Opinion: Ideas are great, but don’t be trapped by ideology

As though I have regressed to a version of myself more than two decades in the past, a question I often get asked these days is “why did you do it?”

People are interested to discover that despite having a well paid and relatively secure job with the Liberal Democrats in Scotland at a crucial time in our country’s history, and having just bought my first home, I decided to leave it all behind and move to Africa to work for Volunteer Uganda, a charity which strives to alleviate poverty through education.

As a mischievous child, impulsive, some would say reckless, behaviour comes with the toddler tool kit.

But as we get older, there is more pressure to conform, more opportunities to settle – not settle down but settle for our lot in life – and more people who try to squeeze you into an increasingly narrow pigeon hole.

This is especially true in politics. It was American commentator Morris Berman who said: “an idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you.”

I have always been a subscriber to this bumper-sticker philosophy and have strived to pull myself onto the right side of this tug of war. I am not comfortable with a single ideology, much as I am not comfortable with a single religion, a single theory of economics or a single washing powder.

No one person, and certainly no one party, has a monopoly on wisdom. But it is part and parcel of being involved, at any level, in a political party that your own ideas get pushed, pulled and prodded so that the edges of your own belief system are no longer sharp but blurred through a haze of ideology.

Have I briefed policies to journalists, friends and unsuspecting voters to which I personally do not subscribe? Yes. Was this the reason I decided to leave it all behind? No. It was my job to promote policies to the best of my ability and, on the whole, I enjoyed the game of political chess, always trying to keep opponents in check.

But that is the key; it is not a game to most, most are not political animals, the vast majority would prefer that childcare was affordable, that work always pays enough to make ends meet, and that they can retire with dignity rather than be subjected to endless rounds of point scoring.

Living “outside the bubble”, as many of us who spend far too much time inside the bubble like to refer to the real world, has given me more perspective and a far greater sense of the dangers of being trapped by a single ideology.

There are pitfalls to be avoided on the immediate horizon. In the twelve months leading up to my swapping the heated climate of Scottish politics to the hot climate of Uganda, the debate over Scotland’s future within the UK reached fever pitch.

The independence referendum in 2014 was the prism through which every other issue was seen. The debate has been fuelled by two single, opposing ideologies – that Scotland is better off as an independent country, or that Scotland’s best interests are served remaining part of the United Kingdom.

In the process, policies were proposed and countered, assertions were made and rejected, and complex issues affecting real people had to pass the #indyref test before they could be considered, let alone resolved.

It is imperative that in the run up to the referendum that we are not dominated by no single ideology, save one – that the complex issues that exist today will exist tomorrow and everyday leading up to the vote, and that people who are already increasingly disillusioned by politics will not thank this generation of politicians for adopting a post-2014 approach.

We must remember that most people do not identify themselves by the party they work for, the issue they campaign for or who they voted for in the last election.

Looking from the outside in, it is clearer than ever that, come what may at the ballot box, we must come together, work together and stand together to better the lives of people who have bigger problems than who is up or down in the polls over the next 18 months.

Ideas can change lives. That much I have seen living in working in rural Uganda on development projects. What is true in Uganda is also true across the UK. Keep on having ideas, but don’t let the ideas be trapped by a prison of ideology.

* Graeme is the former Director of Communications for the Scottish Liberal Democrats. You can find out more about the work that he is doing in Uganda by following him on Twitter at @littlegrumpyG and @volunteeruganda, or visit the Volunteer Uganda website at www.volunteeruganda.org

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  • Geoffrey Payne 13th Mar '13 - 1:34pm

    In my younger days I used to think the Liberal party was not ideological enough. But now I agree with you.
    There are different kinds of Liberalism of course. In some countries like Holland there are 2 Liberal parties.
    In the UK we have seen the emergence of “Orange Book” liberalism. Most of the book was reasonable, but the intention of the authors was to persuade the party to become more free market oriented and that the Tory approach to running the economy is preferable to Labour’s.
    The irony is that the book was published in 2004 and it was at a time when Labour were also trying to manage the economy in a more Tory, free market manner. It seemed as though it worked. One thing the Orange book did not predict, although it might of done if it listened to economists like George Soros and Joseph Stiglitz , was that the economic boom was actually a bubble that could not be sustained and when it bursts it would have terrible consequences. This we found out in the crash of 2008.
    An indicator of how ideology trumps common sense was that there was no major revision of Orange Book Liberalism in response to 2008. This government is ideologically driven by deregulation and marketisation and Orange Book Liberals are very happy about that. The only exception is the banks, although it would surely be worth asking that if “light touch regulation” is a bad idea for the banks, then maybe it is a bad idea elsewhere as well?
    I long for the day when Liberals become less ideological. We need a new David Penhaligan.

