The Great Divide in liberalism: school holidays or basic income? @Radix_UK

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Liberal blogger David Boyle and I are the same age. We have worked together on Liberal Democrat policy. But, according to David, we are on the opposite sides of a great divide across the heart of what he calls the “radical centre”. But I don’t think we are.

David is a much more successful blogger and general activist than me, and has got as far as founding a think tank – Radix. He is an old Liberal, where I was a founder member of the SDP in 1981. But I thought we were converging – and I had regarded myself closer to the old Liberals these days than the SDP.

That was before I read David’s article in the most recent Liberator about Lib Dem tribes. That was followed by this article published by Radix, after a fringe meeting at Bournemouth, which I did not attend. On both counts it was clear that I was still a social democrat in his eyes, and he a Liberal, and that, furthermore, there was no more important division in what he calls the radical centre, and which I prefer to refer to as “liberalism”.

David set a test to show which side you are on. What is your attitude to the fining of parents who take their children out of school for holidays in term-time? He is against; I am for (though I am actually against automatic fining, which is what he posed to the Radix fringe). To him we should assume that parents know what is best for their children, and not the experts. What is needed in politics is to break the power of the experts, in his view, and  empower people to make their own decisions.

I don’t really disagree with that sentiment, but I do believe in state intervention in a number of cases, and compulsory schooling is one of them. The question of school holidays is not an abstract proposition in my case. I have been a primary school governor for 18 years or so, and chair of governors for ten (at two different schools). This issue is a hardy perennial.  The teachers insist that term-time holidays disrupt both formal education, and also the cohesion of the school community, and I have been on their side. We haven’t gone as far as fining people (or if we have that is only because regulations have become more restricted – and it is the local authority, not the schools which impose them). Instead there has been a sort moral war of attrition. I think the presence of fines is there to set the moral moral tone, and to give schools a weapon in this moral war. I’m much more hesitant about actually using them – hence my reservations about making the fines automatic. But withdrawing the fines could set in motion a disruptive free for all.

At the heart of this is an age-old battle between freedom and solidarity. Flourishing societies need both. My worry is that in modern Britain, and not least the poorer urban communities that my schools serve (alongside more prosperous ones), the elements of solidarity are breaking down. A lot of people are struggling, and worse, not really coping. The modern state would rather hide these people away. I am a deeply-believing liberal, but I recognise that liberal language can be used to camouflage hard questions. Why not say that the struggling individuals and families are free to solve their own problems, and that we shouldn’t burden others with them?

State schools are one of the most powerful forces for solidarity that we have. They can, and should, be a lifeline to struggling families, and make them feel part of a wider society. Schools also provide a a good place from which to make the sort of state interventions needed to give disadvantaged families help to cope with the stresses of society. They should also, in subtle ways at least, open the eyes of others to some of the difficulties faced by their neighbours. A well-run, socially mixed state school one of the wonders of the British state system; it would not happen without compulsory schooling, and it is undermined by an excessive emphasis on parental choice – which often leads to de facto segregation. Parental freedom on school holidays chips away at that solidarity.

So I worry that vocal Liberals are a middle-class pressure group who want to push their own families forward without regard to what is going on around them. But, of course, I know that is not fair.

I think I have a better question to divide the radical centre: do you believe that a universal basic income should an important part of the state system? I suspect that some Liberals and social democrats alike would say yes. It empowers poorer people by giving them cash to spend as they choose, and it offers a way replace a costly and divisive welfare system with universal entitlements. Others (like me) say no – it is just an attempt to hide away the needy with no-questions-asked cash so that the rest of don’t have to bother with them.

In fact I think the real choice is between grand designs to be rolled out nationwide, like UBI, and community interventions with a human face, carried out on a localised scale and based on a sense of human solidarity. I don’t know if that is Liberalism or not, but I’m sure that is what David is looking for, to judge by his railings against empty corporations (though he has said some favourable things about UBI).  There is an important line to be drawn, but I think he is drawing it in the wrong place.


I strikes me that my defence of school holiday fines doesn’t contradict David’s distinction between Liberals and social democrats. Social democrats are more inclined to appeal to solidarity. But social democrats also tend to like standards set nationally, and are suspicious of localised solutions. That’s where I part company. And I do that is the most important thing about trying to develop answers to the crisis in modern government.


