Agenda 2020 Essay #20: What it means to be a Liberal Democrat today

Wars, family experience and deafness helped me be a Liberal.

For me, to be a Liberal Democrat today means making sure we don’t go back to the world that scarred my parents generation. We do have reasons for hope. We need to gather all our strengths to give life to that hope.

My parents lives gave me a lot to think about. They had to deal with terrible events, as best they could. To make a positive difference however small and futile it may seem.

My mother was Lithuanian. She experienced life under both Stalin and Hitler. Active in the anti-Nazi resistance, then a refugee fleeing the Soviet advance. In the last months of WW2 she was a slave labourer on a German farm. When my dad met her she still had the marks of whippings visible on her back.

My father was Welsh, trained as a commando, served as a frontline engineer. He was one of the liberators of Belsen. His job there was to count the dead and bury them. The figures on the mounds at Belsen first appeared on my Dads clip-board. He has a claim to be the man who buried Anne Frank.

A lot to learn from their experiences.

The biggest lesson for me was that both self-styled right and left wing political movements (and indeed all stations in between) are capable of massive injustice and excuses for inflicting pain. This comes from treating people as objects to be manipulated. So for me the important thing is to recognise that each human is individual, important for being themselves not as representatives of some standard abstraction such as a class or a nation or even a victim.

That insistence on humanity and on empowering people to learn and live for themselves is what makes us Liberals. We know that we learn best when we have variety in life, and some power to experiment and chose. We know that the solution to some problem is as likely to come from the individual reality of someone living out that problem, rather than from an abstract government master plan or a constrained ‘market’ solution responding to unequal powers and resources.

My own individual reality includes deafness. I have been deaf most of my life, but not part of a deaf community. So I had to think for myself and resist being treated just as a bad pair of ears with other bits attached. Being a bit of an outsider helps sharpen a liberal perspective, perhaps.

We face enormous and complex problems today, as we did in previous years. Trying to understand that complexity without surrendering to simple slogans is part of our burden and opportunity in life. I had the luck quite young to become aware of the ideas of Karl Popper and the Open Society. And then to study a new field, that of complex self-organising systems. For me this understanding of complexity and its limitations builds on the lessons found by the classical 19th century Liberals. They had great successes and found strong truths. And they made mistakes.

This is my testimony to my fellow Liberals. We cannot build our future on returning to some kind of old Liberal purity. We must continue to learn and grow. We have the new tools and continuing traditions to do this.

I am sure that will provoke discussion, even disagreement. That is part of our Liberal strength. Milton addressed the ‘Lords and Commons of England’ in his book Areopagitica in 1644:

…consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that human capacity can soar to… their studious lamps, musing, searching, revolving new notions and ideas wherewith to present, as with their homage and their fealty, the approaching Reformation: others as fast reading, trying all things, assenting to the force of reason and convincement.

Milton had the perfect words for what we are opposing today. A “Dark Congealment of Wood and Hay and Stubble”.

A congealment which today threatens not only our liberties but our physical survival, as our life support systems of air and water and liveable lands are threatened by climatic changes.

As ever, there are powerful voices praising these congealments. There are real dangers that old hatreds will recreate something of my parents nightmares, and more.

As my parents learnt, if you do not take an interest in what is happening around you, someone else will – and you may not like what they decide. So we all need to get engaged with political processes knowing that what happens will be imperfect.

Can we be the party of quick, ingenious and piercing spirits, testing out what we find now with the force of reason? With the strength to learn from our mistakes and go onwards?

We can hope. We must hope.

* Edis Bevan is chair of Milton Keynes Liberal Democrats.

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  • A profoundly interesting essay, Edis. I empathize with your comments – my Dad saw Belsen too and it profoundly marked him. When I asked about the war as a child he would clench his teeth and say “war us foul”

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Nov '15 - 12:23am

    This is quite good, but one thing I want to know is why are centrists and liberals so quiet? At the moment the media seems dominated by what I would call a “progressive”, which seems to be someone who has split the difference between the centre-ground and the centre-left.

    This is what I see. In the media if you aren’t a centrist or a leftist then you don’t appear to receive respect, so what people seemed to have done is split the difference between the two and created a strange kind of consensus that only really exists on Twitter. People need to say what they believe as far as possible.

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