Another Yellow Revolution?

Britain's Liberal Dems rediscover their roots


Voters in the United Kingdom headed to the polls Thursday, and if you watch C-SPAN's feed from the BBC's fantabulously frenetic election night coverage, you might spy the notoriously frenzied election analyst Peter Snow darting about a giant map of the UK, washing away swaths of Labour red and some of the last redoubts of Tory blue. Opinion polls are pointing to unprecedented gains for the Liberal Democrats, the UK's historical "third party," and each constituency that Snow points to, magically lighting it up in brilliant yellow, will indicate another gain for the LibDems.

The Liberal Democrats' potential lies in deftly exploiting a gaping hole in British politics by campaigning with a positive, consistently liberal platform rooted in the party's Classical Liberal tradition. They stand to reap gains by fighting a campaign with its most coherent platform in decades, offering a fresh contrast to the dour, illiberal agendas proffered by both Prime Minister Tony Blair's "control freak" New Labour and an aimless Conservative Party, obsessed with cracking down on immigration and imposing "school discipline."

Tony Blair swept the Conservatives from eighteen years of uninterrupted power in 1997 by re-branding his party as "New Labour," jettisoning its "Loony Left" image and renouncing its devotion to centralized state planning. This audacious strategy met fierce resistance from the unions that comprise the historical base of the Labour Party, but it convinced the British middle class that Labour was ready to govern again. While it has rejected socialism, New Labour continues to advocate a technocratic hyper-management of the UK's relatively free post-Thatcher economy.

New Labour's interventionist impulse extends from the economy to the personal sphere. In 2001, Blair proudly declared in a Labour Party TV broadcast that he isn't "some 1960's style libertarian." This week, Blair took to the pages of The Sun, a racy, populist tabloid, to smear the Liberal Democrats' as "soft on drugs."  This record prompted Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy to reassert his party's historic defense of English civil liberty at this year's party conference, decrying New Labour's "authoritarian instincts," denouncing the government's plan for a compulsory national ID card and condemning its proposals for unprecedented curbs of the rights of the accused in the name of the War on Terror. Kennedy also noted, with glee, that Her Majesty's Official Opposition, the Conservative Party, has either endorsed each "reform" or failed to challenge Blair's Labour government, leaving the Liberal Democrats as the only voice of dissent.

While their economic policy might fail to satisfy a Chicago School economist, this election has seen the Liberal Democrats stake out the most explicitly liberal economic policy in a century. The party's website pledges to get the British government "off the back of businesses" and assures voters that the LibDems "want to cut the red tape that stops businesses from growing." Press releases during the campaign have excoriated "Labour's business record" as "complex, interfering and over regulating" and have promised that "Liberal Democrats will set business free." And though they would shift many of its current powers to other agencies, the LibDems propose abolishing the Department of Trade and Industry, claiming it would constitute "the biggest single act of deregulation in history." In contrast to the LibDems' exploration of economic liberalism, this year's Conservative Party platform marks a meek retreat from the party's Thatcherite tradition.

If the negative reaction it has incurred from both right and left is any indication, the LibDems' distinctly liberal message seems to be paying off. The Conservative-friendly Telegraph has felt it necessary to editorialize to its readership that the LibDems aren't sincere in their embrace of the market. George Monbiot, columnist for the lefty Guardian, warns left wingers that a vote for the LibDems will not only signal opposition to the war in Iraq and the Labour government's abysmal record on civil liberties, but they will also be a vote "for the further deregulation of business." And when the BBC's website pondered where the LibDems stand in this election, it threw up its hands: "The question of whether the Lib Dems are now to the left of Labour is in the eye of the beholder."

When he took the helm of the LibDem leadership, Kennedy resurrected the traditional Liberal "equidistance" between Labour and Conservative that his predecessor had abandoned, wisely determining that policy to be a strategic miscalculation. Cozying up to Labour offered immediate, limited rewards in the form of more seats won from the Tories, but the policy marked a set back for the party elsewhere, stunting its ability to enlarge it parliamentary caucus by winning seats from Labour.

A cadre of "Young Turk" MP's and advisors recognized that the Liberal Democrats no longer had the luxury of complacently contrasting itself from a Labour Party saddled by militant labor unions and academic central planners and had to forge an economic policy that didn't merely parrot New Labour's line. With the publication of The Orange Book in the fall of 2004, this group of reformers issued a manifesto that called for modernizing the party by reinvigorating Liberal Democrat policies through a reclaiming of the party's Classical Liberal heritage. Indeed, the first paragraph of the book's introduction invokes the names of some of the great lights of Britain's liberal tradition: John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Adam Smith. The Orange Book's authors joined party colleagues in Liberal Future, a pressure group founded in 2002, as exponents of complementing the Liberal Democrats' recently emboldened defense of personal liberty with a more explicit economic liberalism. 

While some commentators have wondered aloud if Kennedy's affable demeanor is too "relaxed," it belies Kennedy's canny political instincts. He understands that his unhurried attitude has immense popular appeal as the antithesis of a scheming, grasping politician. He is also savvy enough to recognize the potential value in the reformers' explicitly liberal agenda.

Under Kennedy's watch, a Liberal Democrat party that positions itself as the lone defenders of English civil liberty and peace, while unabashedly embracing a market economy, has scored phenomenal by-election upsets, snatching away safe Labour-held seats once thought to be impregnable. He sounds like a sincere convert. In a Guardian profile, Kennedy summons language to explicate his party's core values that would stir any Classical Liberal heart: "The first guiding principle is a mindset, I think—a gut philosophical instinct—to see society in terms of the individual, first and foremost, rather than the interests of the state."

Tune in to C-SPAN tonight to see how much of the UK, inspired by the Liberal Democrats' resurgent liberalism, turns bright yellow.