What have the Lib Dems ever done for Britain?

What besides leading the campaign against Brexit have the Lib Dems ever done for Britain?

John Stuart Mill, a Liberal MP, was the second of his House to call for women’s suffrage, in 1832. He also warned against tyranny of the majority against minority groups, and advocated both for necessary individual rights to be protected as well as constitutional checks to enforce those protections.

John Maynard Keynes, a Liberal peer, saved capitalist economics by contradicting conventional thinking that free markets would automatically provide full employment. Implementation in the United States of his advocacy of public investment helped reverse the effects of the Great Depression and then again the Global Financial Crisis. (We could have had a bit more Keynesian intervention in the UK by our coalition government; something we’ve learnt.)

Much of the good that Labour rightfully lays claim to has Lib Dems to thank. The NHS was conceived by Liberal economist and later peer William Beveridge, of the Beveridge Report. In opposing his recommendations, Churchill lost his prime ministership to an ascendant Labour party that implemented them. Indeed, the welfare state was founded on the reforms of Liberal governments from 1868-1922.

These included reduction of regressive income taxes (repeated a century later in coalition) and the introduction of an inheritance tax (the party now wants a land value-based levy). As the party now proposes a tax on frequent fliers’ carbon emissions and recently implemented plastic bags taxes, it was the Liberal party a century ago that initiated sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and prohibited their sale to children.

In the same way that a Liberal government a century ago promoted education for all 5-12 year olds, free school meals, school clinics, and special schools for the deaf and blind, the coalition party initiated a pupil premium and free childcare, something Lib Dems hope to extend.

Beyond this, the party a century ago ended damages to be paid by trade unions during strikes, created the first job centres, initiated minimum wages and granted women’s suffrage in 1918. Continuing in that vein for equality, in coalition, Lib Dems ensured equal marriage. And let us not forget that it was Roy Jenkins in his two years as Home Secretary in the ’60s who broke ground by partially decriminalising homosexuality, ending capital punishment, liberalising abortion and ending theatre censorship.

But that’s all a given. What else have the Liberal Democrats done for Britain? Robert Maclennan conceived with Robin Cook devolution, a human rights act, and freedom of information legislation. In coalition, Lib Dems institutionalised equality between mental and physical health, expanded Britain’s renewable energy resources and in so doing created tens of thousands of jobs.

But beyond all that – delivering Britain’s best thinking on rights and on economics, establishing the welfare state and NHS, fairer taxes, pulling us out of a free market dystopia and preventing descent into communism, bringing us equality and putting us on the path to prevent climate crisis – what have the Lib Dems ever done for Britain?

* Imad blogs at imadahmed.com and Tweets @ImadAhmed. He is a member of Camden Lib Dems, Lib Dems in International Development, Liberal International and is pursuing a PhD in infrastructure economics at UCL.

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24 Comments

  • John Marriott 26th Nov '19 - 9:05am

    Yes, Mr Ahmed, it’s nice to pat yourself on the back now and then; but unfortunately, in the immortal words used by one John Major, it doesn’t ‘butter any parsnips’. Fine words won’t do any more. If you want to get involved you must, in the words of a former a Liberal leader “march towards the sound of the guns”, rather than retreat into ‘poor me’.

  • Tony Hutson 26th Nov '19 - 9:37am

    I don’t think there’s any ‘poor me’ in this article. It’s a proud and bold statement of our values in action. Very well written.

  • Peter Martin 26th Nov '19 - 9:58am

    “John Maynard Keynes, a Liberal peer, saved capitalist economics by contradicting conventional thinking that free markets would automatically provide full employment. Implementation in the United States of his advocacy of public investment helped reverse the effects of the Great Depression and then again the Global Financial Crisis.”

    Conventional thinking, in Keynes’ time, wasn’t that Capitalism would automatically provide full employment. The experience of the Post WW1 economy in the UK demonstrated that. There was no roaring 20s in the UK. Unemployment hit double figures as soon as the war ended and stayed high until a new one began. The question was why?

    Marx was writing that the capitalist system was unstable in the late 19th century and the events of the interwar period all seemed to be showing that he was right. Naturally many economists took up the challenge of rescuing capitalism. Michal Kalecki was often said to be Keynesian before Keynes. The German pre war rearmament, under Hjalmar Schacht, was conducted largely on Keynesian lines.

    There was a whole group of rescuers. One of whom had to be Marx himself who had pointed out the contradictions in the first place.

