Opinion: “Freedom is a Word I Rarely Use Without Thinking”

A letter originating from the Leader’s Office on Liberal Principles has provoked some much needed discussion on this subject. For example, this opinion piece from Paul Connolly received a warm welcome.

But it seems odd to discuss Liberalism without ever mentioning directly power.

There been a few mentions of that awful concept of ‘empowerment’ which is so deeply ‘illiberal’ and yet seen as a badge to be worn by post 1997 ‘liberals’.

To ‘empower’ is to allocate power. It is in the first instance the acceptance of the taking of power from people and to ‘reallocate it’. It is a fundamentally a patronising and paternalistic process.

Patronising to the recipient. “Look, Jane, you wouldn’t have this unless we gave it to you.” And therefore enslaving relationship to the people or organization who graciously bestow it to them – it creates dependency. The price of this great gift (of their own power restored to them) is also of course conformity.

Paternalistic to the re-allocator. “Look at me giving you this ‘fair’ share of power.”  This actually enslaves the giver to a relationship that not only distorts the humanity of the receiver but also of the giver. The slave owner is not free either.

It – empowerment – is used by Paul to explain why Liberals believe in free markets.  Actually the more perfect the market the less able anyone or any organized group of people are to be able to take power away from individuals. That is its attraction, its potential. A perfect market does not empower – look on the other side of the coin – it disempowers the swindler, the cheat, the abuser of monopoly, the purveyor of tat, the waterer-down of beer.

Monopoly always and everywhere is safeguarded by ignorance. “It’s cheaper down the road, it’s cheaper if you did it this way, it’s better for you if … but I’m not going to tell you this, or help you discover this.”  Monopoly is located wherever someone is stealing your power.

Because we do not live in a perfect world it is hard work stopping people and groups taking power from you and aggregating to themselves and exploiting it. That is why Liberals organize and act together to ‘take it back’.

Liberal Action is the campaign to help people take and use power in their communities – be these communities  be their neighbourhood, or their workplace, or co-operative, or the local school- in short, all the communities to which you belong. It has never better been explained than here.

This is why it does not take place in some mythical Centre Land where the noble ‘empowerers’ are lauded. It takes place right beside you NOW.  It lives down in the street, outside your window. It is omnipresent. That is, wherever people combine (in movements) to take and use power for themselves. It is a perpetual process of campaigning because illiberal forces are always at work trying to take that power from you and your neighbours and your work colleagues and your fellow electors, which they crave.

It is through this beam of light that we can see the true worth of the ‘ideal’ that “none shall be enslaved by poverty ignorance or conformity.”

But (and this is where we part company with economic liberals) it is not just freedom from, it is freedom to,

This is why Liberals know that power is taken and kept from individuals and their communities by those Giants (Beveridge, for effect, called them Evils): Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness, Disease,

Liberals therefore organise and work with others to fight against these Giants with the same vigour as we fight against those that swindle power from you.

Title by Donovan

* Bill le Breton is a former Chair and President of ALDC and a member of the 1997 and 2001 General Election teams

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  • To empowerment over oneself just means freedom. Usually though, empowerment means that there needs to be someone else for that power to be exercised against.

  • Bill wrote, “Monopoly is located wherever someone is stealing your power.”

    One sees Monopoly in political parties all the time. The chosen few at the top of the Liberal Democrats (or the Tory Party, or Labour, or UKIP, or Green Party) fling some baubles of words (or electoral bribes) down to the masses, who are expected to be applaud or show gratitude by voting.

    The very opposite of political monopoly is Liberal Action, as Bill describes it, ‘community politics’ as Bernard Greaves and Gordon Lishman put it; it is people working with communities to take and use power. It is what people have done and what has brought practical, real world, tangible success to communities and the ordinary people who live in them.

    All those councillors (Liberal, Liberal Alliance, Liberal Democrat) that were elected between 1970 and 2010 were successful not because of what somebody at the top of the party handed down as some perfect formula or some jewels of policy, or positioning. Not a gift from the Westminster Village. Certainly NOT because they positioned themselves in the illusion of a Centre Ground. It was because they worked with ordinary people in their communities to take and use power. It is a philosophy, but it is also a very practical method, a successful political approach that reaps real benefits both in the gains made by the people involved and by the gains made by the politicians who learn from the people they work with and work for.

    It puts the people on top, recognises the people are the important ones, not the elite politicians at the top of their Westminster equivalent of Mount Olympus.

