Review: Read Towards a Liberal Future by David Howarth and Bernard Greaves

In his conference speech, Vince Cable talked about having a party “fizzing with ideas.” But to be able to present a liberal vision with liberal ideas, you have to have a clear understanding of liberal values and of how they should be applied in every area of our lives. In Towards a Liberal Future, David Howarth and Bernard Greaves set out their view of what liberalism is all about. They look at how the party has failed to practice and communicate its core values and set out how we can fix this. I’m very excited to say that they have allowed us to share their book with you here.

The authors have a long history in the Party. It’s nearly 40 years since Bernard Greaves co-wrote “The Theory and Practice of Community Politics” and 10 years since he co-wrote “The Theory and Practice of Community Economics.” David Howarth is a former Liberal Democrat MP and Councillor who has returned to the academic life since he stepped down from Parliament. More recently, he’s developed the idea of Core Vote Strategy with Mark Pack and it’s no surprise that that plays a part in the book’s strategy for our recovery.

Vince seems to take the implied criticism in their analysis of how we got to where we are on the chin in his foreword to the book:

It starts from the proposition that the party has ‘lost its way’ producing an incoherent mixture of ‘local champions and national pragmatists’ (the latter, presumably including me, being the people who went into Coalition).

It seeks to revive the party’s long term vision and, in my view, does so brilliantly.

The authors don’t merely blame the coalition for our demise. That, they argued, started with the concentration purely on winning local elections without a national over-arching vision.

From where it all went wrong, Howarth and Greaves take us through a definition of liberal values and some examples of how we could translate them into various policy areas. 

For me it was a bit like seeing all those things we believed in the 1980s when I was first involved in politics again. You could describe its overarching theme as taking back control – but with a social conscience and a celebration of individuality.  For example, we believe in democracy so we need to make sure we have it at work, school, in public services.

I liked this summing up of our mission:

Liberalism involves an endless search for community and peaceful co-existence. For Liberals the only permanent enemies are those who want to destroy the possibility of that search…

And there’s always room for old fashioned liberal questioning of authority:

Defending civil liberties involves defending both the popular and the unpopular and occasionally saying no to the Police whose appetite for new powers knows no bounds but whose integrity is far from unquestionable.

If I could have wished for more from it, I’d have had more in the way of analysis of how our current political and social structures actively discriminate against certain groups of people and I’d have liked to have seen more recognition of the need for greater diversity as a part of all our decision making processes. There’s only so much you can fit into 72 pages, though, and that thinking can be developed.

It’s a great read, and so fizzing with ideas that you might find it gives you the hiccups if you devour it too quickly.

It’s available free here on this site and you can buy hard copies from those lovely people at ALDC. They cost £5 for ALDC members and £10 for non-members.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Great to see my old friend Bernard still firing on all cylinders……

    And yes, an important part of liberalism is challenging authority and the establishment….. Including those in the party who join it.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Mar '18 - 1:48pm

    Having looked at this and read a good bit, I admire the spirit of it, but the solutions are a little typical.

    The same mood music that renders the Orange Book, an outdated songfest, does similar with some of the policy areas, others are thin.

    Crime in this is reduced to a mention, under civil liberties and the rule of law. But no detail on law and, order!

    Health is reduced to the obvious call, rightly, for more funding, but a very sweeping statement, that commissioning and delivery being separated, makes no sense. Oh yes it does, just not between vast and impersonal bureaucracies, but between patient and provider, this is freedom . And we do not have it and most of Europe does. Endless boards to address the democratic deficit does not give the individual at point of need any freedom at all.

    The Liberalism at the heart of this is not in question. The level of excitement about it is.

  • @Lorenzo. Sorry you’re not excited by this. I confess I have only read through it quickly, but I thought the emphasis on spreading democracy was spot on. Indeed, after 30 plus years involved in this daft politics business it was quite emotional to see the values I believe in there on the page. (OK, so it’s been a long day at work, bit tired !!!!)
    There is so much in there that it is impossible to respond to more than a fraction of it. When the authors spoke of spreading power I could not help but reflect of the council arrangements where I live – a unitary authority, with parish councils below. One keen fellow sits on the unitary body and THREE parish councils. Not what I call spreading power. And the next round of elections (bar bye elections) is 2021.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 23rd Mar '18 - 6:13pm


    I should really add, that on the aspects , to do with the policies I spoke of, mentioning them here thus,I was not as keen, but genuine respect for the authors, and yes, as with your good self, very big liking for the democracy element, you make me correctly explain more.

