Challenges for liberalism 3: Is liberalism under threat, and how should its values be promoted?

Editor’s Note: These posts are based on a speech given by the author at an event organised by York  University Liberal Democrats.

It’s certainly a difficult time for those who share our values. There’s a song we sing at Glee Club at conference, and it includes the line, “Peace, reform and liberation be our triune aspiration”. I think those are fantastic values –
promote a world in which nations and peoples live together in harmony, in which borders are dismantled, have an agenda of constantly reforming society so that we are constantly ahead of the curve in promoting a more open and fair society, and look to end oppression wherever we see it.

But those values aren’t in fashion at the moment. What’s very much in fashion is xenophobia, knee-jerk conservatism and oppression.

I think we spend too much time apologising about our values, of being embarrassed by them. Take immigration – the guy who says he has “genuine concerns” that all people who look a bit foreign are job stealing rapists is obviously not going to vote for us, but the people who might be persuaded about our values are also not going to vote for us if our message is, “the bigots have legitimate concerns, but don’t vote for them”.

There’s a lot of talk about centrism at the moment. If Europhobia and Brexism represent the Tories retreating into the comfort zone of a rose tinted past, then I think the embrace of centrism is us doing the same, only with a different view of the past. We long for the days when there was a decade and a half of vaguely socially democratic government under Blair and Brown, and we were a significant force in parliament and people liked us because we were nice and sensible and moderate.

It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. Nobody is buying nice and sensible and moderate. Not here, not now, not in 2018.

I think it’s long past time we stopped apologising for our values, stood up and said loudly that the current xenophobic political consensus of Labour and the Tories is bollocks, and that radical liberalism has some of the solutions to the problems we face, and that we aren’t frightened about the Daily Mail screeching about us if we say so.

Because let’s be honest – the press yelling about us is far better than what they’re currently doing, which is ignoring us.

* Sarah Brown is a Liberal Democrat activist from Cambridge, an Exec member of LGBT+ Lib Dems and a former Councillor in Cambridge

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5 Comments

  • nigel hunter 4th Nov '18 - 10:41am

    .W e should be still nice sensible and moderate and point out that in the end extremes only end in disaster WW”2 for example .Our beliefs should be spread on facebook etc and not be shied away from We must make a row so that the papers take notice. As you say the papers ignore us hoping we will go away.If we sting by becoming a vocal pain in the backside the papers take notice and the readers will see us.

  • David Warren 4th Nov '18 - 10:55am

    Interesting article.

    The first task is to define what you mean by liberalism, is it social liberalism, economic liberalism or even classical liberalism.

    I suspect for you and the majority of Lib Dems members it’s social liberalism.

    However the other strands clearly exist within the party, with some of the MPs veering more to the economic liberal variety of liberalism.

    The current problem for the party is that apart from Brexit and being good at pavement politics the majority of voters don’t really know the policies Liberal Democrats stand for.

    That isn’t helped by the fact that there is what is effectively a caretaker leader in place.

    Don’t get me wrong I have a lot of time for Vince and wish he had got the leadership years ago but even his keenest supporters acknowledged when he succeeded Tim Farron that he wasn’t going to be in place long term.

    Radical Liberalism is needed yes but as I said at the beginning of which variety?

  • David Walsh 4th Nov '18 - 1:07pm

    “We long for the days when there was a decade and a half of vaguely socially democratic government under Blair and Brown, and we were a significant force in parliament and people liked us because we were nice and sensible and moderate.”

    As an almost-40 year old who grew up in the North West I’ve really only experienced 2 government ideologies – Thatcher’s Britain and Blair’s. And I know which period of time was better, at least for me.

    Thatchers was me as a young boy seeing my family reduced to starvation due to the war waged on miners / dock workers etc, an education system broken by starving of cash, Clause (section) 28 etc demonising and suppressing support during my formative years and then the start of blaming ‘the benefit class’ for all of societies ills – despite the fact that’s where they hid unemployment in the first place.

    Blair was far from perfect, but at least that period provided me with work opportunities (I even got on my bike and moved 300 miles away to find them) and importantly, it helped to move things in the right direction with regards to discrimination, and showing that differences in people were not only OK, but something to be cherished and celebrated.

    Nice and moderate may not be news worthy, but is the decent place to start from. Why can’t the message be as simple as ‘We’ll aim to do our best for everyone, not the few, not the many, but all’ ? Support those who need help and offer opportunities to those who want them. Don’t use tax etc to try to impose a moral code.

    Or as Bill and Ted said ‘Be excellent to each other’

  • Peter Hirst 6th Nov '18 - 12:03pm

    Our values should be formed around the fact that fundamentally we are all the same and connected so that harm to one is harm to us all. Once we have grasped this the remainder is easy. If I hurt you, I am also hurting myself.

  • Simon Banks 23rd Jan '19 - 5:45pm

    Nigel – WW2 was in part caused by Chamberlain, Hoare, Halifax, Daladier, Briand and the rest being nice, sensible and moderate. It was called appeasment.

    What is Liberalism? It’s Liberalism. It’s a belief in liberating people and communities to reach their full potential by empowering them. An economic liberal thinks that can be done mainly by reducing the state and restrictions on individuals. A social liberal thinks the state can help liberate people and believes people achieve fulfilment in and with communities. A classical Liberal? As a History graduate, that term irritates me. It takes one period of Liberalism (presumably 1859 – 1880 or thereabouts) and preserves it in aspic; and the period is misrepresented anyway.

    Yes, of course, Liberalism is under threat. Manipulation of the internet, fears of migration, inability to keep up with a fast-changing world and masses of confusing information worldwide, the misunderstood impact of global warming – all pose threats, the last the worst. But the internet makes narrow nationalism harder. Intolerance and fear grip older people more than younger. I first became politically active in a world in which half Europe and much of Asia was one party Communist, in which Spain, Portugal and Greece were dictatorships, in which most African and Latin American states were military or leader-worshipping dictatorships and the USA intervened to topple governments which tried to attack inequality and in which apartheid was entrenched in South Africa. Today in states like Ghana, Ecuador, South Korea, Tunisia, Bulgaria it is possible to be LIberal and not risk prison for it.

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