Forty years in the making

Liberal democracy is in crisis, particularly in the UK and the USA. In the UK we are perhaps bemused at how we could have come to elect such a corrupt, cronyistic and incompetent government, and in the USA there is much debate over how the Trump lump has not gone away despite four years of Trump’s Twitter tantrums.

There is a tendency to view this as a short term phenomenon – what went wrong four years ago, six years ago, even ten years ago. In my view this has been coming for forty years. It has not been inevitable but, during the neoliberal period (roughly from the 80s till today), social forces and personal decision making have moved us steadily towards the situation we now find ourselves in.

In a nutshell, the elevation to power of Thatcher and Reagan marked the start of what was seen to be a move towards freedom, opening up societies all over the world to the liberating forces of the market. This had two sides, globalisation, an ineluctable social force beyond the power of individuals to affect, and the strategy of global elites both old and new, to use globalisation to create new wealth and power for themselves. They have been very successful. So it turned out to be a move towards freedom for some, but by no means all. The elites used liberalism as their watchword, while ignoring the principle of liberalism that their freedom is only valid in so far as it does not compromise other people’s freedom.

At the same time there has been a steady corrosion of community and democratic values, partly because the new markets require it (they don’t work without precarious labour) and partly because of media elites who found that telling lies worked, and political elites who did not care to confront them. People sold on consumer capitalism found easy answers to all the ills in their lives in the lies told them by the media. Rupert Murdoch and Hugh Dacre, among others, spent decades preparing the British public for the Brexit lie. They have succeeded in making many people’s lives precarious and hoodwinking them into blaming others for that.

The reason this perspective is important is that it sheds light on our immediate future. The Trump lump and the Brexit lump are not going to go away. Their defining feature is resentment, honed over forty years. It won’t disappear just because Trump has blown himself out and Brexit has happened. (Farage is already looking for new ways to foment resentment by attacking lockdown.) If we want to make our countries more liberal again, then we have to look at long term solutions as well as short term ones – there is no quick fix for a problem that has been forty deliberate and persistent years in the making.

We still need our short term activity. We can and must fight to win elections and to influence policy. But we also need a long term strategy as deliberate and persistent as theirs has been. The epitome – and the nadir – of the liberal attitude was the remain campaign in 2016, the most disastrously disorganised and inept campaign I have ever been involved in. We deserved to lose. Our biggest mistake was expecting the voters to be sensible. That did not happen and will not happen again until we make it happen. We must seek to persuade over a long period of time – a drip, drip of persistent, deliberate and targetted conversation over many years, if we want our countries ever to be generous again.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at He curates Liberal Quotes on Facebook

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  • John Marriott 22nd Nov '20 - 10:10am

    “Our biggest mistake was expecting the voters to be sensible”. That single sentence encapsulates where politics, or an interest by the minority in politics, parts company with the vast majority of people, no matter where they live. What IS ‘sensible’? I reckon that the key to solving the UK’s specific problems (besides staying as we have always been a semi detached member of the EU) lies in PR and Federalism. That’s clearly not the view of most people.

    People like Murdoch, Dacre (by the way, it’s Paul not Hugh), Farage, Trump, and the rest know exactly what their faux ‘man of the people’ persona is all about. Give ‘em ‘bread and circuses’ to keep the people happy. Take the current debate about saving Christmas. Is having the family round for Turkey and trimmings this December or going to the pub or office party the price worth paying for an escalation in COVID infection rates in the new year before the vaccine hopefully kicks in? It would appear to be the case. Look what happened following the rush to the sun last Summer? I guess that many are waxing their skis ready to return to the French and Italian slopes, another super spreader case, when the light goes green? What are the chances of a packed Twickenham in time for the Six Nations returning? We really do have a peculiar list of priorities. Wait a minute. That’s what I think; but what if I am in a minority? Identifying as a liberal probably means the affirmative.

    At the moment the prime task of humanity has got to be to get on top of the Corona virus and make sure that any of its relatives currently circulating in the animal world does not cross the species barrier. Health is clearly more important than wealth. When too much wealth in too few hands causes ill health in many people around the world, this has to be tackled. My other take on politics is that it’s about time that governments around the world took back control from big business and multi nationals, possibly in the form of a Bretton Woods Mark Two, and established ground rules where capitalism was finally harnessed for the common good. And yet, my definition of what constitutes the ‘common good’ may well differ from what the majority thinks. Is that what being a ‘liberal’ actually means?

