The making of a Liberal

A recent conversation amongst colleagues from the Social Liberal Reform regarding the need to reaffirm the history of Liberalism and what we are all about got me thinking about my journey. It is undoubtedly an interesting one! Growing up in a family that voted for the old Liberal Party I took a different route as a young man, first becoming mainstream Labour than a supporter of its left-wing and simultaneously a committed trade union activist. When I lived in Newbury in the early 1980s, the Liberals were viewed by us socialists as people who had usurped the Labour vote which prior to 1974 had been high enough to be the primary challenger to the Tories. In 1987 when I ran as a council candidate, I was pleased to be facing just a Conservative, no Alliance competitor to muddy the waters I thought. When the merger occurred, I was surprised at how what I then viewed as a collection of the middle of the road moderates could fall out so badly. Then came Blair and New Labour. Prior to 2005, I met the two Lib Dem candidates for the Reading seats Denise Ganes and John Howson; their pitch was more radical than that of the party I still belonged to.

Finally, in 2010 I made the switch, but even then the transition hadn’t been made. The main reason for my supporting the Liberal Democrats in that year’s General Election was their community activism and opposition to an appalling Labour-run Reading Borough Council. Then came the national coalition with the Tories, which was quickly followed by a local one and like many I found that very hard to swallow. That said I was a candidate in 2011 and 2012, at the same time establishing an ongoing campaigning presence in my ward. The philosophical conversion was starting by then, as an avid reader I devoured everything I could find on the subject of Liberalism. Attending conferences and meeting fellow activists also helped. So as the years have passed, I have become a Liberal by conviction, I can’t put a date or time on when it happened, but I know it did.

A lot of new people have joined our party in recent years and like me will probably not have fully formed their commitment to our core philosophy. That is why the work that is planning on producing a document on the history of Liberalism and what we believe that the Social Liberal Forum is planning to undertake. I look forward to reading it.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

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18 Comments

  • A good testimony to reading lots of Liberal stuff while on a journey – and a generous recognition that people travel at different speeds.

  • David Warren 25th Mar '20 - 7:33pm

    Thanks Geoff, that just about sums it up. Happy to have stopped at station Liberal.

  • John Littler 25th Mar '20 - 9:39pm

    Interesting political travels. I went in the opposite direction. As a kid, I think i was influenced by the large, easy to swallow right wing pieces in the Sunday Express, illustrated by large cartoons. I then went on to read Milton Freedman, Hayek and to join the Freedom Association. I stood as an independent supporting the (extreme free markets) Freedom Assoc. in my Essex Grammar school mock elections.

    I think this appealed because the Labour Government was seen as having failed. It was associated with power cuts, petrol shortages, strikes, high inflation (27%) and interest rates and relatively high unemployment. There was much strife and people often believed almost anything made in the UK was inferior. The I’m Backing Britain’ campaign obviously failed and the Government received a major IMF bail out based on future oil receipts. I know now they started selling off oil rights on the cheap, to get revenue in before the ’79 election. They all knew that the next government would get a glut of new oil money to sustain it and that happened to be Thatcher, who also sold off industries and closed many of the rest.

    When Minford Monetarism came in in ’81-2, millions of jobs were lost as firms could no longer finance their production and continuance, even where they had full order books and had survived the 30’s depression and 2 world wars. It was obvious that Thatcher has failed ever worse than Labour and only the Falklands victory and blind nationalism saved her from being a footnote. I enthusiastically supported the Alliance of the Liberal party and the new SDP, which started to win amazing by elections, but failed to break the mould.

    I later became an elected trade union rep in the Civil Service before leaving to start a small niche electronics manufacturing company I am still running.

    The LibDems now need to think very carefully as to how to address the enormous changes and need for reform and to grasp and own the future, but to work with other progressive parties in a loose alliance to achieve it, without competing with each other electorally. We need to look at the German/ Scandinavian models and take the best of them, while being better at letting small firms operate flexibly than they are.

    Either that, or let the Tories own the future long term, or forever as far as a 59 year old might likely see.

  • David Warren 26th Mar '20 - 10:15am

    We are a similar age John so we do share similar memories. Like you I was a union activist in the Civil Service (my first job) and actively supported the 1981 strike.

    The Freedom Association are still going but are nowhere near as influential as they were back in the 1970s.

