Speaking liberally is not enough

Inside Politics – The Policy Exchange newsletter (London), 23 May 2008

The great German comedian Loriot once summed it up nicely. “Liberally speaking,” he said, “liberal does not only mean liberal.” Quite. He must have had the Liberal Democrats in mind when expressing this great political insight.

In the fascinating world of Lib Dem liberalism the word ‘liberal’ has always had a number of different connotations. These included arguing for higher income taxes, more redistribution and tough regulations – hardly the kinds of things that the great Liberals of times past would have fought for. But then again ‘liberal politics’ has always been somewhat oxymoronic – perhaps even more so than being a German comedian.

On Tuesday, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg tried his best to put some true liberalism back into his party. In a speech to Policy Exchange he laid out the principles behind a Lib Dem fiscal policy. It was not the increased tax-and-spend promises of his predecessors. Gone are the days of Charles Kennedy’s pledge to increase the top level of income tax to 50p. And where the Lib Dems’ 2005 manifesto was full of detailed environmental commitments, Nick Clegg’s rhetoric on green taxes has been greatly moderated. Instead, what he promised was simply more ‘value for money’ and, especially for low income earners, lower taxes.

So have the Lib Dems really become liberal again? Or is their newly discovered sympathy for a smaller state just a sign of something else?

It is telling that a day before Clegg’s speech David Cameron also signalled his wish to reduce the level of taxation while even some Labour politicians have begun asking themselves how hard-pressed families can be helped.

As filling your shopping basket, heating your home and fuelling your car have become much more expensive undertakings, voters have come to resent being their politicians’ cash cows. They are increasingly fed up with seeing their taxes trickle away in growing bureaucracies. Politicians who do not understand this do not have a chance of being elected, as even the Lib Dems realise.

In the face of economic crisis the tide has finally turned against big government, and rightly so. But it will take more than paying lip service to ‘value for money’ if the opposition parties want to be taken seriously on fiscal policy. Speaking liberally is not enough.

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