“Liberal” means “radical” now. Embrace it.

I am a Millennial and I am a Liberal. The former just happened to me, like my skin colour, place of birth and shoe size; I take no pride in it, nor do I feel shame. The latter fact is something I chose for myself, and I am immensely proud of it. I reject hatred and violence as political tools. Why, then, am I writing anonymously?

I teach in a university. In the past few years I have seen more and more of my colleagues deliver lectures in which “liberalism” (not neoliberalism) is used as shorthand for exploitation and racism. Fewer of my students question this each year. Identity politics, even of the crudest and most hate-fuelled sort, has become default on campus.

I see how badly this plays in the world beyond the academy; unlike most of my colleagues I live in an area bearing the brunt of the recession. But I am on contracts of no more than a few months’ duration. I am entirely reliant upon my colleagues’ goodwill to keep a roof over my family’s head. I do worry how it might affect me if it was widely known I have written this. Besides, I feel very alone.

So I’ve been heartened by the self-examination happening on LDV in the last few months. I wanted to add my thoughts. They mean to challenge, however.

Article 50 is a fight for our democracy. But Article 50 means virtually squat to someone who is living with the social, financial and health fall-out of chronic insecurity. It only means something to me because it’s my day job. But like many of my generation I lie awake wondering where next month’s rent is coming from, and the LibDems are not so great at speaking to that.

We offer hybridity, compromise and change where the regressives on the Right and the Left promise the security all humans need. From where I stand we are losing this fight at the moment, not winning it. Do not assume that the young people – younger than myself – who voted “Remain” will automatically fall in behind liberal values. Do not count on their vote.

Work for it instead.

Here’s how we might do that work.

Acknowledge the very real fears driving totalitarianism on the Left and Right. I have no direct experience of racism. I have no personal insight into destitution. But I do come from a family who suffered long decades of bigotry, shaping every aspect of their lives. Fear is real and it multiplies. The persecution is only the start: the sense of abandonment by wider society rots our trust in our fellow citizens. It makes it easy to attack the very institutions which keep us safe – and make no mistake, autocrats on Right and Left know this is the shortcut to power. Once civility is gone, hell breaks loose.

Make our case strongly, clearly and without apology. Liberals stand against tyranny. It’s what we’re for. Few people in the street care what tyranny is but everyone has met a bully. Bullies come in many forms, and it’s now our urgent job to point them out. The slumlord who squeezes rents. The boss who breaks employment law. The neighbourhood man’s man, terrorising the community he claims to protect. The entitled oligarch, playing with Parliament and the press like a toy. And, yes: call fascists fascists when we find them.

We must act to fix that civility. ”Nice” can be radical when the world is full of fear, suspicion and hate. We need to get comfortable with our unsought radicalism. We need to create radical economic and social policies, prove we can love and respect one another without obliterating diversity. It’s not just about inequality, it’s also insecurity. A Universal Basic Income? Maybe. It needs to be that bold, certainly. We face an opportunity as profound as Beveridge did. But please, this time, let’s skip the War.

Finally: speak up for liberty, solidarity and equality so I can. I can’t do it alone.

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32 Comments

  • Excellent. A warning that should be heeded. We need a creed beyond being pro-European. It is about being a Contented Society. And contentment needs fairness for all and policies that actively pursue it.

  • Good article.
    Certainly, all the talk about Article 50, and anything else about Brexit, is seen by the vocal as Remainers wanting to sabotage the referendum result. Reinforced by the Daily Mail’s ghastly attacks on the judiciary.
    Anyone who points out problems ahead is dismissed in the same way. ‘Project Fear’ is ‘all lies’ and as long as we leave the EU, nothing else matters for some. Yet.
    I think instead of saying: “Brexit will make your life worse,” maybe: “You face a lot of problems and Brexit won’t make them any better” is a better way to put the same thing.
    Engage, question, and explain, rather than lecture.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Nov '16 - 11:03am

    http://whatis.techtarget.com/definition/millennials-millennial-generation
    Incidentally there are two generations of baby boomers.
    The first was caused by peace and increased confidence in 1945.
    The second was caused by that generation reaching adulthood.

