Liberal democracy needs to define and understand its enemies

A natural question arising from images of American police killing and attacking civilians is, “How on earth can this be happening? What has happened to liberal democracy?”

The answer is that, in too many places, the liberal democratic system is thought to have failed the people it claims to be serving. Authoritarian and populist governments, on the other hand, are being re-elected and seem to respond to more voters’ needs, both practically and emotionally.

Those authoritarian and populist governments are taking up—and taking aim at—issues close to liberal democratic hearts, including immigration, globalization, climate change and LGBT rights. But these governments come to office through the ballot box, often with large majorities such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Boris Johnson here.

Dismissing populist values outright will not do the business electorally. Instead, Liberal Democrats need to show that they understand and are engaging with voters concerns..

To achieve we have to raise issues that may appear deeply hostile to conventional Liberal Democrat thinking.

For example, what exactly does the Party constitution mean when it declares ‘no-one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity, set against the view that immigration causes poverty within the host country?

Or, is it ‘free fair and open’ to view Christians as anti-liberal for their religious beliefs on adultery and gay sex. If so, should those upholding this strain of Christianity be members of the Party?

Such issues must be tackled if we are forge a liberal counter-narrative that carries the confidence and clarity to change thinking within a populist-minded electorate.

There is a similar need to develop a coherent party view on authoritarianism.

Leading the authoritarian charge is China, a one-party state with more than a million of its citizens locked in camps simply because they are Muslim, yet anyone casting an eye around their household will see how stripped it might become without all the products linked to a Chinese supply chain.

Therefore, is China really our partner in a ‘golden era’ of friendship as our government once told us, or is it a repressive dictatorship that may soon be a hot war enemy?

It can’t be both, so could we have a Liberal Democrat decision of what China is as a nation and a society?

The Party has a new president and will soon have a new leader. It has superb community networking. What it lacks is a headline stripped from the current political environment of what it stands for.

So, what has happened to liberal democracy?

Liberal Democrats need to answer the question, acknowledge its legitimacy and work out how to win back lost ground.

* Humphrey Hawksley is a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham Local Party and on the Executive of the Liberal Democrat European Group.

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  • What has climate change got to do with liberal democracy?

  • Richard Underhill 8th Jun '20 - 4:59pm

    Humphrey Hawksley | Mon 8th June 2020 – 2:45 pm
    Republicans in the USA a liberal Democrat is on the left wing of their biggest rival party.
    In Japan, the Liberal Democrat Party has a record of corruption in government, which is not acceptable to the Liberal International, of which it is not a member. If it were to apply it would probably be refused, despite the name, which is the result of a merger of two parties decades ago.
    Those who claim that the USA is a democracy should count the votes. The USA is a federal state with a written constitution. In 2016 Hillary Rodham Clinton got more votes than Donald Trump. Previously George W Bush was elected by the US Supreme Court under their reading of the constitution, which started with their question “Why are you here?”

  • @ Peter. “What has climate change got to do with liberal democracy?”

    Asking that question on one of the most important political issues facing the world at the present time, is most self revealing, O Anonymous One. It’s like saying what has breathing got to do with staying alive.

  • Richard Underhill 8th Jun '20 - 5:50pm

    8th Jun ’20 – 5:14pm
    Ask a dinosaur about air quality, rather sulphurous.

  • We exhale the dreaded carbon dioxide. What do you propose to do about that?

  • The worldwide lockdown reduced human activity such as air travel and industry to an emissions level beyond the dreams of the most ambitious greens. The reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide shows not even the tiniest dent in the measurements.

    This is because man made emissions are negligible in comparison to every day natural variation. It shows the absurdity of spending trillions on carbon reduction initiatives.

  • Peter Martin 8th Jun '20 - 9:02pm

    @ Peter,

    There’s a list of 198 arguments on the skeptical science link as to why global warming either isn’t happening or, if it is, why it’s a good thing.

    It’s a pity we can’t think of another couple to bring the total up to 200? Can you think of any? How about that the gravitational pull of the sun is gradually drawing us closer? We’re just one short now!

  • Skeptical science is a propaganda site. Google any famous climate scientist who has doubts about climate change and one of the first sites to appear will be Skeptical Science with a vicious smear campaign against that scientist. That disgraceful site has no place in any civilised discussion.