  • John Marriott:It may not contribute much to the discussion but it is good to know there is someone else out there who feels the same as I do.

  • Helen Dudden 22nd Nov '20 - 11:05am

    The former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, wrote that Politics had become too Political. Well if that’s what is happening with our present situation, it needs to change.
    Labour, has now become a non starter, is there another way to achieve a government, that listens to those who voted for them? Also, understand that it is a public service.
    When there is only one real choice hardly democracy.

  • Laurence Cox 22nd Nov '20 - 11:38am

    It is simplistic to blame our problems all on Thatcher and Reagan, although Rob and John are right as far as they go. We also have to consider the effect of the period of left-wing domination that preceded, and in my view caused, the rise of the Right. I was at university in 1968, when the demonstrations across Europe were compared with the revolutions of 1848. In this country the Trade Unions blocked Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’ and contributed to the 1970 election defeat. As a young man I experienced the miners’ strike that caused the three-day week and brought down Ted Heath’s government, paving the way for Margaret Thatcher. Then there was the Winter of Discontent, with refuse piling up in the streets and bodies going unburied, while the print unions militancy closed the Times and Sunday Times for a year, effectively forcing Roy Thomson to sell the titles to Rupert Murdoch. That also meant that we lost Harold Evans who was, without doubt, the best newspaper editor of my lifetime.

    The extreme Left is just as much a threat to liberal democracy as the extreme Right.

  • At some point probably next year populism and reality will clash. We are seeing it now with Biden and Trump in US. We are seeing massive national debt requiring belt tightening whilst BoJo promising to spend billions he does not have on a Space Command. Covid is splitting libertarian conservatives from responsible pandemic response. Farage is coming back to out-promise Bojo.We must hold our nerve. A populist Conservative party trapped by undeliverable promises and a decent respectable Labour leader{ and LD] will trap him on the other side.

  • david marder 22nd Nov '20 - 12:55pm

    Tim. All of above I agree but you did not mention Brexit. A no-deal or low-deal will impact hardest on those areas that voted for Brexit. Johnson will seek to promise them the world to get out of the hole he dug. We and likeminded -Lobour party must not let him off the hook by silence. Farage/Fox and Tory libertarians will help from the other side.

  • Peter Chambers 22nd Nov '20 - 2:44pm

    For history nerds the trends Rob notes were firmly planted in the Nixon era. After LBJ declined to run in 1968, the Democrats were in trouble, The coalition of unionised labour, minorities, well off liberals and students was getting tired. Nixon saw that his Southern Strategy, dissolution of the Bretton Woods norms, shift to the suburbs, atomisation of society, deregulation of corporations, and an appeal to nationalism and populism would provide lasting advantage for the GOP. The trends were set, and the effects would appear in the 1980s wherever neoliberalism took hold. The post war consensus was over.

  • Steve Trevethan 22nd Nov '20 - 3:32pm

    Thanks for the article!

    Might we promote the language, concepts, attitudes and behaviours of “freedom from” to undermine the delusory freedoms promoted through Neoliberalism by those marketing and imposing dangers and deprivations for the many for the benefit of the few?

    Might we adopt and promote Liberal Economic Theory, informed by Modern Monetary Theory, to create a genuinely free market and society which values and deals in cost-value pricing instead of market pricing, with its power plays to extract wealth from the natural and real world economies?

