Reform the Reformers – Part 3, The Search for a ‘Big Idea’

Liberal Democrat activists will be familiar with two apparently contradictory refrains.

One is that Liberal Democrats should pursue what is morally right for the country, regardless of public opinion. The other is that ‘no-one ever voted Lib Dem because of our policy on (… insert obscure policy…)’.

The point of the latter refrain is that the public’s problem-solving priorities should dominate policymaking effort.

There is another, potentially reconciling, refrain; that liberal democracy in the UK needs a new popular ‘big idea’. Opposition to the Iraq war is a common reference point, a major contributor to Liberal Democrats having 60+ MPs in the Commons. Electoral reform, de-centralisation and localism or an anti-Brexit campaign (as yet), have not proven so successful, however.

Those scratching their heads for a new big idea can relax. The search for one is not only futile, but detrimental.

Retail politics (the electorate), and wholesale politics (expert and media opinion) will over time decide if one or more of our policies represent a popular ‘big idea’, not us.

Indeed our anti-Iraq-war stance was initially regarded with some disdain before it became popular. What’s more, the search for a big idea as a quick popularity fix can deflect us from the need to get much better at ‘doing liberal democracy’ and all its modern complexities, in practice.

Liberal democracy itself is the big idea; standing sometimes unseen right in front of us. The UK public has been in pursuit of it, in the sense of being against impunity and absolute power, for more than a thousand years. In that context the last 15-20 years where the ‘elite state’ has regained ground, has been a blip. It is no coincidence that this followed a few years after that rival ‘big idea’ against impunity and elite dominance, state socialism, suffered a near-fatal blow.

Something else, however, has entered the political psyche, and weakened a return to that thousand year quest: China.

Over decades academics argued that liberal democracy was economically efficient. The Bretton Woods institutions have argued to poorer countries post-war that importing the symptoms of liberal democracy would thus improve economics. Concepts like ‘property rights’, ‘legal system’, ‘transparency’, ‘fiscal moderation’, and ‘elite profligacy’ littered the pages of their recommendations. Amongst the rich countries there was also encouragement for liberal democracy to be observed through the lens of GDP growth.

Then along came the vast economic expansion of one-party-state China.

Those that, for decades, promoted liberal democracy or its administrative symptoms as merely a route to economic growth, were hoisted with their own petard. The thousand year quest was lost, somehow, and suddenly the central age-old tenets of liberal democracy about power and monopoly, impunity and elite dominance, all but evaporated.

This is the world we cannot escape from. There is more we can say about these tenets, but we must now show that real liberal democracy works, via multiple measures (not just GDP growth), and can respond to the rise of China without pulling up the drawbridge.

In restarting the long quest against impunity, absolute power and monopoly, we now have to show how these liberal democratic tenets can solve the public’s priority problems and sustainably achieve a relatively successful society and economy.

We have already decided what is morally right; democracy and liberalism, and in that we have history on our side. We have a globally important job to do to show it is effective too, or a new dark age beckons. That’s no small idea in itself…

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Geoffrey Payne 30th Jul '18 - 12:49pm

    Well at last it is helpful that someone mentions China for how it is. Many months ago Paddy Ashdown wrote an article where he seemed to believe that China will one day become a liberal democracy that observes human rights – an outdated view that seemed to draw on Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Of course things have improved since the Cultural Revolution but China remains an illiberal authoritarian state, and given it’s economic prosperity and it’s negative perception of Muslims it is hard to imagine it is going to change that much for a long time.
    And for many countries in the world it is becoming a role model country.
    Can we become a better role model country, maybe even for China? That would be excellent but we have a long way to go. With Trump in the USA and the far right in Europe poised to break up the EU, we are going in the other direction.

  • Peter Martin 30th Jul '18 - 1:26pm

    Yep Good point about China. Singapore too has been doing well since its birth. Essentially a one party state with just the thinnest of democratic veils.

    So this does add weight to the arguments of those of us who say that the concept of the nation state isn’t quite dead. It’s still a force to be reckoned with and we shouldn’t carelessly hand over our sovereignty or supposedly “share” it with other without the general support of the wider population.

    That doesn’t mean we abandon our democracy but we don’t want to be in a similar position to Greece and cuddling up to Chinese State capitalism because we need their money.

  • William Fowler 30th Jul '18 - 1:46pm

    A lot of Asian countries have a tremendous energy and actively practice small scale capitalism on a huge scale, devoid of much of a welfare state, it is all down to the individual and the extended family unit. China has that as well but also huge state enterprises and lots of intervention (I gave up investing in Chinese markets when the govn started interfering with stock price falls) but can guarantee that at some point the Chinese miracle will implode on the back of greed and debt… but not quite yet!

    Western democracies have huge bloated states that don’t do very much except perpetuate themselves and are eating up all the spare wealth in the country rather than fairly distributing it to those in need. It will be worse with Brexit as no party is openly saying that govn spending will have to fall to cover the lack of tax revenues going forward. Perhaps the LibDems could start there, explain how they are going to more fairly distribute a smaller cake?