  • David Evershed 16th Nov '16 - 11:07am

    Doctor North

    A good article but ….

    You are an intelligent person. Less of this personal negativism and victimhood. Re-invent yourself. Move into the private sector and exploit your competencies. You will have to work harder and have less holiday but you will earn more money and be free of your colleagues illiberism.

  • Simon McGrath 16th Nov '16 - 11:37am

    “In the past few years I have seen more and more of my colleagues deliver lectures in which “liberalism” (not neoliberalism) is used as shorthand for exploitation and racism”
    These lecturers are simply not capable of doing their jobs.

  • “In the past few years I have seen more and more of my colleagues deliver lectures in which “liberalism” (not neoliberalism) is used as shorthand for exploitation and racism.”

    I would echo what Simon McGrath said. These people should not even be teaching, even at secondary school level, let alone at university, if they are unable to grasp the most basic concepts of the history of political thought.

  • Maybe we should start the process of “radical niceness” by admitting that supporters of continued membership of the EU do not have a monopoly on liberal values. Wanting to control access to your labour market and not wanting to be part of a political project that overtly seeks to end the existence of the nation state (and with it national self-determination) does not make you in any way illiberal.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Nov '16 - 1:17pm

    NICE was not nice, but although the driver of a large lorry deliberately killed many people there is, according to the New European, no scars on buildings in the area.
    It would therefore be nice to have a commemoration in NICE.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Nov '16 - 1:45pm

    Doctor North, what a terrific , both utterly encouraging and very demoralising article !

    Positive , you get to the essence of who we are and should be and your enthusiasm is obvious .

    Negative , you are correct but incorrect on our stances re: economy , security , a good society , we have the policies and views, we are not emphasising them though .

    As for the colleagues of yours professionally, I second or third our colleagues , politically above . Those lecturers should not be lecturing anyone ! I must confess , as the years have shown me , moving gradually many years ago from Labour to the Liberal Democrats , it is on the left where the worst of extremism , or intolerance is in our democratic country , of the UK. Other countries , like France , have it worse on the right , the US have both !

    We need you to be able to come out from the shadows amongst friends !

  • “I am entirely reliant upon my colleagues’ goodwill to keep a roof over my family’s head. I do worry how it might affect me if it was widely known I have written this. ”

    Doctor North’s anxiety, reveals something fairly new, that’s been observed for a while now. It’s self evident that society is stratifying out, not just between the haves and have-nots, but a more subtle class war, between the liberal middle class, who are comfortable and at ease with their lot,.. and a ‘left behind’, increasingly angry at their much reduced access to life’s resources.

    But there seems to be a new class emerging, under a broader label, coined elsewhere as The Precariat. From the word precarious, this new class, are now increasingly from the middle classes, who are not as secure in their ‘middle-class~ness’, as the older middle classes once were.. just a few decades ago.

    Are we witnessing an increase of anxiety in those who were once in ‘secure’ middle class employment, but who simply didn’t realise the tenuous nature of their employ,.. simply not realising just how precarious they were,…or are.?

    I wonder how many Doctor North’s there are out there in the new Precariat class, anxious, and just one middle-class-pink-slip away, from becoming citizens of ‘planet ~left behind’,.. a world so many,.. were so reluctant to even recognise existed?

    Doctor North suggests : “Do not assume that the young people – younger than myself – who voted “Remain” will automatically fall in behind liberal values. Do not count on their vote.”

    Wise words indeed. You cannot assume young liberals will stay liberal, once they realise they are Precariats.

  • Conor McGovern 16th Nov '16 - 2:28pm

    “Millennial”- GAAHHH!!!
    And I am one.

  • Joseph Bourke 16th Nov '16 - 2:42pm

    A very good article, Dr. North. I also teach part-time at our local University on semester length contracts. The time commitment required to deliver courses to 100+ students makes the effective hourly rates minimal and certainly inadequate for non-tenured staff to keep a roof over a family’s head. I am fortunate enough not to be reliant on teaching to earn a living, but I recognise the position of younger colleagues on these hourly-paid contracts, who share your worries of wondering where next month’s rent is coming from.

