Peter Sloman’s widely praised The Liberal Party and the Economy, 1929-1964 comes with as hefty a price tag as its weight of scholarly research. That is a shame because it will most likely pigeonhole the book as one for academic specialists in a niche topic rather than as a more general study of how politics and policies – economic thought in this case – interact.
In this excellent book – Sloman’s first – the story of the tensions within the Liberal Party between suspicion of the state and belief in the need for state intervention to fixed market failures is retold.
In looking at how different Liberal leaders tried to reconcile these tensions, Sloman also recounts the different ways in which outside experts did and did not influence party policy. That such experts were often changing their own views during this period – Keynes himself above all – meant that it was often easy, even logical, for politicians to decide on their political course first and then pick the current expert views to suit. After all, with experts changing their views, was it not wise to start with a set of beliefs and then look for ways to make them work?
By describing this more nuanced sphere in which politicians operated, Sloman moves away from simplistic descriptions of the Liberal Party between classical laissez-faire liberalism and interventionist New Liberalism. Rather much of the party was caught between trying to find unity between different political views during a period when the views of economists were regularly evolving and changing. As Sloman concludes, “the party’s zeal for full employment and social justice ran up against fear of an overweening state and an enduring commitment to internationalism and free markets”.
Interestingly, Sloman ends up doubting whether the strong Liberal Party emphasis on developing economic policy was the right move: “with the benefit of hindsight it is possible that some of the resources which Liberals invested in policy-making would have been better spent building up the party on the ground … It was too easy for Liberals to fall prey to the illusion that attractive policies would revive the party’s fortunes”.
However, as Peter Sloman’s earlier chapters show, an emphasis on economic policies did help make the party more relevant to voters at a time when it risked disappearing completely. Moreover when the party had leaders such as Jo Grimond, who were keen to reach out to experts outside the party, this emphasis also helped bring in the new talent which any organisational rebuilding requires.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The Revival of British Liberalism: from Grimond to Clegg.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me.