  • paul barker 30th Jul '18 - 2:27pm

    Chinas growth took off precisely when it abandoned Economic Communism & encouraged Capitalists to become rich.
    India has a growth rate equal to that of China & its been a Democracy for 70 Years, it would be doing even better without authoritarian, nationalist & sectarian Politics.
    I dont know any more about whats happening in China than anyone else but the Ruling Elite seem to be very worried about something, going by the recent stepping up of repression. No-one predicted June 1989 & I expect any future Revolt to be a surprise too.

  • Paul Reynolds 30th Jul '18 - 2:59pm

    I had occasion to meet LKY the first PM of Singapore, both of us being in Singapore General Hospital. His comments reflected an idea I had read about. As a lawyer he appreciated the economic effects of an independent, highly efficient legal system, and absence of corruption. ‘Being able to enforce a contract’ was one phrase. His intention it seems was knowingly to import the ‘product’ of hundreds of years of democracy in the UK, in terms of transparency and legality in the commercial system, and maintain reliable, truly independent courts. The ‘product’, but not the full democratic process. This will never be possible in the People’s Republic of China. This is the root of all of China’s economic and social vulnerabilities, which, based on my work there, are all to glaring.

  • Sue Sutherland 30th Jul '18 - 3:19pm

    I think you could argue that we weren’t a liberal democracy when we went through the industrial revolution.

  • Innocent Bystander 31st Jul '18 - 8:54am

    “Liberal democracy itself is the big idea;”
    That will be interpreted as “Vote for us and nothing will change”.
    It says “We love the status quo, up here in successful metropolitan land, we have no clue how to improve your economic situation and we don’t care. We have insulated ourselves from your plight so tough on you but so what? We are doing fine. Can’t stop now, just off to Heathrow.”

  • Though I agree, to win elections you still need a big idea. It must be broad enough to appeal to a significant number and clear enough to be easily promoted and remembered. With the rise of mobile technology and social media, perhaps we should look at returning to common sense and borrow from Margaret Thatcher’s phrase book.

  • I agree that no-one ever voted Lib Dem because of some obscure policy. So, what does motivate them to vote a particular way?

    Surely, it’s when the general stance of a party chimes with their experience of life so that, in general terms, it feels like that party understands and cares about their problems and concerns and can be trusted to do the right thing about them. As for how the party proposes to solve those problems – well that’s a matter of detail that few are interested in or equipped to address so, unless they believe the ‘experts’ have gone rogue, voters are generally happy to leave that to the specialists.

    The shorthand for this is ‘narrative’. In over 30 years the Lib Dems have never had a coherent narrative, nor has the leadership ever apparently understood this omission, let alone its importance. What they have done, ad nauseam, is to craft cautious and detailed policies – mainly with an eye to perceived gaps in a political spectrum seen as running from Conservative to Labour which evolved to become one running from (Tory) neoliberalism to (Blairite) neoliberalism. Oh dear!

    In other words, narrative is where we want to get to; policies are merely the means to that end and make no sense in the absence of a destination.

    As for doing what is “morally right” even that is complicated. Arguments of morality take us into the sphere of quasi-religion – like the belief that ‘free markets’ will (by God-like agency a.k.a. ‘competition’) deliver optimal outcomes. That’s utter nonsense. What they actually deliver is the outcome desired by the powerful people and interests that control the markets. Pointing that out would never do so it’s sold as secular morality.

    So, forget limply waiting around for random chance to deliver “one or more of our policies” that strike a chord with the voters (what sort of marketing is that?). Listen instead to their pain and worries and ask yourself what a great society would look like, why existing politics isn’t delivering that and what politics is needed to get there. Then do it.

  • @Gordon
    ‘In other words, narrative is where we want to get to; policies are merely the means to that end and make no sense in the absence of a destination.’

    Absolutely: and when policies and actions fly in the face of that narrative it is totally destructive. This was the great sin of the student fees/broken promises debacle. It blasted a hole in the egalitarian liberal narrative that we have still not managed to patch up.

  • It’s a bit strange to have disdain for obscure policies. They are needed. They’re only inappropriate if they’re given undue prominence – or, of course, if they’re bad ideas.

    The point of the search for a big idea – or, advisors on messaging might say, not necesssarily one big idea, but not more than three – ought to be to find policies that express our basic Liberalism and help people to understand what we’re about so they can form a clearer and more consistent idea of who we are. Such policies should also, of course, attract support, though we should not be bothered if they also attract attacks.

    That brings me to Paul’s remark, “Indeed our anti-Iraq-war stance was initially regarded with some disdain before it became popular.” This is interesting. Who regarded it with disdain? The political establishment and the big parties. Should that have bothered us? Not at all. Our policy was not only right, it was supported by a majority of the people. Only briefly immediately after the war started, did the polls show a majority for the war and that was an natural – and evanescent – patriotic reaction.

    He’s on firmer ground in stressing that the search for a single big idea can divert us; but if we take our beliefs and not short-term advantage as the main guide, it will not divert us.

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