Liberalism or Die

The best definition Liberalism I know was spelled out by Timothy Garton Ash in a Guardian article on 29 November 2004.

Liberalism, properly understood (is) a quest for the greatest possible measure of individual freedom compatible with the freedom of others.

That’s all there is to it if we understand “freedom to” (live and eat decently, get educated, achieve our potential, participate in society, debate our differences in a respectful manner) as well as “freedom “from“ (want, fear, coercion, domination, exploitation).

We now know that Fukuyama was wrong to declare the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy in 1989. It is virtually non-existent in China, and on the back foot in India, severely dented by continuing Trumpism in the USA and populist nationalism in parts of Eastern Europe, and our own government is systematically removing its building blocks in the UK.

Yet in spite of two general elections since the debacle of 2015 (both an opportunity to promote our beliefs) our standing in the opinion polls remains in single figures.

The nub of the problem is spelled out by Ian Dunt is his excellent “How to be a Liberal.”

For many years now, liberals have failed to argue for our values. We have apologies for them, or seemed embarrassed by them, or not even mentioned them at all. (page 442)

I believe that, come May 2022, we shall make further significant gains in local government. Sadly, I suspect that most of the gains will be made on the basis of skilful exploitation of local issues. I wasn’t there but I suspect that was the basis of our success in Chesham and Amersham.

I am writing this following Michael Meadowcroft’s appeal to the party leadership for a modern statement of our, beliefs, the summary of that appeal on LDV and the many thoughtful and valuable comments they produced.

I disagree with Michael on his dismissal of a “progressive alliance”. However, that is not, yet, a practical proposition, so we must do what we can with the second best of tactical voting.

Ed Davey hinted at that when he wrote of the Batley and Spen by-election:

Voters are far smarter than people give them credit for. Liberal Democrat voters may well notice that this is a Labour-held seat with the Tories in a close second, and they’ll draw their own conclusions.

Indeed they did. Local Liberal Democrats and many outside helpers campaigned hard on exclusively local issues for an excellent candidate, and our vote share fell from 4.7% to 3.3%.

My belief is that at by-elections and general elections where we are not the main contender, we campaign to attract activists rather than votes, and do so by spelling out our principles.

My own preferences would be for:

  • A robust defence of our liberal democracy, including, of course, respect for the rule of law and fairer voting;
  • International honesty and co-operation for a fairer world, not just a fairer Britain;
  • Decision making at the most appropriate level, from the UN and EU though to the parish council;
  • Co-operation in government, commerce and industry, with a say in the decision making and a share in the procedes, where appropriate.

Others will have other priorities but the aim should be to raise politics above the squalid Tory/Labour squabble for the spoils of a divided society and appeal to potential activists who say, in the Quaker phrase, “That speaks to my condition,” and come forward to work for this vision of a more noble future.

I know, it needs to be presented in a far more attractive manner, but if we don’t say what it is and appeal to the people prepared to fight for it, Liberal Democracy will die.

* An analysis of the literature for the Batley and Spen campaign will appear in the next issue of Liberator.

* Peter Wrigley is a member of Spen Valley Liberal Democrats and blogs as

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Batley and Spen was a very muddled affair – it is par for the course when George Galloway is involved – and that made analysing the votes very difficult. Nevertheless Peter Wrigley’s comments deserve to be taken very seriously. Because it is core principles he is appealing to, it matters not one jot that it is very similar to what he was articulating fifty years ago.

  • Steve Trevethan 18th Oct '21 - 11:17am

    Is it possible for Lib-Dems to be effectively liberal and democratic without denouncing and undermining Neo-liberalism and its covert transference of wealth from the not rich to the very rich?

  • @Steve. I always understood the term !Neo Liberalism” to have greater meaning when referring to an interventionist foreign policy. You seem to be talking about classical economic liberalism which I assume you disapprove of because you are at heart a social democrat. And nothing wrong with that, social democracy is a core part of the Lib Dem identity. However, it may suggest a fundamental disconnect between the “liberal” and the “social democratic” parts of the party.

