I attended the New Statesman Centenary debate on Thursday, where the motion was “This House believes the left won the 20th Century”
It was a stellar list of speakers. Mehdi Hasan, Simon Heffer and Helen Lewis spoke for the motion, Tim Montgomerie, Owen Jones and Ruth Porter were against. And the speeches were great – perhaps the only bum note being when North Korea was named as a fairly typical example of a left wing state. But anyway, I digress.
Two things struck me. The first was that the three speakers in favour of the motion studiously avoided the use of one particular word – Socialism. Which is odd when it was the dominant left wing political philosophy of the century, in this country at least.
Which brings me on to the second; if they didn’t talk about socialism, what did they talk about?
Well they all cited Asquith, David Lloyd George and the introduction of the Welfare State, Beveridge, Keynes, Grimond got a mention.; Heffer even made the case that Margaret Thatcher wasn’t a Conservative, she was a nineteenth century economic liberal in the tradition of Gladstone.
And this theme of citing liberalism over and over again wasn't just limited to one side of the debate. Interestingly so did the other side, naming economic, social and egalitarian liberalism as the dominant forces of the century.
I was going to make the point – but then someone else in the audience made it for me – that an outsider might presume it wasn’t the left (or right) that won the 20th century – but liberalism. And indeed, Tim Montgomerie then made a very erudite speech, applauded by all members of the panel, where he argued that the century may have seen the decline of the large ‘L’ Liberal party, but that liberalism – in the form of classical liberalism for the right and modern (social) liberalism for the left – was indeed the dominant political force of the century.
No one in the audience demurred either.
I have often thought this but never heard a panel like this make the case quite so eloquently.
And of course, this fits with the current ‘positioning ‘ being adopted by the party perfectly (you can’t trust Labour on the economy, the Tories on fairness).
But given there seemed general agreement on this politically broad panel that liberalism had indeed won the century – you do wonder where it all went wrong for the the large L version...