Saturday, 7 January 2012

Clegg and the 'open society' - an introduction

LibDem leader Nick Clegg gave a welcome gift to party faithful before the festive break, giving speech to the think-tank DEMOS (full text). Remarkably it was both widely discussed (here, here and here) and well-recieved (here, here and here).

In it he laid out what liberalism means for him, and a compelling explanation of how the liberal tradition is different from what other parties have to offer.

He described liberalism as supportive of an 'open society', while conservativism and socialism respectively advocate a 'big society' and 'good society'.

And within a strangely-symmetrical format he identified five threads to this liberalism:
  1. no unfair barriers
  2. wide dispersal of power
  3. sharing of knowledge and information
  4. fair distribution of wealth
  5. internationalism
These practical concepts translate into related ideas of social mobility, participation, transparency, prosperity and peace. And it does this by marrying meritocracy within a democratic system of pluralist politics.

In what came as a bit of a shock to some he argued that coherence requires these ideas do overlap in many areas with those of other parties, and are broadly compatible with different descriptions - the 'open society' stands against the 'closed society', not a big or good one. Rather than opposing the demonised partisan versions of opponents in a bitter axiomatic struggle, it is the manner of the struggle between different philosophies that plays it's effect on society - if the manner of engaging in debate is constructive then politics is constructive... but equally the reverse is also true.

So perhaps quoting Karl Popper may have been a less well-thought through idea than originally intended.

Nevertheless Clegg's emphasis on coalition cooperation while creating distinctions with his current partners and offering hints at a potential framework for shifting alliances in future made for some interesting politics.

Over on the LDV thread I noted that Clegg has promised to put some policy flesh on the theoretical bones of his analysis in the New Year to explain how it is possible to ‘rewiring social relations’ to ‘build a responsible capitalism’, so I asked whether the most productive thing would be to hold him to his word and try to influence him by offering a few suggestions (feel free to add your own).

For constitutional obsessives, wonks and nerds alike, the first matter returns to reform of the upper chamber of Parliament. But for economics obsessives, occupiers and tea-partiers alike, the culture of the market is paramount and this raises questions about city bonuses and the potential of a 'mansion tax'.

In more relevant terms the current Welfare Reform Bill is progressing through the Lords, while the forthcoming NHS Bill is causing anxiety among the grassroots as preparations are being made for the policy forum at Spring Conference.

Meanwhile Clegg himself appeared on the Today programme to open up discussions on the contemporary side of his 'open society'.

Well, responding to this call, I think it's worth taking up some of these issues and instigating a mini-series of blog-posts to examine the subject in a bit more detail. Stay posted!



Communism (sorry – Liberal Democrat thinking) has proved to be a failure in Russia, Vietnam, North Korea and Israel alike.

Nicholai Klegnicov can bleat all he likes but no-one’s listening.

Happy New Year by the way.

OP said...

Happy New Year Gid.

I'm not sure about the definition or the application of it in any of those cases, but I'm pretty sure no LibDem supports militarising society and the execution of political opponents - if so your comment shows there would be a lot to do!

Which vision for society do you sympathise most with - 'big', 'good', 'open' or 'swingin'?