  • This is a brilliant article – thought provoking, sensible and with a new perspective.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Mar '13 - 1:36am

    I couldn’t agree more with the title of this post. All decisions should be approached on a neutral basis. Ideology just leads to bad decisions.

    ““an idea is something you have; an ideology is something that has you.”. Great quote you’ve picked up here.

    I have tried to say this to people on this forum but I got shouted down. I am afraid sometimes the chains of ideology are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

  • Peter Watson 14th Mar '13 - 10:05am

    I agree entirely with what Simon Titley (and Alan Beith) have written above.
    Knowing what a party stands for – its ideology – allows me to choose one which is closest to my own world-view, and to have confidence that when faced with choices while in government it is more likely to make a decision with which I agree.

  • I think Simon has put his finger on the real point. It is incorrect to characterise ideology as an inherently bad thing. However, the concept will appeal to those administrators and technocrats who can, from any starting position, come to diametrically opposite conclusions. There was a perfect example in Yes Minister where Sir Humphry came to opposite conclusions on the desirability of military training for all.

    This enables those with lots of time (i.e. administrators and not politicians) to polish their arguments and then get them passed in a single cabinet meeting. An ideology gives us the ability to say, “I think this is a bad idea,” without having a detailed demolition of each tempting scenario put forward.

    Secret courts anyone?

  • James Sandbach 14th Mar '13 - 12:00pm

    Depends on how one defines ideology – if it’s about an underlying ethical beliefs or value system and guiding principles, then absolutely its good thing without which you have no moral anchor or political compass, If it’s about adhering rigidly and uncritically to a set of abstract ideas about how the world works then from marxism & statist communism to ultra-capitalist libertainism, even ecological deep-green fundamentalism or some religious fanaticism, then it’s hugely dangerous and the very antithesis of what libdems should stand for!

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Mar '13 - 12:10pm

    To me I think ideology is about being closed minded. All parties need to have a set of aims to unite people with similar goals but sometimes it stops people considering things purely because it goes against their ideology in the short term.

    For example, the Labour Party will probably always vote against benefit cuts but what about if benefits where twice as high as they were now? Would they always protect them? Or what if they were three times as high? These are the very hard ethical questions that shoud be scrutinised; decisions shouldn’t be jumped at because they run against the party’s ideology.

    Sometimes ideology becomes about brand marketing rather than doing the right thing and at that point it is certainly wrong.

  • Geoffrey Payne 14th Mar '13 - 12:42pm

    I agree with James and Simon. Ideology without dogma is the balance we need to strike.
    As for Dave Page, I did not use the words neo liberal or Thatcherite. That said I have been shocked at the welfare cuts that the party leadership has agreed to which go beyond what Thatcher ever did.

  • Paul in Twickenham 14th Mar '13 - 1:13pm

    Areopagitica and Leveson, anyone?

  • I’m not sure if this is an ideological thing but it strikes me that the political process has veered wildly from what should surely be it’s natural path. That path being:
    Identify problem.
    Identify solution.
    Figure out how best to communicate solution to population.
    Try to communicate that solution as best you can.

    I don’t think I have an ideology as such. I’m probably only in the Liberal Democrats because they seemed like the party more open to the bigger picture and rigorous in their identification of problems and solutions based upon evidence and logic rather than dogma. I therefore have problems when people say policies are illiberal, or go against our party’s principles. Do they work to help people live happier, healthier lives though? I think there is such a thing as liberal fundamentalism, and it makes life difficult for people within the party who like to examine issues on their merits without Libby the bird glaring at them from across the room.

