A longer read for the holiday weekend: The tangled path ahead for Liberal Democrat pacifists and non-Interventionists

Lib Dem pacifists and non-interventionists will no doubt have had difficult adjusting to the decision to assist the government in supporting the coalition that is currently intervening in Syria and Iraq. Here, I will provide a few simple suggestions for how we can keep to our principles, but also avoid irresponsibly divisive behaviour.

  1. No Irresponsible Dissent
  2. Disagreeing with the decisions a party makes is perfectly reasonable. And criticism, per se, is not inadmissible. But criticism of one’s own party is not the same as criticism of individuals and organizations outside one’s own in-groups. Even if party loyalty is not an absolute, it is certainly a very weighty consideration.
    As with so many matters pertaining to liberalism, the true test of loyalty is not the issues where most members agree, but the issues where there is a fundamental split on an issue of grave ethical importance. The true test for us is for grassroots and top level Lib Dems to maintain unity, even when it is genuinely heartbreakingly painful to go on.

  3. No Excessive Suspicion
  4. And on that note, I must admit that (in fairness) I have not heard anyone accuse the Liberal Democrats of ‘squishing dissent,’ so I think it’s all the more important for us to show some humility as well. The swaggering and jeering of some individuals from some parties may lead people of good faith to suspect them of cynicism, but this doesn’t mean every person who voted ‘yea’ voted opportunistically or maliciously; any more than everyone who voted ‘nay’ was necessarily a sincere pacifist or non-interventionist.

  5. No Fair Weather Liberalism
  6. I would ask each one of us who opposes the recent decision: did you expect the vote to go the way non-interventionists and pacifists would prefer?

    1. If ‘yes,’ do you think (no disrespect intended!) that this might have been a slightly naive assumption?
      For, sad to say, the current of history remains against our ideals; for the time being, at least!
    2. If ‘no,’ are you prepared to persist with the Lib Dems even when heartbreaking decisions like this become party policy?
      (For this second question, don’t be too quick to answer! Yes, the choice is yours, but those of us who are persisting are doing so partly in the hope that we may be able to provide a voice for non-interventionists and pacifists within the party. Spare a thought for non-interventionist and pacifists Conservatives right now! At least in the Lib Dems, the default response to us is not likely to be sneering and ridicule. As for the Tories, I am not so sure…)
  7. No Surprises
  8. It is difficult to say that non-interventionism, let alone full pacifism, is in any way a ‘mainstream’ view in UK politics! And the history of the Liberal party, one of the two famous predecessors of our party, was hardly a party either of pacifism or of non-interventionism either. Still, perhaps historians could one day provide an account of pacifists and non-interventionists in the history of our party and of our predecessor parties, if it has not been done already.

  9. No Hero-Worship
  10. Of course, it is also important to avoid rose-tinted views of our history. For example, while the late Charles Kennedy took a very brave and principled stance against Iraq (I find it very difficult to cynically suspect he had more to gain than to lose from this!), he was categorically not a non-interventionist. His support for other interventions such as in Kosovo is proof of this.
    I say this not in order to make a value judgment about Kennedy himself, but merely in order to dispassionately remind each one of us non-interventionists or pacifists in the Lib Dems that the general current of history is against us, as it has been in the past; and sentimentally clinging on to a romanticized vision of past heroes cannot help us. Whatever the merits and demerits of Kennedy’s career may be, the ghosts of past heroes cannot do our work for us.

  11. Keep the Faith!
  12. Tim Farron announced right from the start that the five tests were not intended as ‘once-and-for-all,’ but rather, they are subject to revision and review when necessary. Let’s remain vigilant, and if we see an opportunity to convince the Lib Dem leadership that our party’s support for the intervention is less defensible and plausible than before, we can raise this topic in a constructive manner that may help people get on side, rather than alienating those who have disagreed with us up to now.

Keep strong!

Ultimately, pacifist and non-interventionist Liberal Democrats can’t be dewy-eyed idealists. We must be principled and realistic, so that, one day, the Liberal Democrats may be renowned as the party that says ‘no’ to humanitarian interventionism, and ‘yes’ to all forms of positive and constructive engagement with people in the world outside our country.

