THE British political scene today is one of unusual disorder. On the one hand we have a Conservative government and party, weighed down by eight continuous years of office and saddled with a record which includes a lost war in Egypt and what must be conceded to be the failure of its policies in Cyprus, Malta, East Africa and the European Common Market, yet going forward with ever-increasing confidence towards a third consecutive term of office. On the other hand we have a Labor opposition, armed with all the ammunition an opposition could ever dream of, its hunger for office sharpened by eight years in the wilderness, yet rent by schisms, devoid of initiative and barely holding its ground in the country. On top of all this, we have the spectacle of the Liberal Party, which a short time ago seemed moribund, now regaining its vigor to such an extent that, over the last two years, Liberal candidates have averaged 25 percent of the votes in every by-election they have fought.

Something has gone wrong with the works. This 25-percent Liberal vote is too hard and indigestible a lump for the comfort of the body politic: and until it is assimilated into the system the discomfort will continue, accompanied by much noise and wind. Something, to change the metaphor, has gone wrong with the pendulum. It swings easily enough to the Right; but on the return swing to the Left, something is catching.

There have always been two main strands of thought incorporated in the left wing of British politics, one fixed and permanent, the other variable and inconstant, one concerned with people as they are, the other concerned with ideas. The first is what we might call the radical strand. It is a strand found in all nations at all times. It is that body of opinion which represents the underdog, which is opposed to power, privilege and "the Establishment;" it is the party which seeks change, progress and at times revolution. Although it is permanent, it is always appearing under different names and guises.

In the last four centuries this radical strand has burst into vigorous life under at least four different guises--the Puritan revolution of the seventeenth century, the Whig revolution of the eighteenth century, the liberal revolution of the nineteenth century and the socialist revolution of the twentieth. The significant fact about it is that it is not permanently attached to any particular ideology. It attaches an ideology to itself according to the needs of the age. The Puritan revolution was moral and religious, the Whig revolution was political and intellectual, the liberal revolution was economic, and the socialist revolution was social. In each case, a new thread of ideology was woven into the original web of radicalism.

The original Liberal Party came into existence as one of the reincarnations of this radical strand. It wove a new pattern of economic principles which upheld a policy of free trade and laissez-faire. This body of ideas, stemming originally from the French physiocrats, but developed and expanded by Adam Smith and others, and later rationalized and generalized by the utilitarian philosophers, came at exactly the right psychological moment to become a mighty weapon against the vested interests of a reactionary landowning aristocracy in effective control of the political and economic power of the nation.

The Industrial Revolution required a radical new approach to economic problems. It had broken up the old social system of the country, with its rigidly prescribed class structure and its commercial immobility; and as a result men were searching for new rules of conduct on which to base a new order of society. Here were the new economic doctrines to suit the need, here were the bones of a policy which not only could make possible a vast increase of wealth for the nation (in the process overturning the old order of society) but which at the same time made self-interest "enlightened." Selfishness for the first time became a virtue; and what more could a politician demand? It was only natural that the radical opposition should seize on these doctrines with both hands and turn them to good political account.

The first great issue to be fought under the new banners was the repeal of the Corn Laws. It is hard for us in these days to recall what a tremendous issue this was, and how this one measure, which aroused the enthusiastic support of the mass of the people, set the tone for Britain's economic policies for nearly a century. But even in those earliest days this weapon proved a two-edged sword which could wound friend and foe alike. It certainly cut down the old entrenched order of society as with a scythe; but it cut cruelly into the life of the poor, the weak and the needy. The same doctrine which proclaimed the right of the capitalist and entrepreneur to trade freely without let or hindrance, equally sanctioned, if not encouraged, the exploitation of men, women and children under the most terrible conditions. The number of people who died of poverty around the factories of Europe in the nineteenth century probably exceeded the number of those who died in the concentration camps of the twentieth. Provided profits could be made, the social, ethical and aesthetic consequences of the operation must--not could--must be disregarded. Here were the seeds of disaster already present. The Liberal Party had for short-term ends allied itself to a dogma which in the course of the next century came near to destroying liberalism in Britain altogether.

