Agenda 2020 essay #1: What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today

Editor’s Note: The party is currently running an essay competition for members of the Liberal Democrats, to submit 1000 words on the theme “What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today.” The deadline for contributions is 2nd November. If you would like us to publish your submission, send it to [email protected]

What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today, to me, is about fairness, equality and freedom.  Freedom for all us to be who we wish to be and to develop our talents to the full.  Equality that no matter who we are, our origins, our abilities or disabilities, we are given equal voice and valued equally in society.  Fairness is about combatting structures in our society which promote the few over the many, so that all are enabled and empowered.

To be truly free is not a singularity.  It happens in relationship. Being a Liberal Democrat is about being in relationship: we are stronger together than we are alone.

WE are the world.  Not me.  Not I.  The rise of individualism, and the emphasis of individual freedoms without the context of relationship, has brought us to this point.  The 21st century is a self-serving society.  What is best for me?  What can I achieve?  How much more money can I make?  The emphasis on me, me, me is a losing ticket. Me can only win if WE are at the forefront of policy and decision making.  

I go back to Mill and the harm principle.  Anything is allowable unless it causes an unacceptable harm to others.  This is well and good, but rather than using as a benchmark what may or may not cause harm, would it not be preferable to think about what would make a better society for everyone?  Would not using the Golden Rule, treating others as we would wish to be treated ourselves, be the way forward?  If I would want others treated as myself – decently, fairly, equally – would not society therefore be more decent, fair and equal?  It is the rise of self to the exclusion of how this affects others which has brought us to where we are – rising economic inequality, the worse century of war ever.  If we want to be safe, free and equal we need to consider the individual’s plight in the context of relationship.

We are interconnected.  We are the world.  The most obvious example is the environment.  What one of us does affects all others (how we heat our homes, whether we recycle, how many flights we take); what one country does affects all others (oil spillages affect oceans; masses of plastic gather in the Pacific; air quality is a trans-national issue).

This is also true on a social scale.  We might think we can live in isolation, but our actions (or inactions) have a profound effect on those around us.  We only have to look at the issue of caring:  if one person cares for a relative, this is at no obvious cost to society, but it does mean that person is not in the workforce; if another person does not care (for ‘free’) for that relative, the cost is born by the state in a care home.  The decisions we take about child care, shall we work and juggle, or shall we stay at home, also have an impact on society.  WE are the world.

Many of our successes in coalition are because those policies understood the context of relationship:  Same-Sex Marriage was about enabling all people to live in recognised, committed relationships with the people they love; making it law that 0.7% of our GDP go to international aid was about recognising that we are part of a larger world, and our relationship with that world is in enabling poorer countries to develop and educate, leading to a safer world for us all; our championing of renewable energy and funding the first ever Green Investment Bank was a recognition of the relationship all of us have, collectively, with our environment.   None of these measures was about ‘me’ – they were all about ‘we’.

We are inter-connected.  We must promote community – yes, it also features in our Preamble.  Community should be laid out as the framework within which a fair, free and open society flourishes.  Now I am not saying individual rights are not important, but as we realise our effect and reliance on, and interaction with, others, we need to see individual rights as part of the whole.  This is the new Liberal Democrats – fair, free, equal, and in community.

There is a lot of evidence that people are healthier in societies where everyone’s health is better; and that people are happier in societies where wealth is spread more equally.  Studies show that emphasis on the common good makes a better world for all of us as individuals.  To me, being a Liberal Democrat is in creating such a good society in which each of us can flourish. WE are the world.

* Kirsten Johnson was the PPC for Oxford East in the 2017 General Election. She is a pianist and composer at

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  • “The rise of individualism, and the emphasis of individual freedoms without the context of relationship, has brought us to this point. The 21st century is a self-serving society.” – That’s what liberalism is all about, the rights of the individual. Are you sure you’re not a social democrat?

  • Kirsten johnson 21st Oct '15 - 7:48pm

    Hi David,

    I’m definitely a liberal democrat of the social ilk. I think we’re all better off if we work together. I love freedom. I studied Albanian music for my doctorate, and composers/musicians were not free under Enver Hoxha’s Stalinist regime. Freedom is to be cherished and celebrated. But elevating individual freedom over the common good is dangerous. It’s balancing the two which is key, protecting freedom of speech and expression, etc., but also working together to make a more equal society where all can truly be free. Yes, perhaps I’m an idealist, but I think we can do better than we’re doing now.



  • Neil Sandison 23rd Oct '15 - 11:49pm

    Good essay Kirsten it clearly puts gold water between We Liberal Democrats and the selfishness of conservatism.
    and what wrong with being a social liberal or democrat ?

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