  • Peter Watson 18th Oct '21 - 6:45pm

    I agree entirely with the sentiments of the article and the need for the party to explain what Liberal Democracy is.
    However, I think that, sadly, it still falls short of its ambitious goals in the same way as similar attempts – when it presents a list of priorities (or beliefs, etc.) that are uncontentious statements that do not provide a ‘unique selling proposition’ (USP).
    Lib Dems might have a particular interpretation of “fairer” voting, but others could argue (however wrongly 🙂 ) that voter ID is “fair” if it reduces fraud or that first-past-the-post is “fair” because it is simple. And which of the other parties would campaign against fairness, the rule of law, honesty, co-operation, etc. (even when their actions might suggest they should!)?
    Defining terms would help (or might instead highlight a lack of agreement).
    But ultimately, it is the party’s policies that give meaning to things like the preamble or the “What Liberal Democrats Believe” motion.
    For example, do Liberal Democrat principles and support for choice and freedoms lead to the conclusion that the grammar school system should be expanded if that is what parents want? Or should grammar schools be converted to comprehensives because they restrict choice and freedom for those who fail the 11+? Or is applying Liberal Democrat principles so vague (or contentious perhaps?) that a confusing, inconclusive and conservative position of maintaining the status quo is the result? Certainly, in recent years Lib Dems seem to have given the highest profile to the party’s opposition to change.

  • Michael Bukola 18th Oct '21 - 9:38pm
  • It’s very good that we’re discussing what Liberalism is and how this should translate to policy priorities.

    For me, both Peter and Timothy Garton Ash miss out a key point. “Liberal” – or its ancestor, “Liberalitas” in the Roman Republic – meant acting responsibly and generously for the common good, taking part in things that a good citizen should – in other words, active citizenship and the precise opposite of “Neo-liberal” self-interest. It was seen as characteristic of a free citizen.

    When our principles were defined in the preable to our constitution as “liberty, equality, community”, the “community” meant just that: free co-operation for the common good. A little delving into what was seen as Liberal in the 19th century in Britain shows that was part of the core of Liberalism, at least as much as any preference in the middle of the century for small government. When we preach devolution, support the voluntary sector and help people not just as individuals, but as communities (such as a workforce or the residents of an estate) to gain power and improve their lives, that is Liberalism.

  • Gordon Lishman 19th Oct '21 - 4:22pm

    Simon has just posted what I was starting to write!

    I agree with David Haworth that “neo-liberalism” is neither new nor liberal.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Oct '21 - 5:19pm

    Simon it is terrific to see you describing the Liberalism we seek to advance in our party, with two arguments, I use.

    Firstly, you refer to the Roman virtue, also, Greek in a real sense, practically, you can argue, but the Roman word, Liberalitas, at the heart of, and what i often say, is a part of real Liberal values.

    It is Liberality , that flows, literally from the word, Liberal, even more than liberty, which is alas taken to far, again, literally by libertarians.

    So very strongly do i feel about it, that i have not only referred to it, often, but have been trying to utilise it more, for our party to gain from this, understanding.

    Secondly, you correctly traduce neoliberalism, I have also, just now on the other article.

    Neoliberalism is indeed not modern or really any, Liberalism!

  • Lorenzo Cherin 19th Oct '21 - 5:21pm

    And thanks to Gordon, again, a thinker who understands what is meant by Liberal!

