People want more security and less freedom. So says a report last week by the think tank Onward. In a stark assessment of the mood of the electorate, the authors diagnose that a fundamental shift is taking place in politics, concluding that it’s time to shift away from the dominant liberal paradigm of policymaking of the past 60 years. But while many of their recommendations have merit, their core argument is methodologically, conceptually and empirically flawed.
Onward is right to conclude that the UK needs ‘a politics of belonging.’ A greater emphasis by government on economic security, social integration and crime very much accords with the nature of proposals the Tony Blair Institute has put forward over the last two years. However, in the spirit of friendly debate and discussion, we suggest the report falls short in three ways.
First, methodologically. In order to be able to conclude that there has been a “sea change” in attitudes, it is not enough to analyse a single poll, since this only gives you a snapshot in time. To prove that people’s views have changed, you need to track their views over time. Time series data, which allows us to do that, does not support Onward’s central hypothesis. For example, the British Social Attitudes Survey reveals that on a whole range of cultural issues - gender roles, same sex marriage, abortion - attitudes have steadily shifted in the direction of ‘freedom’ over the last 30 years.
Moreover, in analysing their own polling, Onward appear to have conflated value judgements with observations. For example, ‘communities have become more integrated and diverse/more divided and segregated’ is an observation, rather than a value judgement. It might suggest that people are more anxious and/ or pessimistic. But it definitely doesn’t show that people are becoming more likely to prioritise security over freedom.
Rather than seeking to prioritise freedom or security, mainstream politicians should be seeking to build bridges and find a balance between the two extremes.
Second, conceptually. Framing the central political choice as one between security and freedom is unhelpful. Far from being mutually exclusive, freedom and security are actually interdependent. For example, it is impossible to enjoy the economic freedom that comes with retirement, without the security of a pension system and/ or a well-funded social care system. Similarly, we have long understood that the ability to live freely depends upon a minimum level of security, guaranteeing the rule of law. We do not lose liberty by investing in pensions or more police officers, we enhance it. That is not to deny there are trade-offs. Governments can choose to be more or less interventionist in the economy; they can be open to immigration, or hostile to it. But the risk with this report is that it veers too much in the direction of suggesting that governments must choose security as a single governing principle, at the expense of freedom.
Indeed, arguably one of the defining features of centrism (to which Onward self-identifies) is precisely to avoid this kind of binary choice. Rather than seeking to prioritise freedom or security, mainstream politicians should be seeking to build bridges and find a balance between the two extremes. This is also surely most likely to be where the majority of public opinion is.
The third way in which the report raises questions is empirically. In the first paragraph of the executive summary the authors state that ‘for the last fifty years, the organising principle of British politics has been the expansion of freedom.’ A continuous line is drawn between Jenkins’ ‘cultural revolution’ in the 1960s, Thatcher’s ‘economic revolution’ in the 1980s, and the social revolution started by Tony Blair and continued by David Cameron. Under each administration, ‘authority was replaced with autonomy, community gave way to individuality, and security was subjugated beneath liberty’. This is simply another version (though perhaps more nuanced) of the far left’s attempt to lump together the last 30 years as one unbroken period of ‘neoliberalism’, collapsing what were in reality very different political projects into a homogenous whole. It leaves out the explicit attempts that were made by successive Prime Ministers, from Blair to Cameron to combine liberalism and security, for example, with a greater emphasis on ‘rights and responsibilities’. Indeed, David Cameron’s 2015 manifesto made ‘security’ (economic, cultural, social) its central focus whilst continuing to pursue a ‘freedom’ based agenda.
The intention here is not to dismiss the importance of a conversation about belonging. Onward’s focus on this is very welcome and there much in the report to agree with. We absolutely need to be thinking about how we strengthen economic, social and cultural security and create a stronger sense of national (civic) identity. But that cause is not advanced by framing it as being in conflict with a liberal society.