    Caracatus 4th Dec ’13 – 9:42am attacks Bill and says – “I think you have tied yourself in interlectual (sic) knots of purist logic.”. Far from it, Bill has pointed to what is a very simple truth. If you understand the words, if you do not bend the words to some other purpose, it is perfectly clear. This is not “purist logic” – although it is entirely logical – it is also the facts of political life for Liberals.

    There are decades of evidence of the practical success in this approach. By contrast you have Clegg’s catalogue of failure, Clegg’s Centre Party route to the political dustbin, Clegg’s public school boy, weak-kneed capitulation to Cameron and “the Markets”. I remember a Liberal from Devon in the 1980s saying – “We know all about markets in Devon, we take our cattle to markets to sell them. When we need to organise schools for our children or organise hospitals for the sick, or care for the needy, we need something a bit better than markets.”

    In our house we always play MONOPOLY at Christmas. It is such a good reminder of how greed, and the markets, and the desire to be the one on top results in disagreements, arguments and the opposite of a happy community. Which is I think is what its inventor intended – I think I am right in remembering that the board game Monopoly was invented by a Quaker to illustrate the evils of capitalism?

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '13 - 10:54am

    We believe in free markets because we believe people should be free to offer their goods and services for sale, and free to buy goods and services from others who offer them. That is why the preferred term used by Liberals in the past was “free trade”. We saw this as an aspect of personal freedom, rather than personal freedom stemming from free markets, which is the line now often used by those who like to claim they are the true heirs to historical liberalism by calling themselves such things as “classical liberals” or “19th century liberals” or the like.

    The reality is that many of those who go on and on about the superiority of free markets and claim this makes them the most true form of liberal have STARTED from the premise that markets are good and worked outwards, rather than started from a more basic feeling for personal freedom. Why would the idea “free markets are good” be the premise rather than the conclusion? Because “free markets” as they are currently understood vastly benefit a small number of people, that is those at the top of the big companies, and they are pumping out the propaganda that supports their position. It is pumped out in so many ways, through their financing of supposedly independent think tanks, through their ownership or links with owners of the newspapers, through all the links and connections that are used which somehow mean those who espouse these ideas manage to rise to the top, are always put forward as obviously more intelligent and skilled than anyone else so naturally “the best person to be the next leader”, always seem to end up in that circle of advisers which top politicians accumulate, always seem to be called on to give quotes to the media. As with any dominant ideology, it also attracts many who aren’t too intelligent and creative, but can see the way to get ahead is to suck up to those who lead us by being enthusiastic cheerleaders for their ideology. The idea that what are called “free markets” now are what freedom is really about is the sugary gloop this aristocratic ideology is coated with to get others to swallow it.

    I think it is easy to see that we live in a complex society where most of what we rely on for our existence has to be provided by big complex organisations. Most of us would be lost and die quite quickly if we were thrown into a forest and told to get on with it, as our ancestors did. But you can’t just take power and take control of one of these big organisations, or just set one up yourself. The reality is we ARE reliant on what amounts to an aristocracy that runs them, like the aristocracy of old (it was the secret of success for the British aristocracy) it keeps its vitality by allowing a tiny proportion of the lower ranks to rise into it, but under strict control, so that only those most servile to its ideology of aristocracy and guaranteed to keep the thing going are really permitted to progress into it. So therefore this is very much NOT the free trade in equal personal terms our liberal ancestors had in mind, and the greater complexity of society and hence the much bigger scale of private businesses than was ever the case in the 19th century makes it much more so.

    In the 1950s and for some decades later, the simplistic believed in the power of the state, that state direction and state provision of services was the way forward. That was why it was radical then to challenge that, that is why Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom is such essential liberal reading, sure it’s a bit polemical, but it is great improvement on its successors, and one can see that Hayek then was still writing with a deeper concept of liberalism in terms of personal freedom motivating him. Quite obviously, one cannot say the same for those people later who are well paid by the aristocrats to continue pumping out these ideas, in an ever cruder form and quite forgetting the true liberal motivation, and hardly radical or innovative now it’s orthodox belief.

    Just as it was right to question simplistic state-based solutions then, and question why they would not deliver, and we can be impressed by those who predicted in advance that countries excessively bad on using then would do badly, now the truly innovative should be questioning simplistic free market assumptions. That doesn’t mean one rejects all forms of markets, just as questioning extreme state socialism doesn’t mean one rejects every aspect of state intervention. What was sad about the Orange Book was that it seemed to be jumping onto the simplistic “markets are the answer” bandwagon at just the point that bandwagon’s wheels were going wonky – a bit like a book saying we should all get more state socialist and learn lessons from the USSR written in the 1970s. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have talked about state-based solutions then, but does mean if doing so we should have been well aware of why they hadn’t delivered what they promised there, and so have a critical attitude which accepts their limitations.