    Might we promote Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”?
    1) Freedom of speech
    2) Freedom of worship
    3)Freedom from want
    4)Freedom from fear

  • Chris Bowers 23rd Nov '20 - 8:57am

    Thanks, Rob, for the article. It is very helpful in the point it makes that holding our nerve isn’t enough – we need (a) to understand the appeal of populist charlatans who thrive even when the population has every reason to know they have contempt for ordinary people, and (b) to have something to offer as an alternative. That is why Tim and David are still missing the point of the article, and Steve is on the right lines, whether or not one agrees with his proposals.
    My own view is that we have to define what liberalism is for the modern age, and then turn that into a manifesto. For too long we have been happy to sit in the centre ground, letting disillusioned Tories think we’re not as bad as Labour and letting disillusioned Labour folk think we’re not as bad as the Tories. This serves us well between general elections, but then we get squeezed at general elections. If we’re to make people who are attracted to Trump, Brexit, Johnson, etc, believe there is an alternative, we have to articulate it and then work hard to sell it. As Rob valuably points out, we’re fighting 40 years of solid groundwork for populist charlatans.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd Nov '20 - 9:26am

    Steve Trevethan. Could I add freedom of knowledge, to understand how to make a decision for yourself and others.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Nov '20 - 9:35am

    “Our biggest mistake was expecting the voters to be sensible.”

    You can point to various elections in world history when clearly the voters, or enough voters to make a difference, haven’t been “sensible”. The most glaringly obvious is what happened in Weimar Germany. But it’s a dangerous argument to make. It’s an argument against democracy. So is dismissing the democratic process as “populism”. What we should have learnt is that if you treat people badly enough they will retaliate against the establishment. And Lib Dems are very much a part of that! Which is why you aren’t doing too well at the moment.

    “….. during the neoliberal period (roughly from the 80s till today), social forces and personal decision making have moved us steadily towards the situation we now find ourselves in……….decades preparing the British public for the Brexit lie.”

    It’s not a lie that Brexit has been brought about by neoliberalist austerity, both in the UK and EU. Or if you prefer, its German version of ordoliberalism. This is hard wired into the EU Treaties. It’s been a retaliation against the EU establishment. The retaliation isn’t just a UK phenomenon. We’ve seen it throughout the EU. Emmanuel Macron was honest enough to admit that France could vote the same way if voters offered the same opportunity. Which of course they won’t be.

    The political parties in France bear little resemblance to what they were in the post war period. Its now the EU Establishment in the form of La République En Marche! vs the rest. It’s only split between left and right in the opposition which keeps Macron in power.

    The pro-EU centre left now barely exists as a serious political force throughout Europe.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Nov '20 - 10:07am

    Many thanks to H. D. for her excellent and vital addition of “Freedom of Knowledge”!!!
    This could give us the Liberal Democrat “Five Freedoms” strap line which is intrinsically secure, efficient and compassionate.
    Might it be worth adding “Freedom from health and well-being burdens” or the like?
    If so, might we work with and for “The Liberal Democrat Five Freedoms Plus One”?

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Nov '20 - 10:40am

    Thanks to P. M.!
    Applying H. D.’s superb suggestion of “Freedom of Knowledge”, attached is an interesting article on the origins and, probably, purposes of the E. U.

    Might it be the case that the better we inform ourselves, and the better we inform our fellow citizens, the better our party and our nation will be?

  • Daniel Walker 23rd Nov '20 - 12:02pm

    @Peter Martin “The pro-EU centre left now barely exists as a serious political force throughout Europe.

    The S&D group alone provides 145 members of the EU Parliament including the President, 6 heads of government of member states, 9 members of the Commission & the High Representative of the Union, and members of the legislatures of (I think) all member states.

    And that’s before you count the pro-EU centre left people in the Greens/EFA or the Social Liberal members of Renew Europe.

  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Nov '20 - 12:26pm

    Belated thanks to C. B!

  • Peter Martin 23rd Nov '20 - 2:04pm

    @ Daniel,

    There are 751 MEPs. So 145 isn’t anywhere near enough for a majority. I suppose we could add in groups like Syriza in Greece. They might have had enough for a majority, at one time, in the Greek Parliament but I’d question whether they were ever a “serious political force”.

    So it’s not simply enough to have the numbers but that would at least be a start.

    Look, I’m not at all happy about the situation. The function of a workers’ party is to stand up for the interests of the workers and not make excuses for the failure of EU apparatchiks who naturally want to call the shots. It’s hardly surprising that the support base has ebbed away.

