In Depth: Person-centred Liberalism

Person-centred liberalism is a tautology – there’s no other form of liberalism. However, it might be useful to explore a little of what we mean when liberals talk about individualism, the freedom of everybody to be themselves and to make the best of their lives.  “Isn’t that the same as the Tories?” a lifelong Labour supporter once said to me.

The idea is central to liberalism. It says that each, precious, separate person is more important than any group of which she or he may be part.  Yes, we find and express ourselves in communities and other groups. But it’s the individuals that define the groups, not the other way round.

Take class, for instance.  In modern Britain, social class is self-defined and has little to do with income, status, work or even origin.  Look at the Labour Party’s leadership! But it still has a lot to do with Labour rhetoric and strikes a chord with their core vote. It’s often a key reference for the attitude which says: “I’ve always voted Labour; so did my parents, because we are working class”. Even so, I was surprised to see Blair’s pollster, Philip Gould, start his autobiography with a quotation from Hegel:

The human being finds his proper identity only in those relations that are in effect the negation of his isolated particularity – in his membership in a group or social class whose institutions, organisations and values determine his very individuality.

I’ve quoted that rather turgid sentence because it makes my point exactly: for Hegel and Gould, the important thing is to be defined by class, not to define yourself.  As part of the Labour mindset, it’s also an important indicator about why it’s so hard to move on from the institution that imprisons them.

Another example: the local Labour council leader in Burnley (now my MP, I’m sorry to say) was attacked by the National Front with typical aggression for living in a detached house in the country and driving a Range Rover with customised plates.  The revealing Labour defence was to say that it was OK for her to be a leading Labour politician because she and her husband had made their money themselves.  It led me to think: so, I couldn’t be a leading Labour politician (LLP) because my Dad was a doctor; but my Dad could because his father was a labourer; my grandfather couldn’t be an LLP because my great-grandfather was a shop-owner; but my great-grandfather could do it because he started life as a groom. Bah! It would be simply silly if it didn’t reveal a mindset which is on tramlines because of political orthodoxy.

For Conservatives, the key class mindset is about the middle class, whatever that is. They don’t mind the deference vote – Disraeli called them “angels in marble” – but their basic appeal is to a wide-ranging middle class from “hard-working families” through to a royal consort, who are defined by “middle class values”.

One other distinguishing feature of those whose minds are imprisoned by class is that the qualities that each ascribes to the other are mirror images. Hard-working, thrifty, family values, thinking for the future and common sense is my class; conformist, feckless, and living in the present is the other lot.  “Snooty” and “chip on the shoulder” are also mirror images of class thinking.

Jo Grimond once answered the question: “what would the liberals do about class?” by responding instantly “We’d abolish it”. I agree. I also agree with Keynes who once explained why he could not vote Labour: “in the final analysis, I could not vote Labour because Labour believes in class war. If that came, I’d be on the side of my own class, that of the educated bourgeoisie”.

Historically, an even more damaging and insidious group to subordinate the individual is the idea of nation. Despite being more traditionally a conservative view, it’s recently been embraced thoroughly by Labour and even occasionally by Liberal Democrats who prate about “British values” or even “English values”, whatever they are.  Are they really sure that all other national groups of people can’t compete on the tests of tolerance, humour and kindness to small animals? “Common-sense” is easier to ascribe to a particular nationality – that’s because every group thinks of common-sense as “the prejudices I learned before I was 10”, but that doesn’t really define the term.

“My nation, right or wrong” or “my country, right or wrong” is a wholly illiberal view. For a liberal, it is unthinkable that nation or any other identity could be more important than whether something is right or wrong. Of course, a state can decide to ask its citizens to go to war or commit troops for or against a principle (I’m not a pacifist). I hope that may happen in future through the UN’s “responsibility to protect”, but it’s a request and making it is the hardest decision a government or politician will ever make.

Separation into English and Scottish nationhood and identity is unhelpful in taking most of the decisions that are needed to help the citizens of both countries. On genetic grounds, it would be as silly between most European nations, although the Finns, Magyars and Basques may have a stronger claim than others to genetic separateness. I have seen ordinary people on the streets of most countries of the world and in all the inhabited continents. What strikes me most is what we have in common throughout our daily lives, not whatever minor cultural differences there might be.

