It’s a funny kind of liberal who wants to curb freedom, yet that is exactly what Nick Clegg will be announcing in a speech on education on Thursday (Thursday! If you’re going to release the text that far in advance, why bother giving the speech at all?!). Not only has his surprise announcement that he doesn’t support the Government on allowing Free Schools to set their own curricula caught the Conservatives off-guard, it’s also opened up a sizeable rift in his own party.
He will also insist that teachers in Free Schools must have qualified teacher status, putting him at odds with Education Secretary Michael Gove, who has been actively promoting the recruitment of professionals and experts into the classroom.
More to the point, it also puts him at odds with Liberal Democrat Schools Minister David Laws, who, during a speech delivered last Thursday said “There are plenty of teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job.”
As indeed there are – just ask Richard Cairns, the (unqualified) head of Brighton College, an independent school that has risen, under Cairns’ stewardship, to 18th place in the schools rankings. His school currently employs 39 teachers with no formal teaching qualifications, experts in their field teaching a broad range of subjects. He believes that good teachers are born, not made. And whilst it would be foolish to say that all unqualified teachers are good whereas all qualified teachers are bad (clearly a nonsense), it is fair to ask why state funded schools shouldn’t have the same sort of freedom to pick the best person for the job that the independent sector has.
Anyway, as important as the free schools debate is, all this is, to some extent, a macguffin. The real story here is the seismic wave travelling through Western politics at the moment. The chasm which opened up in the Liberal Democrat party this weekend is just the latest in a series of consequential events.
The wave I speak of is the split between authoritarian and libertarian strains of political thought.
Last month at the Liberal Democrat conference, a fringe event was held entitled “Why Aren’t the Liberal Democrats More Liberal?” Prominent ‘Orange Bookers’ – the libertarian wing of the Liberal Democrats – were in attendance. In the Conservative Party, battle has long been waging for decades between the One Nation ‘wets’ and the Thatcherite ‘dries’. Meanwhile, Labour has seen bitter (and sometimes very public) fighting between the Brownite statist and the more liberal (and market embracing) Blairites.
As the debt crisis solidifies and the weightiness of our government becomes ever more burdensome, the historic left / right factions that gave our parties their current form are starting to fade into the background, with the more pertinent authoritarian / libertarian divide, which splits all the parties, coming to the fore. Why? Because the authoritarian / libertarian divide is an argument purely over the size of the state, and by extension, the cost of the state.
The leaders of all three parties belong firmly in the ‘authoritarian’ wings of their parties – all three are in favour of the nanny state. To some degree perhaps this is an inevitable part of being leader – the allure of power is that you get to tell other people what to do. Abrogating the public of all responsibility for themselves also delivers better soundbites and policies (“this government recognises your problem and is going to fix it for you by … x”).
Labour’s membership seem to be fairly closely alligned to their leadership on this question – they’re all authoritarian, or statists. The Conservative party membership, from what I have seen, tends towards the libertarian end of the spectrum – Thatcher’s legacy lives on in the grassroots membership, if not in No. 10. The Liberal Democrat grassroots, however, seem to be by far the most statist of the party membership groups. Their crisis of support (they’ve been languishing around the 9% mark in the polls) is the mirror image of the Conservatives’ polling woes – far from yearning for more freedom, liberal voters have deserted the party for being too, well, liberal.
Which is why I have to feel a little sorry for Jeremy Browne, the Liberal Democrat Home Office Minister who was recently ‘reshuffled’. Speaking on Sunday Politics this weekend, he said
“I want us to be unambiguously and apologetically an authentic liberal party, and I don’t want us to feel that we have to echo the policy positions of the Labour left. I don’t want us to crave the approval of columnists like Polly Toynbee; I don’t want us to be a pale imitation of the Labour Party. I think we should be a proud and unambiguously an authentic liberal party.” …
“I think there are two big dangers for us as a party. I don’t think we should be 1) instinctively statist, and I don’t think we should 2) be instinctively in favour of the status quo. I want us to have a restless radical energetic liberal reforming instinct, that is about putting more power and responsibility and opportunity in the hands of individual people. ” …
I think there are actually quite a few small-l liberals in the other political parties. People like Alan Milburn who wrote the report on social mobility. People like Nick Boles in the Conservative Party. Now our ambition, the Liberal Democrats, should be to attract liberals from other political parties and no political parties to the Lib Dems. We shouldn’t be saying that somebody who’s an authentic liberal has no place in the Liberal Democrats, that seems to me to be getting everything completely the wrong way around.
Writing last week on UKIP Daily, Mike Baldock made the case for UKIP being the libertarian party in modern British politics. Although he hails from a left-wing world-view whereas I lean more to the right, I think he’s correct. We both are united in libertarianism (even if our strands of libertarianism look quite foreign to each other). Which is why I say to liberals or libertarians in the other parties: recognise that you have lost the battle within your historic political home. The three other main parties may still pay the occasional lip-service to liberal ideals, and you may have had very good reasons for joining them when you were 18. But the leadership of all three of those parties are now undeniably statist in their actions and in their planned policies.
Under a Conservative-led government, we are getting a corporatist, Keynesian economic agenda. All three parties are united in their desire to remain within the socialist behemoth that is the European Union. All three are united in their continued worship at the altar of climate change.
All three are dragging their more liberally minded members along with them, in a direction in which those members don’t wish to go.
As the factors that are causing the libertarian / statist discussion to rise to the fore continue to make themselves felt ever more forcefully, we are going to see much more disagreement and discord within those three parties, with UKIP the likely beneficiary as libertarian people recognise that their leadership has abandoned them. Yet as the Western world is about to run out of money, the libertarian across the spectrum must triumph if our nations are to survive. We have all fallen foul of the old Chinese curse: we live in interesting times.