Time to stand up for Liberal Democracy: Fringe launch 17:35 Friday

As we Liberal Democrats begin our annual conference, held entirely online for the second year, we must recognise that we do so in the context of existential threat to the political system that gives our party its name.

30 years ago, Francis Fukuyama declared the victory of liberal democracy, and “the end of history”. But now history is very much back, with authoritarianism on the rise in Britain and across the world.

This context, we believe, means that it’s now time for the Liberal Democrats to stand up as the party of liberal democracy – and for leader Ed Davey to set out a meaningful vision for the country, instead of relying solely on local action to make incremental “Blue Wall” gains. As Nelson Mandela famously said:

Vision without action is just a dream; action without vision just passes the time; vision with action can change the world.

A new collection of essays, Citizens Britain: towards the renewal of liberal democracy, will be launched at a conference fringe event today.

We offer a starting point in a new collection of essays, launching at a fringe event today at 1735. The collection draws together contributions from respected organisations outside the party such as the RSA, New Local, and Power to Change, alongside voices from within (including some you might not have heard from before). It includes calls for radical policy interventions including a Universal Basic Income, widespread use of Citizens’ Assemblies and other participatory democracy approaches, and a Community Power Act to push power out of the hands of government institutions and directly into communities.

The title of the collection, Citizens’ Britain, reprises that of a 1989 book by former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, rooting the ideas in the intellectual traditions of the party. We argue that the Liberal Democrats should draw on and update Ashdown’s insights and ideas to develop a coherent agenda for the renewal of liberal democracy. We reflect on Ashdown’s foresight, quoting his dystopian vision of “Citadel Britain” as an accurate depiction of the present:


The classical facades and glittering glass skyscrapers of our capital provide the offices of our financial empires – banks, insurance companies, pension funds, the headquarters of international enterprises. They also house our government departments, which guard the state. These form the tightly linked power centre of society, monopolising communications, information and control… Employment officials try to enforce low paid work under threat of benefit withdrawal… all residents carry identity cards… while the police are seen as protecting some, they are regarded as persecuting others. Coercion and control are part of the experience of everyday life… Nationalistic in its stance towards the world, Citadel Britain nevertheless adopts opportunistic policies within the global economy, seeking only the highest short term gains from international investment and trade…

We also quote Ashdown’s proposed alternative of “Citizens’ Britain”:

It is the people’s homes in all their rich if untidy diversity which have become the real centres of power… Decision makers have recognised that the best structure for managing and governing is one which does not concentrate power but disperses it, and enables a teamwork rather than ‘top-down’ approach… Workers have more knowledge and power in their workplace. Many own their own jobs and are self employed. Every person owns a stake in the nation’s economy… Many people retrain or ‘up-skill’ twice or more in their working lives… Quality of life has become just as important as large wage packets… Internationally, Britain is seen as a promoter of constructive co-operation. We are leaders in international moves to solve global problems such as environmental destruction, disease and famine.

We live in a moment and in a country where politics as a whole is in disrepute. The task is not just to remove Boris Johnson and his Conservatives, awful as they are. Instead, it is nothing less than the renewal of liberal democracy. The creation of a Citizens’ Britain is a political project rooted in putting more power in more people’s hands and could truly bring our family of nations together. We need to step up as a party; and the mantra of politics needs to become: it’s the power, stupid.

Citizens Britain: towards the renewal of liberal democracy is a new collection of essays and articles published by the Social Liberal Forum. It will be launched at a Conference fringe event today, 17th September, 17:35. You can download it here.

* Ian Kearns is the Director of the Social Liberal Forum and Jon Alexander is a Council Member at the Social Liberal Forum.

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One Comment

  • Humphrey Hawksley 18th Sep '21 - 9:00am

    This is a superb initiative by Ian Kearns and Jon Alexander. Liberal democratic values can only be strengthened by learning from our gathering hubris since Fukuyama incorrectly announced the ‘end of history.’ Specifically, it needs to examine the contradiction between liberalism and the illiberalism that the ballot box can actually delivers whether that be extreme nationalism, anti-gay fervour or a clamoring for capital punishment. In these cases do we champion democracy or liberalism?

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