Thursday, 13 May 2010

So who are these "liberals" anyway?

I've had a lot of Americans ask me this week "what the hell is a Liberal Democrat?" The UK election has received some coverage across the pond over the past weeks, and I've been watching with interest how the American media has been covering it. Some have chosen to leave any mention of the Liberal Democrats out for fear of confusing people. Others (Fox News notably) have described them as being "another liberal party" with Labour.

The confusion seems to be the result of the fact that "liberal" has different meanings in America and Europe. In the US "liberal" means someone on the left who believes in a combination of social liberalism, public welfare and a mixed economy. The American right wing has been relatively successful in giving the word "liberal" a negative connotation since the 1980's, hence the rise of the word "progressive".

But in Europe "liberal" is associated with classical liberalism, which is someone committed to the ideal of limited government, individual liberty and free markets. The difference has to do with the fact that the term, which originated in 19th century England, was never adopted in the US until the 1930's when FDR coined it to describe his New Deal policies. European liberals can be thought of more as "Libertarians" in the American context. Think Bill Maher.

Liberal parties exist across Europe, the most influential being in the UK, Germany and Scandinavia. And as a matter of fact, Germany's coalition government now almost exactly mirrors the UK government. Angela Merkel's conservative party the Christian Democrats are in a governing coalition with the much smaller German liberal party, the FDP. Liberals also have their own political grouping in the European Parliament in Brussels, known as ALDE. So in Europe, the three main political groupings are the Conservatives (EPP), the Socialists (PES) and the Liberals (ALDE).

However the European liberals are in fact one of the most diverse groupings in the parliament, because liberals tend to be on different places on the political spectrum depending what country they're in. For instance, in Germany the liberals are more on the center right, making them a natural ally with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. In France, liberals are further to the right and are generally associated with free market policies rather than individual liberty. But in the UK, the Liberal Democrats are more to the left, making their natural ally Labour. This is why their coalition with the Conservatives is likely to prove very politically awkward. But they are still essentially a centrist rather than a leftist party.

One thing that the liberal parties across Europe have in common is they are generally the most pro-EU parties on the continent. Anti-EU feelings have tended to come from both the hard right and the hard left. Many on the communist left believe the EU is a giant plot to shackle individual liberty and make Europe into a free-market corporatocracy. The nationalist hard right believes the EU destroys national sovereignty and fosters state intervention and bureaucracy. I've always found it rather amusing that these two visions of the EU are directly contradictory. The liberals, at the center, tend to be the most EU-friendly because they believe in open borders and free markets, and they decry nationalism.

The Liberal Democrats may be further to the left than the Conservatives, but they are by no means "liberal" under the American definition. They are free market and generally oppose state intervention measures such as national IDs. But their political ideology makes them hard to fit exactly on the political spectrum, much like Libertarians in the US.

So what will all this Conservative-liberal linking mean for the European Parliament? Well the simple answer is it shouldn't mean anything. So I was surprised to hear Graham Watson, the leader of the British liberals in the European Parliament, tell the BBC last night that the Tories and Lib Dems would be "singing from the same hymn sheet" in the EU parliament. I find this completely perplexing, because it's an entirely different legislative body. The German liberals may be linked with the conservatives in Germany, but they don't coordinate their voting in Brussels in any way. I was very confused by that comment.

Anyway, there's your explanation of European liberalism. Hope that was helpful!


Robin said...

That Fox News story is laughably awful! How ignorant do you have to be to think that the most important news of that day was the fact that the Queen "invited" Cameron to be prime minister?? I'd be surprised if any reporter at Fox News even knows there's a world outside the United States, and I'm sure their viewers/readers don't care about that outside world. So why do they even bother reporting it?

itinerantlondoner said...

There is one other confusing element that makes the UK liberals different to continental liberals - the Lib Dems are a merger between the old Liberal Party (similar to the European Liberals) and the Social Democratic Party (which was a centrist breakaway from the Labour party in the early 80s). This is the source of internal divisions in the LibDems (the old Liberal lot are more natural allies with the Tories, the old SDP lot more with Labour) and also crucially explains why so many people DETEST the LibDems - they see the old SDP as traitors who nearly destroyed the Labour party and allowed the hated Maggie Thatcher stay in party longer than she should have done.

This also explains why the LibDems are more to the left in many ways than their European partners, who are almost always much more natural allies withe Centre Right parties.