Agenda 2020 Essay #3 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]

I am a Liberal Democrat because I have a sense of justice. Justice means everybody getting a fair chance without the playing field being tilted against them throughout their lives. Justice does not mean everyone being treated the same all the time. Equality before the law is a sine qua non, but equality before the law requires different treatment, e.g. those who cannot afford representation should get legal aid. Those who can should not. My sense of justice is Biblical as much as it is political, though I accept it will not be for everybody. The Old Testament justice of Amos “Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”. Justice is so much more than equality before the law: it demands that we treat everybody as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Thus the two most important fibres in my being, the political and the religious, are intertwined.

Liberal democracy involves a lifetime of effort levelling the playing field. We come into a world with a tilted playing field. We make the effort to level it. But the effort does not end once the field is level because in our world the most influential currency is money, and money is magnetic. Wherever it is, it attracts more. If we leave the playing field alone, it will gradually tilt again as those with money use their power to accumulate more. So we need to work constantly to keep the playing field level. It is not just about fairness, it is also about effectiveness. Wealth used for the benefit of all benefits the wealthy too (some of the wealthy realise this). Wealth redistributed to those who have no work keeps them fit and alert and best able to contribute when work does come their way. Wealth redistributed towards those who will never be able to work means we care for those less fortunate than ourselves. Hence my implacable opposition to the poisonous policies and practices of the current Department for Work and Pensions.

The second most influential currency is information, which is crucial for the exercise of power. Information is light which we shine into the murk of both states and corporations to find out how they are affecting us. Without information we are not free, so being a Liberal Democrat means a concern for the freedom of information everywhere and in every form. People must be free to communicate with each other everywhere and about anything, provided it does not harm other people. But people in power hide information as obsessively as they hide money. So liberalism involves a permanent struggle to uncover information and set it free.

I don’t aim for a small state. I aim for an effective state. Size and effectiveness are not necessarily correlated. I want a state that is strong when I need it to be and otherwise leaves me alone. At the same time I want a society that encourages other people to be all that they can be, but to leave me alone if I am not affecting them. Regulation is a necessity; without it markets and social relations would not be peaceably ordered. Too much regulation is problematic, but so is too little – as we discovered in 2008. I want a smart state, one that is strong enough to counter balance prevailing global forces, and at the same time nimble enough to deal with rapidly changing circumstances. The Home Office’s leaden footed response to legal highs is a perfect example of how not to respond to change.

So the state needs to be smart, which entails that the people need to be smart. We need an active concerned and involved citizenry to keep the state tuned to our needs rather than to the needs of those in power. Liberalism also involves realism. I am realistic enough to know that we will never have an entirely active and involved citizenry. The forces of individualist consumerism are too strong for that. But we need a certain minimum, and everybody should at least have the chance, which means we need an education system in which people learn how to be smart. The system we have at the moment teaches one thing and one thing only – how to be measured. It is a tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit and to the professionalism and creativity of our teachers that most of our pupils leave the system with their character intact.

Ultimately, liberalism, like any political philosophy, is about character. Liberalism includes generosity of spirit. I do not envy those who are richer than me, provided they have earned it, which is by no means always the case. I do not scorn those who are poorer than me, because they did not bring it on themselves. They just live in the wrong part of the playing field, the one that I am constantly working to level up. Liberalism involves being always conscious of the rest of the world, not just the bits of the UK that go beyond my comfortable environment, but the entire world. Being internationalist means we won’t forget that our comfort depends on the discomfort of many others.

Liberalism is not an easy creed. It involves a tolerance for complication, an appetite for the convoluted practice of listening to every point of view and working to accommodate all of them. By and large political philosophies are based on either fear or hope. The politics of fear is easy. You point and shout. Liberalism is founded on the politics of hope, which is hard, hard work. We do not have the Daily Mail to expound our beliefs. We have Focuses. Which have to be delivered. So we pound the pavements. Activism gets you fitter. Not only have you got the message out, but you’ve taken your health into your own hands as well.


* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at

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