Agenda 2020 Essay #16: 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 was yesterday. If you would like us to publish your submission, send it to [email protected].

We live in exciting times. After years of apparent inertia a new wave of interest in and engagement with politics is sweeping across Europe. Movements like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have shown that the people are tired of the old neoliberal consensus and are searching for Progressive alternatives. However the far right movements have also seen some traction and for every positive surge in a good direction there is also a counter surge towards the extremes.

Here in Britain politics has changed out of all recognition in the past five years. We have seen that coalition can work and deliver coherent, stable government defeating all the old arguments about why ‘First past the post’ has to remain. We have seen a complete change of the political landscape in Scotland with the SNP dominant whilst in England and Wales we have seen the emergence of UKIP as a mainstream political force in vote share if not in parliamentary seats. The huge re-engagement with politics north of the border during the referendum campaign has been matched by a new surge of grassroots activity in the rest of the country as large numbers rebel against what they see as an ‘illegitimate’ election result with less than a quarter of the public having voted for the winners. 20,000 have joined the Lib Dems and Labour’s new direction has attracted even more recruits as they finally remove the ‘monkey’ of New Labour off their backs for better or for worse.

So what does it mean to be a Lib Dem in this new political landscape? What sets us apart as a main player in the new European politics? After being ‘shredded’ at the last general election how can we remain relevant?

I would argue that there has never been more space in Britain for the message that we convey. The other parties all threaten to a greater or lesser degree the Liberal fundamentals of freedom from Poverty, Ignorance and Conformity.  The neoliberalism and state shrinking of the Tories means that poverty is a natural and necessary by product of their actions and their attacks on our civil liberties and repeal of the human rights act threatens even the most basic of our freedoms. Labour threaten a return to state interference and bureaucracy with a ‘one size fits all’ approach to many problems. Meanwhile in Scotland the supposedly anti austerity SNP continue to develop an authoritarian version of nationalism dressed up as Social Democracy. UKIP presents itself as a party of protest but instead only offers isolation, racism and division.

All of these parties, in different ways, tell you who they want you to be and what you need to do to be a ‘success’ in life. The Tories will tell you that you need to ‘Strive not Skive’, Labour that you need a large central state to look after you, UKIP that you need a grammar school education to get on, the Greens that you should never travel by air and so on. There are ideological reasons why the parties take these different positions but they all miss the point about what freedom is.

Freedom starts by YOU telling the state who you want to be and what you want to be. A Liberal Democrat approach is to then create the state that allows you to be it and to do it, with the caveat that your actions musn’t harm others. You decide how to run your life, how to educate yourself and your family, how you want to live, how you want to work, what you want to believe in or disbelieve, who you want to marry, where you want to live, how you want to define yourself sexually. The Liberal Democrats exist to give you the freedoms to make all these choices and to ensure you are not held back from being able to make them by lack of money, health, disability, housing, education or opportunity.

At a time of polarising ideological extremes this reminder of our Liberal core transcends other political ideologies and creates a wide open space for our values. To be a Liberal Democrat today is to embrace true freedom. So in a choice between freedom or differing degrees of tyranny, why should anyone choose the latter. Join us not in the centre ground but in the radical Liberal ground.

* Dawud Islam is a member of the Scottish Executive and the editor of LibDemHAME. He writes in a personal capacity.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I like that you’ve talked about what it means to be a Liberal Democrat today, specifically. We do live in exciting times!

  • I like the radical Liberal ground. So much more invigorating than the centre.

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