Coalition – Part Two (Liberal Aristocracy)

I wrote yesterday about Conservative ideology. Today I’ll be writing about the other half of the coalition – the Liberal Democrats.

They’re a bit harder to write about, as they don’t really have a single guiding principle to focus on.

They do have a party handbook – J.S. Mill’s On Liberty, but those of you unfortunate enough to have read it will realise exactly how much guidance and how many principles it’s capable of imparting. For those who haven’t, here’s a brief summary from the man himself:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant.

It’s a decent statement of purpose. Mill also goes on to describe the “struggle between authority and liberty”, the twin tyrannies of majority and government, and the essential freedoms necessary for a man to call himself ‘free’. All of which is perfectly sensible.

Obviously he doesn’t propose any actual solutions to any of the societal problems he identifies, but that’s because he’s a liberal philosopher, so we can’t really hold that against him.

The problem is that he fucks it all up in the last chapter, wherein he explains all the times we actually need to restrict our liberty, because of course we need to limit our freedoms in the real world. Duh.

On second thought, it’s a fucking brilliant handbook for a political party. Well done Liberals.

But there I go again, calling them Liberals, when that’s not who they are. They aren’t Liberal Democrats either. They’re Whigs. They’ve always been Whigs, they just keep changing their name.

The Whigs, for those trying to remember, are the other aristocratic political party of Great Britain. If you think you haven’t heard of them, you have probably heard of Pitt the Elder (he was a Whig Prime Minister). Whigs and Tories were our only two political parties for a long time in Britain, back when you had to be landed gentry to be an MP (so not at all like today then…).

Nick Clegg, I’ll add at this point, is descended from the old Russian aristocracy, and his Dad is a CBE. Just in case you were wondering.

The Whigs were the more left-wing of the two parties. There is a bit of a temptation to think ‘champagne socialist’ at this point. Don’t.

They weren’t champagne socialists, partly because socialism hadn’t been invented yet, and partly because ‘more left wing than the Tories’ doesn’t actually mean ‘left wing’. As you’ll notice if you ever look at American politics and realise that the Democrats are ‘more left wing than the Republicans’… and more right-wing than UKIP. Almost as if the US political parties are direct descendants of the Whigs and the Tories, really (but I digress…).

The Whigs – in line with their descendants – were in favour of increased personal and political liberty, so they campaigned for things like parliamentary reform (removing corruption), the abolition of slavery and improvements to free trade. Their most influential parliament was in the 1830s where they:

  • Abolished slavery
  • Emancipated the Catholics
  • Reformed Parliament and increased suffrage (Reform Act 1832)
  • Reformed the Welfare system (the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834)

All of which sounds pretty good – and to be fair, most of it was an improvement. But it’s an improvement from the perspective of an aristocrat – so, although the Reform Act 1832 increased suffrage, it still only allowed the upper middle classes the vote (in addition to the gentry) – the working classes continued to be disenfranchised.

Not that voters get disenfranchised in the UK these days – apart from at the last election, when students were made to queue separately from Real People in several constituencies, including Sheffield Hallam (that’d be Nick Clegg’s then) and many didn’t get to vote as a result. Still, at least it’s being investigated. Or it was before the coalition took office; they’ve been a bit quiet about it since…

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 is worth looking at as well – it was effectively transforming the British Welfare state as it stood (much like the Coalition government is beginning to do at the moment). They decided on the following steps:

  • Workhouses to be built in each parish.
  • “Relief” (Benefit money and/or food) only to be given to people attending a workhouse, not provided in any other fashion.
  • To ensure that relief is only being given to the “truly needy”, workhouse conditions are to be “made worse than the worst conditions outside a workhouse” – in reality this turned workhouses into little more than prisons where families were separated the first step.

They decided that the “poor rate” (cost of benefits etc.) would reach its correct level once the workhouse was seen as a “true deterrent”, and fewer people claimed relief – this would then eventually save the treasury money. In the short term, it would cost a lot more money, as the workhouse construction and administration, as well as assessing the poor rate, would involve a lot of civil service employment and expenditure.

If that last part sounds quite a lot like the economics behind Iain Duncan Smith’s white paper on Welfare, then I’m sure it’s just an astonishing coincidence.

Similarly, in the early 20th century, the Whigs (who by then had rebranded themselves ‘Liberals’) passsed some laws establishing the first bits of our welfare state. But they were still aristocrats, so it didn’t quite make sense:

  • A state pension was introduced (7s/week)
    • This was far below the poverty line, the average working wage being 30s/week.
    • The pension only paid out to “those who had worked to their fullest potential” – a term that was never defined, so people were refused for any (or no) reason. Like having had a day off sick once.
  • Unemployment benefit introduced (7s 6d/week)
    • For those who paid 7d/week NI contributions – crippling for most workers
    • And again, far below the poverty line.
  • Medical insurance introduced (free healthcare)
    • But only for the wage-earner, not his family (not even his children)
    • And only if he paid his potentially crippling NI contributions.
  • Increased tax on the super rich to pay for it
    • Equivalent to increasing the income tax threshold for £350,000+ earners today, in fact.

Again, they’re all good intentions – but they’re meaningless to the working poor. They’re meaningless to the average worker, even – because the Liberals – Whigs, whatever their label is this week –  have no real idea of what it is like to work for a wage, and to have that wage matter. They don’t know what money actually means.

They might mean well, but they’re part of the aristocracy.

Which usually means they don’t have a fucking clue what it’s like to live in the real world.

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