    I am sorry therefore to find that those at the top of our society – and particularly those at the top of our party – just don;t seem to have those critical attitudes. The maxim “competition drives up quality” is still being pushed out as if it is so obviously true it needn’t be questioned. Our leadership seems to think liberalism means going along with that, only adding gay marriages, a bit of concern over civil liberties, and a few other such things that are supposed to make us distinct from the Conservatives. There seems to be no concept at all, let alone concern, as to why so many now feel so sad and depressed and trapped and UNFREE in the society we live in, built to this ultra-free market model.

    A true liberal would start with personal freedom and work outwards, so would not need to be told this. Or, at least a true liberal who was not ultra wealthy and so not blinded by the freedom the ultra-wealthy have in such a society at the expense of others.

  • Paul Reynolds 4th Dec '13 - 11:20am

    Sometimes I feel that the political concept of markets would be more popular amongst Libdem members if it were renamed ‘absence of monopoly’. Such a renaming may also help prevent conservatism and national socialism from using the concept of markets as an excuse to persuade the public that rapacious economic activity should be permitted in order to ‘preserve the sanctity of the market’. ha ha

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Dec '13 - 1:30pm

    Paul Reynolds

    Sometimes I feel that the political concept of markets would be more popular amongst Libdem members if it were renamed ‘absence of monopoly’.

    Why not rename it ‘absence of democratic control’? Both terms are not entirely correct, and are therefore politically loaded because they are designed to emphasise one aspect and hide another, and therefore should not be used by anyone who wants to retain a balanced view on the topic rather than hoodwink in the hope no-one will notice the linguistic trickery used.

  • Paul in Twickenham 5th Dec '13 - 12:27am

    It sounds as though Bill’s attitude to the word “empowerment” is similar to my sphincter-tightening response to the word “tolerance”: a word that to me implies largesse toward ones moral inferiors.

    In relation to that emerging oxymoron “the free market” I think that Eisenhower got it right when he said “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence – whether sought or unsought – by the military-industrial complex”. Substitute “banks” or “energy companies” and the speech still rings true : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY.

  • Richard Dean 5th Dec '13 - 3:53am

    I agree with Caracatus, this is mostly knotty nonsense. Matthew sums up the confusion nicely in “we believe in free markets because … we believe in free markets!”. Quite wrong. We believe in relatively free markets because of our values, and therefore only to the extent that relatively free markets tend to provide greater benefits to populations than relatively controlled markets. But it’s always a balance, as current interventions in energy markets show.

  • Matthew Huntbach ( 4th Dec ’13 – 10:54am ) writes –
    ” But you can’t just take power and take control of one of these big organisations, or just set one up yourself. The reality is we ARE reliant on what amounts to an aristocracy that runs them, like the aristocracy of old … …”

    Matthew, you may agree that whilst this does sometimes seem impossible, that is no reason for not having a go ?

    One of the purposes of a trade union is to enable employees of these big organisations to work together and combat the over-mighty business organisation. I know some Liberals are a bit sniffy about trade unions – such as the ridiculous line at the top of this LDV page which boasts that LDV is ” Not paid for by trade unions or millionaires. “. Curiously, as we have seen recently, LDV is happy to take money from the millionaires promoting Heathrow expansion or the millionaire backers of various zionist front organisations but I assume it turns its nose up at taking adverts from trade unions because of nothing more than middle-class prejudice. Indeed Caron’s recent attack on Unite over Grangemouth was pure Daily Mail. But a trade union is essentially an example of community action. People in their work community banding together because they feel more secure and better able to argue their case if they work collectively.

    It annoys me when I read Liberal Democrat MPs falling into lazy rhetoric against trade unions as if the multi-national corporate organisations and bankers were a better option for working people or consumers. A monopoly of power in the workplace results in the culture of the zero hours contract and the work until you drop pension policy of the this accursed coalition.

  • Paiul Reynolds 5th Dec '13 - 10:42am

    Well… I have certainly learned something here…. ha ha. That ‘markets’ might be redefined as ‘absence of democratic control’. This seems to imply that monopoly should be equated with democracy – as in Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. ha ha.