Liberals have a proud history in many countries of not supporting their nations, countries or states when they are wrong. Some of them have died or suffered for their beliefs and many still do today. For a liberal, it’s the people that matter, not the nations.

Another group which can replace individual identity is the family. Of course, we are all influenced by our families for good or ill, but do we believe that it’s ever more important than the people who make it up? A family can be controlled by a father or a mother rather than by the individuals within it. Women are now much more likely to define themselves by characteristics other than family duties and circumstances. Children define their identities within their families, in opposition to them and in their wider circles. That’s a good thing – much better than simply being the product of and owned by their families and family relationships.

Liberals have written about the politics of identity. A person’s identity can be shaped by race, sex, sexual orientation or disability, and as we go through life by age, religion or the lack of it, community and work. Despite that, they are not defined by those things; they are people first and disabled or gay or young or anything else second. It’s why some of us have campaigned for years against defining people by adjectives: the young, the old, the mentally, the disabled……. Basically, we are all individuals, not part of a class or nation or group.

As with class or national characteristics, liberals occasionally slip into sloppy thinking about groups rather than individuals. After weeks of hearing “I vote Labour because I’m working class” or “I vote Conservative because I don’t like Scots”, it’s difficult not to dismiss some groups as beyond salvation. But for a liberal, no-one is beyond the hope that they can see themselves as a strong, independent person in their own right.

* Gordon Lishman is over 70 and has campaigned for older people and on issues concerned with ageing societies for about 50 years.  Nowadays, he does it with more feeling!

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Jonathan Pile 6th Jun '15 - 9:28am

    Liberal Democracy is more than just pure Liberalism in terms of the triumph of the individualism over everything , we don’t believe that individuals can do just as they like without considering the rights of others. Yes a focus on protecting the rights of individuals against over mighty corporations, states and organisations. But within a framework of balance, reason and compassion.

  • ““My nation, right or wrong” or “my country, right or wrong” is a wholly illiberal view.” I must say that I’m rather fond of the intent behind Carl Schurz’s expanded phrase “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” It implies there’s a participatory duty in the individual’s engagement with their country. That the true spirit of patriotism is not to drape oneself in a flag and obey orders unquestioningly, but rather to be ever vigilant that the country you profess to love keeps to the right course. I actually think that to be rather liberal.

  • Gordon, you start of with —
    “…freedom of everybody to be themselves and to make the best of their lives”

    The interpretation of these words is key.
    The interpretation of these words, by a Conservative or just someone from what I would recognise as a background of privilege but they would no doubt see as “fairly ordinary” (as Nick Clegg once described his own upbringing) informs everything else in their view of the world and of politics.
    What to a Conservative or someone from a background of privilege would be seen as the removal of an unnecessary and rather generous “spare room subsidy” would to me seem nothing better than a cruel and vindictive “bedroom tax”.

    Possibly the only part of ‘The Theory and Practice of Community Politics’ that I have always felt uncomfortable with is what is your “blind spot” on class.

    It is all very well to quote Jo Grimond from sixty years ao saying that he would “abolish” class but he did not, and nor did anybody else. Class is still there, self-defined or a perfectly recognisable identity.

    I would not disagree with much of what you say about Labour politicians and class, but what about working class Tories (often now describing theselves as UKIP voters) and what about working class Liberals?

    I am not the son of a doctor. However, much of my working life I worked for or alongside doctors. I never failed to recognise that without exception every single doctor I worked with did not come from a working class background. In fact it is surprising how many doctors are the daughters or sons of doctors. Their outlook, decisions, etc were not always a product of their class background. Not always.

