The ‘Your Liberal Britain Survey’ and One Liberal Vision

Not long ago, I responded to the ‘Your Liberal Britain’ survey.

I am pleased with this kind of democratic engagement. When I look at what (as it seems to me) is a high degree of engagement with grassroots Liberal Democrat members, I see some difficulty or constraints; there is a degree of uncertainty about what our party stands for, and what goals and ideals it should pursue. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, this constraint is also an opportunity: to provide an alternative to the Conservative Party’s wrecking project against the foundations of this society; and again, it can also serve as a touchstone for future alliances and future oppositional work alike.

Here is a long quotation from my survey. Near the end, there was a question about the kind of liberal Britain I envisage:

Liberalism is about freedom, but true freedom is not coerced.

The Liberal Democrats must of focus our attention on our refusal to artificially facilitate tyranny and inequality (e.g. we must oppose cronyist arms sales to Saudi Arabia); but we must not go beyond this into intrusive and paternalistic measures of soft or hard power.

The best way to improve human rights across the globe is to set a good example at home, rather than to either militarily intervene, or to connive and manipulate and talk down to people in other countries.

Freedom that is not freely chosen is no freedom at all.

If we do take a more subtle and indirect approach, by displaying people across the world the benefits of a truly liberal society at home, our Liberalism will be truly inclusive, and not exclusionary of ‘the Other.’

No-one need feel excluded, or that our party only serves the interests of those from dominant demographics.

Freedom has 1000 faces, but we must choose carefully what freedom and what liberalism we are seeking. Otherwise, we will have real trouble.

Our vision of liberalism is what we will be remembered for, and we must choose wisely.

While I do not regret my more ‘critical’ or ‘polemical’ essays about a truly liberal and anti-imperialist liberalism (the repressed anti-establishment shadow, the truly radical and non-collaborative liberalism), I will soon speak in detail of what a more constructive and positive vision of liberalism will look like; with liberal individualism as the direct negation and wholly incompatible antithesis of ‘liberal’ (highly illiberal!) interventionism.

* Jonathan Ferguson is a PhD student. His socio-economic views are progressive/left liberal, with strongly libertarian leanings on non-interventionism, privacy and freedom of speech.

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19 Comments

  • David Evershed 15th Aug '16 - 11:45am

    Jonathan raises an important issue for Liberal Democrats.

    My view is that the Liberal Democrats need to be clearer about what they stand for and that this should be based around freedom.

    Not all Lib Dems will like this because many want to restrict the freedom of others to do things they don’t agree with. We need to spell out when and to what extent we might restrict the freedom of others.

    Recently Lib Dems seem have come to believe in the nanny state and also want to intervene in business and trade more and more. Being clearer about the freedoms that we stand for should involve dropping some of these overly interventionist policies.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 15th Aug '16 - 3:12pm

    David, thanks for your comment. Re:

    “Not all Lib Dems will like this because many want to restrict the freedom of others to do things they don’t agree with. We need to spell out when and to what extent we might restrict the freedom of others.

    Recently Lib Dems seem have come to believe in the nanny state and also want to intervene in business and trade more and more. Being clearer about the freedoms that we stand for should involve dropping some of these overly interventionist policies.”

    I certainly feel torn about the notion of the ‘nanny state.’ I think there is such a thing as the nanny state, but there is a lot of room for debate about where the boundaries of ‘nannying’ may lie. I would call myself an economic progressive, but at the same time, I’d like to think I’m not naive about the implications of interventions, broadly speaking. As Liberal Democrats with both liberal and social democratic roots (rather than extreme socialists or hardcore libertarians) we always have to consider the implications of each intervention very carefully, but in addition, we have to allow for the limitations on human knowledge (both in the sense of ‘what is known’ and ‘what can be known.’) So on the one hand, I do believe the Daily Mail’s moral panic over the ‘bagpocalypse’ is taking criticism of the nanny state too far; but on the other hand, I think the UK has phenomena which are arguably rather more representative cases of questionable intervention, indeed interference: such as problematic restrictions on smoking (speaking myself as a non-smoker).

  • @ David Evershed ” Recently Lib Dems seem have come to believe in the nanny state…”

    Do you mean, David, that you would not have supported Lloyd George and Asquith when they introduced old age pensions and other social reforms well over 100 years ago, or the Beveridge post World War 11 reforms ?

