Comment: Can Paddy Ashdown reclaim the Liberal legacy?

Caroline Julian: 'The personalisation agenda has placed a great weight on the importance of individual choice'
Caroline Julian: 'The personalisation agenda has placed a great weight on the importance of individual choice'
Ian Dunt By

By Caroline Julian

This year's conference made clear that there is little by way of agreement as to what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Richard Reeves, Nick Clegg's former strategy director, called for a centrist liberal underpinning, whereas others pressed for an appeal to their social democrat roots.

Another strand that cannot perhaps be so narrowly categorised in such terms emerged from the likes of Paddy Ashdown, who was recently announced by Nick Clegg to chair the Lib Dem's general election campaign. At a fringe event on Monday, Paddy argued forcefully that if we don't revitalise our democracy, or rather our understanding of it, this is the end of successful government as we know it.

Citing the legendary post-war liberal Jo Grimond, he argued that government must act through intermediary institutions, devolving power to the lowest level and delivering greater transparency to communities through public services. Rather than 'doers', government should be 'network enablers', facilitating the creative space between the state and citizens to empower the dis-empowered. With the ever-growing disconnect and distrust between people and politics, matched with the growing consolidation of our markets, Paddy Ashdown put forward a good case.

In many ways, the liberals have taken this narrative forward in recent years. The Localism Act is in place, with many of its 'community rights' now in effect. The Lib Dem-led agenda on employee-owned business, which is undergoing extensive review following the recommendations of Graeme Nuttall, mark another of the coalition's policies that seek to open up ownership of assets and markets to those often excluded.

Jo Grimond had similarly argued for a far more decentralised economy and a greater diversity of state services: "You cannot have a contended, industrious and stable society where property is concentrated in a few hands, or worse still under the control of the state." Promoting the importance of opening up the possibility of assets and wealth, he was also a great advocate of employee mutuals and shared ownership schemes.

Many recent policies have greatly conflicted with this narrative, promoting the primacy of the individual, rather than the importance of community, and the interaction between the central state and individual citizens, rather than the role of intermediary institutions.

As I have argued previously, for example, the proposals for the reform of the House of Lords have to date very much founded upon an individualistic understanding of 'representation', taking into account only an individual's say at the point of the ballot box, rather than reaching out to communities, sectors, cultures and dispersed ethnic groups.

The personalisation agenda too has placed a great weight on the importance of individual choice. But choice, subject to market forces and without the right support, as many have argued, can often result in no choice at all. At a fringe event on the matter of personalisation in social care, hosted by ResPublica yesterday with the new minister for care services Norman Lamb, the possibility of a more mutual and reciprocal understanding of choice emerged from the discussions - one that brokers in the family, the wider community and the possibility for consumers to become 'producers' and 'owners' of their care services.

If "society is as essential to the individual as water to a fish", as Jo Grimond argued, emerging policies will demand a great shift in focus. The question is, will the likes of Paddy Ashdown, drawing on the liberal legacy, but applicable to all parties and none, now take up this opportunity to drive forward this transformative agenda?

Caroline Julian is a senior researcher and project manager for the think tank ResPublica.


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