    We do need to get more exciting . I just do not think they deal with the great and wrong gap in individual value for money and at times lack of Liberal values in public service delivery. The aspects of economic Liberalism, as criticism of it or extolling of it, is too obviously on money rather than flexibility. Put democracy in it, while good, empowers vocal groups, not vulnerable individuals.

  • Katharine Pindar 23rd Mar '18 - 6:57pm

    At first reading I wonder, is a Liberal community if such exists entitled to take action against an illiberal community? Are individuals to be ‘encouraged to develop their potential… through participation in the communities to which they belong’ if their community is perceived by Liberals to be a harmful one?

  • I liked the idea that we need more representatives and the implied idea that all representatives should be involved in the decision making process (implied ending of elected mayors and the cabinet system). I would like us to question the idea that there is an optimum number of councillors for a council. Instead I would like us to advocate an optimum elector / councillor representative ratio. I would like it to be maximum ratios – 2000 to 1 for unitary and districts and 6000 to 1 for county councils. This would increase the number of councillors to about 33,500 from the 21,049 in 2013.

    I like the idea that GP surgeries have to have some elected representatives on their management boards and that NHS Trusts have to have more elected representatives (and I hope less people who have experience of working in the NHS) on their management boards.

  • William Fowler 24th Mar '18 - 8:49am

    Mostly governments and councils are in the way of democracy and need to be reduced down to the bare minimum not expanded, replaced in part by wiring people into a new referendum style voting system (the Swiss do it in part) so that rather than just voting for politicians people are able to vote for the actual (major) policies, none of which could be enacted unless a certain percentage of overall population agreed. I would see this voting system being used on smart phones so although it would be tiresome it would be relatively easy to take part. This would stop parties getting into power and doing things that were not in their manifesto, would give people control over how much politicians were paid and get people more involved and have a real feeling of having a bit of power over things. In effect, over time, it would take the best bits out of all the political parties and declaw the various, often dangerous, power plays made by the political elite.

    Surely this is exactly the kind of radical policy that enhances the populace’s democratic mandate that the Liberals should be trying to promote?

  • Nonconformistradical 24th Mar '18 - 9:01am

    @William Fowler
    “Mostly governments and councils are in the way of democracy and need to be reduced down to the bare minimum not expanded…”

    Someone has to run the country and local authorities – who do you propose should do it?

    “…… replaced in part by wiring people into a new referendum style voting system (the Swiss do it in part) so that rather than just voting for politicians people are able to vote for the actual (major) policies, none of which could be enacted unless a certain percentage of overall population agreed.”

    What certain percentage do you have in mind?

    “I would see this voting system being used on smart phones so although it would be tiresome it would be relatively easy to take part.”

    And how you voted would get straight into the hands of google…. Thanks but no thanks.

    There are good reasons for sticking to voting on paper – if there are allegations of voter fraud then the ballot papers can be checked (that happens sometimes and has resulted in election re-runs), any form of online voting seems extremely vulnerable to fraud.

  • William Fowler joined the party only recently, but for the life of me and in all politeness, as a Liberal since 1961, I really don’t think he understands what Bernard and David Haworth are talking about.

    By the same token, I’m struggling to understand what Lorenzo’s somewhat exhilarated comment is about. But then, he admits he’s only partially read the document and he must have been tired.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Mar '18 - 1:08pm

    As said, I do not see more politicians as anything to do with my or your ability to access better services!

    And several ideas from William are Liberal, like this one, so why not stop the , ex Tory jibes.

  • It’s not a jibe. The destruction/dismantling of local government as a deliberate policy is highly dangerous and illiberal and I’m surprised you don’t understand that.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 24th Mar '18 - 1:43pm

    I see your views are fine, and more than understand, just feel William is entitled to acceptance as a Liberal Democrat, with something to listen to and understand as well, whether to one’s liking.