    Certainly all were attacked by the Tories and accused of being part of that pejorative phrase, ‘the Nanny State’. Duchesses announced they would not lick Lloyd George’s stamp. Would you ?

    Plus ca change……..

  • Sue Sutherland 16th Aug '16 - 2:19pm

    David Raw you have introduced an important point. Without a nanny state people die. Of poverty which leads to illness, starvation and hypothermia, which is why the old age pension was introduced. Liberalism is about balancing freedoms not giving freedom to everyone because that isn’t possible. My freedom soon starts to impinge on others. So to take the example of smoking. Should I have the freedom to smoke in spite of the fact that I may kill myself with lung cancer? Yes. Should I be given the knowledge that smoking often leads to cancer? Yes, because otherwise my freedom to live is being endangered through ignorance. Should I be allowed to smoke freely in a roomful of people and endanger their lives? No. Should I be able to be treated by the NHS when I have knowingly endangered myself and when the cost of my treatment means that someone else’s treatment for a rare inherited illness cannot be afforded? Now that’s a really interesting question. That is when Liberalism comes into the discussion rather than Socialism or Thatcherite pseudo Liberalism, or the belief that I shouldn’t pay tax because I’m rich enough to pay for my own medical treatment.
    I really don’t think Lib Dems want to stop people doing things they don’t agree with but they may well want to stop people doing things that cause others harm and this isn’t a simple question but nuanced to the nth degree.

  • Simon Banks 16th Aug '16 - 4:47pm

    Liberal Democrats believe in individual liberty. So whether it’s the state, or an overmighty corporation, or intolerant neighbours, or gangsters, or poverty or illness that give you no chance of doing something does not matter. The result is the same.

    A democratic, devolved, participative state can, indeed must, act to protect people’s liberty against corporations or crime or poverty or domestic hatred or foreign states. Liberals will support this while always being wary of the state’s tendency to suck power upwards. Simples.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th Aug '16 - 11:26pm

    David Evershed

    Recently Lib Dems seem have come to believe in the nanny state and also want to intervene in business and trade more and more.

    The term “Nanny State” was first used in the Spectator magazine in 1965, and since then has been clearly associated with the Conservative Party. I do not recall that term being used at all in the Liberal Party or Liberal Democrats until we were recently infiltrated by people who wanted to change our party to one that supported the economic position of the Conservative Party.

    So, David Evershed, the truth is the opposite to what you are suggesting.

    Until recently, there was no issue in our party about what we meant by “freedom”, we made it clear: “None shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”. That quite clearly separates us from those who suppose that freedom just means the absence of state legislation, it quite clearly and correctly notes that there are other ways freedom can be curtailed than state legislation.

    The term “Nanny State” is used exclusively by those who reject the idea that state action can help protect people from being enslaved by poverty, ignorance and conformity. Thus its use is confined to those who reject the longstanding Liberal Party notion of liberalism.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 17th Aug '16 - 12:37am

    David Raw and Matthew Huntbach re David Evershed on “the nanny state ”

    I am not on the left or right of our party , but identify as being in the radical centre and mainstream centre left, in general. I am very comfortable with a proactive state. Indeed , I feel particularly, as if politically, somewhere on the spectrum mixing the influences of FDR and JFK, both of whom identified as Liberals and knew their British history !

    I am very happy to call myself primarily a Liberal , particularly a social Liberal , partly a social democrat. I thoroughly agree with both of you in the substance of what you are saying on this , but not on the tone of your remarks to and about colleagues.

    We should not say anyone “infiltrated ” our party , importing some apparently outlandish economically right wing notions. To start off , it alienates colleagues who are our fellow members of longstanding. It also sounds too much like a spy drama for my taste , good for an evenings viewing , not for a party s healing !

    And there is more.There were , once upon a time many years before I was born people within the span of Liberal party thought , well to the centre right of the modern party of the seventies , onwards. Is Nick Clegg to the right of Asquith on the economy ?! And Asquith was a hero to the Liberal social democrat , one time Labour minister and Deputy leader , Roy Jenkins !