This fundamental weakness of the new economic doctrine was from the start obvious to the early Socialists, and particularly to Karl Marx and his followers. It is of particular interest to us today to recall that laissez-faire liberalism and socialism share a common origin in the economic crisis caused by the Industrial Revolution; and that although in theory the two doctrines are fundamentally opposed, in practice they are united in a common belief in economic determinism as the ultimate factor in human relations.

For Marx, history was determined by economic laws based on the fundamental clash between different economic classes. For the classical economists, the market took the place of the class war. Both parties regarded warfare as the natural order of things. Success went to the strong, and the weak went to the wall. For both it was a case of vae victis; for both, humanity, justice and beauty were forced to give place to the iron laws of economic determinism. And for both parties this dogmatic approach to politics has in the long run proved fatal. Economic determinism all but destroyed the Liberal Party by the mid-twentieth century. It is fast destroying the Labor Party now. In Western political life at least, justice and humanity are proving more powerful and enduring than economics.

Political parties arise in response to a given challenge. But when the challenge is overcome, the party still continues, as if by the force of inertia, in the same original direction until the unreality of its actions becomes obvious even to its most fervent supporters; and then another force arises to take its place. What Hegel wrote of nations can equally be applied to political parties: "Every [party] ripens like a fruit. Its activity consists of accomplishing its principle and not enjoying it. Each has its principle to which it tends as to its end. That end attained, it has nothing more to do in this world."

But there is one exception to this rule. The political party which in any country is called conservative is exempt from the workings of the rule for the simple reason that it is not compelled to move in any direction. And in saying that, I am not trying to be cynical. The principal object of a conservative party is to preserve all that is best of the past and the present; and this is an essential task in any nation. It resists change. It does not need an ideology to justify its actions.

It would not be true to imply that conservative parties resist all change, and have no driving force of their own. Of course not. But the main weight of conservative opinion is the weight of custom and tradition, the weight of inertia slowing the rate of change to the lowest possible speed. As a result, any party which wishes to accelerate the speed of change is bound to create some form of ideology to generate the steam necessary to overcome this inertia.

Since change for the sake of change is futile, it must have a purpose, and that purpose is usually expressed in the form of a set of principles, or ideology. It follows that political parties of the Right are stable and long enduring, while those of the Left rise and fall in response to the particular challenge of the age.

This state of affairs is illustrated to perfection by the political history of Britain over the last two centuries. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the old forces of conservatism were based on the ownership of land and the mercantilist system of protected trade. The Industrial Revolution demanded change, a change to release the new sources of wealth and energy. The political vehicle for this change in Britain was the Liberal Party, and the ideology was free trade.

The liberal revolution reached its climax in 1906, in which year the Liberal Party was returned to power with a greater majority than any party received before or since. The principles for which it had fought had become to all intents and purposes the principles of all. A politician might well have said, "We are all Liberals now." But with the triumph came the inevitable nemesis. Liberalism became orthodoxy, the Liberal Party became "the Establishment." The ideology became a dogma and the forces of inertia took charge. Change, if change must be, was forced to find a new vehicle; and that vehicle was to be the Labor Party.

In this same parliament of 1906 there were four Socialist M.P.s. Few people in those days would have believed that within 20 years this same infant Labor Party would be forming a government, and that for the next 50 years socialism would be the dominant political force in the land. And yet the reasons why this would happen were there for all to see. Free trade increases the wealth of the nation, but it has nothing to say, naturally enough, about justice or political liberty. The free exchange of goods and the free movement of labor and capital have been among the great liberating forces of all time. But free trade does nothing whatsoever to ensure a fair distribution of wealth, nor to safeguard the nation's resources, nor to preserve the natural beauties and amenities of the countryside. The scars of nineteenth-century private enterprise are still burnt into the body of the country today. The enterprising prosper, and the unenterprising fail. But how few people are ever in a position to be enterprising? Perhaps 10 percent. The remainder are mere pawns in the game.