  • Neil Sandison 24th Mar '18 - 2:03pm

    One of the real problems we face is the over centralisation of power .Be it the Treasury ,or Cabinet, Regional Mayors or Council Cabinets ran by an elete few supposedly held to account by an impoverished overview and scrutiny panels or committees.
    The Council as the body of collective responsibility means very little these days with portfolio holders and inner circles holding the most sway .I dont think instant democracy by referendum is the right response but giving power back to elected bodies with good lines of accountability should be part of liberal thinking.

  • John Marriott 24th Mar '18 - 2:26pm

    I would remind Mr Fowler that the referendum, or plebiscite, was one of the preferred tools of Mr A Hitler. As for the Swiss, there are some who reckon that their system of government can throw up some odd decisions. I am sure it’s probably unfair, but I can’t forget the remark that Orson Welles’ character, Harry Lime, made to Joseph Cotton’s character as they went round on Vienna’s Riesenrad in ‘The Third Man’, which went something like; “What have the Swiss given us after four hundred years of peace? The cuckoo clock”.

    David Raw is, of course, right about local government. In fact, I even managed to get a letter into today’s Guardian on that very subject. Government by texting? No thank you!

  • John Marriott 24th Mar '18 - 2:33pm

    I’ve just checked out what ‘Harry Lime’ actually said. It was “500 years of democracy and brotherly love” and he was comparing Switzerland with renaissance Italy.

  • Sue Sutherland 24th Mar '18 - 2:53pm

    This is a very welcome paper because it creatively links our values with policy ideas, although it doesn’t deal with the controls needed to avoid all types of Nimbyism. Eg increased localism might result in even more of a postcode lottery in health provision. It also doesn’t talk much about consultation, that even with more local decision making and more representatives there should still be a requirement to consult local people as part of the decision making process.
    The question is where do we go from here? It’s no good being a party fizzing with ideas if we never put those ideas into the policy making process which seems to me to trundle on often without much idea of radical reform based on our values, but rather tinkering with the existing situation and accepting austerity as a basis for decision making.
    I’d like to see this paper put to members and discussed widely by local parties. It would also be useful to link with Our Liberal Vision to see if there is a divergence which may need ironing out. Then we could have a document which provides a basis for more coherent and more revolutionary policy making which is owned by the membership.

  • Tony Greaves 24th Mar '18 - 3:34pm

    This is a brilliant pamphlet which calls for the return of democracy as the basis of our Liberalism. But if I can quibble with your posting, Caron, David and Bernard “set out their view of what Liberalism is all about”.

  • @ Lorenzo Cherin

    It doesn’t appear to me that William Fowler understood that one of the reasons for having more elected representatives was so people who know someone who was one and therefore they wouldn’t have such a negative view of them. While referendums are a form of direct democracy they only really work when the voters have the time to consider all the facts and engage in debating the facts with each other. I think our recent experience of referendums should have convinced us this is unlikely to happen. This is why I advocate a low electorate / representative ratios so more of the electorate can be elected and take part in discussing the information and the decision making process.

  • Just to pick up on the point Michael BG was making about the need to broaden the number of people involved as elected representatives, is it worth looking at limiting the time that a person can serve in an elected role, if not in Westminster then certainly in local government ?
    Some state legislatures in the USA had a limit to the number of terms you could serve before a Supreme Court case in 1995 ruled such limits unconstitutional . However, there is a campaign to change the Constituion. Sen. Ted Cruz (OK, not my favourite politian either) said :
    “Though the Founding Fathers declined to include a term limit in the constitution, they feared the creation of a permanent political class that existed parallel to, rather than enmeshed within, American society”. Amen to that !
    Oh, and can we limit the number of co-opted members on town and parish council ? Some are getting a bit like Tammany Hall.

  • Peter Hirst 25th Mar '18 - 2:48pm

    There are two way to power, the slow and principled or the fast and opportunistic. The latter depends on us showing how terrible the other two Parties are and convincing the electorate we offer a credible alternative. We need to find some policies that are current, principled and popular and push them out there. People need some positive reasons that are fairly straightforward to support us. It will mean diverting resources to social media and our press team and pushing against the tide.

  • @ Chris Cory

    When I was looking for the current number of councillors I discovered that on 20th May 2015 the longest serving councillor was Town Councillor Lloyd Wace who had served for 66 years. I don’t think it would be liberal to have stopped him for serving for those 66 years. Why should the state stop someone being a councillor for 60 or 70 years if they wish to and are elected by the people?

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