The British Paradigm Shift?
In the UK, as in many Western Democracies, institutional trust has collapsed over recent decades. Whether it be the press, banks, the government, the EU, citizens have lost faith in many elements of British society, not without reason in some cases. The 2020 Trust Barometer reveals that Britain is the least trusting society aside from Russia, with 60% losing faith in democracy itself as an effective form of government and over 50% seeing capitalism as more harmful than beneficial. Layered onto this general trend, the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic insecurity have strained the social fabric and killed small businesses. The degree of short-term solidarity which emerged with the early COVID response is beginning to ebb, highlighting the need for a longer-term restoration of community.
Various political groups seek to fill the gap, including the Social Democratic Party [SDP]. The SDP (related but not identical to the homonymous 1980s centrist party) exemplifies both the promise and the peril of political change. The party’s trajectory raises questions about the most effective way to advance a post-liberal project. Even if I disagree with the SDP on certain issues, it remains an intriguing example that fits into a larger movement towards a new politics. A politics infused with notions of solidarity, subsidiarity, human dignity, and the common good — values that broadly guide my views.
Led by William Clouston since 2018, a former district councilor, the Social Democratic Party has experienced growth and gained media attention in recent years. After never having run more than 8 candidates since 1992, in the 2019 election, they ran 20 candidates and won 3925 votes. Briefly, they were represented in the European Parliament member by MEP Patrick O’Flynn’s after he switched from the UK Independence Party (UKIP) to the SDP. During his time in the European Parliament, O’Flynn spoke out forcefully about Brexit, funding for cultural projects, and the downsides of corporate-driven globalization. Earlier this year, I was lucky to have the chance to interview SDP William Clouston, who provided some insightful answers to my questions about his party.
The SDP’s Positions
The SDP presents a fascinating form of opposition to the Labour/Conservative/Liberal Democrat triumvirate that trades governance in the UK. Outside these major parties, the SDP has more flexibility to criticize, and employs it; Clouston notes that “the real divide in British (and American) politics is between the social and the liberal, between the communitarian and the individualistic. The political gap is for a political party which blends centre-left economics (public ownership of the railways, state housing construction, industrial policy, some trade barriers etc) with social conservatism and patriotism (faith, flag and family). Post-liberal. That is where the SDP is.”
Like other critics of liberalism, Clouston and his party view the mentality as dominant in major political parties. About the Tories, Clouston notes that “ The Tories are a liberal party both in the economic and social sense. They haven’t conserved anything and the word which describes them is indifference”. While some have praised PM Boris Johnson for guiding the Conservative party in an ostensibly more populist economic direction, Clouston vehemently disagrees, remarking: “Nothing Johnson has ever said or done would dissuade me from the view that he is a thoroughgoing social and economic liberal. And he leads a party crammed full of people who doubt, philosophically, the value of positive government action”.
He holds Labour and the Liberal Democrats in similar regard, noting that “New Labour were very similar and accepted the entire Thatcher agenda on trade and economics, albeit with slightly higher public spending. The Lib Dems to this day comprise three different strands of political thought (woke progressivism, social democracy, classical laissez-faire liberalism) which is and [sp] odd position inside what is quite a small party.”
Seeing the main parties as deeply broken, the SDP criticizes the marketized consensus that upholds free trade and free movement as ultimate goals. However, they do not appear to be anti-liberal. While critical of liberalism, the SDP also upholds academic freedoms, a hallmark of liberal democracy. Their platform indeed evidences their post-liberal orientation.
Accordingly, many of the SDP’s fiscal and environmental policies lean left. Thatcherites they certainly are not. The SDP supports increasing taxes on the wealthy, rejecting healthcare privatization, investing in nuclear power, and boosting legal aid for defendants. But some of their social policies at least sound more right-wing, including the aforementioned “charter of academic freedom”, planks about social issues, and ample references to British values.
Throughout, they transcend the left-right divide with a civic and economic nationalist outlook. For Clouston, “the pandemic has exposed the folly of liberal trade policy which has gutted industry in both the US and the UK. It has also undermined the decent industrial wage which was the bedrock of family life. About 35 years of neoliberal policy requires reversal”.
He continues, “therefore, we support some trade friction and view WTO terms are a preferable starting point. Import substitution, re-shoring, industrial policy, and a generally more domestic focus is required. For years, policy has favoured consumers rather than producers and has resulted in cheap goods in Walmart but closed factories”. On the related issue of China, he notes that “the general indifference to what is made and where it’s made promoted by free-trade liberals over that past 35 years must be reversed” and that “cheap goods come at a huge price to society”. I would not that this is likely an insight many will take from this moment. Overseas supply chains left Western democracies reliant on authoritarian adversaries for crucial medical supplies in an unprecedented health crisis. How sustainable can that be in the long-term?
However, Clouston and the SDP are not dogmatically opposed to trade, noting that “FTAs would have to be carefully considered on a case by case basis” while asserting that “ economists Dani Rodrik and Ian Fletcher are correct in their view that nation-states need to be able to make their own economic, social and political bargains to a greater extent”. This reads like a left-wing reassertion of the nation-state similar to the one espoused in “Reclaiming the State” by William Mitchell and Thomas Fazi than an isolationist argument. The party’s view rejects the notion that globalization leaves countries powerless, heralding the reassertion of power to achieve left-leaning economic ends.