At the end of the nineteenth century the average working man had no control whatsoever over his own destiny. However skilled, honest, hardworking and loyal he may have been, if his employer miscalculated or was negligent, or if the winds of economic competition blew unfavorably for his business, all that workman's skill and loyalty were of no avail. He was involved in a ruin over which he had no control. The laws of the society in which he lived were principally concerned with the protection of capital and the property which had accumulated from this process of capitalism. The working man's interest in this property was limited to the seven days which elapsed from one pay day to the next. In the midst of great wealth there was great poverty and wretchedness; and, possibly worst of all, there was bred the feeling that for the masses there was no place in this society except as labor to be hired and fired, but otherwise forgotten.

This, needless to say, was a situation which the working classes of Britain were not prepared to accept. They were of the same flesh and blood as the successful capitalists, and if these latter could build up a political system to provide themselves with security and a good life, so then could the working classes. And there ready to their hand was the creed of socialism, the ideology to generate the necessary steam for a new political advance.

Any true Liberal today will sympathize with the objectives of that new movement; and indeed many thousands of Liberals did in fact transfer their allegiance to the new party. The same radical strand which had been the backbone of the Liberal Party in the nineteenth century became the backbone of the Labor Party in the twentieth.

The working classes of Britain were not concerned with abstruse points of philosophy or dialectic but with the hard facts of life; and it is impossible to deny that the facts of life were very hard indeed. Hunger, poverty and fear inhibit all other human preoccupations. It is useless to explain the virtues of political and economic liberty to people who are hungry. What is the good of political liberty, if political action cannot produce bread? What is the good of economic liberty if it cannot stave off want? These were the two questions which confounded the nation in the early twentieth century, and which were to break in pieces the whole structure of British Liberalism at the moment of its greatest triumphs.

The Labor Party took over where the Liberals left off. Into the radical background of the left wing they wove the pattern of the new ideology, Marxism. Once again the ideology provided the steam to overcome the inertia of the Establishment and bring a new dynamism to the British political scene. The Marxist ideology provided exactly the same short-term advantages to the radicals of the twentieth century as the laissez-faire ideology had done for the radicals of the nineteenth century. The over-all pattern of the last 50 years is almost an exact repetition of the previous century. While conservatism remained steady, giving ground only when compelled to do so, the forces of change gained ever-increasing momentum, until in 1945 the Socialist triumph was complete and a Labor government was returned to power with an overwhelming majority over all its opponents. Once again, as in 1906, the radical forces had gained a momentous victory. And once again, victory brought the inevitable nemesis.

This brings the story up to date. In theory there is nothing to prevent the Labor Party continuing as the radical party in Britain and alternating with the Conservatives as the government of the country, depending on whether progress or consolidation is the dominant mood of the people. But in practice there are overwhelming obstacles.

First there is the ideological obstacle, Marxism. The Labor Party had cheerfully used the dogma as a weapon in their struggle, just as the Liberals had formerly used their dogma. And let us remember that both dogmas contain a large vein of truth. But though they contained the truth, they did not contain the whole truth or "nothing but the truth." Thus today, as in the 1920s, the dogmatists find themselves in a minority. Once a political party finds itself in a permanent minority, with little or no hope of attaining power in the foreseeable future, all the stuffing is knocked out of it, and the members start looking over their shoulders for another home.

But not only that. The Labor Party is financed and controlled by the trade unions, who exercise an absolute veto over policy decisions in the party. Now there is nothing wrong with this. The trade unions are entitled to control a political party to further their own ends, but it means that any potential radical supporter who is not a trade unionist has little or no chance of playing his part in a wider radical movement. Nothing can illustrate this better than the fact that within the last 12 months both the chairman and the secretary-general of the Labor Party have been unable to secure nominations to safe Socialist seats; these seats were held to be trade-union preserves. And the unions, having made great gains for their members over the latter years, feel it their duty to conserve these gains. They are becoming more and more conservative. Moreover, the trade unions finance and maintain more than a hundred M.P.s directly out of their own funds in the same manner as the nineteenth-century landlords maintained their M.P.s; and this militates against any real radical revival, and encourages conservatism.