  • John Marriott 23rd Nov '20 - 2:47pm

    @Peter Martin
    I see you are back to the Weimar Republic again. I’m not quite sure what you are getting at. With hindsight it probably wasn’t ‘sensible’ to have allowed the Nazis to take power, quite legally as it turned out. However, remember the circumstances in which this happened. You could argue that what made this possible was largely the refusal of the SPD to enter into government from the end of the 1920s and the confidence of the movers and shakers of power that they could control Hitler and his crew, not unlike what the US Republican Party did with Trump. Had Hitler succumbed to the first assassination attempt back in 1938 it could be argued he would have gone down in history, at least as far as many of his countrymen are concerned, as one of the greatest Germans, who had ever lived. Now, would that be a ‘sensible’ view to take?

  • Rob Parsons 23rd Nov '20 - 3:57pm

    @Peter Martin 23rd Nov ’20 – 9:35am

    Yes, it was a lie. I agree that the Brexit vote was encouraged by austerity. But when people voted against the EU, many of them were not voting against the EU as such, but against the fraudulent version they had been sold unchallenged by mendacious right wing media over decades prior to 2016.

  • Daniel Walker 23rd Nov '20 - 4:01pm

    @Peter Martin “There are 751 MEPs. So 145 isn’t anywhere near enough for a majority.

    You didn’t say a “majority”, you said “a serious political force”. The largest party, EPP, has only 186 members, also very far from a majority – are there thus no serious political forces at all?

    Look, I’m not at all happy about the situation. The function of a workers’ party is to stand up for the interests of the workers and not make excuses for the failure of EU apparatchiks who naturally want to call the shots. It’s hardly surprising that the support base has ebbed away.

    I don’t mind you being unhappy about the situation! You’re right, the support for the traditional centre-left has been decreasing (although the rise in, generally also centre left, Green politics is part of that as well as a move rightwards) but to suggest that it isn’t still a serious political force is simply untrue.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Nov '20 - 5:22pm

    @ Daniel,

    I’m possibly guilty of forgetting I’m talking to a Lib Dem. What I mean by “serious political force” is either winning elections or being in the position of being close to winning them.

    Whereas for the Lib Dems it is picking up 15% of the vote and being able to prop up a Tory government.

  • Daniel Walker 23rd Nov '20 - 5:50pm

    @Peter Martin “I’m possibly guilty of forgetting I’m talking to a Lib Dem. What I mean by “serious political force” is either winning elections or being in the position of being close to winning them.

    The European Parliament is proportional. No-one gets an overall majority. And S&D are part of the ruling de-facto coalition, that’s why they have members on the Commission. If you mean “winning the plurality”, well, they are in second place I would say that counts as “serious”, surely?

  • Daniel Walker 23rd Nov '20 - 5:52pm

    @Peter Martin

    P.S. by “I don’t mind you being unhappy about the situation!” I meant that you were justified in being unhappy, not that I took any pleasure in it, just to be clear.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Nov '20 - 9:52pm

    @ Daniel,

    Thank you for the clarification. I might have taken you the wrong way which provoked my snarky riposte. So apologies for that!

    I’m more concerned with what is happening at the National level rather that in the EU Parliament. Most voters in the EU don’t give that a higher level of importance. When they want something to change they do look firstly to their own National Govt. That’s where we’ve really seen the decline of the centre left. The Der Spiegel link I posted earlier reports that the French Socialist party lost 249 of its 280 seats in a recent election. That’s some collapse.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Nov '20 - 10:15pm

    @ Rob Parsons,

    “Encouraged” is putting it far too mildly. Austerity was behind nearly every issue in the debate. The asymmetric level of migration was caused by a movement of workers looking for jobs. Things weren’t great in the UK but they must have been even worse in the rest of the EU – and largely caused by EU imposed austerity There is no logical reason to allow the depopulation of whole regions. But there’s nothing like enough political will in the EU to spend the money to try to equalise the economies of the EU member states.

    Euros naturally end up in the stronger economies and people move in the same direction in pursuit of them. They also move to the UK which isn’t in the same euro straitjacket. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. It’s good that people can move around if they want to but they shouldn’t have to. The PTB who run the EU were clearly failing in their duty to do what it took to try to provide employment where people actually live.

  • Daniel Walker 24th Nov '20 - 7:07am

    @Peter Martin “Thank you for the clarification. I might have taken you the wrong way which provoked my snarky riposte. So apologies for that!

