Agenda 2020 Essay #17: 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].

I’m not going to tell you what it means to be a Liberal Democrat. I’m going to tell you what it means to be a Liberal.

Party fortunes come and go, but the Liberal Project is proud list of social achievements which have improved the lives of of millions of people across the world since the time of the Enlightenment. It’s a tradition of thought that aspires to create a world that is always better than the one in which we live, and for that reason it is fundamentally optimistic and looks to empower the best of human nature. Our capacity for compassion and empathy, generosity, rationality, forgiveness and the knowledge that while any person is still oppressed by injustice of any kind, I myself cannot be truly free.

‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’, the first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, may not be a statement of fact, but it is a promise and a goal which calls us to create a world in which it becomes true. Liberalism is this struggle which is never complete because powerful and reactionary interests are always attempting to entrench their own authority, to impose their conservative status quo as the norm, to ensure their children and successors remain the executors of the state’s agency.

And here we come to the fundamental question of Liberalism; one which has no absolute answers because we are not a group of people defined by our class or wealth or region or religion. We are nonconformists and free-thinkers of all backgrounds, who will never agree on everything, which is at once our major strength and weakness. The question is this: how do you create a state which balances the power of the government and the liberty of the individual? When governments become too powerful, they are prone to tyranny, and when individuals do, they are prone to corruption and exploitation in their own turn.

For the past four decades, the power of the state has been eroded in a relentless drive to raise the aspirations and wealth of individuals. This is a fundamental problem for Liberals now. We have always sought to augment the power of the individual, but we now find ourselves in a situation where individuals and the corporate entities they control have become bloated, exploitative and illiberal. They cheat the state out of taxes, they poison the environment, they enrich a small cabal of privileged individuals at the expense of the many.

If we do not oppose these things, we become collaborators with illiberalism. In the 19th Century, Liberal politicians like my great grandfather Sir John Lubbock legislated to make sure that the benefits of industrialisation were extended to everybody. He created the Bank Holidays Act so that workers could take the train to the seaside and enjoy their leisure time to the fullest. If the benefits of economic success are hoarded by the few at the expense of the many, we create conditions ripe for unrest and division.

We differ from Socialists because we do not believe that the means of production should be owned entirely by the state; we also differ from Neoliberals who have distorted economic liberalism to the point where they seem to only believe that the state should be responsible for running the army, police and civil service.

Enough talk of Left and Right. Liberalism is about balancing competing interests. It is about using empirical, rational data to decide if a service is more efficiently run by a company or a public body. Having a mixed economy means public and private sectors which can be measured and compared to each other to see what works best. Ours is not dogma, but rationality inspired by the lessons of past reforms.

The thought behind the welfare state is a fundamentally Liberal one: the People’s Budget of 1909, the National Insurance Act 1911, the Beveridge Report that led to the creation of the NHS. These are the most important Liberal reforms this country ever enacted  and are so deeply ingrained in our political consciousness that we forget how fundamentally liberal they are. When Lloyd George imposed much higher land taxes in his 1909 budget, landowners were aghast, but the social reforms achieved were massive. If we expect those less well-off to be the backbone of the workforce which builds the wealth on which our state relies, we should expect those with the largest share of that wealth to contribute their fair share to building the social structures which make us a peaceful and prosperous nation.

We must get back to these first principles, remember the successes of the past, and be confident in the emancipatory and optimistic vision which they have empowered us with. We must remember that Liberalism is radical; we must pin our colours to the mast, we must express the potential of Liberalism strongly and concisely. In this we are helped by the current restructuring of the British political landscape.

Just as Labour is having a debate about its principles that has animated thousands of people, we can do the same. We must win back the millions of liberal people who deserted the party because we compromised our principles and equivocated on our beliefs. It is for these reasons that I believe we should have a debate about renaming our party the Liberal Party, which would be emblematic of this return to our principles.

By returning to core values, we can once again be a true force for liberal reform in Britain. As JFK said, ‘If by a liberal they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, their civil liberties… if that is what they mean by a ‘liberal’ then I am proud to be a liberal.’

Let’s be proud to be Liberals again.

* John is a freelance journalist and filmmaker covering international human rights issues. He has recently completed a film on the anniversary of the 1915 massacres of Armenians and other minorities in the Ottoman Empire.

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  • Conor McGovern 3rd Nov '15 - 8:33pm

    Well said.

  • Stephen Hesketh 4th Nov '15 - 7:44pm

    Excellent essay John. Thank you.

    Very sad when you consider where we might have been today had we adhered to a radical Liberal/Liberal Democrat agenda.

  • I agree with most of what you say but I am a former member of the SDP. To change our party’s name now would be a folly equal to Nero’s in my opinion. We have much more to worry about, especially how to appeal to large numbers of voters.
    In your post you quote this passage”All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” but I felt that the SDP was much more open to newcomers with no previous connections with politics than the Liberal party which seemed to sometimes be limited by the dead hand of Liberal history.
    I found this again in Lib Dem News, now defunct, when people of interest were linked to their Liberal ancestry. Yes, this can be something to be proud of, but it can also act as a deterrent to those whose ancestors were not covered in glory, who may feel that who you are is more important than what you are in the Liberal Democrats and be discouraged from joining us especially if their ancestors didn’t even live in this country. You say that we in the party are not defined by class or wealth or region, but we should not be defined by the contribution our ancestors have made to Liberal politics either because the present is the time when liberalism will live or die and since when did nonconformists have to go back to the past to justify their contemporary attitudes?
    Britain itself would not be recognised by 19th century or even early 20th century politicians. If we are to be truly Liberal we must think for ourselves, doing the best we can to balance the power of the state against the individual, as you say, but also of individuals vis a vis each other and communities in relation to others, to achieve the most freedom for the most people.

  • Stephen Hesketh 4th Nov '15 - 8:55pm

    SueS, I must say I agree with you also. We should not forget that the greatest Liberal Democrat leader of recent times was the ex-SDP Charles Kennedy. On the other hand, I think it fair to say that many initially attracted to the SDP thought of themselves first and foremost as ‘moderates’.

    My view is that we should not return to being simply Liberals; if we were going to enter into a debate regarding our name, my preference would be to call ourselves the Social Liberal Democrats because we are the party of social liberalism/social liberal democracy and because such a name would draw a line under those attempts to make us, whether originally Liberal or Social Democrat, in to a party of classical/economic liberalism.

  • John Lubbock 8th Nov '15 - 3:05pm

    Dear Stephen and Sue, thank you very much for your input. I totally understand where you are coming from and I don’t think that changing the name of the party is the main thing that’s going to lead to a Liberal resurgence. However, I do think that the era of the alliance is, for people of my generation and younger, increasingly meaningless to today’s politics.

    To me this is about setting out consistently and concisely what we stand for, and putting a break between what the party aspires to be in the future and the electoral disaster of the previous 5 years. The SDP may well have been more open to newcomers than the Liberals. I don’t know because I wasn’t alive then, but that’s exactly my point: we need to think about how we define ourselves in the future, not based on a past that few people can now relate to.

    We are the only party which needs an uncomfortable mouthful of words to describe ourselves. You may be fully aware of the historical implications of ‘Liberal Democrats’, but most people are not, and far from going back to the past, I personally believe that defining ourselves simply as Liberals says a lot more about what we want to be than does ‘Liberal Democrats’.

    As I said, this is my personal opinion and I’m very happy that someone disagrees with me. 🙂

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