    Economic security is fundamental to individual liberty and equality of opportunity. As liberals we have a duty to create the radical economic and social policies that address these issues head on and agitate for their implementation.

    The rapid marketisation of education is a worrying trend. Our universities, in particular, should be a well-spring of radical new ideas for improvements in living standards and research that is focused on the well-being of society generally.

  • Barry Snelson 16th Nov '16 - 3:11pm

    A very thought provoking piece. My thoughts, too, are that, in the time to come, it’s the “professionals in the middle” who will do all the suffering and not those previously known as “working class”.
    And the time to come, will come. We are living at a consistent 7% above our means and borrowing both personally and nationally to make ends meet. It can’t end well.
    Current policies such as “invest in skills and infrastructure” are as desperate as “sacrifice a virgin to appease the angry Gods”.

  • Oh for the good old days and Max Weber.

  • Graham Evans 16th Nov '16 - 4:05pm

    @Barry Snelson Speaking as an old fashioned puritan I note the following:
    1. Most of the working classes have always experienced a degree of insecurity. This is why they turned to trade unions to help redress the balance between labour and capital, but the middle classes, except perhaps in the public sector, cling to the belief that with hard work going it alone will get them through.
    2. Rather like Norman Lamont, even people in well paid jobs feel they are entitled to a life style comparable to those around them who are earning far more. They spend up to their earnings, and sometimes beyond, and make little or no provision for a downturn in income.
    3, Social medium project an image that everyone is having a much better time than ourselves, whether it be eating out (or indeed eating in), holidaying in exotic places, etc. etc.
    The middle classes must change their approach from “earn and spend” to “earn and save” otherwise insecurity will remain a constant feature of their lives, no matter what governments may say or do. Of course they mustn’t do this too quickly otherwise we’ll all get caught in the Paradox of Thrift 🙂

  • Richard Warren 16th Nov '16 - 5:06pm

    Very good piece. I hope writing it and reading the comments following it have helped lift the burden for you a little.

    In my opinion, the way we could sustain civility, re-integrate the “left-behind” and help ease the worries of the “Precariat”, (and as a self-employed person I am one of those), is by rejecting Nationalisation and Privatisation in favour of Mutualisation. If more of us lived in co-operative owned homes, worked in co-operative owned businesses, shopped at co-operative owned shops and boarded co-operative owned railways, then more of us would feel more secure and involved, because co-operatives help create a sense of community.

  • Thanks for speaking out.

    I sometimes wonder if we are a bit apologetic, and not bold enough about what we believe because we are worried that someone will turn around and say “but you propped up the Tories to …”, or digs about phone-boxes. We need to find a way to acknowledge their concerns, if genuine, without letting it derail us.

    My friend (with a degree in English) likes to tell me that the use of a word is what defines its meaning, not the other way around. However, it is frustrating to see the way language is often wilfully twisted for propaganda purposes, or abused to the point where the original meaning is as good as lost, and it is no longer useful for anything other than a lazy, unthinking short-hand form of abuse.

    Some terms, like neo-liberal are understood by few, and there’s little to be lost from avoiding its use. Some other terms, such as ‘progressive’ can mean different things to different people, so is easy for almost everyone to claim that one, so it is important to back that up with examples of what you actually mean!

    The LibDems were always the front-runners when it came to understanding that the environment was more than nice bits of countryside, and I think it’s something we should shout about more loudly. In particular, we’ve generally tried to take an evidence-based approach to what we do, so we advocate meaningful policies, and are careful not to pander to every poorly researched petition that comes along.

  • Fiona – I salute you
    I’m going to contribute more fully later, but for now, I could not agree with the following more:
    “Some terms, like neo-liberal are understood by few, and there’s little to be lost from avoiding its use. Some other terms, such as ‘progressive’ can mean different things to different people, so is easy for almost everyone to claim that one, so it is important to back that up with examples of what you actually mean!”