    However, yes, I do understand the serious point I believe you were trying to make, Matthew, which I alluded to, which is that the concept of ‘free’ markets is too often used to justify private monopoly and rapacious economic activity on the grounds that governments should leave things alone and ‘let the market work’. This argument was even used by PM Gordon Brown in relation to a clearly-out-of-control financial trading system based in London and NY, even after the evidence was overwhelming in 2005 and 2006 that the crash was imminent (refs supplied if requested).

    [… and no I am not seriously suggesting for a moment that folk are generally in favour of monopoly or supporters of the DPRK. ]

  • Paul Reynolds 5th Dec '13 - 10:43am


  • Robert Wootton 5th Dec '13 - 12:07pm

    I have been reading “The Theory and Practice of Community Politics”. This quote from chapter 5 “Our aim is therefore the creation of a political system which is based on the interaction of communities in which groups have the power, the will, the knowledge, the technology to influence and affect the making of decisions in which they have an interest. Even more, we want those communities to initiate the debate, to formulate their own demands and priorities and to participate fully in agreeing the rules by which their relationships are regulated.” Is exactly what I have been trying to establish at EU wide level through my book “A Common Economic System Architecture for the EU”.

    The UK system in focus establishes an economic environment in which community politics is encouraged and can flourish.

  • Robert Wootton 5th Dec '13 - 12:41pm

    Quote from Chapter 6 Federalism.

    “Community politics is quite incompatible with the centralisation of power at the level of the nation-state. Indeed, it is incompatible with the concentration of power at any level.

    The most conspicuous and serious absence in Britain is of any structure of neighbourhood government. This is the level that most directly affects the everyday lives of every-one and it is the level of government in which everyone can take part directly. It is only in small, geographically coherent neighbourhoods that everyone can take a direct part in the making of decisions and the exercise of power. At any level above this, some form of indirect democracy involving representative government is needed.”

    In my book, I advocate that citizen’s who choose to work in the the new economic system will be required to be member’s of their local residents’ association (which must be registered with their local authority) and one other community group of their choice in order to qualify for their personal tax allowance. In this way the millionaire Robert Maxwells in the country will pay income tax on their gross income. It was reported that Robert Maxwell did not pay any UK income tax all his life because he was classed as a tourist! Non domiciled business people will be liable to income tax on their gross income.

    About concentrations of power. For a system of any kind to be viable, power or decision making ability is distributed throughout the organisation/system. If my understanding is correct, this is known as “redundancy of potential command. In EU terminology this is known as “subsidiarity”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '13 - 1:41pm

    John Tilley

    ” But you can’t just take power and take control of one of these big organisations, or just set one up yourself. The reality is we ARE reliant on what amounts to an aristocracy that runs them, like the aristocracy of old … …”

    Matthew, you may agree that whilst this does sometimes seem impossible, that is no reason for not having a go ?

    It’s much easier to give it a go if you are wealthy and have connections to use. If you are wealthy you can more afford to take the risk, and you are more likely to be able to borrow money to do it. If you have connections with people with power and influence, you can use them to get your business going. The greater complexity of society means many areas where once a small business could have been set up and expanded aren’t there any more – obvious example being now we have Amazon, it’s much harder to make a go of running a small independent bookshop. Sure, there are niches at the edge of technology, where if you get in at the right time you can make it big from nowhere, but those niches get closed quickly – in fact as we have seen with a lot of new technology, once something becomes the standard, it’s what everyone uses and nothing else on its lines can break through.

    If you come from a poor background, you are reluctant to take risks setting up business, because you know if you fail that’s it. I’m going to stick to my boring salaried job for safety, I can’t afford to risk by home by remortgaging it, to start off a business which might do well, but might not, and at least I have a home to remortgage, many don’t. If I came from a background where throwing a couple of hundred grand away on a business idea wouldn’t mean life destruction, maybe I’d do it, but I don’t.

    But setting up a new bank, power-supply company, supermarket chain? Can ANYONE just do that? No, the scale of these things is that it’s a VAST investment to start. Small scale businesses in consumer products just can’t compete with the efficiencies of the big chains. Where they do compete now, it tends to be providing niche luxury goods to people prepared to pay a lot more than standard chain store prices for standard chain store products. So, how’s a person from a poor background going to get in there? Much easier if you’re from a rich background, you know what people like you are like, and you can use your contacts with them to get going, as well as having the support of the bank of mama and papa.

