Am I a Liberal?

On Monday 4th March at 7.30pm if you are in or around London the NLC is the place to be. The Social Liberal Forum is launching its new publication and Ian Kearns will be speaking. Admission is free. Full details are on the SLF website. Dr Seth Thevoz reviews the publication for Lib Dem Voice. The SLF will also be holding a fringe meeting with Ian Kearns about the book at the Spring Conference inYork.

The Social Liberal Forum has given us a very welcome republication of John Maynard Keynes’s Am I a Liberal?, alongside a new essay by Ian Kearns, asking that same question. Indeed, it’s doubly timely, as the piece by Labour defector-turned-Lib Dem Kearns asks some particularly topical questions, at a time when we are still trying to make sense of what the new Labour breakaway Independent Group stands for, or even seeks to do.

Keynes’s original essay prompted a serious assessment as to what liberalism means in the modern world – he argued that remaining Gladstonian shibboleths such as Free Trade and Temperance were not, in themselves, enough to sustain a mass ideology. Instead, he proposed five new dimensions that any Liberal should apply themselves to:

  • Peace Questions
  • Questions of Government
  • Sex Questions
  • Drug Questions
  • Economic Questions

The essay remains ahead of its time in many of its conclusions, and its vindication can be found in the number of ardent Liberal converts over the years, recruited on these very issues – although parts of the essay are also dated. The sections on women’s rights, for instance, are reminiscent of Bertram Russell’s Marriage and Morals (1929), in essentially being a feminist text, written by a man who does not reference any women or early feminist writers. Despite these serious setbacks, the essay is original, and buzzing with ideas; and it is well worth a read, 96 years on, for the sometimes-uncomfortable questions it raises.

Kearns’s essay is a more personal one, following on from some of Keynes’s themes – especially the passages excised from the original version of Keynes’s paper, as delivered at the 1925 Liberal Summer School. Kearns looks at much at other ideologies, and while he has nothing positive to say about conservatism, he focuses his real fire on the modern Labour Party, and its shortcomings as a vehicle for Liberal thought or action. 

More broadly, this is a welcome revisiting of that great political tool, the pamphlet. Ideas matter in politics, and their importance should not purely be measured in policy terms. They are crucial in forging and bonding identities – where would modern conservatism be today, without Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative, a surprise hit on university campuses of the 1960s? The British Liberal Party, the SDP and the Liberal Democrats all had a flourishing pamphlet tradition in exchanging, scrutinising and debating ideas through short essays by Liberals up and down the country – something which suffered a setback after the withering of Lib Dem Publications (formerly the Liberal Publications Department) in the 2000s, and which essentially died a death during the hollowing-out of the party during the coalition years. While the blogosphere has helped to generate interest in individual takes on things, it is the longer-form medium of the short essay (whether transmitted electronically or on paper) which is vital to hammering out, communicating and refining well-thought-out ideas. 

Am I a Liberal? is being launched at the National Liberal Club on Monday 4th March 2019. 

* Dr Seth Thévoz is an academic historian, and former member of the Social Liberal Forum’s Council. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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  • Colin Walklin 3rd Mar '19 - 12:04pm

    Capital L in Liberal please.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 3rd Mar '19 - 12:20pm


  • Not to be Labour isn’t enough… As Keynes found out in the years after 1925…… And incidentally as Bertrand Russell (on Asquith’s list to go to the Lord’s in 1910) demonstrated by his subsequent party loyalties.

  • David Evershed 3rd Mar '19 - 2:14pm

    I didn’t realise that temperance was a Liberal principle.

    I may have to re-think my membership.

  • David R Warren 3rd Mar '19 - 4:40pm

    I came to the Liberal Democrats from Labour.

    I spent thirty years as an activist in the so called Labour movement and I have set down my memories of that period which I have called from ‘Labour to Liberty.’

    It would make a good pamphlet if anybody wants to publish it!

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 3rd Mar '19 - 7:16pm

    @David Evershed If it is, I am a very bad liberal.

  • Personally I think that the reversing the destruction of ecosystems on our planet, and the resulting catastrophe awaiting our species is important enough to be a dimension.

  • William Wallace 4th Mar '19 - 10:23am

    Temperance was very much part of the radical Liberal movement; the brewers financially supported the Conservatives against them, as Liberal campaigners pointed out. You couldn’t buy alcohol in Saltaire until 30 years ago; the first bar to open is called ‘Don’t tell Titus’. The tea urn of the Wyke Gospel Temperance Mission (wehich overlapped with the South Bradford Liberal Association) now sits in our dining room. The temperance movement was linked to women’s rights (don’t get drunk when you’re paid, and then go home and beat the wife) and social improvement.

  • Peter Hirst 4th Mar '19 - 11:32am

    The fundamental thing about being a Liberal is believing in the sanctity of each individual to make their own decisions within a framework that is as fair as possible to everyone.

  • Steve Comer 4th Mar '19 - 11:36am

    William: When I went to my first Liberal Assembly (in 1984) it was hard to envision the party’s past links to the temperance movement!

  • William Wallace gives a good reminder of the power of temperance in the days of Liberal power.

    Yes, it was radical and progressive, based on the ideal of the thinking rational autonomous human being as a full citizen capable of exercising choice and democratic responsibility as an ideal of liberalism….. And fighting the power of the Tory brewers.

    It combined the religion of the nonconformist churches with the Band of Hope….. I still have the little blue ribbon given to me as a child by my Great Uncle George – a pillar of the Bradford Road Chapel….. And I remember him singing the old songs round the piano….. Hail smiling morn was a favourite.

    Lloyd George even nationalised some of the pubs in WW1….. Much to the annoyance of George V and the PM Asquith… Who liked a little drink or two or three.

  • David Evershed 5th Mar '19 - 1:30am

    Joining The Band of Hope required taking The Pledge of course.

    Rather like Lib Dem candidates in the 2010 election, I suspect the pledge was not always enthusiastically entered into or kept.

  • Dr Selby Whittingham 5th Mar '19 - 10:12am

    More pamphlets would be a good idea. My mother, a rebel Liberal Conservative, wrote three in the 1930s which she published and sold herself and created quite a stir in Liverpool at the time. On the other hand some subjects such as the arts (in which I am concerned) can give rise to uninspired dutiful tracts which would be better not published. The comments on this new pamphlet I generally agree with.

  • George Potter 5th Mar '19 - 6:24pm

    I’m pleased to say that this publication is now available for purchase through the SLF website here:

  • richard underhill 7th Mar '19 - 10:51pm

    @David Evershed
    The NHS computer was told my height and told me to lose weight.
    It also saves me money
    and results in less glass needing to be recycled,
    thereby also saving petrol.

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