Forty words

Earlier this year the Social Liberal Forum Council discussed what should be its priorities. Along with the nature of work, welfare and how citizens participate in their communities there was a hunger for a vision, an underlying narrative, something that goes beyond individual, evidence-based policies about specific issues, something you might call liberal ideology. It is pretty clear that many people in the country don’t know what Liberal Democrats stand for. We hear on the doorsteps, “We like you but we’re not sure what you’re about”.

SLF has set up a year-long project to answer this need, to produce a top-level statement of liberalism which is then unpacked into themes and principles against which individual policies should be tested and finally detailed policies on key issues for the electorate, which belong to the narrative and stand up to the test of those principles.

To kick the ball off (and possibly into the net) and as an activity for the summer sunshine, we are setting the task of describing liberalism in 40 words. Here are three attempts. Please feel free to add your own. (You’ll notice that the length has been interpreted liberally as well, but please don’t get carried away.)

  1. Liberalism empowers individuals and communities to reach their potential their own way, creating a society and state that advance this. It stands for equality, participatory democracy, active freedom, community self-help for the common good and responsibility towards all humans, the environment and all life. It requires reasoning, openness and hope.
  2. Liberalism seeks a fair, free, inclusive, diverse and equal society, where individuals have power to lead the lives they want to live, not constrained by poverty, lack of education or pressures to conform, supported by their communities and the state. We believe working together as communities, locally, nationally and internationally we can achieve better outcomes for all and to create a sustainable future for our planet.
  3. Liberalism promotes freedom of all individuals, Freedom From poverty, ignorance and conformity and the overmighty state and Freedom To be the best we can and of value to fellow citizens. Liberalism says, “Think for yourselves and work for each other”.

* David Grace is a Lib Dem living in Cambridge and a long standing campaigner for nuclear disarmament.

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  • Phil Wainewright 20th Jul '21 - 2:39pm

    I think 40 words is a bit on the long side (too long for a tweet for example). How about 40 characters?

    Liberalism values and empowers everyone.

  • Liberalism is neither right wing , nor left. It stands for individual freedom and a fair and just society based on social harmony, community values, International peace and care for the natural world.

  • One of the tricky things with these is coming up with a statement that actually distinguishes liberalism from things other ideologies claim about themselves. I think a useful test is to consider whether a supporter of a different ideology would openly claim the opposite.

    So, for example, reversing 1:
    “Anti-liberalism” prevents individuals and communities from reaching their potential and creates a society and state that enforce this. It stands for inequality, dictatorship, active restrictions, individual self-interest for the personal good and a lack of responsibility towards all humans, the environment and all life. It requires unreasoning closed-mindedness and fatalism.

    I’m certainly not saying there aren’t ideologies which *do* that, but even they recognise that *claiming* to do that is a bad idea.

    If you want a useful statement of what you stand for then it probably also needs to be a statement which someone in another party could in good faith openly stand against.

  • You. Superpowered!

  • I’m happy with the first paragraph of the Preamble to the Constitution minus the initial “the” – exactly 40 words.
    Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.
    When our local party had a ground floor office we filled a window with it.

  • Paul Holmes 20th Jul '21 - 7:45pm

    Spot on Geoff.

    No need to endlessly navel gaze when an excellent short summary already exists. Furthemore it uses our name ‘Liberal Democrats’ which encapsulates the Liberal and Social Democrat tradition that led to the merged Party I was a founder member of in 1988.

  • Carl Blackstock 21st Jul '21 - 8:46am

    Forty words is much too long. By the time you’ve got to word ten on the doorstep the skeptical listener has stopped listening and is formulating their response. We desperately need a tag line (unfortunately) to deliver the essential message. Something like

    Respect for one, Respect for all.

    Where’s all our marketing members?

  • neil James sandison 21st Jul '21 - 10:16am

    Like Phil Wainwright 40 character contribution but prefer preamble to the constitution but does need to reflect our environmental credentials .

  • Liberal Democrats believe in transparent, ethical, consultative government.

  • Philippa Gray 21st Jul '21 - 5:53pm

    It the question is ‘What do the Liberal Democrats stand for?’ then the answer has to start ‘Liberal Democrats’. Defining liberalism will not work.

  • Helen Dudden 21st Jul '21 - 8:35pm

    Not the me first attitude we have at present.
    Capitalism and the way it’s being used, hardly brings anything to the table other than, me first.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 21st Jul '21 - 10:38pm

    Excellent initiative.

    But one or two get it right here. We are defined, or, the party is, not by Liberaism only but actually by us being, social, Liberals and Democrats.

    The Liberal Democrats advance and enhance Liberalism and Democracy. We believe in the best in people individually and socially, and seek to further both, responsibly.

  • Peter Martin 22nd Jul '21 - 10:03am

    As Joe has just written: “Liberalism is neither right wing , nor left.”

    For once I have to agree with him. Many on the left are just as liberal (albeit with a small l) as those in the centre.

    Political positions have to include at least one more dimension to the usual left and right as explained by political compass. Left and Right is essentially a measure of economic thought. A vertical scale is then added to quantify attitudes which can vary between Libertarian and Authoritarian.

    Lib Dems should at least try to define where they stand on the left/right axis too.

  • Nonconformistradical 22nd Jul '21 - 1:08pm

    @David Grace
    What is the target audience for the vision? In terms of levels of education please. Because without understanding that I do not see how the vision can be expressed with an appropriate wording. It needs to be understandable, very quickly, to the target audience.

