Lib Dems vs Brexit: Sarah Ludford Internationalism and social justice is the liberal way

A cracker of a speech from Sarah Ludford looking back at Liberal figures all the way back to the repeal of the Corn Laws:

My Lords, normally I would try to reflect speeches from across the House in my winding-up, but this evening I will concentrate on the Liberal Democrats. This is partly because the loss of our late colleague Lord Ashdown is much on our minds. Obviously the primary grief is felt by Jane and the family, but we too, his political family, are nothing short of devastated. We badly miss his voice. Tweets of Paddy’s from two months ago remain online; I am afraid they are not complimentary about the governing party, saying,

“and so our beloved country is once again held to ransom by squabbles in a Tory Party who give rats in a sack a bad name”,


“the great unravelling begins. If you want a playbook for what next, look to the Tory civil wars of the Com Laws in 1846”.

The fact is that, unlike Liberal Democrats, whose hallmark is openness to the world, Tories have long been split between international and insular tendencies; that continues today. Some talk, admittedly, about “global Britain” but this seems more about resurrecting the Empire—or at least the Anglosphere—than a true spirit of international and multilateral co-operation. Modern Liberal Democrats can still subscribe to the words of the radical Liberal Richard Cobden, who cited among the benefits of repeal of the Corn Laws that,

“it would introduce through mutually advantageous international trade a new era of international fellowship and peace”.

That sentiment endures, both as the rationale for the European project after 1945 and in the DNA of the modern Liberal Democrat party; no wonder the two are so well-aligned. As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire said last week, a global Britain should be within, not against, a global Europe. Hence one of Paddy’s successors, my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, insisted in this debate last Wednesday:

“I am passionate about remaining in the European Union. I venture to observe that I am just as passionate about remaining as those who are passionate about leaving. I respect their passion and, in turn, I expect them to respect mine”.—

Another previous leader, Jo Grimond, in his book The Liberal Future 60 years ago, wrote:

“Liberals dissented from the original decision not to take part in the Iron and Steel Community. A Liberal foreign policy towards Europe would be based on the firm belief that Britain is a part—a leading part—of Europe”.

But it was not just Liberals in our Liberal Democrat heritage who carried the flame for Europe. My noble friends Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank and Lord Taverne came via the Labour Party and the Social Democrats. They reminded us in this debate how they were part of that brave contingent of 69 MPs who defied the Labour leadership and its three-line whip to vote to join the then European Community in 1971. My noble friends Lord Wrigglesworth and Lord McNally, also once SDP, stressed internationalist principles too. They were led by Roy Jenkins, later our Liberal Democrat Leader here in Lords. In the epilogue to his European Diary as President of the European Commission, Roy recounts the formation of the SDP, noting simply and unremarkably that,

“the SDP and its Alliance partner maintained a wholly committed European position”.

Roy Jenkins also harks back much farther in our political roots when, in his biography of William Gladstone, he quotes from Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign, when he was much concerned about atrocities in the Balkans against Bulgarians and Montenegrins. Gladstone, he records, spoke of a,

“nation called to undertake a great and responsible duty”,

in regard to “the peace of Europe” and the need for,

“right and justice to be done”.

These are uncanny echoes of Paddy Ashdown’s insistence that we had to take an interest in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and take on a responsibility to protect in particular the Kosovars and Bosnians being subjected to ethnic cleansing on our continent.

In her very generous comments about Paddy Ashdown in her debate on the western Balkans last Thursday, the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, said:

“During the Bosnian War in the 1990s, most politicians, including some from my own party, pontificated from a distance. Lord Ashdown went in and out of Sarajevo during the longest siege in modern history, across a risky mountain route and through a tunnel burrowed into the city”.—[Official Report, 10/1/18; col. GC 265.]

Hence, when my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire wrote a slim Penguin tome for the 1997 election called Why Vote Liberal Democrat?, in words he could repeat today, he wrote:

“Nostalgia for an imperial past, combined with hostility to closer cooperation with Britain’s neighbours, offers no credible way forward … Liberal Democrats are internationalist by instinct and by intellectual conviction … We believe that Britain can achieve more through sharing sovereignty and pooling power than by standing alone … Britain is a European country. Our international interests and responsibilities start with our concern to promote peace, stability and prosperity within Europe, in partnership with our European neighbours”.