  • nigel hunter 26th Nov '19 - 10:57am

    There will always be problems to sort out and Liberals have been at the forefront of solving them. The battles will go on and yes we will march to the sound of guns and advance into the fray..

  • What have the Lib Dem’s done for Britain? Voted with the Tories to implement the Bedroom Tax. Voted in support of the Tories’ programme of austerity and oppression of the poorest and most vulnerable. Voted with the Tories to make war on Libya. And, oh yes, reneged on their absolute pledge to hundreds of thousands of students to ease the burden of tuition fees.

  • If you were to be honest and fair it would have to be said that being in coalition with any party is never going to be easy, the smaller party will always have to compromise and make difficult decisions. While we made some pretty bad decisions whilst in government the main aim of a coalition at the time was to have a stable government at a time of severe monetary crisis and thank goodness that was achieved and I for one am proud of that. Also Jo Swinson, on behalf of the party, has had the honesty to own up to these mistakes I wonder if the leaders of the Conservative and Labour parties would show the same honesty?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Nov '19 - 12:47pm

    Barry Lofty: except for our friends in the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.

  • David Evans 26th Nov '19 - 2:37pm

    Barry Lofty – Coalition was a car crash or more honestly a five year long Demolition Derby during which our leading figures put our party back nearly 50 years in terms of parliamentary representation and provided Lib Dem human shields to a party now leading us out of the EU, and we are still struggling to come to terms with it.

    It’s a good job we achieved stable government at a time of severe monetary crisis and didn’t just give the Conservatives five years to detoxify their brand, stab us in the back, win the next election and then put another smooth talking Old Etonian in charge in order to con their way to Brexit.

    As an aside, if you could point to where it is set out what mistakes Jo has owned up to on behalf of the party, I would be very pleased. Sadly, all I have seen for four years from our leading figures is bland acknowledgements that some things went wrong somehow, but nothing more specific, no-one was responsible and sadly no-one noticed the damage until the full five years was up.

    Our country is now facing the biggest crisis it has ever faced; where we are the only party on the right side of, and yet our message still isn’t getting through to any significant degree. This is a real problem, because at the moment it is getting very close to the point where we find we have sacrificed our entire future to save Labour and the Conservatives from the consequences of the mess they left the country in, in 2010; only to find they have landed us in an even bigger mess in 2020.

    As George Patten once said – “No person ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb person die for his country.”

  • John Marriott 26th Nov '19 - 2:54pm

    @Mack
    I think that you are being grossly unfair to the Lib Dems. I currently consider myself now to be their ‘critical friend’ and, while I have been disappointed with some of the things that the 2010-2015 Coalition did, they were some positives as well.

    For the sake of balance, here are a few ‘negatives’:

    OK the tuition fees ‘pledge’ was, in my opinion, a big mistake. Let’s be honest, most candidates never thought that their party would end up in a position actually to do anything about them. Personally speaking I think that too many students study conventional and, dare I say, often esoteric courses in the first place. I certainly don’t want my taxes used to fund what often boils down to self indulgence. Secondly the laughable AV referendum was a massive opportunity missed. Thirdly, nobody voted in a majority government in the 2010 general election. Yes, they could have gone for Confidence and Supply as the old Liberal Party more or less did with the Callaghan government or one à la DUP more recently ; but they didn’t. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

    Now for the positives:

    Raising the income tax threshold – a Lib Dem idea, which the Tories have now claimed credit for.
    The pupil premium – putting your money where you mouth is, and ……
    talking about mouths – free school meals in primary schools
    Having a real crack at the environment, thanks to the likes of Sir Ed Davey
    The Fixed Term Parliament – yes, applied properly, it stops a PM calling an election on their terms. It’s just a pity that twice now the opposition parties have allowed themselves to get suckered in to having a premature General Election.

    Obviously, as the junior partner, the Lib Dems couldn’t expect their own way and yes, David Raw, those government limos were mighty alluring. But, was the coalition an unmitigated disaster? Of course not. Besides, if we ever get PR, you’d better get used to coalitions.

    PS The so called ‘Bedroom Tax’ might have actually worked if there had been a sufficient supply of suitable alternative accommodation in many areas in which tenants with more bedrooms than they needed could move. Now, whose fault was that? It certainly wasn’t the Lib Dems!

  • Has anyone in this thread seen the film Groundhog Day? I was just wondering.

  • Peter Watson 26th Nov '19 - 9:26pm

    @John Marriott “Now for the positives … The pupil premium – putting your money where you mouth is, and …… talking about mouths – free school meals in primary schools”
    A pupil premium was in the Conservative and Labour manifestos in 2010.
    Universal free school meals was not a Lib Dem idea and the party had previously opposed it when the Labour government trialled it.