    While I take your point, the danger with it is that it can be used by the political right to say “Everyone has a chance, if you can’t make it, that’s your fault, the people at the top running things are the best people because they could make it”. Indeed, Clegg and the Cleggies sometimes come close to defining “liberalism” in those terms. This really does ignore the extent to which this is a rigged game. Because it’s a rigged game, I DON’T think those at the top are intrinsically better and more skilled than those lower down, and therefore I don’t think as such they deserve their vast salaries and bonuses and money coming from owning things.

  • Simon Banks 5th Dec '13 - 2:32pm

    I think I’ve said all I can say on markets. I agree with Bill’s approach and welcome the reminder of community politics: it’s worth remembering that this is COMMUNITY politics, not a supermarket politics based entirely on the individual as consumer.

    I don’t agree with Bill’s philippic against “empowerment” because I don’t think the word means what he says. To be “disempowered” is to have power taken away from you. It maybe should be “dispowered”, but it isn’t. To be empowered is to have power and it’s come to have the meaning of having power over yourself (or a group having power over its own affairs, as with tenants of a tower block having power in respect of decisions about their accommodation and immediate environment). There is no obvious alternative word for having this sort of power.

    Yes, people can talk about “empowering” others and this can be patronising – but what would we want a LIberal Democrat government to do? What does a good Liberal Democrat council do? It hands power back to the people. Inevitably some of the process of restoring power will come from decisions at the town hall or in Westminster, driven hopefully by bottom-up pressure.

  • Matthew, it may be that I am a product of a particular time, the years in which I grew up, but I still believe what I believed as a teenager that individuals can make a difference. That we can change the world. I don’t think the chances now are any better or any worse than they were when I was young or than they were in the nineteenth century when people set up what became the co-operative movement. working men’s institutes, trade unions, hospital funds. Poor, ordinary working class people clubbed together, worked in their communities and they took power.

    I have just been watching a couple of documentaries on Sky Arts. They go into some detail on the influence of John Lennon – not on music but on political and cultural matters. It is easy to be sceptical or cynical about Lennon but he was from a relatively modest background (more middle class than mine) but certainly not from what you describe as “a background where throwing a couple of hundred grand away on a business idea wouldn’t mean life destruction,.”
    I hope you would agree that he had a considerable impact on the world. I would argue that the main impact he had was in inspiring others to believe that they could do things.

    Others have done the same. In this country many Liberals cite Jo Grimond as inspiring them to get involved in politics.
    I like Grimond and the impact that he had but I have to say that I was a bit younger and was more impressed by people who encouraged people to get away from the sound of gunfire.

    There is a film (won some festival prizes in 2005) about the American Liberal George McGovern. The title is ‘ One Bright Shining Moment ‘. I can feel the sense of optimism and enthusiasm that McGovern engendered forty years after his election campaign (he was the Democrat candidate undermined by Nixon’s dirty tricks and Watergate gangsterism).


    When John Kerry the current USA foreign secretary signed up to peaceful disposal of Syria’s chemical weapons h was attacked by some in this country as being a later day Neville Chamerlain; others said no he is a latter day Lennon, he is ‘giving peace a chance’.

    This comment has evolved as I have written it – I did not intend to write a comment on 1960’s optimism but what the heck, that is how it has turned out. “There’s nothing you can do. that can’t be done.”

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Dec '13 - 10:48pm


    Matthew, it may be that I am a product of a particular time, the years in which I grew up, but I still believe what I believed as a teenager that individuals can make a difference.

    Oh sure, I agree. I was arguing specifically about the line that suggests we could all set up big businesses, rather than against making an influence in any other way. I joined the Liberal Party because I believe just what you say – that individuals can make a big difference, but that’s through democratic politics, not the same as getting on in the business world. In fact all my experience is that the number of people involved in democratic politics at grass roots level is so small that it’s the most easy way there is for individuals to make a difference. I did a bit of it myself, not that I was the only one, but I had a big role in a small group of people, who built the Liberal Democrats up from almost nothing in the London Borough of Lewisham to being a serious challenger across it. Though even here, if I came from a wealthier background, I could have pushed forward. As it was, I had to give it all up because the success I had achieved there meant the job that paid my salary was in trouble, and I couldn’t afford to let that go and concentrate on my political career, I had to do the opposite. Anyway, what does it matter, with Clegg’s “director of strategy” telling me I shouldn’t have bothered, all those votes won were just “borrowed from Labour” and should be allowed to go back there, and Clegg saying nothing to contradict that?

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