  • Julie Niven 6th Jun '15 - 1:03pm

    From the Home Counties living in central Scotland I see and hear ‘us and them’, statements the grouping of people into massive generalised groupings ‘Scottish and English’, ‘Northerners and Southerners’ too much….mainly online to be fair but also in the flesh. It’s not true…I know it so…the variety and diversity of people I live and work with, my children play and we all socialise with are similar to those my brothers families are sharing their lives with in Berkshire and Cheshire. So why the differences politically? if we are all pretty much the same in our range of diversity so what makes us vote so differently? ‘the English give us the Tories’…’the North wants to go with Scotland’. are typical of the rhetoric from the recent campaign But the FPTP as a voting mechanism means that any differences in regional voting patterns can have a large impact on the picture,,, it’s true that more people in the Home Counties vote Tory than in the North or Scotland but it’s also true that in Bracknell my constituency growing up, an exceptionally safe Tory seat, that around 40% of people didn’t vote Tory and in other Tory seats this non vote could closer to 60%.. But the diffrences regionally are real and so if not based on ‘who we are’ must be based on ‘what we have experienced’ and this CAN be regional. A Glasweigian taxi driver once said to me, and I have no collection of how we got on to this it was a nice Christmassy chat, that ‘he didn’t have an issue with people in the south but he felt ‘they didn’t undertand the Scottish as they had never really experienced’, (the in living memory was implied), ‘mass unemployment with no hope’, and he’s probably right.. The industrial North has, and their voting patterns, current SNP surge, aside are similar to the Scots…it makes sense. And as a comparison if you don’t live in the home counties you don’t know what it’s like to be looking at 3 bedroom ex council houses for circa 250k ( or rents of over 1000 per month for a small family home) either, so your objection to people living in more council space than deemed ‘necessary’ by the current adminsitration may be different. ( to clarify I think the bedroom tax is a crass piece of legislation that should go or face reform). It’s so important to constantly remember that the ‘what we have experienced’ differences are there and to try and better understand them (whilst remembering that they are exaggerated by FPTP) but we need to do this without huge swathing generalisations which are divisive and don’t represent the amazing diverse country in which we live.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '15 - 4:12pm

    Julie Niven

    From the Home Counties living in central Scotland I see and hear ‘us and them’, statements the grouping of people into massive generalised groupings ‘Scottish and English’, ‘Northerners and Southerners’ too much….mainly online to be fair but also in the flesh. It’s not true.

    Yes. I know I’ve said this many times, but to me the regional distortion of the FPTP electoral system is one of its most damaging aspects. I was always very sorry that this aspect seemed hardly to get mentioned. I felt it crazy that both Labour and Conservative seemed to think vast over-representation in one part of the country balanced by vast under-representation in another was acceptable so long as the overall result was satisfactory to the in terms of country-wide numerical balance.

    To this day, perhaps my prime motivation for being involved in politics is growing up in a working class family in the south and finding that people like us were not supposed to exist, there was no-one who spoke for our particular concerns, and that was due to the mis-impression the electoral system gave that the whole of the south outside London was nothing but Tories.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '15 - 4:33pm

    Gordon Lishman

    Jo Grimond once answered the question: “what would the liberals do about class?” by responding instantly “We’d abolish it”. I agree.

    So how would you abolish it? It’s a very silly statement, because class exists. In fact, class division is growing, not shrinking. Differences in wealth and opportunity are growing, not shrinking, and the correlation between wealth and parents’ wealth is massive. The difference in wealth and opportunity between the white working class and the white upper middle class is bigger than any racial divisions. If you wanted to abolish it, you’d have to do something pretty drastic, which would be illiberal, and most certainly would be seen as “class war”.

    What many liberals mean by “abolish it” or similar sentiments, however, tends to mean “ignore it”. They think if you pretend it doesn’t exist, it will go away. That’s rather like thinking that if you never mentioned racial differences and never did anything about racial discrimination, and never talked about the differences in racial balance in lead positions in society, it would all go away as a problem.

    Class division is bigger in the south than the north, by the way. The complete difference between what outsiders sometimes call “southern English” but is actually “posh English” and what real southern working class people speak is HUGE, and so is the difference in wealth and opportunity. Open your mouth in the south, and you are instantly placed. How many people up north realise that? They hardly know the southern working class exists, because of their gross under-representation and almost invisibility in the media.

    I also agree with Keynes who once explained why he could not vote Labour: “in the final analysis, I could not vote Labour because Labour believes in class war.

    Oh, that’s nonsense. And if you don’t believe in action to reduce inequalities due to class, which is what is meant by “class war”, how can you say you want to abolish it?

    Anyway, Keynes said this years ago, and even if Labour was like that then, I don’t see it as like that now. The time when Labour was the “voice of the working class” has long, long gone. Even when I was young decades ago, I was never attracted much to Labour because it seemed to be more a party of a certain sort of upper middle class trendy than a party which really was primarily coming from the working class. I guess it was more so in the south than in the north then, but I think that’s become a more universal thing and is an aspect of why Labour did badly in the election.