    The Liberalism rightly alluded to , which is social Liberalism , includes Jo Grimond . He supported some of the first Thatcher governments reforms of the economy , such as early privitisations . Is Vince Cable to the right of Jo Grimond?!

    The nanny state does not allude to the essential and rightful social Liberalism or social democracy ,we all support . Tax credits , benefits , NHS, state education, these are its modern lifes blood . All our party supports these and more.

    But Gordon Browns baby bonds , a free pass for rich pensioners , or free TV licences similarly , regardless of needs , Theresa Mays internet controls , Nicola Sturgeons Named person legislation, there are many examples of what I too would call the nanny state and mean it as at best satire, at worst , criticism!

    I would never apply it to the terrific legislation that is the protection , and advancement in fact,of our , civilised society.

    And I would never single out for outcast status others in our party not as right wing as often supposed!

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Aug '16 - 1:21am

    Lorenzo Cherin

    There were , once upon a time many years before I was born people within the span of Liberal party thought , well to the centre right of the modern party of the seventies , onwards. Is Nick Clegg to the right of Asquith on the economy ?!

    I looked at the Wikipedia page on Asquith, and read the following:

    “In a major speech in December 1908, Asquith warned that the upcoming budget would reflect the Liberals’ policy agenda, and the People’s Budget that was submitted to Parliament the following year greatly expanded social welfare programmes. To pay for them, it significantly increased both direct and indirect taxes.[26] These included a 20 percent tax on the unearned increase in value in land, payable at death of the owner or sale of the land. There would also be a tax of 1⁄2d in the pound[e] on undeveloped land. A graduated income tax was imposed, and there were increases in imposts on tobacco and spirits.”

    From this it is clear that the answer to your question is “Yes”. Clegg did not propose big increases in taxation in order to greatly expand social welfare, and Clegg did not propose radical policies in land taxation. Clegg pushed the idea that reduction in income tax was what liberalism was all about, the opposite of what Asquith was doing here.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 18th Aug '16 - 2:29am

    Matthew Huntbach

    Good reply , although you do not defend your use of the word infiltrate , which implies an entryism our party thankfully does not have .

    Your example is interesting , but , while , admmitedly , just as Asquith was not the rightwinger some might paint him compared to Lloyd George, who was more authoritarian and statist , than Asquith who I do actually prefer politically , I would argue the same with Clegg , compared to Cable, that the former is not so many miles from the latter , that is .I think both are within the same spectrum , whether a little to the left or right of each other , they are Liberals , and social Liberals.

    I gave the example of Roosevelt and Kennedy. Certainly the first , was to the left of the second . Indeed JFK is held up as a conservative by wishful thinking Republicans full of loathing for what they see as the far left Democrats of today .Yet even the left wing Harry Belafonte , who knew the late President Kennedy and admired him, admits to his achievements and , as a black man himself , actually thinks President Kennedy had more passionate empathy with the poor than President Obama !

    I have both praised and criticised our former leader, Nick Clegg. I just do not think he was anymore an interloper into the cause of Liberalism from the right , say , than Charles Kennedy , another with that surname , was from the left .

  • Jonathan Ferguson 18th Aug '16 - 9:46pm

    “The nanny state does not allude to the essential and rightful social Liberalism or social democracy ,we all support . Tax credits , benefits , NHS, state education, these are its modern lifes blood . All our party supports these and more.

    But Gordon Browns baby bonds , a free pass for rich pensioners , or free TV licences similarly , regardless of needs , Theresa Mays internet controls , Nicola Sturgeons Named person legislation, there are many examples of what I too would call the nanny state and mean it as at best satire, at worst , criticism!”

    This sounds like a fairly good summary. I know more about some of these policies than others, but it’s true that nannying or coddling and reasonable interventionism have to be fairly well distinguished.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 18th Aug '16 - 9:48pm

    I also find Simon’s comment very useful. Some people are more worried about the state and not corporate behaviour, while some are worried about business alone, and don’t seem to mind to what lengths the state goes. I think that liberals (at least ‘left’ or ‘progressive liberals’) and social democrats, we need to be like the mythical creature Argus and have a hundred eyes, and not just one or two…

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '16 - 1:40am

    Lorenzo Cherin

    Your message shows the extent to which our party has been infiltrated by people who have changed it so that to people like you it is party that stands for what we used to call Thatcherite economics. That was not what the party stood for when I joined it. Indeed, I and most others joined it because we believed it to be the most effective opposition to the Conservative Party and its Thatcherite economics.