On immigration, the SDP stake out a more restrictionist position than most who share their social-democratic economic views do. The party platform lauds a point system that favors merit-based categorization (like Canada) and wants to reduce immigration to below 100,000 a year while making migrants “agree to a pledge to uphold and adhere to contemporary British values” (as an aside, what these values are is not quite clear to me). As a whole, Clouston believes that “it’s also time to re-orientate public policy away from mass migration, and our reliance on it, towards a more domestic focus which prioritises reconciliation, integration and social harmony”. The party thus “believe[s] that social harmony is more important than the rate of GDP growth” and thus seeks to “assert the common good” and reject “continuing indifference to integration combined with huge rates of immigration”.
The data show that net migration to the UK has risen over the last few decades and that immigrants contribute large sums to the economy. As with any policy, however, there are likely tradeoffs. Clouston’s general position is not entirely unpopular; polling shows that 44% of Britons would like to see less immigration while 39% support keeping it around current levels. However, they likely go farther than much of the population would. Clouston and the SDP “favour the Australian policy which sensibly removes the incentive to enter illegally”. This mentioned policy has been panned for being overly harsh; I would argue that we see in the US why migration policy needs to be guided simultaneously by compassion. While some of the SDP’s specific ideas may be controversial, perhaps they point to a blind spot in British politics; major parties have ignored economically left-leaning voters who prioritize “faith, flag, and family”. These are the Red Wall voters Boris Johnson flipped from their Labour roots with a more populist message. William Clouston and the SDP seek to provide a distinct outlet for these views.
Interestingly, today’s SDP emerged from the fallout of the 1980s Social Democratic Party (the majority of which merged with the old Liberal Party to become the modern Liberal Democratic Party). Clouston and others in this rump Social Democratic Party “voted against the merger with the liberals in 1988 for [the] simple reason that liberalism and social democracy are quite distinct political philosophies — liberalism prioritises individual freedom (I), social democracy focuses on communities (we)”. David Owen remained the leader of the SDP for a few more years and left after difficult byelection results for the continuing party.
Owen’s moderate, communitarian, protectionist vision still guides the modern SDP. After all, Owen is pro-Brexit and criticizes the Tories for “destroying the fabric of society”, a communitarian rebuke if there ever was one. He also praises Labour MP Jon Cruddas (a personal favorite of mine), who is closely associated with the Blue Labour tendency. Owen’s history with the SDP brings to mind other historical influences, which I asked Clouston about. When I asked him to name three British figures who best describe how he and the SDP approach politics, he pointed to Owen as well as “Peter Shore (my [Clouston speaking here] overall political hero by a long way) [and] Clement Attlee”. In response to another question, he noted that Lord David Alton is “one of my favourite Liberals”; Alton was a Liberal Democrat with more socially conservative leanings, something almost unheard of in a party that pushed Tim Farron to resign as its leader. Another mentioned figure, Peter Shore is a fascinating but oft-forgotten reminder of Labour’s past. Shore was a staunch Euroskeptic and simultaneously a proud defender of the Labour party’s democratic socialist traditions. A patriot through and through, Shore attacked New Labour but never quite fit into the left-wing either. This seems anomalous today; Labour’s left flank now unites around people like Jeremy Corbyn who are ensconced in the culture wars and often condescendingly critical of working-class values. Rediscovering this forgotten communitarian tradition is an important task for Clouston, among others.
Problems and Challenges
But problematically for the SDP, this small party has come under serious fire. The former Chair of the SDP for Scotland, Cameron Eoin Stewart, resigned via a public statement posted to Twitter on October 6, 2020. Others have criticized it as “acceptable faragism”, highlighting comparisons of BLM to “Maoism” and claims that they’re pushing a “revolutionary agenda”. Clouston himself in our interview referenced the potential for a “mass immigration pause for a generation”, albeit in the context of a general shift towards integration. Another former member decried the party’s admittedly odd stance against the non-stun slaughter of animals, a practice common among minority populations.
On a personal level, such potentially divisive stances may prevent the SDP from entering the mainstream of British politics and winning elections. While I understand the impulse to control capital and migration flows, as the son and grandson of immigrants, it’s difficult to stomach talk about a mass immigration pause for a generation. Some of their other stances, particularly on LGBTQ issues, incorporate rhetoric likely to provoke more controversy than solidarity. This leads me to wonder whether the SDP is approaching excessive dogmatism. Does this positioning threaten its rise?
Amid this controversy, Matthew Pearson stated a useful insight, that the SDP is still young, still malleable. Perhaps there is room to grow, but this would require involvement from a broader base and the rejection of overly aggressive right-wing tropes. I remain somewhat hopeful for the SDP as a project, looking to other parties in their vein around the world.
