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Definitions of Liberalism

An exploration of the values of Liberalism which influence the Liberal Democrats.

A definition Based on Academic Research

Here is one definition of Liberalism, based generally on an academic study of how the values of people in Britain vary. The study is by Heath, Jowell & Curtice, published in 1985 by Pergamon Press in How Britain Votes.

They found that many answers from any individual did indeed tend to group together on a scale, called left to right, and reflecting the main party divisions of the 20th century. However they found that other answers tended to group together on an independant scale they called liberal to authoritarian. The values Liberals and Liberal Democrats have emphasised agree quite well with their definition of liberal.

Attitudes to Power

The left suspects the power of monopoly capitalism and of all capitalists (now represented by company directors) against their employees. It thinks that giving power instead to governments is the solution.

The right suspects the power of government. It thinks the solution is giving power to market actors, i.e. company directors.

Liberals suspect all centralised power. It thinks the solution is to spread power around, and control it by rules.

Authoritarians think that centralised power is necessary to get things done, and rules and other powers get in the way.

Concerns and priorities

The left is concerned about the particular problems of the working class. It thinks that the spread of wealth is important.

The right is concerned with the problems of business. It thinks that the generation of wealth is important, whether or not it benefits everyone.

Liberals are concerned with all who are different in some way, and think that equality of treatment under the law is important.

Authoritarians are mostly concerned with the good of the country as a whole and its institutions. They think that keeping good order is important, and expect people to conform.

Natural Supporters

The left naturally tend to be supported by those who see themselves as working class. This certainly includes unionised manual workers. Lack of union organisation, increased income and the skill of the work may each weaken but not necessarily destroy support.

The right tend to be supported by the owners of businesses. This is not just the wealthy, but includes the owners of the smallest businesses, who are one of the poorest groups.

Liberals tend to be supported by professionals and middle managers. The best indicator is education, rather than current position.

Authoritarians tend to be supported by those who feel under threat.

Other Issues

The environment is one issue that is not described at all in this analysis: it was not a major issue in 1985. There is some indication that a green approach is associated with liberalism, not just within the party policy of the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Liberals tend to approve of expenditure on public services: they see it as the best means to an end. The left tend to approve of all government control of expenditure. This is the one area that attitudes on the two dimensions of opinion are not completely independent.

return to Definitions of Liberalism - Introduction