    Will somebody please explain to me, a relatively intelligent person – Im like to think – what the hell do these terms mean – because if I don’t know, how am I supposed to simplify and communicate effectively to the electorate!
    Many Thanks Mike

  • Yes. Oh, yes. Radical economic policies and in particular a Universal Basic Income. Great to know there are at least two of us in the party who think this is an almost unavoidable response to the growth of low paid service sector work. The SNP have already adopted this policy, I will wager that Labour will before 2020.

  • Katharine Pindar 16th Nov '16 - 6:58pm

    Take heart, Dr North, though the description of your position and loneliness made me feel sad. Some of us, like myself a lifelong Liberal, have always considered the true Liberals of our Party to be radical, and now that they are Liberal Democrats they are no less so. Consider our Leader, speaking out so boldly about the need for us to stay in Europe, and – fully backed by the Party – continuing to do so despite the howls of the right-wing media and the siren-song of ‘the will of the people’. Consider that our eight MPs have the backing of more than a hundred peers. Consider that the totalitarians of the Left and the Right thankfully cancel each other out, and that the most extreme don’t thrive in Britain. Consider that even our Tory Prime Minister asserts concern for the people who are just managing, and can be held to account on that.
    But colleagues are right, above, in backing you up by talking of the Precariat and of the need for the middle classes to adjust to this new insecurity in employment. You are certainly far from alone there, and those of us who were fortunate enough to have free education and secure jobs must strive now to promote the economic and social reforms and development which will support your generation. Not least, by remaining in and contributing to an EU which also reforms and develops to meet their needs.

  • Great article. Thank you for writing it. It’s a huge and open challenge to write a liberal agenda that will address the insecurity and alienation so many feel today. I think all the following are important:

    – Economics – I don’t think there’s a single answer but there should be vigorous attempts to tax unearned income and environmental harm instead of work and consumption + active fiscal policy to sustain demand (the biggest help for insecure workers). UBI is an interesting idea but advocates need to show the numbers add up.
    – Pensions, savings and housing – A BIG policy on house building: not meaningless targets, but a fundamental change in how the planning system works. It’s hard to magic up money for pensions but the vile fees of the finance industry are a good place to start.
    – Reclaim patriotism – I hate the way nationalists wrap themselves in the flag and liberals let them. Patriotism is love of country, wanting what is best for it.
    – Immigration – I don’t know how to write a liberal policy that controls immigration but the public’s concerns have to be addressed somehow.
    – Political reform – The institutions of British democracy have atrophied to an alarming degree. This adds to the appeal of a ‘strong’ prime minister.

  • Article in Guardian today around issue of casualization of employment of university lecturers https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/nov/16/part-time-lecturers-on-precarious-work-i-dont-make-enough-for-rent

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Nov '16 - 2:01pm

    This is a wonderful post Doctor North. I noticed Theresa May in her speech at the Lord Mayor’s banquet linked liberalism with globalisation to explain why some people are left behind in our society rather than neo-liberalism so you have put that in context for me. I am amazed that many people don’t realise how insecure employment has become. Will Hutton wrote a book about this 20 years ago but I’m afraid my brain, which is affected by M.E., can’t recall the title. One of my sons-in-law works in IT and only has six months contracts. Even though he earns a lot of money and has saved a great deal he and my daughter are still affected by the insecurity. They live in Australia and he works from home for an American company, so this is a global phenomenon. The other problem is that the safety nets which were in place in the sixties and seventies have been slowly but surely eroded by governments of all colours and now seems to be the time when people are turning to those whom they should most fear to rescue them from this insecurity.
    I think we Lib Dems speak up for the little guy, the ones with no power, and there are many people who feel powerless and have been taught to blame migrants for all their woes. I like the idea that we stand up against bullies, which a good few of the successful globalisers have become.
    The problem is that they are supported by an economic system which has failed ordinary people and without an alternative to that system we aren’t going to succeed in bringing about a Lib Dem society. So if you as an academic know some like minded economists we need another Keynes to stop us treating the world’s economics as if we were running a household budget. If you know of anyone please let us know before we descend into chaos.