  • Matthew Huntbach 6th Jun '15 - 4:36pm

    Gordon Lishman

    Person-centred liberalism is a tautology – there’s no other form of liberalism.

    Oh, I agree with that – although we have these people who call themselves “economic liberals” and by that they mean money-centred liberalism.

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 6th Jun '15 - 5:11pm

    I think that even though the article mentions social class and groupings. One aspect for individualism that needs to be considered is the cognitive bias trait within people.

    This is the link to the list of “Cognitive Biases”:

    Cognitive biases are tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to decisions which belong to the habitus class in society and is well placed in the liberal ideology concerning the individual and their leanings towards the belief that it is people matter.


  • Gordon,

    I think it remains important to recognise that society has generally moved on from a focus on the negative freedoms espoused within the principles of classical liberalism . 19th century Economists and Social philosophers like Karl Marx and Henry George contributed to a growing awareness of the poverty and unemployment present within modern industrial cities, despite the great technological advances of the age. A major political reaction against the changes introduced by industrialisation and laissez-faire capitalism came from conservatives concerned about social balance, although socialism later became a more important force for change and reform.

    John Stuart Mill contributed enormously to liberal thought by combining elements of classical liberalism with what eventually became known as the new liberalism. The new liberals tried to adapt the old language of liberalism to confront these difficult circumstances, which they believed could only be resolved through a broader and more interventionist conception of the state. An equal right to liberty could not be established merely by ensuring that individuals did not physically interfere with each other, or merely by having laws that were impartially formulated and applied. More positive and proactive measures were required to ensure that every individual would have an equal opportunity of success.

    New Liberals, made a case against laissez-faire classical liberalism and argued in favour of state intervention in social, economic, and cultural life. The New Liberals, which included intellectuals like T.H. Green, L.T. Hobhouse, and John A. Hobson, saw individual liberty as something achievable only under favourable social and economic circumstances. This view held that the poverty, squalor and ignorance in which many people lived made it impossible for freedom and individuality to flourish. New Liberals believed that these conditions could be ameliorated only through collective action coordinated by a strong, welfare-oriented and interventionist state.

    The Liberal governments of Henry Campbell-Bannerman and H.H. Asquith, established the foundations of the welfare state in the UK before the First World War. The comprehensive welfare state built in the UK after the Second World War, although largely accomplished by the Labour Party, was significantly designed by two Liberals: the economist John Maynard Keynes, who laid the economic foundations, and William Beveridge, who designed the welfare system..

    The merger of the Liberal party and the SDP to form the Liberal Democrats provided the broad-church political platform for building on these earlier foundations. Neither class, nationality,family relationships or other such groupings are the primary determinant of individual freedom. Rather, as the new social liberals and social democrats have explained – it is only within a strong, welfare-oriented and interventionist state – that individuality and freedom can flourish.

    Coordinated collective action may take the form of an economic system relieved of the inefficiencies of excessive deadweight taxes on Labour and Capital and underpinned by Land Value Taxation in its place; or a welfare system that consigns means testing to the dustbin of history and places a Citizens income as its heart. It is this kind of combination of radical economic and public policy reform that can deliver the slogans of Stronger economy, fairer society, Opportunity for all.

  • simon robinson 6th Jun '15 - 11:35pm

    I agree with JoeBourke

  • When I went to my first SDP meeting I thought the people there were ordinary just like me. I’ve no intellectual reason for that it was just a happy feeling and the same thing happened after we merged with the Liberals and I attended the first conference. This is what feeling you belong is about and some people get that feeling from their extended family or their class or their neighbourhood and it is a potent force, that feeling of belonging. Isn’t Liberalism more about protecting the individual when s/he is in a group which is attempting to enforce their values on an individual who by the way they look or are behaving is seen as not belonging, rather than seeing an ideal society as one where there are only individuals? I see shades of Mrs T in that belief. However I do agree about needing to become the best you can as a basis of a Liberal Society.
    Matthew Huntbach , at that time the Labour Party did believe in class war, following a slightly softer version of Marxism than the Communists who were working towards the stage predicted by Marx when the working class would rise up against the upper classes in a revolution and take ownership of the means of production .
    In the year before Lib Dem News as a paper was abolished I did see a tendency towards featuring people who had a good lineage as Liberals. I think because the Liberal party has a long history this tendency has to be fought against quite strongly because it undermines our political philosophy and is a deterrent to those who do not have this history. I think it was a part of what went wrong for our Parliamentary party in Coalition, being so overwhelmed by the grandeur of taking positions of power which the Liberal party hadn’t held for x years that they were blind to Tory manipulation.