    Global warming is happening but it is certainly not a cause for shutting down the economy. It is massively exaggerated by those who stand to gain from it and most politicians haven’t got a clue about the subject. The science is not settled. There are over a hundred different climate models and just as many predictions. The models are flawed and in the last year or so the reasons have become clear,

    Just look at the different model outputs on an incredibly simple system like Covid epidemiology then consider the complexity of our climate system when a large amount of the knowledge simply does not exist. The missing know-how is fudged in the models (known as parameterization). In effect these are guesses and it now appears many were completely wrong.

  • Peter Martin 8th Jun '20 - 10:42pm

    @ Peter,

    So you’re saying that we should only rely on more reputable organisations? Like NASA?

  • David Raw, you address me as Anonymous one. Let me explain who I am in relation to climate change.

    I have been a scientist all of my working life, from the most trivial of laboratory jobs to the international board room. I’ve managed scores of PhD and graduate scientists on a variety of technologies across a score of countries. About fifteen years ago I heard climate scientists make preposterous claims that were clearly wrong. For example, carbon dioxide controlled our climate. One doesn’t have to be a scientist to realise that such a claim is nonsense. The Roman Warm Period, Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age are all well known events in our climate history that have nothing to do with carbon dioxide.

    The claims of unprecedented warming rang alarm bells too. I remembered reading that Vikings farmed Greenland in the distant past. Their crops and farm implements were preserved in the ice. Our planet must have been much warmer then than it is today, and that was many hundred of years before mankind affected carbon dioxide levels.

    I found it shocking to hear scientists lying frequently like this on public media and wondered what was going on. I had no interest in climate science but I despise lies. I wanted to know if they were corrupt or incompetent. I was working more than eighty hours a week in several different countries at the time but eventually I retired. I decided to investigate global warming. I knew all about greenhouse gases because in my early career as a chemistry graduate I specialised in Infra Red spectrophotometry, but it took about three years to become familiar with climate science and its jargon. I have now been following the science on a daily basis for a total of about eleven years.

  • @Peter Martin, I have no argument with most of NASA but I do not accept anything from NASA GISS, the Goddard Institute of Space Sciences office in NYC that produces one of the global temperature datasets.

    Peter, the problems are more subtle than you imagine. Let me give you an example.

    Clouds block the heating from the sun and lead to cooling. If you have ever been lying on a UK beach when a cloud obscures the sun you will agree with that. Clouds also block cooling from the land when it emits IR radiation directly to space. This is part of the Greenhouse Effect. The IPCC thinks that this latter effect causes a positive feedback, so more clouds= more warming = more evaporation = more warming.

    A recent paper shows that the umbrella effect is dominant and clouds give a negative feedback after all. This is not surprising to me. The incoming radiation is visible light, much higher energy than the IR outgoing radiation so blocking the high energy radiation wins.

    So the general publicity blurb about climate science is not wrong, it is the assumptions in the models that are wrong.

  • Daniel Walker 9th Jun '20 - 7:42am

    @Peter “A recent paper shows that the umbrella effect is dominant and clouds give a negative feedback after all.

    Is that one of the “peer reviewed papers that are not reproducible and not worth the paper on which they are printed” or does that only apply to papers you disagree with?

    More seriously, please don’t use the phrase “recent paper” without providing a reference – how are we to assess it, or consider its methodology without being able to read it?

  • Humphrey Hawksley 9th Jun '20 - 8:23am

    This comment thread is particularly interesting because my original post is not about climate specifically, but about why liberal democracy has lost ground to populism and authoritarianism. Climate was listed as an issue that is important to us, but on which we need to treat questions and opposition in a way that brings people alongside. Peter is discussing rival science models and the much-debated issue of natural warming against man-made warming. Liberal Democrats are campaigning to cut back man-made warming, end reliance on fossil fuels and clean up the air with less pollution. Peter supports the overall conclusions of climate science. Therefore, it would be good to have him on our side. I would also be interested to know if Richard Underhill believes that the Liberal Democrats in the UK are representive of ‘liberal democracy’ itself, and, if not, what we do represent?

  • Peter Martin 9th Jun '20 - 9:30am

    @ Peter,

    Why only “Peter”? Don’t you have another name? It’s all very well to say “I have been a scientist all of my working life, from… to the international board room.”

    That could be true or you could be a total BS artist! Who knows?

    You’ve used the past tense would imply that you are retired and, therefore, free from worries about possible detrimental effects on your career. So if you are basing your arguments on personal credentials let’s at least have your full name.

