Our Liberal “Internationalism”, born in a period of party fragmentation, is now our uniting and unique selling point

When you consult books about Liberal and Liberal Democrat party history about the birth of our “Internationalism”, European “Federalism” and our thesis that stand-alone nationstates (and “narrow nationalism”) become more and more obsolete, you discover a surprising fact.

According to Michael Steed’s chapter “Liberal Tradition” in Don MacIver’s bundle “The Liberal Democrats” (from 1996), it was in the comprehensive policy survey “The Liberal Way” of 1934, that we stated that in future, “narrow nationalist” parties everywhere would face parties, the Liberals firmly among them, supporting the growing, factual interdependence as best policy basis. Philip Kerr, marquis of Lothian, said (1935): “the only final remedy for war is a federation of nations”. But personal guilt about having himself written the War Damages clause in the Versailles Treaty made Kerr become an  advocate of appeasement to Germany, a Liberal dissident, until the Munich Agreement.

Both Chris Cook’s history of the Liberals in 1900-’76, and Robert  Ingham & Duncan Brack’s authoritative bundle “Peace Reform & Liberation” (PRL; 2001) tell that this  “interdependence  makes collectivism better policy”-idea was formulated in a phase of disintegration of the Liberal party (the split about the 1931 National Government; desertions to the National Liberals and Labour; loss of seats).  

Sir Archibald Sinclair, who became party leader after the heavy 1935 election defeat, put our internationalism to immediate use, insisting on collective security and collective deal-making (as opposed to selective powernation deals like Munich), Reynolds & Hunter write in their chapter about 1929-’55 in PRL (p. 222). Instead of Appeasement, Sinclair insisted on collective resistance to expansionist dictatorships, while Tory dissident Churchill pointed to Germany’s rearmament.

Steed (in MacIver, Lib Dems, p. 56) says that the Liberals’ support for Federalism in Europe (Federal Union from 1938/9; European movement from ’48), and Clement Davies’ early support for the federally structured ECSC of Robert Schuman, all derive directly from the “Liberal Way” stance. And from there it is a small step to the full-blown support for (and wanting to join in) the EEC by Grimond, Thorpe and later leaders.

Sinclair is the man who combined Liberal international collectivism with pleas for restoring a strong defense (saying other states should do the same, while joining the collective). The Sudeten crisis and Munich were roundly condemned by Sinclair (joined by Churchill); instead of asking the “Benelux” countries to join in (where the Social Liberal Dutch VDB was also pleading rearmament), Chamberlain only brought wavering France to Munich, where they amputated the also excluded democracy Czechoslovakia.

Both the thinking of “The Liberal Way”, and the pleas by both Sinclair’s Liberals and the Dutch VDB for rearmament from 1935 onward are a precedent for the thinking of LibDems and D66 in these days. The 2009 and 2014 Euro-election victories by D66 in a Netherlands turning Eurosceptic shows that it may be an uphill struggle, but distinctiveness wins.

* Dr. Bernard Aris is a historian, a D66 parliamentary researcher and a LibDem supporting member.

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  • We are a party of open economies and open borders and petty nationalism of the left and right should be condemned.

    We need to make a strong positive case for globalisation, the market and immigration.

  • An interesting and important piece.
    The old liberal party constitution `looked forward` to a world when all the peoples of the world would be united under a `democratic world authority` That is to say, it advocated Democratic World Federalism, in short.
    The Liberal Democrat constitution retains traces of this, but it is a bit watered down – something about a `secure and democratic international order`.
    As much as I like the Lib Dem constitution – and it was my reason for joining – I would be happier if we had had retained that old commitment in our constitution.
    Democratic World Federalism – as a long term aim – is looking more and more like a credible response to the world’s geopolitical and environmental questions – the age of software more or less begs for it. Furthermore such a long term vision would give teeth to our belief in multilateral disarmament of weapons of mass destruction

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th May '17 - 1:52pm

    This is one way of looking at things and only that !

    The opposite of nationalism is internationalism.

    That does not mean open borders.

    Find now or over a century or more , one single commentator in the Liberal tradition in favour of open borders.

    Open to travel yes. Open to meet and marry yes. Open to trade yes.

    Open to automatic settlement no.

    Liberalism has changed in twenty five years in Europe , as has Christian democracy and other conceptual aspects of political discourse.