  • @Matthew Huntbach “although we have these people who call themselves “economic liberals” and by that they mean money-centred liberalism.”

    No “they” don’t.

    I’m happy to debate economic liberalism but not on the basis of lazy straw-men.

  • Simon Banks 7th Jun '15 - 8:56pm

    I’m certainly with Gordon rather than Hegel. But we are social animals. We find ourselves, we realise ourselves, in relation, or as Martin Buber put it, in the I – Thou (Ich – Du) encounter. This is something pure economic Liberals, with their atomistic market-driven view of humanity, fail to recognise, or fail to see as important.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jun '15 - 12:21pm


    No “they” don’t.

    I’m happy to debate economic liberalism but not on the basis of lazy straw-men.

    That was a simplistic summary. I’ve put the details enough times and in enough places elsewhere, and I’m tired of banging my head against the brick wall of people who can’t get the point, it’s just the same as trying to argue with Trots as I spend so much time doing in he 1980s when they were more dominant. You use your simplistic slogan-based politics at me, and I’ll give you simplistic slogans back.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jun '15 - 12:26pm


    I think it remains important to recognise that society has generally moved on from a focus on the negative freedoms espoused within the principles of classical liberalism .

    “Moved on”? That suggests it was there in the first place. I think the idea that 19th century liberalism was all about support for free market economics is an invention by people many years later to try and justify themselves by building a false heritage.

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jun '15 - 12:35pm


    An equal right to liberty could not be established merely by ensuring that individuals did not physically interfere with each other, or merely by having laws that were impartially formulated and applied.

    Er, no. You did not have to be a late 19th century liberal to see this. Liberal before that could perfectly well see that if the aristocrats owned the land, other people were not free because they were always dependent on the aristocrats for the basis of life. The way in which gross differences in what people own lead to gross differences in effective freedom was perfectly well understood by liberals throughout, it was not something invented by a small stream of liberals in the late 19th century.

    In those days the aristocrats had titles and so would be regarded as part of “the state”. Their modern equivalent is big business and its leaders. Drawing a line now between “the state” and “the rest” in which big business leaders are seen as the equivalent to poor peasants fighting against the powers of the legal state is ridiculous, and to claim that’s just doing what liberals did back in the 19th century is really ridiculous, an insult to common sense.

  • Julian Tisi 8th Jun '15 - 1:16pm

    @Mark Green
    I was not aware of the whole phrase; I agree it completely changes its meaning. Thanks – you learn something new every day!

  • Julian Tisi 8th Jun '15 - 1:39pm

    Gordon, I really like this article, thanks for writing it.

    To me, the most important line is at the start “each, precious, separate person is more important than any group of which she or he may be part”.

    I agree. And for me it tallies both with why I have chosen to be a liberal and also why I support (and indeed most Lib Dems support) particular liberal policies – for example,

    I’m pro-European because I look across at our friends in the rest of Europe and I see people who are mostly like us, who have the same basic needs and wants and I think it’s a wonderful thing that we’re working together. I’m pro-gay rights, because I believe all of us, whatever our inclinitations, deserves the respect as a human everyone else deserves.

    Likewise, it’s for the same reason that I’m against the politics of division, blame and grievance that pretty much all other parties play to some degree. Because why set one group of people against another when it isn’t that simple? I’m not saying we shouldn’t be anti-anyone, but we should temper our opposition with human respect. We shouldn’t demonise, because each precious individual tends not to be completely good or evil.

    I think we’ve struggled as a party with articulating what being liberal actually means. It’s easy to quote our preamble and just as easy to list policies. But doing either doesn’t really do justice to who we actually are. But I think this goes some way to doing just that.

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