  • Denis Loretto 9th Jun '20 - 10:34am

    Perhaps as Humphrey Hawksley says we should get back to the thrust of his article.
    Would it be unfair to summarise it as “If you can’t beat ’em join ’em”? While we should keep fully aware of the various streams of public opinion and show understanding of them I view it as our job to persuade as many as possible that Liberal Democracy is the best way forward for the people of our country and the world at large. The precise definition of Liberal Democracy and the policies devised to advance it can be debated but for me the words in the preamble to the party constitution make a fair stab at what we are about.

  • Paul Barker 9th Jun '20 - 11:23am

    The way the comment thread has been hijacked & effectively destroyed by a single (insert word of choice) is a fine example of our gutlessness in the face of our enemies. I have no doubt that “Peter” is a member, anyone can join for very little money. We misinterpret Liberalism to mean that we have to let our enemies disrupt our discussions. Can I suggest that everyone except the writer of the article is restricted to 3 comments ?

  • Toby Keynes 9th Jun '20 - 11:45am

    @Humphrey: Or, is it ‘free fair and open’ to view Christians as anti-liberal for their religious beliefs on adultery and gay sex. If so, should those upholding this strain of Christianity be members of the Party?

    Interesting point.

    Yes, it’s perfectly free, open and fair for some of us to take the view that such views are highly illiberal, and if someone believes wholeheartedly that same-sex relationships, and relationship outside marriage, should be penalised or even criminalised, then they’re unlikely to feel particularly happy or welcome as members of the party. I’d also like to think that anyone with such views would have great difficulty persuading local members to adopt them as election candidates (at any level).

    But how about someone who believes that all sexual relationships outside marriage are sinful, but that it is not for the state to enforce virtue, that we should “judge not, lest we be judged” and that therefore the state should treat same-sex relationships as fully equal to opposite-sex relationships, with the same rights and freedoms?

    That seems to me to be a thoroughly liberal take on a thoroughly illiberal religious viewpoint.

    In either case, do we cast such people out of the party?
    Do we refuse to engage with electors outside the party who hold such beliefs?
    Or do we seek to engage with them, to celebrate whatever liberal values they may hold and to hope that we may dissuade them from their illiberal values?

    As a humanist and, as it happens, a gay man, I’d like to think that we seek out the best in people, and that we try to succeed through persuasion rather than denunciation or sanction. I also believe that this is a truly liberal approach.

    And, in the long term, that it’s a far more effective way of changing peoples’ minds and converting them to our causes.

  • @Humphrey

    I think it is reasonable to argue that fear, both the exploitation and creation of, is a large part of the success” of populist ideas. In the case of immigration and globalisation, I think I can name and detail the fears people have around those.
    But, truthfully, I for one, am not entirely confident that I ‘know’ what it is about LGBT rights and working against man-made climate change that angers many populist supporters (not leaders) so much. If this difficulty is replicated by a significant number of others who believe in liberal democracy, therein lies a problem.

    It is hard to challenge ideas well and promote detailed alternatives, if there is even a vague misunderstanding of what you are discussing. It’s also much easier for someone to give in to their fears, than work trough them. At least initially. Believers in liberal democracy need to address those fears directly and show how their alternative ideas are too good to resist.

  • Peter Hirst 9th Jun '20 - 1:59pm

    After listening to Wendy Chamberlain’s speech in last night’s adjournment debate on electoral reform, the enemy seems to be within this country. It was an excellent example of the government in response to her excellent speech, not responding to her questions but to their own agenda that is more a distraction from the issues than anything else. It shows what we’re up against in reforming our parliament and democracy to bring it into line with modern ones.

  • Humphrey Hawksley 9th Jun '20 - 4:48pm

    Thank you, Denis Loretto. I would prefer the line ‘Don’t beat ‘em, persuade them. The strengthening view within central and eastern Europe is from an electorate fed up of being told they were beaten in the Cold War and dictated to on how to think and what is moral and what is not. A similar mindset prevails in Brexit areas of Britain fed up with being lectured to by a Westminster elite. Therefore, it is more as Toby Keynes says, a matter of finding a way to change people’s minds. I used the Christian anti-gay example because it is one that tripped us up in the 2017 election under Tim Farron’s leadership, begging the question as to why on earth had we not drilled down on this issue to understand it better and explain it convincingly to the electorate. And have we done so now? The same drilling down is needed on liberal democracy itself. Why is it good? What does it deliver? How will it improve lives? And, probably most important, as Peter Hirst suggests, how will get us elected to government.

  • Mark, if you read my comment you will learn that my specialist field is chemistry. As a young graduate I specialised in IR spectroscopy which is completely relevant to the greenhouse effect and radiative ohysics in general.