  • Eamonn Kelly asks “With regard to economic liberalism, are the LDs Hayek or Keynes?
    The Liberal Party and subsequently Liberal Democrat approach to economic policy has been largely built on Keynesian economic analysis since Lloyd George’s election campaign of 1929.
    Hayek asserted that factors of production—labor and capital—get paid what they are worth. This is accomplished through the supply and demand process, whereby payment depends on a factor’s relative scarcity (supply) and its productivity (which affects demand). With regard to aggregate employment determination, Hayek asserts that free markets will not let valuable factors of production—including labor—go to waste. Instead, prices will adjust to ensure that demand is forthcoming and that all factors are employed. This assertion is at the foundation of Chicago School monetarism, which claims that economies automatically self-adjust to full employment and that the use of monetary and fiscal policy to permanently raise employment merely generates inflation.
    Converesely, Keynesianism, maintains that the level of economic activity is determined by the level of aggregate demand and supply and demand do not automatically adjust, at least not in the shorter term. Post-Keynesians argue that income distribution depends significantly on institutional factors. Thus, not only do a factor’s relative scarcity and productivity matter, but so too does its bargaining power, which is impacted by institutional arrangements.
    Neither so-called Neoliberalism nor Keynesian economic analysis distinguishes land from other forms of capital. This failure has led to the deepening of income and wealth inequalities, particularly as reflected in the housing market with an ever increasing proportion of disposal income required to service mortgage and rent payments.
    The policy paper “Building Communities” cals for “Reforming the 1961 Land Compensation Act to give local authorities the power to acquire landbanked land from housing developers at its ‘current use value’, in order to be used to meet the community’s need for housing.”
    This is an important element in addressing the issue of income distribution at the micro-economic level.

  • We *now* know Fukuyama was wrong? I think we knew from the moment he published. Living proof that even an incredibly smart person can be a bit of a f-wit.

  • William Francis 20th Oct '21 - 4:23pm


    Yes and no.

    Has anything like soviet communism arisen to challenge liberal democracy? Many a reactionary movement yes, and the odd proponent of “socialism for the 21st century”, but there is no grand, forward-thinking, ideologically coherent challenger.

    Virtually every challenger is trying to revert back to some long-lost previous system, rather than create anything new.

  • David Evans 20th Oct '21 - 6:26pm

    It is very sad once again to see the same old arguments about the mess our party is in being trotted out once again in favour of various writers’ personal hobby horses. That is not to say that any of the hobby horses mentioned here is not relevant and indeed some are important, but none address the fundamental questions – Why did voters vote for us? And Why have they stopped voting for us?

    The key undisputable facts are that, broadly speaking, over the last seventy years, there was a long period of steady, sustained growth in support for the Liberals/Lib Dems, where we slowly but steadily recovered from near oblivion in the 1950s (down to 6 MPs, never above 10%) and taking us, by the early 21st century to being a real force in British politics (62 MPs and 22%). This was then followed by a period of five years of total collapse under Nick Clegg which took us, in one fell swoop back to near oblivion (8 MPs, 8%). Since then the party has been trundling along, with a dozen MPs and support just below 10%, but never coming close to repeating any of the growth that turned its fortunes around previously.

    Hence if we really are interested in saving our party so that we can get back to building, or more urgently safeguarding that fair, free and open society – the fair, free and open society that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives are currently dismantling, step by step – The question we have to ask ourselves is not what do we want to do, but more pertinently, what did those successful Lib Dems do in those good years that we are not doing now?

    What did the electorate like about us in the period up to 2010? My answer, based on conversations with voters who were likely to vote for us in the years since the mid 1980s was never particularly that we were liberals (most voters actually regard the UK as a very liberal country and are liberal in the sense that they let people generally get on with their lives so long as they don’t interfere with their own), and rarely was it our detailed policies (indeed the so called progressive policies that so excite the very vocal part of both our party and Labour are viewed largely as self indulgent froth). Quite simply it was that we were massively better than the other parties at representing our local community and hand in hand with that, when we got the chance, we were better at running the council as well.

  • I know it is a disappointment to many to hear that idealistic liberalism is not the be all and end all of so many people’s lives (including many perfectly good Lib Dem councillors), but instead the pragmatic considerations of competence, diligence and honesty count for so much more. Ultimately it is those people whose votes we have lost not the out and out liberals. Every successful party is a broad church mainly made up of pragmatic people. That is the party we need to become once again.