  • William Wallace 26th Mar '20 - 11:31am

    We need as a party to go through another cycle of returning to the underlying principles of Liberalism and discussing how changing technological, social and economic circumstances affect how we should work to put them into practice. The impact of the digital revolution presents huge potential threats, but some major potential benefits. The current pandemic will encourage stronger state intrusion into private lives, so forcing us all to address the balance between individual liberty and social solidarity. And how do we develop ‘Liberal Patriotism’ in what has become an angrily nationalist world?

  • Phil Beesley 26th Mar '20 - 3:16pm

    Thank you for the piece, David Warren.

    I am not a clubbable type of person, but joining a trade union was the best career decision I made. I never needed direct assistance from my union, so it was knowledge that made it worthwhile. It was great to know that fellow workers shared my concerns when things were going wrong; a bit more concrete than tea room gossip.

  • The Social Liberal Forum have a very narrow and disputed view of what constitutes Liberalism, and any document they produce defining it should not be viewed as anything other than a minority viewpoint. It most certainly will not be mainstream and will not encompass the broad sweep of Liberal thought that we need to unify if we are ever to be anything other than a narrow sect on the left.

  • David Warren 27th Mar '20 - 9:55am

    Not sure social liberals should be described in that way, Maybe Liberal Reform could put together their own document?

  • Peter Watson 27th Mar '20 - 11:06am

    As something of an outsider, I get the impression that, on the socioeconomic side of things at least, the “Social Liberal Forum” represents the left of the party and “Liberal Reform” the right.
    So I wonder if David’s reference in the first paragraph to “the Social Liberal Reform” is a bit of wishful thinking? 😉

  • @Peter Watson “As something of an outsider, I get the impression that, on the socioeconomic side of things at least, the “Social Liberal Forum” represents the left of the party and “Liberal Reform” the right.”

    That’s broadly speaking correct. I would add that economic liberals are social liberals, but the reverse isn’t true.

    The SLF tend to define social liberalism not in terms of society being more liberal towards people and their life choices, but in being more dirigiste. They can be quite small-c conservative when it comes to banning things and leaving things as they are.

  • TCO – “That’s broadly speaking correct. I would add that economic liberals are social liberals, but the reverse isn’t true.” – economic liberals are social liberal only if social liberal means “socially liberal”, but social liberalism as an ideological concept clashes with economic liberalism because their views on the level and extent of state intervention are completely opposite to each other.

  • Peter Watson 27th Mar '20 - 4:21pm

    @ TCO & Thomas
    Cheers.
    I do think that the distinction between these two aspects of liberalism/Liberalism is a big problem for the party, contributing to a lack of direction and clarity.
    It seems to provoke very emotive reactions with the two sides defining their opponents in terms of other parties, calling each other Thatcherites or Corbynistas, when certain topics comes up in conversation.
    The two sides probably share a lot of common ground and only disagree over the extent to which something like state ownership or intervention is a good or bad thing rather than being all in or all out, but diametrically opposed arguments near the centre can look just as heated as those between people further out.

  • If you need a book to read I would recommend Tudor Jones “The uneven path of British Liberalism, from Jo Grimond to Brexit”.

  • David Warren 27th Mar '20 - 5:48pm

    Historically Liberalism hasn’t always been under one banner in the UK with disastrous consequences electorally because of our unfair FPTP electoral system.

    In some countries with PR system there are two liberal parties with parliamentary representation. A good example is the Netherlands which has the VVD and Democrat 66.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Mar '20 - 8:02pm

    David Warren 27th Mar ’20 – 5:48pm
    A ‘fair electoral system’ was achieved in new bodies, during New Labour’s modernising period. such as the devolved Scottish parliament. The Labour Lib – Dem coalition did manage at the end to install STV for local elections in Scotland, as a member said at federal conference. I do not know whether she has been re-elected, but Enid Lakeman (a late member of my local party) would be proud of her.

  • Richard Underhill 27th Mar '20 - 8:18pm

    By David Warren | Wed 25th March 2020 – 3:30 pm
    Did you attend federal conference in Sheffield during the coalition? The police must have thought there would be physical violence, because we were fenced in and Labour activists tried to speak to us through the wire as if we were zoo animals.

  • It’s been clear for some time that all the political party coalitions are misaligned. Prior to December’s election there was some evidence that this was starting to happen. Those events and subsequently have muddied the waters on this.

  • David Warren 29th Mar '20 - 3:26pm

    @Richard Underhill No I didn’t attend that conference.

    I was at the Autumn 2011 and Spring 2012 conferences I think Labour had given up by then.

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