is aiming at a section of it that he should be avoiding.

One middle ground consists of what could be called the "hard centre" and comprises those who can properly be described as "floating voters". They are not anchored to a particular political party, are independent in their attitudes and were willing to support Margaret Thatcher at the polls - yet largely switched to new Labour in 1997.

The other middle ground involves those who might be referred to as the "soft fringe", constituting "drifting voters", essentially alienated from Labour and Tories alike, more sure of what they oppose than what they support and prone to a certain faddism. This category is placed in the political "middle"on the basis that the people involved cannot be categorised as "extreme"in outlook and are in neither of the main partisan camps, so there is nowhere else to put them.

...

The hard centre has distinctive features. It is sympathetic to market economics but not indifferent to social considerations. It broadly favours the liberty of the individual but is not oblivious to the consequences of anarchic licence. It is realistic about the nature of foreign affairs in the world we live in. If told of the dominance of Tesco at home or McDonald’s overseas, it tends to shrug its shoulders, muse that the public gets what the public wants.

...

None of this is true for the soft fringe. It is instinctively for the Liberal Democrats, or a minor party, or for staying at home on polling day. It is cynical about capitalism, yet with no coherent sense of an alternative. It is vaguely green and faintly pink. It warms to such themes as “small is beautiful”, “local is good” and “older is better”. It might, in the short term, be pleased to discover that the Tory leadership has evolved from the Iron Lady to a Muesli Man, but it is hard to believe that it would sustain that interest.

Even if it did, the price for its support is a manifesto of incoherent mush that would not make much of a programme. It is not where Mr Cameron should be making any pitch, not least because an astute Labour Party under Gordon Brown would welcome him to it and charge for the hard centre.
The "soft fringe" attitude sums up a large swathe of those who call themselves liberals in the US. Anti-Bush, anti-globalisation and anti-War without offering any realistic alternatives of their own.

I agree with Hames when he states that the British "soft fringe" tend to favour the LibDems and smaller parties (e.g. RESPECT). His claim that "the people involved cannot be categorised as 'extreme'" is harder to justify. In my opinion the soft fringe are lumped in the political centre precisely because traditionally this is where a supposedly "liberal" party ought to be.

Times have changed. If not, why the need for the Orange Book?

We now have a Liberal party that is to the left of Labour on many issues and the current leadership contest doesn't look like changing that any time soon. Both Simon Hughes and Menzies Campbell seem happy for a once centrist party to disappear off into political la-la land.

Barring an event of God, this leaves a rejuvenated Tory party and refreshened New Labour under Brown to court the "hard centre" liberals, who of course won't referrred to as "liberals" any more. Because as any fool knows, these days the liberals are on the left, right?

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