    It has changed for the worse by being the opposite of everything it does not like rather than the measured and nuanced aspects it used to understand and encourage, being at the front not back foot.

    Evidence based is going to the dogs.

    Evidence shows that mass immigration is not the same as a sensible , flexible immigration policy.

    This party has everything going for it but common sense !

  • Peter Martin 11th May '17 - 2:23pm

    Is the Lib Dems view of “internationalism” limited to the 27 other countries of the EU or does it include everyone else too?

    If not, then it’s not really internationalism, is it?

    Pan-EUopeanism is probably a better term.

  • Bernard Aris 11th May '17 - 2:31pm

    @ Lorenzo,

    A century ago, British India was still part of the British Empire.
    The only inhabited parts not colonized by Europe were Afghanistan (having kicked the Brits out twice), Ethiopia (kicked Italians out), Tibet and the North Pole.
    So the European colonizers (having 90% of international sea transport) controled every big migratory move. In the Boer Wars, even the flight of the Boers from the British Cape colony was “corrected” by defeating the Boer republics…
    In that context, no need to talk about closing borders against migration; the imperial capitals controled who went where from anywhere in the Americas, Africa an Asia/Pacific.

    And until arond 1975, Spain, Portugal and Greece were dictatorships, and the soviet Eastern block was solidly closed until 1989. People migrating from there were welcomed in European democracies. Our Labour party helped the Spanish, Portugese and Greek socialist parties resurrect themselves by schooling guest workers and refugees up to their democratic Transition.

    Control over border-crossing migration got to be a problem when the European world democratized; and the decolonised countries elswhere couldn’t satisfy their peoples (long-sitting African and Arabian dictators).

    No social liberal party I know is for 100% free migration; we all want to regularize it; keep it manageable. But that doesn’t meen exagerated closing of borders. It does mean sharing the 1951 Refugees Convention obligation fairly among Euriopean countries. I think that is both common sense and common decency.

  • Bernard, thank you for an interesting article. As a pro-European Leaver, I agree with most of it, save that the anti-nation state sentiment was very much of the post-WWI 1930s period and needs radical re-thinking for the 21st century. There is only so far that federal, internationalist government can go before butting up against people’s legitimate loyalties – as we have seen in the EU. The rise of far-right nationalists in the EU is a direct response to over-enthusiastic integration policies in the face of public resistance to them. Even Macron has figured that out. Nationalism is not always petty: sometimes it is simply about self-determination and resisting control from outside. Consider the Kurds, for example, in their current attempts to establish a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. If I were Kurdish, after all they’ve been through, no-one would persuade me to accept any internationalist government over my own.
    Real liberalism is democracy from the ground up, not filtered indirectly from some distant world authority, however benign. The vision presented by Edward C above, of a “democratic world authority” makes me shiver. Anything smacking of world government is by definition not going to be very democratic, purely on grounds of scale. Much better to have local, full democracy, and lots of trade, coupled with lots of international discussion bodies. Any more and you leach democracy away from the ground.
    On borders, we Leavers don’t want “exaggerated closing of borders”, despite what you read in the press. All we want on migration is what you want, ie. “to regularize it; keep it manageable.” We can’t do that if we are not solely in charge of the laws relating to migration into the UK.

  • Bernard Aris 11th May '17 - 4:49pm

    @ Annabel

    I too am sceptical about any kind of World Government; having universal norms is proving difficult enough (Saudis in UN Human Rights Council; Chinese values seperarating off).
    Inteermediate scale like the EU seems better.
    And too small scale can become chaotic, Westphalian . I think a flexible scale: on some issues larger than on others, will prove to be the best; the EU already has the “Subsidiarity”-principle in its tool kit; but countries are afraid to use it.

    Are the Hungarians, keeping all refugees out (or incarcerating them for an indeterminate time); scolding al western criticism but happily swallowing lots of EU aid, just as rational, humanitarian and sensible as a UK formally out of the EU but which necessarily (Five Eyes Security; NATO security; Common Market norms in EU trade; in the long term organizing another Boston Tea Party if “America First”-Trump becomes too overbearing) has to co-operate on essential terrains? I’m not sure. I think there should be some common migration and asylum norms, bandwiths with minima and maxima.

