On liberty

Philip Collins and Richard Reeves have told Labour to "liberalise." But their notion of liberty is confused
July 25, 2008

Labour won the 2005 general election on the somewhat vacuous slogan of "Forward not back," but now we learn from Philip Collins and Richard Reeves that we could go simultaneously forward and back to the Liberal election victory of 1906.

In their article "Liberalise or die" (Prospect, June 2008), Collins/Reeves argue that we should abandon social democracy for liberalism. But it turns out that this is just a function of their arbitrary labelling. Where they agree with a policy (being more green or raising inheritance tax), they call it "liberal"; where they disagree (as on tackling childhood obesity or regulating new casinos), they call it "social democratic."

This gets them into a tangle. They are, for example, scathing about the government's play strategy. But it is a genuine problem that today the average ten year old is allowed out to play only 100 yards from home compared with 800 yards 30 years ago. If we are to give children back their freedom, then it is right to invest in parks and playgrounds and to bring down road traffic speeds. These are political issues.

Collins and Reeves have a rather limited idea of what liberty is. They say, "the big political argument is how to ensure people are in control of their lives." But enhancing liberty has a number of dimensions; it is not merely the sum of unimpeded choices made by individuals. Your choice to open a lap-dancing club may, for example, impinge on my teenage daughter's freedom to walk safely down the street.

Decisions about the public sphere are necessarily collective: our aim is to ensure that they are democratic, open and accountable. An obsession with choice in public services is not the same as enhancing freedom overall. Many people do like to have a choice over which hospital they can attend, but they would far rather be free from the strokes and heart attacks that require them to visit hospital in the first place. And these are neither inevitable nor acts of God.

We still have significant health inequalities in this country. A man born in Kensington and Chelsea will on average live ten years longer than a man born in Manchester. Tackling this inequality involves public health measures to reduce smoking and obesity. Controlling the advertising of unhealthy food during children's television may seem a far cry from the great Victorian engineering feats of building sewage systems or introducing controls on child labour, but it comes from the same tradition of collective action for the public good and preventing the strong from exploiting the weak.

Liberty is also about enhancing people's opportunities, and that route is often social democratic. This government's investment in schools—where the number of children able to read has risen by 26 per cent; in universities—where participation is rising; and in apprenticeships—where employers are being funded to provide 1,200 different skills—is driven by a commitment to enable all people to fulfil their potential. What is more liberal than that?