For instance, In Italy, Democrazia Solidale, work with the Greens in some places and put forth proposals to improve healthcare for pregnant women. In the United States, the American Solidarity Party and its 2020 Presidential candidate Brian Carroll spurn the hyper-individualism espoused by too many in major parties. As of this article’s release, ASP has achieved full ballot access in 8 states and write-in status in an additional 30, no small feat in a pandemic which rendered signature-gathering nigh-impossible. In Australia, the Democratic Labour Party, who initially spun off from the Australian Labour Party in opposition to Communist tendencies, elected John Madigan to the Australian Senate a few years back, although he later left the party.
None of these examples are particularly large, and the DLP have largely declined. But each of them proposes a new way past the “double liberalism” (as David Goodhart puts it so well) espoused by contemporary major parties. And most importantly, if they work with factions within these major parties, each can play a role in pressuring leaders to foreground a politics of the common good.
The New Way Forward?
Perhaps it’s best to conceive of the SDP as just one element of a broader movement attempting to realign British politics. This larger tendency is worth examining, which Clouston himself recognizes when he notes:
“I know and admire Maurice Glasman and we recruited many ex-BL people, some quite senior (Rod Liddle, Michael Merrick, Giles Fraser, Ben Cobley, Liam Stokes). The Blue Labour book is excellent and Maurice has always been kind to us. I think we’re trying to achieve the same things by different routes.
I’ve met Phillip Blond and we have party members who are very close to him. Phillip attended an SDP London event at which I interviewed David Goodhart (also a close friend of the party)”.
The hope for a communitarian realignment emerges from an examination of this broader collaboration.
Both the Red Tories and Blue Labour come to similar political conclusions as the SDP but enjoy institutional advantages over the upstart outfit. Namely, being associated with elected political figures like Jon Cruddas (on the Blue Labour front) assists in bringing this message to Parliament and the media. Additionally, their existence within the mainstream has birthed a more refined critique of extant institutions and a thoughtful set of solutions.
Giles Fraser finds a similar emergence in both these elements, stating in a great article about Tory socialism that “the tradition out of which the present Red Tory/Blue Labour movements develop [is] socially conservative [and] economically redistributive. Its enemy is liberalism in all its forms, both the social liberalism of the Left and the economic liberalism of the Right.” Indeed, Res Publica Founder Phillip Blond wrote in his essential article on Red Toryism: “The current political consensus is left-liberal in culture and right-liberal in economics. And this is precisely the wrong place to be.” Like the SDP, they both cherish democracy but want to see it attuned to problems like the dissolution of community and local institutions.
I must highlight, Blue Labour and the Red Tories aren’t the same, as this stellar back-and-forth in The Prospect displays. I don’t intend to conflate them, but see their visions as complementary enough to constitute different sides of a communitarian coin, at least for this brief examination. In the aforementioned Prospect debate, Maurice Glasman notes that Blue Labour focuses more on co-operatives, mutual banking, and interest rate caps — their agenda borrows more from the socialist tradition than the Red Tory movement’s does. In response, Blond notes that his movement seeks to “overcome the false separation of capital and labour, “distributing capital more widely, challenging monopolies and widening access, and pricing into all markets some measure of their true environmental or social costs.”
While differences exist, both are fundamentally committed to a post-liberal project. They take the beneficial aspects of liberal democracy and meld them to a reasoned critique of modern liberalism’s downsides. As Blond bemoans, many elements of the modern right are engaged in a politics of paradox, “supporting protectionism internationally and then hyper-capitalism nationally” while the left “cannot speak to or even acknowledge cultural insecurity”. At the end of the day, both support a “restoration of the mutual obligations that join people into a common life and a shared national inheritance”, as Blue Labour puts it on their website.
I’m no scholar of British politics, yet I remain hopeful that realignment can come from the efforts of Blue Labour and the Red Tories, whose ideas often meet in Res Publica, one of the most interesting forums for political change. Like an admixture of American Compass and American Affairs, Res Publica hosts panels, debates, and conferences about communitarian ideals including decentralization, boosting civic nationalism, and mediating globalization with strong families and local institutions. Founded by Phillip Blond, the Red Tory movement’s leader, they also promote Blue Labour members like Adrian Pabst. I strongly encourage paying attention to their work.
The advance of a communitarian ethos from within major parties can combine with pressure from smaller outfits like the SDP to generate political change. While Michael Lind wrote in a recent American Compass article about how “change really happens in America”, his insight that “critics of neoliberalism . . . should repudiate mindless partisanship and work with each other across party lines to formulate a replacement for the neoliberal consensus in political economy” rings true in a British context too. The realignment is coming. Blue Labour scion Maurice Glasman recently commended Labour leader Keir Starmer in post-liberal UnHerd as a “true conservative” for “defining the party in terms of patriotism, ‘the country I love’, in terms of the ethics of care, for people and for nature, in terms of family, sacrifice, and community”. On the right, Phillip Blond praised Boris Johnson’s win as a “Red Tory victory” in the pages of First Things. There’s never been a better time for this multi-partisan political evolution than during a global moment defined by shared vulnerability and institutional brokenness. Thanks to the efforts of people like Maurice Glasman, Adrian Pabst, Mary Harrington, Phillip Blond, Nick Timothy, and Wiliam Clouston, a new consensus is beginning to bloom.