    So, you have been misled by their Orwellian re-writing of history to believe that the Liberal Party in the past stood for Thatcherite economics, when I have show you, in just a few seconds research that you are wrong in that. You suppose that Charles Kennedy was someone very much on the left of the party, whereas when he was elected as leader he was seen as to the centre-right of the party, and his own politics has not changed since then.

    I call it “infiltration” because there has been no democratic decision to shift our party way to the economic right like this. Rather, it has been done by subterfuge. When the party agreed to the Coalition it was in recognition that it was the only viable government, it was not because the membership wanted to push the party permanently towards the Conservatives in terms of policy. Yet the infiltrators straight away used it to do just that. There was a quite outrageous bias towards the economic right in those given leading positions in the party. Clegg, I am sorry to say, made no attempt at all to ensure the image of the party was protected and to give a fair say to all views within it.

    Well, in the end, if large numbers of new members join the party, thinking that is what it is about, and so permanently pushing it that way, they have the right to do so. And I have the right to say, as I do, that since it has moved so far from the party I joined, it is no longer one I want to spend my own time and money promoting.

    I am sorry about this, as I really had hoped after Clegg had gone and the Coalition ended, that the party would move back to where it was, the one where I was an active member for over 30 years.

  • I was against the formal coalition, I believed it would neither help the country nor the party…However, when the deal was done I thought,”Let’s see”…That ‘Let’s see” lasted a couple of months as I watched as we became more and more closely associated with policies that were alien to our pre-2010 promises…
    The 2010-15 years were, and are, defended by those who still seem to believe at being ‘right of centre’ in a centre that is moving ever more to the right is a position worth holding…..
    The ‘bullet points’ in this article are a ‘wishy-washy’ set of aspirations that no-one can disagree with. However, what is needed are individual policies and, more importantly, how they will be achieved….
    I was sadly amused by the bit about ‘militarily intervention’; this from a party who’s leader set out a long list of ‘stringent conditions’ for bombing Syria and, even though none were met, still voted yes!

  • Matthew Huntbach 21st Aug '16 - 4:10pm

    jedibeeftrix

    Had that decision not already been made by the election of Clegg rather than the left wing alternative offered at the time?

    There were only two candidates, the other was not particularly to the left and had flaws that meant some wouldn’t vote for him regardless of policy. Clegg was VERY heavily pushed by the national media, which gave him a great advantage, and I think led to other potential candidates not to bother trying. I know that many who voted Clegg did not do so for policy reasons. I myself saw what was happening, and tried to warn against it at the time, but a lot of people just thought I was saying what I was saying put of some sort of personal animosity towards Clegg.

    No, not that infiltrators are changing the colour of the party, but that the changing aims and expectations from society are naturally evolving the parties that purport to represent them.

    Well, that was what the Cleggies said, wasn’t it? The right-wing press who pushed him in as leader were forever going on about if the Liberal Democrats adopted extreme free market economics, that would be “true liberalism” and would attract many more new votes.

    But it didn’t, did it?

    To me, moving towards cheer-leading free market economics at just the time its flaws were becoming more obvious was an obviously bad move for the party, rather similar to moving towards USSR-style socialism in the 1970s.

    What we need now is the equivalent of Hayek when he wrote The Road to Serfdom. He was right then to point out the flaws in what was then thought to be the inevitable way all countries would be moving politically. Now his ideas have been taken on, twisted to throw away much of the real liberalism that was in them, and become the new unquestioned orthodoxy (apart from a few clueless old-timers i.e. Corbyn types), we really need a new voice saying why this orthodoxy isn’t and just won’t deliver what it promises.

  • @ Matthew Huntbach. Great posts. I do hope people will consider and ponder on your two last posts. What you say is correct and as a party member since 1961 I can bear witness that it is true.

    The party now is not the radical hot house of exciting new ideas that it was under Jo Grimond back in the sixties. As Max Boyce used to say, “I know ‘cos I was there” – employed at Party HQ, a national office holder in the N.L.Y.L., as a PPC, as the first elected Liberal Councillor in what is now Tim Farron’s constituency.

