Opinion: Principles before policies

Liberal Democrat Conference 2011Long ago, I stood at the podium of party assembly in Blackpool and asked our parliamentary spokesman on economic affairs, then Richard Wainwright, what he and his colleagues were doing to advance the party’s policy of zero economic growth. (Yes, we had such a policy once.)

I learned two things from that. One, ask my own darned questions not ones the organisation I represented (what was then the Union of Liberal Students) thought to ask. Two, try not to create an opportunity for deserved ridicule. This was 1981, and the next day The Guardian’s sketch writer had a fine time suggesting the answer should have been “We’ve succeeded. No growth. Mass unemployment. We’ve done it!  And then some.”

The point, of course, is that while policies matter they are tactical devices for delivering strategic results. I have no idea why we thought zero growth was an economic policy worth pursuing, and I’m willing to bet the parliamentary party thought the idea both quaint and highly irritating. But there we were spending our time on a policy that was of no possible consequence given the depredations being loosed upon the country and that could not possibly have helped advance any of the principles it might have been intended to address. All we did was provide easy fodder to a paper that didn’t need it and cause an honourable man to have to waste his time.

Such apparently trivial examples might seem, well, trivial, and perhaps deserve the riposte of what about genocide, human trafficking, education, access to quality health care? You can add other items to the list easily enough. Surely we need policies about such matters? Surely voters and prospective party members deserve to know where we stand on such matters?

And, yes, they do.

But those policies should be responsive to, conditioned upon, and framed by principle. And they should acknowledge that they are parts of a whole, that they are – a shameless endorsement here for Tony Harms’ piece – part of a strategic narrative.

We are, and should be, a party of principle. And it is how on we live up to our principles we should ask to be judged.

We have the chance now to be the Party of Yes and the Party of In. Yes to individual freedoms, to human rights, yes to dignity, yes to equality. In Britain, in Europe, in the Commonwealth and in the United Nations. Yes and In not as a matter of policy but as a matter of principle.  Yes and In because we a party of engagement, empowerment and encouragement.

We can, and should and will – you know we will – argue over what that means. A leadership election about principle not policy is surely helping us make it clear what we are for. Let’s not muddy the waters more than strictly necessary.

 

* Chris Fauske, an Essex-native, is now is a resident of Massachusetts.

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15 Comments

  • Eddie Sammon 11th Jun '15 - 6:05pm

    I get concerned about having too inflexible principles, but the United Nations and possibly the Commonwealth are something I think should be pursued.

    We need a kind of global wealth tax and realistically that can only be brought about through the UN.
    We could also look at making Commonwealth countries associate members of the EU. The Commonwealth should be about global freedom and democracy.

    Even if we scrap the Commonwealth, I feel that we need to create a more internationalist version of the EU. I want a “pro democracy” foreign policy. We should be on the side of Japan over China and getting tough on Saudi Arabia.

    Freedom, democracy and self-determination across the world!

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Jun '15 - 6:13pm

    A very interesting article, thanks Chris.

    It strikes a chord with me too, having realised over the last week that I wasn’t particularly interested in the voting record or policies of Tim and Norman who are both decent people, both in the same political ‘broad church’ that I belong to and both no doubt believers in some specific policies I object to.

    What I’m looking for from our new leader is leadership, ability to engage the public, authenticity, inspiration and the ability to define us in the public imagination by our principles. I want to draw a line under the ‘party of a bit better than either of the others’ and to use your words, be known as the party of “individual freedoms … human rights, yes to dignity, yes to equality”.

    I’m not going to hijack this thread by saying which of them I think is most likely to succeed (although I reserve the right to come back and post again with that information if others do so!).

  • At the moment, what the Party needs in a Leader is someone who will be perceived by former Lib Dems and potential Lib Dems as a herald for a new direction in the Party’s course.