    Might there be a need for versions worded differently for different target audiences?

  • From the article: “… a hunger for a vision, an underlying narrative, something that goes beyond individual, evidence-based policies about specific issues…”

    Absolutely! That’s something that’s been missing in action for as long as I can remember. But the missing ingredient is NOT a 40-word statement of boilerplate that, as cim rightly points out, no-one could disagree with.

    If I fall ill with something that’s not immediately obvious, I don’t want the doctor telling me only: “I believe in great healthcare that everyone has equal access to as the basis for a fair society blah, blah, blah” (continue for 40 words).

    What I want is an accurate diagnosis getting to which is based on years of study and experience although the doctor’s conclusion will ultimately be condensed into a few words; ‘it’s a bacterial infection – take these pills’. In short, I want the doctor to deliver good healthcare, not just talk about it as a ambition unconnected to my situation..

    Thatcher had such a diagnosis. Her view was that Britain’s reputation in the 1970s as the ‘Sick man of Europe’ was due, inter alia, to bolshy and irresponsible unions, too much socialist planning, and not enough market discipline. These and similar propositions led directly to a coherent programme for government based around a novel constellation of policies – i.e. it was genuinely radical and not just a bit more of this and a bit less of that. Politically, it led to a set of slogans to sell the programme.

    But Thatcher’s diagnosis was mainly wrong. Worse still, there was no effective push-back from the other parties so it has drifted into greater and greater error.

    My reading over the last few years has convinced me there is a radical and distinctively Liberal diagnosis that would lead to a coherent programme for government very different from anything currently on offer which would resonate strongly with voters.

    The difficulty is that the Lib Dems are looking in the wrong places with the wrong instruments, and I don’t know how to persuade TPTB in the party to stop circling the drain. Does anyone?

  • John Shoesmith 22nd Jul '21 - 6:58pm

    We don’t just need to define what Liberalism is. We need to live it, to demonstrate it.

    For example several of the proposed definitions include the word ‘freedom’. We have suffered an unprecedented loss of that in the last couple of years, due to brexit and the nationalist approach to vaccination. Across Europe travel is opening up, but not here. Most of us are confined on this island. Travel between the UK and France has rarely been so hard in peacetime. British young people can’t easily work in Europe, or vice versa. Cultural exchanges have nearly ended. We are confined in a paperwork prison.

    It would be good if the LibDems organised some form of protest – or at least asked a few questions to show we cared passionately on this issue.

    A creed is a useful start, but we need to drive it home with statements that show how it applies to current issues. And – most of all – we need to get angry when our principles are violated.

  • John Shoesmith “and the nationalist approach to vaccination”.

    What on earth does that mean ? Is Mr Shoesmith advocating not getting vaccinated ? I certainly hope not for this would surely impinge on ‘the freedom’ and welfare of other people, especially the most vulnerable.

    If modern Liberalism is to mean anything it should be about mutuality. It is about being an active and responsible member of society and community and caring for others. It is not to be about self-indulgence.

  • John Littler 24th Jul '21 - 10:54am

    “empowers individuals and communities to reach their potential their own way, creating a society and state that advance this. It stands for equality, participatory democracy, active freedom, community self-help for the common good and responsibility towards all humans… a fair, free, inclusive, diverse and equal society, where individuals have power to lead the lives they want to live”

    It’s straddling two philosophies without saying so, or almost trying too hard to appeal to most, then perhaps sounding vague to others, which is often what is thrown at LibDems. You cannot really have equality and promoting the individual aspects.

    I know where I am with this but I think it needs to be presented boiling down with a lot less words and less contradictions. I see myself as Social Democrat on Economic issues and Liberal on others.

  • “It is pretty clear that many people in the country don’t know what Liberal Democrats stand for.”

    This is possibly because we don’t frame our (numerous) press statements in terms of why we are taking a particular stand or point of view. we say we are for this or against the other and condemn the Government and call on the Government.. etc. sometimes it just looks opportunistic.

    The preamble does give a general list of things that are liberal and perhaps parliamentarians should always open there remarks on a subject by explaining why we have reached a particular position.

    For example the issue of trade tariffs and barriers which is now starting to affect supply lines into shops, people will notice soon and we will have to comment.

    Ed should start any statement to the press by saying ‘Liberal Democrats believe in free and fair trade, that is why we want Britian back in the single market and customs union….’

    Any issue should be capable of being commented upon with the opening 4 words ‘Liberal Democrats believe in….’

    Perhaps then we won’t have so many people asking?

    here is my 40 word list, (although the preamble – all of it not just the first 41 words – is the real starting point

    Liberal Democrats believe in….
    • individual rights,
    • civil liberties,
    • participatory democracy,
    • social justice,
    • equality before the law,
    • equality of opportunity,
    • protection from an overbearing state or large corporation,
    • free and fair trade,
    • safeguarding nature and the environment.

  • Katharine Pindar 29th Jul '21 - 10:43am

    I think John Littler is right to point out the contradictions in the broad-brush approach to formulating liberalism. I also want us to emphasise, as Lorenzo Cherin does, the importance of our being Liberal Democrats as well as liberals.

  • Peter Hirst 2nd Aug '21 - 3:03pm

    Liberalism is far more than the right to refuse to participate in public health measures such as immunisation. It must include a balance of individual and collective freedoms. We are only as free as our desired actions do not interfere with others freedoms.

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