  • Though we’ve done plenty, not least during the coalition years, it’s what we stand for that’s important. Because of how our party is structured, we walk the talk far more than the others on issues such as freedom of information, thought and assembly. Freedom is under valued until it’s lost, the citizens of Hong Kong understand that.

  • Bernard Aris 27th Nov '19 - 2:39pm

    If I’m not very much mistaken, J.S. Mill in 1832 was just coming out of his Utlitiarian phase; I never read he had any role in the debates around the Reform Act of that year. But it was an issue already raised in the early 1800’s bij Radicals.

    Mills got converted to “Votes for women” by his girl friend and later wife Harriet Taylor; and his plea (and proposal) in the House for it was in 1865-’68.

  • John Marriott 27th Nov '19 - 2:55pm

    @Peter Watson
    I never mentioned ‘universal free meals’ I referred to ‘free meals in primary schools’, which I would argue is somewhat different. I’m not saying that concepts like a Fixed Term Parliament or ‘a pupil premium’ were exclusively Lib Dem ideas or indeed that they appeared in any manifesto; but do you honestly think that they would have seen the light of day if the Tories had won an outright majority in 2010? The same would surely have applied to the raising of tax thresholds for the lowest earners.

  • Peter Watson 27th Nov '19 - 3:43pm

    @John Marriott
    “I never mentioned ‘universal free meals’ I referred to ‘free meals in primary schools’, which I would argue is somewhat different.”
    I don’t think so: in this case the universality means that it is available to all children regardless of ability to pay, and the Coalition government chose to limit that to primary schools. My objection is not so much the idea per se (though research showed there were better ways to spend £500 million on education), but the way that the party laid claim to it as “uniquely Lib Dem”. I’ve commented on this a few times before (feel free to search this site!), but off the top of my head … Nick Clegg surprised his party by announcing this at a conference months after Michael Gove had already welcomed a report which was based on research and trials commissioned by Ed Balls when he was Labour Education Secretary. Lib Dems had opposed the idea. Nick Clegg seemed to be given it as quid pro quo for the Tories’ matching £500 million commitment to a married couples’ tax allowance (also opposed by Lib Dems). Nick Clegg often presented it as a £400 p.a. saving for parents, but obviously this mainly benefits those not already entitled to free school meals (Lib Dem voters?).

    “I’m not saying that concepts like a Fixed Term Parliament or ‘a pupil premium’ were exclusively Lib Dem ideas or indeed that they appeared in any manifesto; but do you honestly think that they would have seen the light of day if the Tories had won an outright majority in 2010? The same would surely have applied to the raising of tax thresholds for the lowest earners.”
    We’re into the realms of speculation so who knows what the Tories might otherwise have done. They did promise a Pupil Premium in their 2010 manifesto. And in the election debates David Cameron said he’d love to raise the tax thresholds for the lowest earners (strictly speaking it’s those earning more than the lowest earners who benefit, i.e. above the previous threshold) but that it was not affordable, so the question for Lib Dems is “How was it afforded?”, what bits of austerity might the Tories have otherwise avoided?

    P.S. I can’t believe you’re making me stick up for the Conservatives!! 😉

  • Bill le Breton 27th Nov '19 - 3:50pm

    John Marriott,you may be right that “Let’s be honest, most candidates never thought that their party would end up in a position actually to do anything about them” but this was not true of the Leadership.

    The negotiating team was ‘in place’ at least by December 2009 and planning and rehearsing options and tactics.

    May 2010 has to be put in context – a context set out in detail by insider Jasper Gerard in ‘The Clegg Coup: Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George’.

    The Leadership had a plan centred around a new core vote which would replace the Party’s reliance on Labour tactical votes which they falsely suggested was a product of the SDP element in the new Party. Their strategy featured a deliberate pivot away from the party of Ashdown and Kennedy which they believed was holding the Party back from finding its true core vote of blue liberals.

    This was the reason to go for a full Coalition and not a Confidence and Supply agreement (CSA) which came with Cabinet Collective Responsibility and eschewed a transactional relationship where the Party would have been free to vote on a case by case basis eg supporting the raising of income tax allowances but voting against a bedroom tax.

    A CSA would also have had the advantage of exposing to the glare of publicity the linkage between Lib Dem policies won and Tory policies supported in return. It would also have allowed Party Conference to have had a greater influence.

