The ideas that built the Liberal Democrats

The ideas that built the Liberal DemocratsPolitics rest on beliefs. Political parties that operate without a philosophical framework stand for little more than personality and populism. But equally, beliefs must rest on thought – they must be continually defined, tested and debated rather than simply inherited unquestioningly.

That’s part of what the Federal Policy Committee’s Agenda 2020 process is all about; I’ve written about the various elements of that already on Lib Dem Voice.

But of course the party doesn’t start from scratch in this respect. The political ideology of the Liberal Democrats draws on the philosophies of two reformist traditions, liberalism and social democracy. Liberalism possesses an immensely rich history, stretching back over more than three hundred years. Social democracy is a label that has meant very different things over the last hundred years and more, but between them these traditions possess a distinctive approach to concepts such as freedom, equality and social justice.

As a concise guide to the key strands of political thought and ideas underlying Liberal Democrat beliefs, the Liberal Democrat History Group has published a new booklet, Liberalism: The ideas that Built the Liberal Democrats

The booklet’s first section examines the historic roots of the party. The first two entries seek to define the differences – and similarities – between economic (or classical) liberalism and social liberalism, terms which are often used to define the positions of individual Liberal Democrats. Other entries describe the traditions which have been drawn into the party over time: the social democracy brought in by the SDP on merger with the Liberal Party in 1988, the New Liberalism of the early twentieth century, and the beliefs of the three groups that came together in 1859 to form the Liberal Party: Peelites, Radicals and Whigs.

The second section includes entries on four concepts we consider fundamental to the Liberal Democrat approach: freedom, equality, liberal democracy and social justice. The final section covers what we’ve called ‘approaches’. Entries on community politics, economic concepts (markets and prosperity, and the welfare state), environmentalism, free trade, Keynesianism, laissez-faire and liberal internationalism offer a broad spread of the different approaches Liberals have taken to key areas of policy over time.

We hope you enjoy this collection, that it adds to your knowledge and understanding of the philosophy of liberalism, and that it encourages you to explore further the key ideas that together built the Liberal Democrats.

Liberalism: The Ideas that Built the Liberal Democrats is available now from the Liberal Democrat History Group website, and will be on sale at the History Group’s exhibition stand at conference, for £6 (£5 for subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History).

* Duncan Brack is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and chaired the FPC’s working group that wrote Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe.

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  • To the best of my memory there was only ONE idea that was the building block. Quite simply the need to merge the Liberal Alliance and SDP parties after the failure of the 1987 campaign stimulated by David Steels open letter the weekend following that Thursday. It was necessary political expediency. Anything else is really froth.

  • Conor McGovern 22nd Sep '15 - 12:23pm

    Theakes – and if the Liberal party drew upon liberalism and the SDP drew upon social democracy, don’t the Lib Dem draw upon liberalism and social democracy?

  • Nice graphic. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

    Liberalism has absorbed much over the last century or so, but the core message is well defined there.

  • Conor, wishy washy stuff, it was a political necessity, many of us wanted it from 1982, look at the arguments over who had wihich constituency to contest etc. Cold politics and the merger was in that spirit, and why not. We should stop hiding behind sweet platitudes.

  • Stephen Hesketh 22nd Sep '15 - 1:40pm

    Conor McGovern22nd Sep ’15 – 12:23pm

    “Theakes – and if the Liberal party drew upon liberalism and the SDP drew upon social democracy, don’t the Lib Dem draw upon liberalism and social democracy?”

    I find myself in agreement with you again Conor. Although I joined the Liberals during David Steel’s time as leader, I don’t see much difference between liberal Social Democracy and traditional Social Liberalism.

    There are much larger differences to be found between mainstream Liberal Democrats and those economic liberal Centrists who continuously seek to push our party of Social Liberal Democracy in the direction of supporting the economic status quo.

    To me the values we support and promote today are more important than how we arrived here (although I do thoroughly enjoy political history as a topic!).

  • John Tilley 22nd Sep '15 - 2:53pm

    The 1980s seem such a very long time ago.   I was sent off on a three week residential course at the Civil Serice College during the period when the newly formed SDP was jumping on and off trains going to a series of conferences in cities rather than the traditional seaside conference venues.   I watched some of this on TV because the media were as obsessed with the SDP In those days as they were with UKIP in 2014.   The reaction of my fellow civil servants was fascinating, most of them being Oxbridge High Flyers and therefore in close touch with some of their contemporaries who had just joined the new party.