  • Simon Banks 17th Nov '16 - 3:45pm

    Good stuff. I’m irritated when academics and others use political descriptions – whether liberal, socialist, conservative, nationalist or whatever – in ways that demonstrably do not correspond either to what people who own that label think and do, or to what their predecessors did and thought. Political theory of this sort becomes a mere word game, divorced from reality and unscientific. We need to redeem Liberal rather as non-racist England football supporters have redeemed the Cross of St George.

    One possible reservation. Being nice is important, but for us must not mean we can’t be demanding and confrontational when fighting injustice and oppression.

  • As my granny used to say, “a little bit of what you fancy does you good”, with the implication that too much is not good. The same goes for most political ideologies.

    Most British capitalist loving Conservatives (capital C) overlook their fear of socialism when it comes to the NHS or the fire service.

    Your average British socialist Labour party supporter and anti-capitalist campaigner only really objects to the bad behaviour of the City, and would rather have a choice of local independent coffee shops than have their morning cuppa nationalised.

    Us liberal Liberal Democrats have always been firm that it’s not right that the government might punish people because they fall in love with someone of the same sex, but most of us still believe the government is right to insist on an age of consent.

    My point being that while we should be proud of the good things that come with being a Liberal, it’s not as simple as assuming that liberal is always good, and more liberal is always better. Being liberal about the wrong things will cause problems, and while we need to accept this, we must fight against any presumption that it is automatically bad.

    Freeing business from red tape sounds wonderfully liberal, unless that red tape was protecting the environment or workers’ rights. We want businesses to flourish, but is their right to emit whatever they like more important than the rights of locals to have clean air and water?

    Should businesses have the freedom to employ whoever they like, on whatever terms they manage? Or do we consider basic employment rights, so you can plan your life, have the security to be able to get a mortgage and start a family without reliance on state aid, to be the kind of liberating policy that governments should impose?

    It’s always going to be about balance, and we’ll all have different ideas on how it should be balanced. Our liberalism needs to be thoughtful, and mindful that what is liberating for some is an imposition for others.

  • As Fiona’s friend says, the use of a word defines its meaning. So we should understand what ‘neoliberal’ commonly means because, like it or not, that’s what it does mean. It turns out that it’s very confusing to a proper understanding of liberalism as it appeals to freedom but is actually diametrically opposed to everything most Lib Dems stand for.

    In the introduction to his Brief History of Neoliberalism” Prof David Harvey defines it as “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade”. He goes on to say that it further proposes that where markets don’t exist (land, water, education, health care, social security or environmental pollution) they must be created.

    So, it’s individualism and markets über alles – very recognisably the thrust of public policy in recent decades even when there is strong public opposition as with privatising the NHS. It’s also why many on the right of the Tory party describe themselves as ‘liberals’ – they mean (neo)liberals.

    At root this theory rests on two claims: firstly, that human nature is such that maximising individuals’ freedom is the way to health and happiness and secondly, that markets, if free from external interference, will automatically deliver optimal outcomes. Both these propositions appeal to liberals because they like the sound of ‘freedom’.

    But there is a catch; in the real world individual freedom can never be unconstrained – toddlers must learn self-control and my freedom to throw a punch stops short of your nose. Also humans are social animals so they cannot achieve their full potential except as members of society and with its support on many levels.

  • Secondly, the assertion that markets optimise outcomes is plain wrong. Unlike the Victorians, we now know that systems with feedback loops like the economy are ‘chaotic’, that is they don’t trend towards equilibria but evolve over time as their many parts interact. Hence they are unforecastable (except over the very short term) and don’t generally lead to optimal outcomes. Outcomes are not usually determined by textbook supply and demand but by who has the most power.

    Also, ‘free market’ in the usual sense of ‘free from regulation’ is an oxymoron. Markets are human institutions and are governed by rules. They may be customary, regulations, laws or combinations of these and they may be obvious or obscure – but they always exist. So the important question is “who makes the rules?” If you can persuade some “useful idiots” (to borrow Lenin’s phrase) that they don’t or shouldn’t exist then you get to make them to suit yourself – and guess who wins then!