  • “European federalism”. I believe that is what the liberal democrats actually want and that the vast majority of people don’t. In fact there is no constituency in the uk where the majority of voters would want to be part of a federal European superstate and without proportional representation therein lies the problem. The other problem is, if you believe that AV is fairer than FPTP, the vast majority don’t want the voting system to be fairer’ either…

  • I thought Liberalism was decentralization but doesn’t seem to be the case with the love of all things EU.

    Since when has Internationalism been restricted to 27 countries ?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th May '17 - 8:38pm


    I was not disagreeing with very much of your article , rather Stimpson above on the subject. I do think you over emphasise the role of federalism in Liberalism, one of the greats , I am frequent to say I share my birthday with, Sir Henry Campbell -Bannerman, was a great one for devolution and what they called home rule then, but was so against homogenisation, he didn’t even want sugar to be , as he saw it meddled in on pricing internationally !

    Your general points are characteristically measured and intelligent as welcome as ever your contributions are.


    As a Liberal Democrat who says I am as near to the Eurosceptic wing of the party as possible, which shows how small that is, just for being both a strongly patriotic Liberal, not rare in my view , but as strong a critic of the EU as you would find in our p[arty , despite or therefore supporting membership of it , to reform it, your comments are very interesting !

    Join us , do not just vote for us. This election is going to settle whether Brexit is going to happen.

    We need good Liberal Democratic voices as to how .

  • Katharine Pindar 11th May '17 - 9:32pm

    El Sid, what evidence have you that ‘the liberal democrats’ (I presume you mean our party) want ‘European federalism’? I certainly don’t. Let the EU reform itself in whatever ways the 27 can agree on, but let us preferably not have ever-closer union. My view of the EU is strongly supportive of a collaboration of nation states who share ideals of freedom and democracy, working together to improve standards of life for all, as they have done.

    Lorenzo, will this election really decide whether Brexit is going to happen? Don’t forget the first signs of ‘Begrets’, the first poll to suggest that more voters now wish we were not leaving than wish to stay in the EU. I really wonder if seeing that poll was not the clinching argument for Mrs May to call this election now, before regrets could grow too strong for widespread belief in her approach to Brexit to continue. As conditions worsen, more people will surely join in the regrets, and our policy of asking for a referendum on the final outcome, with the possibility of staying in, will rise in credibility.

  • Democratic world Federalism: I am quite serious about this – although I can’t stress enough that it is to be considered a very long term aim, and hence more of a guiding principle of how we should approach international affairs.

    What makes *me* shiver is the very real prospect of the self-extermination of the human race, sooner or later, from a conflict in which weapons of mass destruction are unleashed or through ecological mismanagement, or some combination of both.

    The Unilateralist brigade – C.N.D et al – do at least have a vivid appreciation of this danger, and yet their solution – to set a moral example and hope that others will follow suit – seems foredoomed. If that same urgency were channelled into promulgating Democratic World Federalism as the basis for disarmament, then we might be making some kind of progress.

    The best minds of those that witnessed the First World War- Einstein to name but one – supported world governance as an ideal. As said, there was even an unequivocal commitment to the idea in the original UK Liberal Party constitution (as preserved, ironically perhpas, by the continuity Liberal Party).

    I can’t see that anything has changed since then to invalidate this ideal: on the contrary in fact. `We must love one another or die` Auden said. And if we can’t love one another then we must find the most efficient way to rub along. The Brotherhod of Man begins at home with our immediate family – our own nation – then it extends to our cousins (in our case our fellow Europeans) and so on, little by little, out to the world.

    By the way: I do not support `Open borders`. The conflation of `open borders` with globalism has done the latter a great deal of damage. As a matter of fact I would favour some kinds of points system when it comes to immigration. This view is by no means incompatible with democratic World FEDERALISM.
    Imagine a series of gated communities under the jurisdiction of a single council. Each community would not be allowed to discriminate against entrants on grounds of race, sex, age etc but they would have the liberty to disallow entry to anyone who they had reasonable grounds for thinking might be a troublemaker of some kind. (Just as I have the right to apply for any job that I want – bt the employer is not obliged to actualy employ me!)

  • Lorenzo Cherin 11th May '17 - 10:59pm


    I understand your very well made argument for considering the matter not set in the open minded on this, but the majority in the country is going to be so significant , and the votes cast too, that we , pushing and trying for very many from our party there to make a difference, are going to have to influence the process, and the only way is then to moderate it. I agree with the referendum on the deal, but if we do not win very large backing for that, we have to pause and regroup. Meanwhile we try to gain new seats !