    Longer term, however, the Party needs leadership that is willing to radically restructure the party:
    • Independence for branches of the Party in the constituent countries of the UK, so that country-specific policies can be formulated which do not have to be in accord with the views of the English Party
    • Increasing member participation at all levels and lowering barriers to participation
    • Allowing members to define policy rather than having it imposed by leadership
    • Greater democratisation of candidate selection
    • Active work to increase the participation of women and minority members at all levels

  • Jonathan Brown 11th Jun '15 - 7:49pm

    @David-1 – I quite agree!

  • peter tyzack 12th Jun '15 - 8:49am

    brilliant piece, Chris, – but surely, Eddie, principles are principles, and, as such are not ‘flexible’. They are the foundations and the structure of our being, upon which our policies are bolted. That is how and why our policies are pretty consistent and cohesive, as the principles tie them all together. That is why our leader cannot take us to the right or left, because conference decides our policies, based upon our principles.

  • Well said, Chris.

  • @David-1 “Allowing members to define policy rather than having it imposed by leadership”

    I agree with the first part of your statement, we do need to allow ALL members to define policy, but its not imposed by the leadership. It’s imposed by the voting reps at conference. This is not OMOV.

  • Well said Chris!!

    Don’t forget there is no halfway house, you live or die by your principles in politics, unless of course you take the position ‘of these are our principles, and if you don’t like them, we have others’. It is that type of politics what we are living through today.

    Having prinicples is one thing, sticking to those principles is another, but of course the key is having principles that at the absolute minimum resonate in some small way, with the principles commonly held by the majority population.

    I would suggest the support in the LIbDems for an IN vote in the EU referendum unreservedly, is not so much a matter of pure principle, but more a dogmatic adherence to an ideology.

  • Peter Tyzack yes you are right, principles are the core of one’s being. Either one supports secret courts or one doesn’t.

  • @Peter Tyczak “conference decides our policies”

    This is fundamentally undemocratic.

    Why should I be denied a vote on policy because I don’t attend the conference? I pay the same membership fees as everyone else.

  • Simon Gilbert 12th Jun '15 - 11:18am

    @Eddie ‘We need a kind of global wealth tax and realistically that can only be brought about through the UN.’

    No no no! Decentralisation not centralisation please!

  • Chris Burden 12th Jun '15 - 9:30pm

    “I have no idea why we thought zero growth was an economic policy worth pursuing, . . .” Gobsmacked!
    I cannot believe that Chris just said this. But, he did, and also no-one, not a single commentor, has raised so much as an eye-brow.
    Let me just point out the slight logical impossibility of indefinite economic growth in a planet with finite resources and where it is a toss up whether they will run out before climate change and pollution kill us first!
    I imagine this highly sensible policy was somewhat influenced by the Club of Rome report ‘Limits to Growth’.
    Read this: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/sep/02/limits-to-growth-was-right-new-research-shows-were-nearing-collapse

  • Eddie Sammon 12th Jun '15 - 11:54pm

    Thanks for your points Peter and Simon.

    Peter, of course principles can’t be too flexible.

    Simon, I just think the super rich right now are in a kind of arms race and no one wants to give up much of their wealth unilaterally. If not done by force then a voluntary summit of the world’s richest people should be called where they all agree to give up some of their wealth.

  • Simon Thorley 13th Jun '15 - 10:28am

    Excellent article, Chris. ‘the Party of Yes and the Party of In. Yes to individual freedoms, to human rights, yes to dignity, yes to equality’ – in business terms, in those four principles lies our sustainable competitive advantage. Policies come and go, and the best can (and are) coopted by other parties, but principles endure.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Jun '15 - 8:25pm

    Chris Burden

    “I have no idea why we thought zero growth was an economic policy worth pursuing, . . .” Gobsmacked!
    I cannot believe that Chris just said this. But, he did, and also no-one, not a single commentor, has raised so much as an eye-brow

    Oh, I thought about it and couldn’t be bothered to get into an argument with yet another right-wing head-banger. From what he’s said he must be a climate change denier, unable even to comprehend why economic growth as conventionally measured may not always be a good thing.

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