    But the Leadership feared that Conference would have kept it closer to the Ashdown/Kennedy agenda, (eg as it had over not supporting Tuition Fee increases in September 2009) – the ‘social democrat agenda’ which they believed was the obstacle to building the new core vote.

  • Peter Watson 27th Nov '19 - 4:05pm

    @Bill le Breton
    Thanks for a very informative post. It certainly clarifies a lot of things for me but I’d love to have read that brilliant summary about 9 years ago!

  • Bill le Breton – Fascinating. I was utterly astonished when Clegg opted to go for a full coalition rather than a confidence and supply agreement. The latter would have given far greater power albeit no ministerial limos.

    Clegg’s pivot towards the mirage of ‘blue liberals’ was a decision of huge strategic importance. In a democratic organisation I would expect such an important decision to be made only after considerable discussion with rival views being properly aired to obtain the informed consent of a majority of members.

    I don’t remember any of that so is my memory faulty or does the party’s supposedly democratic structure have a black hole at its centre? The title of Jasper Gerard’s book implies it does.

  • School meals ? First started in Bradford in 1907 after pressure from then Bradford Labour MP Fred Jowett, educationalist Margaret Macmillan and Jonathan Priestley (J.B.’s Dad), Head of Green Lane School in Manningham.

    Macmillan campaigned for universal suffrage (opposed by Asquith). She was in the non violent NUWSS but was injured by police when demonstrating against the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ passed by the then Liberal Government.

  • John Marriott 27th Nov '19 - 8:37pm

    @Bill Le Breton
    I don’t have the insider knowledge you appear to display. However, and please feel free to correct me if I am wrong, but that ‘Pledge’ to abolish tuition fees was an initiative that first came from the National Union of Students. Still a big mistake in my opinion.
    @Peter Watson
    “I can’t believe you’re making me stick up for the Conservatives!!”
    Interesting comment. You see, I’m not one of those people, who think that absolutely everything that the Tories do or stand for is fundamentally wrong. The same applies to Labour.

    As I said in other threads, if we ever do get PR in our national elections, all political parties, both large and small and the people who vote for them had better get used to coalitions and the politicians of various parties working together. What a pity that we couldn’t have had a GNU now rather than be forced to go through yet another GE.

  • Paul Holmes 27th Nov '19 - 9:21pm

    @John Marriott. No the 2010 NUS Pledge was simply to vote against any increase in Tuition Fees. Our policy was to abolish Tuition Fees entirely and was a result of our consistent and often reaffirmed opposition to Tuition Fees from 1997-2010.

    The NUS Pledge was easy to keep. Osborne assumed that, since we had opposed Fees for 13 years it would be one of our Red Lines for Coalition and offered to just leave them as they were (a cost neutral move). Regrettably some of our Leaders were more than happy to scrap our clear long standing policy and in fact vote to increase Fees to the highest level in the Western World outside of a few elite private universities in the USA. Despite the fact that Both Clegg and Alexander had separately said at Manifesto launches that our abolition policy was fully and carefully costed (and Clegg had done an excellent Party Political Broadcast about ‘No More Broken Promises’).

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '19 - 10:41am

    “women’s suffrage in 1918”
    There was a free vote in the House of Commons in 1917, which also extended the franchise to more men as the Trade Unions wanted. (Ref Roy Hattersley).
    At that time the MPs did not know reliably when the war would end.
    The Prime Minister was David Lloyd George, who had given equal pay to the women workers in munitions factories who had been doing dangerous and often unhealthy work.
    Women needed to be aged 30 to vote in 1918. In1928 the age was reduced to 21. In the 1929 general election all three parties prioritised campaigning for the votes of women aged 18 – 30, overshadowing the Liberal campaign of John Maynard Keynes that
    “We can conquer unemployment”.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '19 - 11:00am

    Labour still claims that their 1945 manifesto sets an example of what they can do now.
    Despite what the late Tony Benn said the reality is that the 1945 election happened after VE Day and before VJ Day. Churchill compared Labour to Goebbels, which was a mistake. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Goebbels
    John Maynard Keynes was sent to the USA to explain why they should pay for benefits they did not have themselves. He succeeded, but the effort killed him.
    The USA had not suffered the bombing and general destruction that had happened in Europe. The US economy had been stimulated by Roosevelt’s actions against the depression and wartime production.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Dec '19 - 11:08am

    2nd Dec ’19 – 10:41am
    Democracy can be improved by lowering the voting age for men and women, currently 18, to 16.

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