  • Katharine Pindar 11th May '17 - 11:12pm

    Thanks, Lorenzo, you are right, we will have plenty to do to try to moderate the process, given the direction in which Mrs May is taking us; and, absolutely, we must try to win more seats, hopefully from some of those painfully lost in 2015. We need to stay united in this mighty struggle, and I am sure there will be no ‘splitting’ between the likes of you and I!

  • Denis Mollison 12th May '17 - 7:33am

    @El Sid
    “if you believe that AV is fairer than FPTP, the vast majority don’t want the voting system to be fairer”

    That’s a dreadfully illogical argument. AV is arguably a little fairer than FPTP, but its failure says little about opinion on a genuinely fair electoral system.

  • @K Pindar: the evidence is the EU project is designed to create a federal superstate overtime, and indeed those running the EU already behave like the EU is a state, after getting a common border and a common currency they want an army, having a common army is the next step to a common foreign policy – they already behave like there is a common immigration policy. The people at the top of the lib dems know and understand the European Union well, they are clearly in support of the European Project. Believe it or not some people (myself included) voted leave not because of what the EU is but what they feared it may become. Now I will admit I don’t know what the UK will look like after Brexit and therefore did not know exactly what I was voting for. But the people that voted remain did know what they were voting for either, they didn’t know what the EU would look like in the future either.

  • Katharine and Edward C
    I am sorry but your comments show a naïve lack of understanding of how the EU Treaties work. El Sid gets it.
    Katharine says, “Let us preferably not have ever-closer union. My view of the EU is strongly supportive of a collaboration of nation states who share ideals of freedom and democracy, working together to improve standards of life for all. ” Yes, that’s what I’d like the EU to be, too. But that is not, unfortunately, an accurate reflection of what the EU actually is – if it was, of course I would have voted Remain. But the Treaties have, from 1957 onwards, been structured such that they cannot operate other than to move forward towards ever-closer union. They are not merely “collaboration” – they are a tight framework of legal obligation. And the Treaties are not static, they are a dynamic process. Whoever the leaders are, ever-closer union is what you will get until and unless the Treaties are amended. The Commission exists to promote integration. The only choice is fast or slow. If you don’t want ever-closer union and you merely want “collaboration”, you should have voted Leave, and channel your energies into forging a better form of real collaboration with our neighbours.

    Edward C quotes Auden, “We must love one another or die`…..And if we can’t love one another then we must find the most efficient way to rub along.” But love does not necessarily mean being legally bound to each other so tightly, as per the EU Treaties. We love Canada, India, the US, but don’t have say in each other’s laws at home. The EU law-making apparatus undermines our own democracy at home and breeds frustration and alienation – achieving the opposite from that intended.

    The EU is incapable of reform in such a way that it would be acceptable to British voters. It cannot see that it has over-reached its remit. It does not trust its member countries to run themselves autonomously without conflictFair enough – we should let them carry on with their integration, if that’s what they want. But we cannot be part of it that because integration is contrary to our interests.

    In many ways, the EU should be pleased we are leaving. We and Denmark have been a problem, outside the euro but inside the EU – we would increasingly have been a thorn in their legislative side. The potential is there to forge a much better, more honest relationship for both sides for the future.

  • In many ways, the EU should be pleased we are leaving. We and Denmark have been a problem, outside the euro but inside the EU – we would increasingly have been a thorn in their legislative side.
    Thorn? or the irritant that over time enables the pearl to grow?

  • Katharine Pindar 12th May '17 - 10:16pm

    Annabel, I think you are ignoring the ‘dynamic process’ that is currently surging through the EU, with developments like the right-wing authoritarian stance of some Visegrad countries and the continuing mass youth unemployment in the poorer states likely to enforce major changes there. El Sid, it is simply a non-sequitur to say that, because ‘people at the top of the Lib Dems’ know and understand the EU well, ‘they are clearly in support of the European project’.

  • Simon Banks 12th Jul '17 - 2:40pm

    Liberal internationalism of a sort can be discerned further back than 1934. Gladstone, for example, considered the suffering of Bulgarians under the Turkish empire to merit British pressure on Turkey, while for Disraeli, it was simply a matter of calculating the national interest.

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