    Apology accepted, and please accept mine for the poor wording; we’ve disagreed before (often) but it’s always been civil so I was moved to go and check what I had said!

    The Der Spiegel link I posted earlier reports that the French Socialist party lost 249 of its 280 seats in a recent election. That’s some collapse.

    They did. I suspect M. Macron’s parties took much of their vote; It certainly didn’t seem to go to M. Mélenchon’s group, for example.

    But conversely, PSOE are in government in Spain. My point was that the social democratic group of parties (i.e. roughly speaking the centre of gravity of the UK Labour Party) are still a force to be reckoned with in much of the EU, and the EU Parliament as a whole.

  • @Peter Martin 23rd Nov ’20 – 10:15pm Yes, lots of people moved here – and they contributed to the strength of our economy and the vibrancy of our culture. But the right wing media and politicians horribly misrepresented that. And even if I agree with your account, and even if the movement of Europeans caused some people here to be worse off, that’s no reason to make all of us even more worse off by leaving. It became a reason because of the lies.

  • I very much agree with the thrust of the article.

    But we didn’t get here by happenstance; the whole Thatcher/Reagan/Neoliberal turn that came of age in 1979/80 was the successful outcome of decades of strategically driven theorising and propagandising by a small group of right wingers. They, so to speak, mounted an ‘air war’ against forces who didn’t (and still don’t) know what an air force is. So, they won.

    Specifically, they promoted the theory that markets are the hand of God and will deliver perfect justice and efficiency provided they are ‘free’. This is the foundational concept of ‘neoclassical’ economics (in distinction to the much better ‘classical’ economics of the 19th century) which is now the dominant school of economic thought.

    The promotion of ‘Freedom’ is a key weapon in the air war. It’s useful because, as Humpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” He could well have had ‘freedom’ in mind.

    Almost everyone hears it as a call to reduce or remove the limitations they bump up against which is indeed hard to disagree with. But not everyone can have everything, so compromises are necessary. And so, in a neoliberal world, the rule-makers award themselves 100% of their desired freedoms and everyone else 0% of theirs – or as near to that as they can get away with which turns out to be an awful lot! Hence grotesque inequality.

    So, I don’t think there is any way to derive a ‘modern liberalism’ from thinking about ‘freedom’ as so many have tried to do on LDV and elsewhere. Instead we must get back to basics and work out how the economy works and what drives it (and for whose benefit) currently and how it could/should work better – all at an organic level. If we succeed in that we will discover that we have, as a by-product, discovered the sort of compromises around ‘freedom’ (whose freedoms & what freedoms) that create maximum well-being and sustainability with no-one left behind.

    Separately but related, we also need to work out how to actually manage an economy that’s many times bigger and simultaneously far more complicated than the largest company. That’s a problem hiding in plain view and more important than any set of policies – but no-one is talking about it even though the Tories are demonstrably getting it very, very wrong.

  • Peter Hirst 24th Nov '20 - 4:33pm

    Though not entirely relevant to the Brexit referendum, much of our political malaise can be traced back to our voting system. FPTP encourages partisanship, marginalises minorities and enables candidates to be elected on as low as 25% of the vote. Its tentacles stretch deep into our politics effecting many of the issues discussed on these blogs.

  • Peter Martin 26th Nov '20 - 1:26pm

    @ Rob Parsons,

    There does seem to be an increased general acceptance that we can’t go back to the Austerity Economics of the Coalition years. We don’t, for example, get nonsensical articles like this one appearing on LDV any longer.

    “The left should follow John McDonnell and stop being anti-austerity”

    We are told “If you’re putting the rent on the credit card month after month, things need to change”. Except the Government isn’t a household that has to pay rent and doesn’t need a credit card!

    So the Lib Dems do finally seem to have understood all this. Or at at least a substantial number have. But Lib Dems have yet to reconcile a newly found disdain for austerity economics with a love for a very pro-austerity organisation like the EU.

    The interesting time will start next year when the Germans and Dutch will expect their Covid loans to be repaid. They won’t be because they can’t be. Not unless they both come to their senses and take the necessary measures to become big net importers rather than big net exporters.

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