* Jonathan Ferguson is a PhD student. His socio-economic views are progressive/left liberal, with strongly libertarian leanings on non-interventionism, privacy and freedom of speech.

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  • Jayne Mansfield 28th Mar '16 - 12:09pm

    I Have to say, I find this ‘my party right or wrong’ attitude quite disturbing, especially on a matter of such magnitude and consequence.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 28th Mar '16 - 2:05pm

    Thank you for your honest feedback, Jayne.

    I appreciate it probably does appear to a lot of people like a ‘My party, right or wrong’ attitude, but it is genuinely not intended as such.

    What motivates me is not the blindly loyalty of putting our party on a pedestal, but more a kind of frustrated realism, so that opponents of the intervention can find a way of actually getting our views and across and (eventually) influencing decisions more from within.

    As James rightly says, these ideals are deemed radical, or ‘far outside the mainstream discourse in the UK,’ so it is a dilemma.

    How can pacifist and non-interventionists exert our energies to change things, but in a way that isn’t counterproductive to our intended goals? I genuinely don’t know, but I hope some of my reflections above may be of some use for some people.

    I should also say that none of what I have written above is intended as being critical of pacifist or non-interventionist Liberal Democrats. We have some difficult decisions lying ahead, and unity among Liberal Democrats who are pacifists and non-interventionists is important too; not only unity with our party in a large sense. ‘Unity,’ of course, is not a moral absolute, on either of these two levels; but it’s something be factored in with a lot of ethical seriousness.

    I do genuinely see where you are coming from, Jayne. I don’t have any definitive answers about how we can try to change things right now. Maybe pacifists and non-interventionists in the Lib Dems can work together a lot more, to try and see how we can be systematic and organized in explaining our views?

  • I do struggle with some writing styles, but my guess is that your basically saying… ‘You win some and lose some, so don’t get disheartened by donning the parachute just yet, and stick with it’? Which is fair enough.
    That said, I do believe this intervention or non-intervention thing, has gained a fairly new, and as yet unacknowledged, dimension. That dimension is ‘affordability’. I’m certain that there are still many Western governments who are straining at the leash, when it comes to all manner of foreign intervention, but they have been shown the precarious condition of the Treasury balance sheet, and told sternly that there is frankly,… no money for boots on the ground,.. or ships .. or planes.. or bombs,.. or much else in the way of a serious and comprehensive humanitarian intervention?
    Whether this new state of affairs, is a good thing or a bad thing, I will leave for you to decide, but for sure, when this fragile financial realisation elevates to critical awareness, in that the ‘Western wallet’, has more *moths than money*,.. then foreign intervention ..will become ‘so last year’.
    P.S. …a bit of housekeeping advice? You say:
    “I have not heard anyone accuse the Liberal Democrats of ‘squishing dissent,’…”
    Hmmm,… Sounds like you’re fairly new to LDV? To be honest, Mondays is the best time to avoid ‘squish’. Rest of the week?,.. not so good.

  • @ Jonathan Ferguson “Still, perhaps historians could one day provide an account of pacifists and non-interventionists in the history of our party and of our predecessor parties, if it has not been done already”.

    They have, Jonathan. See Managing Domestic Dissent in First World War Britain by Brock Millman ISBN: 9780714650548. Published by Psychology Press on 2000

    Asquith comes out as much more civilised and sympathetic than Lloyd George. LLG emerges very badly in his attitude to conscientious objectors. Indeed he comes out as the equivalent of Boris Johnson in the famous Eddie Mair interview and description of him. I, for one, will not be celebrating the centenary of LLG becoming Premier in December.

  • Pacifism is a moral principle; non-interventionism is a matter of case-by-case judgement. I’m not sure that lumping them together in some equivalence is terribly helpful. It is very hard to see how pacifism in the face of the IS threat can be justified, although I am very willing to listen to the argument if anyone cares to make it. Non-interventionism, on the other hand, is perfectly sustainable on a practical basis (see my argument on the Tom Brake thread yesterday).

