Social Market Foundation
Robert Skidelsky
Friday, February 15, 2002

 
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d just like to say a few introductory words at the launch of the Social Market Foundation’s newest autonomous body, the Centre for the Open Society, which as Phil Collins its director says, aims to insert, or perhaps reinsert, liberty into the heart of left of centre politics. .
 
It’s an eminently worthwhile endeavour which I hope will be widely reported as well as supported. In a perceptive critique of Third Way doctrines, Ralph Dahrendorf wrote ‘in all these speeches and pamphlets and books, one word hardly ever appears and never in a central place. That word is ‘liberty’. And he writes: ‘Today it seems more important than even a few years ago to begin a new political project with the insistence on liberty before we turn to social inclusion and cohesion’.
 
The Open Society, on which Phil Collins will expand, aims to be such a project. Its first publication Libertopia may be read as its opening shot. Pjil has taken the liberty of writing it as a conceit, self-consciously in the dialogue tradition of earlier forms of persuasion and instruction.
 
Libertopia imagines not only a long period of Labour government, which is far from Utopian, but a situation ten years hence, when that government’s policies are organised round the central concept of liberty.
 
This is Phil’s Utopia. To some of us –the Social Market Foundation is a broad church - the thought of the Left embracing any such Utopia may itself be Utopian. So it may be that we should regard the title Libertopia as a post-modernist joke –an ironic Utopia which simultaneously grasps at and undermines its own ideal.
 
Or perhaps Libertopia marks the start of a post-post modernist meta-narrative. Time will tell. We can de-construct it anyway we like.
 
For myself, though I am not quite convinced that liberty was ever at centre of the historical tradition of the Left –there were too many Fabians and planners around – I am quite sure it ought to be at the centre of a modern leftwing programme. You can think of it either as a non-tradeable principle – as I do –or as a growing dividend from economic progress or as a one of the most important ends of politics. Whatever the case, it needs to be there fighting its corner in any kind of politics worthy of respect, and I applaud Phil’s determination to force it on the attention of new Labour.
 
R Skidelsky, 15/2/2002