by Anthony Painter
Nick Clegg showed Cameron how it’s done when it comes to entering the fray on the fraught politics of identity. In Luton, as opposed to Munich, at a calmer time, as opposed to the day of an EDL homecoming rally, with balance, as opposed to lecturing and hectoring, with the intention of contributing to the debate, rather than simply catching headlines, Nick Clegg gave his textured analysis of how the politics of identity is bending our culture and lives.
His reading of the Searchlight Fear and Hope report published earlier this week was spot on. He understands that the middle ground of identity politics is occupied not by liberals, as our traditional notions of the centre would support, but by the culturally concerned and economically insecure. David Cameron erected the straw man of “state multiculturalism”, which doesn’t exist in anything other than the popular mythology of 1980s municipalism. Nick Clegg knocked it down and instead made a cogent case for a diverse but not divided version of multiculturalism built around strong and shared values.
And this is the source of Clegg’s analysis of how we can build a shared identity – a focus on values rather than culture. David Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” seeks to combine the two. There is crossover between “liberal citizenship” and “muscular liberalism”, but where they separate is over this notion of cultural allegiance. Had Cameron expressed himself more carefully and meaningfully, this dialogue between national culture and liberal values could have been an intriguing one.
What Nick Clegg called for in practical terms was what he described as “smart engagement”: the defence of liberal values in communities, abroad, and a proportionate confrontation of extremism and violence. Liberals are always fortunate in this regard. They exist to defend a philosophy and that gives them a degree of intellectual coherence that other parties don’t always have. Life is far more messy in the philosophically pluralistic Conservative and Labour worlds. This doesn’t of course mean that pragmatism doesn’t trump idealism for liberals; it’s just that they always have a process of reverse engineering that is clear. A great many things can be sold as “liberal and liberalism is what the Liberal Democratic party does”, but liberalism is their uncontended creed.
This also means that Liberal Democrats face certain cultural, sociological and ideological constraints. As society becomes educated to a higher level and the ranks of the professionally employed swell, this may give them a wider potential market. But that is the long-term. For now, as Barnsley Central demonstrated so clearly, they are damaged goods.
And this is why Nick Clegg’s “liberal citizenship” isn’t the single answer either. It is one of the responses that is necessary to hold the political mainstream. It will appeal to the confident multiculturals and mainstream liberals who together comprise 24% of the population. These groups are the most likely to be ideas and concepts-driven (university does that to you). However, where David Cameron’s “muscular liberalism” missed the economically and socially insecure to the right, “liberal citizenship” misses them to the left – especially as the leader of the Liberal Democrats is so committed to the economics of austerity.
This is not an adverse criticism of the speech; it is an observation. To guard against division and creeping extremism will require a liberal response – and Clegg’s was it. It will require a conservative response – and Cameron’s Munich speech wasn’t it (though Baroness Warsi has come closer to what it needs to be – a firewall against fracture.) And it needs a Labour response. As I have argued elsewhere “progressive majority” is not sufficient (and is wrong), though “squeezed middle” could have a contribution to make if it’s right. But the group that is aimed at – the identity-ambivalents who comprise 28% of the population – is both economically and socially insecure. The two dance convulsively and anxiously together and this places this group in an “at risk” place.
And Labour’s problem is that, as Atul Hatwal argued on Uncut earlier today, it is still not trusted economically and fiscally (Labour often forgets that many in this group are not only recipients of public goods but they are taxpayers too). Even then, if Labour manages to restore its economic credibility, that may not be enough.
The point about framing the politics of our time as infused by both identity and political economy is that it is both a reflection of the reality and helps us conceive of the political challenges we face in a different way. Nick Clegg has a values-based response (liberal), and smart interventionism actually does offer one of the pragmatic ways forward if it is real (citizenship.)
David Cameron responds with culture (muscular) and values (liberal.) Labour’s response needs to be a cultural pluralism underpinned by values, infused with cultural meaning and common identity, alongside a credible, imaginative and inclusive political economy. Labour’s task is by far the most complex. Its success or failure will define politics and, just as importantly, our ability to be a nation of togetherness and not corrosive conflict and division.
Anthony Painter is co-author with Nick Lowles of the searchlight educational trust report, Fear and Hope: the new politics of identity.