    Carbon dioxide does retain warming as claimed, which is why most people think the science is settled. The IPCC thinks that water vapour amplifies the warming by a factor of at least three, known as a positive feedback and it is this feedback that makes the IPCC position very controversial and the warming potentially catastrophic.

    However, there is zero evidence to support the IPCC claim and much observational evidence that when it gets hot, clouds form, followed by thunder storms and rain, resulting in cooling. This is Mother Nature’s thermostat, and if you are familiar with the tropics you will have experienced this process almost every day. Such a process is a negative feedback and renders global warming fairly harmless.

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Jun '20 - 7:50pm

    Humphrey Hawksley

    I used the Christian anti-gay example because it is one that tripped us up in the 2017 election under Tim Farron’s leadership.

    Tim Farron was asked questions again and again about homosexuality, until one was found where he answered in a way that could be used to condemn him. Mostly this was about a personal view on what was right and wrong rather than a legal ban on anything, and was keeping this as a personal view, not doing anything to move the Liberal Democrats as a party in that direction. The Liberal Democrats were damaged because the way he kept being asked questions about this meant what he was about got dominated by it, and he was hardly able to get any other messages out about what the Liberal Democrats were about.

    What about Muslims? Muslims tend to be more extreme in anti-homosexuality than Christians, it is more clearly condemned in core Muslim material, and several Muslims countries have the death penalty for homosexual behaviour. So would it be considered acceptable to do to Muslim politicians what was done to Tim Farron? Dominate public conversation with them about their position on homosexuality, so that their main political opinions hardly get covered?

  • From the article: “So, what has happened to liberal democracy?”

    A good question with many possible answers.

    One is that the national party (as opposed to the many effective council groups) has developed a bad habit of, so to speak, scratching its itches. That is, it responds to anything that members find a bit irritating. Whether it’s important in absolute or strategic terms doesn’t really come into it – itches get scratched.

    The world is full of itchy things so that keeps everyone fully occupied – but the scratching isn’t directed in any useful way to it rarely helps. Meanwhile, really bad and important things pass the party by because those promoting them smother them in PR oil that avoids itchiness, so they don’t get noticed.

    The party needs to stop responding so much to the news cycle and start identifying the tangible issues that matter to voters or will matter in the near future – some of which the press barons really don’t want us to think about. Getting the question right is usually more difficult than answering it once it’s been asked but I will sugegst two:

    Firstly, how to improve the machinery of government. Coronavirus has shown the UK government to be profoundly incompetent. Some of that is down to Boris and his second-rate crew but much of it predates him and much of it isn’t specific to coronavirus. There are some obvious improvements that could be made.

    Secondly, the economy. For years we have been told it’s strong (apart from local and temporary difficulties). If, as seems probable, we crash out of the Single Market and Customs Union at the end of the year the fundamental weakness of the UK economy will be exposed and people are going to find themselves a lot poorer and very disillusioned. It would be good to have a plan.

  • Katharine Pindar 10th Jun '20 - 12:40am

    This is a very interesting, multi-faceted debate you have started, Humphrey, thank you. I think Liberal Democracy will survive here, fortunately for us – not so sure about in America, where the power of the President has proved unhealthily large. But in Britain, tossed about as politicians are by popular trends, at one time anti-sematism being the chief ogre, now racism, and sometimes sadly a good leader, Tim Farron, falling foul of a media witch-hunt, in the end in Britain common sense will restore the fairness of democracy. Boris Johnson, he who would like to suppress Parliament and curtail the judges, has effectively been found out and found wanting. Populist leaders, elitists who neither understand nor care about the people they claim to represent, are likely to be eventually found out. The pity is that it has taken so long here, landing us with this gargoyle of a premier, and the lasting harm of leaving the EU. We are no beacon for any other country now, but must try and restore the light ourselves.

  • Toby Keynes 10th Jun '20 - 9:48am

    @Matthew Huntbach: “What about Muslims? Muslims tend to be more extreme in anti-homosexuality than Christians, it is more clearly condemned in core Muslim material, and several Muslims countries have the death penalty for homosexual behaviour. So would it be considered acceptable to do to Muslim politicians what was done to Tim Farron? Dominate public conversation with them about their position on homosexuality, so that their main political opinions hardly get covered?”

    Well, yes, of course it has to be entirely acceptable for anyone to be focus upon those aspects of a politician’s policies, opinions and beliefs that are of concern to the electorate (or any part of it). Successful politicians generally prefer to focus on whatever is most likely to win them votes, and to keep their least vote-winning side well out of sight.