    All we have to do is get out there and prove it – while hoping and praying if we do manage to do it, that our leaders don’t mess it all up again!

  • Peter Hirst 23rd Oct '21 - 5:51pm

    Freedom is a more relevant and important value than many realise. We take for granted the freedoms we have and only complain when we have lost our most cherished ones. Freedom denotes equality because the word implies equal freedoms. We can all speak, move and decide. In some countries these are all restricted.

  • David Evans,

    You set out an interesting view of why the party was successful up until 2010. I am not convinced that the reason we had 62 MPs in 2005 is only because we were successful at local elections and running councils. If we look at the percentage of the vote each party received in general elections we can see that Conservative support fell by 11.2% in 1997. Labour gained from this but we lost 1% of the vote in 1997. However, because we were better at targeting and people now say the Labour Party didn’t fight as hard as they could have in our target seats we gained 26 seats. We managed to gain share of the vote and our number of MPs at the 2001 and 2005 general elections increased. It was not until 2010 that the Conservative share recovered substantially by 3.7% in 2010 and Labour’s fell by 6.2%. It is this background which led to the formation of the Coalition government. However, I do accept that people had an expectation that we would be different from the Labour and Conservative Parties if we were in government. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen as we not only broke manifesto promises but the majority of our MPs broke their personal promise to vote against all increases to student loads without the party taking any action against them.

    The 2015 general election result does not show that where we had good local campaigners and control of the council we held our seats. There was an expectation that we would be able to hold more of our seats because of this factor. It seems that some voters voted UKIP, and our vote went mostly to the Conservatives. The Conservatives won 27 of our seats and Labour 12.

  • If we look at changes in our shares in the social classes between 2010 and 2015 we can see us falling in all groups – down 19 points to 10 for ABs, down 15 to 9 for C1s, down 16 to 6 for C2s, and down 11 to 6 for DE’s. Unfortunately, Wikipedia does not give the figures for those whose highest qualification is from university or worked in the private and public sectors for 2010. In government we reduced pensions for lots of workers in the public sector as well as imposing huge debts on students. These groups had good reasons for not supporting us in 2015.

    I think we should have a vision of a liberal society which deals with the daily concerns of British people. However, we need to continue to target Parliamentary seats with the aim of becoming the third largest party in the House of Commons. Once we have achieved this we should get more coverage in the media and this should increase our share of the vote. I hope at the next general election we can achieve more than 14% of the vote which puts us back to a similar position the Liberal Party had at the 1979 general election (where it stood in 577 seats, 45 fewer than the Conservatives) and achieved 13.8% of the vote.

  • Steve Comer 25th Oct '21 - 6:12pm

    I agree with what David Evans has said about the key reason for the success of the Liberal Democrats, ie. that we were better than the others at representing people, and even pretty good at running Councils. That was the bedrock of our support between 1997-2010, but I think it went beyond that.
    We had carved out a bit of a niche as being a party that was different from the others, and one that cared about people in a way that others didn’t. These issues included education, the environment, the rights of Hong Kong Chinese, Bosnia, and of course Iraq. We were building a wide ranging appeal, but one that particularly resonated in areas where you had a high proportion of educated and informed voters who hated the Tories, but were also disillusioned with the experience of New Labour. The social composition of seats like Cambridge, Bristol West, Manchester Withington, Leeds NW, Cardiff Central etc was quite similar, and all were won in this period, but all were lost by 2017.

    It is not surprising that going into what appeared to be too cosy a coalition with the Tories would upset these voters, many of whom worked in the Public Sector. If the coalition had been handled better we might have been able to manage this better, but we didn’t, and we ended up defending top down NHS reforms and the Bedroom Tax!
    The 2015 campaign was the worst I’d experienced since joining the party in 1974, and I was quite relieved that I had already decided to emigrate in the autumn of that year!

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