The fundamental fact in British politics today, as it has been to a great extent over the last 150 years, is this: Under ordinary circumstances there is a tendency in Britain to conservatism and the status quo. This general tendency can be overcome only if the forces of radicalism not only are united under a common flag but in addition are energized by a common ideology. If the forces of the Left are divided, or if they lack a purposeful ideology, then the inertia of conservatism tends to prevail. The continued domination of the Conservative Party over the last eight years, in spite of events in Suez and elsewhere, is largely due to the fact that there is no longer a united radical opposition to be found in Britain.

The problem, then, is whether, if the Labor Party is unable to hold the allegiance of sufficient radicals to continue to provide a radical alternative to the Conservatives, a revived Liberal Party can take its place. But before answering this question we must ask another. Why cannot the Liberal Party exist as a center party regardless of the Conservatives and the Socialists? Is there not room for a third party of moderates who can hold the balance of power between the extremes? And the answer to this must, I think, be no. For short periods it is possible for third parties to maintain themselves, but in the end they are bound to be swallowed up by the major parties and cease to exert any influence on events. The middle of the road is a dangerous place; you get run over by the traffic coming in both directions. In addition, you have no initiative. You have to conform to the initiative of others if you are to remain balanced between them. If the British Liberal Party were to attempt to become a center party, holding a balance of power, it would disappear in a very short space of time.

Despite its many drawbacks, the two-party system offers great advantages to a democracy. Here is the government, and there is the opposition. The choice is clear-cut. But what the two-party system does not imply is that the same two parties should always be the only two parties involved. The Conservative Party will always be one of the two, whatever its name; for it can take its stand on things as they are, and wait for the other side to attack. The variations will come from the Left flank. Who is to do the attacking?

The two-party system works effectively only if the two parties are sufficiently broad-based in their doctrines to accommodate all shades of opinion. Such a system is to be seen in the United States, where neither party is tied to an ideology in such a manner as to exclude large sections of potential supporters. The principles of both parties are flexible enough for all. In Britain today this is not so. The radical alternative is tied to a dogma, socialism. The would-be radical voter must swallow the dogma whole, or go elsewhere; and until recently there was nowhere else to go. The present revival of the Liberal Party under Jo Grimond's leadership is mainly due to the fact that it is now prepared to provide a radical alternative.

To the question of what chance, then, a revived Liberal Party stands of taking the place of the Labor Party, the answer on the face of things must be, little enough. But outward appearances may be misleading. The Liberal Party today has six M.P.s in the House of Commons, two more than the Socialists had in 1906. Another fact which gives Liberals encouragement is that during the last two years Liberal candidates have averaged 25 percent of the votes in every by-election they have contested. This figure shows that there are already millions of potential Liberal voters in the country today, even though they know that the Liberal Party cannot yet form a government. With three parties in the field, 34 percent of the votes is the theoretical breakthrough point when victory becomes a possibility. The Liberal Party is already within 10 percent of the threshold.

A further glance at the figures reveals another interesting fact. At present it takes more than 150,000 votes to return one Liberal M.P., whereas 33,000 is all that is necessary to return a Conservative or a Socialist. This is a measure of the disadvantage which a third party suffers under our electoral system. It shows the strength of the impetus towards a two-party system, and the vital importance to a party in moving from third to second place if it is to survive. In the coming years, the struggle between the Liberal and Labor Parties for second place will, I believe, become the focal point of interest in the British political scene.

But a Liberal revival will not come by juggling with figures. It will come about only if there is a powerful body of opinion backed by a powerful political organization dedicated specifically to putting liberal principles into practice. Most political parties today profess liberal principles; some even practice them. But these parties are held together by other interests and pressures which in moments of stress take priority over purely liberal sentiments. The spirit is willing enough, but the flesh is too weak to withstand the painful realities of political life.

