Opinion: The Conflict Of Idealism And Pragmatism

For me, the most valuable parts of Conference were my discussions with a member of the Green Liberal Democrats Exec on her intense disappointment over the votes on nuclear energy, weapons and shale gas fracking.

We discussed the relative contribution of idealism and pragmatism within the party. Her disappointment stemmed from the perceived abandonment of ideals by the party, in that we should be moving firmly away from both fossil fuel extraction and the risks of nuclear energy.

I share those ideals, but I’m a little more pragmatic – some would say jaded. When going from A to Z, you can’t reach Z without passing through the other letters. To reach the ideal of a fossil fuel free future, you have to take the journey in bite-size pieces. She accepts that, but is frustrated by the way the party seems to be building pragmatism into policy.

We need to take the rest of the world along with us. It would be nice if everyone thought like us, but they don’t. Far too many have their ignorance enlarged by the Daily Mail etc. So we must be pragmatic approach and take the little bites, the salami slices, that the majority accept. With each bite we say our piece and a few more people come over to our way of thinking.

Lobbying NGOs such as FoE and Greenpeace, have the luxury of embracing idealism. They are not expected to balance a multitude of competing ideals. They do a valuable job, but they cannot make the hard decisions, or to accept decisions taken by others. At the same time their membership is booming, while ours diminishes. Idealism is very attractive, and pragmatism is ugly.

Until recently, a significant proportion of our party thought similarly. Their mindsets were more idealistic than pragmatic (and everyone is a mixture of the two). Then May 2010 happened. Suddenly the whole party was faced with the cognitive dissonance of watching their leaders make hard decisions with immediate real-world impact.

Many adapted. Every MP is dealing with the reality of government and they continue to apply Liberal and Social Democratic principles to every decision. But they are fighting both a Tory party machine used to power, and a Whitehall bureaucracy unused to implementing liberal policies. Asking a civil servant to advise on the democratisation of the electrical power supply is like asking a chicken to quack.

Regrettably, some members could not adapt. The most idealistic and least pragmatic members have left us. So our party is making fewer policies that pursue the ideal, and more that accept the hard choices. We are not evolving into the Tories, but into hard-headed liberals.

And that is both saddening and something to be grateful for.

We must never forget our ideals, and strive for them, but we must accept the necessity for pragmatism to make progress towards them.

And, above all, we must encourage and support those who feel our ideals are under attack.

* Simon Oliver is the chair of Green Liberal Democrats

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Hear hear.

  • We would all be revolutionaries, Simon, if we couldn’t accept a measure of “pragmatism”. However, I think you are being over-generous to our parliamentarians generally. We have probably not been outspoken enough over the last 20 years. We have probably made too many compromises in local government going backwards from principled positions, that when it came to it, it was easier for everyone to compromise nationally with a thatcherite Tory party, on green issues, or on anything else for that matter.

  • Eddie Sammon 24th Sep '13 - 1:07am

    I dislike pragmatism. I think pragmatism is the excuse for a lot of immoral behaviour.

    I actually don’t think the conflict that the author is referring to is between pragmatism and idealism, but between centrism and the the left.

    The argument for pragmatism over idealism is also the “I would if I could, but I can’t so I shan’t.” strategy, aptly taken apart in this blog:


    People should start with the end in mind and not be afraid to say what they believe, even if they don’t think it is popular.

  • Liberalism is an essentially idealistic vision, but one that recognises gradualism and compromise as essential tools in achieving that vision. In the UK, for practical reasons, liberals have had to cope with seeing their ideals implemented by others, not on their terms and often without their participation. But that is an historical accident, not something that’s essential to liberalism.

  • @ Simon Titley: I think that’s grossly unfair. The writer clearly hasn’t lost his idealism – he wants a fossil free future. The key question is how to move your ideals forward in a world which isn’t ideal.

    Some respond by clinging to their ideals but shutting their ears to reality. Others might embrace pragmatism but lose their ideals. But surely there’s at least a third option – to try to be both pragmatic and idealistic. Articulating both is the challenge and this is where I think we as a party could do better. I would like us to be a bit bolder, less apologetic, less defensive about our positions.

    For my part on energy policy (and I’m happy to be shouted down) I’m glad that the party now accepts nuclear energy as part of the energy mix. Aside from energy efficiency, it’s the cheapest form of low carbon energy out there. Renewables alone might be clean and green but they are not reliable and not cheap. So I’m prepared to debate with the non-pragmatic idealists who feel betrayed by our embracing nuclear and translate this as rejecting our ideals.

    One day, we will learn how to store electricity on a large scale – this will make it easier to have a greater percentage of less “reliable” sources of energy like solar, wind, wave in our energy mix. Another day we will learn how to harness and burn hydrogen cheaply (producing nothing more toxic than H20 as waste). Until that day, we need a diverse energy mix to be clean, cheap and reliable. This isn’t abandoning our ideals – it’s just pragmatic.

  • I don’t understand how liberals who believe that we need to ensure that the environment is protected for future generations can put this at risk by being pragmatic when the evidence does not exist that nuclear and fracking are save and the use of fracking gas will increase greenhouse gases.

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