    The common thread to all this was that everyone had a different idea of what “social democracy” actually meant.   For every 3 members of the SDP there were 5 different ideas about what each of them thought social democracy was.
    For some it was old fashioned right wing Labour economc nationalism and opposition to reds under the bed.
    For some it was David Owen style stuff (scarily reminiscent of another New Party formed by an ex-Labour cabinet minster in the 1930s).
    For some it was Shirley Williams and those ex-labour terribly nice posh people doing their best to help the poor.
    For others it was Roy Jenkins’ approach  who as a Labour Home Secretary had helped David Steel on the Abortion Bill.

    What is extremely odd is that a myth grew up in the media that the SDP was to the “left” of the Liberals.    This myth has been perpetuated to this day.  The Orange Book (Liberal Reform) faction talk about social democrats as if they are Marxists.  The confusion has now become an issue around this week’s conference with the media being told by people at the top of our party that the “centre ground” is wide open because Jeremy Corbyn has “taken his party off to the extreme left”.   Norman Lamb was saying as much on The Daily Poitics today.   Although for Norman the “extreme left” seems to be anyone who opposes a 30% cut in the salaries of junior doctors.   Norman Lamb had been in The Labour Party (where he was a researcher to a Labour MP) he was recruited  to the SDP and is now on The Advisory Panel ‘Liberal Reform’. 

    The ideas that built  the Liberal Democrats produced some interesting contributions at the conference today.  Hopefully this will eventually be useful, especially to new members of the party.

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Sep '15 - 9:11am

    John Tilley 22nd Sep ’15 – 2:53pm

    Agree John. Although my post concentrated on how we have come together so that today our original party is not generally discernable, any suggestion that the SDP were either more radical or to the left of us simply does not stand up to any sort of scrutiny. They were significantly more of a centre party and centrist than the Liberals ever were. Just like the orange book/liberal reform tendency, their Owenite leadership were frequently blind and dismissive of what had been achieved prior to their arrival on the scene.

  • Whilst it’s always nice to hear the war stories about who was lefter, the Old Liberals or the SDP, the Liberal Democrat Party is approaching thirty years old, and the fact is that the majority of members will have joined post merger and will have come to the party for their own reasons and in light of the problems and solutions of the modern world. Their understanding of Liberalism has been shaped by the events and realities of the last three decades.

    Liberalism has a long historic base, but just because collectivism was in fashion 50 years ago doesn’t mean it’s any more relevant today than any of the other philosophical strands which are woven into our history,

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Sep '15 - 10:38am

    John Tilley

    What is extremely odd is that a myth grew up in the media that the SDP was to the “left” of the Liberals. This myth has been perpetuated to this day.

    I don’t remember that myth being around at the time of the Liberal-SDP merger. At that time the Liberal Party was characterised as having two aspects, a right-wing which was indistinguishable from the SDP, and a left-wing which was written off as “beards and sandals” and treated with the sort of condescending attacks that Jeremy Corbyn get these days. The left-wing of the Liberal Party were keenest on maintaining the “liberal” label, whereas the SDP and the right-wing wanted to get rid of it, first downplaying it by insisting the party had the cumbersome name “Social and Liberal Democrats”, and then wanting that to be abbreviated to just “Democrats”. Anyone who carried on calling themselves “Liberal” was treated with suspicion, it was seen as a sign of being a leftie who didn’t really want the merger. What seems to have happened is that this attitude persisted for long enough for sufficient people to forget what “Liberal” used to mean, which enabled the Orange Bookers then to come along and claim it and re-write history in order to give themselves more credence.

    In reality, although Liberal Party members on average were somewhat to the left of SDP members, there was a big spread in both parties on policy, and which one a member belonged to was more due to circumstances than policy positions.

    The real divide was more on organisation than on policy. The SDP was a top-down party, very much the tool of its leaders who had founded it on the basis that political activists were dangerous people, and what the public wanted was a party of professional politicians. The Liberal Party was a bottom-up party, revived by activists from the relics of the historical Liberal Party, and that revival was based on the idea that the public found professional politicians remote and out-of-touch, and wanted a new sort of politics oriented around community activity.

  • Stephen Hesketh 23rd Sep '15 - 11:10am

    Matthew Huntbach23rd Sep ’15 – 10:38am

    Regarding the cumbersome “Social and Liberal Democrats” name, with hindsight Matthew, simply dropping the ‘and’ might have been the best outcome … the Social Liberal Democrats … now there’s an idea …

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