Another consistent theme of the Liberal Democrats is social justice. My noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood, yet another former party leader, said in this debate:

“In the light of the last referendum result, the Government should also pledge themselves to remedying the real grievances in parts of the country that have felt neglected over many years”,—[Official Report, 9/1/18; col. 2249.]

while 25 years ago, in his book Beyond Westminster, Paddy observed how Britain—like now—was in,

“a profoundly depressed and bewildered state”,


“a sense of hope that has died and a leadership that has failed”,​


“a dangerous mood of fatalism—a loss of national self-confidence and even self-respect”.

That is why on these Benches we insist not only that there is a better option than any kind of Brexit, which is to remain, but that British politicians should then turn our energies to remedying through our domestic efforts the grievances, loss of hope and anger at being neglected that Brexit will make worse.

We are outraged not only by the shabby treatment this Tory Government are meting out to the 5 million EU and UK “free movers” but by the extraordinary way the Prime Minister has trumpeted as her number one achievement that free movement will end. She seems totally unable to appreciate that she is tearing away from Brits, young and old, one of the greatest benefits of the EU: the ability and freedom to move around Europe to work, study or retire. That is, unless they are rich enough to purchase residence or a passport in another EU country, as perhaps some in this House are.

Liberal Democrats make no bones about it. We hope that in a people’s vote—a final say—the British people will choose to remain, with all they know now three years on. This party, our predecessors, our leaders and our members are united in believing passionately, as we always have done, that nothing can be as good as EU membership. To hijack Martin Luther, we cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here we stand, we can do no other. Indeed, we can do no other than support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • For my own point of view the speech reinforced the reasons why I am Liberal Democrat, as simple as that!!!

  • Indeed Nigel, I remain dismayed that LDV still thinks that a speech that delights true thinking Liberals is a substitute for a mass of hard work making Liberal Democracy work for ordinary non-politicos. We are not here to make ourselves feel good by telling each other how great Liberal Democracy is or was. We are here to show people how good it is.

    LDV needs to refocus with articles on doing things and not just talking about it – again and again and again.

  • David Becket 16th Jan '19 - 2:15pm

    A wander down the past history of Liberalism and Liberal Democracy will do nothing to attract newcomers to Liberal Democracy. At best it will help to make us self satisfied, and there is too much self-satisfaction in this party to day.
    What we need is to start doing things. These things will be short-term quick fixes and longer term readjustment of the political process. I will suggest some short-term quick fixes. Two will address the elephants in the room.

    Replace Student loans with a graduate tax, grant everybody over a £10,000 grant for life long education and replace maintenance grants.

    Bedroom Tax, and the Labour version introduced in 2008, was meant to address small households living in large houses and large households in small houses. Make it fair by only applying if the household concerned has been offered suitable local accommodation. The initial effect will be a massive reduction in tax income, as the policy only works if there is an adequate supply of Social Housing.

    Increase building of Social Housing

    Rescind all the tax reductions for the better off introduced by the Tories since 2015, and spend the additional income on our depleted services.

    Bring in proposals for taxing wealth to the same level as income.

    Replace grants for taking advantage of energy saving devices, bring the Green Bank back into government control and encourage investment in energy saving industries.
    That is a start for our first 100 days

  • Yes David Evans, we need to do “a mass of hard work making Liberal Democracy work for ordinary non-politicos.” That’s what we’re doing here in East Cambridgeshire, both to oppose Brexit and to win Council elections in May. But it’s speeches like Sarah’s that remind us WHY we do all that, and inspire us to do more.
    I’m off now to wholesale our current Lib Dem tabloid leaflets to our delivers – including some of the 7 new ones I’ve recruited recently.

  • Social justice has nothing to do with liberalism. Social justice is poisonous Identity politics and collectivism and in time will become see. For the destructive ideology that it is.

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Jan '19 - 12:34pm

    Alex I think you are confusing us with the Labour Party. Liberals think of society as a community in which all members should be enabled to achieve their maximum potential. We recognise that wealth creators are needed to provide the funds for society to operate in that way but we also see a waste of talent in lives that are sunk in poverty with no opportunity to make a better life for themselves. Unfortunately, over the last forty years or so, the mechanisms to protect the poorest have suffered from neglect at best and ill will and meanness at worst.
    The other aspect of our politics is to respect each individual and protect them from abuse by the powerful or attack by the prejudiced. This is why we wish to offer succour to refugees and help to those whose right to live in this country is being threatened.

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