Agenda 2020 Essay #13: 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 TODAY. If you would like us to publish your submission, send it to [email protected].

To be a Liberal Democrat today is to feel a little lonely!

But whilst the British people may have temporarily forgotten it, our values are still the basis of the British way of life.  Tolerance, meaning live and let live, because without tolerance I am not free to live how I want to live.  Liberty, meaning personal freedom, because being free to strive for a better life is the best guarantee of progress.  Democracy, because it remains the best guarantee of liberty.

Add to this the lessons of Liberal Democracy as lived in Britain since the end of empire.  Live within your means, as anything else destroys your future.   Place pragmatism before ideology, because the British are a wonderfully pragmatic people who care not about left or right, only about the most successful way of getting things done.  Equality before the law is your birth right, but never try to engineer equality in society,  you’ll fail because people are infinitely more complex than the lives you see them live.  Instead devolve power and decisions as low as you can afford, tempered only by the security and liberty of your neighbours.

So far we are on safe ground, Liberal Democrat values expressed as British Common Sense.  But what do those values mean today in the face of globalization, that huge movement of trade, information and people across national borders.  Our society has been remade over the last 25 years as a result, and to have grown up in this time is to understand that it can both enhance and constrain liberty, make winners and losers in Britain.

Liberalism starts by remaining optimistic about human nature.    People undoubtedly act in self interest, but over the long term the things you want will be the same as the things your neighbour wants, namely safety, prosperity and the right to a quiet life.  In the long run an open hearted and generous society will always outperform one wasting energy on fear and grievance.  One requires the individual to enter into an exchange of ideas and experiences, and evolves into greater understanding and cooperation.  The other allows the individual to shy away from uncomfortable change, and stagnation follows swiftly.

Liberal Democrats get that intuitively when they speak about Europe, understanding the value of fighting for Britain’s place in the union despite its many institutional failings.   They get that when talking about the environment, knowing that though we cannot solve global problems alone, the oldest and richest democracies should lead by example if a solution is to come at all.   They get that when considering migration, wanting to champion the many advantages to our economy and health service when the debate talks only of the social costs.

Optimistic, but realistic.  Immigration in particular poses a challenge as most of those social costs are paid by those who benefit least from globalization.  Liberal Democrats today are under no illusion that multiculturalism is somehow the same as successful integration, and it is right that local communities have the loudest voice on the numbers of people settling in their community.  True too that trying to be sensitive to cultural differences must never be an excuse for tolerating intolerance, from any section of society.  Integration cannot be imposed, it must be worked at, and at a pace that fits the people most affected.

Securing the peace is equally the role of the realist in the Liberal Democrat.  Terror abroad or at home may require the curtailment of some personal freedoms, but it is done with the deepest scepticism of those who demand it.   Intervention abroad may be in our best interests but it must always be weighed against the famous prime principle of the Quakers, to ‘First do little harm’, because our recent history shows we often only make things worse.   The best solution to international conflicts remains the rule of international law but for now it cannot be enforced and so Britain does best to place trust in the old alliances of Europe and NATO.

However, the most important challenge from globalization, and the one where realism and optimism can happily coincide, is the economic race.  Liberal Democrats not only acknowledge the need to compete, they believe Britain can win!   Fiercely patriotic, we know that British companies and universities are already developing the next generation of technologies that will surely underpin the whole infrastructure of the global economy in another 25 years time.  We know that the stability and openness of our multicultural society is a huge competitive advantage in achieving this.   In government we proved we understand the role of the modern state in the global age, creating a modern industrial policy which enables and incentivises investment, sets the regulatory framework and remains vigilant to ensure the economy serves the needs of the people.  

So, whilst a Liberal Democrat today may feel slightly marginalised by the recent electoral verdict, we can be confident that our values are those lived out by the British public today, remain those which gave us our best yesterdays , and contain the seeds to an ever better tomorrow.

* Tobie Abel is a software designer and PPC for Richmond Yorks. He joined the party in 2013

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