9 thoughts on “The Great Divide in liberalism: school holidays or basic income? @Radix_UK”

  1. Thanks so much for thinking about these things. I think you make a good case for local, human scale solutions, which – as you know, I prefer and also believe they are Liberal. You’re quite right that, during the fringe meeting, it was the automatic fining of parents I sued as a symbolic issue. There may well be cases where you do need to take some kind of action – I do think children should go to school. But the issue of basic income is one of those exceptions, I believe. It justifies centralised state control because it provides a framework thatmakes more local, human scale action possible. For me, it also avoid the crisis of the divorce between earnings and work, which seems to me to be inevitable.

  2. For once we agree, mainly, on basic income. But I perhaps should remind you that Jobseekers allowance is form of basic income. So do lots of other social benefits which are designed to ensure that any individual doesn’t fall too far below what might be considered the poverty line.

    So it’s really about whether a basic income should be “universal”. This means handing it out to those who don’t need it . Why would anyone be in favour of that?

    So how about thinking of increasing the basic income but requiring that people do something for society in return? So we could put some sort of time limit on a JSA but then give people jobs so they can earn, rather than just be given, money after that. It could be tied in with training and education too to enable people to get back into the normal workforce.

    There’s always the problem that long term unemployment can leads to unemployablity. Especially if people lose their self respect and drift into drug abuse and petty crime.

  3. I think parents should be able to take their children out of school for a two week holiday without being fined. It is especially important for those just about managing and can be the difference between going away from home for a holiday or not.

    Matthew you are correct Universal Basic Income would empower people, especially if it was enough to live on, which is liberal and as a universal benefit could enhance the acceptance of benefits payments.

    Peter Martin you are incorrect Unemployment Benefit (c 1990’s) was not conditional a person received it based on their honour – signing to say they were available for work; Jobseekers Allowance is conditional on providing evidence that a person is applying for work and sending out a set number of speculative letters (emails) each week, it also includes a promise to accept a job within a 2 hour travel to work time.

    Currently most people in work (earning less than £100,000) receive an Income Tax Allowance of £11,500 which is the equivalent of a Citizens Income of £44.23 a week, it is not based on need. The whole point of the Universal Basic Income is that it is unconditional and available to all citizens.

    Conditionality and compulsory work are not liberal, they do not empower a person. This is why I support a scheme to provide either training or work to the unemployed, disabled and those with long term illnesses which has to be voluntary.

    1. Michael, I’m not convinced by your arguments on holidays. It is exactly children from poorer families that most benefit from time in school – including, I would suggest, the social bonding and that occurs at the end of summer.
      Conditionality is often necessary when it comes to benefits to prevent abuse. How that conditionality is managed is the thing, though. The DWP seem to think that every person they refuse benefits to is a victory. Conditionality should really be part of a dialogue that is based on people’s real needs, and also a willingness by the recipient to cooperate with whatever the scheme is trying to do. That can be illiberal, but i don’t think it has to be.

  4. FWIW I read the Lib Dem tribes article and didn’t recognise myself in any of them bar the catch-all; I considered it to be so much cheery fluff, rather than a serious attempt to define any of us specifically.

    1. I don’t think they capture the attitudes of younger and newer members. That sort of device is an excellent way of drawing readers in, but it would have benefited from more insight into where the membership really is. I’m no expert on that either, I need to add.

  5. Matthew, you think being at school is more important than having a family holiday. I disagree, particularly for those who are just about managing, where the pressures of life can make spending time together as a family difficult.

    As a liberal I think the best of people; those who abuse the system should face the consequences (more money is lost by people abusing the tax system than the benefit system). When the government does not run the economy to provide full employment it is wrong to make a person jump through hoops which are unlikely to end with that person in work. The only conditions a person should need to meet to receive Unemployment Benefit are not being in work and being available for work. The state should encourage and support an unemployed person to seek suitable work, or provide free training or work experience to assist a person get back into work. But this support, training or work experience must not be compulsory; it can only be voluntary, because liberals should leave the decision to the individual and not the bureaucrat or the state. When I called myself a social democrat I didn’t consider this question because the Alliance still advocated full employment which should provide everyone with a job and not leave anyone unemployed for long periods of time. (I wonder how many people were unemployed for more than six months in the 1960’s?). However the reason I came to define myself as a liberal was because of a belief it is wrong for the state to dictate to people; and that each individual should make their own decisions and not have decisions imposed upon them.

  6. @ Michael BG,

    I’m not arguing that work should be compulsory. Anyone is free to turn it down if they wish. It can be additional option on top of the present system.

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