    That suits some powerful people very well indeed. It means that over time and little by little they can tilt the table so everything on it rolls down to their end to be hoovered up while the unfortunates at the other end starve – sometimes literally!

    We should therefore be asking at least three key questions. Firstly, “what rules would ensure markets work better, give accurate prices and stop them spiralling into unstable bubbles?” Secondly, “what rules would keep markets ‘free’ in the sense of free of monopoly and free from economic rent?” Thirdly, “what rules would lead to fairer outcomes, providing security and a decent living for all and minimising the need for welfare?”

  • Doctor North 17th Nov '16 - 9:38pm

    Sorry for the delay in responding to these thoughtful posts. Firstly, thanks for reading and for taking the time to share your own ideas. It is great to hear that there’s an appetite to think about these things among ordinary members like myself.

    I suppose the first thing to say is that I’m not so much worried or sad for myself as for my students. I’m from the older end of this cohort, and I was lucky enough to grab the tail end of the graduate trainee schemes of the noughties. I have worked outside the public sector, actually, and I’ve seen how much harder it’s become to get started, particularly with regards to housing. I think it’s so important that we speak out about constitutional issues and civil liberties in the way we do, but there is a flip-side: I believe there’s a social contract underpinning all that. You can pass all the laws you want, as the saying goes, but there’s an underlying bond that needs to be there if they’re to be respected. We do all need to feel part of the commonwealth, as it were. So I don’t think that we ought to be addressing the genuine hardship many people and communities are facing just in case they vote UKIP: we ought to be doing that as a mark of respect to human dignity. We can’t retreat inside our consitutional comfort zone as a party: we really need to yell it from the mountaintops.

    And Richard, I agree that we ought to be thinking about what mutuality looks like from a liberal perspective. No doubt others will have their views, but I think it offers an important alternative.

  • Doctor North 17th Nov '16 - 9:39pm

    I also wanted to say, re: “liberal” does not equate “neoliberal”… Yes, I agree: shoddy teaching. There is a long-standing thing about how inherently racist and sexist the Enlightenment was in some parts of academia. I obviously don’t agree particularly, but we all have to acknowledge those ideas were products of their time and need revisiting regularly. I don’t object to that point of view being taught, I’d just like to see other ideas presented too… And a bit more precision with the old terminology.

    And as to your last point, Simon: absolutely. Like I said, it’s starting to look like we’re the only party who’ll call bigots what they are, wherever we find them. I simply meant that we mustn’t underestimate how powerful and how transformative the insistance on treating everyone with respect, tolerance and generosity can be, depending on the time and place. My roots are in Northern Ireland, and it took bravery to do that for many years.

  • Hi Gordon
    Many thanks – as I said elsewhere, we can all google this stuff, but it’s how people here interpret the terminology that lead to a better understanding of the points people are trying to make – I think.
    Doctor North – very interesting post. I learned a lot today, if only about Neoliberalism 🙂

  • Keith Sharp 18th Nov '16 - 8:53am

    I agree this is an important post with important steers for us, as we respond, specifically, to GE15, EU Referendum and Trump, and more generally to the current and growing climate of fear, of insecurity and of losing out that is driving the popularity of nationalistic politics. We have to recognise that our arguments, our vocabulary are not resonating; are not addressing those concerns. We must connect all our policies, from pupil premium to electoral reform to ones we need to develop; to offering reassurance as well as opportunity. After all, if you are fearful of your future, being told you have opportunity can be threatening rather than encouraging. Also (Sue) I too noticed May linking ‘liberalism with globalisation’ and while this was most likely done to distance herself from Cameron’s ‘liberal conservatism’, it is another example of how liberalism is appropriated by our natural opponents (yes, there’s neo-liberalism, but many other examples — I even heard Liam Fox call himself a liberal for wanting to leave the EU!). So we need to be clear about what OUR liberalism does and what means for people. I welcome the overdue return to values-driven descriptors — I’m not convinced Open, Tolerant, United are the best ones, but it’s a definite step in the right direction — as setting out what we are for. So we need to proclaim our identity and values and policies in a united, relevant way. Finally — Sue — the Will Hutton book was ‘The State We’re In’.

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