    It’s the job of journalists to dig, and keep digging, their freedom to do so is fundamental to a healthy democracy, and electors are right to be concerned about whatever a politician may be seeking to hide.

    I would like to hope that a politician who holds deeply intollerant and prejudiced views about women, ethnic minorities or LGBT+ groups – or indeed any other minority groups – would be unelectable in this country these days.

    The fact that a particular politician may hold such views because of their religion or belief does not change the nature of the threat that they may present to some groups, or the hurt that their election would cause.

    When I am asked by a Christian or Muslim politician for my support (or my vote), I’m not concerned with whom they worship, or whether they derive their beliefs from the Bible, the Koran, or any other religious text.

    But I am very much concerned about whether they will actively and wholeheartedly support equal rights for LGBT+ people, women, ethnic minorities and other religion and belief groups, and their views on abortion rights, assisted dying, blasphemy law and any number of other matters.

    And of course you cannot assume, from someone’s religion, that you know their views on these matters.

  • James Fowler 10th Jun '20 - 11:38am

    ‘So what has happened to liberal democracy?’ Well, here’s my two pennyworth regarding the UK.

    In my view, virtually every electoral choice in the UK that’s been made since 2005 has been a cry to stop the world and get off. Invariably nationalism and tradition will do better in such circumstances. People experiment with liberalism when they feel safe. Liberalism’s mistake was to push dynamism and tolerance too hard too long and in doing so shatter and denigrate what was familiar and secure. Now people have gone running back to them. To get return, firstly liberalism will have to prove that it can tolerate at least some traditional usages and identities (however repugnant!). Secondly, that it is willing where necessary to put the economic interests (expressed in terms of job security not inequality) of its own citizens first.

    These requirements have arisen because progressive politics made two major mistakes before and after the 2008 crash.
    (1) Before the crash change was presented as a constant necessity driven by outside forces – see any of Tony Blair’s speeches, especially after 2001. Briefly in 1997 this was exciting and dynamic. Then it became progressive politics endlessly telling people that they were wrong and didn’t measure up in the global race. Note that change as something that might arise internally and voluntarily from within Britain itself was never discussed. Hence the origin of ‘take back control’.
    (2) After the crash progressives thought that people cared about economic inequality. Actually, economic insecurity scared them far more. Voters want a government that is openly willing to put their interests first, however outrageous that might appear to internationalists. Regrettably, by refusing to even try and control them, internationalism has become associated with unaccountable elites.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Jun '20 - 7:33pm

    @ Toby Keynes

    Ok, so what about vegetarians? They believe that killing animals is an evil thing to do. So should their condemnation of the majority of people who do eat meat mean that they should be considered unelectable?

  • Humphrey Hawksley 10th Jun '20 - 8:58pm

    Great insight and much appreciated. Matthew Huntbach asks a poignant question in a way that could be applied to a myriad of causes and helps force us to define liberal democracy in the current political environment. He asked about vegetarians. I asked about Christian evangelism. Toby Keynes asks with equal validity about Islam. How does liberal democracy embrace a spectrum of religious belief? James Fowler pretty much sums up how liberal democracy became injected with hubris, moved to fast, then looked round and found a critical mass of people were no longer following. I agree with Katherine Pindar that liberal democracy will survive, but at what cost and how many lives will be trampled if we do not get a grip to curb rising extremist tendencies. Our failure to do so over Brexit should be ringing the loudest of alarm bells. Having supported the Liberal Democrats for many years and been active for about five, I have yet to see a top line from our leadership on how to face up to this challenge. It needs in the first instance, a sharp, tight unit identifying populist issues and recommending how to deal with them in a way that is best for liberal democracy.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Jun '20 - 2:04pm

    It wasn’t Tim Fowler himself that went on about gay rights, or proposed any anti-gay legislation, or said or did anything that suggested that where he might try to impose some personal view about this on the party. However, he was asked questions again and again about gay issues, until one was found where in defending the traditional position of Christianity he could be considered anti-gay, although he did not say anything that suggested he would be actively anti-gay. After that, everything else he was about was ignored, and he was talked about as if his main political issue was being anti-gay and that meant the whole party would be the same.

    Well, if anyone who is a practicing Christian would be treated like this, it would be better not to have one as a leader. So the result of how he was treated does indeed mean serious discrimination against Christians. Similar with Muslims if they were treated in the same way, but I suspect that if a Muslim politician was treated publicly as Tim Fowler was treated, whoever did it would be condemned as racist.

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