    It seems if there’s an ideology that’s genuinely corrosive in politics it’s the adherence to the Blair way of spin doctoring. The obsessing over finding out (or second guessing on the basis of scant or dubious evidence) what people want rather than identifying what they genuinely need. And also with scoring points over fighting for what will work.

    It is also deeply worrying to me if what you’re hinting at is true and that important issues are being dropped from the agenda due to the (still distant) referendum. The country is not in good shape at the moment and it’s not going to be improved by politicians dropping the ball and bickering over who governs us and from where.

    Thanks for your post Graeme. I’m glad things are going well for you.

  • Eddie Sammon 14th Mar '13 - 2:58pm

    @Simon Titley, let me put it this way Simon:

    1. At the start I said I wasn’t sure which side of the fence to sit but that view was not welcome on this forum.

    2. I then began to put out the arguments supporting the bill for the sake of argument (although I never said I supported it myself at this stage) however these arguments were not welcome.

    3. I then began to slightly support the principle behind the bill on the basis of national security however this opinion was certainly not welcome.

    4. I still only slightly support the bill and have said things such as “I do not like the idea of this bill”, “I am not fanatical about it”, but even these moderate views have not been welcome.

    5. I then started to try to look after the interests of the party by encouraging us to move on from this by reminding us that our first duty is to look out for the public, but again again these views were not welcome.

    6. I have even said I am open to changing my mind but I will not do so because of pressure to conform however people still assume that I am an authoritarian nutter.

    7. The only time I have been highly critical is of people who have decided to quit the party and made out they are quitting because of this bill and this bill alone. I don’t see how this bill is more serious than benefit cuts and even so, what is the point of quitting because the party is almost unanimously against this bill and the odds are Clegg won’t be around after 2015 anyway. As Sadie Smith said, these people have just looked like one issue people.

    8. Something is not right when all of the moderate views I made have not been welcome by the vast majority of this forum. Even now I maintain I have no strong opinions on this bill and never have.

    9. I propose these intolerant views are examples of the problem of ideology. Especially when the majority of the public is apathetic such as myself.

    10. I propose we agree to disagree because I don’t want to spend much more time discussing this bill. I just needed to get rid of a few of the misconceptions that people have had about my view.

  • The problem is when we lose ideology, particularly our political leaders, we lose a certain amount of definition. Whether or not we agreed with their views we knew what Thatcher, Kinnock and Steel stood for, we understood their ideological position. The first two were certainly guilty of becoming dogmatic at times and I agree with those above that feel that is a disadvantage, but I firmly believe people need to know what forms the basis of the worldview of those they vote for.

    The above was never true of Blair and I think Cameron, Milliband and by his recent actions Clegg would all stand for whatever offered a route to power.

  • There is ideology, and there are ideologies.

    Ideology is a coherent, comprehensive framework and vision built around a core idea. It is an absolute abstraction.

    Each of the different ideologies articulated within a society claim to retain the features of ideology. None do. None will.

    Ideology is an ideal, ideologies are reality.

    But without the idea of an ideal, the reality would never improve. It is the unachievable goal.

  • Simon Banks 7th Apr '13 - 7:32pm

    Believing Scotland is better off in the UK, or believing it would be better independent, are not ideologies. An ideology is a coherent system of beliefs and values. Some people support particular policies and have some values without espousing anything that could be called an ideology. The danger for them is that they tend to go along with the unstated assumptions of the day or of their milieu without realising it. It’s better to identify clearly what your values and assumptions are.

    An ideology can become too rigid and can be applied with insufficient commonsense or, to put it another way, checks to see if the action that appears to flow from the ideology makes sense in the changing world. It can lead to misidentifying situations: for example, Lloyd George seems to have equated the Boers with peasant farmers and ignored the Black Africans. Relying too much on resolving things through an ideology can leave us immobilised or refusing to recognise the other side of an argument: for example, there are human rights arguments for and against abortion, but the debate is often a dialogue of the deaf.

    Since in the absence of an ideology, politicians and parties tend to go with the flow wherever it’s going, a radical movement needs some kind of ideology.

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