Tuesday Book: Yes, but what are the Liberals for?

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism by Conrad Russell (Duckworth, pounds 12.95)

THE TEASING question asked by Bernard Shaw at the beginning of the 20th century - "What are the Liberals for?" - is still a question for its end. The answer is even harder now. It has been a bad century for liberalism and in Britain a catastrophic one for Liberals. With their old causes gone and new ones taken up by others, they have been left as the party of illustrious ancestors.

Conrad Russell has more illustrious ancestors than most. Son of Bertrand, great-grandson of Lord John Russell, the scholarly Liberal Democrat peer wants to persuade us that there is a coherent Liberal tradition that goes back over 300 years, and that it is more relevant than ever.

The blurb on this little book describes it as "polemical", but the author describes it as a work of political philosophy - in fact, in a characteristically Liberal way, it is neither. Russell is too fair-minded to produce a party polemic, while the attempt to do so prevents any serious philosophy.

Yet this does not diminish its interest. It proceeds by repudiating the idea of a common liberal tradition ("if there is anything in common between the `liberalism' of Milton Friedman and that of JK Galbraith, it is not apparent to me"), cheerfully concedes that most British liberals are not Liberals, and proclaims that "many of the best Liberals" came from the Social Democrats.

It is disarmingly honest about Liberalism's great 20th-century failures. It did not understand the nasty side of nationalism. It was immobilised by its lack of an economic philosophy. By refusing to adopt working-class candidates, it made a mockery of its beliefs, helping to ensure its replacement by Labour.

As an adjective, "liberal" has triumphed. As a noun, liberalism has foundered on the difficulty of reconciling its economic and political versions. And as a party, it has declined.

It is a messy and complex story. Trying to turn it into a seamless historical and intellectual journey is doomed to failure. All political traditions gloss over their contradictions, but with liberalism it is an especially bogus enterprise. Finding the spirit of Milton and Mill in the antics of some of today's Liberal Democrats is a challenge too far.

Such accounts may talk about the past, but their real focus is the present. Conrad Russell is no exception. He wants to refute the notion that there is a "centre left" in Britain in which the Liberal Democrats are merely junior partners. The denial is bad history, even if it may seem to be useful politics. For the intermingling of the "new" liberal and ethical socialist traditions in Britain in the early part of this century produced the basis for a powerful progressivism. JA Hobhouse even called it "liberal socialism", just as some now describe Blairism as "social liberalism".

It never found its effective political expression, much to the delight of the Conservatives - until now. It required a realignment of political forces of the kind that Liberals such as Jo Grimond advocated. That is what has happened - except that it happened within the Labour Party. Those in search of the origins of Blairism should read Grimond's The Liberal Future (1959). For Liberals to bemoan an outcome that they have spent their political lives arguing for might seem eccentric even by Liberal standards - especially when they have been so warmly invited in from the cold.

The reviewer is Labour MP for Cannock Chase and joint editor of `The New Social Democracy' (Blackwell)

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