  • Eddie Sammon 28th Mar '16 - 8:46pm

    I especially respect pacifism as a religious principle, but from a political view I think we should engage a debate on what is the right way to reduce terrorism. If we just said we are completely pacifist then Daesh would march on Westminster in a heart-beat.

    I think it is quite urgent that we develop a UN anti-terrorism force. If it is just the west then it is seen as imperialism, even when it isn’t. A more international force might take greater care of civilian deaths too.

    For people who are “as close to pacifist as is practical” then I think a UN force could win the support of many of these people. It would basically be like an armed police force, with air power when no civilian deaths can be “guaranteed”.

  • @ Eddie Sammon

    One doesn’t have to be religious to be a pacifist.

  • David Cooper 29th Mar '16 - 1:58am

    Well said. I oppose intervention in most cases, not because I am a pacifist but because I dislike politicians who waste taxpayer’s money on meddling in situations they do not understand. The hubris of politicians of all parties, including ours, is vast. Their understanding and ability to predict outcomes usually very limited.
    We should never, ever, intervene unless there is a clear national self interest at stake. Internationalism and the ridiculous principle “responsibility to protect” are simply excuses to meddle and waste money.

  • Fiona White 29th Mar '16 - 8:28am

    I thought this was a very good article. We need to be reminded that not every Liberal Democrat is a pacifist or non-interventionist. We also need to remember that we are one political party. There is a place for debate and everyone has a right to put their point of view but that does not mean we have to have infighting, some of it quite “in your face”. If we can’t do that, we can’t expect to regain our place in British politics.

  • Jayne Mansfield 29th Mar '16 - 10:06am

    @ tonyhill,
    I read you comment on the Tom Brake thread and agreed with most of it. What I don’t agree with, is the idea that any intervention has to be military.

    When we do intervene militarily, we have to be quite clear ( and honest ) about our rationale for intervention, and be quite sure that the local population welcomes that intervention. We also have to accept that some of those states that are encouraging our military participation are also states that have connived with the terrorists and are now fearful because they are losing control of the phenomenon that they created. It suits them to then hand over the problem of their own making to the West.

    If the Libyan Government of National Unity is in reality no such thing, and does not have the support of the Libyan people in destroying the terrorist group that operates under the franchise ISIS, I don’t see that sending our young men and women into battle there will help. ( It is an open secret that France, the UK and other western special forces are already operating in the area).

    The two separate Libyan administrations that are now supposed to be a government of National Unity, each had their own outside supporters and sponsors. Military intervention seems like yet another recipe for more chaos as we become embroiled in yet another proxy battle on foreign soil, one where we might be perceived by the population as foreign meddlers in their internal affairs.

    Experience has taught me that sometimes one has to watch impotently and deal with the crisis situations whilst self- imposed, avoidable, suffering takes place. External imposed change is superficial and there is reversion to the original behaviour as soon as one leaves.

    @ Jonathan,
    I understand where you are coming from too. It is a very lonely place to be when trying to reach the best decision where none are ideal

  • The argument that a majority of Liberal Democrat MPs have signed up for an unjust war and therefore liberals in the country should maintain a dignified silence takes me back to the days of the Liberal-SDP Alliance. Every summer the SDP would hold their conference and some of their policy positions would be uncomfortable for Liberals. As the Liberal Assembly always came after the SDP conference we were continually exhorted not to adopt a different policy from the SDP so as not to “rock the boat”. The MPs’ decision to bomb Syria and to provide no protection to the civilians they are exposing to the various war lords in that country is of a different moral order than most Parliamentary business for instance a decision on, say, whether or not we should support increasing the national minimum wage regardless of the advice of Low Pay Commission. When MPs vote for an unjust war they should always be publicly condemned by Liberals.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 30th Apr '16 - 3:55pm

    Thanks for the excellent comments from everyone, and sorry for the lateness of this comment. I would like to write more on this topic in the near future. On balance, I don’t regret writing this piece, but I am uneasy about some of it, both in terms of ideas and framing or presentation. I’d like to write more about this in the near future; I’d also like to take into account the excellent comments and feedback I’ve got from all of you.


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