    I have observed how in the early nineties, as the party got more M.P.’s, it was to use your term ‘infiltrated’ by those who saw a career opportunity in it. The soggy centre with no real radical convictions took positions of power (post poor Charlie) in the rest, as Inverdale might say, is history.

    I know and understand where you are coming from, Matthew, and I’m sure some of the people you have challenged you don’t.

    The ultimate outcome of that is the near demise of the party I sweated for for over fifty years and what looks like many many years of Tory Government in the UK. Whether the whole of that UK will quietly accept that is another matter north of the border.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Aug '16 - 9:26pm

    expats

    The 2010-15 years were, and are, defended by those who still seem to believe at being ‘right of centre’ in a centre that is moving ever more to the right is a position worth holding…..

    I myself defended the coalition, not on the grounds that I liked its policies or that I wanted the Liberal Democrats to move to the right, but because I though it was wrong to stand for multi-party politics, and then to refuse to go along with what it must inevitably lead to, which is coalition governments.

    To me, the coalition reflected its balance, one-sixth Liberal Democrat and five-sixth Conservative. If one looks at coalitions elsewhere, it is simply not the case that a small coalition partner can force a much larger party to drop its policies and adopt instead those of the smaller party. Small coalition parties that do best are those who are only really interested in a limited range of specialist policies that do not conflict directly with the main parties, and so can get those at not much cost. But the Liberal Democrats are not that sort of party.

    All that the Liberal Democrats could really do in the situation was to swing the balance in their direction when it was fairly evenly divided in the Conservative Party, which actually they did quite well. But there was no way that could get policies put into place if they conflicted with what most Conservatives wanted.

    Unfortunately, instead of making this clear, the Cleggies pushed out a message which made it look as if the Liberal Democrats were almost equal partners in the coalition, and thought everything it did was wonderful.

    The Liberal Democrats would have been in a stronger negotiating position had Labour offered them support when they did stand up to the Tories. However, Labour’s tactic was to assume that just negative jeering would cause the LibDems to be destroyed, restore the good ol’ two-party system, and Labour would roar back to power.

    Er, it didn’t happen, did it? Instead, by helping destroy the party that is the main opposition to the Tories in much of the country they just helped turn our country effectively into a one-party state. Duh …

  • Jonathan Ferguson 22nd Aug '16 - 9:29pm

    Thanks for further comments and an interesting discussion so far. Re: expat’s comments…

    “The ‘bullet points’ in this article are a ‘wishy-washy’ set of aspirations that no-one can disagree with.”

    I don’t agree, I think some of them are not fully recognized in the Liberal Democrats at this time, and not only now. The Balkans War and the recent shenanigans over Daesh are evidence that liberals are always risking falling into collectivism. But this is not only true of the Liberal Democrats; this is a systemic problem affecting all parties, and I don’t think one can say the Lib Dems are worse in this respect.

    “I was sadly amused by the bit about ‘militarily intervention’; this from a party who’s leader set out a long list of ‘stringent conditions’ for bombing Syria and, even though none were met, still voted yes!”

    With no disrespect intended, I am not really sure what you mean by that. Are you amused by what Tim Farron did, or amused that anyone in the Liberal Democrats dissents from the current foreign policy trajectory? I don’t know if you view me as guilty by association with some of the leaders, but I do believe that is is worthwhile for non-interventionists to entertain engaging with mainstream parties, rather than joining the Greens or confining one’s work solely to journalism, social media or art.

    As a general point for everyone reading, this article was intended as some reflections, rather than an official representation of party policy. If Lib Dem Voice was made up entirely of articles that parrotted official party policy, then it ought to be broken up, because the website would be in the guise of something it actually was not, in reality. Fortunately, there is a plurality of views expressed on this site.

  • Jonathan Ferguson 1st Sep '16 - 12:20pm

    No disrespect to expat intended. You have actually done the right thing to raise the question of whether the five points were fulfilled or not. It’s a question worth exploring. I’m sorry I have not answered to everyone’s comments so far, I’ve tried doing that in the past and it’s quite difficult. Thanks for everyone’s great feedback, as always! On that Daesh note, there will be more from me about foreign policy in the near future. I wonder what effect the recent influx of new (and often very young) members might have?

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