The British Liberal Party exists primarily to fill this gap, and to convert vague principles into hard political reality. We are concerned to make freedom work. We want to make it work first of all in our industrial and social life. The first plank in our platform is to tackle the bitterness and wastefulness of the class war by bringing justice and true partnership into industry. We recognize the injustice and the folly of a capitalist system which relies entirely on a floating proletariat to keep it going, but we reject state ownership as an alternative. There must be partnership in industry for all who work in it: a partnership which recognizes social and psychological needs as well as economic forces. This process can be fostered by suitable fiscal means, as well as by a resolute attack on monopolies and restrictive practices which strangle the workings of a free economic system. We want, too, to make a clean sweep through the dusty corridors of snobbery, privilege, patronage and class distinction which choke the nation today, and which are the real enemies of true freedom.

Abroad, our policy is aimed at breaking down the barriers which separate man from man, and at creating a world in which men may move freely with their families and goods to wherever their services are most required and their abilities most rewarded. We are committed to the lowering of tariffs, the freeing of trade and the convertibility of currency. We are convinced of the folly of emphasizing the division of the world into black and white--Communist and non-Communist--and basing military strategy on this distinction. While resolute in our opposition to Communism, we believe that the best way to convert the world to freedom is to prove that freedom works. We reject the primacy of military measures in the battle for men's minds. We are opposed to the continuance of colonial rule in Asia and Africa. We believe that where freedom is at stake, arguments of economics and strategy must take second place. The history of the United States confirms this fact.

These objectives are of course proclaimed by liberal-minded men in many parties. But the Liberal Party is the only party specifically created and organized to put them into practice as a first priority. They are the sole justification for our existence and our coherence as a party.

The British party system is no longer adjusted to the problems which affect us today. The fundamental loyalties of both the Conservative and Labor Parties are to social classes, the Conservatives implicitly, the Socialists explicitly; the dialectic is between the "haves" and the "have nots," the workers and the bosses, the proletariat and the capitalist. The language is the language of Marx. But this dialectic does not fit into the social scene in the same way that it did earlier in the century. Gross poverty, gross inequality and gross injustice no longer exist, and if they did, all parties would combine to tackle them. Today the great problems cut across the old party lines, which is another way of saying that the parties are not adjusted to deal with these problems. The problems of nuclear weapons, of national sovereignty, of the unity of Europe and the free world and of colonialism--these find expression in "non-party" organizations. The trivia of politics--"How many cars can an election candidate use?"--are what generate heat and smoke in Parliament, and then the whole panoply of the class war is trotted out and paraded round the ring.

If the party system is to survive, the parties must be divided over vital issues. Whether or not Britain remains a nuclear power is a vital matter; whether Europe is united or Central Africa is free are vital matters. It is nonsense to say that these are "non-party matters." But because they cannot be fitted into the context of the class war, because a working man and a banker happen to be on the same side of the argument, these issues are seldom if ever debated realistically in the House of Commons.

It is on the home front, most of all, that the present party divisions fail so completely. The greatest domestic issue in the forthcoming election is likely to be nationalization. The Conservative Party organization is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds in advertising the iniquities of nationalization. The Labor Party man carries engraved on his membership card, and on his heart, that he fights for the nationalization of all the means of production, distribution and exchange. Yet for the vast majority of the people the question, "Who owns an industry?" is but one minor facet of the problem of industry as such. What matters to most of us is not who owns it, but whether it is efficient, whether it is profitable. Does it provide a decent livelihood for all who work in it? Does it provide the customer with what he wants at the price he can afford? Does it provide the worker with a stake and a status which satisfy his social as well as his economic needs? The problem of industrial relations is something quite apart from the problems of ownership.

There must be a revolution in our political thinking. Whether the Liberal Party can be the vehicle for this revolution time alone can tell. But until there is a thorough reconstruction of our party system, politics in Britain will continue to be conducted on wholly misleading lines.

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  • PATRICK LORT-PHILLIPS, Liberal Member of Parliament; Treasurer of the British Liberal Party and a member of the Party Executive; author of "The Logic of Defence"
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